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William Friedkin's "Sorcerer"
September 7, 2009 8:01 AM   Subscribe

How does a director follow up the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time*? (*adjusted for inflation) He remakes a French classic - taking an international cast to a Caribbean nation ruled by a military dictatorship, where hurricanes, irascibility, other difficulties take him far over a budget already large enough to be shared by two studios. The result is his personal favorite among his films. But deceptive marketing and cute robots contribute to its making back less than half of its costs. (previously)
posted by Joe Beese (65 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Perhaps the title contributed to the failure.
posted by ColdChef at 8:13 AM on September 7, 2009


I want to see this! I just watched The Exorcist for the first time recently and I thought the worst parts of it were the demon and occult crap. What I liked was the 1970s vibe, the insights into the lives of the priests and other characters, incidental things like that. This might be more to my liking.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:21 AM on September 7, 2009


Yes I think the title had a lot to do with it.

To Live and Die in L.A. is my favourite "limited by real-world physics" movie. Currently the region 1 blu-ray release is being delayed. Many people are afraid it's because Friedkin is messing with the colour timing and exposures the way he did with The French Connection, which turned out to be just about the worst picture quality on blu-ray of any big studio catalogue title to date. It's nuts what he did to French Connection on blu-ray... everyone's skin is green and the whites are completely blown out.
posted by autodidact at 8:21 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, it's Sorcerer. Sorcerer is very good; I agree that the title likely contributed to the film's failure, as this is no sword and sorcery film.

His latest film Bug was great, and nobody went to see that, either.
posted by eschatfische at 8:21 AM on September 7, 2009


Though he did do some innovative editing in "French Connection", I always sorta thought "Exorcist" would have been success in the hands of most any director short of the rankest TV Movie of the Week hack -- and even they would have had a stellar opening, since the book was wildly popular way before the movie hit the screen.
posted by RavinDave at 8:22 AM on September 7, 2009


Why couldn't you name the director and the film in the post? Why the mystery links--and to a YouTube video at that?
posted by LarryC at 8:26 AM on September 7, 2009 [14 favorites]


I remember seeing this film when it first came out. I don't know how I would feel about it 32 years later, but at the time, it was the first I had seen that I really wanted to walk out of, and I almost did. But I stayed until the bitter end, and then wondered why I didn't walk out. I'm sure my expectations (Friedkin film, on the heels of The Exorcist) played some role. (I don't remember the marketing or whether it was deceptive.) I do remember hating the film.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:26 AM on September 7, 2009


Doesn't help that the film has never been released to the home market in its proper aspect ratio. I've never bothered to watch it for this reason.

I always sorta thought "Exorcist" would have been success in the hands of most any director short of the rankest TV Movie of the Week hack

What an odd claim. Do you think the same about Rosemary's Baby? The Graduate?
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:34 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Based on the (amazing) concept alone, you'd think this movie would have suffered a crappy remake by now.

I watched The Final Countdown over the weekend and thought the same thing. Now whenever I despair that Hollywood seems to be putting out nothing but remakes and movies derived from existing properties, I can despair a little more. There's no shortage of good stuff out there to mine for remakes.
posted by hifiparasol at 8:35 AM on September 7, 2009


Even Friedkin haters (and they are legion) will admit that "Sorcerer" comes pretty close to being the goods. (And props have to be given to the "Wages of Fear", a film whose ending I think about nearly every time I get too cheerful and goofy while driving to great music.) The stupifying nihilism of "To Live and Die in LA" more or less killed any interest I might have had in Friedkin's subsequent output. After all, the pointlessness of existence has to include the pointlessness of movies, no?
posted by Faze at 8:39 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


killed any interest I might have had in Friedkin's subsequent output

Well you should thank it for sparing you The Guardian alone.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:42 AM on September 7, 2009


Just watched the trailer; I'll have to see if this is is available on disc. This has me going back to my Tangerine Dream CDs now. Thanks, Joe Beese.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:47 AM on September 7, 2009


I can't remember if it's in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls or another book, but Friedkin comes across as such an arrogant and jerky shit that when he starts getting into trouble making Sorcerer, you're rooting for him to fail.

From teh Wikipedia: An episode of The Simpsons titled "Mr. Plow" featured a parody of this movie as Homer crosses a rickety bridge. The short scene is scored with very Tangerine Dream-like music.

Heh, I always wondered about that scene's music.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:49 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why couldn't you name the director and the film in the post?

post.title

Sorcerer is one of those films which must be on your 100 greatest list in order for your 100 greatest list to begin to be credible.
posted by 3.2.3 at 8:50 AM on September 7, 2009


You Should See the Other Guy: Doesn't help that the film has never been released to the home market in its proper aspect ratio. I've never bothered to watch it for this reason.

This makes me sad, because now I am as curious as can be.

French Connection was all kinds of great, but other than the Exorcist, it's the only thing I've seen of Friedkin's.
posted by paisley henosis at 8:53 AM on September 7, 2009


I always sorta thought "Exorcist" would have been success in the hands of most any director short of the rankest TV Movie of the Week hack

Then Friedkin's done his job, because you watched a movie that could have been awful and walked away from it thinking anyone could have done it -- he made it look easy, as the saying goes. The spectacle of the little girl possessed and puking and spewing profanities could, in clumsier hands, have been unintentionally hilarious. Friedkin makes it work, in large part I think because he doesn't treat the material as genre filmmaking; subtract the fantastic elements and you have a movie as convincing and realistic as the best of '70s Hollywood, which is exactly what you need in order to sell the fantastic elements.

(Even if I suspect the milieu of The Exorcist had more to do with Friedkin just not being a hack than anything else...i.e., it was less that Friedkin wanted to make a horror movie that you could take seriously than it was Friedkin just took filmmaking seriously, and happened to be making a horror movie this time out. Spielberg's Jaws, a year or two later, fits the same mold.)

Re: Sorcerer, I got to see the second half of it some years ago on IFC, and sadly never got to see any more. From what I could tell, though, it's a terrific movie. I think I might have to track it down now, too.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:08 AM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


I can't remember if it's in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Probably it is, yeah. Paul Schrader also comes across as a serious douchebag. Um...except these are people who have created some of my favorite movies, so I found myself cringing more than anything else at tales of their douchebaggery. (I think maybe the only person in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls who reads 100% sympathetic to me is Martin Scorsese.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:13 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


LarryC: Why couldn't you name the director and the film in the post? Why the mystery links--and to a YouTube video at that?

I don't mind mystery links, actually. I think they're fab. I like clicking on them and figuring out what it was all about.

But there weren't any here. I mean there weren't any links. Just a mystery.

