American Psycho – The Plight Of Evil

Thoughts On: American Psycho

Patrick Bateman lives two lives, by day a self-absorbed investment banker, by night a deranged serial killer.

American Psycho

In the previous post I covered Hitchcock’s Psycho. There was a lot I went into with that post, but I tried to keep it centred on the theme at hand, marriage and romance, as much as I could. But, a huge part of Psycho is craziness, it’s psychosis, serial killer, madness that we all enjoy. And it’s because I couldn’t get into that part of the film that I felt the post was lacking and incomplete. So, whist this isn’t apart of the Receptacle Series, feel free to think of this as an extension of the previous post.

The primary philosophical question at hand with any character based horror movie comes straight to the audience. This is because these are films with anti-heroes, films we often enjoy. And make no mistake, I love this film, I find it gleeful, light, fun and utterly nuts in all the right ways. But, is this the intended purpose of the film, and is this ok? With American Psycho I think it depends on whether or not you can identify with Patrick’s thought process. He has no core character. He’s in a fake world and he has to be whatever he has to be just to get by. To handle the grating effecting, the painful, twisting knife in this side that is a fake world, he vents by stabbing a bitch once in a while. Of course by my saying I understand Patrick it doesn’t then mean I’d ever kill someone. But, to think about violence, watch action movies, fucked up horrors like this, even violent sports, listen to violent music – it’s simply cathartic to me. People get angry, I get angry, and there’s ways of dealing with that. So, to those like me who like Patrick, who find this film a great time, understand the joyous feeling in certain types of destruction, I suppose we identify with the hyperbolisation of ourselves, of a need for catharsis via aggression. Though, everything discussed thus far is all about imagination, usually about second hand aggression (watching a UFC match, never really street brawling) there’s a reality to imaginings. Whilst UFC is perfectly fine, what Patrick does isn’t. This all comes back to Norman Bates here with a question of: should we sympathise with these characters? Should we care for the plight of the evil?

With American Psycho I find one of the most compelling cases to do this. To make my point of why, let’s get into what Bateman lives through. With some of the best voice over ever recorded we start the film with who Patrick thinks he is. He assumes he is an idea, that who he is seen as is some kind of abstraction, that there is no real him, that he simply is not there. This is grade A solipsism. Solipsism is the belief that you are the only self or person you can definitively know exists. Solipsism is thus pragmatic reasoning. In the same way you wouldn’t believe in God or a unicorn because there’s no rational or scientific reason to, a solipsist wouldn’t believe in others. However, later on in the film we find out that Patrick takes solipsism one step further. He assumes that because others do not recognise him as a person, or that he cannot recognise them as something like himself, he is then not human. This is a nihilistic take on the idea of self. If you can’t believe in others, what are you without comparison? Why should you believe in yourself? It’s this emptiness that Patrick sees in the world that he tries to embody. However, he claims that the only emotions that fill his shell of self are greed and disgust. What soon becomes obvious is that these emotions are his only way of feeling – of feeling human. This is what Patrick is in denial of the whole film. He does in some way feel human. He says he doesn’t exist, that he’s a shell, that no one can do anything for him, but he is a slave to emotions and when he ends up in a world he thought he existed in, he doesn’t like it one bit. That’s what happens with the ending and the escalating absurdities he gets away with. People just stop recognising the fucked up shit he does, they accept that he doesn’t exist – just like he wanted. This drives him insane though.

What this all implies is that he’s always been more than a shell, that saying he doesn’t exist is nothing more than a coping mechanism for him. There’s evidence of this throughout the film. Not only does he feel fear, does he enjoy killing, but he understands music. It’s his monologues on Phil Collins, Genesis, meditations on intangibility, conformity and the joys of society that imply he is repressing everything about him he feels is human. Patrick wants to disconnect from a world that seemingly wants nothing to do with him. The end implication of this film, the question of what actually happened, is then answered two-fold. Firstly, the lawyers, the place he works for and people selling Paul Allen’s house are all corrupt – evil like him. This is because they facilitate his murders by covering it up. This is one (incomplete) explanation of how he got away with everything. Whilst this could be true to a certain extent, there is a much greater truth to American Psycho. Patrick imagines everything evil and fucked up he does. None of it actually happened. This is supported by this:

This is the notebook Patrick scribbles on that he keeps in his desk – it’s where he vents all his twisted emotions. And the only one capable of picking up on this is the only person who shows the slightest of interest toward him, who he shows a smidgen of humanity toward…

