Corny Porn and the Shimmer of Transfiguration

Kerr and Surowiecki

Corny Porn and the Shimmer of Transfiguration

Kerr and Surowiecki

Corny Porn and the Shimmer of Transfiguration
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 21 1999 6:13 PM

Kerr and Surowiecki

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Dear Sarah,

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Glamorama may be genre fiction for young white men, but if so they are breathtakingly ironic young white men. You can say a lot of things about Ellis, but the one thing you definitively can't say is that he doesn't recognize how familiar and well-worn the ground he's working is. I think Glamorama's send-up of the thriller genre is more than campy. I think its stylistic and, to a lesser extent, antipsychological rigor make it profound (as you well know). But I have no doubt that it is a satire/pastiche/send-up of that masculine kitsch tradition you mention.

Now, that doesn't mean that Ellis--and perhaps his readers--don't derive some pleasure from the genre's familiar tropes (the scenes where the bombs are being planted, the scenes where Victor discovers who's really behind his journey, and so on). You can enjoy a genre even as you make plain its exhaustion.

Ironically, though, I think the sex scenes--which you suggest are evidence of Ellis' status as a genre hack--are pure satire, and offer no pleasure. As you say, every time--until the very last time, tellingly--Victor has sex he mentions that he's "rock hard." But what could make the cliched nature of Victor's entire life more obvious? Really, Ellis isn't captive to convention here. He's making a perhaps obvious point, which is that pornographic world is a completely corny one, a world where the men are always hard as rocks and the women are always "so wet."

I also think, though, that Ellis is making a deeper point, which is that our ideas about sex are often corny as well, and that the cultural insistence that sex is always great, that it's always the best thing to do and something any normal person should want all the time, is banal. In The Rules of Attraction, there's a moment when two characters are making out in a dorm room, and the man thinks: "Who will initiate the dreaded fucking?" Now, you can call this repulsion of sex unsubtle, but I don't see how it's what young white men expect from art. And I think it's fascinating to have a popular writer who doesn't think that sex is where our true selves emerge, and where the communion of two souls occurs.

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Along the same lines, Ellis' satire of the tropes of courtship is perhaps obvious, but nonetheless right on target. Consider this passage, where Victor is trying to get Jamie to have sex:

I'm lying on my side now, running my hands slinkily across the floral print of the comforter, drawing attention to my hands because of the way they're moving, and my shirt's become untucked in a not-too-suggestive way and when I look down "sheepishly," then back up with a seductive smile, Jamie is glaring at me with a noxious expression. When I revert to not being so studly, she relaxes, stretches, groans.

That "sheepishly" is grand. And then there's the great scene where he kisses Lauren for the first time, as she supposedly "presses her face up into mine, wanting the kiss to continue," a scene that ends, "[I] speed up Park without looking back, though if I had been I would've seen Lauren yawning while she waved for a cab."

In the way it takes familiar genres--noir, spy thriller, first-love, pornography--to the extreme (in order to blow them up), Glamorama really reminds me most of the movies Jean-Luc Godard made in the mid-1960s, movies like Alphaville, Bande a Part, Weekend, and, above all, Pierrot le Fou. In Pierrot le Fou, for instance, Jean-Paul Belmondo gets mixed up with a beautiful terrorist who's running guns using a dance troupe as a cover and who, when she gets bored, says things like, "Let's go back to our gangster movie." (Really weirdly, Belmondo at one point says, in a voice-over, "We have come to the age of double men," which is eerie when you think of all the doppelgangers in Glamorama.)

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Godard's films have the stylistic bravado, the almost hysterical energy, and the respectful/disdainful attitude toward genre that Glamorama has, as well as a similar rejection of psychology. As it happens, I think Godard, especially in the early part of his career, believed a little more in the power of art than Ellis does. (About the characters in Bande a Part, he said, "It is the world that is out of synch; they are right, they are true, they represent life." Ellis presumably would not say that about Victor.) But I think the similarities between them underscore Ellis' incredibly knowing use of convention, rather than his enslavement to it.

I guess I should wrap this up, but before I do I want to try to explain what I meant by yesterday's comment about arbitrariness and grace. I didn't mean, as you reasonably assumed, that there is room for grace in Glamorama. There isn't, not even at the end. What I meant instead is that in its resolute attention to surface and its recognition of the essential arbitrariness of existence, Glamorama prepares the ground for something larger than character to emerge.

Glamorama I think of as the dark side of exteriority. The other side, I think, is best represented by the movies of Robert Bresson (and, more recently, by Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line). All Bresson does is pay attention to surface. No filmmaker, with the exception perhaps of Warhol, has been less interested in interiority, and few artists have depicted as convincingly arbitrary a world as Bresson. Yet somehow, it's out of all that attention to mundane surfaces, to the way everyday things look and to the seemingly irrelevant things people do, that grace does emerge. There are moments in Bresson's films that have what Geoffrey O'Brien once called "the shimmer of transfiguration." There is no transfiguration in Glamorama. But in an oblique way I think Ellis gets closer to it than any conventional novel ever could.

Enough from me. This has been terrific. Thanks for spending the time writing to me. I'm really sorry to see it end. And like you said, we have a lot more to talk about. (I wonder, for instance, whether the fact that today I kept writing about filmmakers speaks to your point about the difficulty of writing today in a Homeric style.) So let's do this again soon.

Best,

Jim

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SarahKerr reviews books and movies for Slate. James Surowiecki writes "Moneybox" for Slate and is a contributing editor at New York magazine. This week they discuss Jay McInerney's Model Behavior (Knopf; 288 pages; $24) and Bret Easton Ellis' Glamorama (Knopf; 464 pages; $25).