Hollywood: Glimpses of empire

Part 1: In the belly of empire

“There must be some way out of here’, said the
joker to the thief,
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, ploughmen dig
my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is
-- Bob Dylan[1]

“You are not in Kansas anymore. You are in Pandora. Respect that fact every day. If there is a hell, go there for some R & R after a tour of Pandora. Out there beyond the fence everything that crawls, flies, squats in the mud wants to kill you.” -- Colonel Miles Quaritch[2]

By Michael Cooke

January 30, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- One of the recurring motifs in US political history is the concept of “manifest destiny”. It was a quintessential belief that the North American continent from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean was and is the preserve of the white man. It was used as an ideological tool to justify US expansion into Mexico and the annihilation of the Native American and their culture. Many of these states and territories that were annexed or carved out, like Texas, were also strong supporters of the continuation of slavery. In time this pull of empire pushed them into Central and South America, Cuba, the Philippines and South-East Asia.

Hollywood, that exploiter of the status quo and manufacturer of inessential dreams, endlessly mined this portion of the US story. First-rate directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks were attracted to this aspect of their country’s creation myth. For Ford it was never more explicit than in his beautifully photographed, emotionally charged, but flawed “cavalry trilogy”.[3] Howard Hawks used it in his unapologetically virile take on the Chisum legend: Red River (1948).

John Wayne starred in these films, which all had oedipal undertones. In the cavalry trilogy Wayne played the older and wiser man who is not only aware of the importance of his role in keeping the frontier safe from the Native Americans, but is also able to impart his knowledge, courage and sense of duty to the younger generation.

In Red River these themes are explicit in the conflict between the patriarch (the monumental Wayne) and the troubled son, played with all the grace that Montgomery Clift could muster in his slender frame. Once the frontier is won, man can impose his will on it, regardless of the moral and ecological cost. Wayne’s character is comfortable with the cost, Clift’s character less so. The film, beautifully photographed in black and white, climaxes in one of the strangest and most Freudian gunfights this side of the unconscious, between father and son.

Its choreography, darkness, sense of unease and Jacobean drama found little echo in later and never-ending TV horse operas like Bonanza, The High Chaparral and The Big Valley. In a strange parody, the later John Wayne westerns began to imitate those on TV. It was not unusual to see an increasingly corpulent, bewigged Wayne, with an absurdly slender gun belt, playing a significant pioneer who was now a successful businessman, counselling virile young men, defeated and tamed Native Americans, Mexicans and women. This can best be seen in two Andrew V. McLaglen (the poor man’s Ford) westerns: McLintock (1963)[4] and Chisum (1970). Nixon cited Chisum as a defence of the “American Dream” when it was under siege by the counterculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

As the American Dream soured during the Vietnam era, anti-westerns like Little Big Man (1970) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) became the norm. So its iconography and ideology went into space – the final frontier as the voice-over in laconically reminds the audience at the beginning of each Star Trek episode and movie (44 years old and still going strong). It is in this light one can see the motifs and imperatives of the stunning artifice that is Avatar (2009).[5]

James Cameron is a director who revels in blockbusters, whose appeal also extends to the more discerning movie-going public. In the first two Terminator films[6] he skilfully utilised the physical bulk of Arnold Schwarzenegger, using catchphrases to make the most of his very limited acting skills. In both films he used the motif of the chase, with a vast increase in the noise, size and sheer variety of firepower. His use of special effects was judicious and he moved the action along, only pausing to show an explosion or the effects of gunfire on the human body. Intertwined with this was the story of a mother’s primeval need to protect her offspring. He combined his command of camerawork and CGI in an evergreen love story of two star-crossed lovers divided by class in the very popular Titanic (1997).

We had to wait over a decade for his next film, Avatar. It cost US$300 million, took over a decade to develop the storyline and technical expertise, and employed 800 special effects technicians. All this produced not only one of the most expensive films ever made, but also the most popular film so far (US$2 billion and counting).

What audiences got was a visually stunning film and a narrative arc replete with myth, archetypes and pantheistic overtones. He punctuates the story with spectacular action set pieces. Avatar is set in the year 2154 AD on a planet with the unsubtle name of Pandora.[7] It is colonised by a large multinational company to mine a much-needed mineral called unobtainium (I kid thee not) which can save the Earth from extinction. To ensure the success of the mission, there is large contingent of mercenaries who in mannerism, armoury and patois sound like your archetypical US marine.

