Dear Mark Crispin Miller,
Season’s greetings, and thanks for signing on to discuss this urgent, frivolous topic. Our book of the week is Life the Movie. The author, Neal Gabler, argues that media critics tend to put a lot of thought into the economic forces (basically, the greed) driving Hollywood and TV and tabloids, etc. But they ignore a kind of remapping of human consciousness that has accompanied the rise of entertainment. In Gabler’s view, habits of thinking learned from the movies, mostly related to self-comfort and self-gratification, have scampered off the screen and burrowed into everyday life. Whether or not today’s movies reflect anything about life is no longer the point. The point is that when we shop for a Volkswagen beetle or a town car to convey just the right image, when we follow the saga of Kathie Lee and take heart in the fact that celebrity lives are as dreary as our own, when we tune into the TV news and see our elected representatives packaged as more or less convincing soap opera actors–when we do all these things, we barely need the movies anymore. We’ve turned life itself into a great escapist vehicle, with us as the stars.
In my opinion, Gabler’s thesis is about 13 percent suggestive, 26 percent potentially interesting but overstated, and 61percent dreck. Let’s look at the dreck first. Gabler is scared of his own conviction. He’s sickened to the point of heaving by the phenomenon he describes, yet he writes in a faux-neutral journalese. Not once does he mention his own response to anything he’s seen. Instead he relies on the observations of other historians, critics, and psychologists. This puts him in the odd position of arguing for some kind of authentic, old-fashioned “quality” that the entertainment industry has squeezed out, while displaying only a shallow, sound-bite familiarity with his subject. And whoosh, does he generalize. Consider the following string of sentences: “Entertainment was first and foremost about the triumph of sensation over reason. Nineteenth-century America was largely about the triumph of democracy over oppression. The fit between the aesthetic and the social could not have been more perfect.” This is so abstract it could be intoned on the stage by a performance artist whose theme is the meaninglessness of words.
Lots more complaints occur to me, but in the interest of having something caustic to say each day, I’ll stagger them over the coming week. I do want to be fair to Gabler, though. I don’t want to just give him the typical Slate once-over–you know, the contrarian dance where the reviewer says Writer X is upset, and while your gut tells you he may be onto something, a quick look at history shows that things have always been this screwed up, so don’t worry, be happy. That kind of thing is easy to do; I’ve done it enough myself. But for all this book’s flaws, truly good intentions shine through, and the topic here is important enough to take seriously.
Let’s imagine, then, that Gabler stated his thesis in more deeply felt language, with better selected examples. I think he’d be capturing a certain moment, a certain peak in escapist celebrity saturation, and I think he’d be dead right to deplore it. But I think that that moment may already have passed. Take the example of what’s happening this week with the prez. In undeniable ways, the media seem more powerful than ever, more driven to dress up the news as entertainment no matter what the destructive cost. But the public annoyance with this circus shows that though we may not be able to control the entertainment, we’re getting better at tuning it out. This makes me hopeful.
I guess what I’m saying is: Maybe America’s love affair with entertainment is toxic. But maybe we’re more resilient than we’re given credit for. Maybe we’re like pigeons or rats or roaches, developing antibodies to the poison and growing stronger against the odds.