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The Glamour Trap.

Are "entertainment values" blinding us to what really matters?

A few months ago, I attended with a friend a 150th anniversary reading of the Communist Manifesto. This was my first time inside the Cooper Union, a stately old building in lower Manhattan that was, in February 1860, the site of a speech by Abraham Lincoln that set the Eastern intelligentsia buzzing and played a major role in his subsequent nomination. "Let us have faith," Lincoln concluded, "that right makes might. And in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

On this night in 1998, a large crowd had assembled in that spirit. But it was a gray-haired crowd. I wondered why. Did it reflect ideological shifts over generations, or the fact that igniting a revolution or even joining a movement--whatever its ideas--is simply out of step with the values of people my age?

For my part, I attended the reading not as a participant, but as an audience member. I had come because the Manifesto reading featured the playwrights Wallace Shawn and Tony Kushner. I had come in search of provocative ideas. But also for entertainment.

In Life the Movie, Neal Gabler argues that entertainment has "conquered reality." He insists his book contains no "high dudgeon." But his idea does have obvious moral implications, which is why it deserves to be taken seriously. My dictionary defines entertainment as "that which holds the attention by amusing or diverting." If we are "diverting" ourselves, it raises the question of what from? If our relationships--even our internal identity--is constructed around entertainment, then what happens to the more sober demands of reality?

Gabler's conceit is that entertainment is no longer just something we like or participate in, or a technique used to beguile us. It is who we are. We don't just spend our time being entertained. We live in what he calls a "life movie"--with Martha Stewart supplying the sets, Ralph Lauren the costumes, and Tina Brown the scripts. Our audience may be our family and friends--but it is also increasingly an audience of millions, through shows like Jerry Springer's or "Americas Funniest Videos." Life, Gabler argues, has become "the biggest, most entertaining, most realistic movie of all, one that play[s] twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, and feature[s] a cast of billions."

Gabler's story begins in the early 19th century, the point at which an American popular culture emerged that was distinct from its European counterpart. "Nostalgists may like to think of America before the movies and television as the land of Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederic Church and Emily Dickinson," he writes. But that's like thinking of modern America as the land of Martin Luther King Jr, John Updike, Richard Diebenkorn, and Robert Lowell. "It is true, but only so far as it goes."

In fact, as serious artists noticed with horror, junk was everywhere in this era. "I should have no chance of success while public taste is occupied with their trash," Nathaniel Hawthorne complained of the success of novelists like the "lachrymose" Susan Warner and the "salacious" George Lippard, "and I should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed."

If the ultimate triumph of popular culture ever was in doubt--and Gabler believes it wasn't, given that the superior numbers of the "lowborn" and the entrance of poor women into the cultural marketplace--a new medium of entertainment made the calculus all the more clear. "It has come then," the poet Vachel Lindsay wrote in 1922, "this new weapon of men, and the face of the whole earth changes."

What had arrived, first in vaudeville houses, then moving to the backroom of penny arcades, then to "nickelodeon theaters" named for the cost of admission, was the movies. The working classes made up nearly three-quarters of film audiences in the early days; the fact that moviegoers still munch popcorn and slurp drinks in theaters today is a reminder of those origins. In the early days, films were bawdy and provocative, ridiculing the elites and alarming the middle classes. A Detroit News headline from 1916 read, "LOW GRADE PERSONS ONLY LIKE CHARLIE CHAPLIN AND MARY PICKFORD, PASTOR SAYS."

This headline shows that popular entertainment, as a locus of discontent, once threatened the better-off. It also hints at how the movies would slowly suffocate that function, by shifting focus from the stories being told to the actors on the screen. We can still be ennobled by the work of people who happen to be famous. But the distinction between appreciation and star-gazing seems to get fuzzier each year.

Walter Winchell, the subject of Gabler's previous book, played a major role in this transition. With a popular radio show and newspaper column, Winchell dished a delicious blend of news, opinion, and gossip. Making careers and lobbing verbal grenades, he helped create the modern celebro-journalistic complex. (It is an indication of Life The Movie's thinness that Winchell is barely mentioned.) In a recent interview, Gabler explained that Winchell "understood that gossip, far beyond its basic attraction as journalistic voyeurism, was a weapon of empowerment for the reader and listener. Invading the lives of the famous and revealing their secrets brought them to heel. It humanized them, and in humanizing them demonstrated that they were no better than we and in many cases worse."

