American Psycho Part 3: “Is this a dagger which I see before me”

So far I’ve given a brief overview of Dante’s Divine Comedy with a special emphasis on Inferno and how the Dante-Virgil-Beatrice relationship works.  From this we were able to conclude that 1) American Psycho is a rewriting of Inferno, and 2) it is not just any rewriting of Inferno but one from the perspective of the damned, ie the narrator, successful 80s investment banker and serial killer Patrick Bateman.  But this raises plenty of questions, like: why is Bateman damned?  What did he (or does he) do wrong?  More complicatedly, what do we get by retelling the Inferno from the view of someone who can never escape it when Dante’s story originally is, by nature, about the actual change Hell puts the traveler through, eventually allowing him to evade its punishments?

I’m going to answer these questions, or at least try to.  To start, though, we have to step away from Dante and skip over a few hundred years and a couple city-states until we find ourselves in England with William Shakespeare.  Why is Shakespeare important?  Because, silly, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, and while Bret Easton Ellis has his own special rewriting of Inferno in American Psycho, it’s a very particular rewriting of the Bard’s Scottish Play.

macbeth_cat
Macbeth, ladies and gentlemen.

So if you’re unfamiliar with Macbeth here’s the rundown: Macbeth and his pal Banquo are thanes to the Scottish king Duncan.  They bump into three witches, who make some prophecies about Macbeth being king and Banquo being the father of kings; Banquo shrugs it off but the prophecy upsets Macbeth, who we begin to suspect is pretty insecure about things.  I think — I am probably wrong because I’ve never bothered to count and haven’t even read every play, but it strikes me this way — that old Mickey-B speaks in asides more often than any other Shakespeare character.  He’s constantly bopping off to mutter to himself about the witches, their prophecy, whether they were good or evil, who suspects him, who doesn’t, and on and on and on.  In modern cinema this would be conveyed by having a character almost constantly being heard in voice over, stressing over whether or not everyone around him thinks he’s cool or a dweeb.

As is so aptly illustrated by the kitties above, eventually Macbeth tells his wife about the prophecy, which turns out to be something of a mistake.  She goads him into murdering Duncan by essentially telling him that a Real Man would totally kill the king if it meant he could have the throne.  This convinces Macbeth pretty quickly, which only further proves how weirdly neurotic this guy is.  But it gets worse, of course, because soon Macbeth goes from “sort of pitiable henpecked regicide” to “completely fucking bonkers (but also still really insecure and a murderer).”  The bonkers part is hinted at early on, when Macbeth prepares to enter Duncan’s bedchambers and murder him, pausing to remark to the empty air, “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?  Come, let me clutch thee” (II.ii, my copy of the play ludicrously doesn’t have line numbers so screw you I’m not counting these things for my citations).

Now, it’s completely possible Macbeth has decided to be extra contemplative and poetic in this momentous time prior to coldblooded murder, but the other explanation is that Macbeth is hallucinating.  During the murder itself, as he tells his wife, he also thinks he hears phantom voices decrying his misdeed, in response to which she tells him to sack up goddammit.  But Macbeth’s mental state only declines further; due to an unfortunate confluence of events, he decides he must also have his old friend Banquo murdered — which happens, with more or less no complication.  Things get hairy, though, when the ghost of Banquo appears during a banquet, sending Macbeth into a babbling tizzy and leaving Lady Macbeth scrambling to explain to her guests what’s wrong with her husband.  You see, though there are stage directions for the ghost and Macbeth is very strongly responding to it, absolutely no one else can see it, meaning that it’s entirely possible that Macbeth is imagining the whole thing.

For me, this idea that a lot of the crazy stuff happening is all in Macbeth’s head is what makes the play so damn cool, and it’s a big part of how Macbeth ties in with American Psycho.  My linking of Inferno to Psycho relied a lot on narrative arc and inter-character relationships; this isn’t true for Macbeth, because the links here are not about the little clues Ellis scattered around the novel.  He quotes Dante directly, but unless I missed it, he never quotes Macbeth; if you comb through Psycho looking for an analogue for the witches or Lady Macbeth you’re not going to find them.  The connections between the play and the novel are much more subtle, in that there is really only one big link: a character type.

batemanTo put it quickly and simply, Pat Bateman is Macbeth.  It’s so cleverly updated, I think, that it’s pretty easymacbeth to miss: one of Macbeth’s defining early characteristics is his insecurity, so Bateman constantly obsesses over what he is wearing in comparison to what everyone else is wearing, which stereo system is the best or most expensive and can he get one, and in one scene practically has a panic attack when he sees that a colleague has a more stylish business card.  And just as Macbeth is prone to seeing things, so is Bateman, who imagines that Satan is speaking to him through Bono at a U2 concert, an anthropomorphic Cheerio is being interviewed on his favorite sensationalist talk show, a park bench is stalking him, and, in a scene launched into the general pop culture by the film version, an ATM wants him to feed it a stray cat.

And even though I said that the main connection is the character type, there is actually a tiny little Macbeth/Banquo parallel for Patrick and another banker at his firm, a guy named Paul Owen.  Bateman mostly resents Owen, with the implicit reason being that Owen is marginally more successful — he’s handling a very high-profile account but is being stingy on the details, something that annoys the other Wall Street guys but seems to drive Bateman up the wall.  So, of course, Bateman kills him, stages it to look like Owen took off for London without any advance notice, and starts mutilating prostitutes in Owen’s vacant apartment.

A detective shows up for a chapter or so to investigate Owen’s disappearance, and for a moment it seems like Bateman will be caught.  But, no, that doesn’t happen — because even though Bateman completely made up the story about Owen going to London, it holds water.  Other people claim to have seen him there, to have had lunch with him.  This is made entirely questionable because a recurring situation in the novel is Bateman and/or his friends trying to remember the name of someone they’ve seen in a club or, even more frequently, Bateman calling guys he meets by the wrong name only to find out later they are someone else, or Bateman himself being mistaken for another person.  There’s a lot of stuff there about how disconnected these guys are from each other and from their own identities, but in more practical terms it means that someone in London from the New York circle could have easily mistaken someone else for Owen.

Except it gets trickier.  A dozen or so chapters after Bateman defaces Owen’s apartment, he drops by again — only the entire place is clean, spotless, and a real estate agent is showing a young couple around.  Bateman is shocked and tries to figure out what happened to all the viscera he left behind, asking the agent how long the apartment has been for rent and who lived there last, but she seems oddly guarded.  Patrick notices the place smells especially clean, as if a lot of disinfectant or deodorizer has been used recently to get rid of a stench.  There are then two possibilities for what’s happened: the agent is complicit in a conspiracy to cover up the murders in the apartment, which were never reported, or Bateman has imagined the whole thing, even the excess of deodorizer.  The strange looks the agent gives him could either be hints that she knows that he knows she knows — or they could be because some random guy just barged in on her appointment and started asking questions.  Is Owen alive or dead?  It doesn’t matter, really, because either way, like the ghost of Banquo only Macbeth can see, Owen’s status is something that only Bateman has cause to doubt, and it threatens to overturn his entire life.

