Three Unfinished Pieces

December 1, 2012

In 1974, the film critic John Simon wrote that “American movies in general, and recent ones in particular,…do not (cannot? dare not?) cope with serious, contemporary, middle-class, adult problems.” The typical American movie “deal[s] with the western frontier, the historical past, some war or other; with the criminal classes, occasionally spies, possibly even law enforcers; more rarely with the lives of famous people (rarer nowadays, when the common man is more in than ever); and now and then lovable prostitutes, impoverished blacks, or exploited Indians.” Almost “every notable American film is a genre film, a frothy little comedy, or a specialty number” that says nothing noteworthy about “middle-class living[,]” implicitly non-black or non-Indian, apparently.

Today, after decades of accelerated income inequality due to free-market fanaticism (even that alleged far-left radical Obama has drooled over the free market), corporate domination over everything (including the movies), and Republican reverence toward the rich, the American middle-class has virtually vanished, replaced by either one-percenters or the people who earn minimum wage cleaning the one-percenters’ toilets; thus, why should Hollywood bother depicting a life not too many members of the prime movie-going audience (adolescent males and adults of any age with adolescent-male mentalities) have ever experienced? Hobbits are more realistic nowadays than the breadwinner who can earn enough each month to support his or her family and have a little left over to save for retirement. Movie audiences don’t like reminders of their powerlessness, instead preferring (or convinced by media indoctrination that they prefer) blinged-out, kick-ass fantasies with plenty of blood squibs and fiery explosions. Westerns may have gone out of fashion, but period pieces, war, and crime still dominate the cinematic imagination, with occasionally the dysfunctional lives of famous people, usually well-merchandised, classic-whatever-genre singers. The “common man” has turned into a pumped-up, violent action hero cavorting in front of green screens; “lovable prostitutes” now have buff figures and can slaughter as many bad guys as the uncommon man can; “impoverished blacks” have ditched the impoverishment angle in favor of firearms and wisecracks; and “exploited Indians” have vanished, replaced by Muslim terrorists.

Simon’s preference for the “serious adult film” now seems quainter than the Constitution.

August 23, 2013 (last paragraph slightly revised February 17, 2021)

Peter Frank and Michael McKenzie. New, Used & Improved: Art for the 80’s. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987.

Anyone who wants to get rich will try doing so by making specific career or financial choices, especially during an era that venerates wealth, status, and ostentatiousness more than usual—an era such as the Reagan era, the Nineteen-Eighties, also known as the go-go Eighties, as in wake me up before you go-go walking past those homeless guys sleeping on the sidewalk.

Peter Frank and Michael McKenzie’s book New, Used & Improved: Art for the 80’s offers a glossy, well-illustrated chronicle of New York City’s hipper-than-hip art scene during that decade. However, amid all the details about painters, sculptors, photographers, graffitists, musicians, performance artists, nightclub designers, gallery owners, and “thespian andogynes[,]” the authors mostly ignore the socioeconomic influences upon that scene.

Speaking of socioeconomics: in 1987, as a striving painter who fantasized about making it big in Greenwich Village, I wanted to buy this lavishly-illustrated book about New York City’s hipoisie art scene, but as a broke college student, I couldn’t afford to do so. In 2013, as a sort-of-successful artist-slash-writer-slash-promiscuous-hyphenator, I bought this book’s original hardcover edition at Half Price Books for five dollars and ninety-five cents plus tax. If I had read this book as a young man, I might have reconsidered my career ambitions. Or maybe not.

August 9, 2018

I’ve done something you might consider lame and unhealthy. Namely, I’ve read all three hundred and ninety-nine pages of Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel American Psycho. Though probably best known today for his anti-David Foster Wallace tweets, Ellis was—once upon a time during the Eighties—among the hippest, the hottest, the MTV-est of young American writers. I hadn’t read anything by Ellis since that decade, over three decades ago, when I’d visually ingested his first two novels, Less Than Zero (1985) and The Rules of Attraction (1987), tales of wealthy late-adolescent decadence that I’d thought resembled somewhat desperate, R-rated blends of Miami Vice and Nancy Reagan’s Just-Say-No propaganda, two Eighties artifacts that look pretty quaint today.

By contrast, American Psycho, Ellis’s third novel, examined wealthy twentysomething decadence but in such a violent, sexually-explicit way that Simon & Schuster, the original publisher, had second thoughts and backed out, causing the novel to appear instead as a Vintage Contemporaries paperback. (Another quaint artifact: Vintage Contemporaries published novels aimed at, though not necessarily about, the trendiest of trendies who might want something to read, just to relax after spending a grueling day hunting for the perfect vintage bowling shirt.) Reviewers, too, had problems with “the novel’s moronic and sadistic contents,” as Roger Rosenblatt put it in 1990 in a hyperventilating New York Times review that went on to call American Psycho “the most loathsome offering of the season” and the product of, yes, a “lame and unhealthy imagination.”

The novel’s narrator, Patrick Bateman, a twenty-six-year-old who works at a Wall Street investment house, goes into excruciating detail about fashion, furniture, electronics, male cosmetics, trendy restaurants, trendy clubs, cocaine, and other expensive consumer items of the late Eighties-slash-early Nineties (and I do mean slash, as you’ll soon see). Decades later, Bateman comes across as Aspergerian in his obsessive recounting of yuppie trappings—unfortunately Aspergerian, since he also goes into extremely excruciating detail about his torture, murder, or both, of prostitutes, workplace colleagues, children, the homeless, and—yes!—rats. At one point, rats figure prominently in a torture-murder; you may never look at a Habitrail in the same way again. (People with my autistic condition already put up with unfortunate PR due to the alleged Asperger’s of criminals such as the Sandy Hook mass murderer.) And of course, as a cheap narrative signifier of his vileness, Bateman almost constantly rents porn videotapes, as if his brutality—not to mention his racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism—didn’t already suffice. (Though in retrospect, as a better narrative signifier of vileness, he also idolizes Donald Trump.)

By the novel’s last few dozen pages, however, Bateman, through his narration, indulges in sentimentality (as in visiting his mother in the nursing home); Ellis either wimped out or wisely realized his readers needed a break from the nonstop violence and cynicism.

While I wouldn’t call this a great novel, it does serve as a valuable historical document.

Copyright © 2021 by David V. Matthews

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