Irony is a poor excuse for brutality

Share

When was it decided that film criticism was a job that only a man could do? I've read 10 reviews of the new film American Psycho. Flicking through broadsheets, tabloids and weekly magazines, I couldn't help feeling that there was something missing, and eventually it dawned on me: not one was by a woman. Is this a reason why I feel the debate about the film is skewed, that it is taking place in an arena where certain concerns and reactions aren't even going to be taken on board?

When was it decided that film criticism was a job that only a man could do? I've read 10 reviews of the new film American Psycho. Flicking through broadsheets, tabloids and weekly magazines, I couldn't help feeling that there was something missing, and eventually it dawned on me: not one was by a woman. Is this a reason why I feel the debate about the film is skewed, that it is taking place in an arena where certain concerns and reactions aren't even going to be taken on board?

Once I had seen the film, and started reading other people's reactions to it, I began to feel that this isn't just any nasty and brutish film. It is certainly nothing special, but in its very ordinariness, and the way that it has been so easily accepted and celebrated, it says something about the way we live now. I don't mean that any of you have taken to chasing women down apartment buildings with a chainsaw or attacking prostitutes and beggars with a rusty coat-hanger and a sharp knife. But when we go out in the evening we might easily watch these images, or ones very like them, and then laugh. And what exactly does that say about us?

We are encouraged to laugh, because we are told that these images are meant ironically. They are always presented to us as irony, or satire.

Of course, nobody would ever suggest that they are making a film about violence against women in order to revel in that violence, in order to make the women in the audience quail and the men feel that violence is acceptable. If they did so, the shock and the condemnation would be immediate. So instead they tell us that they are making "an indictment of machismo", a "Swiftian social commentary", a tale with a "satirical essence".

Those quotations are taken from the production notes to American Psycho, in which the director, Mary Harron, carefully tells us over and over again that the book on which her film is based, Bret Easton Ellis's controversial novel, is "a brilliant social satire" and that her film seeks to enshrine and extend that satire. Most of the critics in British newspapers have accepted that interpretation, whether it's the critic in the Daily Mail saying that it is "telling satire", or the critic in The Daily Telegraph agreeing that it's "ironic and horribly funny", or The Guardian calling it "uber-cool satire", "replete with Post-Modern irony".

I like to think that I can enjoy a soupcon of satire as much as the next person. But I wonder whether films like American Psycho are really satires at all, even if those who make them and enjoy them use that term. Far from exposing and trying to shake the foundations of the society that is its subject - the vain, materialistic, misogynist world of rich Manhattan in the Eighties - the film, like the book, reproduces those values. With its slick, televisual style of direction, its bland dialogue and its robotic performances, this film polishes up that world, it never scratches its surface. There is no alternative voice here, no vantage point from which the satirist could look at Eighties Manhattan and find it wanting.

Irony is a rather easier description to chuck around. In fact, if you are determined to read something as irony, you can almost always manage to. But maybe we should stop and ask whether there are some things that simply don't deserve the label. After all, is there anything about the book or the film of American Psycho that makes it any different from the book or film that would have been produced if the author or director were in fact a self-confessed violent misogynist? In the book, the violence is retailed with such pornographic detail that the tone is one of revelling enjoyment, not ironic exposure. And in the film the camera swings with the same facile ease through the murders and executions as over the chic clothes and fancy food, with never a tremble, never a change in mood. When people excuse the pleasure they take in seeing a girl's decapitated head in a freezer by calling the image witty and ironic, how honest are they being with themselves?

And even if these works are ironic, perhaps we should ask whether irony can really be successful in dealing with these vile and terrifying subjects. Why should irony always be the artistic standpoint of choice? Even some of its admiring critics asked themselves whether the tone of the film sat somewhat uncomfortably with its horror-filled subject. "When did the faculty of irony become so rapacious that all human transgression could be corralled into the comic?" asked Anthony Lane a little uncomfortably in the New Yorker, in his otherwise admiring review of the film.

The question is a good one. For that is essentially what we are being asked to swallow, that any horror can slip down sweetly enough, so long as it comes with that label "irony" stuck to the menu. Here is a film - made by a woman, it's true - that humiliates women, presents them as stupid, inarticulate dolls, empties them of humanity, and then shows them dismembered or dying in pools of blood. A "glittering black comedy", "horribly funny", to quote the critics again. What, exactly, is the joke? And on whom is it being played?

I'm not for a moment saying that violence against women is not a fit subject for film. On the contrary, many of the greatest films ever made have explored that dark area of the human psyche. But if they were great they were always more than slick, they always wore more expressions than simply the ironic smile. Hitchcock's blondes, for instance, met nasty deaths or spent their lives dodging them, but until death they had their own vivid, questing, poised, gorgeous life. They resisted to the end, and the audience resisted with them. One of the nastiest things about American Psycho is that there is no resistance, the women drift passively and blankly towards death - and the critics find, even in this, something to admire. "As a director (and a woman), Harron shows great courage in keeping the women banal and superficial; they are amazingly blank," said one critic.

The content of art shouldn't be assumed to have a direct correlation with everyday life. But what happens when the representation of violence becomes, not just frequent and acceptable, but also emptied of emotional effect? Now, we are asked to watch images of a woman running from a man holding a chainsaw, only to end up with it smashing through her body, or a man going down on a woman and coming up with blood dripping from his jaws, and yet we are encouraged to feel that horror or anger at such images would be inappropriate.

A film like this one isn't going to create a killer, and Mary Harron has been right to insist that nobody would be changed from a moral being to a psychopath by sitting through her film. But does the new acceptability of violence against women in mainstream cinema have absolutely nothing to do with the failure to challenge violence against women in Britain and the US? We all know the facts; that rates of rape and domestic violence aren't falling, that conviction rates aren't rising, that there is still a risible amount of support given to abused women. We know the facts, but can't seem to find a successful way to change them.

Maybe there is no connection at all between this kind of art and that kind of reality. Maybe. But when I hear the audience laugh as Christian Bale holds a nailgun to Chloe Sevigny's head, I can hardly believe that there is no connection at all. Because where irony rules, anger walks out the door.

n.walter@btinternet.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Glou...

Humanities and Economics Teacher - January 2015 - Malaysia

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Bush Snr and his adviser Lee Atwater  

Perception is reality: The facts won't matter in next year's general election

Simon Kelner
<p><b>Mock the Week</b></p>
The newest of our quiz shows was created by Created by Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson, who also made 'Whose Line is it Anyway?'. This is more of a 'quiz' format, and for me, the best part about it is that it introduced me to Frankie Boyle.  

Liberal shows like Mock The Week just can’t understand why Ukip has so many supporters

Nigel Farage
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain