PRINT March 2000


American Psycho

IN AN INTERVIEW GIVEN AROUND THE TIME THAT “Walk on the Wild Side” became a fluke hit single, Lou Reed was asked how it felt to achieve mainstream fame after years of cult notoriety. He jokingly replied that at least he’d no longer be known as the guy who was in the weird band that did the song “Heroin.” Reed couldn’t have foreseen that, more than twenty years and innumerable songs later, most contemporary pop music fans know him as the guy from that weird band who also sang “Walk on the Wild Side.” Americans’ memories are famously short, except when it comes to the infamous. But while controversial subject matter tends to stick in the mind, one decade’s mindblower can easily be the next’s casual reference point.

Bret Easton Ellis’s first novel, Less Than Zero (1985), can’t exactly be called his “Heroin,” but (for all the digits in its sale figures) its youthful indiscretions were such that respect came largely from the fringe literati. Less Than Zero also pegged Ellis so squarely as an ’80s icon that he must have felt some relief when his third novel, 1991’s American Psycho, caused a stink that rendered Less Than Zero’s impact antique. Dropped pre-publication by Simon & Schuster, and eventually released to Nam-like protests from the Left (and massive, ongoing popular success), the novel’s title will undoubtedly be Ellis’s other middle name no matter how many times he outdoes it. Still, American Psycho was finally beginning to win grudging acceptance as an influential, even classic American novel, when word came that director Mary “I Shot Andy Warhol” Harron was giving it the cinematic treatment. Now, with the movie nearly in theaters (it premiered at Sundance in January and opens nationally next month), the aspects of Ellis’s novel that so infuriated the self-appointed censors are again potential fuel for the same old fire, albeit in a far more shockproofed culture.

Like every first-rate novel, American Psycho functions in a way that is entirely literary. It may be driven by standard narrative devices that, in and of themselves, are at home in any genre, but its originality is so language-based and unfilmable that one can assume the movie rights were bought on something like a dare. And the transfer of Ellis’s supposedly misogynist text into Harron’s hands is an inherently curious notion, she being a woman, a self-described feminist, and the director of a low-budget film about another shocking cultural moment—Valerie Solanas’s attempt to murder Andy Warhol. But even if Pasolini himself had risen from the grave to make this Reagan-era Salò, the problem would remain that fiction is a special code that can coax readers’ imaginations into constructing mental imagery that would blind their eyes, and even the most adventurous film won’t make viewers see what they can’t, no matter how artful the approach. The list of disturbing literary works turned into artsy, retarded films is ever lengthening—Querelle, Naked Lunch, The Sheltering Sky, Fight Club—and even the few successful translations are a matter of debate (maybe Satyricon, maybe Trainspotting, just maybe Crash). American Psycho the movie had its own medium’s cards stacked against it from the outset.

In a recent article in Harper’s Bazaar, Bret Easton Ellis looked back on his original American Psycho experience and revealed that the novel was his response to the stranglehold that political correctness had on late-’80s culture, which “may have nudged me into exploring the repressed, darker side of Patrick Bateman to an even more gruesome degree than I initially thought when I began the book.” In fact, that nudge, and Ellis’s tenable excitement, fear, and shock as nudge skids into psychosexual freefall, mixed with his ability to maintain equilibrium via the distanced, ironic, quasi-superficial prose style that is his trademark, is not only the novel’s genius but its raison d’être. It might be difficult to imagine the bravery this novel required in a culture subsequently glutted with gangsta rap, “Sensation,” reality TV, and so on. But it’s impossible to imagine an American Psycho 2000 that could effectively simulate Ellis’s kamikaze plunge into now-declassified taboos like serial murder, racism, misogyny, and graphic violence. Those paradises are now parking lots, leaving Mary Harron with few respectable angles on the material that weren’t purely devotional, à la Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake, or purely technical, à la Sherrie Levine’s gender-switching co-optations of the work of male artists.

Given all that, Harron’s American Psycho is as successful as could have been expected. It makes no attempt to boldly go where no film has gone before; neither does it denude, misinterpret, or leech off Ellis’s novel. The director’s tongue-in-cheek aesthetic is ultimately flattering to the coked-out, soft Republican antics that Ellis was parodying, with cinematographic claustrophobia standing in for the novel’s linguistic tunnel vision. Harron houses the story of Patrick Bateman’s transformation from Wall Street snot to frighteningly wacked serial killer in a linear strobe of period lofts, clubs, and restaurants, all lit to make the actors look alternately like products in a showroom or mock-debauchees in a Helmut Newton ad. She signifies Ellis’s speedy, pop-cultural chatter by filling her sets with art by Longo, Prince, Bleckner, et al., and by dressing all but cops, whores, and the homeless in a wide price range of defunct fashions that, to production designer Gideon Ponte’s credit, register as ’80s detritus without seeming merely kitsch. The film’s irony is so advanced—and laid on so thick—that it makes even a heavily quotation-mark-enclosed comedy like Happiness seem like Patch Adams in comparison. Even its psychological life is designer suave, such that Bateman’s eventual collapse into hysterical self-disgust serves principally as an indicator that the meticulous fabric of the film is under duress. His tears make you realize that irony is a more flexible and operatic tone than it’s normally acknowledged to be, but, as in the novel, Bateman’s personal misery, let alone that of his victims, is meaningfully unaffecting. Even American Psycho’s feminism is underplayed, and will matter or not depending on whether you think the startlingly broad comedic handling of the murders is counterproductive by reason of politics, as one might well argue, or just one of the film’s many curious formal devices, applied to keep things hyperkinetic within its own strict, mannered guidelines, as seems more immediately the case.

One thing seems relatively certain: Whatever content-related fuss American Psycho the movie incites will more than likely resemble that which greeted last year’s “Catholic-bashing” Dogma, meaning that unless Harron wants to go the Kevin Smith route and help publicize the chanting of a few uninformed wackos, her movie is probably in the clear on that front. Whether by default or by design, American Psycho has covered its potentially offensive ass. It’s an unusually intelligent, self-reflexive, refrigerated comedy whose buff, shimmering body—not to mention the daredevil performance by actor Christian Bale as Bateman— should impress all but the most timid, lame-brained critics. Still, its hopes for more than a brief, blurb-adorned life rest on an unlikely consensus among the kind of sophisticated moviegoers whose word of mouth got the ball rolling on American Beauty and those smart, extreme-seeking kids who occasionally ignore their PlayStations long enough to see The Blair Witch Project or The Matrix on multiple occasions. But unlike those films, or previous, high-concept serial-murder comedies like Man Bites Dog, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and Serial Mom, which have a quasi-immature dastardliness that offsets their deconstructible artfulness, American Psycho is grown-up to the max. Trickier yet, it’s the kind of remote, sociopathic, blatantly perverse adult (think eXistenZ, Eyes Wide Shut) that most kids would consider creepy, and even weird adults would prefer to admire from a considerable distance. Ellis’s novel will outlive its moment long enough to achieve respectability, but it’ll always diagram its own dangerousness in a way that can’t help but trigger conflicting passions. In the case of Mary Harron’s American Psycho, the question is who’ll feel passionately enough about the art of filmmaking to revisit the topic of serial murder one more time and melt this admirable movie’s cold, cold heart.