What was the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time? None of the links actually says.
posted by koeselitz at 9:18 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


...and I want cute robots. Where are my cute robots?
posted by koeselitz at 9:20 AM on September 7, 2009


Re: Exorcist ... most everything you're crediting Friedkin for (particularly the tone) was in the novel and evident in the script. I'm not saying he was a hack. I am saying it didn't take any special vision to bring Blatty's vision to the screen. It wasn't like the chase scene in "French Connection" (which was an exquisite feat of editing and cinematography and probably still hasn't been surpassed). The novel was powerful and resonated with people; most everyone I knew in my small town -- from school kids passing around dog-earred copies in class to grammas reading copies confiscated from the kids -- had already read it. We ll seemed to zero in on the same elements. I would hope any competent director would zero in on them too.
posted by RavinDave at 9:22 AM on September 7, 2009


The novel was powerful and resonated with people; most everyone I knew in my small town -- from school kids passing around dog-earred copies in class to grammas reading copies confiscated from the kids -- had already read it. We ll seemed to zero in on the same elements. I would hope any competent director would zero in on them too.

What I'm saying, though, is that strong material does not always equal a strong film. I mean, to go back to Jaws for a second, Benchley's novel is dreck, but Spielberg, et al, are able to draw something out of it that is amazing to watch -- and that kind of adaptation is more common than people seem to realize (I'd include Fincher's Fight Club*, Mary Harron's American Psycho**, and to a degree -- because it's a good book in many ways, but it's certainly not the equal of the movie it inspired -- The Godfather in that count). But what's way more common than that is a great novel that just doesn't work on the screen, either due to directorial incompetence or because of the sheer difficulty of the source material (hi there, Watchmen!). In the case of The Exorcist, yeah, it works on the page, but when you think about...oh, I don't know...just how many great child actors you've ever seen, ever (I can think of maybe...three), and what exactly you'd have to put everyone involved through to make that shit work, and the perils of looking totally ridiculous if it doesn't work, which could so easily have happened...I'm sorry, but any number of good directors could not have made that movie. Friedkin had to do a whole lot more than just paint by the numbers to get it right.

*Based on an interesting but flawed novel that has none of the humor or charm of its adaptation.

**Based on a total piece of shit.

posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:38 AM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sorcerer is one of those films which must be on your 100 greatest list in order for your 100 greatest list to begin to be credible.

I saw it on initial release way back when. Big screen, big sound. One long, beautiful trip to hell that offers no particular redemption to anyone. A must-see for anyone with a sunny disposition.
posted by philip-random at 10:05 AM on September 7, 2009


American Psycho is NOT a piece of shit. It just isn't. It's a vile piece of living, breathing ... what the f*** is that? Oh my god, it's humanity.
posted by philip-random at 10:07 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ah ok the cute robots were the ones in the other 1977 movie that everyone went to instead. I get it.
posted by rlk at 10:09 AM on September 7, 2009


Loved Sorcerer, love Wages of Fear too. I think I'd have to give the log-clearing scene to Friedkin, though ultimately I'd still have to say WoF is the 'better film'.

Where Sorcerer excels is in conveying the psychological stress of what is going on; by the end of the film, Roy Schneider's character is really cracking up and that tension is remarkably tangible to the audience. Tangerine Dream are pretty hit or miss but this is a good score, the cinematography is great, everybody's firing on all cylinders. Love the title at the end too (first time that was done?).

Also, 2nding that Bug is very underrated BTW, well worth checking out.
posted by stinkycheese at 10:10 AM on September 7, 2009


American Psycho is NOT a piece of shit. It just isn't. It's a vile piece of living, breathing ... what the f*** is that? Oh my god, it's humanity.

American Psycho blows. It's a long dull slog of book that had some kind of point about how yuppies suck that probably could have been better-made in a 2000-word story. It's just empty shock value, and those are the good parts -- the bad parts are waiting around for scores of pages for something else pointless and shocking to happen and stir you from your fuzzy semi-doze. Like Walter in The Big Lebowski, my feeling about such bland nihilism is basically that its author is a coward -- or possibly fourteen, or maybe just a poseur. It's amazing to me that this stupid book is still a part of the popular consciousness, to be honest.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:14 AM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Yeah, chalk me up as a huge fan of Bug. It couldn't help but fail, since it was perhaps the most terribly marketed movie of all time (the studio tried to sell it as a gory creature feature, so people were justifiably angry when they found themselves watching a talky theatrical adaptation instead) but I was so terribly proud of everyone involved.
posted by hermitosis at 10:15 AM on September 7, 2009


I really love the Wages of Fear, but never seen this. Thanks for reminding me!
posted by brundlefly at 10:34 AM on September 7, 2009


He directed Jade. JADE! For that alone he will spend near eternity in purgatory. I mean, how can you make a supposed "erotic thriller" with Linda Fiorentino and Angie Everhart so goddamn boring and with so little, you know, eroticism. He directed Jade, and so he deserves to die!

Uh, well, okay not die but at least to feel a little bit of shame.
posted by Justinian at 11:04 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Loved Sorcerer, love Wages of Fear too.

Ditto.

And thanks for the reminder of their existence; they are both films that don't get talked about much. I've watched both multiple times, but it has probably been a good ten years since I last watched Sorcerer. I remember when I saw "Wages of Fear" as a videotape rental plucked from the Foreign Film section and I remember thinking, "Whoa. How long has this been going on? Why didn't I know about this film before?"
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 11:29 AM on September 7, 2009


Well, now I know where one of my favorite GI Joe episodes got half of its plot.
posted by mgrichmond at 11:31 AM on September 7, 2009


kittens for breakfast: "subtract the fantastic elements and you have a movie as convincing and realistic as the best of '70s Hollywood"

I have to single out this comment because I think the backstory segments in Sorcerer are the greatest sequences of cinéma vérité storytelling I've ever seen. I wouldn't hestitate to place them up against The Battle of Algiers.

Exhibit A. (starts slow. pays off.)
posted by Joe Beese at 11:42 AM on September 7, 2009


I meant to add that, like Kubrick, Friedkin wanted his home video releases to be full-frame.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:45 AM on September 7, 2009


Count me in as another fan of "Bug". That was another film which was badly marketed.
posted by cazoo at 11:51 AM on September 7, 2009


RE: AMERICAN PSYCHO: It's amazing to me that this stupid book is still a part of the popular consciousness, to be honest.

and yet it is. I rest my case.
posted by philip-random at 11:55 AM on September 7, 2009


American Psycho, the book: shite (sorry philip). The movie, however: all kinds of brilliant.
posted by jokeefe at 12:07 PM on September 7, 2009


and yet it is. I rest my case.

