American Psycho

Thursday, April 17, 2008

I guess one of the main debating points when it comes to American Psycho is whether the murders are reality or fantasy. Before I read the book, I was firmly of the opinion that everything was in Bateman's head. But after reading the novel and watching the film again, I've swung the other way. Everything is very real. After all, the whole point of the film seems to be that Bateman exists in a society that is so overwhelmingly self-absorbed that it doesn't even listen when he's begging to be caught. No one believes him and no one cares.

A factor that initially clouded matters was the way that everyone confuses the identity of the people they associate with. Bateman gets confused for other people, he pretends to be other people and no one seems to have a clue who they're really talking to. It's a nice little dig at the conformity of the 80s – people are homogeneous – but it also ensured, when I first watched the film, that I wasn’t sure whether I could believe what I was seeing. I mean, at the end of the film Bateman talks to his lawyer, but his lawyer doesn't even know who he is. Yet his lawyer apparently had dinner with one of the people he killed. But this is easily explained. In a world where people are continually lying and name-dropping, and a world where people are so conformist that their identities are interchangeable, mistakes are easily made. Therefore Bateman is a psychotic murderer trapped in a personal hell where no one believes him and where there's no one to put him out of his misery.

But despite the lack of clarity as regards the reality of the story, the film is a resounding success, maybe more so than the book. The book is pretty good but it's self-indulgent and excessive. And while that's the point – the 80s were shallow, get it? – I can only take so many descriptions of suits before I want to hurl the book across the room. "He was wearing a…" Plus the film gets rid of most of the gory killings. And while I'm sure there were a few nutters out there that got themselves riled up about that, focusing more on the satire of things benefits the film immensely.

But whether you prefer the novel or the film, the message is the same: contrary to Huey, conformity is bad.

A couple of times Bateman says that he wants to fit in, but in actuality he has nothing but contempt for the people he works with. All the time he's competing, trying to outdo everyone with his business card, his suit or his haircut, but no one even knows who he is. He's not really a person. So his anger at being a non-person that's overlooked and outdone spills over into murder. It's one of the few releases he has.

Sex is another release. The scene with the prostitutes is hilarious. It's more like masturbation than anything. For foreplay he demonstrates his understanding of Phil Collins and during the act itself he's continually looking at himself and narcissistically flexing his muscles. It's the American Dream, baby – sex, a buff body, hookers and, er, 'Sussudio'.

But on the subject of the music, I like the Whitney Houston speech even more. I love how emotional he gets – it's like he's reciting some pretentious music review he's read – and I like the way that you cut from his tears to him having vigorous sex with a drugged woman.

But speaking of Bateman's speeches, I also like the way he quotes restaurant reviews. There's no original thought at all. He's just a suit, a haircut and lots of second-hand opinions. The latter is best illustrated in the Espace scene where he gives off a long speech about how American society has to return to traditional values. The audience is well aware of the irony, but Bateman isn't.

But Bateman's a perfect embodiment of Reagan's America. He's fearful of homosexuals, hateful towards the underclass ("Why don't you get a job, Al?") and he earnestly spouts empty platitudes ("Just say no") while taking lots of drugs and having lots of sex. He's a hypocrite and a liar but he's 100% all-American.

And like some American males he has a strange idea of masculinity. He's a misogynist, a racist and he's oversexed, but he pampers himself like a woman. But although he takes a lot of care over his body, his mind is left to rot. But then again, when you're a privileged young man whose work consists of going to lunch, reading Playboy and listening to 'Lady in Red', perhaps your mind is best left well alone (maybe his choice in music is what drives him to insanity – listen to Collins and DeBurgh and be damned forever). But I also like his childish need to impress. If only he could get into Dorsia… And I also love Bale's reaction in the scene where one of the prostitutes asks him how much his apartment cost. He snaps that it's none of her business but then smugly says that it cost a lot. Along with Whitney Houston, it's the funniest moment in the film.

And it's the humour that makes the film worth repeated viewings. Sure there's a lot of fun to be had in the preposterous violence, but I keep coming back for lines like, "Huey's too black sounding for me."

Now if you don't mind, I've got to return some videotapes...

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