By: Katherine R. Sloan
Bret Easton Ellis’s new book, White—his first in nearly a decade and first non-fiction ever—is one that I’ve been hesitant to write on as it’s proven very controversial. What’s most appalling is that the media seems to view Ellis as some sort of Trump apologist, misogynist (due to a 2008 Tweet about Kathryn Bigelow) and bigot. Ellis would say that one should “Look to the art” and not the artist, that his personal and political leanings do not matter— it’s the writing that matters. I would not be reading his novels with such fervor if I believed him to be a Republican stooge or even sympathizer.
What interests me most about White is not Ellis’s views on the current political climate, millennial culture or his pseudo-friendship with Kanye West but freedom of speech and aesthetics. To Ellis, it is an artist’s duty to speak his or her mind no matter what the repercussion. His brilliant way of making me want to revisit certain titillating films from the 1970s and ’80s that are gritty, unflinching and very sexy is part of the book of interlocking essays that held my rapt attention. The way he speaks of an un-coddled youth where movies were the gateway to exotic, adult worlds reminds me of why I have been besotted with films my entire life. Ellis discusses—in great detail—Paul Schrader’s 1980 film American Gigolo and how watching it at fifteen had an influence that was “vast and undeniable” and “impossible to tally.” Ellis agrees that American Gigolo was not a great film but that “It changed how we look at and objectify men, and altered how I thought about and experienced LA.” What’s so fascinating about Ellis’s discussion of this film in particular is that it’s not a cinematic masterpiece but it does have resonance in popular culture and proved to influence his fiction.
Ellis also goes on to do what, I feel, he does best and that’s to take his readers into completely faraway worlds, whether they’re of his own design or that of another artist (in this case it’s Paul Schrader). Ellis goes on to describe the film as “Set in 1979 Los Angeles, whose denizens dine at Ma Maison and Perino’s and Scandia and Le Dome—and Julian Kaye, the title character, is living in a chic Westwood apartment, adorned in Armani, driving the empty streets in a Mercedes convertible and making his living as a male prostitute for wealthy older women while haunting the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel.” Ellis goes on to discuss his understanding of the “male gaze” and how the camera ogled Richard Gere, thus making the film very gay: it objectified its leading man, was “minimal and chic” and saw Los Angeles as a “brightly colored wasteland.” Ellis also talks about Gere’s blankness, his emptiness. All this harkens back to his 1985 novel Less Than Zero: a story of privileged, nihilistic youth in Los Angeles.
I think what I loved about Less Than Zero and immediately understood was that Ellis’s depiction of certain behavior is not an act of this behavior; he’s not even condoning it but, instead, criticizing it. This is why Ellis is such an effective satirist. At times, his work can even be considered absurdist; he was the Jonathan Swift of the 1980s and early ’90s. American Psycho (1991) was his ultra-violent, sexually explicit version of A Modest Proposal (1729), if you will. Ellis is a wonderful record-keeper of popular culture, especially films. He writes about the 1977 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar (starring Diane Keaton and Richard Gere) with such finesse that I immediately re-watched it—even though I was completely horrified upon the first viewing—stating that “Gere brings Keaton to orgasm in her apartment while Donna Summer sings ‘Could it be Magic’ and then performs a balletic mock-rumble kung-fu dance in his jockstrap while brandishing a glow-in-the-dark switchblade.” Ellis then goes on to say that this scene is “ludicrous” now but was “electrifyingly sexy” to his “eighth-grade sensibility.” This is what Ellis does so brilliantly: the nuance of his language trips off the tongue; the cadence sounds like a suggestive, playful bell that tolls for readers who want a thrill.
Ellis discusses his youth where he was able to go to the local movie theater and watch horror films without a chaperone and how this ignited his imagination. He also deliberates on how these violent films (which were then mostly rated PG) would most likely be restricted now but how, in the 1970s, the horror films he watched “Smoothed the transition from the supposed innocence of childhood to the unsurprising disillusionment of adulthood.” Some of the most satisfying excerpts from the book are when Ellis describes the world of pre-internet pornography and a society where instant gratification didn’t exist: people actually purchased dirty magazines, drove to a video store to rent tapes and watched endless television at odd hours to catch only a glimpse of nudity on screen. This is all almost unfathomable today because of the internet; we simply have to look at our smartphone for X-rated entertainment. Ellis’s musings on film remind me of James Baldwin’s expert film criticism in The Devil Finds Work. Baldwin— like Ellis—was an avid fan of cinema and wrote some of the most insightful film commentary ever published.