Other things that remain a part of the popular consciousness to my vast astonishment would include Sarah Palin, Britney Spears, Bret Michaels, and auteur Michael Bay. WHERE IS YOUR CASE NOW, MY FRIEND. WHERE IS YOUR CASE NOW.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:14 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Other things that remain a part of the popular consciousness to my vast astonishment would include Sarah Palin, Britney Spears, Bret Michaels, and auteur Michael Bay. WHERE IS YOUR CASE NOW, MY FRIEND. WHERE IS YOUR CASE NOW.

American Psycho (the novel) was published 18 years ago and yes, it's still having an impact. In 18 years, I'd be happy to broach Sarah, Britney, Bret and Michael's continued relevance with you. I'm guessing only Britney will get a pass.

For the record, I didn't say I liked it American Psycho (the novel). I merely implied that you can't just fob it off as an excerable piece of valueless, meaningless, misanthropic shit. I stand by that implication.
posted by philip-random at 12:35 PM on September 7, 2009


kittens for breakfast: Mary Harron's American Psycho**

**Based on a total piece of shit.


philip-random: American Psycho is NOT a piece of shit. It just isn't. It's a vile piece of living, breathing ... what the f*** is that? Oh my god, it's humanity.

kittens for breakfast: American Psycho blows. It's a long dull slog of book that had some kind of point about how yuppies suck that probably could have been better-made in a 2000-word story. It's just empty shock value, and those are the good parts -- the bad parts are waiting around for scores of pages for something else pointless and shocking to happen and stir you from your fuzzy semi-doze. Like Walter in The Big Lebowski, my feeling about such bland nihilism is basically that its author is a coward -- or possibly fourteen, or maybe just a poseur. It's amazing to me that this stupid book is still a part of the popular consciousness, to be honest.

kittens, I just wanted to thank you for saying what needed to be said. Why is it making something ultraviolent or throwing in serial killers makes everybody love it? At this point, it's utterly boring; and American Psycho might not be the most vapid example of this ever-increasing trend, but it's certainly the most pretentious and the most self-important. Really, yes, we know: the 80's were supposed to be the 'me' decade, Huey Lewis & The News sucked, yuppies are evil, fine. But there's nothing more to the book! Nothing beyond that miniscule point! A point which, I might add, you could very easily question: who are these soulless yuppies? Where did they exist? What damage really did they cause? What gave rise to them? The book answers none of these questions; it only dances around saying "hee hee! we're evil yuppies! look at us evil yuppies!"

Though I'm no fan whatsoever of the movie, I can grant that it's much better than the book; Bret Easton Ellis is a ship that never really sailed, a hip writer who never had the balls or guts to do anything that wasn't mental masturbation wrapped up to be cool and indie-popular. (Maybe jokeefe got something out of the movie that I totally missed; I don't know.)

philip.random, you can be incoherent and claim incomprehensibly that merely being popular equals being insightful, but can you really give an argument for why that awful, empty, badly-written book represents 'humanity' to you?
posted by koeselitz at 12:40 PM on September 7, 2009


philip-random: For the record, I didn't say I liked it American Psycho (the novel). I merely implied that you can't just fob it off as an excerable piece of valueless, meaningless, misanthropic shit. I stand by that implication.

I read it twice thinking I'd actually missed something, and finally came to the conclusion I hadn't; its strength relies entirely on the reader fetishizing serial killers. And not even in some interesting, revenge-y, annihilation-of-the-self Cormac McCarthy sort of way; just the mundane 'ha ha I'm killing people' way.

All right, so you merely implied that I can't fob it off; imply why I can't. Imply what's actually of value in that heap of words.
posted by koeselitz at 12:43 PM on September 7, 2009


kittens, I just wanted to thank you for saying what needed to be said. Why is it making something ultraviolent or throwing in serial killers makes everybody love it? At this point, it's utterly boring; and American Psycho might not be the most vapid example of this ever-increasing trend, but it's certainly the most pretentious and the most self-important. Really, yes, we know: the 80's were supposed to be the 'me' decade, Huey Lewis & The News sucked, yuppies are evil, fine. But there's nothing more to the book! Nothing beyond that miniscule point! A point which, I might add, you could very easily question: who are these soulless yuppies? Where did they exist? What damage really did they cause? What gave rise to them? The book answers none of these questions; it only dances around saying "hee hee! we're evil yuppies! look at us evil yuppies!"

Well, you're welcome, and yeah...it's just not a book that says anything as meaningful or important as it wants you to think it does. I really think it's a work of fakery that could easily be called the literary equivalent of the Piss Christ. I'm not even sure it knows the world it "skewers" -- it's set in New York, but wasn't Ellis from California? Even if he relocated at some point, he couldn't have been there very long at the time he wrote the book, so I really have to question whether he was satirizing a world that, to be blunt about it, he knew from anything other than TV and movies at all. I mean, leaving aside that it's just not a very well-written book, it also strikes me as a very insincere book. And as far as the "shocking" fixation on serial killers*, etc., goes, it kinda makes me think of that bit from the Ghost World comic where Enid's bitching about the creepy hipster guy and his 'zine about "edgy" stuff, and says something to the effect of, "This guy thinks he's so cool and out there and daring, but he's really just into all the same bullshit as the rest of middle America. I mean, have you seen Jerry Springer?"

*Full disclosure: Pretty big horror fan over here, not so much a fan of the Faces-of-Death school of morbidity for its own sake that sometimes passes for horror. I think Bret Ellis is especially galling to me because at the time that American Psycho became a sensation, there was -- totally ignored by Serious Readers -- a quiet revolution happening in horror fiction not unlike the New Wave SF of the '70s, and along comes THIS toolbox with his pretentious catalog of mindless murder scenes to grab all the attention! Which would likely have never happened had it not been the popularity of an earlier book that, you know, I liked when I was fifteen and all, but is revealed now as basically being a decent if improbable YA novel with sex and drugs in it.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:06 PM on September 7, 2009


For the record, I didn't say I liked it American Psycho (the novel). I merely implied that you can't just fob it off as an excerable piece of valueless, meaningless, misanthropic shit. I stand by that implication.

Actually, of the words you've chosen, I think I only said it was "shit," although that does also mean it's execrable, yeah. But anyway, I don't think popularity is alone an indicator of quality. I mean, you don't want to get me started on examples because we'll be here all day, but I am sure you can think of plenty of things that have hung around for years that you think are worthless. I don't wanna turn this thread into something unrelated to Friedkin (any more than we already have), because it's kinda rude and because I think Friedkin's just a vastly more interesting subject than Ellis, but I too would like to know what you get from this book. I'll even not reply! (...Probably. Not reply. I'll try not to.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:11 PM on September 7, 2009


uh-oh, I'm sensing a derail ... and I really do like Sorcerer.

philip.random, you can be incoherent and claim incomprehensibly that merely being popular equals being insightful, but can you really give an argument for why that awful, empty, badly-written book represents 'humanity' to you?

