Neal Gabler, media critic

Interviews by Steven Heller
3 366 words17 min read

Neal Gabler is a media critic, historian, and former television commentator on film, with special interest in how show business has affected the mass culture. He is the author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood and Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. He is currently working on a history of the Disney corporation. In his current book, Life The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, Gabler traces the rise of popular entertainment in America - notably the arrival of the movies - and the incredible impact it has had on how the culture views itself through an artificial lens. In this interview he explains why the United States has become a veritable republic of entertainment.

Was it inevitable that the United States would become what you call a ‘republic of entertainment’?

Well, ‘inevitability’ is a strong word. But I think it was pretty much preordained that this country, given its cultural condition, would become a Republic of Entertainment. By the same token in other countries there were all sorts of forces that inhibited the rise of a true mass entertainment culture.

Like what, for instance?

First, religion was a very powerful force, particularly in Europe. Religious authorities recognised that entertainment would compete with religion, and did everything they could to quarantine entertainment and to prevent its rise. Of course, there was a folk culture in Europe; there’s no question about that. But there wasn’t a mass entertainment culture. Second, there were aristocratic elite that controlled the cultural agenda in those countries and that also had a stake in preventing the rise of a mass entertainment culture.

Why was entertainment such a threat to the established powers?

Because entertainment challenged their power to control the culture. In my theory entertainment is a democratising force. That’s also one of the reasons why in this country it became so powerful.

Define what you mean by a ‘democratising force.’

You don’t need gatekeepers to understand entertainment. You don’t need the elite or interpreters to gain the pleasure from entertainment. As I define it, entertainment is largely a function of sensation and emotion. It unseats reason. It’s a kind of mass force, rather than an elitist force. Anybody can respond to it. It challenges social controls by its very nature and even psychological controls.

In many cases the entertainer seems to be on the lower rung of the social ladder, serving, in a sense, the upper strata, as well as the masses.

Absolutely. Entertainers frequently come from the lower classes and from the marginalised groups of a society. I mean, Jews and Blacks and Catholics. Part of it is that not only do they come from those ranks, but while they serve the elites, they also entertain the masses. And there is this kind of reciprocity between the entertainer, who understands the mass audience, and the mass audience which appreciates the entertainer.

Not all nations with entertainment industries had such a democratising effect. Let’s take Germany in the twenties, for example. Berlin was a centre for film — UFA. Many great film directors were spawned there. Why didn’t Germany become an entertainment centre?

It didn’t become an entertainment centre for a couple of reasons, one of which is, if you look at the nature of the film industry there, it was oriented toward the middle class almost from its inception. The tradition there was very literary. So that you didn’t have film functioning as a mass art in Germany the way it did in the United States.

But what about American films that drew upon classic literature?

Film originated here as a mass form but within a decade the film producers realied that if they were really to reap the profits and sustain their industry, they would have to attract a middle class audience as well. What they understood was that film could be the great mass art that unites all classes. So the first generation of movie moguls made an active effort to attract a middle-class audience in the twenties, and indeed they succeeded in doing so. Even the movie palaces of the twenties were an effort to elevate the movie and the movie-going experience from the nickelodeons and storefront theatres of the teens.

By adapting the classics, were the moguls attempting to elevate entertainment to high art?

In the nineteenth century, Americans enjoyed classics like Shakespeare for their entertainment value. What happened in the twentieth century is the opposite. We increasingly took entertainment and tried to raise its artistic value. But this is the process I describe in my book as Mid-Cult. Mid-Cult has always been defined, in Dwight MacDonald’s term, as a way of taking the high and bringing it down to the middle. But I think Dwight MacDonald, because he had such animosity toward popular culture, didn’t realise that the process could work in the other direction, and that people could take the popular culture and try and elevate it, make it more appealing to the middle-class.

