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Life: The Movie
ANNOUNCER: Brought to you in part by ADM, feeding the world isthe biggest challenge of the new century. In 50 years the world musthave room at the table for 10 billion people, we're setting newplaces every day. ADM, supermarket to the world. Additional fundingis provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, theLynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the United States-JapanFoundation, and the Donner Canadian Foundation.
MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. Have we all turnedinto performance artists? The Unibomber, OJ Simpson, Lady Di, BillClinton and Monica Lewinsky, what do these sagas tell us about ourculture, our public life, and most importantly about ourselves. Plenty, says Neil Gabler in his controversial new book, Life TheMovie, How Entertainment Conquered Reality, Starring Everyone. Gabler is also the author of Winchell, Gossip Power and the Cultureof Celebrity. To discuss this matter with Neil Gabler, Think Tank isjoined by Peter Biskind, the former editor and chief of American FilmMagazine, and the author of Easy Riders Raging Bulls, How The Sex,Drugs, and Rock and Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. The topicbefore the house, has entertainment conquered reality, on Think Tank.
MR. WATTENBERG: Americans like to be entertained. Every yearthey spend billions on movies, magazines and video games. Entertainment, it seems, is big, very big business. The celebrityculture pervades our television our movies and our magazines. As therecent Woody Allen movie Celebrity catalogues man's desire to befamous, to be on the other side of the flashbulbs. These days thecelebrity culture is not limited to the movies. News events havebecome theater with stars, and lights and cameras,OJ against thesystem, Clinton against Starr. And sometimes you can watch the newslive, on the 24-hour news networks, whether it's a suicide on thefreeway or bombs dropping on Iraq. The computer revolution hasbrought shopping, games, live video and global communication intoyour living room, or even onto your commuter train.
Some argue that this is not new. Newspaper, movies and televisionhave all been with us for a while, and while the global reach ofmedia brings them closer to us, the stars of today are really notmuch different from yesterday's heroes of film, or gridiron, orpolitics. Is this fascination with entertainment just a logicalextension of our past, or has entertainment and media transformed ourentire culture. Neil Gabler argues that entertainment has conqueredreality. He cites, as an example of reality being more entertainingthan Hollywood the hit movie the Truman Show, where Jim Carey's lifeis watched by millions.
Gentlemen, Peter Biskind, Neil Gabler, thank you for joining us.
Neil, here we are sitting in a public television studio designedto look like a 19th Century English library, which is in Shirlington,Virginia, which is an appropriate place to talk about your thesisabout life the movie, everything has turned into entertainment. Sowhy don't you just give us the short take on what your thought is?
MR. GABLER: Well, in a nutshell, I think that entertainment hasbecome the primary value of American life. And in the process ofthat happening, it's been a long process, life itself has become anentertainment medium. And we are all audience for, and performanceartists in an ongoing show, that really never ends. Now, ourperformance may end, of course we all play a death scene, but theshow keeps on going. And I think this gets manifested in three basicways. One, real life melodramas, like OJ Simpson and the Unibomber,and Monica Lewinsky, have superceded to a large extent conventionalentertainments. And two, I think that institutions in America,whether it's journalism, or politics, or religion, have all beendriven by the entertainment imperative, and three I think in our ownpersonal lives, the notion of performance and self presentation hasbecome increasingly important.
MR. WATTENBERG: Peter Biskind, what do you think about that?
MR. BISKIND: Well, I think there's a lot of truth to this. And Ido think that entertainment values have made inroads into real lifeand reality. But, I think it's a vast overstatement to say that reallife has become sort of ancillary to entertainment values. I thinkfor example, they're kind of complicated and it's a lot ofcomplicated and slippery issues here. And when you said that themelodrama of Monica Lewinsky had -- I mean, it brought to mind thefailure of the Mike Nichols film, Primary Colors, which came outright after the Lewinsky story broke. Everybody was wondering whenthe film came out, is this going to hurt the film, is it going tohelp the film. And obviously, it hurt the film, the film is a goodmovie. But, it's questionable whether -- how to analyze that,whether it's a question -- whether it's the fact that the Lewinskything was a melodrama, or whether it was a question of realityoutstripping fiction.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask --
MR. GABLER: Well, in some ways, I mean, that is one of the thingsI'm saying, though, is that I think reality does outstrip fiction,and becomes more entertaining than fiction. That fiction -- I quotePhillip Roth early in the book, where he complained as early as 1960that it was difficult for a novelist to write out of his imagination,when reality itself was so much more imaginative, if one wants tocall it that, than anything that a novelist could concoct.
