Don DeLillo, “White Noise”

1985

DeLillo’s zeitgeisty “breakout” novel tells the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies (a department he invented) who can’t speak German. He works at The-College-on-the-Hill (perhaps a “city on the hill” reference to the Bible/Kennedy/Reagan) and is married for the fifth time to his fourth wife, Babette. They have a baby, Wilder, and a number of other children, including the prescient Steffie and the morose Heinrich. Both Babette and Jack are obsessed with death and with discussing who will die first. The bland 1980s and its “white noise” in the form of technology and advertising are recurrent subjects in the novel. (I would love to teach this with a John Hughes movie, like Sixteen Candles, and think about how trends, products, and cliches work in each).

When the “Airborne Toxic Event” arrives, Jack is exposed and later learns from testing that he has somehow been affected. The acronym is ironic, as the cloud is dispersed when microbes are released to eat it. SIMUVAC’s priority is to pretend the real event is simulated: “there is no substitute for a planned simulation” (a reality reversal like the most photographed barn bit. The barn’s aura is increased, rather than decreased, with each photograph in a “collective perception” that is different than Benjamin’s original theory: “we can’t get outside the aura” 13). Jack discovers Babette has slept with a man to get Dylarama, a drug to cure people of the fear of death. It is not working for her, but for a time Jack becomes obsessed with procuring some for himself. Jack and Murray talk, and Murray theorizes that “the more people you kill, the more power you gain over your own death… a secret precision at work in the most savage and indiscriminate killings” 291. Jack’s final confrontation with Willie Mink, the scientist who makes Dylar, is a sort of parody of the Marlow/Kurtz communication or the Humbert/Quilty conflict. It also seems to follow on the failed glory of Taxi Driver and the imagined horrors of American Psycho, both of which focus on sex and youth as well. The novel ends with Wilder miraculously surviving as he rides his tricycle across the freeway. Jack decides to stay away from the doctor and the “binary secrets” the information age seems to offer 326.

dir. Michael Powell, “Peeping Tom”

1960

Released the same year as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Peeping Tom takes ‘scopophilia’ to newly literal levels. It tells the story of Mark Lewis, who has a conspicuously German accent and works on a film crew, shooting soft-porn photos part-time. He lives in his dead father’s house, where he poses as a tenant and lets the other rooms to tenants. In the first scene, Mark follows a prostitute into her home, murders her while filming, and watches the tape of it at home. He later kills an extra on the film set where he works, and the film builds tension as he becomes particularly taken by his neighbor Helen. (Her mother, a blind woman, senses that something is “off” about him and worries for her daughter, but she is dead before she can do anything about it.) His last murder is of a pin-up girl named Milly. Mark shows her some home movies from his childhood, revealing that his psychologist father obsessively filmed him when he was young by putting him under duress and documenting the child’s reactions for “research.”

We discover only at the film’s conclusion that part of the horror of his victims’ last looks (this is how the police link the first two murders) lies not only in the knowledge that they are going to die as he comes towards them while filming, but also that they are seeing themselves at the moment of death, since Mark has affixed a mirror to the pointed camera leg that also serves as his weapon. In the final scene, Mark corners Helen when he catches her watching his snuff films and approaches her to kill her. The police arrive and Mark impales himself on his own camera while filming – the last shot of his documented life. Thus, in classic horror film mode, Helen is both the “girl who gets away” and the only one to live to witness the mode in which the killer kills being turned against him (think Halloween, etc.).

dir. Martin Scorsese, “Taxi Driver”

1976

Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), an “honorably discharged” U.S. marine, is a taxi driver in New York City. He becomes obsessed with the pure and obviously bourgeois Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), but things sour on their second date, when he takes her to a dirty movie and she doesn’t want to speak to him again. Travis becomes angry and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic. He begins plotting to assassinate Palentine, the senator whose presidential campaign Betsy works for, and stockpiles a number of illegal weapons. He works out obsessively and practices integrating the weapons to his body, including through the use of a slider from a file cabinet running down his arm (DeNiro improvised the famous “You talking to me?” scene).

