Does entertainment rule? No! It just tells us stories Rather than taking over American life, the movies and television are increasingly ignored.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We're going to hell in a popcorn bag, clutching a jumbo drink. This wail has gone up periodically throughout the 100-year history of the movies, which every decade or so are observed to be too big, too noisy - and most of all, too powerful.

The latest cinematic Cassandra is Neal Gabler. His book "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality" (Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $25) brings erudition and grace to the time-honored tradition of movie-bashing. Gabler contends that the movies - and their kid cousins, TV shows - have not only co-opted the prime time and weekend hours of Americans, they have infiltrated every institution of our shared life.

He's got it wrong, but he makes a fascinating case.

In Gabler's "Republic of Entertainment," spectacle trumps substance every time. Politics is now practiced and portrayed as little more than gladiator sport. The news, no longer the chief informer of the citizenry, is a 24-hour penny dreadful. Religion, whether in the form of sweaty televangelism or papal bus and truck tours, has gone the way of P.T. Barnum. Even the high arts, from opera to painting, have succumbed to the clamor for fame over formal rigor.

We'll watch celebrities do just about anything. And in case "Entertainment Tonight" signs off, the E! channel suspends transmission, or "Hard Copy" goes soft, we can always cuddle up with a copy of In Style, this year's magazine sensation that each month breathlessly chronicles the habits of consumption by the conspicuous. There, between hemline reports and handbag updates, we can finally discover what kind of curtain tie-backs Meg Ryan really prefers.

It gets worse, according to Gabler: the star-gazing doesn't stop at our skin. Indeed, what sets this era apart from every other celebrity-worshiping time is that Americans have internalized the values of entertainment - the props, the sets, the neat plots - and taken them for our very own. Narcotized by the fame culture, we've melted the imaginary fourth wall between the movies and real life and created "lifies," or real-life movies, starring - ourselves!

"Individuals have learned to prize social skills that permit them, like actors, to assume whatever role the occasion demands and to 'perform' their lives rather than just live them," Gabler writes. "The result is that Homo sapiens is rapidly becoming Homo scaenicus - man the entertainer," not the wise.

It's enough to make the common reader dial up the Directors Guild and demand charter membership. Until a small flaw in Gabler's logic emerges: He's got it backward.

What is worthy of a book as provocative as "Life the Movie" isn't how entertainment has conquered reality, but how reality continues to conquer entertainment despite exponentially mounting odds. The movie and television industries together spend trillions of dollars a year trying to convince audiences that life is not complete without their products. Yet somehow, most of us manage to ignore them.

Last year, movie studios spent more than $100 billion to market the 458 movies that were released. But most Americans went to only three or four of them. In an equally inspiring show of resistance, television watchers have been stampeding away from network prime-time TV programs conceived by market research rather than creativity.

OK, so they're tuning into pro-wrestling instead. And a hefty 20 percent of us do see fit to attend at least one movie a month. But is this the psycho-social suicide, the "cultural Ebola virus" that Gabler diagnoses?

Not necessarily, says Yi-Fu Tuan, whose book "Escapism" (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 245 pages, $28) offers an amiably esoteric antidote to "Life the Movie's" agita.

Meditating on our enduring attraction to fantasy, drama and "faux" nature, the author, a cultural geographer, concludes that human beings may be the only animals "congenitally indisposed to accept reality as it is."

But rather than bemoan this as a sign of spiritual poverty or social malaise, Tuan celebrates our need for periodic respite from life, whether we escape into the safe confines of home, or out of that home and into an Edenic state of innocence (also known as Disney World), or even into the home of Meg Ryan.

Our worship at the altar of celebrities and their artifacts, or massing together in pristine architectural spaces, isn't a bovine capitulation to the cultural commodifiers, reassures Tuan. We are simply expressing that peculiar American dialectic between individualism and conformity.

"I am different from any other individual," Tuan writes. "It is good to be different. I am proud to be unique. Yet at a deeper level, being different, unique, is intolerable. It makes for disconnectedness, meaninglessness, loneliness, vulnerability."

We want to be alone. Together. Surely there can be no better solution to that contradictory desire than gathering at the corner multiplex to sit in collective astonishment in the dark!

What Gabler decries as the Republic of Entertainment and Tuan calls Escapism has an even simpler name. Narrative. The impulse to tell one another the stories of our lives may be on a par with escapism as a distinctly human characteristic, as visible in ancient cave paintings and epic poetry as on MSNBC.

What are those flickering images on the screen, if not stories projected on a massive cave wall, limned in shadow and light? What are the testimonies of O.J., Monica et al., if not the rudiments of some kind of myth? Even the shallowest comedy has some cathartic value; the tawdriest scrap of celebrity rumor has some potential for instruction, inspiration, caution.

Who's to say that the good can't be glimpsed in a movie star's window treatments?

As the biographer Phyllis Rose has observed, gossip "may be the beginning of moral inquiry, the low end of the platonic ladder which leads to self-understanding. We are desperate to know how other people live because we want to know how to live ourselves."

We crave narrative sense as a means to order a dis-ordered world, to imbue the existential void with some moral valence. It shouldn't be interesting or surprising that people use the most powerful and ubiquitous narrative medium at their disposal toward that end.

What is interesting - and always surprising - is what happens to each of us once the lights go down. That's when even the most processed, marketed and regularized "products" must bend to the unique perceptions of their viewers. It's the moment when life and imagination merge into a sense of what might be possible.

Somehow people continue to find meaning in the movies, or the "lifies," or whatever story we're escaping into at the moment. We're not going to hell in a popcorn bag. We're trying to imagine hell, grasp heaven and make sense of all the messy stuff in between. Clutching a jumbo drink.

Ann Hornaday is film critic for The Sun and before that for the Austin, Texas, American Statesman. She has written on general, cultural subjects for the New York Times, New York Magazine, the New York Daily News and others.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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