Five Reasons to Love Bret Easton Ellis Online

Written by Charles Arrowsmith

Posted on September 19, 2014

Filed Under: Blog

It’s boring to call Bret Easton Ellis “controversial.” Yeah, American Psycho was once the subject of NOW boycotts and mock-distress middlebrow brouhaha. True, Ellis’s work traffics in the sort of content — sexual, violent, linguistic — that falls firmly into the NSFW category. And yes, his Twitter feed has often sent seismic tremors through the blogosphere, as when he compared watching Glee to stepping in “a puddle of HIV“, or when he suggested that Kathryn Bigelow was overrated “since she’s a hot woman“. Or even, come to think it, when on the occasion of J.D. Salinger’s death he proclaimed, “Party tonight!!!” (He later apologised over the Bigelow tweets in an article in The Daily Beast, admitting that they weren’t “really fun or that provocative.” Most of the time, though, he’s unequivocal.)

But once all the fuss dies down — as it always does — doesn’t he sometimes have a point? To write him off is to naysay one of America’s fiercest and most insightful cultural critics. From his Empire/post-Empire theory and his passionate advocacy for grown-up moviemaking to his dismantling of political correctness and the sexy, celeb-soaked excerpts of his LA life, Ellis’s is an essential voice. Here are just five of the many reasons to love him.

His Twitter feed is like a Bret Easton Ellis novel

Ellis has an elaborately constructed public persona. Lunar Park (2005), which features a protagonist called “Bret Easton Ellis” with a near-identical career to the “real” Ellis, begins with the line, “You do an awfully good impression of yourself.” This sensation, of Ellis impersonating himself, also haunts his Twitter feed. The novel’s Bret is haunted by his dead father. Consequently, Ellis’s own familial relations end up sounding suspiciously familiar:

It’s a blurry line.

One of the absurdist pleasures of American Psycho and Glamorama (1998) is seeing Ellis’s characters mix with real-life celebrities. Patrick Bateman bumps into Tom Cruise in the elevator of his apartment building (“I thought you were very fine in Bartender.”) Victor Ward encounters hundreds of celebrities in the course of Glamorama, including, spookily, a character who resembles (but isn’t) Christian Bale, the actor who would later play Bateman in Mary Harron’s movie of American Psycho. This kind of weird interpenetration between reality and movie-celebrity-fantasia appears to be reflected by Ellis’s own life:

The further adventures of Patrick Bateman

Much as Imperial Bedrooms gives us the characters of Less Than Zero twenty-five years on, Ellis’s Twitter feed regularly features the further adventures of some of his most famous characters. My favourites include Patrick Bateman (of course) and his brother, The Rules of Attraction‘s Sean Bateman.

But, um, didn’t you say there’s a serious point to all this?

In interviews and on Twitter, Ellis is one of the most playful of writers. This can perhaps obscure serious intent, and some of his more outré ideas get written off as mere scandalizing. Yet he’s also a great advocate for authenticity in art, and joins a long and fine tradition of shunning the notion of respectability as a virtue:

Responding to early critics of American Psycho, Ellis told The New York Times, “You do not write a novel for praise, or thinking of your audience. You write for yourself; you work out between you and your pen the things that intrigue you.” Yes, this is the party line of the embattled novelist. But that doesn’t make it less true. Writing for yourself means being authentic, and authenticity is at the heart of all of Ellis’s online work, from his Twitter feed to his podcast (of which more below) to his occasional Daily Beast articles. This is Bret, he seems to be saying, like it or not.

Take his views on gay culture, which led him to him being uninvited from a GLAAD gala a couple years back. (Should add, though he would probably argue that it has no bearing, that Ellis is himself gay.) He was adamant, for example, that the gay actor Matt Bomer couldn’t portray the iconically heterosexual Christian Grey in the forthcoming adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. He was also a vocal critic of what he calls “Generation Wuss,” in particular the anti-bullying caucus and the anti-homophobia campaign “It Gets Better.” It’s easy to misunderstand 140 characters, of course, wilfully or otherwise. So instead of taking the last few sentences as a true summary of Ellis’s views, check out his excellent, provocative article “In the Reign of the Gay Magical Elves.” Not for everyone, perhaps, but still a passionately argued case against the homogenising influence of an orthodox agenda. And hard to dispute his point about Modern Family

The Empire/post-Empire world

OK, so what’s all this about?

In an interview with Vice earlier this year, Ellis said simply: “Post-empire is just about being yourself. It’s showing the reality rather than obscuring things in reams and reams of meaning.” It seems from his examples that this can be unpacked even further. Post-Empire seems to me to represent the New Irreverence, a decisive break with a puritanical past, a novel species of authenticity. It recognises that Jersey Shore and the Kardashians and James Franco and Lady Gaga and Shia LaBeouf and Charlie Sheen demand a new interpretative framework. It’s an old-school rebellion against an Establishment that seeks to enforce (when does it not?) a hypocritical moral structure. It’s people learning to own their actions. It’s Calum Hood (from 5 Seconds of Summer) responding to a leaked Snapchat video of him exposing himself with a tweet shrugging, “Least ya know what it looks like now.” It’s Lars von Trier retracting his apology for saying that he’s a Nazi at the Cannes Film Festival (seemingly on a freedom-of-speech principle rather than to reaffirm his commitment to National Socialism, FYI). In a post-Empire utopia, Anthony Weiner wouldn’t have resigned over his sexting scandal. Charlie Sheen is the post-Empire poster boy, as Ellis expounded at length in a Daily Beast article from 2011. “No one has ever seen a celebrity more nakedly revealing — even in Sheen’s evasions there’s a truthful playfulness that makes Tiger [Woods]’s mea culpa press conference look like something manufactured by Nicholas Sparks.”

Is this the future? Ellis has no illusions. Empire still dominates, even if post-Empire is in many ways preferable to him. Will it last?

He’s mad as hell and he’s not gonna take it any more!

Finally, just listen to the man. Ellis runs a seriously great podcast. The guest list is eclectic — recent interviewees have included Matthew Modine, James Van Der Beek, Alan Ball, Kanye West, Marilyn Manson, Tom Sizemore — but the concerns tend to coalesce around a few major subjects. The film industry status quo. Horror movies. Representational boundaries, especially violent or sexual. Depictions of the LGBT community and the existence of a post-gay aesthetic.

Listening to The BEE Podcast is an intimate experience, like overhearing a frank conversation between old friends. The nuance of some of Ellis’s more controversial statements is teased out; context, as the blogosphere tends to ignore, is all. He unspools elegant readings of Kubrick, horror remakes, Jennifer Lawrence, the TV vs movie debate, True Blood… the list goes on. One enduring obsession is the relative poverty of American filmmaking compared to, say, the 1970s.

Like David Denby, Ellis decries conglomerate aesthetics, the predominant form of studio moviemaking today. In the Tom Sizemore episode (the most recent) he eulogizes cinema as “an artform that was swallowed up by corporatethink.” We need voices like Ellis’s (and Denby’s). He uses his online platforms to champion independents like Boyhood and David Mackenzie’s Starred Up (both 2014) that might otherwise struggle to reach wide audiences. His is a merciless dissenting voice in the Hollywood fog of franchise nonsense and infantile pleasure-seeking.

All this, and people still can’t quite believe it’s him.

You can buy all of Bret Easton Ellis’s books at McNally Jackson. Follow him on Twitter here.

Recent posts from the blog…