the art of repulsion: bret easton ellis & jeff koons / by Greg Bills

The Informers, 2009.

The Informers, 2009.

One of the lingering artifacts of Jeff’s years spent out of town as a visiting professor is our two separate Netflix accounts. This duplication seems unnecessary, and a needless expense, since we do all of our television watching together.  But we are stubborn men and both unwilling to give up our carefully curated queues.  I often imagine this list of movies and TV shows as a kind of cultural fish ladder with each title working its way upriver to spawn.  On my list the most vigorous and energetic new arrivals leap up the ladder, heedless of the protocols to wait their turn in the stream, and I am always fussing around in the pool at the very top, sorting and lining up arrivals in front of the gate where they will be shipped off.  My list is rather long because I use it as a notepad to remind myself of films, shows, performances, that I may want to catch up on or re-watch or use in a class at some point.  I visit the top and bottom regularly, but the middle…there are some items that have been languishing mid-ladder for years (I know I had the impulse to watch Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor and the Wachowki’s version of Speed Racer at some later date—but will that day ever come?).  Jeff is supposedly winding down his account, adding no new titles and letting his queue’s autonomic motion bring us what it will.  His Netflix then is less like a frothing, aspirational fish ladder than the recession of the tide, ebbing to reveal whatever remains, lying drenched and slick on the sand. The latest beached object to wash up in our mail was The Informers, the 2009 film version of Bret Easton Ellis’s 1994 story collection, directed by Gregor Jordan.

If you are ranking Ellis adaptations, this one will be slotted somewhere beneath all the others that you’ve seen—although it is perfectly watchable as a portrait of ersatz 1980s ennui.  It is one of those melded plotline/portmanteau narratives in the manner of Robert Altman’s conversion of Raymond Carver stories into Short Cuts, in which actors Winona Rider, Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, Chris Isaak, and an assortment of Pretty Young Things go about their bits of business in vaguely connected episodes that never manage to add up to anything in particular.  But then this lack of a larger point is itself consistent with Ellis’s fiction.  If there were to be resolution to these little playlets, cautionary tales, and satirical gestures, that might suggest that these were glimpses into the lives of characters whose fates we might actually, potentially, care about, and that kind of emotional investment feels antithetical to Ellis’s larger authorial project: Only Disconnect.  While it is hard to give credit to the filmmakers for succeeding in producing an incoherent, unsatisfying movie, it does in fact serve to highlight how Ellis has always been less interested in providing a neatly-charted narrative arc of revelation and resolution rather than a spiralling vortex of more of the same and more of the same (American Psycho’s endless iterations of debauched consumerism and sociopathic mayhem are the most notorious example of his circling-the-drain style of storytelling, but all of his books seem to drift into a sargasso of aimless complication and numbing repetition at some point).

Typical for Ellis, the Los Angeles of The Informers is populated entirely by the young and on the make (or rather those who would be “on the make” if they weren’t perpetually stoned/hungover/existentially paralyzed) and the has-beens decaying from moral rot—a bestiary meant to illustrate the idea of a society in collapse, a culture in fatal decline.  Like Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms, etc., The Informers, book and film, repaints the same two inch triangle of the broad canvas of Los Angeles that almost all narrative works about the city choose as their focus: bounded by “celebrity” (movie stars, rock gods, fashion models), “lifestyle” (sex, drugs, inane pop culture and gadgetry), and “apocalypse” (earthquakes, traffic, riots—the place where America runs out of geography and crumbles into the ocean).  This formulation of what Los Angeles “means” appears to satisfy a need in the New York publishing and cultural production industry for an antipode to NYC’s self image as a place of power, cultural vitality, intellect, and soulfulness.  Unlike a story set in Manhattan where a young man could suffer a crisis of conscience and purpose in a complex, dynamic mesh of family, career, and social and artistic forces, the callow dudes of Los Angeles have already been rendered dead inside by the shallow, plastic narcissism of the Hollywood Dream Factory.  They are too narcotized to thrash on the hook as they are yanked about by destiny, and the narrating voice is too blasé to react much as their guts are spilled out on the killing floor, in part because we (storyteller and audience) are inclined to suspect that it is all stage blood and special effects anyway, yet more disillusioning fakery.  Despite his status as a native son of Southern California (born and raised in Sherman Oaks), which might suggest his possession of some background and nuance on the topic, Ellis has obligingly confirmed and reconfirmed the handy shorthand of Los Angeles as a poisonous Lotus Land, corrupt yet sterile.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that the setting of his most controversial work American Psycho—infamous as the book that his hardcover publisher got cold feet about and dumped—was centered on Manhattan; it may be reasonable to describe child rape and sex murders in Tinseltown, but quite another to link those sordid acts to America’s City.