SA/TELLER10
I can't tell if that dagger's been photoshopped in or if it's the ugliest prop ever. Either way, fantastic.

And this is where Ellis turns the volume way, way up on my favorite part of Macbeth: not only are the floating daggers and phantom voices and ghosts possible hallucinations, the murders themselves are also of questionable authenticity.  We can’t trust a thing Bateman says, and as he comes to realize, he can’t trust himself.  Both Macbeth and Bateman suffer from this same self-doubt — they’re both neurotic as hell, after all — and though Macbeth and everyone around him eventually knows and understands what he has done, for Patrick this never happens.  No one ever catches him, no one ever even comes close to suspecting him, and to top it all off, maybe he’s actually never done anything to make himself suspect.  Say what you want about Macbeth, he at least managed to kill a king, but for all we know Bateman is simply a delusional psychotic, a man who can only assert himself — murderously or otherwise — in daydreams and fantasies.

The end result for both characters, though, is pretty similar.  When Macbeth sees where his choices have gotten him — his wife has committed suicide and he’s facing an insurgency of other thanes who think that king-and-Banquo-killing are not proper traits for a ruler to have — he has this famous, nihilistic little ditty:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (V.v)

This is the point where Macbeth basically loses it.  He decides that nothing means anything — not even his choices, whether he chooses to murder people or not, because no matter what you do life is going to be a bitch and then you are going to die.  I’ll say it again: it’s nihilism, a complete and utter lack of faith in anything.

Here’s what Pat Bateman has to say on the subject:

…where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in.  It was a vision so real and clear and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract.  This is what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible.  This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness.  Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliché, was some kind of bad joke.  Sex is mathematics.  Individuality is no longer an issue.  What does intelligence signify?  Define reason.  Desire — meaningless.  Intellect is not a cure.  Justice is dead.  Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore.  Reflection is useless, the world is senseless.  Evil is its only permanence.  God is not alive.  Love cannot be trusted.  Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in… this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged… (p. 375)

Wow, okay, so a lot less pithy than Shakespeare, but it’s much the same sentiment.  It’s still similar in tone and tenor to Macbeth’s little outburst.  This is something a guy today — or a guy in 1980s Manhattan — would actually say, this is how he would articulate a revelation of nihilism.  This is the modern description of despair.

And despair brings us back, believe it or not, to Dante.

dante-and-virgil-in-hell

Despair, by definition, is a state of losing hope or hopelessness.  And remember those words over the gate to Hell, those words Bateman reads in graffiti in the very first line of Psycho: ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE.  In Dante the inscription is meant to be read only by the damned themselves — they have nothing to hope for, obviously, because they’re already in a situation where there’s no recourse.  Dante-the-Character is simply a special case, a living man traveling through Hell; he’s not meant to lose hope but regain it.  And when you think about it, that’s a pretty strange thing to happen, especially when he sees the following things going down in Hell:

1) Dudes running around in circles for all eternity, being chased and stung by giant hellwasps, the stings on their back blistering and producing pus which runs to the floor on which they are running
2) Dudes encased in eternal flames
3) Dudes being bitten and transformed and burnt up by a never-ending series of snake bites from the pit of serpents in which they are rolling around for all eternity
4) Dudes turned into trees and torn apart eternally by bird women
5) Dudes submerged in lakes of fire or boiling shit, as the case may be

And that’s just some of the punishments — Hell is a big, violent place.  And that’s another way Ellis rewrites Inferno: the violence of Hell’s punishments is turned into the graphic violence of Pat Bateman’s murders (or murderous fantasies, as the case may be).  This was, as you probably know, the most controversial element of the novel, and yeah, it would probably make any reader laugh queasily when Patrick decides he is going to eat a woman he’s killed but, since he’s lived a privileged life and doesn’t know how to cook, he instead eats a bit of her raw and weeps at the absurdity of it.  But come on, Dante is just as bad — I mean, rivers of boiling shit and running around on a mixture of your own blood and pus?  Jeez.

But there’s a snag.  In Inferno all of the punishments are justly deserved and justly dispensed according to God’s love and infinite wisdom (or that’s the way things are set up in the moral universe of the poem).  In American Psycho many of the people Patrick kills are just as shallow and pettily cruel as he is, but Patrick is not an omniscient and loving God, he’s just some yuppie asshole, and some of his victims are actually innocents (even children).

This is crux of what Bateman is and what he has done: in his rant about the meaninglessness of existence, of how horrible society is, he almost sounds like he’s a guy who wanted to hope in the opposite direction but never quite grasped it.  And true, earlier in the novel he gets a little offended when his friends make anti-Semitic remarks, but otherwise he takes just as much delight in teasing bums as they do.  But maybe that’s because of Patrick’s neuroses — he doesn’t have to work, for instance, but he says he does because he wants to “fit in.”  He wants to be what everyone else is, he wants to make sure he is in good standing, he is attracted to a society that he on some level knows is despicable.  And since he knows it’s despicable, what does he do?

He murders people, or thinks about it.  And he constantly talks about it in conversations, slipping Ted Bundy trivia into debates on fashion, he calls his lawyer and confesses his real-or-imagined murders, everything.  Bateman, in fact, wants to be caught.  He wants to shatter the smug, superficial complacency of everyone around him, and apparently the only way he can think to do it is by being a psychopathic killer.  And it doesn’t work, nothing changes, nothing happens, he’s never caught, and he loses hope — what little he had.  But is murder the best way to change the world?

My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world now.  In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others.  I want no one to escape.  But even after admitting this — and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed — and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis.  I gain no deeper knowledge of myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling.  There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this.  This confession has meant nothing… (p.377)

No.  And Bateman, deep down, perhaps never believed otherwise, as he tells us earlier: “it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness.”

So the final despair is actually the endpoint of a much larger and more encompassing despair that Patrick’s been dealing with for a while.  He began with the assumption that the world was stupid and depraved, and he tried to change it by being very obviously stupid and depraved himself.  When it didn’t work he despaired in his despair.