MR. WATTENBERG: You say, well, we've all become performanceartists, and everybody is sort of on camera the way we are in thisstudio, as we speak. And yet, my sense of the matter is, 99.9percent of the people wake up each morning and they do not thinkthey're on camera, they think they have to support a family, go towork, get the kids off to school. And you are extending aninteresting thesis beyond where it ought to go.
MR. GABLER: Well, I think everything is a matter of degree andproportion here. But, I do believe that we are more self consciousnow. Individual citizens, every day people, are more self consciousabout their own lives, about their self presentation, than anyprevious generation has been. And I'll give you an example, I'llgive you two quick examples. I've been on the road a lot, you know,talking about my book. And I've done a lot of radio call in shows.
MR. WATTENBERG: You've got the rap down pretty well.
MR. GABLER: And I did one call in show just recently. And afellow called in and he said, you know, I'm a janitor at this mall,and it was in Minnesota. And he said, and I was listening to thebroadcast, and he said, and I was thinking, you know, in some ways,I'm the set designer here at this mall. And you know, indeed, he wasthinking in these terms. And I talked to another woman on anothercall in show, this one in San Francisco, she was a housewife. Andshe said, I'm here folding my laundry and I've got two young kids atmy feet, and this is really drudge work. But, I'll tell you how Iget through this, I imagine that I'm in that scene that you often seein movies, where the mother is folding laundry and there are two kidsat her feet, and it's a very domestic scene, and it's very warm, andit's very life affirming. She said, and I'm the audience, my ownaudience for the scene, and I feel very -- you know, it's very lifeaffirming for me as I do this, because otherwise it would be reallydifficult to have to do this day after day, after day, after day.
MR. BISKIND: Sure, we would all prefer to be in movies -- I mean,live in movies than real life, but that's only because movies havehappy endings, which real lives --
MR. GABLER: No, it doesn't.
MR. BISKIND: Now, they do. But, you know, I just came out with abook, not to steal any of your thunder, about Hollywood in the '70s,and one of the interesting things about it was that these guys whowere called movie brats, because they were young kids who learnedabout life essentially at film school, and all of them imagined thatthey were living -- that their own lives were movies, and they would-- if they got tired of a wife they would just exchange it and turnit in for a new one. They imagined that they could just sort of edittheir lives as they went along, and if they made a bad cut they wouldjust throw the film out and make another one. And all of them,almost every single one --
MR. WATTENBERG: That's the advantage of the new tape technology.
MR. BISKIND: But, the point I want to make is that almost everysingle one learned to his sorrow, actually it was all men, that lifeis not a movie. Peter Bogdonavich was the one who finally came outand said this, when his girlfriend Dorothy Stratton was killed, itwas a terrible tragedy, he was walking down the street in BeverlyHills, and came upon Billy Wilder. And Billy Wilder started talkingto him about what a great script that would make. Peter was likeappalled, and thought, you know, my life is not a movie. And youknow, all of them learned that finally there was a distinctionbetween life and movies. And I think that's really true.
MR. GABLER: Well, maybe they lived the wrong movie. You know,one could make the case that they simply were looking for the wrongplot elements, using -- in Hollywood, where everything getsintensified, and things often get skewed, they were borrowing thewrong elements to shape their movie. Whereas, you know, ordinarypeople who have more modest ambitions, more modest goals, you know,learn to make a more modest film for themselves, if you want to usethat analogy.
MR. WATTENBERG: I was thinking about your tales of the call inshows. You know, I have Wattenberg's first rule of publishing, whichis do the call in show before the book, you learn a lot. I've alwayswished that I could do that, you get all the good feedback. How doesthis play out in your mind, and in your book, in the realm, say, ofpolitics? I know you deal with that, and have a problem, I think,with it. Why don't you --
MR. GABLER: Well, I think it's played itself out. And again, thethings I describe are not revolutionary, they're evolutionary. So,you know, what I'm describing is not some sudden break with the past,but really a continuity with the past. But, I think we've seen, youknow, over certainly the last, you know, 35 or 40 years, at leastsince John Kennedy and probably before then, that politics hasincreasingly become a branch of entertainment, where politicians haveincreasingly deployed the techniques of entertainment, largelybecause television has now entered the scene, and you have to appealto television, you have to play to television in order to reach yourconstituency. And we've seen, I think, that campaigns haveincreasingly been converted into narratives, with conflict. Thewhole notion of the contest element being raised above the issueelement in most campaigns, because it's more entertaining. When wetalk about who's got the momentum, who's winning, who's losing, pollsfastening on polls. And I think that finally what's I think mostpernicious, if you want to call it that, if one thinks of this wholeprocess as being pernicious, is that it's invaded the presidencyitself. So it's not just a matter of --
MR. WATTENBERG: Give me an example of that. You're pretty toughon Ronald Reagan in this book.