1. it was written by a human; it sprung from a human imagination ... and no, Mr. Ellis did not just write it for the money. As I recall, he had great difficulty even getting it published.

2. I was there at the time (a young adult trying to make it in the vile 1980s) and then along came American Psycho and holy shit! somebody finally had the guts to say it, to go as low as one could possibly go.

3. The U2 concert sequence is pure satirical genius.
posted by philip-random at 1:12 PM on September 7, 2009


... but yes, anymore comment on this should be META, not that I'm suggesting we go there. I honestly do not want to spend my Labor Day defending American Psycho, or Michael Moore that matter. What the hell have I got myself into? I'm not even American.
posted by philip-random at 1:16 PM on September 7, 2009


I'm with Philip, American Psycho the book is awesome. Wildly hilarious and at times terrifying. There's no real take-away message, but then that might be intentional. Goes on a bit too long, but the good parts are mind-blowing. The movie, on the other hand, blows. Unimaginative script, cheap sets, flat cinematography, dull acting. It caught almost none of the tone of the book and very little of the humor. I turned it off about half-way through. I can't figure out why people like it.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 1:27 PM on September 7, 2009


Back on point, I was really sort of hoping that I could find an uploaded version of "Nightcrawlers," an episode of the 1980s "Twilight Zone" revival that Friedkin directed and that was about the most intense thing that had been on commercial television to that point. Because I love the first season of '80s TZ more than I can say, I have the (overpriced! poorly packaged!!) boxed set of it, including "Nightcrawlers," and it holds up. I highly doubt it's remembered by much of anyone at this point, and that's really too bad. An insightful review of the show is found here.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:29 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I meant to add that, like Kubrick, Friedkin wanted his home video releases to be full-frame.

This is something that's always bugged me because I imagine the choices offered at the time were full frame or pan and scan. Any idiot would choose full frame. However, if the options are OAR or full screen, I think most would choose OAR. Very few movies were ever offered on VHS in widescreen.

I think if Kubrick were given the choice today, when the majority of tvs are widescreen, he'd choose it. In fact, I think the most recent issue of his films on dvd are all OAR, even though the original releases on dvd were "director preferred" full frame.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 1:52 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sorcerer + Wages of Fear = A swell double bill. Different styles of storytelling, both excellent.
posted by ovvl at 2:02 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


One interesting thing about The Exorcist which I noticed when I saw it again years later is the sophisticated analog audio design, with its beautifully sculpted drones, quite advanced for the time. A well-deserved Oscar for Sound Editing, as I later learned.

And of course, Mercedes McCambridge just kills as the voice of Satan. She was a great actress, also thinking of her in Giant and Johnny Guitar...
posted by ovvl at 2:12 PM on September 7, 2009


What I got from the movie, that I didn't get from the book (and, mea culpa, I couldn't read it in anything close to its entirety because the violence turned my stomach, and life is too short) was the satire. The movie was funny-- genuinely, laugh out loud, delightedly "oh that's clever!" funny. I read a review which said, more or less, that the movie had rescued the book from itself, and I agree. It got all the social commentary and left out the horrific attacks on women's bodies. IMO.
posted by jokeefe at 2:35 PM on September 7, 2009


Within hours after being dropped off at college by my parents back in the 70s, one of the guys from my dorm stuck his head into my room and said, "Hey! A bunch of us are going to go see two movies for buck down at one of the big lecture halls. Wanna go?"

With no more information than that, I agreed.

I get to the lecture hall, and the two movies they're showing are, in order:

Eraserhead

Sorcerer

Welcome to college.
posted by Relay at 2:46 PM on September 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


Re: full-frame = Kubrick shot his later films full-frame - the versions you saw in the theatre were masked at top and bottom, (this is why you see the helicopter shadow in the opening titles of the full-frame version of The Shining).
posted by jettloe at 4:31 PM on September 7, 2009


James Cameron is another director who shot movies in the VHS era with full-frame in mind. He had a self-designed (of course) method of marking up his video monitors to allow him to compose for 1.33:1 and widescreen in the same take. There's actually more picture information of his full-frame video releases than there is in the OAR versions, because he just omits the top and bottom matte for most of the shots.
posted by autodidact at 5:54 PM on September 7, 2009


"more picture information IN his full-frame video releases" ...
posted by autodidact at 5:55 PM on September 7, 2009


"my feeling about such bland nihilism is basically that its author is a coward -- or possibly fourteen, or maybe just a poseur. "

Just like JP Sartre. I'd put American Psycho up there with Blood Meridian. Most of the book is in the references, not in the words or the plot. Hell, the violence is nowhere near the point. And it's in the same category in terms of fatalism.
Which, too, seems to be Friedkin's themes at least in Sorcerer and To Live and Die in L.A. The latter is worth seeing just for Dafoe.
And in terms of atmosphere, up there with Manhunter (although Mann seems to have gotten slicker and Friedkin seems to have gotten grittier).
But they've all got interesting comments on what 'evil' is and what 'good' is. And what society has to say on it. Or what it abdicates saying on it. Or glosses over and ignores in order to feel less keenly the chaos and death that is always not as far away as we might like.
There's a lot there to be said about what effort accomplishes what, if anything. And what is really 'criminal.'

What I find really funny is Roy Scheider being angry that his character wasn't shown as sympathetically. Box office stuff and film business (actor's image, etc) aside, that's totally not at all where that movie was going or needed to be. I think you feel the end of the film more deeply really. *SPOILER*
I mean, he's not at all a good guy. He was a petty armed robber. Robbed a church if I remember. On the run from the mob. Ok, so he goes through all this hell while he's hiding out. Delivers the tnt (for another sort of criminal syndicate, the oil company - and we see how nasty they are in the 3rd world in the film, but they're legitimate in the eyes of society) gets his 'reward' for the most part. And then, bang, he's killed anyway.
So yeah, what control over his fate did he have? If he was a good man, that would have detracted from that theme, and the poignancy of the film and his character.
You'd say "aw, poor guy" but in this case - he was a man of the world. The assumption here, in the film, is that bad men sort of make their fate. They control death, sort of, because they deal it.
But under that is the question - is that what our society assumes? The potent man is the one who destroys? Oppresses? Etc? Yeah, seems like it. So in showing him as a bad guy, albeit a petty one - but one who does strive over terrible odds, that drains the mystique from violence, horror, etc.
Nihilism in this case (or these cases) is revelation, not assertion.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:33 AM on September 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'll add - the violence, the terror of the crossing on the bridge (when the tree hits the truck, one of the very few instances where a film shook me up) all of this pathos is revealed to be lacking in real world effect. So the amount of it, the shock of it, the depth of it, is all lost in that banality.
Most of the people concerned are just animals, with no real story to them and no goals beyond a greater, temporary, rudderless animal pleasure, for which they kill, deceive, etc.

