Tuesday, April 18, 2006

American Psycho

Director: Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol)

I'd appreciate feedback on this review and other interpretations of this movie, because I am writing a paper on it sometime soon and am very, very confused about how to interpret it.

This controversial adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' novel stars Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street power player leading a disturbing second life. The film introduces us to Bateman's yuppie, coke addicted broker friends who compare business card quality the way the less economically blessed of us would compare phallus sizes in the locker room. We learn quickly that Bateman is engaged to Evelyn (an always well dressed Reese Witherspoon), and that neither is terribly faithful in their relationship.

Early on one of the movie's strengths is also revealed as one of its weaknesses. Remember how in middle school our English teachers told us "Show, Don't Tell"? Instead of saying a character had unhealthy eating habits, one should show them devouring five pizzas and ice cream sundaes. This movie includes an awful lot of narration in the beginning and end by Bateman. Part of this is a strength, especially near the end when we begin to question what contained within the narrative "really" exists or happened. In some sense is Bateman talks to much than this performs the film's critique of overcoked yuppies operating in the Reagan era- Bateman is too self-absorbed to realize that viewers of the movie might be able to pick up on contextual clues and make inflections. The heavy narration could be considered a negative given the following read of the movie: IF we believe the movie is aimed toward us not by Bateman but by the third part filmmaker, then Bateman's discussions could be superfluous if the critique is effectively deployed by the rest of the film's content. But if we view the movie as some Doystoyefskian Notes from the Aboveground of Yuppie Capitalism (as Ellis' novel does) then I think the narration makes sense and helps.

The movie goes on, after introducing us to the aesthetic existence of Bateman, to his existence after hours. This existence is one of pure sexual violence. Bateman picks up and humiliates hookers with a creeping sexual violence. He sleeps with his friend's fiance, misogynistically discounting any attempt she makes at conversation. Much of the violence during these sequences is only implied, but it continues to escalate over the course of the movie as bodies and limbs pile up in Bateman's apartment.

One scene in particular that stood out to me was one in which Bateman invites two prostitutes up to his room and while filming sexual acts they all commit looks at his own reflection in the mirror and flexes his well toned muscles in response. This is a fascinating move because while in the short term it feeds his own narccisistic tendencies while he peers at himself in the mirror, but later if he watches the film of the act the strutting and flexing will not look at all like the pornographic images that Bateman consumes earlier in the film because those movies operate by creating the illusion of pleasure- not of a self-indulgent preening disconnected from the sexual act.

As the movie draws on, Bateman is investigated in the disappearance of one of his colleagues (whom he murdered while delivering a soliloquy on the symbolic relevance of some Huey Lewis and the News). The detective, played by Willem Dafoe, has a series of basically meaningless interviews with Bateman that I think represent how authorities do not care about the underlying violence of successful big business transactions. The movie's critique of the "greed is good" mantra of the 80's is scathing, and even though I think the movie is more about misogny, its clearly saying something about what a focus on profit and status does to our human relations. I think its at its most devastating when characters try to read deep meaning into Phil Collins' Invisible Touch, and they look totally ludicrous.

But what to make of the end of the movie? After a killing spree, Bateman calls his lawyer to confess that he has committed a host of fiendish murders. When he then sees his lawyer at a bar, the lawyer brushes it off as a joke, because the people Bateman claims to have killed have been seen alive and well. Here I think the movie turns- either you read the violence and rape as Bateman's daydreams driven by his disaffection from the world at large, and take the film as a cautionary tale about what could happen if we allow for a narcissistic profit driven society to form, or we see the violence as real and representing what the profit centric 80's and 90's have already done to us. I find the latter read more persuasive- Bateman comes to his realization in front of a door which reads "This is not an exit", I think telling the viewer that there is no easy way out from the violence the movie has brutally depicted, that what happened is "true" and that we need to be careful about it.

A very provocative movie. Worth discussing.


Blogger ronvon2 noted on 4/18/2006 10:18:00 AM that...

I have yet to see a film, so take my comments with a grain of salt. I have heard good things about this film, esp. Bale's performance. Given the director's pedigree, I imagine the film echoes the book in theme, critique, and intention. Also, it sounds as if the voice-over narration is what we must take as the reality of the film. Traditionally, first person narration signal the Point of View character for the entire film. With that said, if the POV character is crazy, then even the perception of reality can be called into question (ala Fight Club, which given you description on AP, sounds like a sister film).

Again, I need to see the film, but I don't think, and I don't believe you are suggesting this, that critiques of materialism/consumerism and misogny can be separated. In fact, these critiques work in concert to better understand the drive and consequence of such behavior (see Gordon Gecko).

What class is this for and what is the topic of the paper?  

Blogger Paul Johnson noted on 4/18/2006 07:17:00 PM that...

It's for Michael Hyde's Rhetoric and Pursuit of Perfection course, and the paper topic is how economics breeds an a subject alienated from other humans (a topic as old as time i know) but my spin is going to be that growth requires a civic neutrality and its this depoliticization of the subject that opens the way for an alienating ambition to take center stage- the way that neo-liberalism supports political neutrality is masked ideology, and the movie can be seen as a metaphor for the social effects of this neutral subjectivity.

that sounded postmodern- i hate myself  

Blogger paroske noted on 4/19/2006 01:17:00 AM that...

I only know one thing about this story. In high school, a friend pulled me aside one day and read me a particularly violent and sexualized passage from the American Psycho novel (I think I remember a hamster was involved). It was exactly the sort of thing one would do with a nudie mag. Ooh, aah, I've never heard of that, isn't that naughty?

I have written it off as violence porn ever since. It had sold a lot of copies, and I guessed it wasn't because the story was so good.

Not sure what that means, but that's all I got.


Blogger Jane noted on 4/21/2006 11:19:00 PM that...

please tell me grad school is more than masterbating to Christian Bale movies. not that it is in and of itself a bad thing....  

Blogger paroske noted on 4/22/2006 01:12:00 PM that...


Don't worry, grad school is about masturbating to all kinds of things. Don't worry, your entire worldview will be opened up to a whole series of texts, emotions, impressions, beliefs and interactions that offer great fodder for masturbation.

Have fun.


Blogger ronvon2 noted on 4/22/2006 04:10:00 PM that...

I find that Augustine gets me in the mood.  

Blogger Paul Johnson noted on 4/22/2006 08:44:00 PM that...

This was SUPPOSED to be a serious thread people. And now your jokes are ruining it.

P.S. marcus is gay. BUUUURN  

Blogger ronvon2 noted on 4/23/2006 01:28:00 AM that...

I guess we are all a bunch of American psychos (how's that for synergy, Paul?)