boldtype
interview    
 
an interview with Neal Gabler   interview  
 
photo of neal gabler


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  Bold Type: What led you to this topic?

Neal Gabler: I think we are all aware that something has been happening to America, though we are not exactly sure what it is. The obsession with celebrity, gossip, scandal and real-life melodrama like the O.J. Simpson trial and the Monica Lewinsky affair are the most obvious examples of a society in the throes of something. As a cultural historian who is fascinated by the engines of American life, about why things happen and what they mean, I sought to discover what that something was. In effect -- and I mean this half-jokingly -- the book is my "unified field theory" of modern America: It is my attempt to provide a new context for all these things swirling about us, and that context, I believe, is entertainment. We are a society driven by entertainment, so much so that our news, our politics, our religion, our education, you name it, have all become entertainments.

BT: What is a "lifie"?

NG: Every day, it seems, the news generates some new melodrama, some spectacle written in the medium of life: Simpson, Lewinsky, Tonya Harding, Woody Allen and Soon Yi, the Bobbitts, Joey Buttafuoco. There was, however, no term to describe these hybrids which are half movie, half real-life. I coined the word "lifie" to describe these real-life melodramas which have become, arguably, America's most popular form of entertainment.

BT: What made America such fertile ground for the rise of an entertainment culture, as opposed to other countries?

NG: I would argue that entertainment is almost biological in its appeal. Everyone likes to be entertained. But in Europe this impulse had always been restricted by various forces that feared, quite rightly, entertainment would threaten social control there. After all, entertainment usually appealed to one's senses, providing a challenge to reason. In America, these forces were much less potent, in part because Americans were extremely skeptical about social control of any sort. Here, the very philosophical basis of the nation, democracy, conjoined with the basis of entertainment, release from intellect, to reinforce one another. This has proved to be a formidable combination.

BT: When did "art" and "entertainment" diverge and what were the elite classes doing to try and prevent it?

NG: Today the distinctions between so-called art and so-called entertainment are somewhat artificial, but there was a time when entertainment was essentially defined in terms of art -- or, more accurately, in terms of non-art. Art was sublime. It was a means of moral and spiritual instruction. Entertainment, on the other hand, was anything but sublime. It was a means of sensual gratification. In the nineteenth century, and even in the twentieth, the genteel elites and religious leaders railed against entertainment, and eventually the elites purged entertainments from their own stages by creating separate theaters for themselves where they would watch Shakespeare and opera while the masses would attend theaters of their own to see melodramas and musicals. But entertainment was a resilient force. In time it became this country's dominant culture.

BT: You write that one of the defining moments of American culture occurred over rival theater productions of Macbeth and The Gladiator in 1849. What happened?

NG: Apropos of the hostility between art and entertainment and between elites and ordinary Americans, the Astor Place Opera House was opened in 1849 in New York to provide an arena where elites could enjoy productions without the incursions of the masses. The opening show was a staging of Macbeth starring the esteemed English actor William Charles Macready. Meanwhile, a production of The Gladiator was being staged the very same week starring the popular American actor Edwin Forrest. Anti-elitists seized on the coincidence to foment a kind of cultural war. Angry youths called b'hoys infiltrated the Astor Place and hooted during Macready's performance, touching off a melee in which twenty-two rioters were killed by the militia: In effect, this was the cultural version of the Boston Massacre. The victims died, or so their champions would claim, trying to assert their right to cultural independence.

BT: When did journalists first catch on to the "human interest story"?

NG: We tend to think that human interest stories and other sensational news reports are a product of twentieth-century tabloids or perhaps of the yellow press of the late nineteenth century. In fact, these began in the early nineteenth century with the so-called "penny press," cheap newspapers designed expressly for mass audiences. The masters of the penny press rapidly came to realize that what readers really wanted was entertainment, and the human interest story and the sensational story were intended to satisfy that desire. The National Enquirer and Jerry Springer, then, are part of a very long American tradition.

BT: Would you say the Helen Jewett case of 1839 in many ways prefigured the O.J. Simpson case?

NG: The Helen Jewett case certainly seemed to anticipate the O.J. Simpson case, proving that sensationalism was no recently acquired taste. Jewett was a nineteen year-old prostitute in New York who was brutally murdered one evening. Her last visitor was a prosperous clerk named Richard Robinson. All the evidence pointed to Robinson: the murder weapon, whitewash on his trousers from a fence back of the brothel, his own faulty alibi, the motive. (Robinson was about to marry a wealthy girl and went to Jewett to retrieve gifts that might compromise him.) He was quickly acquitted, but the main historic interest of the case is that it showed how quickly journalists grasped the methods of exploiting a lurid tale that had sex, murder, money and power. The Jewett story dominated the press the way the Simpson case did and for the same reason: it was splendid entertainment.