And Scheider's character seems to have been transformed into a human by the experience, I think he's under no illusions at the end that he still lives in and is ruled by the more banal and meaningless world.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:43 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just like JP Sartre. I'd put American Psycho up there with Blood Meridian.

Dude, what the fuckSORRY, I SAID I WOULDN'T DO THIS; I WILL HOWEVER SAY AT THIS TIME THAT I WOULD PUT "HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER" UP THERE WITH AKIRA KUROSAWA. PS: William Friedkin is awesome!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:13 AM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


What?
posted by Smedleyman at 9:34 AM on September 8, 2009


I mean, I know some of y'all get liberal street cred for going off on some folks who are more conservatives here, but y'know, Gore Vidal liked it. Said it was a "wonderfully comic novel," and I think most folks miss the metaphorical sphere where the book actually lies as opposed to being outraged by the subject matter.
(What's shit is films like "American Psycho 2" and other money grubbing ventures looking to cash in on exactly the "‘ethical denunciation," the book makes -"where the reader cannot but face the real horror behind the serial killer phenomenon")

So too, Blood Meridian has what? rape, murder, necrophilia, etc. etc. and that's in the first 10 or so pages, all of which is just metaphor. Both works are extremely well-crafted, well researched and expertly controlled in the use of the English language - in Ellis' case with Advertising and pop culture and magazine references, in McCarthy's case with abundant and fruity use of period language and a wealth of mystical and cultural and folklore references on every page.
They both have (modern) gothic elements of that pleasing terror and I think that does link to Sorcerer specifically because it shares a lot of the same elements - especially Blood Meridian with that sort of adventure horror angle.
All the stock characters from gothic horror are there in each work. I don't think it's a stretch at all to link the three and I'm not surprised Fight Club came to mind as well, since it's transgressional fiction too, as well as violent.
A Clockwork Orange, I'd think should be included in the discussion given the gothic convention of psychological terror (and Alex as a Byronic hero).
And I think I've made a decent case for Scheider's character in that regard as well.
So while I'm not disputing your opinion of American Psycho - insofar as arguing your favorite band sux is silly and taste is subjective - I disagree with simplistically dismissing it as 'shit' and as nihilistic work as baseless or juvenile as well.
And I sought to champion that topic here, since it is, I think, pretty alloy with the themes in Sorcerer.
And I don't think that my assertions were spurious, if that's what you were insinuating. Plus Ellis alludes to "No Exit" a number of times in American Psycho. It's an obvious theme.

Not liking something does not equal thinking it's utterly worthless.
I'm not a big Shostakovich fan. Doesn't mean I can't mention Mahler when talking about and comparing his style and influences. Doesn't mean I'm pro-Stalin if I talk about him being one of the great composers and worthy of note. You can say his work is derivative, sure. But if you're talking about something - why? You can't just say it's derivative shit and dismiss it because, clearly, there's a method there. And it's easy to miss. And that's not the same as not liking it. There's nothing to the music of Britney Spears and that's obvious. She's merely famous.
But Shotakovich (et.al) deserves a more critical look. That criticism can be negative, obviously, but, like Friedkin being an asshole (Shostakovich was obsessive compulsive. Who cares?) - some criticism is more measured and informed and relevant than others.

I'd take Natural Born Killers as within the same 'fatalism' and 'nihilism' genre that Friedkin seems to like to explore as an example of a failure. And indeed, the same sort of themes in American Psycho. But it belabors the point and does it in a ham fisted manner. Perhaps this was by intent. But then, you're still stuck with going over the same point the same way. Ebert loved it. And I agree with everything he says about it - it's not about violence, it's about how we respond to violence. And I think it is a more significant film set in the context of its time (in contrast to Sorcerer which is more timeless in the execution).
Doesn't mean I have to like it tho. And I don't. And I respect the same deal in other people.

But I think there's a difference between saying "this is shit" and "I don't like it." Or responding to what I thought was a reasonable, measured response and consideration of the topic with "dude, what the fuck."
Not sure why I deserve the venom here.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:04 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not sure why I deserve the venom here.

No venom intended -- I was genuinely floored by a comparison that to me is as bizarre as comparing T-Pain to Miles Davis. I mean, you said this, not me:

Both works are extremely well-crafted, well researched and expertly controlled in the use of the English language - in Ellis' case with Advertising and pop culture and magazine references, in McCarthy's case with abundant and fruity use of period language and a wealth of mystical and cultural and folklore references on every page.

Now, I think it's pretty plain that McCarthy is the man of the match if we're talking about just plain writing chops, that if his voice is a full-throated operatic bellow then Ellis's is a mewling little squeak, but that's totally subjective; but if you really think that there's any equivalence between "abundant and fruity use of period language and a wealth of mystical and cultural and folklore references on every page" and having a subscription to Vanity Fair, I'm sorry, but no, you are just mistaken. Blood Meridian is one of the most ambitious novels, in my view, ever attempted. American Psycho is...not that.

Unfortunately, I can't get any deeper into your post right now, but with any luck, someone else will come along; there's a lot here of interest, even the stuff I can't agree with.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:22 AM on September 8, 2009


"No venom intended"
Ok, fair enough. Tough medium for tone. My misunderstanding.

"Blood Meridian is one of the most ambitious novels, in my view, ever attempted. American Psycho is...not that."
Ok, I can't really argue with that. But that's more of an argument of scale really. You want to argue Blood Meridian is a superior work overall, far more dense and rich, I'm with you.
I disagree that Ellis' execution is inferior, but I suspect most folks (not you particularly) suspect this is so because of the subject matter. Vanity Fair, GQ, etc. do have their own language - as popular culture has its rhythms and idioms as well - which is why I think Natural Born Killers fails, in terms of execution, where American Psycho succeeds in satirizing that.
Maybe NBK is just more ingrained in its time. As you say, it's subjective.

