‘American Psycho’: Ten Years Later/Twenty Years Later
'American Psycho' is (at least for now) the pinnacle of Bret Easton Ellis's art: the dark-hearted swansong of an era that sums up its subject matter with a perfect balance of breadth and incisiveness. Gross satire delivered with a hyperrealistic...
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I listened to the American Psycho audiobook recently. It was released in 2011 and is narrated by Pablo Schreiber, who performs his task quite well. He doesn’t clown it up, or put on too many funny voices for the different characters. It’s subtle, with just enough inflection to distinguish each bit of dialogue. He delivers everything with the cool factuality that Patrick Bateman demands.
If Bret Easton Ellis is, as many believe, literature’s enfant terrible of 1980s disenchanted youth, it’s only because he’s also secretly a warlock capable of conjuring multivalent spells of celebration and castigation that subvert the meanings and value of sex, money, consumerism, and entertainment. It only follows that American Psycho is (at least for now) the pinnacle of his art: the dark-hearted swansong of an era that sums up its subject matter with a perfect balance of breadth and incisiveness. Gross satire delivered with a hyperrealistic technique.
The novel was published in 1991, so it’s clear that Bret was toiling away—one might even say slavering—as the last analog decade came to its close. The 90s rolled in, dismantling the “modern” and perhaps even “postmodern” eras, moving things sideways in a direction that wasn’t defined until late 2001, and only then under the guise of international terrorism and resulting proxy wars. But one thing was certain: the pre-established boundaries between the yuppie rich and downtown insiders all but melted under the all-pervasive pressure of the cyclopean laser-beam gaze of MTV and a generation who viewed its output as gospel. It was an era that effortlessly and ignorantly (with certain levels of bliss) blended the new sound of Cobain’s teen-spirit grunge with the explosion of G-funk hip-hop in the wake of The Chronic, even if the overarching cultural repercussions weren’t realized until the tail end of the noughties.
The solarized sheen of the 80s was and still is so bright that it’s proved difficult to chip away at its veneer to reveal what was going on underneath. This dilemma, in hindsight, is exemplified by what was ultimately one of Bret’s creations: the 1987 big-screen adaptation of Less Than Zero, the author’s exposé of well-to-do Los Angeles teenagers who were chiefly driven by irresponsibility and immorality. The film fails to incorporate much, if any, of the literary value of the book, namely the text’s stark and minimalist presentation of the unflinching nihilism pervasive in both its subject matter and characters. Instead the movie relies heavily on mood and production design, assigning the characters classic story arcs when the only arcs found in Bret’s book were steady flatlines that eventually plunge off a cliff and, as the title suggests, into the negative.
American Psycho, on the other hand, does it all, in both forms: the novel and subsequent film capture, celebrate, and melt the 80s down to its unabashedly shallow consumerist/capitalistic core. There’s no real fat to be cut on either end, because the decade was solely one of selfish indulgence, and it wouldn’t be so far-fetched to say that the consequences of its worst offenders are only now being felt by a generation that is at least twice removed. Hence why it is such a fascinating setting for storytelling, especially when that story has the substance to be spun across multiple media.
The book attacks the 80s on two distinct fronts: the appropriation and internalization of style—both in its aesthetic and plot—and the relentless accumulation of the abject. Patrick Bateman is the king of all things: money, music, women, fitness, murder, movies. The epitome of modern omnivorousness, he consumes and is a connoisseur of everything.
Patrick’s passionate exegesis of Huey Lewis & the News, a band who’s oeuvre some might argue doesn’t warrant such praise or attention, is both bleakly dark and humorous because it is so sociopathically detailed. It’s a truly modern obsession that falls squarely in line with detailed accounts of his abhorrent torture and murder of his innocent prey (mostly women, but, tellingly, his victims also include a homeless man, dogs, and a gay man). The type of obsessive attention he pays to Huey Lewis epitomizes the way the book and its protagonist operate: Patrick makes some salient but ultimately vapid points regarding the evaluation of what makes great pop music, while ironically deriding such fare by virtue of the attention that it garners from the public at large. It’s as if Bret is saying, Well this is what the 80s had to offer, so I’ll address it in a way that will make it so much more valuable in hindsight.
A product of the 80s, I love The Breakfast Club and Ferris Buller’s Day Off as much as anyone, but I wouldn’t say they are movies I return to time and time again to shape my soul or to remind me of the type of soul that previously inhabited me. Instead, the work of John Hughes and his contemporaries immerse me in aesthetic impressions of a specific time and place. So when I try to digest them in the context of my current life, my inclination is to attempt to preserve and recall the innocent spirit I had when I first experienced them as a boy (I had Ferris on VHS and would watch it every sick day, which were many, because I hated school) while simultaneously drawing on my experiences since then to critique their inane and benign gloss brushed over the human experience, as if the only problems that need to be overcome in life are being able to kiss the person of one’s dreams, and that everything will be OK as long as a feel-good soundtrack plays in the background.