… and that’s Jean. This means that the lasting commentary of the film on solipsism, nihilism, pragmatism and so on is that Patrick doesn’t know how to take any of these ideas to heart – and, yeah, he’s got a heart. Patrick is a slave to his emotions and the vacuous environment he puts himself in. This all means that everything I’ve said so far about him being a serial killer and fucked up is a bit of a lie. Patrick is supposedly a bit like you and me. He needs catharsis and gets it second hand through imagining he kills people, fucks prostitutes, eats brains, blows up cop cars – yet still gets away with it. In the end, he can’t keep the lie up, not to himself, and cracks. But, what he needs is numbness. This is why he doesn’t kill Jean, Kimball or Luis. They get into his head, convince him that both himself and them are somewhat the same. They imply to him the horrifying idea that he and they could be human. They do this by talking back to him about music, actually listening, understanding he has a girlfriend, or even finding him attractive. What Patrick wants is none of this. He wishes he were a sociopath and didn’t have to deal with emotions – as we all kind of wish sometimes (not to deal with feelings).

This is why I feel Patrick Bateman is a character many can empathise with. In the end, he’s a little deranged, but not as fucked up as he wants to be. It’s recognising this and watching the people around Patrick that we can recognise them as being quite a bit more sociopathic than himself. They are either entirely self-absorbed, unthinkably arrogant, ego-maniacal or explosively violent. Patrick never shows himself to be any of these things to the same extent we see in them. Maybe this turns the philosophical question of the film into something like: what are you, if you are the only sane person in a world of maniacs? I think the answer is nothing other than a Patrick Bateman – you are, in your own special way, insane. To refer back to the Psycho post, the romantic aspect of Bateman’s character here comes with his inability to connect with people, with Jean maybe. It’s in abject isolation that Patrick becomes a closeted romantic, by below the surface wanting to connect with someone, but simply being too scared to, he appeals to imagination, idealisation and individuality (romanticism) but ends up repressing it. He is, in the end, a romantic serial killer at heart – if that makes any sense at all.

To come back to question of the audience that is posed by these kinds of films (fucked up horrors) it’s best to turn to Patrick. What’s fundamentally wrong with Pat is that he’s a slave to himself and to emotions. Are we like him by watching his story so we can experience second hand (third hand) violence? Are we slaves to emotions, to chemical rushes? Is this right? What makes sense to me is that, no, it’s wrong to adhere to emotions to a certain extent. As long as we don’t get too immersed in emotions and end up realising negative, maybe even fucked up and violent, thoughts or feelings, we’re good. I say this because emotions are good and bad, they hurt us and they make us feel great. However, whilst living in a society presented by another great Christian Bale film…

… would allow us to be numb, to get on with life, the highs of emotions make the lows bearable. This is what Patrick realises by the end of the film. He laughs at the notion that some people are just cool, that they can be completely empty beyond their surface. He figures out that ‘he’s just a happy guy’ having stumbled upon the truth of his soft-mania. But, whilst Patrick figures out that he is not a murderer, that he does want to feel, he is still stagnated. It’s best to let him say it:

There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have cause and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. And even after admitting this, there is no catharsis, my punishment continues to allude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling, this confession has meant nothing.

The first two lines are the recognition that he’s not like other sociopaths, he’s not like other viscous and evil people. He knows he’s imagined all he’s done and now has surpassed that stage of his life. His pain being sharp and constant is the acceptance that he cannot be numb anymore. Him wishing this on you is then not the end of the world. Now, the catharsis he cannot achieve by telling this story, by confessing to himself and us alike, is some kind of alleviation from his body, from his emotions. Patrick doesn’t know why he feels, he never will – that’s life. His confession then meaning nothing becomes a question to you. Does this give him free range to now become an actual serial killer, to realise his imaginings? Is that what he surpassed? Or, does him recognising he’s a bit fucked up allow him to get on with life? This is probably the most important question you can ever ask yourself in life. The most important questions are not why are we here, what’s the purpose, is there a God and so on. The most important question is: what are you going to do about it? What are you going to about there possibly not being a God, about there possibly being a God? What are you going to do about your inability to find yourself? Will you give up, break down, or carry on?

Remember, these questions aren’t just to Patrick, but to us watching him, wondering why on Earth we support imaginary murder and mutilation, why it feels good to us. So, in the end, if there is some seed, some smidgen of evil in us all, are we supposed to sympathise with it, or cut it out? Is the plight of evil worth paying attention to?