More so than the book, the movie version of The Informers seems intent to make a statement about not only the metropolis but also the 1980s as a cultural moment.  Musical cues and news reports are interspersed for purported context, including an especially pointed interlude about the growing crisis of the AIDS epidemic.  With no apparent clue how to integrate the script’s various vignettes into a satisfying mosaic pattern, the film chooses to close on a classic trope: the sacrificial death of the beautiful maiden.  Christie (portrayed by the gorgeous topless torso of Amber Heard) flits about the film, sleeping with her boyfriend, her boyfriend’s boyfriend, etc.; watching some TV; talking to her sister; and then disappearing from the narrative for a while. By the time Christie resurfaces, a significant amount of time in the characters’ lives seems to have elapsed—although another character is still on the same resort vacation with his dad in Hawaii—and the narrative’s default protagonist, Graham (Jon Foster), encounters his former girl sprawled on a desolate beach in Malibu.  In addition to her off-white bikini, she is bedecked with what seem to be a large number of tastefully-rendered Kaposi’s sarcomas.  The two ex-lovers exchange some inconsequential banter, he watches a fly land in close-up on her diseased thigh, then in a longshot her head keels sideways.  Curtain.  This scene offers the crassest and crudest deployment of HIV and AIDS imaginable and suggests that the filmmakers feel entitled to some entirely unearned moral gravity to bring their variety show to a close.  Oh, the wages of sin…or something! The moment is both infuriating and laughable, and if the film up to that point had given any indication of a mastery of tone, it might be possible to imagine the conclusion paying homage to the spirit of Ellis himself as he sniggered at the ludicrous scene’s violation of sanctimonious taboo.  Instead, it seems both ethically heinous AND a delicious bit of unintended camp.  Take your pick.

The film’s inadequacies of tone do serve to underscore the source of Ellis’s power as a writer.  His books draw their strength not from deep insights into character or brilliant plot mechanics, but from his control of mood through language.  Like Joan Didion or Ernest Hemingway before him, Ellis somehow manages to succeed as a middle-of-the-stream, best-selling author despite the fact that his greatest gifts are as a textual stylist—never the most obvious literary commodity.  And just as there aren’t any great movies adapted from Didion or Hemingway novels either, the most compelling qualities of Ellis’s narratives largely evaporate when extracted from words on the page.  Mary Harron’s gloss on American Psycho—the best of the Ellis films I’ve seen—succeeds as a darkly comic fable about misogyny running in parallel to Ellis’s novel rather than as a strict adaptation. And it is hard to imagine any director who could do Ellis “right.”  For instance, David Lynch might share Ellis’s fascination with the unhinged grotesque, but his palette is visual and sonic, and he ultimately cares deeply about his characters, despite the hellish torments he enacts upon them, in a manner at odds with Ellis’s detachment.  An Ellis protagonist always feels like a construct, a syntactical placeholder, and the physical embodiment of any adaptation—actors must be hired to perform the characters; locations must be provided to house the action—betrays the sense that these individuals are nothing but reconfigurations of the alphabet, proceeding in sequence down the page.  They live, they die, they fuck, they shop, but they do so in prose, not in Brentwood.