That’s why American Psycho caused such controversy when it was published. The violence in the book is incredible. Its misogynistic excess has been well noted and criticized. But I’m sure its exhaustive detail of Patrick Bateman’s brutality is one of the ingredients that made the book a bestseller and a cultural touchstone, despite it being dumped by Simon & Schuster and resold to Vintage immediately before its scheduled publication. The level of detail in which the killings are described in the book are 100 times worse than what’s shown in the movie. Much of what was contained in these scenes was considered unfilmable at the time, but, in fact, I think they’re exactly what the film needs. And, if the internet has taught us anything in the interim, it is that humanity has absolutely no regard for humans. Videos of beheadings, egregious war crimes against children, and snuff videos can all be found online relatively easily if you want to see them. This was not the case in 1991, when American Psycho stunned the masses with its written depictions of wanton butchery—ones that actually had to be imagined by the reader. They were informed by Bret’s extensive deep dive into reports of particularly savage homicides at the New York Public Library, which begs the questions as to whether the author’s ultimate goal was to provide accurate depictions of the depths of barbarity in the modern era, or simply to acknowledge that human beings are capable of such atrocities.
In retrospect, the creation of a character as vitriolic and ruthless as Patrick Bateman could also be interpreted as a literary critique of the masculine, competitive, and largely destructive world of Wall Street: the dealmakers who merge and acquire and rape and pillage are metaphorical murderers, ones who don’t have to get their hands dirty and bloody as Patrick does so literally, but they still get off on it just the same. The book’s expertly crafted and choreographed murders are apt metaphors for the violence inflicted by the US’s financial system in more insidious and subtle ways—through unchecked capitalism and the ubiquitous sameness of mass culture. In the end, you could say, we are all the victims of such violence, every day.
A little over ten years after the novel’s release, the film adaptation of American Psycho found success on its own merits. Much of its momentum relies on the casting of a pre-Batman Christian Bale, who is in such excellent physical shape that he makes Schwarzenegger’s Terminator look chubby. From its inception, the production had a weighty crucible to bear: the negative residual press from the book and, even more daunting, the innate difficulties of depicting the novel’s most graphic scenes onscreen without straying from the psychopathic excesses its plot relies on. Overall, I believe the filmmakers did an excellent job of adapting the material, and I would imagine that selecting a female director (albeit a great one) to helm the project did much to dispel any potential criticisms of sexist sensationalism.
What’s odd is that the movie doesn’t stumble when it skirts the extremes of the source material. Instead its pitfalls are the result of relying too heavily on the era’s excess and recklessness in terms of its character development—to the extent that it sometimes muddles Christian Bale’s performance because it becomes increasingly difficult to see the depths of his psychopathy when everyone around him also seems like a psycho.
In the book, both Patrick Bateman and the reader (who is addressed directly several times throughout) see other characters as means to an end—cardboard cutouts and play dolls that serve no purpose but to distract the narrator from his incurable boredom and the numbness of apathy. It’s intentionally left unclear to the reader whether the disturbing occurrences Patrick eventually relays to his colleagues (who largely dismiss his stories as sick jokes) actually took place or are completely delusional. Either way, what’s certain is that he’s a complete psychopath. Logic, understanding, empathy are totally—almost oppressively—left out of the novel. You could say that these characteristics are also absent from most interactions in the modern age, even though they are more readily available than ever.
Leonardo DiCaprio was famously almost cast as Patrick Bateman following the megasuccess of Titanic, but he eventually pulled out, and Bale, the director’s original choice, stepped back in. Later this year Leo will star in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which will probably revolve around much of the same kind of extreme capitalistic culture that informed Bret’s novel and the subsequent movie. My guess is that it will represent and critique a very misogynistic and competitive culture, but it will be accepted in ways that neither the book nor film versions of American Psycho were. I suspect this is because no one could get past the idea that its protagonist (as opposed to the antagonist)—an extremely successful American businessman according to the standards of the masses—was also a brutal serial killer who really liked Huey Lewis.
All that being said, back in 2011 there were rumors of a remake of the film. It seemed that Bret Easton Ellis was excited by the prospect (albeit with the caveat that Kourtney Kardashian’s husband Scott Disick was cast as the lead), but I’m not sure what purpose it would serve because: 1) I can’t imagine anyone besides Christian Bale playing Patrick Bateman; 2) including more of the violence from the book, or setting the story post-Great Recession are the only ways to distinguish it enough from the original adaptation to justify a remake, and neither sound all that appealing; and 3) Why would anyone want to see a remake of the movie when American Psycho the musical is only six months away.
Follow James on Twitter: @JamesFrancoTV
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