Reel Life

Neal Gabler alerts the masses to the proliferation of entertainment in his book Life the Movie

"This book is also about self-presentation in life -- how all of us, both celebrities and those of us who are on the other side of the glass, think about presentation, think about image. The democratization of image management is really one of the themes of this book."

That democratization came, in Gabler's view, with the emergence of mass mediums of entertainment -- cinema and television, which were directed toward a mass audience rather than an elite audience. Movies "created expectations and taught us how to live them," Gabler says.

"Everyone now is embraced by this idea of presentation," he continues. "In Detroit there's a youth gang. It's called the Errol Flynn. Now how in the world did they ever conjure the name the Errol Flynn? Clearly there was some kind of resonant idea for them with Captain Blood.

"So there's the pervasiveness of it. There's also the sophistication of it. We are so sophisticated about self-presentation, and there are so many opportunities to present ourselves and so many different ways in which we can present ourselves -- whether it's clothing and the varieties of clothing we have, or whether it's gestures or whether it's how we use speech or where we live or what car we drive. After all, everything we buy -- virtually -- is advertised as, and ultimately purchased as, a prop. It's a prop for our movie." Or a prop for our life, because these words have become interchangeable, virtually, in Gabler's thesis.

But isn't the idea of persona, of mask, of presentation, the idea that all the world's a stage, a basic part of human life?

"To talk about masks in a general sense," Gabler argues, "to talk about the idea that there is this inner person and this external persona -- which is a tradition of being alive -- is different now because we're all different now in our consciousness of it, in our self-consciousness of it."

Although Gabler resists the label "cultural conservative," the dialectics he constructs -- artifice/authenticity, personality/character, happiness/humanness -- are loaded with moral overtones. He attempts to back away from this tone at the conclusion to his book, offering arguments in support of those who use terms such as "positive illusions" to describe a life (or movie) lived in "postreality."

But Gabler's methodology precludes any such argument. The notion that entertainment has conquered reality suggests a limited notion of how many realities there might be. Is Walter Cronkite on the evening news a presented, inauthentic self, Cronkite on his sailboat in the South Pacific the "real" self? Are we so adolescent that we cannot see the two and accept them as parts of a whole? Is artifice so removed from authenticity? In the larger context called 'nature,' many animals employ mimicry for survival; in human nature, we may be many selves to survive many situations and need not be considered "divided" selves. If reality, character, humanness were made of such solid stuff, there might not be a need for illusion (positive or otherwise), or there might be greater need for it. When F. Scott Fitzgerald writes of "the unreality of reality" in The Great Gatsby -- a novel Gabler understandably makes mention of in regard to Jay Gatz's self-creation -- he's observed something human beings have felt as long as there have been words to describe it.

A figure Gabler leaves out of his study -- because he's not American and Gabler believes the pervasiveness of entertainment to be an American phenomenon -- is Oscar Wilde. Yet Wilde's maxim "Life imitates art" is what Gabler is describing through 244 pages: "Where we had once measured the movies by life, we now measured life by how well it satisfied the narrative expectations created by the movies."

Before fantastic images tantalized the masses on viewing screens, Wilde labeled the moral superiority of "realists" as dull. The extraordinary is compelled to rise from the ordinary, Wilde understood, as does anyone who perceives that there must be more to life. And there is more to life than the movie metaphor.

When Gabler excoriates the invasion of entertainment into aspects of life that deserve all seriousness -- such as Ronald Reagan's "playing" the president like any other character role -- he's on the mark, though not exactly original. But as he examines the effect of entertainment on everyday life, his broad generalizations make for thin arguments. Gabler too often casts the layers of self-representation in contemporary life as a further remove from life itself -- as if such division inherently exists. And for someone who clearly loves entertainment, Gabler neglects to acknowledge how the sophistication of celebrity has made for a better show.

For example, Madonna is one who has prospered in the Wildean mode in the entertainment age. "She understands constantly how to remake herself," Gabler says near the conclusion of our interview, "and how to make the operational aesthetic component to which we respond. It's not that we're responding to the fact that she is now almost literally Madonna in her new incarnations -- it's the fact that she's turned herself into that Madonna: 'Here's the new incarnation of Madonna. I wonder what she's going to do next.' That is a different thing, and we'll see whether Madonna can keep on doing it. It's certainly more interesting than Elizabeth Taylor getting married and divorced. That gets old."

And if in "postreality" Liz is improved upon, life the movie -- or however life might be described -- must not be so bad.

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