22 February 2014

Prose vs Pictures #3 | Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho vs Mary Harron’s American Psycho

There’s no point prevaricating here - the book wins. The purpose of this latest Prose vs Pictures piece is to explain why.

With his novel American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis succeeded in creating a work as deliberately superficial as the characters that drive it. Taking the form of a long monologue delivered by Wall Street yuppie Patrick Bateman, Ellis abandons any sense of narrative or even drama in favour of endless, soulless descriptions of a world without depth or heart: “big ideas, guy stuff, boy meets the world, boy gets it.” An insatiable, masochistic curiosity keeps the fingers of most readers glued to its pages as Bateman relays the horrors of an existence that he feels wholly absent from. And his nocturnal bloodlust, believe it or not, is the least of these horrors. “These are terrible times…”

Indeed, to read American Psycho is to stare into a large, empty hole. I have never come across a text in any genre that evokes the same sense of futility. Bateman is not only an vacant soul, but painfully aware of his own vacuity. When we meet him, he wants “to… fit… in,”; half a book later, and he’s introducing starved rodents to corpses’ vaginas and licking human brains in a quest to simply feel.

“I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being…”

In order to appreciate how far Bateman goes in his quest for sensation, or perhaps even existence, the reader has to be immersed in the sheer banality of his day-to-day life to a degree that borders upon absurd. As such, most of the novel’s word count is made up of meticulous descriptions of things and tedious encounters with people that are as hollow, cruel or flawed as our protagonist / antagonist - characteristics that Ellis delights in battering readers over the head with through a never-ending precession of pre-dinner drinks (usually spent fretting over not having reservations somewhere chic) and occasional luncheons.
 

A man of cold yet casual precision, the narcissistic Bateman describes in great detail the apparel of everyone that he encounters; the stream of labels only ever seems to be broken by the occasional aside about a haircut or gym workout. The same blithe, numbing style relays the minutiae of his every sexual encounter. Every so often, it even describes the torture, murder and dissection of his various victims, many of whose body parts take up residence in his freezer. And it is only at height of his murderous passion that Bateman even threatens to touch the reality from which he feels divorced, but any sensation that he does experience (beyond greed or disgust) inevitably fades as quickly as the life in his victims’ eyes, and seems to be that little bit harder to achieve the next time around. He’s constantly pushing the envelope of his amoral perversity; constantly upping the ante.  

“Last night I had dreams that were lit like pornography and in them I fucked girls made of cardboard. The Patty Winters Show this morning was about Aerobic Exercise.”

Confined to just a hundred minutes of film, Mary Harron’s cinematic adaptation was never going to be able to achieve the same effect as Ellis’s masterwork - it would have needed to be around twelve hours long to do that. What it does instead is to offer us snapshots of Bateman’s life, which in principle could have been very effective, but in practice falls foul of mainstream movie prerequisites – obligatory little things like structure, pace and narrative. Such things no doubt endeared the film to moviegoers not familiar with the book, but I feel that the film’s inevitable focus on Ellis’s more thrilling and contentious chapters upsets the fragile balance between tedium and terror, and as a consequence masks the story’s point (or, indeed, deliberate lack of one). This is incredibly frustrating as there isn’t a single scene in the film that’s badly done – quite the opposite, in fact.


Christian Bale, for instance, captures perfectly both the lead character’s “boy next door” fa├žade and perplexed alien interior. So utterly convincing is Bale that almost every scene in the movie – which, as the sole voice of the piece, he must inhabit – is relentlessly gripping, at times actually surpassing Ellis’s text. Such moments generally juxtapose near-verbatim snippets of memorable monologue from the book with shots of Bateman exercising or shaving, enriching and embellishing the printed words. One image lingers especially – a delectable shot of Bateman peeling off his face pack as if were a second skin, as Bale’s voiceover factually states, “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.”