One of his closer artistic kin may be the writer Dennis Cooper.  As in most of Ellis, Cooper is obsessed with sexual predators and their eerily willing prey, and like Ellis, his work is as much about the power and limits of language as it is about the transgressions of the flesh (in Period, the fifth and final book in Cooper’s “George Miles” series, things have gotten so dire linguistically that the narrator can barely compose a complete sentence while spinning his tale of ritual sex murders).  And judging from the botched movie of Frisk, Cooper may also be unfilmable.  But like David Lynch, Cooper is, in his deep dark heart, a romantic; he longs for a world in which his characters could achieve beautiful union, even if that union involves violating and devouring each other.  His torturing experiments with language seem attempts to make words express the inexpressible, to drain his sentences as life feels drained; there is a wounded passion in their zombie stare. Ellis, in contrast, does not seem a romantic—or a cynic either, which is, after all, the romantic’s Bizarro reflection.  His authorial heart feels crisped with liquid nitrogen.

Throughout his career, Ellis has regularly been condemned as a sensationalist then redeemed as a satirist. But his is sensation deprived of spark or novelty, and satire delivered with blunt force trauma.  At rare moments, Ellis makes a comment or offers a conceit that seems witty, he can craft passages that feel light on their feet, and there are other, lesser, moments when his attitude seems snottily juvenile, when the snarkiness of his desire to be a “bad boy” of literature feels gaseous.  But mostly, his efforts as a writer seem designed to squeeze the world into a plastic sheath and set the vacuum seal.  In the Ellis universe, there is no party in the restaurant at the end of the universe, no heat and flash of apocalypse, not even any portentous trout stirring in an icy stream as at the close of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Not even cinders maybe.  Not even anything.

Which may be one of the reasons that, while reading or trying to read Ellis, I often find myself wanting to flee from his fictional world more than I want to find out what happens next.  I can’t “curl up” with a good Ellis book; I can’t get “drawn in” or “lose myself.”  Instead, I recoil as something cold and hard pushes me insistently away.  This repulsion is not disgust; it is not the sick outrage of watching Leni Riefenstahl orchestrate the Nuremberg Rally.  It isn’t the mortification of being discovered blasting Celine Dion or Erasure or the Black-Eyed Peas on your car stereo then attempting to disavow your attraction (I don’t…it was just on the radio…somebody else’s playlist or…).  It is a distinct sensation I have experienced in the presence of only a few other artists and artworks, including Ellis and another Eighties Sensation that I have been thinking about recently: Jeff Koons.

While in New York in July, I considered attending the big Koons retrospective that recently closed at the Whitney, but I have seen so much of his work in various venues in Los Angeles—most of it courtesy of collectors Eli and Edythe Broad, who must own a whole warehouse of his stuff—that this show seemed unnecessary.  Koon is one of those artists whose first impression is so forceful and vivid that no subsequent encounter really replaces it—so much so that seeing even more of his stuff or finding out what he is up to at any particular moment is unlikely to add to any impression one already has of his work.  His key project of examining the detritus of pop culture then creating paintings and sculpture that monumentalize and mock-beatify the original debased material results in art that truly stupefies. Beyond shouting, “Wow, what an amazing giant puppy statue encased in living flowers!” or “Wow, that’s some giant high chromium stainless steel balloon dog with transparent blue color coating!” what else is there to say about his objects?  It would be interesting to discover what precisely the Broads consider as they purchase yet more Koons to add to their inventory (“Oh, look honey, he’s doing polychrome aluminum reproductions of pool toys now!”).

Carefully posed art babes respond to Koons paintings.  Or don't.

Carefully posed art babes respond to Koons paintings.  Or don't.