Still, it's quite a stretch to say that the paparazzi and gossip hounds "empower" the rest of us. Whether we're gazing on an airbrushed photo, an unflattering one, or their verbal equivalents, our attention is still focused outward. It may be that the object of that attention deserves it--has something interesting to say, for example. More likely, they are interesting only because they're famous--and their fame is burnished and maintained by continued interest. Daniel Boorstin's seminal 1962 book The Image is still the best reference on this tautology. It was Boorstin who defined a celebrity as someone "well known for his well-knownness" (a phrase now included in the Oxford English Dictionary). Boorstin also wrote that the celebrity "is made by all of us who willingly read about him, who like to see him on television, who buy recordings of his voice, and talk about him to our friends. His relation to morality and even to reality is highly ambiguous."

Celebrities, in other words, are constructions of our imagination, creatures of fantasy. To the extent that they occupy our attention, we unhinge ourselves from reality. Of course, that's part of the point of entertainment, to provide an escape from lives of quiet desperation. Gabler uses the example of a successful judge who was raised in poverty by a brutal father. How did he survive? "I told myself stories," he answered. Obviously, the use of "positive illusions" can be valuable. Equally obvious is that this can go too far, as in Freud's warning that "whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out upon this path to happiness will, as a rule, attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman."

But the movies are not mere escapism. As Gabler puts it, they "provide a model of narrative coherence in a world of seeming anarchy." This function can also be served by religion or ideology. But the "onslaught of modern life" has vanquished the latter and mightily chipped away at the former. So we're left with the big screen, the tube, and the media swirl of celebrities that surround them. And whereas popular culture once incited, provoked, aroused--now it mostly lulls.

To me, this is the important point of Gabler's book. But he never really articulates the point, let alone explores its significance. Part of the problem is that he races through this history--and a ream of familiar examples of how celebrity is mistaken for substance--to get to his real point: that the confusion between fiction and reality has filtered down to the masses. Byron and Whitman and Hemingway all cultivated their celebrity to sell their literature; Ronald Reagan set the standard in acting as politics. Now, Gabler believes, these values have been accepted by everyone. We all see ourselves as canvasses for display.

His two best examples are the successes of Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart. The former, born to a middle-class family with the surname Lipschitz, built a brand that extends from clothing to housepaint, all with the idea that the value of his products was the images they offered. "As Lauren saw it," Gabler writes, "what the movies had always done on-screen, which was to provide transport into their world, he could now do in life." Martha Stewart, meanwhile, showed people how to use such objects to construct a fantasy life. The fact that she has built a $200 million empire of books, magazines, TV shows and products is evidence, in Gabler's view, that "women wanted to make their homes a set for their own life movies."

Gabler may well be right. But if he's trying to prove that people buy Martha Stewart's products because they think of themselves of as actors, you might think he would ask people who buy Martha Stewart's products. My own informal polling on this question--undertaken precisely because my suspicions are like Gabler's--has proven quite inconclusive. Cooks I know like Martha Stewart's recipes. Lovers of greenery like her ideas for making art out of leaves and flowers. Perhaps unconsciously they are infected with the aesthetic of entertainment--or a desire to make their lives as attractive as Martha's. But maybe they just like good food and nice homes.

There is a serious, complicated question here about whether modern society has broken from old patterns and whether the spell of entertainment is the principal cause. Perhaps the proliferation of stores like Polo, The Gap, and Banana Republic simply reflect the basic human desire to present ourselves well to others. Perhaps they do represent something new, but the reason is that most Americans don't need the functional clothing that farm and factory workers did--and most have some money to spend on the luxuries of fashion. Gabler doesn't resolve these conflicting possibilities. He doesn't even try.

It's unfortunate that a book on such a vitally important topic--whether we are increasingly choosing superficiality over substance--is itself so superficial. Lincoln's plea that we, "to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it" seems quaint these days. So does the warning early this century from Moving Picture World that "the comic, the tragic, the fantastic, the mystic scenes so swiftly enacted in photographic pantomime are not real but feigned." Yet both these messages are more urgent than ever.

JOSHUA WOLF SHENK, a contributing editor for The Washington Monthly, is a writer in New York City.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Shenk, Joshua Wolf
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Previous Article:The Hidden Wound.
Next Article:Tilted Scales.

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