It's entertainment - if you can hack it

A new film portrays a world where fact and fantasy have merged. America is a long way down this road, and doesn't yet know where it leads
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The Independent Online
TRUMAN Burbank is caught in someone else's world. From birth he was a television star: first as a foetus on a screen, then as a toddler, fumbling adolescent and adult. Everyone around him is an actor; his world is a vast sound studio, his surroundings all props. He reaches an audience of 1.7 billion a day with his cheerful "Good morning, good afternoon, good evening and good night".

Truman Burbank is a character in a film played by Jim Carrey, an artful dissection of the relationship between Americans and their television set. It asks: what happens if someone is on television all the time, all of their lives? If everything around them is a prop, and everybody in their daily existence an actor? What happens if they think it is all real?

In a way it is real: real to him, and real to everyone watching. Because nothing is more real to America than television.

Neil Gabler certainly thinks so. Tomorrow he will finish the last corrections to his new book, Life: The Movie, just as The Truman Show hits cinema screens across America. In a nation with a tenuous grip on reality but a tight hold on its copy of TV Guide, Gabler thinks many people should feel more than a twinge of self-recognition.

At the core of Gabler's book is the claim that entertainment and life have for Americans become not just inseparable but the same. The idea that America prefers image to reality is an old one. But, Gabler wrote in an earlier article, "What if the images devoured life so that there was no longer any difference between the real and the image? What if life itself became a medium like print, radio and television? What if life were a movie?"

This is a culture where the Mafia learn how to speak and dress from watching The Godfather. A soap-opera star appears on a pharmaceutical commercial, saying: "I am not an actor, but I play one on TV." An actor was president, casting the nation in a Frank Capra feel-good movie to general acclaim. Gabler himself famously described the Gulf war as the "world's most lavish mini-series", with Norman Schwarzkopf perfectly cast as the hero. Conversations, reactions to tragedy or success, are shaped by television images, dialogue, character. Politics is choreographed for presentation, and written about as if it were theatre or sport. Everything and everyone must be entertaining, and boring is the worst word in the world.

The Truman Show focuses on the dark side of this vision, the corporate power that drives the media machine (Truman's "wife" is advertising cocoa while he goes through a breakdown) and the cynicism of those who write the scripts. The desire for something real drives him literally to the end of his world.

Gabler is more ready to believe. It may be an illusion to see your life as a soap opera, but illusions can be positive, he says. As America emerged into the modern age, first the movies and then television supplanted the old certainties that religion once delivered, and helped provide a social cohesion for the nation. Now, as society becomes yet more complex and fragmented, entertainment plays a crucial role as social cement. "There is seemingly a kind of atomisation, but really there is an increase in the number of roles you can play," he says. "You find your sense of social cohesion in the company of other people playing that role." We can choose our movies, script and cast them, edit, play and replay in our "real" lives. As the television commercial for the US Army says: be all that you can be, even if only in your own mind.

FOR GABLER, this can be a liberating, self-realising process. "We are escaping into a narrative - a universe of design and order in which every action has a reaction and in which we know everything will be resolved by The End," he wrote in 1991. "That security is awfully enticing." And as for the charge that it is all just false consciousness, mere opium for the masses, he asks: "What's so good about feeling bad? What's so great about confronting the realities of life?"

American television is gradually transmuting to make itself yet more empty and malleable. It is increasingly saturated with shows "about nothing", as Jerry Seinfeld's eponymous sitcom styled itself. With the arrival of digital television - from 60 channels to 140 in Washington, for example - the media universe is splintering, allowing an infinite proliferation of identities, or what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls "lifestyle enclaves". The Internet allows yet further experiments. Webcams already broadcast the everyday lives of thousands of people across the World Wide Web 24 hours a day in a curious admixture of extreme solipsism and total exposure. The first such image was a picture of a coffee pot in Cambridge University's computer laboratory. Now you can watch everything from travelling businessmen to sleeping students to live sex from the comfort of the chair in front of your personal computer. Life as entertainment, entertainment as life, is already happening, a cold fusion of the mundane with celebrity, mediated only by the modem.

For the conventional, old-fashioned media, Gabler points out, this presents almost insuperable problems. Celebrity trumps substance. You can see the results in the gradual descent into personalisation and anecdote, away from fact, the erosion of the line between Vanity Fair and the New York Times. News reports no longer begin with details of who did what to whom. Now, each must open with some charming or poignant vignette that "draws in the reader". That's Entertainment.

Does journalism even have to be true? There have been a series of scandals in America involving fabricated journalism - not just the odd invented fact, but stories made up from start to end. Stephen Glass, an associate editor at the New Republic, wrote a fantastic story about a teenage hacker hired by the company whose systems he had penetrated. Fantastic, and apparently untrue. Glass even created a website for his company, and a voicemail address. It was all fiction, but it sure as hell made a good story.

Truman Burbank's native Seahaven extends the ideas that Gabler created to their (il)logical extreme. As a child, Truman is discouraged from leaving his aggressively happy home town when he says he wants to be an explorer, like Magellan. "Oh! You're too late!" says his teacher. "There's nothing left to explore." Except yourself, of course. "Who needs Europe," reads the headline on the local paper. Who indeed? Who needs all the time- absorbing, painful drudgery of the outside world, the unscripted and meaningless clutter that happens outside the cinema?

Modern America invites, welcomes this reality shift. The real Seahaven - Seaside City - is just down the road from Celebration, Disney's lusciously secure urban community in Florida. Significantly, none of the main creators of Truman is American: Carrey is Canadian, director Peter Weir is Australian, screenwriter Andrew Niccol is a New Zealander. But this is a movie that is coming to a screen near you, soon.

AT THE end of this fantastic ride into the media future there are some grim and inescapable realities, of course. What of those people who fail their own screen test? For many, life will never measure up to their aspirations. Each day will bring the grey realisation that the ending is far away, the plot inscrutable, the characterisation not quite up to scratch - including that of the lead actor. They are, in Gabler's words, "left on the cutting-room floor of their own movies".

Gabler quotes the story of Baby Jessica, an infant who fell down a hole in Texas in 1987: for a day America watched the struggle to free her. The only event that has galvanised more public interest was the death of Princess Diana, according to researchers. All-news television was just coming of age, and the hysteria was palpable. Ronald Reagan himself called her parents to tell them that "everyone in America became godfathers and godmothers of Jessica while this was going on". Finally she was freed after Robert O'Donnell crawled in to rescue her. Then everything went really berserk. Hollywood arrived, handing out cash and contracts. The town split into competing factions; the parents ended up divorced. But O'Donnell was hardest hit. He could not cope with the fame, started popping pills, and lost his job as a paramedic. When terrorists blew up the federal building in Oklahoma, O'Donnell was desperate to help but could not find the bus fare; in an orgy of self-recrimination, he shot himself. He could not handle the bit-part that history, or chance, and television had dealt him.

But then this is a nation where suicide can sometimes be a televised event: where the most desperate and distraught choose to blow themselves away on camera, the networks decide to show it, and people watch. "How's it going to end?" reads a button badge sported by Truman's first love, who is exiled from the set for being caught out of character. It's a good question.