Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality

Article excerpt

Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. Neal Gabler. New York: Knopf, 1998.

In Life the Movie, Neal Gabler begins by showing how unique social conditions and the absence of a dominant religious denomination led to the rise of a "Republic of Entertainment" that first became evident during the Age of Jackson. Gabler weaves in a number of important strands, including a good discussion of the Astor Place Riot of 1849 (a landmark event in terms of American cultural nationalism) and an excellent section on the role of nineteenth-century journalism in developing an entertainment culture. Gabler then moves to what Daniel Boorstin has called the "Graphic Revolution" and a discussion of the rise of the motion picture. The best part of the book is found in Gabler's discussion of twentieth-century celebrity, a subject that he pursued with greater focus and depth in his 1994 book, Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity, and his framing of the celebrity narrative in terms of Campbell's theory of the heroic monomyth is illuminating.

Life the Movie is not without weaknesses: the thesis is far from original, and to those who are well versed in cultural criticism, much of Gabler's book will seem all too familiar. And while the use of Campbell's monomyth is inventive and valuable, it gets the author into the bind that generally results from the combination of myth criticism (stressing the universal) with a historically specific argument (stressing the unique qualities of a given period). The contradiction here is one that Gabler does not probe or refine, as does Richard Slotkin in his work on American culture. …