 

 

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Psycho – Marriage And How Not To Do It: Him And Her In Two Parts

Thoughs On: Psycho (1960)

After stealing $40,000 Marion Crane runs out of town where rain drives her into the Bates Motel.

Psycho

There’s many ways to watch Psycho. Firstly, you can try the perspective of an audience member looking for 1 hour and 45 mins of entertainment – of suspense, horror and mystery. Secondly, you can look at this film from a technical perspective, analysing Hitchcock’s developed style and philosophy of cinema in action. Thirdly, you can again look at the technicalities of this film, but from the writer’s perspective. This is my favourite way to look at a film as, for me, it’s the most rewarding perspective to take. You get the experience of entertainment, a hidden kind, as well as a lesson or interesting debate simply by choosing to see implied greater depth. This is what I want to do with Psycho today – to look at this great lesson in direction, this intriguing thrill ride and pick apart the allegory. Now, the underlying story of Psycho is of marriage – a pretty bad one. This is a film about two dysfunctional interpretations of a to-be married life. In short, Marion looks for security in all the wrong places and Norman… well, he can’t find a woman better than his mother. The climax of these two conflicting ideas is rather sudden…

… which leaves us with a film of two parts. The first section that sticks to Marion’s perspective is all about putting yourself in danger, leaving the latter half with Norman to be about a contorted view of women and social exchange.

The opening with Sam and Marion in the motel room is what plants the seed for everything to come. After having ‘spent lunch together’ the two dance around an idea of commitment. This all comes about through the buzz word respectability. Marion, in short, wants a normal relationship, an engagement and then marriage with Sam. He is, however, reluctant because, firstly, he’s been married before and secondly, has very little money. This establishes two important facts. The first is that Sam is still paying his father’s debt. For anyone who’s seen the film recently or knows it very well, you’d be able to make the first link to Norman here. Norman’s father died when he was 5 leaving him and his mother alone. The metaphorical debt Norman was laboured with was of affection, the fact that a son is no substitute for a lover. This is what caused Norman to snap and is used to imply that the two (Sam and Norman) share common traits. These traits are to do with the perception of affection and commitment. To go a step further on these themes we simply have to look at the fact that Sam still pays alimony for a wife he clearly doesn’t like. His fear of commitment may be grounded in his childhood (like Norman) but accentuated by this recent past. This leaves Marion making the compromise that ‘she’ll lick the stamps’. She chooses to take on Sam’s personal luggage. This luggage is primarily monetary. Sam doesn’t have the money to marry, get a better home for themselves and so on. Marion takes that onto her shoulders – something that’ll carry through to a fast approaching moment. The lead up to Marion stealing the $40,000 is plagued with talk of being married and getting married, both by her co-worker and the rich customer, Tom Cassidy. The importance of Tom is found in the idea that you can buy unhappiness off. He suggests to her that with money, life is easier. We’ve touched on this subject before with The Matrix, but what this concept boils down to is context of self and situation. Can we make the things around us better? But, more importantly, the way we interpret them more productively? Apply this question to Marion and we see that the way she wants to buy off unhappiness is to secure a home for herself and Sam so he’ll hopefully commit to her. But, it’s when she starts to question what exactly she’s doing that things start to go awry.

The way in which Marion’s anxiety and situation is best revealed and then poked at is with the scene where she exchanges her car. Her own car and the one she trades it in for are both displaced euphemisms. They represent Sam and his choice of women (as well as a more general idea of choice). Sam seems to have jumped from a wife to a girlfriend without recovering, without being able to commit to someone again. This is evident in the way he only wants to be around her for a certain ease of access. The response to Marion’s high pressuring, both in the car lot and with Sam, is crucial to her growing anxiety. This is because rash choices are always indicative of a mistake to be made. Just like Marion renting a new car is something you might want to slow down a little for, maybe take a test ride, so should be Sam moving into a relationship with Marion and Marion with him (no intended euphemism, well, maybe – but, the test should also be of each other characters). The overall purpose of this scene is to build suspense, to have Marion question herself and the way in which she makes choices in life.

So, as a result, with Marion back on the road her anxious thoughts concerning being caught with the money swell. But, because the money and subsequent anxieties are all connected to Sam and her future with him, it’s fair to infer that she’s having doubts concerning their relationship also. These doubts are made clear with the pathetic fallacy – the rain. Marion’s view of her future, of the road ahead of her, is obscured. The only light ahead of her now reads: Bates Motel. Vacancy. The neon sign is, for Marion, enlightenment. Whether it’s of paranoia, or sudden realisation, the Bates Motel makes clear to her the dangers of the road she wants to travel down.