In the seventh and eighth cantos of Inferno, Dante and Virgil come to the fifth circle of Hell, which is a rancid swamp surrounding the River Styx.  This is where the wrathful and sullen are punished — the wrathful run through the swamp, rolling around in the muck, clawing and tearing and biting at one another.  The sullen reside below the swamp itself, lying beneath the muck and visible only because their breathing causes bubbles to float to the surface, saying over and over again:

‘Sullen were we in the air made sweet by the Sun;
in the glory of his shining our hearts poured
a bitter smoke.  Sullen were we begun;

Sullen we lie forever in this ditch.’
This litany they gargle in their throats
as if they sang, but lacked the words and pitch.

So what are the sullen guilty of?  Of seeing the world, made for them and made beautiful by God, and saying, “Ugh, so what?”  Their punishment is to stay forever in one place, drowned, because they felt it was useless to act or care about anything in life.  They had no hope for anything — they despaired.  And so it is interesting to note that Patrick Bateman, regardless of what he has done, belongs there in the fifth circle of Hell: he is in pain and wants others to feel it, so he is wrathful, but if he never manages to actually go through with his desires, if he only fantasizes but maintains his hopelessness, then he is one of the sullen.

We have the THIS IS NOT AN EXIT episode because Patrick’s done his best to avoid every saving grace afforded him: he let his Virgil sleep with his girlfriend, he killed and dismembered his Beatrice.  He never believed he could do otherwise; Bateman’s despair is what damns him.  Macbeth at least gets to die fighting but Patrick is condemned, like the damned in Dante’s Hell, to live on in his sullen (perhaps murderous) stasis.

That does it for this installment.  I have to give props here to The Acquaintance Who Says Bret Ellis Is the Best Novelist for mentioning the probable Macbeth connection offhandedly once, since I obviously followed through on it for a lot of helpful stuff.

Next time: I’ll explain how there is, in fact, room for hope and redemption in the world of American Psycho, and how we see it play out.  There will also, I think, be a short wrap-up where I explain why this book isn’t simply a great novel, but a great horror novel, and that should be it for this series.  See you then.

6a00d83452412b69e2011168981d2a970c-250wi
Significance to be explained in Part 4: THERE IS, IN FACT, AN EXIT

American Psycho Part 2: “Midway in our life’s journey I went astray”

Last time I gave some background on my own thoughts and experiences with Bret Easton Ellis and his book, American Psycho.  Naturally it is now time to talk about Dante.

Dante Alighieri composed the epic Italian poetic masterpiece The Divine Comedy, made up of three books (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) that chronicle an obsessively constructed and heavily allegorical religious journey made by the narrator (a fictionalized version of Dante himself) as he is guided through Hell, Purgatory, and finally Heaven, and is in the process expunged of all sin and allowed to gaze upon the glory of God.  Of these three books, the part of the Comedy that sticks with readers (and with the generations) the most is Inferno.  In much the same ironic and paradoxical way that Satan is the most interesting character in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hell is the most intriguing and interesting part of the Comedy.

dante

So it is that Inferno has been rewritten and restaged and adapted countless times to various means and ends, including what sounds like an absolutely hysterical Niven/Pournelle SF version.  If you’re unfamiliar with the basic premise of the whole Inferno thing: Hell is a series of concentric circles within the earth (below Jerusalem, even), and in each circle all the sinners of a particular type (the gluttonous, or the lustful, or even simoniacs) are punished in a multitude of allegorical and surreal ways that are the type of brutal you only get from medieval theology (like being buried upside down with the soles of your feet eternally aflame in a grotesque parody of baptism).

In the plot of the Comedy, the whole thing works like this:  Dante tells us that “Midway in our life’s journey [he] went astray,” meaning that in the middle of his life he wandered off the correct spiritual path and found himself “alone in a dark wood[.]”  (By the by, all of my Dante quotes are taken from the superb John Ciardi translation, so if the wording seems different than what you know because you’ve grown up reading blank verse translation of the Comedy or something, that’s why.)  The allegorical bits here are clear enough — I’ve lost the correct path through life and now I am in a spooky woods, oh no!  Fortunately, the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil shows up and explains to Dante that Beatrice, a fictionalized version of a woman who Dante had hella courtly love for and who now resides in Heaven, has demanded Dante be saved, so she’s pulled some bureaucratic strings and now Virgil is here to get the party started.

Dante and Virgil set off on their whirlwind journey through the afterlife, the idea being that once Dante sees the wide variety of earthly sins and their appropriate punishments, along with the virtues and their rewards, he’ll be better equipped to ward off sin and move toward virtue on his own.  So to start things off, Virgil takes Dante through the Inferno, or Hell, and pretty much right off the bat we get what is probably the single most famous line from the entire Comedy and one of the most famous lines in all of Western lit:

I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE.
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN PEOPLE.
I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL SORROW.

SACRED JUSTICE MOVED MY ARCHITECT.
I WAS RAISED HERE BY DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE,
PRIMORDIAL LOVE AND ULTIMATE INTELLECT.

ONLY THOSE ELEMENTS TIME CANNOT WEAR
WERE MADE BEFORE ME, AND BEYOND TIME I STAND,
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Pretty heavy stuff, man.  This is the inscription Dante reads over the gates of Hell, and the “Abandon all hope” thing is everywhere in popular culture.  It’s also a launching-off point for me, since this series is ostensibly about Bret Easton Ellis and American Psycho and so far I’ve written 600 words on a medieval Italian poet.  So what do these two dudes have in common?

bret_easton_ellisAs it turns out, quite a lot. Let’s take a look at the very beginning of Ellis’s novel: dante

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.

So there’s that pesky phrase, that thing about abandoning all hope, and right here at the beginning of the novel!  Perhaps — just maybe — it is not simply graffiti but a clue that the story we’re about to read is, in many ways, not about a successful investment banker on Wall Street in the 1980s but really about Hell?

Well, yes, of course that’s what it means.  This isn’t a one-off reference, either, something Ellis threw in to make us associate Wall Street with the Inferno; the novel has many parallels to Dante.  American Psycho is not, however, a one-to-one adaptation of the original in the same way, say, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is a pretty close retelling of King Lear, where the narrative architecture is almost exactly the same.  In Psycho Ellis consciously uses Dante for what might be termed the foundation of the story: certain ideas, certain character relationships.  But Ellis scrambles Dante’s vision, moves it around, cuts up characters (literally, I guess) and puts them back together as others; certain themes from Dante are excised entirely, while others that seemed pretty minor are pushed to the center-stage and exaggerated and elaborated for all they are worth.

In other words, what happens is that Ellis reads Dante, says to himself, “That’s pretty cool, I can do something with that, but I don’t need all this stuff about allegory or Heaven or Catholicism or which Popes are going to hell.”  So he tosses all the crap doesn’t interest him, takes what he likes, and builds a new piece of literature based on that.  The same acquaintance of mine who says Ellis is the best 20th century novelist calls this sort of thing rewriting, and I see no reason to call it something else.

