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The Zsa-Zsa-ing of the American Mind?

Life as a B-Grade Movie

11:00 PM, Dec 13, 1998 • By DONALD LYONS
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The notion that new means of expression -- the printing press, the novel, the cinema, radio, television, the Internet -- have in themselves the power to derange human behavior and undo morals is an old one.


And besides being old, it seems to have a fatal attraction for finger-wagging, hand-wringing pontificators in Sunday newspaper supplements. Indeed, Neal Gabler's widely noticed new study, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, originated in the Sunday New York Times.


Plato began it all, as he did so much else. In the Phaedrus, Socrates proclaims the inferiority of writing (not then a widespread accomplishment). Calling "written speech" a "shadow of living and animate speech," Socrates declares.


You might suppose that [written words] understand what they are saying, but if you ask them what they mean by anything they simply return the same answer over and over again. Besides, once a thing is committed to writing, it circulates equally among those who understand the subject and those who have no business with it; a writing cannot distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers.


His interlocutor Phaedrus replies -- as Socrates' interlocutors are wont to do -- "All that you say is absolutely just." We, however, need not be so compliant.


We might reflect, for example, that this condemnation of writing occurs at the end of what is a piece of highly wrought writing. In writing of great beauty, Plato condemns writing for its unchanging and indiscriminately appealing nature and its distance from the reality of speech. Plato the artist wars with Plato the moral absolutist.


But that may be something of the point that Plato teaches us, for it is in such ambivalences that Plato's wisdom lies. As Matthew Arnold once put it:


Practical people talk with a smile of Plato and his absolute ideas; and it is impossible to deny that Plato's ideas do often seem impractical and unpracticable, and especially when one views them in connection with the life of a great work-a-day world like the United States.


It is precisely Plato's impractical idealism, argues Arnold, that makes him indispensable for the busy modern free man. And that's exactly how Plato can help vaccinate us against modern alarmists like Neal Gabler.


If, with work or a good deed pressing to be done, we're tempted to slip a movie into the VCR or surf the Net or watch the game, we can take comfort in knowing that Plato would think us heirs of those Athenians who chose to while away an idle hour reading Homer. It's not the new media, not their sophisticated removal from "reality," that are the danger; it's human sloth and lust and pride. And those things never change.


But even threadbare cliches like the "human-nature-altering potential of new media" deserve better than Life the Movie. An entertainment historian who has written about Hollywood moguls and about gossip-monger Walter Winchell, Neal Gabler thinks he sees a new and ominous pattern in the scandals that have preoccupied the media in recent years.


As we all watch in stupefaction, celebrities are acting out "lifies" -- a neologism by which Gabler means movies "written in the medium of life, projected on the screen of life." The filmmakers are such people as O. J. Simpson, Princess Diana, Oprah Winfrey, Elizabeth Taylor, and Timothy McVeigh, and the events they orchestrate act "like a cultural Ebola virus," corrupting realms of serious discourse. They replace, in form and in content, older entertainment media like films and TV dramas.


These "lifies" are also, in some sense, ersatz reality -- although Gabler never makes clear whether they are ersatz in themselves or ersatz in that they replace quotidian life for their consumers. The whole idea, in fact, proves blurry in concept and banal in expression.


But it hardly matters, for there are long stretches in which Life the Movie forgets its strained conceit and merely reiterates with gasps of astonishment Gabler's discovery that mass media are preoccupied with celebrity. The author is shocked, shocked to find that People magazine puts celebrities on its covers: fifty-five covers with Diana, twenty-six of Liz, etc. To his surprise, Vanity Fair too is "all about celebrity, . . . only about celebrity" with no space for "Good Samaritans, outstanding teachers or doctors, individuals in extremis"!