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Less Than a Zero: The New Bret Easton Ellis Biopic

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Less Than a Zero: The New Bret Easton Ellis Biopic  

by Patti Munter  



Smack in the midst of a recent bout of insomnia, I flipped on The Charlie Rose

Show. Bret Easton Ellis was guest. Notwithstanding a couple shots of liquid cold

medicine, I have discovered there is nothing as sleep-inducing as a ten or fifteen minute

dose of Charlie. The southern, “aw, shucks” affability that goes on forever, drone-like,

combined with the repeated but futile attempts by the talent to sneak in a phrase or two

seem almost designed to bore, so I propped myself up on my pillows. I don’t read Ellis,

but I do read his reviews. The word on his new novel, Glamorama, has been so

bad, that instead of attacking him for his misogynistic, gratuitous, violent sex scenes, the

critics have started using much broader strokes. Walter Kirn said it best in New

York magazine: “In a one-man race to the literary bottom, Ellis completes in a single

book, alone, a process of degradation that ought to have taken years and scores of books

by a whole generation of writers.” I was curious about how the excess negative attention

might manifest (or not) on Ellis in person. But if fallout existed, it wasn’t evident in the

poise of the well-heeled drubbee. Like Charlie, Bret is an inveterate chatterer. And chat

they did. That night I dreamt my head exploded on a catwalk while I was draped in

Alexander McQueen.


    

A few nights later, I found myself at a screening of This Is Not an Exit, the

new documentary on the life and works of Ellis, having decided to write a review of it.

Never mind that I don’t enjoy reading about sex (except in Troubadour love lyrics) and I

definitely don’t like writing about it. Never mind that I’d read somewhere Ellis had spent

thousands of dollars to try and stop the film’s release. As the room filled up with hordes of

twenty-ish, fresh-faced, writer-boys in Ellis’ trademark zoot suit and tie and the lights

dimmed, I reminded myself that the job of the reviewer is objectivity. Certain things Bret

confessed to Charlie a few nights before had left me dumbfounded (“What really

fascinates me is the connection between the beauty culture and terrorism, because beauty

culture is about insecurity and terrorism causes unease” and “Having a persona is the

most important thing a writer can have”) But I chalked up most of my confusion to sour

grapes (I think of myself as a writer whose persona could best be described as intermittent).

So I cleansed my palette and let the show begin.


    

Ellis claims to have allowed his life to be chronicled because he’s a hard-core fan of

MTV’S The Real World. But, as everyone knows, fantasies are much more

satisfying when they remain unrealized. I wish I could commend the director and cast on

their efforts, but I walked out completely unsated, and I’m someone who cancels long-standing

plans to watch PBS specials. I woke up the next morning resentful at having been

so damn bored, so I set out for my neighborhood book store. I was determined to see

some of this ostensibly offensive prose with my own little eyes. I have a thing for underdogs.

Maybe this guy had just gotten a bad rap. Two of his titles were in stock. I closed my eyes

and stuck my finger in his 1994 novel, The Informers. I read one page, then the

next. The protagonist, Jamie, is describing a night with “some young girl with long blonde

hair,” that he’s just picked up in a club in Studio City. He takes her to his place, discovers

she’s fourteen, kicks off his loafers, and murmurs, “You poor pitiful bitch.” He decides

she’s “wearing too much make-up and those ugly white Guess jeans, but she looks like

most girls, waxy and artificial.” Two paragraphs later “. . . she reaches up, weeping with

disbelief and touches my face and I smile and touch her smooth hairless pussy, and she

says, ‘Just don’t give me a hickey,’ and then I scream and jump on her and rip her throat

out and then I fuck her, and then I play with her blood, and after that basically everything’s

okay.”


    

I was beginning to get the picture. I closed my eyes again and randomly opened

Less Than Zero, only this time I braced myself. “When we get to Rip’s apartment

on Wilshire, he leads us to the bedroom. There’s a naked girl, young and pretty, lying on

the mattress. Her legs are spread and tied to the bedposts and her arms are tied above her

head. Her cunt is all rashed up and looks dry and I can see that it’s been shaved. She keeps

moaning and murmuring words and moving her head from side to side.” I’ll make a long,

horrific scene short. Someone puts make-up on her “clumsily.” Another shoots a syringe

full of something in her arm. They discover she’s twelve. They force her to perform oral

sex. I’m less than captivated, to say the least.