So American Psycho is a rewriting of Dante.  But Michael, you say, you’re basing this all on one line at the beginning of the book!  Surely there is something more to it!  And boy, are you in luck, because there is.

Before I get into the real nitty-gritty of what’s going on between Psycho and Inferno, it may help to map out a few points about character relationships.  Remember that Dante was his own main character, though he in a sense reduces himself to an allegorical everyman; Dante is led through Hell by his artistic hero, the Roman poet Virgil, and the entire journey takes place at the behest of Beatrice, who is a woman beautiful and holy beyond mortal love, hence requiring the courtly stuff.  Virgil has no trouble guiding Dante through Hell and most of Purgatory, but once it’s time to tour Heaven he has to turn back because, as a pre-Christian, it’s simply not in the cards for him.  So when Dante finally does get to Heaven, it’s Beatrice who takes on the role of his guide.

Now, I have a very specific reading of these relationships that is not necessarily shared by anyone else, but it goes something like this: a confused and troubled guy is helped through a tough situation by his best friend, but the friendship is ultimately not enough to make the troubled dude okay and so he gets handed off (baton-like) to the woman he loves so the real healing process can begin (or something phrased in an equally asinine way).  The reading relies mostly on dramatic structures that I’ve seen in both old and new forms of  popular entertainment — like say, romantic comedy films.  The wacky sidekick characters to the protagonist are always plenty interesting, they usually get the best jokes or the snappiest lines, but they’re never enough to get the protagonist to stop pining after the love interest.  It’s always the same: your friends can help you, but it takes love to make you whole.

So naturally in adaptations and rewritings of Inferno we get relationships that mirror this setup.  There’s the troubled and/or somehow naive and/or clueless main character, almost always a smarter/sharper guide, and usually a wise third third party, beloved by the main character but in some way unreachable.  American Psycho follows this pattern to some extent — or seems to.

delacroix_dante

The first paragraph/sentence is actually pretty disingenuous.  It makes you think the story is going to be told in third person, but it mostly isn’t.  It’s the first-person present tense almost stream-of-consciousness narrative of Patrick Bateman, the titular psychopathic American.  The first paragraph is him describing to us Timothy Price, who is a friend of his from the same firm.  The relationship between them is odd.  I mean, most of Bateman’s relationships with other people are pretty odd — whenever a character enters or re-enters he describes for us their clothing in excessive detail, including brand names and his own personal opinions on how well the outfits come together and I mean this happens every time — but with Price it’s even stranger.

You see, Price is having an affair with Bateman’s girlfriend Evelyn.  It’s something he suspects and is pretty much confirmed in the first few chapters when Bateman watches Price and Evelyn practically make out in front of him.  Surprisingly, Bateman doesn’t really care about this — it’s our first clear view of how amazingly detached he actually is from everyone, including the woman he is supposed to, in theory, love.  (Later, we find out that almost all of Bateman’s circle have quasi-open relationships like this, but here it seems like a contained incident.)  You also get the distinct impression that he’s letting Timothy get away with it because, as he tells us, Price “is the most interesting person” Bateman knows.  Of the various peripheral characters Bateman goes clubbing with, Price is the only one to emerge with a distinct personality at the beginning, and if Patrick has a best friend, well, it’s probably him.

So we have our Virgil.  And not only that, but our Virgil runs off within the first hundred pages of the book.  While in a club called Tunnel, named after the fake railroad tunnel and glow-in-the-dark tracks that run into it, Price suddenly begins to wonder where the it leads — “Where do those tracks go?” No one seems intent on answering him, and besides, the tunnel’s fake, but Price keeps asking.  He and Bateman do some subpar cocaine and finally, in a scene everyone except Bateman handles with surreal, amused complacency, Price jumps the railing and follows the tunnel away into the darkness.

“Price!  Come back!” I yell but the crowd is actually applauding his performance.  “Price!” I yell once more, over the clapping.  But he’s gone and it’s doubtful if he did hear me he would do anything about it.  Madison is standing nearby and sticks his hand out as if to congratulate me on something.  “That guy’s a riot.”

McDermott appears behind me and pulls at my shoulder.  “Does Price know about a VIP room that we don’t?”  He looks worried.  (p. 62)

Price is not mentioned again for another three hundred pages.  I mean it, he’s not even mentioned in the next paragraph.  He simply disappears — the most interesting person Patrick knows, poof, gone!  I’m sure you see what I’m driving at here: the friend who leaves.  And if Price is our Virgil, then who is Beatrice?

One candidate seems to be Jean (“My secretary who is in love with me,” as Bateman repeatedly refers to her) but really, though she is a kind and honest person, Jean seems to be just as susceptible to the materialism and superficiality of the world as anyone else — Bateman plays her like a piano, telling what she should and shouldn’t wear, what’s classy and what isn’t, and she’s in love with him but he is unreachable to her.  The better candidate is a fairly incidental character named Bethany.

She is Bateman’s ex-girlfriend from college, and he implies that he habitually beat her and this is the reason they broke up.  Nevertheless, when he runs into her by chance they make plans to have lunch together and catch up.  Bateman, in his relationships with women, usually lusts for control (he hires prostitutes, orders them around with very specific instructions for various sex acts, records them doing as he asks, then usually kills them and records that too) and, as with his secretary Jean, he usually has it.  After all, he’s fit and handsome and rich.  Bethany is notable, then, because she is someone who has escaped Patrick and, strangely enough, comes back; he seems to assume it’s because she wants sex, and when it turns out she really does just want to catch up, he becomes furious.  To add insult to injury, Bethany is actually engaged to someone else now, and she shrugs off all (or most) of Patrick’s advances.

So here we have the girl with a pre-established relationship to the main character, and she has somehow ended up in a situation where she is estranged from him and seemingly beyond earthly reach.  Seeing the connections here?  And what does Patrick do with his beatific guide once he finds her?

Why, he beats her, drives nails through her knuckles, maces her repeatedly, rapes her, mutilates her genitalia, dismembers her, partially cannibalizes her, and then leaves some of her remains sitting around his expensive Manhattan apartment to rot.  Of course.

So obviously something’s wrong here.  Either Ellis is doing a hell of a deconstruction of Dante or we’re approaching this from the wrong angle.  Virgil bails too early and Beatrice is ripped to shreds, and suddenly our Dante Pat Bateman starts looking like a very confusing character.

This is the part where I play the pedant and say, yes, I’ve been laying out this reading in the completely wrong way to prove a point: if American Psycho is a rewriting of Dante, then obviously we expect the main character to have the relationships I’ve described and have them play out in the expected manner — for sake of example, another Dante rewriting that pulls this off with remarkable skill and subtlety is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.

