Review: American Psycho (2000)

Review: American Psycho (2000)

Director: Mary Harron

Writer: Mary Harron (screenplay), Bret Easton Ellis (novel)

Stars: Christian Bale, Justin Theroux, Chloe Sevigny

American Psycho, Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ literary smash of 1991, is hilariously violent and shockingly satirical.  Early in the film, as the movie’s protagonist Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) rides in the back of a luxury town car with his fiancee Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), she asks him why he stays in a job he professes to hate.  Bateman’s response, delivered with furious intensity by Christian Bale, perfectly encapsulates one of the film’s central theses:  “Because I want to fit in.”  This sentence’s last two words are delivered with withering severity, and this seems to show that beyond its indictment of toxic masculinity, this film shows us a creature shaped from the ground up in a world of excess, depravity, and most consequently, fear.

Bale’s performance, which for my money is the best of his exceptional career (so far), shows us a character who is at once the master of all he surveys and a frightened child locked in a tall tower.  The interplay between these aspects of Bateman’s character provides the grist for much of the drama in the film, as well as most of the comedy, which is endlessly hilarious.  In what has become the film’s most famous scene, the coworkers at Bateman’s place of work are showing their business cards to one another, and when Bateman asks to see Paul Allen’s card, he is unprepared for the effect it has on him.  “Look at that subtle off-white coloring, the tasteful thickness of it,” as Bale performs this inner monologue, his voice has an almost sexually dusky nature.  When he finishes analyzing this superior business card, Bateman is shaken by the sight of it, and recoils into himself so much so that one of his coworkers inquires whether he is okay.

In this scene, Harron shows us the true weakness at the heart of corporate culture, and displays the power of envious spite.  This structural bitterness first shows itself violently when Bateman (Bale) attacks Paul Allen (Jared Leto) with an axe, concluding his hilariously vain review of the album Sports by Huey Lewis and the News.  After this first swing of the axe, during which Bateman was victim of his own psychopathy, he continues to chop Paul as he expresses the true motivation behind his violence.  “Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now, you fucking stupid bastard!”  Lines like this, hilarious and pointed, exemplify what I feel is at the center of the film; that unjustly privileged men, elevated more by their pre-determined place in society than by effort or talent, are liable to become deranged when faced with the reality of their own inadequacy.

American Psycho, both the novel and the film, stand as bristling critique of American society.  As it comes to sex, Ellis’ novel exposes the the animalistic savagery inherit in male urges, and Harron’s film shows the way easy satisfaction of all desire can result in escalating aberrant behavior.  Beyond any broader social points the film makes, it cannot be denied that this movie, and Christian Bale’s star-affirming performance in it, are as entertaining and thought provoking as any film of their era.

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Review: American Psycho (2000)

Review: Paris is Burning (1990)

Paris is Burning (1990)

Documentary

Director: Jennie Livingston

Stars: Brooke Extravaganza, Andre Christian, Dorian Corey and many more

Available on Netflix

Released in 1990, the documentary Paris is Burning offers a brief yet somehow comprehensive look into the “ball” scene in New York as it existed in the 80’s.  “Balls” were events organized by black gay men, and were basically fashion shows for drag queens, though they came to represent so much more.  Having been made “legendary” by its constant reference on Rupaul’s Drag Race, it is easy to discount the movie as an ornament of kitsch, but to do so discounts the film’s value as an emotionally devastating portrait of courage.  Throughout its all-too-brief runtime (71 minutes), Paris offers portraits of both young and aging gay black men who, spurned by a society that shuns them, have found solace by coming together and creating a culture of their own.  This culture, though it may not shield many of these figures from the harsh realities of modern life, shows that everyone, regardless of whether mainstream society can see them or not, can find a way to be everything they want to be.

Earlier in this review’s opening paragraph, I put quotation marks around the word “legendary” because it is one of a variety of terms used frequently in this culture’s special vernacular, and it is meant to signify a level of experience and success in the “ball” circuit.  Early in the film, the “legendary” “mother” of the “house” of Labeija explains the evolution of the New York “ball” scene from a network of drag queen parties into a more-or-less organized competitive circuit, where contestants are judged on everything from fashion and makeup to more subjective determiners like poise and talent.  All of the description of the scene is really just the canvas on which compelling characters are drawn and the audience is let in on the fun of it all.  In one of the most famous and hilarious scenes in the movie, “legendary” “mother” of the “house” of Corey describes the practice of “reading,” perfectly elucidating the way insults delivered are made more effective through the subtleties of performance than the particulars of the jibe itself.

This “mother,” Dorian Corey, is one of the more compelling individuals in the film, constantly powdering his face and speaking in the fatigued voice of a disappointed headmistress.  In his (or her, if you prefer, as I feel that most of the movie’s interviewees would accept either pronoun) tired eyes, we see his knowledge of the hardships that his “children” are sure to face.  These drag queens are forced to join groups or “houses” because many of their families have disowned them, and their most important and long-lasting relationships are now with the other members of their “house,” especially their “mother.”  The fact that pervades every frame of Paris is Burning is that for these drag queens, life is very hard.  The harsh reality of life for these “children” is most exemplified in the frame of Venus Extravaganza.  The tiny, lithe and gorgeously cute little 23-year old is the first to describe his own method of making money, which he calls “hustling.”  His tactics are in reality thinly disguised prostitution.

Venus is retroactively the movie’s most chilling character, as he was murdered (presumably by a john) two years prior to its release.  The “ball” circuit of Paris is Burning is so important to all its participants because the realities of their lives are so dark, and to escape their own circumstances for a few hours by dressing up and performing in a showcase can seem like the most important thing in their lives.  I consider the drag queens of this terrific little movie heroes, because they are so able to compartmentalize lives of brutal strife, that when they step out on the pageant stage, they can be superstars of the highest order.  As Dorian Corey puts it at the conclusion of the movie, rolling his eyes and sneaking a knowing smirk across his lips, “If you can shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”  This concluding sentiment perfectly illustrates the way that glory in the “ball” scene can be thrilling and exhilarating, but it will not free you from life’s cruel circumstance.

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Review: Paris is Burning (1990)