    

This Is Not an Exit begins with a reenactment of a scene from Less Than

Zero: three blonde actors are driving on an LA freeway in a late model convertible

BMW. Wind blows in their hair as they deep-talk about merging lanes. It is but the first of

many dramatic recreations from each of Ellis’ novels. The film closes with Ellis and a

plowed Candace Bushnell in a dark limo, club-hopping, with Ellis sighing, “I don’t think,

in the end, being a good-looking writer helps.” Bushnell’s comeback? “I don’t mean to be

pedantic, but Cindy Crawford is evil.” In between is forty-five minutes of the most

inane, unnecessary film footage I have ever made myself sit through. Number one, I’ve

always had an aversion to writers who throw around the word “darkness” too much. It’s

always a sign they’re thinking, wishfully, that if only they’d had more trauma in their

childhood they’d be able to afford a loft on Prince Street. It’s related to my aversion to

anyone under eighty who writes a memoir. Everything in his life, according to Ellis, is

darkness. His sensibility, his childhood, his years in New York that he spent being

“vilified by the press for going to nightclubs too much.” We learn Ellis grew up in the San

Fernando Valley. His parents divorced, his father drank too much. I was with him up till

that point. But then we’re treated to a parade of talking heads, starting with one Bruce

Taylor, a high school drinking buddy, who volunteers that Ellis, “captured the feeling of

the decadence of LA.” Call me finicky, but am I supposed to be interested in what a bunch

of jocky, upper-middle class white boys from the Valley (some of whom are still in

polo shirts) have to say about the goings on on the other side of the hill?

Then we get Mrs. Easton Ellis and Bret under a blue patio umbrella engaging in the

most stilted conversation I have ever witnessed (they talk to each other at the

camera). We learn from Mom that Bret “embellished a lot in certain scenes.” Hello,

that is the point of fiction, isn’t it?


    

We get lots of scenes of Bret and Jay McInerney at a bar somewhere, in their

dinner jackets, sipping something on the rocks. After the third go-around, McInerney starts

looking visibly uncomfortable pontificating about the importance of Ellis’ body of work.

When they didn’t strain so hard (“Fashion has become such a major force in our

lives, don’t you think?” “Yes, absolutely,”) it was easier to be entertained.


    

The film itself is badly shot, badly lit and horribly directed, but the highest

production values in the world couldn’t have saved Ellis from himself, or the film’s

eventual collapse into self-parody. Ellis tells us, straight-faced, “After American

Psycho, I received many death threats. It was odd. They left their names and

addresses.” And his response to accusations that he hates women? “American

Psycho is basically a feminist tract. I mean, every negative thing about men is in the

book.”


    

But what is simply unfathomable are the amateurish, continuous dramatizations of

selected scenes from his novels. I would have much preferred to hear Ellis read his own

work, or stick to talking about it. Instead, the director chose to have it interpreted by pouty

actors with their hands glued to their hips, in some kind of dazed nod to the Calvin Klein

drug addict commercials. Every scene is high camp. There are lots of scenes of pasty

suburban teens pretending to shoot up heroin, and a ménage à trois so

incomprehensible it looks like it was stolen from Saturday Night Live. But my

favorite was the scene from his novel, The Rules of Attraction, in which a heavily

eye-lined actress smokes a joint in a bathtub snarling, “I hate Rickie Lee Jones.”

Thirty interminable seconds later her thoughts move on. “I lie there in white brightness and

think about his pubic hair. I get scared. I get scared while I’m lying there.” In one of the

more graphic dramatizations, I realized that what was passing as blood was actually my

favorite shade of MAC nail polish flying through the air and splattering against a white

wall. The thrill of that recognition made me shiver. At last, something I cared about.


    

I’m not sure what the lesson is. It could be, Sometimes celebrities are nothing but

writers with overactive personas, good publicists and a flair for the stomach-churning. But I’m leaning

toward, Just because someone can write a novel doesn’t mean they have anything to say.



©1999

Patti Munter and Nerve.com