For me, like the art world equivalent of mothballs, Koon’s works desiccate my artistic viewing experience of all vital moisture, leaving behind a space sucked dry of emotional content.  Although it might be possible to consider Koons’s attitude toward the subjects of his work as one long leering, sniggering mockery of other people’s bad taste, leers and sniggers require some sense of a brattish clown behind the scenes, whom we, the informed audience, are meant to sense and join.  In this scenario, the uninformed might look on the flowery puppies and gargantuan balloon art as decorative, even beautiful, while we, the cognoscenti, are allowed to smile ruefully over the intermingling of kitsch and sacred artifact.  The fact that most Koons works exist in the present world less as aesthetic objects than as solid assets in a monstrously over-inflated art market might be seen to expand the frame of Koons’s joke to include his clients as dupes.

The aspect of Koons’s method that undermines this interpretation of his strategy is the sheer perfection of his output.  Unlike Bret Easton Ellis who has had limited control over what filmmakers have attempted to do with his fiction, Jeff Koons has exhibited absolute control over the products of his fabrication facilities (it seems absurd to describe the source of his art with a cozy term like “studio”).  Nothing clumsy or even suggestive of handcrafting has been allowed to emerge with his name attached.  No one even bothers to suggest that Koons has any direct contact with the objects that are credited to his authorship.  Unlike the practice of Warhol, whom I can at least imagine bending over a silk screen or holding a camera even if the bulk of the work was performed by his associates and minions, the image of Koons never evokes any sense that his actual hands are involved in his handiwork.  His gargantuan, vulgar, tacky trinkets are fabricated with consummate, anonymous skill.  They lack any signs of the imperfections of human life that might lead to humor.  If there is any joshing going on here, the jokes are as chokingly dry as high chromium stainless steel dust.

For me, the funniest aspect of Koon’s performance as an artist arises not from his objects but from the false credulity with which the art world media greet his pronouncements about his work.  No one seems to believe for an instant in the sincerity of Koon’s gee-whiz commentary about his inspirations and intentions, yet most critics and commentators proceed as if they are professionally duty-bound to pretend.  Take this typically Koonsian pronouncement, as an example:  “I have always tried to create work that does not alienate any part of my audience.”  Is there any conceivable rationale under which the artist who has created an enormous polychrome ornament depicting a gilded, white-faced Michael Jackson snuggling with his equally gilded, white-faced monkey could credibly argue that this object was not intended to alienate anyone?  And if it is not meant to alienate, what reaction could it possibly be meant to invoke?  Unless someone is prepared to argue that Jeff Koons is an outsider-artist simpleton—and who could convincingly make that case?—his statement is blatantly disingenuous.  Yet critics and profilers continue to present his statements with a blank face as if maybe somebody, somewhere, does or will believe them.  I prefer to imagine Koons as he prepares for interviews thinking, What ridiculous crap can I spout and get away with this time?

Definitely not alienating

Definitely not alienating

Or perhaps I clamor to envision a puckish, lively person within the cultivated vacuum of his public persona as an antidote to the chilling void at the heart of his art.  If you are in a vulnerable mood, a stroll through a roomful of Koons can be the utmost dream-killing, soul-deadening experience. What if all the joyful energy of human culture has truly spun down into yet one more hideous lawn ornament—an ornament that is not even allowed the saving grace of being surrounded by a living carpet of grass but instead towers imperiously above you in a sterile gallery, shining fingerprintless under showroom lights.  Koons’s art is supremely alienating, profoundly repellent.  I suspect this sensation accounts for the deep anger of the negative criticism Koons often receives.  We are unwilling to believe that Art has betrayed us like this, that what used to seem the highest expression of our shared humanity is now an android commodity.  Surreally expensive, dauntingly flawless, utterly meaningless—all these things we could, and do, handle, even celebrate.  But all of those things plus, tediously ugly (his uniformly hideous paintings), or idiotically prurient (Look at my pornstar wife’s airbrushed genitalia, everybody!), or painfully banal…

Jeff Koons should make his cinematic debut by hiring a fabrication team to adapt Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms or Glamorama.