But I'm just saying they (American Psycho and Blood Meridian) are equivalent in a matter of form and share many themes - gothic horror, fatalism, nihilism - with Friedkin's work and that those themes, particularly transgressive violence, are not necessarily juvenile or born of a poseur.
I think To Live and Die in L.A. takes a lot of flak for that. And for being so 80s. But in some cases, the reflection of the style is what's being imparted as content. As I say, in terms of revelation.
You want to argue 'better,' yeah, Blood Meridian is Beethoven's 9th (or Christ on the Mount of Olives, if we're taking metaphor over medium) and American Psycho isn't.
But I'm arguing against your criticism/point about "bland nihilism." And that this is sometimes by design and has merit. So - not Ludwig Spohr's Last Judgement is the equal of Beethoven's Christ on the Mount of Olives, but rather - hey, both these guys are Romanticists and oratorios are their own form, not 1/2 assed operas and Spohr did do it with a purpose and was a serious composer (even if he's no Beethoven) and his work shows the same skill in execution, if not, ceded, the genius, Beethoven had. At least in this idiom. (Although Blood Meridian is no Divine Comedy)
Although yeah, a lot of work tries to get passed off as 'edgy' or whatnot that attempts transgressive violence for its own sake and is utterly lacking in depth.
I don't think that can be applied to American Psycho (again, the book. The film - yeah, I think you can say that), though from your inference I take it that's not your only beef with the book. Those criticisms I'll cede. Since it does have flaws and since I'm short on time myself.

But, by extension - I don't think that (these themes in AP, BM, NBK, etc. being without merit and/or juvenile, "bland nihilism", etc.) can be applied to Friedkin's work, especially Sorcerer. Since it's gothic, etc. all the stuff I've mentioned.
...unless you're not making that claim. In which case I suppose, my counterpoint is a bit too broad.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:06 PM on September 8, 2009


I'll step in and see if I can say a few things that are at least coherent.

I know, Smedleyman, that there are many very simple arguments abroad which attempt to discount American Psycho by simply stating that it is pointlessly violent and nihilistic. And I know that it seems as though the novel deserves at least a bit more of a nuanced discussion than that. This is true; it's not simply violent, and bare violence itself is no reason to discount a novel; nor, frankly, is 'nihilism,' which in the case of a novel is more of a motif than a pure stance toward reality, since novels are made up of words and a real nihilist ought to simply stop talking.

But the 'nihilist motif' is actually pretty common at this point in western lit; in fact, the example you bring up (Blood Meridian) is actually a pretty good one, one of many novels in which the annihilation of all points to something else, something almost ineffable.

In fact, I think the reason people call American Psycho a 'nihilist novel' is because the annihilation in that novel doesn't actually point to anything at all; or maybe it points to itself. It's really a veritable study in annihilation; chapter by chapter, page by page, it's tearing everything apart into its constituents, removing every bit of meaningful, broad, thoroughgoing thoughtfulness. Yes, Ellis clearly does this intentionally. That might be why he chose the NY yuppies of the 80s as a subject: that way, he's not tempted to make any statements about America as a whole or to see any meaningful lessons or trite sentiments to be drawn out. In other words, he's not tempted to see something, so he's free to be as intent as possible on painting the empty drudge. Yes, that is a project he's got there, a theme. Is it an interesting or compelling one? Who knows.

One last thing: I don't think you can separate theme from execution so easily. You seem to want to say that, if his novels aren't quite as great as Cormac McCarthy's, Bret Easton Ellis at least has quality execution. But in novels more than in any other form, I think, it seems like execution is the same thing as theme. The words are the substance and the form. Bret Easton Ellis has always seemed like a one-note writer to me; he can do interesting things, witty things, sometimes even intelligent things, but I'm never really surprised by him. I can't picture him ever writing a beautiful passage for the sake of writing a beautiful passage, loving the bare words of it, like Cormac McCarthy does at the beginning of Suttree in his descriptive section on Knoxville; he's never shocked me the way McCarthy does during the Judge's speech on annihilating the unknown in Blood Meridian. For lack of a better word, American Psycho really is bland, intentionally so: it makes this shocking, horrific violence boring. I don't like that much, and while I can get past dislike when it's for some purpose, for a novel whose very point is pointlessness? I really don't know.
posted by koeselitz at 8:34 PM on September 8, 2009


I lived in NYC for a smidgen of the 1980s and I found American Psycho hilarious but probably overlong for its point.

Why is it making something ultraviolent or throwing in serial killers makes everybody love it?

In this, AP was quite ahead of its time. Today it's a commonplace, with referential violence in e.g. Tarantino part of the modern approach to filmmaking. As such I have not seen the film and have felt its impact is probably factorially smaller -- a drop in the ocean today.

I can't explain how the AP lurid ludicrosity was the perfect response to the excess of the 80s. Maybe you had to be there. But then again, I was the only one in the theater who laughed in Wall Street when Charlie Sheen asks the New York night sky, "Who am I?" Badness squared with lack of personal insight is satirically hilarious. A perfect metaphor.

So, no, it wasn't merely skewering yuppies, who were not yet -- at time of publication -- thoroughly marginalized by hipsters and other self-aware urban types. It was skewering an entire culture of materialism and throwing its emptiness in the reader's face. The pop culture references blackening the page like passenger pigeons are themselves a parody of a 1970s/80s trend in literature.

At the same time, AP is really a type of book-length snark, a college-grad's spit-take on the overly serious world of modern fiction. Snark at length may eventually bore (case in point, for me: Matt Taibbi). But even in this the book turns out to have been ahead of its time. But it couldn't have been published later and had the same effect: it was a product of its time.

A great novel, perhaps not, but one that is more interesting than the apparent sum of its parts, definitely.
posted by dhartung at 11:37 PM on September 8, 2009


“Yes, that is a project he's got there, a theme. Is it an interesting or compelling one? Who knows.”

In the case of American Psycho – yeah, I think part of it, I noticed, though the seemingly endless slick magazine language and clothing descriptions, etc. etc. the banality was such that I found myself finding the violence a kind of relief – except that the scenes of violence seem to get worse and worse and less cathartic (in the sense of relief from the tension from the godawful yuppie surface magazine crap) and less well written and coherent really.

And I think that was by design. It is the only book that has ever disgusted or offended me. Which makes me think that this reaction – through the framing of the work – not the words themselves or the plot or subject matter – were more the point. Ellis wants you to feel sick at reading another soulless exploration of men’s shirt patterns, cigars, etc. etc. and purposefully blurs it, reiterates it endlessly, stretches it out so it's too long, etc. etc..

This is similar to what Dante does in the Divine Comedy – his muse is Virgil so he uses the form of poetry and shifts poetry styles from gross to sublime - more noticablly and overtly – since he tells you straight up “you in the little boat behind me, try and keep up” and then kicks in the afterburners when he gets to heaven and there’s triple meanings and references in each phrase and even pieces of the form have meaning and reference to classical styles and cultural and religious meaning - Ellis doesn’t go that way.
Whether because he doesn’t have the chops (although I’ve never seen the equal of Dante – who introduced me to Meister Eckhart and a plethora of other thinkers and continually yields new meanings, he's unparalleled even by Mozart or Bach, IMHO) or because it’s what the story demands, doesn’t much matter.

