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Living a Movie

Neal Gabler


... cultural observer with a commanding grasp of the heart and soul of America's entertainment culture. A widely respected biographer and essayist, Mr. Gabler is author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination; Life: The Movie; An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood; and Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Norman Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment & Society at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications.


Understand Walt Disney and understand America, says Neal Gabler. He's the first biographer to have full access to the Disney archives. Walt Disney is both the colossus of American culture and America's "Everyman" according to this renowned observer.

Mr. Gabler brings to light figures who are architects of the American consciousness, studies people who shape the way we think about the world. Popular culture, he believes, needs to be taken more seriously because of its near-universal impact in the world. He's more diagnostic than prescriptive, examining the American scene in an attempt to understand it, not telling people how they ought to live their lives, he insists.

Disney was absolutely self-confident in his total belief in his mission and vision, Mr. Gabler reports -- to create a perfect world. In his definitive biography of Disney, Mr. Gabler calls it "the eternal promise of cheerful solipsism."

Never did Walt Disney suffer from any sense of inferiority, Mr. Gabler found, despite marked gaps in his education and experience.

Growing up the son of a hard man early in the 20th century, Walt was always looking for a way to create his own world, a world that he -- and not his father -- controlled, a world in which Walt could immerse himself imaginatively. Mr. Gabler believes that this notion of control resonates clearly with Americans who continue to live in a kind of perfectionist bubble, still caught in the early idea that America is "the city on the hill" in a world which will bend to America's will.

Disney’s true creative genius had powerful ripple affects across America and the world for decades.  Where he ran into trouble was when his fantasy world and the real world collided.

Disney operated on what Mr. Gabler calls renunciations. When Disney realized something was not going to be as good as it had been, he renunciates it and moves on, from animation through live action films, theme parks to Epcot. Similarly on the business side, a serious labor dispute in 1941 transformed what Disney thought of as his "Jesus Christ communism" (and others felt functioned as something of a cult) to quite a different reality. When economics force the studio to cross over into a large scale operation, Walt becomes its prisoner.

What do we learn about ourselves from Mr. Gabler's even-handed treatment of Walt Disney?

Understand the barrier between a fantasy world and a real one the same way Disney used the berm around Disneyland as a metaphor, Mr. Gabler urges. Great danger awaits when "Disneyfication" becomes part of our mental equipment. Do not look at the world through a prism in the belief that everything can be converted into a fantasy because our will is strong enough. If you think that the world will simply respond to your will, Mr. Gabler concludes, ultimately you are a fool.


[This Program was recorded February 6, 2007, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]


Conversation 1

Walt Disney and Pablo Picasso are the two great visual imaginations of the 20th century, Neal Gabler tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Describing Disney's role in popular culture, Mr. Gabler summarizes his mission: to deal with the architects of the American consciousness.


Conversation 2

Disney was an American "Everyman", not "an original", says Mr. Gabler. He outlines Disney's life then shows how Disney played to America's bubble of perfectionism, eventually drawing the world into its yearning for the impossible: the ability to bend the world to one's own will. Mr. Gabler describes the many ways Disney immersed himself imaginatively in his own creations, articulating how the absolutely self-confident Disney worked out his total belief in his mission and in his vision: to create what Disney considered a perfect world, the "eternal promise of cheerful solipsism."


Conversation 3

Mr. Gabler thinks of his approach as "method biography," he says, remembers the many ways Walt Disney lived in his (the author's) head for seven years, and compares the obsessive-compulsive nature of his own and Disney's work. Disney was very compartmentalized and not introspective, Mr. Gabler says, describing the consequences both in Disney's life and for his biographer. "Renunciation" was Disney's mode of operating throughout his career, Mr. Gabler says, and explains. Fully honoring brother Roy Disney's essential role in Walt's success, Mr. Gabler celebrates Walt's creative genius.


Conversation 4

With a bow to the maturity of animations able to bring Clark Gable, Carol Lombard and Cecil B. DeMille to tears over animated drawings, Mr. Gabler tells the story of Disney’s move from animation to live action. Disney's fantasy worlds are compared to his real world experiences in the Great Depression, the post-war era, in his business and the labor difficulties Disney brought upon himself.


 Conversation 5

America's major transformation in the 20th century was a conversion of life itself into an entertainment medium, Mr. Gabler says. He summarizes his earlier work, relates it to Walt Disney and reminds us his work is diagnostic, not prescriptive. Mr. Gabler considers "Disneyfication” or faux experience in both negative and positive lights, then cautions against tremendous dangers of looking at the world through a prism which converts everything into a fantasy. Disney's dark side is acknowledged, his reputation reviewed and his contributions assessed.


Conversation 6

Disney's search for perfection culminated with his vision for Epcot, Mr. Gabler says, with a sober look at Walt Disney's anti-democratic, Mussolini-esque model city, which Roy Disney made sure died when Walt did.



The United States' role in the world heightens the importance of Mr. Gabler's meticulous, thought-provoking and entertaining evaluations of American culture. The rigor with which he pursues his craft is as exemplary as his courage and honesty are. We thank him for them all and we look forward to more.

Fantasy has driven most American policies at home and abroad for half a century. Sadly, the rest of the world has also felt the draconian consequences of this make-believe, as witnessed most recently in America's aggression against Iraq. It's long past time to heed Mr. Gabler's caution against yielding to the allure of the fantastical false-hood that Americans, individually and as a nation, are in control.

Additional Links:

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination is published by Alfred A. Knopf. Life: The Movie:  How Entertainment Conquered Reality and Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity are published by Vintage Books and An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood is published by Anchor Books.

To fInd out more about the Norman Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment & Society where Mr Gabler is a Senior Fellow, visit their website at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California.

Susan Faludi shows how one American myth, distorted by Hollywood, has dominated much of the media circus surrounding 9-11.

Richard Rodriguez re-imagines American culture in terms of love, of skin shades-of-brown, and of a north-south (rather than east-west) axis.

In The Middle Mind, author and critic Curtis White examines how market-drive media have enfeebled our imaginations.

Tom King tells the story of David Geffen's role in America's entertainment culture in The Operator.

... and, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.

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