But that is not what happens in American Psycho.  The plot of the Comedy means the protagonist (in our case, Pat Bateman) needs to undergo expurgation, some change, he needs to become better.

He doesn’t.  Bateman kills what seems to be countless people, is chased by the police, confesses everything, and is still never caught.  The book ends with him clubbing, like always, and looking at a sign: THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.  We never leave the Inferno.  Why?

Well, this is when the novel goes from “pretty good” to absolutely fucking brilliant.

You see, Pat Bateman isn’t Dante.  He’s one of the damned.  He’s a shade condemned to Hell, enduring eternal torture, that Dante passes on his way to bigger and better things.  If Pat went astray midway through his life’s journey, then he never got out of the darkened wood again — his Virgil is a womanizing cokehead who left too soon and he kills his Beatrice out of sheer wrathful spite.  So not only is he damned, but, when you get right down to it, he chooses to be damned.

This installment ended up being longer than I expected, but the third may surpass it.  Next time I’ll explain in more detail how Bateman is damned, how it continues to relate to and rewrite Dante, and, in a surprise twist, how it also relates to and rewrites the work of this man:

See you then!

Why American Psycho Is a Great Novel (And Also a Great Horror Novel) Part 1: Some Background Fluff

american-psycho-cover1

When I first read Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, I must have been around 14, give or take a few years.  The movie was out at the point — the movie was probably the reason I read the book — and while I remember somewhat enjoying it, it was also pretty inscrutable.  Even at 14 you can understand satire, and that’s what a large part of what American Psycho seems to be.  But if we treat it as a satire, then we run into problems, namely, that it doesn’t give us any viable path other than the one it criticizes.  This is not to say that satire should be didactic and have a coda explaining how to live a holy life, but that a satire implicitly shows us the ‘right’ way to live by very meticulously describing the ‘wrong’ way the characters in the satire live.  So when 14-year-old me set aside American Psycho upon first finishing it, I thought, “Well, gee, okay, so what was the point?”

The correct way to live, if you read the novel straight, seems to be “Don’t live as a young, successful investment banker from a well-off family in 1980s New York because the prevailing climate of superficiality and greed will strip you of your identity and your conception of human dignity.”  That’s all well and good, I suppose, but I never have to worry about being an investment banker in 1980s New York, let alone all the stuff about being successful.  On the other hand, a broader way to read the point is that we shouldn’t be greedy and superficial in any context.  Well, yeah, okay.  I mean, there are children’s cartoons that give us the same moral and with as little ornamentation, and it only takes like 22 minutes to tell us, not 400 pages.

So obviously I was sort of not impressed with the book when I was 14.

About two weeks ago, it happened that I got the flu.  I was laid up in bed and could barely gather enough strength to go search for food, I skipped going to the gym, and I completely neglected my homework.  What I did do, however, was reread American Psycho, sleeping in between chunks of the book for about an hour and having some pretty terrible fever dreams because of it.  Anyway, I did not just reread American Psycho for shits and giggles — an acquaintance of mine who is in a position to have knowledgeable opinions on such things has told me a few times that Bret Easton Ellis is the greatest novelist of the 20th century.  This is obviously a helluva thing to say, considering it means Ellis beats out Joyce, Nabokov, Faulkner, Hemingway, Pynchon, and whoever the hell else you want to name (maybe some women and people of color, as the liberal arts student in me is shuddering at the alabastar patriarchy of that list I just rattled off).

That Ellis is the best novelist of the last century is the kind of claim I want to take to task, but it’s also one that’s hard for me to assess since the only Ellis I’ve read is Psycho and, as I have explained, when I did read it I was a scrub.  So I am planning on working my way through Ellis’s novels, attempting to suss out whether or not my acquaintance’s claim is well founded.  I figured there was no better place to start than, well, where I started seven years ago, and so I reread American Psycho.

And holy cow, man, it is pretty awesome.

Also: turns out it’s not a satire, and to assume it is of course produces the deficient reading I had when I was 14!  Mostly.  Sort of.  Don’t worry, I’ll explain this all eventually.

So over the next few weeks I’m hoping to have a series of short-to-longish blog entries explaining why American Psycho is success from both a literary standpoint and from the standpoint of the conscientious horror reader.  This oughta be fun.  Keep an eye out, because in a week or so I’ll hopefully have up a piece on exactly what Bret Easton Ellis has to do with Dante Alighieri.

Pamebella, or Sparkles Rewarded

Holy crap, guys, here are some words tl;dr I am so sorry:

I have been brooding on something for a while now — more than half a year, off and on, really — and it seems like now might be as good a time as any to throw it out here.  It is not secret that I have some enmity for the Twilight books, as my Esme persona demonstrates.  It is especially infuriating to me when Twilight fans insist that we detractors are against the books because we simply miss the point, it’s supposed to be escapist fun and we’re just thinking about it too hard.  Well, it’s said that books are supposed to make you think but, ironically, trash literature like Twilight has existed from the very beginning. Twilight is insanely popular, of course, and there are fervent fans who can be almost frightening in their devotion; there are also vehement detractors.

This has happened before. Specifically, in England, in the mid-1700s. Yes, there was a Twilight phenomenon in 1740 — except it had nothing to do with sparkling vampires. Everything centered around a little book called Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by a printer named Samuel Richardson. While reading Pamela and doing research on it for a class around eight or nine months ago, I was struck by how the reception of Richardson’s novel mimics that of Twilight.

First of all, people either loved or hated it. The whole middle class of readers literally split into factions — the so-called Pamelists and Anti-Pamelists. The Pamelists argued that the novel was a heartwarming morality tale that showcased the redemptive power of love and Christian marriage; one prominent proponent of the book (and I am searching my notes like a madman and can’t find his goddamned NAME but I know he did this) said that if there were two works in the English language that should be saved in the event of the destruction of all literature, they should be the King James Bible… and Pamela. The Anti-Pamelists, conversely, condemned the novel, because it was seen as morally despicable and dangerous.

Is this all sounding familiar? Okay, let’s get down to some details.

Pamela is the story of, unsurprisingly, Pamela. It is an epistolary novel, presented as Pamela’s letters (and eventually her diary) to her poverty-stricken agrarian parents from her relative luxury as a servant girl living in the house of one Squire B., caring for the Squire’s sick mother. Unfortunately, Madame B. kicks the bucket, and Pamela assumes she will be sent home. This is not the case, however, as Squire B. offers to let her stay on for a while and offers up gifts of expensive clothes and perfumes and so on. I am sure we all know where this is going, but as Pamela insists in her letters to her parents, B.’s intentions are noble.