It’s at this point where we see the exchanging of the baton from Marion’s perspective to Norman’s. This exchange though is very ambiguous and has had me stumped for quite a while. As has been implied already Norman’s situation and perspective are similar to Sam’s. Both seem to have problems with women, but Sam’s is in no way as serious as Norman’s. I have tried to find more strong links between their characters to maybe suggest that they are the same person, but can’t agree to this with any confidence. What I think may be possible though is that this narrative might just be under the complete control of Marion. By this I mean that we see everything from her perspective. So, whilst Norman and Sam aren’t the same person, Marion may be hyperbolising his character to express her anxiety captured in this part of the film. In other words, to her, Norman represents Sam. This all suggests that Marion doesn’t die, and her body isn’t discovered in the end of the film, but that she decided the relationship between herself and Sam is going anywhere and that it dead in the water – or would it be swamp? Either way, this would transform the whole narrative of Psycho into a pure extended metaphor. But, the fault with seeing the film in this way is the task of having to assign so much meaning to so many extraneous characters. I’ve tried watching the film a few times over with this in mind, but haven’t yet got a clear image of what everyone could be representing, which leaves me questioning the validity of the idea. However, what I think is valid and self-evident is the theme of marriage throughout this film. When you apply this to the two main characters you get our narrative of how not to approach marriage in two parts. And what this is all centred on is an idea of freedom. This is symbolised with Marion’s last name, Crane, and Norman’s stuffed birds – all symbols of freedom.

This all turns the most poignant and immersive scene in the film, that is simply Norman and Marion talking, into the all important no man’s land. This is a no man’s land of conflicting metaphors. For Marion the birds and the freedom they represent are a positive idea – it’s what ultimately has her decide to return the money. For Norman, freedom is an unattainable goal, moreover, in other people this scares him. We’ll start with Marion. It’s sitting with Norman, a clear mummy’s boy, that she realises that for her to be with Sam will simply mean she becomes his mother figure. She’ll pay his alimony, work the harder job, and probably still have to be the classical 50s housewife at the same time. And, whilst that sounds like a pretty shitty deal, there’s a small detail she’s skipped over. The money she wants to use to give herself and her possibly non-committal boyfriend is stolen. The freedom the money gives her is actually her own personal trap. And that’s why she leaves early in the morning – to get out of a personal trap back home. However, before she gets the chance to leave, she is of course murdered.

The irony and implication of this shot is that Marion’s means of freedom (the money) remains. It’s her initial trap, her relationship with Sam, that metaphorically…

,,, destroys her. It’s that which she thought she wanted and could handle that was the true conflict all along. This is why this image:

The zoom out from the eye is incredibly important. It implies that she maybe saw this coming, or that it was the last thing that she’d expect – Norman, a hyperbolised representation of Sam, killing her. To side with the former, that the image of her eye implies she saw this coming, is to suggest that Norman is a strict and purposeful representation of Sam and that we see the rest of the film from a dead woman’s perspective. To side with the latter, that Norman killing her was the last thing she’d expect, it’s implied that the trap she got herself into with Sam/Norman was too strong. This marks a futile maybe even pessimistic perspective of marriage or future relationships in Marion. Through allegory it’s suggested that Marion’s anxiety or her own personal flaws (choice in boyfriends) is what consumes her. She destroys herself in a certain sense.

Now, jumping back to conversational scene we can shift into the second part of the film as seen through Norman’s eyes. It’s Norman’s perspective of birds and freedom that set up the negative male perspective of marriage in this film. And it’s from this point that it’s probably best to see the first section of this film as a negative female perspective – the second, male. This will simply help to widen the allegory and clarify the narrative message. So, if birds are a symbol of freedom, for Norman to stuff them implies he wants to control and ground others. We’re not talking exclusively about others here, but Norman himself. Like Marion, he has his own personal traps. And it’s the reduction of marriage to a trap that is the main fault of both ends here. Marion can’t be tied down to the wrong person, and Norman (like Sam) can’t find the right person to be trapped with. For Norman, his mother is the only female he can bind himself to. And it’s in the end of the film that we figure out that he does this out of guilt. His mother only comes through his personality as a repression of the memory of him killing her and her lover. Love to Norman is then nothing more than a plug over a deep hole in his persona. It’s implied that he, the mother side of him, kills women because of this. He destroys what he can’t control in other words – this is why he doesn’t like women and strays from relationships. Norman can’t replace the hole in his persona taken up by his mother without exposing himself as a monster. It’s here that you can see the fundamentals of a recurrent character in modern cinema:

Both Scorsese and Nolan have taken Hitchcock’s theme of marriage in hand with the psychological crime thriller and used it to explore this idea of traps, of refusing to see yourself as a monster. In fact, there’s a plethora of male characters that the Bates archetype has been built from and revised by:

I could give a million more examples, but all of these characters, like Norman, are driven by a conflicted idea of love (or lack thereof) that they allow to consume themselves. This is an interesting idea to me as the reverse to this kind of characters is:

It’s these men that fight, that risk everything they have, for the memory of a loved one, for the safety of someone they hold dear, or to simply stand triumphant and shout: ‘Adrian, I did it’. What this all says is that under the theme of marriage there’s two key male archetypes. There’s the Bates archetype and the Rocky archetype. When you juxtapose these two types of character you can recognise a huge swath of films as romances. When you usually think of romance, you think of Pretty Woman, The Before Trilogy, Titanic, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Casablanca. The likes of Man On Fire, Rocky, Die Hard, Taxi Driver or even Psycho don’t come into this picture. Granted, some of these films are tragic, but, what’s the most famous romance of all time? Romeo And Juliet anyone? The point I’m trying to make here is that there’s two reactions to the idea of romance. There’s the male-centred idea of tangible romance, of actions and reactions. On the other hand there’s an intangible idea of female-centred romance based on non-verbal cues and emotions. The best way to clearly convey this idea is to look at where the final or solidified ‘I love you’ comes in the film. With tangible, action/reaction romances the ‘I love you’ comes early on. These are, almost paradoxically, manly romances. Look at the examples given. It’s romance that comes before the fight in Unforgiven and Rocky. With Man Of Fire, the relationship between Creasy and Pita has to be developed before the action can take place. Even in Die Hard John is going to New York to visit an ex-wife and family. The relationship is present beforehand. The stereotypical romances, however, end on the solidified ‘I love you’. Just look at examples given: Pretty Woman, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Titanic, Casablanca. The first two end with a kiss. The second two don’t end too well for the main male protagonist, but the female lead learns her lesson in romance with the final act. Now, bring into the equation the Bates archetype and we can see them as characters unwillingly forced into the latter stereotypical romances much like Pretty Woman, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Titanic and Casablanca. Bruce Wayne, Travis Bickle, Norman Bates, Guido Anselmi and so on are tasked with finding romance in their narratives. This is only ever used to reveal incapacity though. It’s used to reveal a monster within them.

What this all suggests is that in popular cinema the man in the woman’s position of a romance turns the film into a horror or a take on a psychological crime or mystery. Added to this, the woman put in the position of a male romance (Die Hard, Rocky, Man On Fire) also turns the film into a horror or a take on a psychological crime or mystery. Norman is tasked with getting along with a woman, and as representative of Sam, he’s tasked with living under her wing almost. Rose in Titanic could handle this, so could Vivian in Pretty Woman. Not Norman though. Moreover, Marion steals money and keeps from danger to ensure a chance of romance. Rocky could do this, so could John McClane. What’s going on here? Well, the wider answer could be that role reversals aren’t that acceptable by the standards of society. This is probably true to a certain extent. Is that good or bad? A talk for another time. In terms of cinematics, however, what this seems to be about is fear and traps – that which Psycho is inherently about. Personal traps are the product of fear that is allowed to consume. For Norman it’s fear of memory, Marion, fear of being wrong, Travis Bickle, fear that the world will never be a better place, Bruce Wayne, fear that evil will consume all, Henry Spencer, fear of fatherhood, Patrick Bateman, fear of being ignored. And it’s this element of fear that these characters are either subjected to or try to fight against. It’s for those reasons that their films are often crimes, horrors of have elements of action. When we come back to the key archetype of this class of film, Norman, we can understand the overarching philosophy of these broken romances – and it’s all connected to Hitchcock’s idea of marriage. Marriage seems to be about knowing yourself well enough so you don’t screw up someone else’s life. It’s not letting bias and memory dictate how your present perception functions. Unfortunately, with films like Shutter Island, Memento and Psycho where the Bates archetype is strongest, the best characters can manage is to convince themselves that they are not the monster…

And it’s in this that an anti-romance almost becomes a romance. In the end, Psycho, like many other films is simply about self-awareness for the purpose of social-awareness – those around you. For both Marion and Norman it’d be knowing the traps they put themselves in and have to get out of that’d allow them to better cope in life and with relationships.

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