MR. GABLER: Well, see, I don't think I'm tough on Reagan.
MR. WATTENBERG: Why don't you tell me what you say about Reagan,and I will proceed to bash you upon the head.
MR. GABLER: What I say about Reagan is this, that Reagan not onlyunderstood theatrical arts, as Kennedy did, but he understoodsomething in some ways that was far more significant, he understoodthat if he was going to play the president, that the presidencyitself could be a movie, and that the presidency could function inthe same way that movies function, and with the same ends that movieshave, which is to make an audience feel good. Now, you say I bashedReagan. My feeling is that, you know, there's a lot of good sense inthat.
MR. WATTENBERG: But, you say, and you say it about otherpoliticians also, just in fairness, that all it was, was a movie,that it had no substance to it, that it was just Reagan the movie,and --
MR. GABLER: Well, you said all of it was.
MR. WATTENBERG: Well, that's a paraphrase, but it's pretty close. I mean, in point of fact, while I might accept everything you justsaid about Reagan, here's a guy who took office saying he wants towin the Cold War, by rearming America, that he wants to expound uponthe magic of the market in America, and around the world, and two orthree -- he wanted to deregulate American industry, two, three, fourthings, and did all the show biz that goes with it, I grant you that. But, you know, a funny thing happened, eight years later he had doneit. Now, these were monumental, substantive accomplishments. Imean, I'm sort of pro-Reagan, you could deny that they were, but theycertainly were not non-substantive, or just, you know, some allegedlygrade B movie actor playing games with us.
MR. GABLER: First of all, I disagree with that characterization. And I think, you know, if you read the book that way, in some ways Ithink it's because we all bring our kind of prejudice to the Reaganpresidency.
MR. WATTENBERG: I noticed that.
MR. GABLER: And what I say about Reagan is this, I mean, that Ibelieve he understood what people wanted from the presidency. Andthat was a very valuable understanding. I won't say that he wascompletely non-substantive. What I do say is that many of thepolicies that were substantive were cast in movie rhetoric, like theevil empire, or the star wars antimissile system.
MR. WATTENBERG: I wanted to ask you -- hold on. I want to askyou, what is your problem with evil empire? Was it not evil or notan empire?
MR. GABLER: I have no problem with it.
MR. WATTENBERG: You have no problem, but you sort of dump on itin the book, you put it in quotes and say, look at this dummy --
MR. GABLER: No, I don't.
MR. WATTENBERG: No?
MR. GABLER: I think you're bringing something to it that's notthere. In fact, I have enormous respect for this idea, and it's avery powerful idea. You know, you can't just ignore the fact thatpeople want to feel good about this country. They want to feel goodabout themselves. And that Reagan understood that, and that Reagan,in making the presidency into a movie, you know, one could say, well,in doing that, I mean, that's ridiculous, I mean, that kind oftrivializes everything. But, one could also look at it the otherway, and say, rather than trivialize everything, it gets right to theheart of what people may want from the presidency, which is to feelgood about this country, and feel good about themselves.
MR. BISKIND: Well, you know, I actually disliked the Reaganpresidency, but I have to agree with Ben, in the sense -- you know,there was one statement that you made in the book, which I thoughtwas very revealing, which is essentially you said that in the Reaganpresidency entertainment trumped ideology. In other words, it wasn'ta question of the right defeating the left after years of FDRliberalism, and New Deal liberalism, is was just the fact thatentertainment trumped both left and right. And that I agree, I mean,Reagan may -- it seems almost the opposite is the case. Reaganinjected more ideology and made more substantive changes, for good orfor ill, than had been seen in the presidency in a long time. So Ithink you could sort of turn your thesis upside down. I mean, he diduse entertainment values in presenting and selling his ideologicalagenda to the American people. But, that's very different fromsaying that there was no substance to it.
MR. GABLER: Well, again, the word substance is not one -- I neverused the word that it's non-substantive. And in some ways I feellike I'm arguing, you know, a non-argument here, because I agree withwhat you're saying. I mean, I think that entertainment can trumpideology. And how does it trump ideology, because it supercedes it. He framed issues, even ideological issues, almost in an entertainmentway. Right against left became as -- and this I do say in the book,as kind of like cowboys against Indians. I mean, it was a veryinteresting way of framing issues. It was a way of framing issuesideologically that was almost non-ideological.