Of course, they’re not. The Squire soon makes himself apparent by attempting to seduce Pamela, who is intensely pious and rebukes him. This results in him half-heartedly attempting to rape her. Like, a dozen times, in various situations. I am not joking. Pamela doesn’t enjoy this and eventually the Squire gives into Pamela’s demands that she be allowed to return home. But en route the carriage takes a strange turn and, much to Pamela’s surprise, she finds herself at Squire B.’s country home. She is soon imprisoned there, and more attempts at rape are made and her life is generally quite miserable. The Squire wants her to be his mistress, no wedding bands involved, and she repeatedly refuses; after a few months of imprisonment he finally (!) lets her go for real.

But on her way home, Pamela has a startling realization: She is in love with Squire B. She makes a U-turn, heads back to the country home, and she and the Squire confess their undying love for one another, get married, and a few other problems arise (the Squire’s past lechery has some consequences, which is to say illegitimate children, that threaten the marriage), but suffice it to say that they all live happily ever after.

The Pamelists lauded the novel because it demonstrates how a pious young woman was able to help a sinful man find redemption. The Anti-Pamelists savaged it for its portrayal of a gold-digging young woman who successfully leads on her weak-willed, wealthy employer until finally conning him into marrying her. Now, class issues aside, we can comb through this mess to pick out some important bits.

First of all, a first-person female protagonist who, depending on which camp you fall into, is either “pure” and psychologically real or a hollow, somewhat disgusting, selfish excuse for a human being. Then we have the rich, dangerous male love interest with a dark secret; he is horrifically controlling and manipulative and — despite this — still an object of affection for the female protagonist. It may seem like I glossed over too much of the story in my summary for Pamela’s love epiphany, but that is literally how it happens in the story: she simply has a startling realization she loves him, and has loved him the entire time, and that’s why she was so adamant that he not sleep with her out of wedlock. Outside of the text we have the diametrically opposing factions of the readership — the ardent fans and vehement critics. (Since these were the days people played things fast and loose with copyright, there are a few rather hilarious contemporary parodies of Pamela, including the piquantly titled Shamela.)

Some of the similarities here are nothing special. Richardson, in writing Pamela, essentially created the romance novel (or, in some arguments, the English novel in general, the first bestseller) — but Austen and the Brontës took the tropes he established and did things much, much better. Pamela, in case I have not been clear, is a stupendously terrible book, but it is the raw material from which the later works were refined (Jane Eyre, for instance, has a great scene with Rochester disguised as a gypsy that plays as a sendup of a similar scene in Pamela).

But despite this popularity, Pamela is largely forgotten today — the Austen and Brontë books it begot are remembered far more often and far more fondly. The only people who seem to be reading Pamela are students of literature like myself. It really is fascinating for various reasons, mostly cultural: it is the first clear picture of a middle class marriage and the emergence of an autonomous “nuclear” family, it deals with anxieties in England at the time over the perceived surplus of bachelors (what was called the Marriage Crisis), and marks a turning point in the depiction of women as lascivious seductresses (think Eve) toward women as virtuous, almost nonsexual beings pitted against the lecheries of men (paving the way for the Victorian paradigm that is to some degree still in effect today).

So trashy books can still be of some use, at least in an historical context. But this leads me to wonder what could possibly be gained from Twilight, if we think about it in terms of Pamela. Its level of popularity and infamy seems to be roughly equivalent, but what does Twilight “show” us that hasn’t been shown before? What does it tell us about the time in which we live? In 300 years, I suspect it will be largely forgotten, like Pamela. But will students of literature be reading it for the sheer social interest? Will Twilight bring up a a new crop of Brontës to actually do something interesting with the basic subject?

Perhaps we can find something in the way the text differentiates itself from Pamela. For instance, in Twilight it is Bella who is portrayed as the more sexually willing and marriage-jaded partner in the relationship, reversing the “virtuous woman” turn I remarked upon above; it is not a pious woman who redeems a man, but rather a magic virtuous sparkly manpire that teaches a cynical young woman that there is such a thing as true love. It’s a break — or a reversion — of convention. Is this a one-off thing or a signal of another shift in cultural perceptions? Are the implications good or bad?

Other than this, I can think of no way in which Twilight revolutionizes social or literary conventions in the way Pamela did. So, in short, what does Twilight’s popularity mean? Anything or nothing at all? A big question, and one that probably won’t be answered well until we’re a few decades down the road and can see exactly how history is moving.

I must acknowledge here a debt to Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, which was an invaluable resource for helping me place Pamela in a cultural context and drawing my attention to the ways in which its rise and fall mirror Twilight’s own. Anyone interested in early Englightenment literature or the novel form should probably check that book out, it rocks.

Hey, congratulations, you made it to the end of this ramble! Have a Crazy Author Fact. We all know SMeyer is Mormon, and her religion has some weird effects on her writing. Well, Samuel Richardson was kind of a nutcase, too! You see, he apparently hated physical contact with people and often wore gloves to keep his hands from touching icky people germs; I also mentioned he was a printer. Well, he was also a complete hardass and thought his employees would swindle him every chance they got. To make sure his employees worked when he was out of the room, he had a tiny, secret office installed with a peephole, so he could do his own work and keep tabs on the people in the printing room. This is the man, ladies and gentlemen, who invented the romance novel.

The Death of Horror

By way of Dread Central I’ve stumbled upon an article in the Newark Film Examiner by Mark Jones about seven reasons why the horror genre is dying.  While Mr. Jones offers some very good reasons, I feel like the article has a few details wrong, and who better to discuss this than someone with a grotesquely inflated sense of self-importance like me?  So here are Mr. Jones’s points in quotes, with my responses after.

7) Over Saturation
It would seem “quantity over quality” has become the horror adage. Each week more and more poorly produced, straight-to-video horror films hit the shelves and each week, the genre becomes a little more diluted. Horror is becoming the new porn, where anyone with a video camera and willing participants can shoot a film and get distribution. This lackadaisical approach to filmmaking turns a genre with little respect into a complete joke.

This.  This this this this this.  Is.  Exactly right.

But only in a certain sense!  For example, how many Saw films are we up to now?  How many more Halloweens will go by with another shoddily constructed offering in theaters?  I don’t know, because Saw stopped being relevant after the first installment.  It’s a cash cow, now, and an easy buck for the studios.  This same sequel-madness is what felled the great Slashers of the 80s, my friends — even Michael Myers in his resplendent glory was toast once magical druids were on the scene.