Immigrant and lower class populations bred entertainers. So you have Yiddish, Italian, and Irish forms that merge into vaudeville. Ethnic humour became part of the culture and allowed people to laugh at difference, and at the same time it made those different people seem as though they were part of American fabric. How do you see that ethnicity has played a role in entertainment? And how has it evolved into the present?

Around the turn of the century, you could make fun of ethnicity, because ethnics were not part of the melting pot. The whole notion of the melting pot model was that everyone be rendered American. Those who weren’t rendered American were foolish to the degree that they hadn’t become American. That’s why almost all of the ethnic films of the twenties — like ‘The Kellys and the Cohens’ or ‘Abie’s Irish Rose,’ which was also a stage play before, dealt with this very issue. How does one get acculturated? And to the extent that one isn’t acculturated, how foolish one is for not being acculturated.
Now we take a pluralist model rather than a melting pot model. Now we accept our own ethnicity. We’re proud of our own ethnicity. So when you’re watching a movie or a television show, particularly television I think, which is a much more pluralistic medium than the movies, you can see ethnic identities, and you don’t see them being ridiculed.


But oddly the ethnic origins gets muddy.

Once the idea was to render all ethnics as mainstream middle-class White Americans. Today, in some ways, that whole process has been reversed, so that any American can be rendered as a Jew! I mean, look at ‘Seinfeld.’ You have George Costanza. The name Costanza, of course, is Greek! But, you watch the show and you say, ‘Boy, he is the most Jewish Greek I’ve ever seen.’ In a way, the fact that everybody on ‘Seinfeld,’ whether it’s Elaine or whether it’s George or whomever, you know, all becomes kind of Jewish, in the Jewish blender, makes for a new kind of melting pot. It’s the melting pot of ethnicity!

Isn’t it fascinating that at the outset of the entertainment industry we have Jews coming from Europe, like Irving Berlin, who created songs that define what it means to be American. The grand irony is that marginalised Americans created an America that comes to define America for all Americans.

Here are people who idealise this country, and want to be Americans. How do they become Americans? Well, that’s a very difficult path to negotiate. So what they did was to create an America in their mind’s eye, and they put it on the screen and books and in songs. They created this new America of white picket fences and strong communities and small towns, where the middle-class prevails. That’s the America that Hollywood promulgated to the rest of America and to the rest of the world, and it ultimately came to define America to Americans..

How did the entrenched Americans feel about this presumption from the outside?

There was a great fear that new values were going to be brought into this country from Europe that would somehow subvert American culture. By the twenties, immigrants were beginning to take over the levers of mass culture in this country. Earlier the immigrants really didn’t have any leverage. So you see the kind of last-ditch efforts of elite Americans and Nativists against this immigrant horde which is going to subvert American values, but which may destroy American values altogether with the movies and comics and whatever else that they bring into American culture.

By the fifties, government was trying to root out aliens and Communists from the film and television industries, was that just an extension of the resistance against immigrant culture subverting the real America.

There was a cultural war that began probably in the 1820s and 1830s in this country, and will never end. It simply takes new forms. The blacklist was simply one manifestation of the culture war.

Why is it so persistent?

There is always going to be a ruling class that resents the fact that in a mass society it doesn’t control the culture. One of the things we’re seeing now (and after impeachment we’ve really seen it with a vengeance), is that political conservatives in this country have become very angry over the fact that even though they largely control the political agenda, and even though Clinton has really made tremendous concessions to the Right, which is one of the reasons for his popularity, they do not control the culture. And it’s been very difficult for the Tom DeLays of the world to square the fact that one could vote conservatively on the one hand and go out and buy a Madonna CD on the other hand. What conservatives are saying is ‘Look, if you’re going to be conservative, then you can’t buy this Madonna album, and you couldn’t watch ‘Ellen, and you shouldn’t go to Disneyworld’ — say some of the real extremists. There’s a whole list of things that you shouldn’t do if you’re conservatively consistent.

But at the same time, interestingly, the fundamentalist religious community has coopted elements of the Pop Culture.