MR. WATTENBERG: What about Clinton, fast --
MR. GABLER: Clinton is a different kind of entertainer. I mean,there's no question in my estimation that Clinton is an entertainer. But, I refer to him in the book as kind of post modernist, because heoperates out of what the cultural historian Neil Harris called, anoperational esthetic. And Harris at the time was referring to PTBarnum. Operational esthetic was that you showed the audience, youknow, that you were pulling the strings and manipulating them. Ithink in some ways, I mean, this is what Clinton does with hisaudience. I mean, Clinton is manipulating us, manipulating, youknow, the process, and we all kind of sit back and, you know, noteveryone says that they admire that. But, we all kind of sit backand in some ways are entertained by it. We're entertained by thefact that, you know, we're watching Clinton manipulate the system,and he does it so boldly that you kind of shake your head and yousay, well, you know -- you throw up your hands at it.
MR. WATTENBERG: And the story becomes the manipulation.
MR. GABLER: The story --
MR. WATTENBERG: It's about manipulation.
MR. GABLER: Madonna, for example, I mean, Madonna and BillClinton are very similar figures. What Madonna does inentertainment, in conventional entertainment, which is to show hertransformations and her manipulations, and make that theentertainment rather than her singing or dancing or whatever, or heracting, you know, Clinton does the same thing I think in politics.
MR. BISKIND: I want to go back to this example of Monicagate. Ithink it's an interesting test case for your thesis, because afterthe revelations, all the political commentators were flummoxed by thefact that Clinton's ratings went up. And I remember reading in theNew Yorker an article by Kurt Andersen, who said, you know, thereason is because it's so -- you know, the Clinton -- the ongoingClinton revelations are a soap and the plot has gotten moreinteresting, therefore the ratings go up.
MR. WATTENBERG: A soap opera?
MR. BISKIND: Yes, a soap opera, and therefore the ratings go up. And that seemed to me -- again, to turn it upside down, it seemed tome that in fact, the ratings went up -- Clinton's popularity ratingswent up because people could, in fact, distinguish between Monicagateand reality, and they were tired of the soap, if you will, if youwant to call it that. And in fact, they were very able todistinguish between the two, and not at all unable to, which is thethesis, I think that, you know, this, you know, entertainmentcannibalizing reality.
MR. GABLER: Well, I think they did make -- I think the publicmade a distinction, but I'm not sure it's a distinction betweenreality. After all, I mean, Monicagate is and was playing out inreality. I mean, it was what in the book I call a lifie (sp), whichis a movie written in the medium of life. But, I think thedistinction the public made, the distinction I made is that this isentertainment, and they can enjoy it as entertainment. KurtAndersen's word, he called the presidency the entertainer in chief,in the New Yorker. But, in terms of consequences, real consequences,the public didn't want to see this entertainment have consequences,in the same way that when you watch a movie, I mean, the movie maylinger with you after you leave the theater, but you know, you don'twant the movie to leave the theater with you, and have consequenceson real life, outside the theater. Now, the different here, ofcourse, is that this movie is actually played out in real life.
MR. WATTENBERG: You also say that religion has become anentertainment.
MR. GABLER: Again, I don't want to oversell this idea. What I'msaying is that I think religion, you know, has assumed elements ofentertainment. Look at the megachurch movement, for example, in thiscountry. I mean, the megachurch movement, which are these giantchurches, now, you know, pride themselves on the kind of music theyhave, frequently rock music, they are actually kind of -- churchescompete with one another over the quality of the bands that they haveperforming at the services. They have light shows, which are verymuch like rock concerts at Madison Square Garden, or whatever, any ofthe big rock venues across the country. They even have cappuccinocarts now, I understand, at some of these churches. But, it's notonly at that leve. I was speaking not long ago at a Jewish service. And one of the heads of the --
MR. WATTENBERG: Can you take communion with cappuccino?
MR. GABLER: I don't know, that's an interesting question.
MR. WATTENBERG: Go ahead.
MR. GABLER: And one that only this generation will have had tohave confronted.
MR. WATTENBERG: I'm sorry. You were saying about a --
MR. GABLER: I was speaking at a Jewish service, and one of theleaders of the synagogue came up to me afterwards and was talkingabout the wonderful rabbi that they had, who was coming to officiateat the high holiday services. And he -- and quite consciously, heknew exactly what he was saying, I mean, the reason that this rabbiwas so terrific is that he packed them in. He was a great showman. He had great sermons, and he was very stirring, and people loved theshow. And those were exactly the words he used, people love theshow. Now, this is not new.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask you this, you say the understand hasbecome the republic of entertainment?
MR. GABLER: Yes.