Moreover, in print, beyond mergers and acquisitions murders and executions, the only real passion in Bateman’s life seems to be music appreciation. Sandwiched between chapters on exercise and the latest Patty Winters Show, you might find an impromptu review of a Whitney Houston LP, apparently vested with an ardour that you won’t find in any other aspect of Bateman’s musings. Sure, he gets obsessive about the purity of bottled water and the rules of wearing worsted navy blue blazers with grey pants, but such matters are always tempered by a revolted cynicism that seems to elude his musical musings. In the movie, as he prepares to cleave the drunken Paul Owen’s head in two with an axe, he’s playing “Hip to Be Square” on his CD player, while at the same time discussing the aesthetic merits of the album Fore! Later, as Bateman entertains two prostitutes, his barked commands to them are interspersed with his articulate reflections on Genesis, and Phil Collins’ subsequent solo career. In combining these two disparate elements, Harron and her co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner cleverly tie together the only two things that seem to give Bateman any real sense of self – music and masochism.

Another huge strength of the film is its overwhelming period flavour. Though it was made within a decade or so of its setting, when I watched the movie again for the purposes of this article, I was struck by how incredibly ’80s it feels, particularly in its score. I really got the sense that it had been made contemporaneously, which of course helps to evoke the sense of rampant consumerism and gaudy vacancy that the novel captures so marvellously.
 

Unfortunately though, the movie’s unwelcome shifts in emphasis and catastrophic imbalance render it far less satisfying than the much bolder and more intriguing novel that it was based upon. Even its perfectly-played climax is ruined by its suggestive positioning, which carries a much heavier implication than the novel’s careful ambiguity. By ending her film on the moment that she does, viewers tend to draw a much more concrete inference about Bateman’s reliability (I was tempted to use the word ‘sanity’ here, before thinking better of it) from Harron’s interpretation than readers of Ellis’s novel are likely to. This, in itself, completely distorts one’s impression of the tale.
 
“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…”

American Psycho the novel is an epic, nihilistic thing that contrasts the monotony of a yuppie’s life in of the late 1980s with the illicit thrills of his depraved power plays that invariably end in maiming or murder. In its finest moments, you can all but feel the scratches of Bateman’s fingernails as he desperately tries to cling to his last vestiges of self after the trappings of a materialistic world have washed away any sense of identity or perspective that he might have once had. Some see it as a sage satire on the go-go years, but I think that it’s much broader than that – it’s a satire on modern life in the Western world, and all the avarice thereto. American Psycho the film, on the other hand, is an alluring trailer for the novel at best. At worst, its shifting of weight and adherence to convention rob Ellis’s work of its sharpest edge, threatening to turn the most deadpan satire ever devised into a nostalgic farce. The book, perhaps, goes a bit too far on occasion, both when it comes to the dreadfulness of its many torture / rape / murder sequences, and when it comes to the sheer numbness of the nothingness in between. The movie, however, doesn’t go anything like far enough in either respect - but at least there’s some irony to be found in a book about a society in which “surface became the only thing” being transformed into a film that consciously sells out to superficiality.

 “I imagine running around Central Park on a cool spring afternoon with Jean, laughing, holding hands. We buy balloons, we let them go.”

Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho novel is currently available in paperback (best price online today: £4.44 from Play) and digital formats (£1.99 from Amazon’s Kindle Store or £5.99 from iTunes). Don’t be confused by the digital edition’s “Fortieth Anniversary” tagline – it’s the publishing house’s anniversary, not the novel’s!

Mary Harron’s American Psycho movie is difficult to find in 1080p HD at a decent price on disc in the UK, and the British iTunes Store doesn’t have it to download either - anyone would think that it’s a contentious title to stock! The standard-definition DVD, however, is commonplace, and can be picked up for just a few quid – today’s cheapest online price is £3.23 from Play.

15 February 2014

Blu-ray Review | Ricky Gervais is Derek

A playful cruelty floats on top of most of Ricky Gervais’s comic endeavours, and regrettably for some it proves impenetrable. None of Gervais’s works have suffered more for this than Derek - a hilarious yet moving mockumentary in the mould of The Office that was slammed by many critics for its portrayal of “the disabled” before it had even aired, despite actually being a brilliant satire on those who have to live outside mainstream society just because they can’t or won’t conform to it.
 
“It’s more important to be kind than to be clever or good-looking. I’m not clever or good-looking, but I’m kind.”