And that’s why I think some criticism on that level fails. It’s as though someone says “this guy is being a dick.” And you know the guy. And he’s not a dick. But yeah, just then he is being a dick. So you have to ask – ok, why? And as it turns out he’s picking a fight. And a specific kind of fight where he's the bad guy. To teach you that even if you're winning, violence sucks.

Sort of what’s going on with Ellis. He’s intentionally provoking that emotional reaction and offering this materialism and pop culture emptiness as relief to put you in the same space that Sartre invokes (in No Exit, et.al).

Frankly, I didn’t get the gut reaction to No Exit until I read American Psycho. I mean – fuck it, just leave Hell man. Anything’s got to be better than living in that room with those two crazy broads. So too – anything’s got to be better than spending the rest of your life with two asshole breeders just so you can torture one. Or spending eternity with two people at each others’ throats just so you can get some genital validation.

But Ellis introduces that tension/relief (which is no relief so you need more tension) cycle, in form.
And I think it’s perfectly valid criticism to say that the work itself – looking at it as a traditional work – suffers greatly for it.
But I think that’s the difference there in what I’m saying between use of words and form. McCarthy’s story is more through the words brought by the metaphor and allusion and so forth. Ellis uses the words as a conveyance/reflection just to put you in that headspace.

So yeah, it is bland. And I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to not like it. And it’s supposed to be pointless – exactly to deliver the emotional truth that Sartre was intellectually evoking. And obviously there are other themes. But yes, it’s not supposed to be liked, well received, etc. It's supposed to make you nauseous. (Heh. Y'know, 'cos Sarte wrote Nausea and...uh... *cough*

(It goes without saying American Psycho is close to other Sartre’s works as well – Nausea comes first to mind – plenty of parallels between Pat Bateman and Antoine Roquentin. Of course, AP is sort of an inversion of some of the themes – Bateman is handsome, Roquentin is ugly (or are they?) – etc. etc. – and Bateman doesn’t accept responsibility for his freedom and so you feel the oppressive nature of a life without commitment, one that is only surface, etc. – the flip side of existentialism. The saying of ‘no’)
If that makes sense.
Although I think McCarthy, especially in Blood Meridian – but in, say, The Road too, plays with the words on the page. Particularly because he doesn’t use traditional punctuation and so forth.
So I think McCarthy does it – in addition to what he’s doing with the language and sometimes in concert with it.
Sort of like what Bach does with repetitive patterns and so forth – sometimes the notes serve just as music, sometimes the notes just carry the form and sometimes they allude to previous forms and other notes and sometimes all three or any other combinations.

I’m saying Ellis is allowing the notes to carry the form in American Psycho – which is akin to what McCarthy (and Bach) does.
With the understanding that McCarthy, like Bach, does much more. But that goes to – in the case of American Psycho – the kind of story being told. As you say.

That Ellis might fail in other work doesn’t matter to how American Psycho had to be told. It works just fine the way it is and is, for lack of a better term, perfect in that regard.
In terms of Ellis being a one-note writer – meh. I’m not really championing him. I’m just saying this work in this regard.

I mean, take two guys bowling. One champion bowler and, say, me. If I bowl 300 that day, I’m as good as that champion bowler can ever be. That I never bowled 300 before, and probably never will again, doesn’t really hold for that particular game.

And the game in American Psycho isn’t to explore existentialism, but to reveal the crisis through exploring the disorientation and confusion in a meaningless and absurd world. Naturally it’s funny. And naturally people won’t like it.

And the funky thing is, the more meaning you have in your life, the less connected I think you will be to that message. I think Gore Vidal 'got it' as commentary right away. But he's got the mental equipment and has lived in such close proximity to the American cultural animal he stalks he's used to walking in those shoes so he can say "heh, yeah, those assholes are like that" even as he experiences it first hand for himself. Of course, as a gay man (amongst other things) he does that in reality so he's amphibious minded enough to both walk it and comment on it. Me, I had to read it a few times to really get into it. And read it again to really get out of it.

And so to many folks it would read like just so much blather. And the existential attitude and question would seem trite.
But it’s precisely that it is an inversion of Kafka – where you don’t have the rational, meaningful world there to sympathize with in contrast to the meaninglessness and absurdity – that allows Ellis to open that door to hell (like the valet) and place you in the meaningless baseless world of yuppie conformity and American media hype values.

And it’s little wonder that people hate it and say “screw this get me out of here.”
I mean, preaching to the choir for most people. But how often do you really feel it? Immerse yourself in it? So many reasonable people – and is it any wonder they’re literate? - accept Roquentin’s rejection of materialism and accept the responsibility of taking some sort of meaning in their lives as a matter of course that it’s hard to see the inside of a the world (hell) of someone who doesn’t.

On the wall-mart scale, the emptiness and meaninglessness might be attributed to poverty, etc. etc. – so Ellis gives Bateman everything he needs to be considered a ‘success’ in American culture.
And how many of us know - *know * our lives would be worse off if we had millions of dollars, the big wall street job, could do anything we wanted without responsibility, etc. I think it’s sort of nifty to get into that place and live for a bit. Because actually trying to live it ….

It’s one thing to walk into the wilderness with the wolves looking for the hellmouth and spend your time watching Fox news – it’s another to have someone’s hand on your shoulder reminding you that it’s just a metastory and it’s bullshit. And I think that’s the purpose American Psycho serves perfectly and so it’s a tremendously valuable work – as valuable as Blood Meridian, et.al. in commentary on the American psyche. If not as deep, rich, etc. etc. or perhaps incisive, etc as McCarthy's work. And of course, with a less broad spectrum. Not to everyone’s taste. Or need, of course.

I will say, only flaw I found with Blood Meridian - I'm a pretty literate guy (no pretension to intellectual street cred there - I sleep maybe 3 hours a night so I read a lot of books) and I had to struggle with it. So it's not as accessible for Joe Reader as it might be. So its message might be blunted. Indeed, when it first came out a lot of people didn't like it.

I got lucky in that I bought it and The Road at the same time and plunged into them and knew immediately that there was zero pretense in terms of the form and given the absolute command he had with the language - and even the form of the language - me struggling was part of the equation and that I was engaging the work of a master.
Of course the same "not so accessible" criticism can be leveled at AP - but, while I won't touch the mastery argument - I think struggling with AP is part of the equation. And so equivalent in that regard.
If we're talking the respective writers, Ellis can't touch McCarthy's depth or bredth. But looking at those two poles - The Road and Blood Meridian - with the absolute spare use of language and how much lives in the blank spaces of the page in the former, and the overwhelming vividness and scope of the latter - who the hell can? (Well, Dante, but he died almost 700 years ago)
posted by Smedleyman at 2:11 PM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


...Whoa.

