The Zsa-Zsa-ing of the American Mind?
Life as a B-Grade Movie
11:00 PM, Dec 13, 1998 • By DONALD LYONS
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"!
Curiously, there is very little mention of the far more grievous celebrification of the New Yorker by the same Tina Brown who had turned Vanity Fair into a celebrity machine -- both times with the eager collaboration of New York's liberal intelligentsia. Gabler does find time to chide Camille Paglia for her antics, but none to examine her ideas.
There's little original research in Life the Movie. It's a cut-and-paste job whose bibliography is full of earlier treatments like Leo Braudy's The Frenzy of Renown and Richard Schickel's Intimate Strangers. (Even the People magazine stuff comes not from People but from a book about the magazine.) And that's not to mention celebrity bios and autobios like Zsa Zsa Gabor: My Story.
The all-but-forgotten Gabor emerges, rather oddly, as a significant figure whose "achievement was much more complex" than that of prior celebrities known for being known. (There are times when this book reads like a worried essay written for the Saturday Review of Literature in the 1950s by someone like Marya Mannes or Harriet Van Horne.) Ignoring her substantial screen accomplishments, Gabler treats Liz Taylor merely as someone who has taken the life-as-movie paradigm farther than anyone else.
In a rare moment of insight, Gabler treats Madonna as a post-modern celebrity -- that is, someone who delights in exposing the mechanics of her image-changes. But at best, these ruminations amount to a C+ paper in Cultural Studies.
When, for example, he attempts to judge or evaluate by citing high culture, Gabler stumbles badly. He contrasts Andy Warhol, the artist as pure entertainer, to his predecessors: "For Warhol art wasn't a celebration of God's handiwork, as it was for so many of the nineteenth-century painters; and it wasn't an expression of the artist's sensibility, as it was for most twentieth-century painters." Can we trust anything from a writer who could so describe either the century of Turner and Cezanne or the century of Matisse and Picasso?
And besides, all this wailing underestimates the moral health of most people, who do not in fact worship Princess Diana or hang pictures by Andy Warhol. After initial fascination, most of us incorporate technology into our lives and forget scandals, however transmitted.
It is when Gabler handles figures of genuine moral authority that he reveals most clearly his own complicity with the trends he deplores. In an offensive passage, he compares Pope John Paul II in pain and prayer at Czestochowa in 1991 to "soul singer James Brown's act, where Brown stumbles and collapses only to be helped to his feet by his acolytes and draped with a protective cape, a man stricken by the burdens of rock and roll." Gabler devotes ten pages to regurgitating the thesis of Lou Cannon's book President Reagan: The Role of a Life-time -- that Reagan shaped his tenure of office as a movie, an entertainment proffering feel-good escapism and distraction from "issues." Bush's Gulf War was subsequently constructed like "a World War II picture from Reagan's Hollywood heyday."
Nothing is too snide for Gabler to repeat if it concerns a Republican president. But Clinton? Ah, he's a victim of the media's addiction to "entertainment value" in their unjustified airing of his "alleged affair" and "alleged behavior" with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton's high-minded handlers, according to Gabler, lack the manipulative savvy of the Republicans. Gabler may have been wrongfooted on Lewinsky because his book went to press before Clinton confessed, but the kid-glove treatment of Clinton well into his second term bespeaks a naivete at best and a tendentious and hypocritical partisanship at worst.
Gabler concludes Life the Movie with a mind-boggling switch-eroo. After denouncing the perversion of life into entertainment, Gabler suddenly waffles on the last pages. Fearful, perhaps, of seeming traditionally judgmental or intolerant of anything whatsoever -- wanting, perhaps, to be loved -- the author concludes by confessing he can't decide whether it's all a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.
"Either we stood on a precipice or we stood in a bright new dawn" (these limp tropes are not, by the way, the rhetorical antitheses Gabler evidently thinks they are). We can only be certain, he insists, that "vitally important issues with the most profound implications" are involved. Yeah, yeah. This is at once the dopiest and the dullest book of the year.
Donald Lyons is drama critic of the Wall Street Journal.