Well, in this country, more so than in any other country, religion was always a form of entertainment, even as it inveighed against entertainment. The most popular form of religion in this country in the nineteenth century was Evangelicalism, which was clearly a form of entertainment. That’s one of the reasons it attracted as many adherents as it did! What we’re seeing now is religion simply finding new ways of deploying the techniques of entertainment to gain more new adherents.

Years ago the public was rarely privy to such things as congressional deliberations or court trials, now these things are televised 24 hours-a-day. With everything we’ve ever and never wanted to know in our face, how do we make the distinction between what is recreation versus edification?

Well, that’s something that I was not terribly optimistic about until the impeachment. When we went through this last year of trauma, one of the most interesting things, and in some ways one of the most encouraging things, is that the public somehow, with tremendous sophistication, made that determination. They made the determination that despite the relentless flogging by the journalists of this country insisting that this was a grave national crisis and that Clinton was going to have to resign from office, the scandal was no such thing. Instead, the American people said this is a national soap opera, and we enjoy it, and we will read the Starr Report, and we will watch the Monica Lewinsky interview, but it’s nothing more than entertainment.

Your book’s subtitle is Entertainment Conquers Reality, but in this case the reverse is true: Reality conquered entertainment.

Yes. In a way, reality did conquer entertainment or at least was distinguished from entertainment. And maybe that will become a kind of model, because Americans are tremendously sophisticated when it comes to entertainment. But the fact is that there aren’t too many situations that present themselves like that. I mean, Jon-Benet Ramsay is still going to get a helluva lot more news time than Kosovo. And the reason is that it’s more entertaining. It’s not because the death of Jon-Benet Ramsay, however tragic, is more important in any fundamental way to American society than what goes on in Kosovo, or than Social Security, or than Arms Control, or than any one of a number of issues.


Using the Ramsay example, what is the definition of entertainment?

I think of entertainment as a system of pleasure, but in practice it is almost always sensational and emotional enough to get us at that gut level. That’s one of the things that gives us some kind of perverse pleasure. Ten thousand people dying in Kosovo doesn’t give us that kind of pleasure. I know ‘pleasure’ is an odd word to use, but nevertheless, it’s true. We wouldn’t be so addicted to it if it didn’t give us pleasure.

Speaking of entertainment conquering reality, this reminds me of Paddy Chayevsky’s film Network, where he brilliantly satirically predicts the entire sensationalist-voyeuristic culture of TV “news” today.

Yes. In the same vein let’s talk about ‘The Truman Show’ too. Because it bothered me in one very fundamental way. That is that I felt the camera was pointed at the wrong direction.

How so?

Well, we watch Truman’s life. We watch how it’s manufactured essentially for our viewing pleasure. But we get very little, except these little snippets throughout the film, of the audience. And to me, the interesting thing is not that Truman’s life could be manipulated. It’s not as if we’re all imperilled by some larger force manipulating our lives. The interesting question is why are millions of people absolutely addicted to this life? It’s a question I think that goes to the very heart of our whole culture now.

Truth is more fascinating the fiction?

Reality is ultimately more entertaining than conventional entertainment because everything you see is actually there. And then, there is this kind of cross-fertilisation, because real life, of course, gets pollinated by conventional entertainment. So you have this constant process in which our lives become more cinematic and our movies become more real.

There used to be controls. There used to be the Hays Office, which censored film or the Comics Code, which pre-emptively censored comic books. And while its good that they don’t exist any more, at the same time there are few restrictions other than public opinion.

This is another way in which entertainment is a democratic process. I believe there is a cause-and-effect relationship. As people feel more and more alienated and disempowered politically, they try to channel their power in those arenas in which it is efficacious. Of course, culture is certainly not a perfect democracy by any stretch of the imagination, and one could say that the nominating process is rigged (that is, we don’t choose the movies that get made, the books that get published, the CDs that get stamped). Nevertheless, we do vote every time we turn on the television set or attend a movie or buy a CD or read a book. And that is democracy. This has also been something very difficult for conservatives to square. On the one hand, they’re for a free market economy — their most hallowed value. But on the other hand, they dislike the kinds of choices that consumers make in exercising their franchise in that free market. And if you look at controls now, what we’ve really done with entertainment, as with so much else in our economy, is we’ve spun off those controls. We’ve become the untrammelled voter.