Eventually, Travis redirects his attention to the more helpless “Easy” (Jodie Foster), a twelve year-old prostitute whose real name is Iris (Easy/Iris making a neat pun on “easy on the eyes”), and whose violent and filthy world embodies the “scum and garbage” Travis is so obsessed with cleansing from the city. After killing everyone in her brothel, including her pimp, Travis mimes killing himself to the police, but cannot actually do it, since he is out of bullets. As the camera slowly pans out of the room where Iris weeps, into the staircase, down the hallway, and out into the street, finally ending in Travis’ room (covered in clippings), we learn he has become something of a hero for his actions. In the final scene of the film, we see Betsy’s disembodied face reflected in the rearview mirror of his taxi, surrounded by the flicking lights of the city (like Daisy in The Great Gatsby). She seems interested in him again, now that his violence has garnered him status, but he only gives her a free ride and drives off into the night, his eyes twitching anxiously around.

The film was made in the 1970s at a moment of urban crisis (white flight), conspiracy culture (Watergate), anxiety about children (Children’s Defense Act), and post-Vietnam cultural crisis (traumatized veterans). In particular, Travis’ transition from “copper” to “cowboy” in Sport’s eyes, “pioneering” the merging of his body with guns, and finally to renegade “Indian” (with his mohawk) for the murders, plots a particular mode of psychotic American individuality comparable to both Psycho & American Psycho. His status as an ex-marine also draws attention to a crisis of masculinity. In this sense, it would be interesting to put this film, with its slow-jazz phonograph soundtrack and dark clouds of steam, in conversation with Bladerunner & American Gigolo, which have still stronger “film noir” emphases in their depiction of seedy 1980s LA (rather than seedy 1970s).

I am also interested in thinking about how the film rewrites Lolita, with Jodie Foster as a crass pre-teen Lo, her pimp, Sport, as a sort of Quility (a “director” who lays out the sexual possibilities for Iris’ clients and tells her “If you ever liked what you were doin’ you wouldn’t be my woman), and Travis as a possessive, sociopathic Humbert Humbert who believes he is saving a girl with a wad of money and the murder of another man (a fantasy of himself as a defender, rather than an aggressor).

dir. Mary Herron, “American Psycho”

2000

Mary Herron’s production of the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel expertly nips and tucks the 400-page novel and makes of it a neat and resonant feature film. Starring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, Jared Leto as Paul Allen (Owen), Chloe Sevigny as secretary Jean, Samantha Mathis as Courtney, and Reese Witherspoon as Evelyn. The way in which the film renders the flatness of the novel is partly by Patrick’s monotone voiceover, as well as a successful integration of the kinds of intermittent repetition that typify the novel’s prose: reworkings of the same bogus, overdone, expensive foods at the latest restaurant, Patrick’s dull informative lectures on the discographies of Phil Collins and Whitney Houston and the emptied-out lyrics of their meaningless love ballads, and, perhaps most insistently, Patrick’s “I have to go return some videotapes.” These are interspersed with routine depictions of extreme violence (Herron often cuts from the initial stab to the aftermath, with slightly more dramatic elisions than in the novel). As Namwali Serpell points out, these repetitions do not so much build to a cathartic climax as build to more repetition.

Patrick’s splitting of the world into atomized parts, places, and strata extends to his extreme splitting apart of female bodies, but this seems only the final and most perfect realization of the American cinema’s own desire to use the male gaze to synecdochize the female body beyond recognition into a series of disjointed fetishes (think of Deleuze & Guattari’s “Faciality”). It has been suggested that the film is a feminist reworking of the novel, but I think the novel is, in a sense, already feminist, at least in the sense that its baroque excess invites no other interpretation so much as parody. We are gagging with disgust, but probably also with laughter. The novel’s famous puns (“Mostly murders and executions” is heard as “Mostly mergers and acquisitions”) remind me of Nabokov’s misheard phrases as well (Quilty: “Where the devil’d you get her?… I said the weather’s getting better”). Herron plays these to great effect in a picture of American surface and corporate culture that is just overperformed enough (Evelyn’s party, where everyone says “Xmas” instead of “Christmas”)  to resonate as satire.

