Sunday, June 9, 2013

American Psycho

AMERICAN PSYCHO           B        
USA  Canada  (101 mi)  2000  ‘Scope  d:  Mary Harron

I have to return some videotapes.     —Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale)

A film that seems to have been inspired by both Ronald Reagan’s right-leaning seismic shift on the social consciousness of America and David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY (1997), both of which suggest near inexplicable psychotic ruptures.  Meet Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), an anonymous man in a perfectly chosen, well-tailored suit working on Wall Street which is suddenly aflush with money in the late 80’s, given the green light by the Reagan administration where portfolios skyrocket through the roof.  In this competitive era, jealousies are bound to exist, as it’s each man for himself, yet each yearns to be the alpha male in the corporate world, which is seen as a soulless, empty universe of rampant consumerism and hedonism, all fighting to be the star player with the biggest office, the sexiest secretary, an open ended expense account, and the apartment with a giant picture window overlooking Central Park.  Bateman narrates his existential sense of detachment to this meaningless existence (“I simply am not there”), as he spends all his income on expensive clothes, fancy restaurants, and upscale bars as well as high end drugs, pornography and prostitutes, all in an attempt to fit in.  It’s as if he’s a stranger in a strange land, feeling completely alien to the world around him. Harron does an exquisite job with space, exaggerating the influence of exteriors and interiors to reveal a pervading sense of vacuousness flooding the screen, as the near mindless chatter signifies the extent to which nothing matters to these people except themselves.  There’s a defining sequence where the men compare business cards, examining each with the care and consideration as they might a fragile art object, each man wanting theirs to be the best, then growing downbeat and dejected when people prefer someone else’s.  It’s all about making a name for themselves, being the center of attention, being the person other people want to be.  

It starts with rude comments that are so over the top one actually wonders if they heard correctly, but Bateman’s inner thoughts begin seeping out loud, yet these coarse, vulgar thoughts reflect the bullying nature of a man who thinks everyone else is subservient to him.  But where this film veers into its own unique territory is when the things people sometimes think to themselves start happening onscreen.  With visions of the surreal, Bateman takes on psychopathic behavior by picking up prostitutes and becoming a sex phenom in bed, especially provocative when he looks in the mirror at himself as he is fucking two women.  Here and only here, in a kind of wish fulfillment universe, Bateman has thrust himself into the center of attention, where he’s the master of the universe.  All the men in Bateman’s world ever talk about sounds like magazine descriptions of the best food, the best dish, the most perfect restaurant, or the “in” place to be.  The use of music complements this hyperbole, as Bateman begins describing in meticulous detail, which may as well be a psychological indicator, the music he is about to play before his lurid sex scenes, which include Huey Lewis & the News singing “Hip to Be Square” Hip to be Square - American Psycho (3/12) Movie CLIP ... - YouTube (2:56), which leads to an ax murder of his chief business rival, or the overpraised but inescapably monotonous Phil Collins song “Sussudio” American Psycho: Funniest Sex Scene Ever - YouTube (6:23), something bound to have been heard incessantly on the Miami Vice TV show, but used here to beef up Bateman’s overhyped sense of masculinity and swagger. 

When Bateman starts going after naked women with chainsaws, we know he’s taken a dive into a dark void, which leads to still more elaborately staged, near comic book mentality sequences that simply blow out of proportion, as the guy is starting to believe he might be getting into trouble.  But this is the 80’s, an era of high deficits where no one takes any responsibility, where Reagan is seen on TV defending the Iran-Contra scandal, where his government publicly told the nation one thing while secretly performing other actions out of sight from the public eye, suggestions of a secret government that answers to no one and exists outside any democratic measures.  If the President can say one thing on TV, but then do what he wants offscreen, then why can’t normal citizens?  All roads lead to self-serving measures, until the excess baggage begins backing up with dead and mutilated bodies that have been stashed somewhere, and suddenly those occasionally hilarious private fantasies, where the schism between fantasy and reality becomes seamless after while, explode into something so damaging and brutal that he begins to believe he can no longer handle it alone.  This is a creepy and bizarre nightmare of Reaganomics, where this sterile existence is completely insulated and protected from the outside world by huge amounts of money and influence, remaining out of bounds to the normal citizen, yet it is still portrayed as that promised land at the end of the rainbow, where the American dream is seen as little more than selfish greed, envisioned here in a scathing social satire where everyone wants to worship at the altar of its all consuming powers.    


  1. I highly recommend Bret Easton Ellis's controversial source novel, which I think is one of the defining statements of what American life in the Eighties was like. It is more "extreme" than the movie, and perhaps provides a partial answer to the question you posed about where the taste for extreme horrors comes from. Apart from the ordinary human bloodlust that has found expression in countless ways across history, from the Romans cheering on the gladiators at the Colosseum to parents taking their little children to executions and lynchings, there is the mirroring function of art to consider: Perhaps we are looking at cannibalism, mutilation, etc., because that has become the unacknowledged CONTENT of our day-to-day lives. I was not very persuaded by your earlier comment that most peoples' lives are not touched by violence; I think that most peoples' lives ARE touched by violence, which hardly needs to be physical in nature to be real. In movies, which are a visual medium, all the different types of violence that people experience - psychic, parental-abusive, employer-abusive, governmental, etc. - can be and often are expressed as physical, visual violence. I think that is part of what is going on. Thirty years from now, we will look back on the "Saw" and "Hostel" series not necessarily as good movies (although, maybe), but definitely as signs of the times. As Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman point out in their book "Midnight Movies," the ways in which George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" captured the Zeitgeist of 1968 became MUCH clearer with the passage of time.