I think this problem can be neatly contained in an exploration of a horror subgenre, namely, the zombie movie.  Jones points out that any starry-eyed wannabe film student feels like he can (or should) make a horror movie because it is the “easy” way to go.  Doubly so if it’s a zombie movie.  This is a staggeringly wrong assumption on both counts.  Horror is not (or should not) be the easy course of action, and a zombie movie should be considerably more complicated than most filmmakers (prospective or professional) seem to think they are.  Fear, despite being an arguably primitive emotion, is much more meaningful than we like to think it is.  The overarching problem, I think, is that the audience for a horror piece seems to refuse to have standards.  People will focus on one aspect of the thing: gore, the variety and ingenuity of kills, the makeup effects on a zombie.  If these things are good, then suddenly it doesn’t matter what the story is, what it is about, what it teaches us.  Who cares about that stuff when there’s enough blood and guts that the filmmakers must have raided the meat section at a Super Wal-Mart?

Let’s talk about zombie movies.  Romero has run the standard zombie invasions make us question who the monsters really are rigmarole in the ground and perfected it.  It’s pointless, I think, for any zombie story to take this exact same tack again because even Romero himself has seemingly devolved into self-parody.  Do not get me wrong; this is certainly an important part of the zombie formula, but it’s getting tired.  It needs to be expanded, played with, questioned.  It will take effort to reinvent this type of plot, to move beyond it, and to make the zombie genre exciting again.  But unfortunately, if people are not retreading Romero’s ground (which they rarely seem to do with any finesse), they’re instead making purely stylistic movies based on how “cool” or disgusting something would be — the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, for instance.  But because, in the stylistic or technical sense, all you need for a zombie movie is a working video camera, some friends, and some makeup, it appears to be the easy way to get something done, so all your independently produced DTV zombie movies are the DotD remake without the pleasing editing or absolutely stunning Johnny Cash opening sequence.

So the genre stagnates only because we allow it, only because we do not, for whatever reason, hold horror up to the rigorous rubric of quality we apply to other genres.

6) Big Budgets
It might appear shortsighted to say a bigger budget would have a negative effect on a film. The more money spent, the better the film will be, right? Not always. What made many of the older films so scary is how real they seemed, looking more like documentaries than feature films. Also, no one in the films looked like actors. Leatherface’s family in the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” looked like they were pulled from a local insane asylum, not a casting call. All in all, the films were so genuine that they scared audiences for days after leaving the theater. Today, horror films are so stylized and clean it would be like getting scared by a car commercial.

Debatable, I say.  While I agree that realism is a plus, low budgets are not always indicative of quality because a lower budget, as I pointed out in the zombie-movie syndrome, often forces a storyteller or filmmaker to follow the stylistic or technical approach to horror and neglect the deeper meanings and implications of the narrative.  The original TCM was somewhat boring, I would say, and I absolutely despise the first Evil Dead movie.  Now admittedly, in both of those examples the lower budgets and technical emphasis resulted in some pretty stunning special effects (mostly in the case of The Evil Dead), what’s the point if the narrative fails to engage me?  I suppose it’s preferable to the next insidious beast…

5) Computer Graphics
Has the price of corn syrup and red food coloring skyrocketed? Recent horror films have become so dependent on computer graphics that they look more like cartoons than live action movies. Think of how much better “I Am Legend” would have been if the monsters chasing Will Smith around dilapidated New York City weren’t those silly looking animated abominations. The thing with CG is it can be beneficial, but when it’s overused, the films tend to be less scary and more stupid.

Yes, I hate CGI.  Do you hate CGI?  You should, especially in horror films.  CGI almost unavoidably breaks my suspension of disbelief because it looks so unreal.  I cannot feel threatened by something that is obviously added in post hoc; it would be like being scared of a Photoshop filter, for crying out loud.  It really doesnt even have to be a CG monster; I would say that Let the Right One In is probably the best horror film of the last five years, yet it has one particularly heinous scene with CG cats that pulled me entirely out of the film.  Now this is something of a problem, of course, because I suspect that the scene would have been impossible (or illegal) to achieve with real cats, and may have even looked ridiculous with puppets or animatronics.  So I maintain that CG should always be a last resort — the recent film Splinter, while not as good as LtROI, is a fantastic example of the wonders we can do with makeup and puppets, with only minor help from computers.  (Still, there’s a cringe-worthy shot or two near the end, but like the heinous cat scene, it’s over quickly.)

4) PG-13 Ratings
Nothing makes horror fans gripe and groan more than seeing a PG-13 rating on a horror film. What this rating guarantees the audience is that there will be little language, no nudity, and toned down violence, while guaranteeing the producers of the film a better box office turnout.  The PG-13 rating plays to the teeny bopper crowd, who will scream in terror at every single cheap scare inserted throughout. It also robs potentially good films of any kind of legitimacy with unrealistic dialogue, little suspense, and moderate violence. Not to say violence in moderation isn’t sometimes a good thing, which brings us to…

Again, debatable.  You may ask me to think of a good PG-13 horror film and I would be at a loss, but I think if I did research I might find one. (EDIT – a friend of mine was kind enough to point out that the US remake of The Ring, which I hold as an example of cross-cultural-remake-done-right later in this essay, is also rated PG-13.  So hooray for that.) Horror is not — or should not — be proportional to the amount of tits and blood you can show.  In fact, in my personal philosophy, a horror story is especially successful when it manages to terrify you without these things.  The original 1963 version of The Haunting is a good example here; of course it was made before there was a ratings system for films, but it has no gore, no nudity, and little swearing, but I would say it is the best haunted house film yet made.  If there is anything in this movie that would warrant for it a higher rating than PG-13, especially in 1963,  it is probably the rather distinct currents of lesbianism the film (and its source material, Shirley Jackson’s immaculate novel) exude.

3) Torture and Rape
Many of today’s horror filmmakers are confusing what’s disgusting with what’s scary. In a genre where less can be more, over the top, bizarre violence has become a crutch. From the “Hostel” films to “Saw” one through one million, it’s obvious that these filmmakers are trying to get scares by repulsing their audience. What they need to realize is making someone vomit is far different than actually scaring them. Along with torture, rape scenes have become a way for filmmakers to push the envelope. Yes, some older horror films did contain both these aspects, but today it seems every horror film has a scene with someone tied to a chair getting god-knows-what shoved god-knows-where, while somewhere else a poor unsuspecting girl is about to be deflowered by some maniac. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself, is this really entertaining?

No real disagreement here.  The sooner we move beyond torture porn the better.  This ties in with my own opinions on horror, letting a lot go unspoken so your audience can fill in the blanks with whatever makes them the most uneasy.  But it’s also a matter of meaning I brought up back when talking about zombie movies; torture porn is porn because it lacks any merit beyond gore, pain, and suffering.  There is no lesson being learned, there is no reason for this pain!  Again we have a stylistic or technical emphasis over the narrative; torture porn is about what looks cool, with no greater message being coherently formed or stated.

