Katherine R. Sloan

Bret Easton Ellis’s White: Non-fiction Essays that Probe the Meaning of Art and Aesthetics

By: Katherine R. Sloan

photo by Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

photo by Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

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.

photo by Mario Kroes

photo by Mario Kroes

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.



Glenda Jackson Reigns Supreme as a Gender-Blind King Lear

Review by Katherine R. Sloan

George Bernard Shaw declared that “No man will ever write a better tragedy than King Lear” and, according to many, he was absolutely correct. Shakespeare’s early seventeenth century masterpiece deals with tragedy in its most intimate form and is, at its core, about human failing, the unrealistic need for complete love and the quest for power. What is so unsettling are the crimes committed within a family where something akin to solidarity should exist but, to our appalling dismay, fails. Recently in previews for over a month at the Cort Theatre, King Lear officially just opened on Broadway April 4th and is a most exciting spectacle because of its lead actor: Glenda Jackson. Having Jackson play the role of not simply a man but the king—and one of theater’s greatest parts—is a gender role reversal perfect for 2019 (she brought the role to life two years ago at the Old Vic in London).

jackson as lear.jpg

After coming out of a twenty-plus year retirement and a career in politics, Jackson’s acting chops are just as compelling and captivating as we remember from her stunning films of the 1960s and ’70s. According to The New York Times she is still the “mightiest of them all.” Her performances in such films as Women In Love (1969) and A Touch of Class (1973) (both of which garnered her Best Actress Academy Awards) remain in the imagination as paradigms of daring female energy. Now that she’s 82 years old, Jackson possesses an even more palpable essence of power and prowess. Instead of a uniquely feminine energy, she brings a ferocity to Lear that is without gender and, ultimately, human. When she takes on a Shakespearean role we have complete faith in her vision and understanding of the part: we feel her greed, wrath, madness and, in the last minutes of the play, her heartbreak. As Jackson recently expressed while promoting the play, the ultimate tragedy of King Lear is the realization of love only when it’s too late (Lear dies of a broken heart upon holding Cordelia’s dead body in his arms). With over 1,000 lines, it’s staggering to behold Jackson’s boundless vitality and seemingly effortless projection of some of the finest sentences to exist in the English language.

Under the direction of Sam Gold (Hamlet for The Public Theater, Othello for the New York Theatre Workshop) with original music composed by Philip Glass and costumes designed by the legendary Ann Roth, this version of King Lear has classic, well-honed talent on display along with a great deal of inclusion and modern touches. Russell Harvard (who plays the Duke of Cornwall) is deaf so the use of sign language is employed throughout and, other than Ms. Jackson as Lear, a second male role is played by a female actor with Jayne Houdyshell as the Duke of Gloucester. Roth’s costuming choices add a wonderful flair of sophistication as Jackson dons smart tailored suits and shiny patent leather loafers (until Lear descends into madness and is dressed in torn pajamas and a garland for a crown) while Elizabeth Marvel (House of Cards, Law & Order: SVU) has tattoos on display as Goneril. The women all wear trousers and full-on pantsuits with tunics as short dresses paired with high-heeled boots instead of corsets throughout (although all three daughters wear more traditional, jewel-toned regalia during the first scene where Lear divides his kingdom among them).

The second most rewarding performance is given by Ruth Wilson (The Affair) as she, per tradition, portrays both Cordelia and the Fool. Her Fool is extremely reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp with a Cockney accent and, upon watching, is a delight as she has the energy and physicality of a teenage boy. Wilson’s Fool supplies comic relief but, as we discover later, also has a great deal of depth and is not foolish at all. On the contrary, Wilson’s Fool is quite brilliant. One of the directorial liberties taken by Gold is that he seems to be letting the audience in on the secret that, yes, Cordelia is the Fool.

glenda jackson and fool.jpg

This is never blatantly stated and no direct theatrical evidence points to the fact that these characters were written as one and the same by Shakespeare but that they are simply played by the same actor out of convenience (as they share none of the same scenes) although Lear does state, upon seeing Cordelia’s dead body, “And my poor fool is hanged.” This utterance serves as more than a hint that Cordelia is the Fool in disguise and that Lear knows this. In this production of Lear Wilson (as the Fool) removes her wig and reveals to us her true identity as that of the King’s daughter, Cordelia. This decision by Gold adds another layer to Cordelia’s steadfast, genuine love towards her father thus making the Cordelia/Lear relationship deeper and her subsequent death even more poignant and tragic.

This production of King Lear has all the Shakespearean elements that make going to the theater awe-inspiring, frightening and exciting. With the epic storm scene where Lear literally rages against the natural elements, a deceitful and carnal affair between Edmund (Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones fame) and the two malevolent sisters, extreme violence (the scene where Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out is wonderfully done but not for the faint of heart) and death, there is never a minute where action and raw entertainment coupled with superb language are lacking. All of these happenings are just as Shakespeare wrote them but are modernized to be even more salacious at times (there’s a satisfyingly raucous sex romp between Edmund and Goneril) while some aspects are almost an afterthought (as Regan—played by Aisling O’Sullivan—is poisoned and dies in the background). The most overwrought part of the play comes at the end when Cordelia is hanged and, justifiably so, but, if just for a moment as she’s lowered onto center stage with a noose around her neck, it seems that, although very effective, this could have been done with a bit more finesse and subtlety.

Shakespeare is not easy-going theater: one’s ears must remain pricked throughout as tensions run high and complexities grow ever higher. One of the most refreshing aspects of true art is its ability to reflect the most intense, beautiful and terrifying characteristics of life and what it means for even the most powerful among us to be proved fallible. In his 1816 poem On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again John Keats writes of delaying his own writing in order to enjoy one of his greatest inspirations and, in the last line, states: “Give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire.” This implies that Keats hoped for a more effective way of writing poetry and that King Lear was a work of art that could provide him what he needed in order to continue creating. Upon seeing King Lear on Broadway the audience is rewarded not only with one of the greatest spectacles ever written for the stage but, with Glenda Jackson as the lead, one of the most impressive and exhilarating portrayals of Shakespeare’s tragic king.






If to Create is to Live Twice James Baldwin has Nine Lives

If to Create is to Live Twice James Baldwin has Nine Lives

Albert Camus said that to create is to live twice and, in the case of James Baldwin, this is especially evident in 2019. Why, do you ask, has Baldwin’s fiction recently been adapted into an Academy Award nominated film by Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk) while his life has inspired the art exhibition God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin curated by Hilton Als at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City (along with accompanying film screenings). The 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro (based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House) was a runaway success and it seems that our appetites are barely whetted for more.

Finding Modernism in Venice

Finding Modernism in Venice

Canals filled with turquoise water instead of streets bustling with cars and bicycles come to mind when I think of Venice. Joseph Brodsky’s essay Watermark (1993) resonates deeply with the visitor, as does a watery dream conjured by Robert Altman: I was immediately reminded of his film, 3 Women (1977) upon arrival. Brodsky only visited Venice in December for he longed to celebrate the beginning of a new year with “a wave hitting the shore at midnight.” He explained “that, to me, is time coming out of water.”  Brodsky also described the city as being “part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers” and he described the canal-side structures as “upright lace.” Brodsky, born in Leningrad, was exiled from his homeland due to his “having a worldview damaging to the state, decadence and modernism, failure to finish school, and social parasitism . . . except for the writing of awful poems” (Brodsky went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987). He thought of Venice as the closest incarnation of Eden and “the greatest masterpiece our species produced.”

On Some of my Favorite Photographers

On Some of my Favorite Photographers

Since having written this in graduate school several years ago, I have been lucky enough to see some quite extraordinary photography exhibitions in my new home, New York City. I went to see the Speed of Life retrospective honoring Peter Hujar’s work at the Morgan Library and Museum recently along with William Eggleston’s Los Alamos series at the Met. Before that I was amazed by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of India at the Rubin Museum. I have also been incredibly impressed by Emma Elizabeth Tillman’s work and, most notably, her recently published collection of photographs entitled Disco Ball Soul. All of these photographers have inspired me to take a look back at this piece I wrote where I discuss some of the artists who made an impact on me as a college student.

Cries and Whispers

Cries and Whispers

In light of the month-long centennial retrospective of Ingmar Bergman’s films at Film Forum, I am excited to share a piece I wrote as an undergraduate on Cries and Whispers as seen through a prism of Feminist Literary Theory.