What role does technology play in the republic of entertainment?

When we desire things, we try to find or create technology that will satisfy that desire. This is why the movies came to being when they did. It wasn’t just a technological fluke. It was that there was a tremendous demand that energised the inventors to create the movies when they did. The same thing is true of radio and television.

How does the Internet fit in?

One of my theories is that we are in the process of scripting our lives. If one has any acquaintance with the Internet, one knows that it is already enabling this process. People sit on the Internet and they create themselves from whole cloth at the console. They are new people. One of the immigrants I wrote about in my first book, in ‘Empire Of Their Own,’ Adolph Zukor, said that as soon as he touched down here he felt like a new man. He was going to reinvent himself in America. Well, we have provided a mechanism through which we can reinvent ourselves on a daily, even an hourly basis.

So where is reality?

For a great many people, it may be that we can’t extricate the reality from this new life.

So do you feel that our next evolutionary step is that we are going to be shape shifters for the next millennium?

Absolutely right. In my book I use the term ‘Darwinian adaptation.’ What I’m talking about is exactly what you suggest. We have made many Darwinian adaptations to deal with the physical necessities of life. In the same way that Darwin described these physical adaptations, we have made tremendous psychological adaptations, the paramount one of which now is this morphing. We are able to deal with life, some people at least, by changing who we are. This is what David Riesman was beginning to recognise with the notion of other-directedness, and it’s what Robert Lifton was saying when he talked about a protean self. But I think we’ve gone beyond other-directedness, and we’ve even gone beyond the protean self to something that is new. Because Lifton still believed that there was a core to the protean self. It’s possible that the next evolutionary stages, there will be no core. We will be a set of identities, and you can define human beings by the menu of identities they choose.

Do you mean that we buy certain clothes, walk and talk a certain way — which is not genetic — to fit a certain personality or group profile.

Exactly. Most of us do this self-consciously and realise it. I recognise by the clothes I wear that I am projecting an image. I know by the things I write I am projecting an image. By the way I deal with my wife and my children and my community I am projecting an image. But some people apparently don’t want to be made aware of that, or they want to resist the fact that there is a degree of self-consciousness and deliberateness to almost everything we do in a society where we know we’re being watched all the time.

Given the title of your book, Life, The Movie, have we really in fact turned ourselves inside-out? Does entertainment drive us, and we in turn drive entertainment more than any other kind of atavistic behaviour?

I believe we’re at the beginning of that process. Clearly we’re not at the point yet where we can write our lives to our specifications. We’re not at the point yet where we live entirely within entertainment. But are we at the threshold? Yes. Are we crossing that threshold? Yes, I think we’re crossing that threshold. The next century in human evolution is this very thing we’re discussing. We are the players in this show, and the show is all around us so that, like ‘The Truman Show,’ we live within this bubble, but unlike ‘The Truman Show,’ we can’t punch through it any more. Where does it end? It’s coterminous with life.

  • Art director of the New York Times Book Review and founder and co-chair of the School of Visual Arts, New York MFA/Design Program. He is the former editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design and author or editor of over 80 books on popular culture, graphic design history, and political art. His most recent books include The Graphic Design Reader, Allworth Press, The Education of a Design Designer, Allworth Press, and Counter Culture: The Allure of Mini-Mannequins, Princeton Architectural Press. His forthcoming books include: From Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Progressive Magazine Design of the 20th Century, Phaidon Press, Cuba Style: Graphics From the Golden Age of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, and Graphic Humor: The Art of Graphic Wit, Allworth Press.