MR. WATTENBERG: It's an interesting phrase. What's wrong withthat? I mean, isn't there -- there's enough sadness in life, thewhole thing is -- as you said, it ends with a death scene. It's nota piece of cake. What on earth is wrong with seeking outentertainment, and shouldn't we salute the fact that we have more andbetter kinds of entertainment?
MR. GABLER: On the face of it, absolutely nothing is wrong withthat. And one of the things I made pains to say in the book, andI've taken some heat for this, you know, is the fact that the book isdiagnostic rather than prescriptive. I'm a fan of entertainment. Imyself was a film reviewer for a number of years. And I wasn't oneof these film reviewers who only like European movies. I loveentertainment. I love movies, I love rock music, I even like trashynovels. So is there anything wrong with it? No, on the face of it,absolutely not. Does it have some deleterious effects on Americansociety? It can, not necessarily, but it can. And I think it has. Now, one then has to balance the positive effects, you know, versusthe negative effects. And I don't think one says, well then we oughtto get rid of entertainment, or marginalize it in some way. I thinkone ought to be aware of these things, so that one can make decisionsabout the kind of society in which one wants to live.
MR. WATTENBERG: Do you think this is good or bad, insofar as itexists, Peter?
MR. BISKIND: Well, I mean, I think that there's nothing wrongwith entertainment, God knows. But, it's true that entertainment runrampant, and if it's true that, you know, as Neil maintains, that ithollows out sort of traditional value systems, I think it can't begood. But, I think, again, I mean, there's a lot of different waysof looking at this. I think entertainment carries -- theentertainment values carry ideology as well, and I think that moreattention has to be paid with the way the values that entertainmentbears or carries interact with traditional ideologies. I mean, thereare other ways that -- you could turn this whole thing upside down. You could look at, for example, you could argue that ideology andpolitics permeates Hollywood movies, things that appear to be solelyentertaining. A movie like Titanic, for example, carries a wholepopulist baggage, which is pretty clear cut, even horror movies orscience fiction movies --
MR. WATTENBERG: A lot of conservatives have been saying thatHollywood carries ideology, for a long time.
MR. BISKIND: Absolutely, and a lot of -- and it's true. I mean,even films like -- that seem to be completely ideologically free,like this current movie called The Faculty, which is a remake ofInvasion of the Body Snatchers, set in a high school. When thealiens take over there's a pan of a hallway, and you look into aclassroom and you see all the students have their hands up. That'san indication to the director that, you know, they've becomealienized. That's a political statement, in some sense, abouteducation. Anyway, there are a lot of different ways to look at thisphenomenon.
MR. WATTENBERG: This is a PBS program. All right. And you havebeen making a distinction, and so has Peter, between entertainmentand information. Now, my question is, haven't all theseentertainment arts that we have really brought to a level that hasnever been seen before, both in terms of quality, and quantity,hasn't it also -- or can't it also serve as a great agent ofinformation?
MR. GABLER: I'm not preaching from a mountaintop down to thedeluded masses. I mean, I want to make that absolutely clear. I'mdown with those deluded masses. I'm one of them. I think the onlyqualification I would make is that entertainment can create habits ofmind, which can marginalize serious things. Not everything isentertaining. Not all serious issues are entertaining.
MR. WATTENBERG: Well, not every movie is a smiley face, either. There are tragic movies, there are a lot of sordid movies. I mean,it may be entertainment in the sense that you lose yourself in it,but it's -- I mean, tragedy is not comedy, and you can quote me onthat. I mean, and you see a lot --
MR. BISKIND: You go out on a limb.
MR. WATTENBERG: Yes, right, tough stuff.
MR. GABLER: But, entertainment, I think, you know, the mostentertaining movies, I mean, if we look even at box office, and Petercan speak to this better than I, are those that have, you know, kindof clear narrative lineaments, clear beginning, middle and end, goodguys and bad guys that have nowadays, you know, sensationalcomponents that can, you know, grab an audience and keep -- you know,hold an audience's attention. And again, there's nothing wrong withany of those things. I'm not arguing against those things. But, I'msaying that not everything conforms to those kinds of, you know,elements. And we've got to be aware of that.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. We are out of time. We have to be awareof that. Thank you very much, Neil Gabler, and Peter Biskind. Andthank you. For Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg.
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ANNOUNCER: This has been a production of BJW Incorporated, inassociation with New River Media, which are solely responsible forits content. Brought to you in part by ADM, feeding the world is thebiggest challenge of the new century. In 50 years the world musthave room at the table for 10 billion people, we're setting newplaces every day. ADM, supermarket to the world.
Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theLilly Endowment, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
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