The hero is a paraplegic ex-marine who has none of the academic and linguistic skills of his colleagues. Their project is called Avatar. They are studying the “natives”, getting to know their habits and culture, with the aim of getting their consent for the mining of their lands. This involves them taking the form of the local inhabitants. Their mission brings them into conflict with Colonel Miles Quaritch, the military chief, who wants to destroy their civilisation and habitat.

The “natives” are the Na’vi. They are three metres tall, slender, blue and completely at home in their beautiful, mysterious and dangerous jungle paradise. What follows is a love story, a paean to nature and a condemnation of a rapacious mechanised civilisation.

From the first shot one is drawn deep into this artificial world, an Eden of forests and green islands in the air. The colonists’ scientific technology is very contemporary and given a chic, crisp and tactile feel, while the technology of extraction and warfare is weighty, dirty, ominous and ugly. The helicopters are reminiscent of those flown during the Vietnam War and the machines used to extract the ore resemble giant angry locusts. We are immediately aware that our political and economic mores are still intact and well, while the health of the Earth is not. Our hero could get his disability fixed but he does not have the money to pay for the operation. The Earth’s vegetation is now a distant memory, and the ore they mine earns the corporation $20 million a kilo. Given this material reality, we know there is not going to be negotiations between civilisations, but a clash.

The Nai’vis physical features and wilderness is carefully created, reminiscent of the late Monet channelled through those artists who deface high- powered motor cars with their art. Skin tones have a metallic high gloss.

Our hero immerses himself in an alien world that in the end seems natural and right, not only to him, but also to us. So when his civilisation sets out to destroy this way of life, he naturally has to side with what is right, bringing his martial skills and cultural knowledge to bear. One remembers James Stewart in Broken Arrow (1950) and Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves (1990) doing something similar. Avatar’s twist on this well-known trope is to let the colonised win in the end.

In an interesting inversion of the oedipal myth the young man is tutored initially by an older father figure, played by the chiselled and scarred Stephen Lang. The young man gradually sees the path his mentor has embarked on will only end in the destruction of a way of life he has grown to cherish. In the end he arms himself for an epic Freudian conflict, with the help of the matriarch (played by Sigourney Weaver), who realises what is at stake.

Yet Cameron, for all his technical virtuosity and “deconstruction” of the frontier myth, is in the end is a traditional filmmaker who in style is reminiscent of the late Raoul Walsh.[8] Walsh lacked the emotional and romantic drive that Ford brought to his films. Again, unlike Howard Hawks, Cameron lacks the ability to depict the banter, wit and camaraderie of a group of men under pressure or the changing relationship of a man and a woman reluctantly falling in love.

Like Cameron, he was an excellent director of action. Both Walsh and Cameron have the ability to convey a brawling and sometimes anarchic violence in a controlled way. Unlike Walsh, Cameron has not used charismatic actors to grace his films and in no way questions the notion and the ambivalence of a hero. Instead we are given the robotic muscular performance of a Schwarzenegger in the Terminator franchise, the lean, intense and physical doggedness of Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986) and that pretty piece of fluff, Leonardo di Caprio, in the teen fantasy Titanic.

One of the irritating features of the film is Cameron’s realisation of the world of the Na’vi and their “organic” relationship with nature. It is a “Hollywoodised” culture: the Na’vi sound like those cigar-store Indians (white actors in red face) that populated Westerns in the 1940s and 1950s.[9] Richness of culture and language is reduced to New Age banalities.

Another failure in imagination is evident in the depiction of nature. It is a world created by computer programmers, and shown as a web of network connections. The Na’vi tame their beasts of burden via an organic current to their creator and nurturer, the tree of life. Its membranes resemble a wiring system of a battery of personal computers.

But there is no such limitation when it comes to the action set pieces with their terror, exhilaration and violence. The viewer is swept into the action and for a while feels that the world that is depicted is real.

The destruction of the Na’vis’ home by the colonist armada of helicopters and their futile defence is carefully rendered and climaxes in the destruction of their giant tree home (the size of medium-sized suburb) is not only a technical tour de force, but has direct echoes to the colonial wars of the past and those taking place now. The destruction was wrought because under the tree there is a huge deposit of unobtainium. Reminiscent of the Spanish plunder of the Americas, Indonesia’s exploitation of West Papua, via the huge Freeport mine, and Iraq for its oil.