Well, I definitely (and I'm not being sarcastic here) got more out of your above piece ABOUT American Psycho than I did American Psycho itself, and I sincerely thank you for the good reading. I don't think there's any possible way I can reply to your post in full, so I'm gonna just try and reply to parts:

the banality was such that I found myself finding the violence a kind of relief – except that the scenes of violence seem to get worse and worse and less cathartic (in the sense of relief from the tension from the godawful yuppie surface magazine crap) and less well written and coherent really.

And I think that was by design. It is the only book that has ever disgusted or offended me. Which makes me think that this reaction – through the framing of the work – not the words themselves or the plot or subject matter – were more the point. Ellis wants you to feel sick at reading another soulless exploration of men’s shirt patterns, cigars, etc. etc. and purposefully blurs it, reiterates it endlessly, stretches it out so it's too long, etc. etc..


I would agree with that, actually, and I think it's fine in theory, not so great in practice. The "stretches it out so it's too long" part is the major sticking point for me. I can accept that Bateman is teeth-on-chalkboard banal and boring without having to actually experience boredom myself, you know? I wasn't kidding when I said I thought this novel would be (for me, at least) more effective as a short story. (That the film adaptation is only about 90 minutes long, vs. the 400-some-odd page jeremiad that is the novel, may be one of the reasons I find the film more tolerable.) If the question is, "Well, aren't the killings (which are probably fantasy) more interesting than this person's life (which is all too real)?" then okay, point taken, but I'm not convinced untold dozens of pages devoted to trivia are really necessary to prove that point.

It kinda puts me in mind of Takashi Miike's Audition (a movie I absolutely love), of which Miike himself says you're maybe supposed to be getting a bit bored by the second half, when all the crazy shit sneaks up on you at once. The thing is, though, you probably aren't getting bored by the halfway point -- although you're probably wondering if you walked into the right movie, since you thought this was supposed to be a horror film -- because Miike is talented enough to make his protagonist's kind of humdrum life interesting to watch, even as you know nothing is happening in it. I'm not saying Ellis lacks that talent, necessarily, but it's not much on display here. I mean...well, anyway, more on that in a few.

And the funky thing is, the more meaning you have in your life, the less connected I think you will be to that message. I think Gore Vidal 'got it' as commentary right away. But he's got the mental equipment and has lived in such close proximity to the American cultural animal he stalks he's used to walking in those shoes so he can say "heh, yeah, those assholes are like that" even as he experiences it first hand for himself. Of course, as a gay man (amongst other things) he does that in reality so he's amphibious minded enough to both walk it and comment on it. Me, I had to read it a few times to really get into it. And read it again to really get out of it.

The thing is, though, I don't know that what it's saying really is that hard to get. It may well be true that to someone more connected to the milieu of American Psycho, it's a more meaningful book. I can't really speak to that. But -- contrary to the poster somewhere above -- by the time American Psycho was published, everyone had worn or known someone who had worn a DIE YUPPIE SCUM t-shirt; Wall Street was a couple years old; kicking yuppies was a regular media pastime (even as the media catered to yuppies, assuring them all the while that they weren't really yuppies). Even to people who lived nowhere near Wall Street, the idea that these people were assholes -- possibly sociopathic assholes -- was not a fresh one. People who weren't personally acquainted with that world well or at all (and, as a non-New Yorker, I'm thinking that must have included Ellis) pretty much knew the tropes. I suppose if you were very close to that world, a book like American Psycho might have come as a revelation. I'm certainly not trying to discount any revelation it held for you. I'm just saying, these insights were mostly just confirming stereotypes for a large number of people who lived outside that world.

And so to many folks it would read like just so much blather. And the existential attitude and question would seem trite.
But it’s precisely that it is an inversion of Kafka – where you don’t have the rational, meaningful world there to sympathize with in contrast to the meaninglessness and absurdity – that allows Ellis to open that door to hell (like the valet) and place you in the meaningless baseless world of yuppie conformity and American media hype values.

And it’s little wonder that people hate it and say “screw this get me out of here.”


Another movie anecdote: Michael Haneke's Funny Games (a movie I absolutely do not love) struck me as the same kind of fakery as American Psycho. When I got to the end of it, I discovered there was an interview, maybe a commentary track, I don't recall. Anyway, I only ever watch stuff like that if it's (a) a movie I think is fucking awesome, or (b) a movie I think is so outrageously awful in some way that I have to know what the hell its creators were thinking. So, naturally, I watched that interview. Haneke seemed to me a pretty smart guy, and also kind of a dick, which isn't always a terrible combination in an artist (I like his later film, Cache, a good deal...and was horrified to learn he was following it with a shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games). Anyway, he said something really interesting about the movie I'd just sighed my way through, which was something along the lines of: "Some of you will hate my movie. That's okay. Watch something else. This movie wasn't for you. You didn't need it."

Now, on the one hand, that's about the most artful way of critic-proofing your film as any I've ever heard (I said Haneke was smart!), but...suppose he has a point. I mean, I actually don't need a movie to tell me any of the things about violence or the media or the banality of evil that I think Funny Games was trying to tell me, but a lot of people really think this is a brilliant film. My critical impulse is to say they're rewarding cultural criticism that basically amounts to shooting fish in a barrel, and rewarding tedious cinema besides, but I've also devoted perhaps an unhealthy amount of my life to considering such matters, and I really think most people, um, don't do that, so...maybe? I don't know. It could be that I just didn't need that movie, or this book; and while I stand by my aesthetic judgments of American Psycho, I will grant that maybe just because it's not saying anything I needed to hear, that doesn't mean it's saying nothing.

I will say, only flaw I found with Blood Meridian - I'm a pretty literate guy (no pretension to intellectual street cred there - I sleep maybe 3 hours a night so I read a lot of books) and I had to struggle with it. So it's not as accessible for Joe Reader as it might be. So its message might be blunted. Indeed, when it first came out a lot of people didn't like it.

I got lucky in that I bought it and The Road at the same time and plunged into them and knew immediately that there was zero pretense in terms of the form and given the absolute command he had with the language - and even the form of the language - me struggling was part of the equation and that I was engaging the work of a master.


Yeah, I think that McCarthy's more accessible books (No Country is another one) are what help readers to realize that Blood Meridian isn't just a guy getting wasted or something and writing whatever comes to mind -- which is an impression I think you can get from just opening the book at random and reading, should you land on the wrong passage. My first try at Blood Meridian was pretty arduous. It wasn't the subject matter; hell, I could just barely grasp what the fucking subject matter WAS. I think I got to like about page 75. Then one night I picked it up again, and this time it all just clicked. Well. Okay. It mostly clicked. I think there will always be parts of that book that are a mystery to me, which is fine, because it gives me the incentive to pick it up again.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:41 PM on September 9, 2009


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