A particularly strange strain of torture porn, I will briefly argue, is the Ju-On series, which is being consistently remade and sequelized in the states as The Grudge.  The characters encounter an evil female ghost who has at best a tangential connection to their lives; they remain mostly ignorant of this malevolence until they are too late, and then they are spirited away or whatever the hell it is the creaky throated ghost bitch does with them.  The series is significant because it does not fall into the bloody mess (heh heh) of other torture porn: there is little blood, really, and the gore is usually restrained enough.  Yet it still operates in the same way: characters, who are  pretty much completely innocent of the reason for the ghost’s vengeance, are murdered one by one and — this is the kicker — there is no way to stop it or save yourself.  Tell me, why in the hell would anyone want to watch this, because I don’t understand it.  What is the thrill in watching an unstoppable monster be literally unstoppable as it kills random people for no goddamn reason?

Compare the “classic” torture porn plot: some unstoppable and seemingly omnisicent antagonist (a collective of heartless, rich foreigners or something) for no evident reason other than perhaps their own evilness-for-evil’s-sake slowly murders a group of basically innocent protagonists who lack any possible form of recourse.  In the end one or two may escape, but there’s always the stinger ending where MAYBE THEY DIDN’T or, more likely, they get killed off in the first five minutes of the sequel.  This sort of thing could be a ripe criticism for the disconnect between upper classes and lower classes, let’s say, but you only have to watch one of the movies to see it’s not.  It’s about how badass people being hit by trains looks.

2) First Person Point of View
Why is it that every time someone runs in a film there are sequences of nauseating hand-held camerawork? Can the viewer not understand what the person on the screen is doing without seeing it through their eyes? If that’s not bad enough, there are the films in which the characters themselves are shooting the movie. Ever since “The Blair Witch Project” filmmakers have been making first person horror films and every time the characters use the same sparse reasoning of “I’m filming this because it’ll be important,” to justify their actions. Even horror legend George A. Romero took part in these shenanigans in his last film “Diary of the Dead.” There is nothing more unbelievable than a group of twenty-something idiots who think filming giant aliens or zombies or invisible witches is more important than their own safety.

I sort of agree here.  The shaky first-person-cam of Cloverfield of Blair Witch is annoying as hell.  Who cares about seeing a movie?  I’d rather watch blurs of movement while people scream at each other incoherently!  But the Blair Witch film, in particular, is interesting as a cultural artifact; if you will recall, many people were confused as to the movie’s veracity.  Was it really long-lost footage?  This is rather silly, of course, because it is about fucking witches and spirits and anyone with two brain cells should be able to tell you it’s fake as all get out, but the fact that the movie was shot realistically, with an every day video camera, somehow managed to blur the lines between reality and fantasy.  I am reminded of the Victorians and their delight at staging pictures of fairies and ghosts for photographs; among the populace there was a sizable portion of people who simply did not believe you could fake a photograph because a photo reproduced exactly what it saw — what was ostensibly “reality.”  Anything in a photograph simply had to be real.

A small aside, while we’re still on the subject of cinéma vérité: the Spanish film [REC] was well received among horror circles, touted as being frightening, got an American remake called Quarantine, and there is a sequel to both on the way.  I will tell you now, contrary to popular reports, this movie is terrible.  It has plot holes galore, has no cohesive horror-aesthetic sense, I could really go on and on.  But I will stop for now and bring it up again when I’m through with this list.  Speaking of which…

1) Remakes
It’s nothing new for filmmakers to rehash old ideas and characters, but the horror genre has become notorious for it. At this moment, there are over 60 horror films slated to be remade. Granted some of them are just talk, but it’s a staggering number even if only half of them come to fruition.

Yes.  This really needs no explanation.  How are remakes a good idea?  What is up with the current studio fascination regarding “reboots” for classic horror franchises?  Do we really need an Elm Street remake, no matter how dated the original is?  Just because this worked for Batman doesn’t mean it will work forever, guys.

I’ve already mentioned [REC] and how it got an American remake, and so I will take this moment to talk about importing horror.  Up until recently, most horror media were imported from Japan and other Asian countries — original movies, Americanized remakes, etc.  I like being able to take part in a sort of international culture of horror just as much as the next guy, you understand, but as per my comments above I don’t really like remakes.  It worked well for The Ring, and that’s pretty much it.

So as long as we’re importing the original films, then we’re good, right?  No, we’re not, because the original movies can be just as shitty as anything we crank out in America.  The amount of Japanese/Korean horror that has been imported is far too large and diverse to point fingers at every little thing, really, but I will say the original Dark Water is a good horror story while One Missed Call is not.  However, in the wake of Pan’s Labyrinth the American horror scene seems to have gravitated to the other big ocean and set its sights on Spain.  This is not a mistake in and of itself; after all, Guillermo del Toro is a wonderful filmmaker, a man after my own heart, and Pan’s Labyrinth is a great film.

But perhaps because of the astounding quality of Pan’s Labyrinth as both a piece of horror and a piece of cinema (genre does not exclude art, it turns out!) there is a marked tendency to call any Spanish horror film the next big thing.  The Orphanage, for example, was very highly regarded even by critics despite having plot holes you could drive a bus through.  Certainly it deals with Important Issues in the same way Pan’s Labyrinth did, but it’s wholly more clumsy and nonsensical.  It was a passable film, but not deserving of the praise it received.

[REC] is the flip side of the coin, a movie with little worth that (like The Orphanage) was undeservedly praised.  It is — again! — style over substance, sound and fury signifying nothing, and so on.  The plot holes in this baby are wide enough that we could slip a 747 through.  It’s torture porn, except the first-person perspective means you never have any clue what sort of torture is going on (unless it’s torture of you, the viewer, heh heh heh).  It is scary, but only in the way that a jack-in-the-box is scary to a child who has never seen one before.  You jump when the monster pops out, but beyond that there is no emotional engagement.

I feel I should draw this ramble to a close.  It’s something of a mess.

Horror is a crappy genre.

This is true.  It has been a crappy genre for a long time, because so much of it is bottom of the barrel, derivative and desperate scrapes at the feet of better works.  So much of it is style in place of substance, disgust in place of true horror.  This is the fault of fans like me and you, because we refuse to challenge this genre we love so very much.  We refuse to ask it to do great things, simply so we can watch it do cool things.  When the genre gives us something good — something that is art, or approximates it, or strains the conventions in even a wonderful little way — we stand back and let the sequels come, the remakes, the reimaginings, the next-big-things.  We refuse to think about what horror as an emotion means for us as a species, what it communicates.  We horror fans are content to sit here and simply amuse ourselves to death.

That’s pretty spooky, isn’t it.