The ebb and flow of the final battle depends on the see-sawing fortunes of the two sides, Indigenous defenders with their stealth and the colonists with their “state of the art” technology. The eventual Indigenous victory provides, one assumes, the opportunity for a sequel.

For all Cameron’s attempts to humanise the “other” and his critique of imperial adventure, it is at end of the day a movie from the bowels of the Hollywood establishment, filtered through the iconography of the Western.

I cannot wait for Bollywood in India or Nollywood in Nigeria or our own film industry to make a film about an Indigenous culture under assault by forces represented by those cheer leaders of unfettered growth. Until the hitherto voiceless tell their own stories, we will have to accept and reluctantly admire spectacles like Avatar.

Part 2: On the margins of empire – The Hurt Locker

Any system you contrive without us

Will be brought down

We warned you before

And nothing that you have built has stood


You have your drugs

You have your guns

You have your Pyramids your Pentagons

With all your glass and bullets

You cannot hunt us any more

All that we disclose of ourselves forever

Is this warning

Nothing that you built has stood

Any system you contrive without us

Will be brought down -- Leonard Cohen[10]

War, and stories and poems about war, have always been with us. Each war has created its stereotypes, its villains and heroes and its unique depiction of violence. Movies about war are the latest in this never-ending dance of Shiva. In US war movies, the drama usually takes place on a distant shore. The cause of US military intervention is usually not explained, but the goodness of the hero and the North American way of life is contrasted with a brutal and primitive enemy.

With the disillusionment brought about by the Vietnam War and the arrival of the counterculture, there was a brief interlude when ambiguity crept into the discourse. The Vietnam War and the opposition to it produced some classics in the genre.

On the conservative side we had the mock heroics of John Wayne’s Green Berets (1968) and the reinvention of the Tarzan myth in Sylvester Stallone’s ludicrous Rambo II: First Blood (1985).[11] At the other extreme we had the nightmare of Vietnam, painted with a Conradian palette in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), which was to become a grand morality play in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). In between these two films came Michael Cimino’s morally repulsive Deer Hunter (1978), whose exquisite European pictorial sensibility confused many a critic and movie goer. Films about the Vietnam conflict are now seen as watersheds in how we view war, particularly imperial adventures.

The current wars, meant to preserve our standard of living and US hegemony, do not evoke the martial splendour so useful to Hollywood in the past. They are dirty, nasty, asymmetrical wars, mostly devoid of heroism. Most of the films about our current wars reflect the sensibility of Coppola and Stone, and have been made by left-leaning liberal directors.[12] Robert Redford’s liberalism was evident in Lion for Lambs (2007), though its effect was reduced by his pedagogic approach. Brian de Palma’s neglected film Redacted (2007) exposed just a little of the US brutality in Iraq, though it suffered from its faux naturalism and boring screenplay -- de Palma forgot he was making a feature, not a home movie. Paul Greenglass’ excellent Green Zone (2010) also used hand-held cameras to depict US perfidy in the early days of its occupation of Iraq. Unlike de Palma, he engaged the viewer with exciting set pieces, suspense and recognisable political figures and their lies.

Then, out of the blue, an unalloyed masterpiece appeared, Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker (2008).[13] It is also an infuriating, disturbing and politically reactionary film.

Kathryn Bigelow has always worked on the cusp of the mainstream. This has allowed her to make films that are dark, edgy, morally ambiguous and punctuated with exhilarating and suspenseful set pieces. This was evident in Blue Steel (1990), her strange (and strangely neglected) tale of obsession, murder and justice. In her next film she banished the darkness and prettied up the scene with those lovely store mannequins Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze in the shallow but exciting Point Break (1991). She then directed the dystopian science fiction classic Strange Days (1995), presciently linking the merging technologies of the personal computer revolution, home entertainment and virtual reality with drug addiction. To this was added the iconography and moral dilemmas of 1940s film noir.

Hurt Locker’s screenplay is by Michael Boal. It is based on his experiences and observations as an embedded journalist in Iraq. The intent of Boal and Bigelow was to make a film set in Iraq but not about Iraq. It concerns itself with a theme that was old in the age of the Iliad and the Ramayana, three millennia ago -- the adrenalin of war and the individuals who thrive in that milieu. Hurt Locker concerns itself with a bomb disposal unit. The leader of the squad takes increasing risks in defusing bombs, much to the fear and resentment of the two other members of the unit, who have only 38 days to go before they are shipped out.

