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Life, the Movie Hardcover – November 10, 1998

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Editorial Reviews Review

In Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, Neal Gabler traces the evolution of high and low culture in American society through the 19th and 20th centuries, and describes how low-brow entertainment became so influential in the United States. This is his central argument: "It is not any ism but entertainment that is arguably the most pervasive, powerful, and ineluctable force of our time--a force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasized into life." Although Gabler uses the word "metastasized," he doesn't seem to regard infotainment as a cancer that is destroying our society, but rather as something that grows rapidly and certainly worthy of close study.

The scope of Gabler's investigation extends far beyond the movies to publishing, television news, paint brands, fashion--anything that seems to have been transformed by the national passion for low-brow entertainment. Along the way, Gabler raises a series of intriguing questions: Why do some people feel more passionately about celebrities than about their own loved ones? Why is Donald Trump a celebrity? Why was the broadcast of the 1996 Olympics packed with so many biopics that the sporting events seemed afterthoughts? Why does Ralph Lauren call the blue paint he sells "Lap Pool Blue"?

Movies promote the fantasy that there are simple narrative solutions for all of life's problems. Movies are full of sex, scandal, gossip, and action. If our lives were movies, they would be more full of what Zsa Zsa Gabor once called "enchanting make-believe." In this book, Gabler demonstrates how this fantasy has shaped our society. --Jill Marquis

From Publishers Weekly

Even before the first tabloids began hawking true-crimes stories and trashy melodramas to 19th-century readers, mass entertainment had cast a spell over American life. How that spell has been magnified to such an extent that entertainment is now "the most pervasive, powerful and ineluctable force of our time" is the subject of Gabler's slashing, sometimes dubious, critique. "Entertainment" for Gabler (Winchel: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity) is virtually any kind of public fantasy or performance that, in contrast to high art, serious thought or gritty reality, is meant to appeal to the widest possible audience. America has become an "Entertainment Republic," he writes, in which lives are lived for the media, events are staged for the media and no public institution is uninfected by the "ebola virus" of mass entertainment. Gabler has a keen eye for the absurd detritus of cultural history; he skillfully interweaves events as different as the murder of Helen Jewett in 1836 and the ongoing Clinton scandals (both are "lifies," media spectacles "written in the medium of life"), and individuals as different as Buffalo Bill Cody, who rode into battle in Hollywood costume, and the surgically reconfigured Michael Jackson, "a posthuman for the era of postreality." This is no linear history, however, but a grab bag of ideas and events, larded with citations to a huge array of critical thinkers (e.g., Daniel Boorstin, Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman). Entertainment is certainly a handy concept to explain how the media has changed how we live and think. But readers will find Gabler's tendency to boil American history down to this one master narrative reductive to be an often fascinating but far from persuasive trip down a rabbit hole of cultural theory.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (November 10, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679417524
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679417521
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #129,351 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 22, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Neal Gabler merely scratches the surface as he describes the integration of media and entertainment into 20th Century culture, particularly 20th Century American culture. Gabler concedes at the outset that the book is diagnostic rather than prescriptive and he leaves few suggestions and little hope for a cure. The most disturbing part of the book is the final chapter, entitled The Mediated Self, in which he illustrates the degree to which many people have come to define their lives in terms of entertainment value.
Parts of the book are priceless. One should read it with a highlighter or a pencil and capture the more descriptive gems for future attribution. As an example, describing the propensity of '80's and `90's middle class Americans to videotape family events:
"Weddings, baby showers, bar mitzvahs . . . even surgeries, all of which had traditionally been undramatic, if occasionally unruly, affairs, were now frequently reconfigured as shows for the video camera complete with narratives and entertaining set pieces throughout. Sometimes a hastily edited version of the tape, complete with musical soundtrack and effects added to boost its entertainment value higher still, would be shown at the climax of the occasion as if the entire purpose of the celebration had really been to tape it."
One senses that Gabler, taking leads from Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Richard Schickel . . . even Andy Warhol, is on to something very big, if not overarching. Gabler deals with the subject in a mere 244 easily read pages, but I was left wanting more and feeling that the subject had been dealt with somewhat superficially. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who can stand to add to their level of cynicism.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Panopticonman on February 4, 2004
Format: Paperback
A good, often acid analysis of "entertainment state," Gabler's main thesis is that under the influence of the movies and the concomitant rise of the consumptionism, we have created an entertainment state where everyone is constantly considering how their performance is going -- which amounts to a new kind of discipline as Foucauldians might say. Further, these "roles" require props (material goods), which in turn supports the consumer society and the entertainment state at the expense of nearly everything else. To lay the basis for his theorectical claim, he cites the early 1960s thinking on the phenomenon of celebrity and the changes it has wrought in the American psyche. Here cites Boorstin's "The Image," and Riesman's "The Lonely Crowd." But he's not averse to cites postmodernists to serve his thesis, Umberto Eco, and Baudrillard come in for brief insights, too.
Some might say Gabler overstates his case. Have we really become so infused with "lifies" projected at us on a billion screens that we no longer know where we begin and where we end? Compared to the post-mods who can't resist hyperbole and grand gestures, though, he grounds his case historically, culturally and economically. Moving from a quick periodization of the rise of mass entertainment in the U.S. in conjunction with Jacksonian era during which elitist amusements were challanged and overthrown -- in 1849 29 b'hoys in NYC were killed during a riot where protested the English actor MacCready's reading of Shakepeare as a disparagement of the American style of Edwin Forrest -- he shows how entertainment has always been contested terrain.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Aguilar on August 10, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is simply incredible. A more stimulating book I couldn't imagine! It's not that it told me so much I didn't know intuitively, but seeing it written so distinctly in black and white really hit home. This is one to read if you really want to get a sense of just how dramatically the world has changed. Neal Gabler, tells it like he sees it and has a lot of research to back up his views. I love that he doesn't make judgements or try to press an opinion on the reader. It's left up to you to decide how you feel about it all. I find myself thinking of points he brought up throught the day and seeing just what he meant by experiencing it in "real" life. The only reason I didn't give it a 5 is because I wish it was a bit MORE in-depth. It's so engaging that I can imagine an entire college course being made from this book. It is a book that's as entertaining as it is informative, and that's the whole point.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Robert J. Crawford on September 24, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is an absolutely fascinating look at the notion of entertainment, as it evolved as a form of popular culture into a political and even life compulsion. From the beginning, I was rivetted by Gabler's wonderful writing and unusual ideas. You can read this many times to great profit.

Gabler begins with a definition of what entertainment is: as opposed to the high art tradition, which requires elite education and effort to "get" it (e.g. to "properly appreciate" Opera), entertainment emerged as a democratic impulse soon after the beginning of the 19th century. Rather than high brow fare for esthetes, entertainment brought an immediate sensation of pleasure to the masses and a sense of losing oneself in a story without preparation. WIth the development of technology, Gabler continues, entertainment entered the news, particularly as images, but also as exciting stories, first in the penny press and then in film and finally TV. The penny press brought news to the masses at a price it could afford, largely replacing the elitist partisan editorials that cost 5 times as much in Jefferson's day. The trick was finding the right hook for less educated audiences, to get them into a narrative with which they could identify personally. This history is told in splendid detail, in a well spring of ideas that makes the reader (or at least me) want to research a lot more into this.

From popular culture, Gabler then argues that the need for entertainment created a kind of bizarre feedback loop, according to which it must be manufactured, even when it does not exist. That means that reality is made to fit the story, not the other way round. This leads not only directly to celebrity - those who are famous for being famous more than for having accomplished anything, e.g.
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