The eponymous character, played by Gervais, is one that my parents’ generation would have (innocently) branded “slow”, and today’s might place towards the upper end of the autistic spectrum. Gervais’s scripts, however, are careful to avoid branding Derek Noakes at all, and instead highlight his goofy quirks and many, many admirable - I’d even go so far as to say humbling - qualities. By way of a stirring example, the first episode of the 2013 series, which follows the 2012 pilot also presented on this disc, contains a beautifully-crafted scene that really shows up the flaws in society’s need to categorise and label. When asked by a local authority inspector to take a test for autism, Derek frankly replies, “Will I die? Will it change me in any way? Will I still be the same person?” When the inevitably hollow replies follow, he shrugs his shoulders and scuttles away. “Don’t worry about it then.”


The series takes place largely within the retirement home where Derek is employed, but it’s clearly more of a home to him than it is a mere job. The same is true of his two focal colleagues, Hannah and Dougie, albeit for very different reasons. Kerry Godliman’s Hannah is so devoted to keeping the home afloat that she has no life outside it, though the series does introduce an ill-at-ease love interest for her in its pilot episode. She’s necessarily harder than Derek, as is evident from her day-one headbutt, but nonetheless she’s every bit as sincere and selfless. “Egg with sideburns” Dougie, conversely, claims to see his role in the home as more of penance, even remarking at one point, “They send them [offenders given community service] here as punishment. Hilarious innit? I’ve been here ten years - what have I done?” In truth though, he’s as dedicated to the residents and his colleagues as Derek or Hannah are. Indeed, whilst Gervais still finds countless ways through which he can manhandle and ridicule his long-suffering friend Karl Pilkington, who plays the careworn caretaker, he also gifts him some of the series’ most triumphant hero moments, which blend Pilkington’s innate ire with just cause, often to startlingly uplifting effect. David Earl completes the core cast as Kev, an unemployed autograph hunter who shares a flat with Derek and Dougie - largely because nobody else will have him. Principally there to offer lewd comic relief, Kev still contributes to the series’ all-pervading pathos as even he, who you’d think might be the type tempted to bully and take advantage of Derek’s gentle sincerity, actually puts him up on pedestal, as becomes plain in the disc’s poignant final episode.


The episodes themselves are perhaps a little thin on plot, though there is an obvious theme at the heart of each that serves as a catalyst for Gervais’s involved character stories (such as the threatened closure of the home, a trip to the library, or even a talent show). The exception is the series’ final episode, which dextrously brings together a couple of clear narrative threads to complete our picture of both Derek the man and Derek the show, and is, I would contend, 2013’s best twenty-odd minutes of television - it’s certainly its most poignant. Gervais’s portrayal of the romance between a deceased resident and her bereaved husband is breathtakingly beautiful, effortlessly cutting through the veil of years to show the audience the couple as they once were, and will always be to each other. My wife’s spent over a decade working with older adults living with dementia, and her thesis was on the hope that those living with the dreadful disease and their loved ones use to fuel themselves, but no matter how many hours of reminiscences she pored over, I don’t think that she ever got quite as positive perspective as Lizzie and Gerald, who get to fall in love again each and every day as if it were the first time. Derek’s own tale of abandonment and reconciliation is almost as heartrending, particularly when it’s intercut with his musings on forgiveness and humanity, which seem to carry more weight coming from the obviously agenda-free Derek than they would the firm atheist who plays him, or indeed almost anyone else.


The Blu-ray’s extra content is, ironically, more consistently funny than the melancholy sitcom that it supplements. The twenty-minute behind-the-scenes feature took me back to the good ol’ days of The Ricky Gervais Show podcasts, built as it is around debutant telly actor Karl Pilkington’s musings on everything from acting techniques (he seems to genuinely think that he’s invented the method) to the “jigsaw” shooting schedules that go hand in hand with episodic television. You also get a decent selection of deleted scenes for your money, and a few bloopers too, many of them featuring the renowned Mr Pilkington at the height of his loveable idiocy.

“Shame more people aren’t like that, really,” Hannah says in the pilot, and these sentiments resonate throughout the whole series. Derek is David Brent through a mirror, brightly; a painfully honest Peter Pan for the modern era. He’s a little boy who never really grew up, who isn’t concerned by opinions and artifice, who thinks that a headlock is a “strong cuddle” and that the world would be a whole lot nicer if people were just kind to each other.

Disabled? More like free.

Derek is only presently available to own in 1080p HD on Blu-ray. The cheapest online retailer today is
Amazon, where the disc can be bought for £12.32 with free delivery. Frustratingly, iTunes only offer the series in standard-definition, and without any bonus material or the pilot episode, and for almost as much!