I just finished re-reading a book I first read in 1998, pop culture analyst Neil Gabler's Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. Gabler felt that throughout the United States's history, we'd been trying to take Shakespeare's thought "All the world's a stage: And all the men and women merely players" to an extreme by basically treating life as a piece of entertainment. Make life more dramatic, more sensational, more like a movie, or a TV show (sitcom? Drama? Porn? Whatever you want!), or an ad.
It's a throw-possible-examples-at-you book -- See? This is someone trying to act like he's in a movie! And her, too! And him! And this group! -- and something then and now rubbed/rubs me the wrong way about how it's written. I think some of the ideas have merit; I don't think he really sells his ideas, though. I have trouble seeing the shape of his arguments, so then as now I just got frustrated with the book. Eventually this time I was trying to read it as fast as possible so I could get back to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Stephen King's Rose Madder, the other books I'm working on.
Even one section that struck me as compelling back in 1998, a section titled "Celebrity With a Thousand Faces," seems less compelling now. Gabler's argument there is that the lives of celebrities are more and more reported in terms that seem borrowed from the monomyth that Joseph Campbell distilled for Western audiences. It's all a Hero's Journey, Gabler wrote, where the hero or heroine (in this case, the celebrity) experiences the bizarre world of Hollywood -- often humbled by having a flop, only to regain credibility with a new success -- and conveys life lessons that we, as consumers of their work, can draw on and learn stuff from, as long as we're reading celebrity profiles and watching Extra. Now...I don't see that. My response to the idea is Are people really learning life lessons from how much of an allegedly abusive asshat Mel Gibson has been to his ex-girlfriend?
Life the Movie may (may, may) have influenced my thinking: reviewing Scream 3 back in 2000, I wrote "I’ve always liked that Scream is, in part, about the limits of using films as a way of understanding life (the characters’ frame of reference comes almost entirely from movies). If you’ve seen it all at the movies, the Scream films say to me, you haven’t really seen it all." At some level, I'm simpatico with the concept that many of us treat life like performance art, like a film. (C'mon, I like Andy Kaufman.) But I resisted it throughout Gabler's book-long argument. Partly because it felt like a harangue. It felt like he was saying "There is only one possible explanation for all of this, and that is my theory."
I've read better books by Gabler, specifically An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, which has been used as a textbook, and his biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. And maybe I'm enough of an entertainment business observer to appreciate his book about gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Maybe. But there's other stuff to read. Stuff that, I hope, makes me think more.