BT: How did the arrival of the movies pave the way for "the triumph of entertainment over life itself"?

NG: The battle between so-called high culture and so-called low culture, between art and entertainment, raged throughout the nineteenth century. The arrival of the movies, however, sealed the victory for entertainment. The movies were so irresistible, so powerful, that they seemed to blow away the competition. But it wasn't only as entertainment that the movies exerted their pull on America: The movies provided models for American behavior and common experiences for an American community that used the movies as a scrim through which to view the entire world. As a result, the movies became the standard for more and more of American life. The news learned from the movies, bringing movie conventions even more deeply into "real life." More, ordinary Americans learned from the movies, bringing movie conventions into their own lives. I love the quote from the critic Geoffrey O'Brien to the effect that you could appropriate a whole life from the movies.

BT: Why was politics one of the first areas to adopt the values of show business? Which politicians would you say have best mastered the role of entertainer?

NG: The thing about entertainment is that it is so enjoyable it threatens to marginalize anything that is not entertaining. That means anyone trying to attract and then satisfy a public has to learn the techniques of entertainment or be consigned to oblivion. Politicians, being in the business of satisfying an audience and fearing oblivion, got the hang of entertainment pretty quickly. Franklin Roosevelt, surely, was a great showman, and so was John F. Kennedy, who even had the matinee idol good looks to go with his theatricality. But the real master was Ronald Reagan and not just because of his dramatic skills. Reagan was so thoroughly an actor that he lived within his performance and conceived of his presidency as a movie with the same function as most movies: to provide us with escapism. He really was the "feel good" president.

BT: From Gennifer Flowers to Monica Lewinsky -- has Clinton's presidency seen the total disintegration of the line between the tabloid and the respectable press? Is there any story journalists won't touch if it is laden with entertainment value?

NG: First of all, it is not entirely self-evident that the information function of the press is superior to the entertainment function. These are simply different services the press provide. But having said that, the gap between the so-called respectable press, which traditionally saw its job as informing the citizenry, and the tabloid press, which saw its job as entertaining the citizenry, has closed to the point where it is very difficult to tell the difference. The Monica Lewinsky case is a perfect example. Even though every poll indicates that Americans are tired of the story and a vast majority don't find it relevant to their assessment of Clinton's presidency, the press tenaciously and somewhat giddily hang on, insisting, as a sop to the old journalistic tradition, that this is a terribly important story. There are many motives at work here, but clearly one unstated motive is that this is a wonderfully entertaining story with sex and scandal, and that the public, however tired they may tell pollsters they are, gobble it up because it is so much fun to follow. Once the press starts detailing a public figure's private consensual sex -- albeit on the pretext that he lied about it -- there is nothing off-limits. And, by the way, if the president hadn't lied about Lewinsky in his deposition does anyone honestly believe the press wouldn't have touched the story?

BT: When did the media first catch on to the fact that the actual skills of actors, businessmen, rock stars, sports heroes, etc. were secondary to their personal stories?

NG: The divorcement between talent and celebrity seems to have been a twentieth century phenomenon. This isn't to say that prior to this century there weren't figures, like our own Joey Buttafuoco, who won notoriety for something that could hardly be considered an accomplishment. It is merely to say that the entertainment provided by one's life superseded the conventional entertainment the performer might have provided, so that where once we were interested in someone's personal life because of his accomplishment, now we are just as likely to be interested in his "accomplishment" because of his personal life. (That's why John Wayne Bobbitt could star in porno films.) What the media realized is that personal stories were better than conventional entertainment and that these stories could sell magazines, newspapers, television shows.

BT: You write of Barbara Walters, "No figure in late-twentieth-century journalism was more responsible for the merger of news and celebrity worship." How so?

NG: Barbara Walters is a remarkable phenomenon because she helped answer a very difficult question for television: How can we devise a format to get in on the celebrity lifie action? News didn't seem to accommodate these lifies except in brief reports. So Walters, who was by all appearances a newswoman, smuggled celebrity interviews into her newsmagazine programs and specials, freely mingling world leaders with starlets and hunks. It happened so quickly, it was almost imperceptible. Suddenly, there were stars on television answering the most personal questions under the aegis of a respectable news organization, namely ABC. Once these interviews were sanctioned as some sort of news, every other network news organization had to follow suit or lose the entertainment war. But Walters was the one who started it and who redefined television journalism in the process from one that had resembled traditional journalism to one that resembled supermarket tabloids.

BT: How has entertainment oozed into areas we would think would have been safe -- literature, art, academia?

