Looking at us looking at them

In his new book, "Life, the Movie" (Knopf), film and culture critic Neal Gabler proposes that our insatiable hunger for entertainment has overwhelmed private and public life. It has transformed every aspect of American culture - from religion and art to politics and news - into entertainment. There's no business like show business - and everything now, according to Mr. Gabler, is show biz. Monica Lewinsky, O.J. Simpson, the Unabomber, and any Hollywood sparkler you can name - all are citizens of what he calls "the republic of entertainment." "So much emphasis historically is given to politics, war, and the grand events that allegedly shape the culture," Gabler says. "But it struck me that what was really happening in the 19th century - overarching Jacksonianism, and the Civil War, and the Gilded Age - was this move toward entertainment." His book is really about the triumph of popular culture - how popular culture has become the dominant culture in America. As he wrote, he developed what he jokingly calls his "unified field theory of American culture": Life has become a movie. He even refers to "lifies" in the book to illuminate how we invent ourselves, building behavior out of fantasies. "I read about a group of teenagers in Washington, D.C. who were going around on a [criminal] rampage and video taping it," he says. "And then a few days later, there was an article in the news about a young policeman who had performed a rescue, jumped into the [harbor] water, and died. But it turned out there was no rescue: He was performing for a German television crew that wanted a picture of a rescue. There were so many of these things." Neil Postman warned us we were "amusing ourselves to death." Marshall McLuhan pointed out that "the medium is the message." And Andr Gregory (in "My Dinner with Andr") observed how we have developed ways to transform fantasy into self-conscious reality. Everybody wants to be a star. The cult of celebrity is a direct outgrowth of the republic of entertainment, Gabler says. Nowhere is the transfer of entertainment culture more disturbing than in high art circles itself. From Andy Warhol to Julian Schnabel, the art world has bought into the star culture. Even a painter as important as Jackson Pollock was sucked in. "I think he was a great painter, but it was easy for Life magazine to seize upon his creative process. It was something that was salable to their readers," he says. "Even though the general readership couldn't possibly comprehend or appreciate Pollock's achievements, what they could appreciate and what the media could celebrate for them was the process of [action painting]. What a great process! What a dynamic process! A guy hurling paint across the canvas. So Pollock, in a form of art that could never possibly appeal to the general public, still became the foremost public artist of the 1950s. "I have many friends who are visual artists. This is a complaint I hear all the time - the way in which the art world has become a world of celebrity. Major artists are the ones who merchandise themselves to the media, who have a gimmick to sell. And then the arts become extraneous." But Gabler insists that he has no agenda to promote. Though he describes the phenomenon, he does not suggest solutions. "To me, it's intellectually dishonest to say, 'Here are the answers and aren't you lucky you read this book because I'm the sage.' I'm not a sage," he says. "I'm someone who examines the culture and analyzes it and tries to diagnose what I think is there without necessarily prescribing a solution. Because I don't think that there is a single solution. "But I am a believer in balance," he continues. "And one of the things that entertainment does is throw balance out the window because everything ultimately has to genuflect before it. It takes no prisoners! "If you feel that the surge of entertainment is a dangerous thing, or a pernicious influence, then the only answer I would have is that, on an individual basis, you have to say, 'I'm going to change my own values. I won't genuflect before celebrities. I will have a sense of proportion about things. I will read different kinds of books. I'll watch different kinds of television programs.' This revolution - to me, the real revolution - starts there, with an individual making an individual choice." M.S. Mason is the Monitor's arts and television writer.

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