    With respect to "American Psycho" in either its novel or movie versions, it is important to always keep in mind what is well stated at Wikipedia:

    "The novel maintains a high level of ambiguity through mistaken identity and contradictions that introduce the possibility that Bateman is an unreliable narrator. Characters are consistently introduced as people other than themselves, and people argue over the identities of others they can see in restaurants or at parties. Whether any of the crimes depicted in the novel actually happened or whether they were simply the fantasies of a delusional psychotic is deliberately left open."

  2. I'm not sure what reference you are referring to when you suggest "I was not very persuaded by your earlier comment that most peoples' lives are not touched by violence." I'm not aware that I've ever felt or suggested that most lives aren't affected by violence, just not the kind of degrading brutality suggested in torture porn movies, where I don't understand the attraction to a certain kind of degrading, humiliating, and repulsive violence of torture porn as theatrical entertainment. No one is denying the existence of the Roman Colosseum, religious inquisitions, or public lynchings as a form of cultural entertainment, etc, but the fact that it exists, or has been incorporated into a mystifyingly popular cultural niche makes it no less repugnant, as it was as undeniably repulsive and abominably abhorrent then as it is today. Based on modern day thinking, which is when these movies have been released, cultural attitudes have progressed to the point where the Colosseum behavior would be considered savagely inhumane, the same with human genocide, and racial lynchings. While it is not at all off base to depict human atrocities, one questions how such base behavior can be exhibited as theatrical entertainment. And while it is true our own American government during the Rumsfeld and Bush era continued to add very public images of torture as a means of entertainment from photos obtained from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, these images have been thoroughly denounced and condemned as utterly disgraceful, so much so that Obama ran for President promising to ban torture in the military. While no one denies atrocities exist, it is hard for some to fathom how this can remotely be conceived as entertainment.

    The exaggeration from torture porn to snuff films is merely the next step in the argument, as it is equally repulsive to think anyone could find this behavior in any way, shape, or form a compelling subject for the cinema. Murder is the crudest form of human behavior, and is rightly outlawed, but to add rape and sadistic humiliation to the mix simply defies one's expectation of cinema. No one is denying they are a sign of the times, only that to some sensibilities at least, torture porn is an abomination.

  3. First, let me emphasize that I'm disputing in a friendly spirit here; I just find these issues interesting.

    Second, here's the citation (from a source other than this blog): "Not sure why we need these films, or how they improve our perception of the world around us, as very little actual violence ever happens in most people's lives, so it doesn't mirror the human experience, but instead suggests filmmakers are getting carried away with computer technology and the kind of effects they can produce instead of the kind of films they can make."

    I took those words at face value, and disagreed with them. I think that plenty of actual physical violence DOES happen in a lot of people's lives, and psychic violence in almost everyone's. As I mentioned, physical, visual violence on film often stands as a metaphoric proxy for psychic violence.

    Third, I'm not defending torture porn per se, just trying to understand its existence. There is no doubt that some people "get off" on the images it provides, while others find those images (or the idea of them) unappealing but queasily fascinating. I think it is incontrovertible that a good deal of audiences' attraction to popular culture has to do with a fascination with violence. I am more interested in exploring that fascination than condemning it; therefore, I find moralistic terminology such as "abomination" and "repulsive" unhelpful (even when I indulge in it myself, as I am sure I have). Mixing moralism and aesthetics is SELDOM helpful, in my book.

    Maybe many human beings NEED a dose of violence, and I think we can agree that it is certainly better to get it virtually than otherwise. Perhaps it can function as a kind of escape valve for some. The classic examples that are always cited in this context are Japan and Korea, where violent entertainments are very popular, but the incidence of violent crime is rather low.

    Classic children's fairy tales in their original, unadulterated, un-Disneyfied versions are full of the most horrible violence. Renowned child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has shrewdly argued that exposure to those stories helps children adjust to the facts of adult life.

    No one has to like violence in the arts, and no one has to expose himself to any more of it than his sensibility can bear; I avoid many things myself. Where I part from you is simply in the intense condemnation of it, and the implicit criticism of the motivations of artists who employ it. I think those motivations cover the gamut from purely commercial imperatives to personal demons to philosophical arguments; I think it's complicated. And since I don't think that explorations of extreme violence are going away anytime soon in either pop cinema or art cinema, it is a subject that every cinephile has to come to grips with, one way or another.

  4. Typo, should read:

    "Not sure why we need these films, or how they improve our perception of the world around us, as very little actual violence *like that depicted onscreen* ever happens in most people's lives, so it doesn't mirror the human experience, but instead suggests filmmakers are getting carried away with computer technology and the kind of effects they can produce instead of the kind of films they can make."

    This was not in reference to torture porn, but to the excessive need for Hollywood to rely upon an excess of explosions and demolitions as entertainment. How many of us have ever seen a world where someone walks down the street while detonating a half a dozen buildings behind them? Or cause a helicopter to explode above the streets of Manhattan or Los Angeles, for instance?

    The other forms of violence that you refer to, reality based occurrences, children's stories, dark imaginations, etc, are not at issue or under question.

    Moral or not, I don't think there is a human being alive whose life will be better served by watching torture porn.

    That's not to suggest it shouldn't exist, as it's not illegal, but it doesn't raise the bar even slightly.

  5. The added phrase makes a big difference! Thanks for the clarification.

    And I would not disagree that heavy doses of over-the-top violence are POTENTIALLY desensitizing and coarsening. I'm no great personal fan of watching disgust-provoking action onscreen! Yet I don't want to be dogmatic about my own distaste as adding up to any kind of aesthetic principle. Quite the contrary, I'm willing to defend extreme depicted violence theoretically, and then to judge its effectiveness on a case-by-case basis, if I can force myself to watch the films (which I often cannot).

  6. The added phrase makes a big difference! Thanks for the clarification.