Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? The question, according to Neal Gabler in his book Life, the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (Starring Everyone) (Alfred A. Knopf, 303 pp.), is moot, because art has become life, and vice versa.
Theaters and television aren't so much venues for escapism, as many people contend, but rather showcases for contemporary values. One of America's most popular sitcoms, Friends, is about six friends who struggle through daily life. The recently retired hit, Seinfeld, prided itself on being about "nothing." ABC, in fact, is trying to match Seinfeld's success with its L.A. version, It's Like, You Know.... Successful dramas today include ER and NYPD Blue. The reason behind the success of these shows is no more complicated than the fact that they portray real people facing real dilemmas and struggling with the consequences of their real decisions. Television series and movies have become more realistic. Conversely, many more people are scripting their personal lives so that they play more like an MOW.
Gabler, author of two other non-fiction books focusing on Hollywood and celebrity status, first explores the history behind today's prevalent entertainment lifestyle in America. The roots are traced back to the birth of the democratic nation; in fact, they are traced to the ideals of democracy itself. Gabler explains why the U.S. has become the entertainment mecca of the world, while older cultures to this day lag behind Hollywood in the development of their entertainment industries.
The American entertainment industry's success is based within the ideals of freedom of religion. Unlike Europe in the late eighteenth century, churches never wielded any real power in the States. "Throughout Europe," wrote Gabler, "organized religion raised vigorous opposition to amusements, in explicit recognition that the values of entertainment frequently vied with those of the church." This set the stage for professional entertainment to flourish in the U.S.
Class also played a role in the prominence of today's entertainment society. The aristocracy, of course, supported traditional amusements like operas and symphonies. It was the labor class, and later the middle class, that propelled movies into the spotlight. Gabler noted, "Seventy-two percent of the audience came from the laboring class, according to one study of New York City moviegoers in 1911."
The current fusion between life and art wasn't manifest until...