Her excision of certain key moments of violence is also a way of letting us feel our temptation to witness those missing reels of film – diegetically, too, since Bateman films all of his sexcapades and murders. In emptying out the film of portions of the sequences of gore, she also interrupts the suture of the horror film, and forces us to jump from one moment uncomfortably into another. Herron told Christian Bale to think of the character “not in terms of psychology, but rather as a collection of impulses and modes.” Like Foucault’s model of power, then, perhaps the best response to such horror is an art that is large and proliferative enough to respond in kind – a faceted one. She has said in an interview:

[Christian Bale and I] talked about how Martian-like Patrick Bateman was, how he was looking at the world like somebody from another planet, watching what people did and trying to work out the right way to behave. And then one day he called me and he had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman, and he just had this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes, and he was really taken with this energy.

(In an interesting detail, in the novel, Patrick Bateman meets Tom Cruise in the elevator one day because he lives in the same building.) The eeriest aspect of both novel and film is not that Jason Bateman is secretly another person (one who either really kills people or really fantasizes about it all the time), but that he is openly so (at least in the imagined narrative he gives us), and that no one hears or sees him. Whether he has actually killed anyone or not, his thoughts irrupt the surface of his speech often enough to disturb. One of the cleverest shots of the film is the mid-range shot of Jason in the mirror after the opening sequence (knives and food), when he is detailing his morning cleansing routine to us. He describes his face mask and tells us that he is “simply not there.” As he says this, he peels a perfectly transparent mask from his face, encapsulating the way in which surface is content in this story.

The end of the film makes it even more tempting to see the murders as imaginary, perhaps because the special effects of the taxi murder scene are so familiar from Hollywood that we are prepared to read them immediately as false. As in Psycho, the facile psychological explanation at the end of the film does not ameliorate our horror in watching Mrs. Bates’ face dance over Norman’s and realizing that he killed those girls. In a similar way, the realization that Patrick Bateman (whose name carries the “Bate” of Bates and the “man” of Norman) may not have committed the crimes he describes is not enough to erase the ghastly experience of having imagined that he did  right alongside him. 

Gertrude Stein: “The Good Anna” & “Melanctha”

1909

“THE GOOD ANNA”

Anna Federner is a servant of “solid lower middle-class south german stock.” The story follows the rigid Anna through her happy days with Mathilda, as well as positions with Miss Mary Wadsworth and Dr. Shonjen. She prefers serving big women or men and dislikes pretty young girls, most often her subordinates. Her friend Mrs. Lehtmann is “the great romance in her life,” but she abandons this friendship when Mrs. Lehntmann adopts a baby without consulting Anna, ignoring what Anna sees as their almost familial, or even queer, bond. Anna dies at the end, still attached to Mathilda, who probably cares much less, exposing the bonds created by class (think Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, or Downton Abbey). The painful and dull cyclicality of much of the story’s language emphasizes Anna’s static life, as well as the nuances of its changes.

MELANCTHA

Melanctha is the second and longest story in the collection. It tells the tale of a light-skinned black woman who experiments with her sexuality and is eventually shunned by her best friend Rose because of it, a blow from which Melanctha cannot recover. She dies of “consumption.” Werner Sollers has claimed that Stein’s sympathetic portrayal of a black protagonist paved the way for the experiments of Black Modernism (Richard Wright admired it), while other critics take issue with her appropriation of that voice. The looping, trickster-cycle style of the narrative experiments with changing practices of writing, as well as society’s treatment of women and minorities. However, all three characters die and are not free like tricksters, but bound by their material conditions. As in her poetry and “The Good Anna,” repetition serves to expand meaning rather than to dull it (vs Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho).

The third and final story in the collection is called “The Gentle Lena,” about a “german” servant girl (like those who serve Anna) who bears four children and also dies at the story’s conclusion.