Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"American Psycho" and Cut-Throat Capitalism

In his essay “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” Stephen King suggests that people like horror movies because they allow us to express our “anticivilization emotions.” Watching people get stalked, mamed, and mutilated satisfies some animal instinct that rarely gets an outlet in civilized society. King calls horror movies a modern version of the public lynching. Some people may dismiss horror movie fans as “sick” or “weird” but box office sales for movies like “Saw” I-VII and “Final Destination” I-V suggest that these “sick” movies are extremely popular in America. It is with King’s hypothesis in mind, that horror movies provide an escape from civilized morality, that I would like to examine the movie “American Psycho.”

“American Psycho” is based on a book by Bret Easton Ellis, who has become something like a rock star of postmodern American literature. His first novel, Less Than Zero, chronicled the confusion, waste, and disillusionment of 20-somethings in 1980s Los Angeles, a time and place of rampant and unabashed materialism and capitalism.

“American Psycho” sort of picks up where Less Than Zero left off, following one man as he enters the corporate capitalist workforce. Patrick Bateman, the main character, takes the values of the corporate capitalist world to their logical conclusion and, in doing so, illustrates the emptiness and horror at the heart of corporate capitalism.

Patrick is ultra-competitive, which is the value at the heart of capitalism…competition. But Patrick takes this value to its logical conclusion. When one of his co-workers/competitors gets nicer business cards than him, his solution is to literally kill his competitor.

In one of the most comically horrific scenes of the movie, Patrick invites Paul, his co-worker, over to his apartment for drinks, pops on a Huey Lewis and the News CD, explains why he loves Huey Lewis and the News, and proceeds to murder Paul with an axe.

This absurd juxtaposition of the cheesy/upbeat music with cold-blooded murder hi-lights a central paradox of corporate capitalism. Companies present a happy and desirable image of themselves through advertisement and marketing, but, at their core, they are about making the most money. Thus, a company like Wal-Mart can air commercials of smiling, happy children, while at the same time using child sweat-shop labor to cut their costs. An oil company can create commercials that suggest it cares about the environment, while at the same time totally polluting the environment.

This disconnect, between mass image and social reality, is something made explicit in “American Psycho.” On the surface, Patrick Bateman is the perfect corporate employee. He is good looking, well-dressed, polite, and ambitious. But the reality is that he is an amoral monster.

In like manner, any values that a publicly-traded corporation claim to have on their ads, or on their web site, are completely undermined by the reality that corporations answer to their shareholders, who only care about one thing…profit.

The film “American Psycho” strikes at the heart of corporate capitalist hypocrisy, suggesting that we have all become complicit in the schizophrenia of the American conscience. America has two selves: a public self that is all about freedom and democracy and justice; and a secret self that is destructive, selfish, brutal, and amoral. It is this “secret self” that the movie is exploring, the part of America that wages war for money, that segregates urban environments, that supports sweat shop labor, that exploits the sick and dying by denying them health care.

In this sense, “American Psycho” fits nicely into King’s take on horror movies. It allows us to glimpse the horror beneath the surface of our civilized lives, if only for a couple hours.

This scene is pretty genius.

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