NG: It bears repeating that in an entertainment culture, everything must compete with entertainment or fade from view. In a sense, the most popular entertainments, movies and TV, set the standard for everything else. Remarkably few Americans read -- a bestseller seldom exceeds a million copies in this country of 260 million -- so publishers learned how to make the book part of a larger entertainment process by emphasizing personal stories about the author or promoting those aspects that might attract readers: a seven-figure advance, a large movie sale, a controversy. Similarly, thanks largely to Andy Warhol, visual artists learned how to make their art media friendly -- that is, to create art that would attract media attention. Even intellectuals, realizing that they might become obsolete in an entertainment culture and no doubt wanting that celebrity swag themselves, learned how to package themselves and their ideas in such a way as to crash the general media: Nowadays nearly every idea comes in a soundbite version that the media can retail.

BT: Can you actually draw a comparison to how the lives of movie stars are treated in magazines (like People and Vanity Fair) to the tenets of mythology as examined particularly by Joseph Campbell?

NG: I argue in the book that celebrities are a bit like mythic figures and that they serve many of the same functions. In Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell examined cross-cultural myths to show how they resolved themselves into basic stages: the hero arrives, he enters a wondrous world where he overcomes obstacles, he returns to share what he has learned. When you read enough celebrity profiles -- and I must have read thousands of them -- you discover that they resolve themselves into exactly the same stages. A young star arrives on the scene to media attention. He comes to Hollywood where he faces the obstacles of fame: drugs, divorce, career problems, a loss of identity. He survives to tell us, in interviews and memoirs, what he has learned -- usually that the external trappings count for nothing and that happiness lies within. In short, what we now have are celebrities with a thousand faces.

BT: What is the Zsa Zsa Factor?

NG: The Zsa Zsa Factor is a term I coined to describe what Zsa Zsa Gabor represents. When she first came to fame in the early 1950s, Zsa Zsa wasn't an actress or a singer or a dancer or an entertainer of any sort. She was the beautiful wife of actor George Sanders who happened to appear on a quiz show dispensing off-handed advice to lovelorn viewers. By being herself she became such a success that she immediately landed movie roles. Today Zsa Zsa is still a household name even though few people can tell you what she actually does. This makes her the perfect exemplar of the new celebrity: she is known by nearly everyone for having done nothing. The Zsa Zsa Factor, then, is an expression of this highest form of celebrity. It is the attempt to be well-known for having done nothing.

BT: What are the dangers for a society where everyone expects to be the star of his own life movie?

NG: Some people would argue that the danger is we may lose the very things that make us human. They would say that a pearl requires grit, that an authentic life is one in which there is pain, anxiety, guilt, suffering, unhappiness and that these things inform our lives and give it richness and complexity. The alternative, which is to design one's life to conform to a genre or pattern, is to deny these essential elements. Of course, one could also argue that we have had to endure pain, anxiety, guilt, suffering et al. because we never before had the means to expunge them. Now that we are much closer to a time in which we can approximate the kind of life we want to live, these are no longer necessary. In effect, it is an argument that poses humanness against happiness.

BT: What kind of future do serious political debate, literature and ideas have in a society where entertainment has become the predominant social value?

NG: The thing about serious anything is that it is seldom entertaining. The threat in an entertainment society is that seriousness will be marginalized--my own book excepted of course. I think we already see this happening. Serious literature, serious art, serious ideas, serious people are given nowhere near the attention and receive nowhere near the respect that they would deserve if the basis of attention and respect were one's contribution rather than one's entertainment value. I am not one to issue jeremiads and I am certain some readers will resent my not issuing a condemnation of the entertainment society in the book. But here is one place where I do have real fears. When seriousness cannot be sustained because it isn't wanted, it will disappear under a heap of entertainment.

BT: Okay, so who is to blame? Have the media created a need for perpetual entertainment or have they been filling a demand dictated by human nature?

NG: First of all, you assume that there is blame to be assigned. I don't make that assumption. I love to be entertained, and I am not sure that an entertainment-driven society is any more morally deficient than an non-entertainment-driven society. Indeed, totalitarian societies generally fear popular culture every bit as much as they fear political democracy. But I certainly do not subscribe to the theory that Americans are passive idiots who have been brainwashed by some cagey media elite into desiring entertainment. Rather cagey media elites make entertainment because Americans desire it, and they desire it not only because it is fun (otherwise it isn't entertaining, is it?) but because we Americans all have a bit of the contrarian in us and entertainment is a way of thumbing our nose at the kind of culture we are supposed to like. This doesn't make us fools. It makes us the commanders of our own cultural life.
 
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