I think the crux of White is when Ellis states that “The greatest crime being perpetrated in this new world is that of stamping out passion and silencing the individual.” This “new world” he mentions is where we all seem to be getting bent out of shape and offended by the slightest thing. I actually do believe that, as a society, we cannot become silent or complacent and that people should get angry but I also agree that, in today’s climate of over-sharing and posting every opinion on the internet, people are increasingly upset over things that seem petty and unimportant. Ellis describes the past few years (especially since Trump got elected) as “An age that judges everybody so harshly through the lens of identity politics that if you resist the threatening group think of ‘progressive ideology,’ which proposes universal inclusivity except for those who dare to ask any questions, you’re somehow fucked. Everyone has to be the same, and have the same reactions to any given work of art, or movement or idea, and if you refuse to join the chorus of approval you will be tagged a racist or misogynist. This is what happens to a culture when it no longer cares about art.” He refers to this world as “post-empire” and this is pretty much the takeaway from White: it’s wrong to think that everyone must, somehow, be moved by the same things and, in turn, equally outraged.
I, as a progressive, believe deeply in freedom of speech and differing opinions. This, of course, means dealing with speech I don’t particularly agree with or even like (hate speech is a completely separate and problematic issue). I am also not a saint and have been angered by those who do not share my views but, as human beings are contradictory by nature, I also believe that one can have many opinions—and these opinions often waver. We are all mercurial, imperfect and guilty of making certain remarks that do not necessarily define us. Ellis goes on to discuss Trump and, because he does not vilify him, some seem to think that he’s condoning and, therefore, supporting him. I simply am of the opinion that Ellis got all his Trump hatred out when he eviscerated his lifestyle in American Psycho. He explains that he has never considered himself to be political and that he’s more focused on art and aesthetics: “A romantic by comparison, I’d never been a true believer that politics can solve the dark heart of humanity’s problems and the lawlessness of our sexuality, or that a bureaucratic Band-Aid is going to heal the deep contradictory rifts and the cruelty, the passion and the fraudulence that factor into what it means to be human.” Pondering man’s existence is the exact purpose of art and what Ellis continues to do, even in the genre of non-fiction.
Ellis is no stranger to controversy. After American Psycho was published (it almost wasn’t) he was deemed a rampant misogynist and even received death threats. The novel that detailed the decadence of 1980s New York complete with greed and unimaginable horrors brought on by a society based on status was such a successful satire that it was actually taken seriously. He writes about all of this in White but the big question here is: how do we separate art from reality and are they one and the same? Ellis tends to agree that art exists separately from reality and explains that art never offended him.
Ellis explains that he “Understood all works of art were a product of human imagination, created like everything else by flawed and imperfect individuals. Whether it was de Sade’s brutality or Céline’s anti-Semitism or Mailer’s misogyny or Polanski’s taste for minors, I was always able to separate the art from its creator and examine and value it (or not) on aesthetic grounds.” He also goes on to cite James Joyce as an inspiration when he said that “I have come to the conclusion that I cannot write without offending people.” As for my take on valuing a work of art simply based on its aesthetics, I can only recall D.H. Lawrence’s 1920 masterwork Women in Love when the character, Loerke says of his sculpture: “It is a work of art, it has no relation to anything outside that work of art.” So, what Lawrence is trying to say, at least in part, is that it is possible for an artist to view his creation as something that can only be defined in an artistic context.
White is a complex collection of essays filled with all sorts of topics ranging from freedom of speech, the author’s disinterest in politics, Twitter, literature, actors and films. I would say that, if you’re a fan of Ellis, give it a read but don’t expect it to be like his fiction (I prefer his fiction) and don’t read only one-sided reviews that use the word “Trump” as click-bait. Instead, read it for Ellis’s discussion of Joan Didion, shout-outs to Charlie Chaplin and his musings on writing his autobiography, random reflections on nearly-forgotten performances such as Yul Brynner as a robot in Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld and for the sheer pleasure of delving into a fascinating writer’s life.