This is a director at the top of her game. High-definition cameras and excellent editing bring the viewer into the heart of the action. The camera looks around furtively, observing the devastated suburbs of war-torn Baghdad, the uncollected rubbish, the potholed streets, and the floating ever-present dust. We hear snippets of conversation, the screaming of jets. We see the carcasses of bombed-out cars, the curiosity of the inhabitants and their latent hostility. The fear that one of them will detonate the bomb is palpable. The tension is diffused by a herd of goats and rises again when the remote detonating device gets stuck in rubble. The leader of the squad dons a protective suit to check the malfunction, and meanwhile an onlooker is texting. We discover too late that he is detonating the bomb. The squad leader is killed. This is only the prologue.

The tension is interspersed with brief interludes when the bomb disposal unit relaxes, after which the carnage resumes. Two members of the squad just want to survive their tour of duty with a minimum of fuss. But the new sergeant, played with kinetic intensity by Jeremy Renner, thrives amid the violence and excitement of battle and feels he is bulletproof. But unlike Ravana, demon king of the Ramayana, or Achilles in the Iliad, there are no gods or rituals to protect him. He has only luck and intense concentration to save him. He views existence as a dice game between life and death.

Disturbingly, unlike Ravana and Achilles, his addiction to violence is attached to heroic acts not mayhem and devastation. So when an epiphany of a sort does come, it seems misjudged and unintentionally ironic. He goes out to avenge the death of a young Iraqi boy used by the insurgents as bomb fodder, but his action gives us no opportunity to reflect on the pain of war. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Arjuna and Krishna discuss duty, violence and other themes in a beautiful benediction of prose before an apocalyptical battle – “a destroyer of civilisations”.[14] We are given a respite from the machinations of the gods and the never-ending bloodshed in the Iliad when Priam goes on a quest to recover his dead son Hector from his slayer Achilles, who says:

Let us put our grief to rest in our own hearts,

Rake them up no more, raw as we are with mourning.

What good’s to be won from tears that chill the spirit?

So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men

Live on to bear such torments-the gods live free from sorrows’[15]

Our current heroes in these never-ending dirty wars conducted tens of thousands of kilometres away are not prone to such grace and reflection. In the United States the fodder for neoliberal imperial dreams come from the rust belts that its economic policies created. The film quietly depicts the banalities of family piety and consumer trash that serves as distractions to the “lower orders”. It seems empty compared to the excitement war generates for our protagonist. One of the more poignant scenes in the film, he is seen in a supermarket with ennui etched on his face amid a glut of products that seem essential to material existence. The Hurt Locker ends with him going back to Iraq to serve another tour of duty.

There is something repugnant at the heart of the film: an absence of those whose country is being invaded and destroyed. They are seen as bit players, extras to our tragedy and victims of the terror of those who are resisting the Americans. Whatever our ambivalence towards those who resist our imperial adventures, the fact remains that Western intervention in Iraq has resulted in around 1 million deaths[16], 90 per cent civilians. It has created 740,000 widows and displaced 4.5 million people. The sanctions imposed after the first Gulf War resulted in more than 500,000 deaths of children, mostly under the age of five, because of a lack of basic medicines and clean water.[17] Under the guise of bringing democracy, “we” invade because “we” need their oil to preserve our standard of living. Films like the Hurt Locker harden our hearts to the plight of the refugees who are fleeing the mayhem our military and economic policies create. Bigelow’s cinematic eye by wilfully ignoring the Iraqis and only looking at the plight of the ordinary soldier has to be complicit in the debacle that is Iraq.

Thankfully artistry and talent is not only the preserve of those we agree with. One can still (barely) appreciate the musical crescendos of Wagner without being drowned by his rabid anti-Semitism. We can put up with the fascist phallic imagery of Lawrence because of his natural and lyrical depictions of nature and human relationships. Dali is a major artist in spite of his relentless self-aggrandisement, ludicrous genuflecting to the Spanish Bourbons and the kitsch he produced in his later years because of the sublime images he produced in the 1920s and 1930s.

Similarly in film, we can acknowledge the importance of Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) with its homoerotic images tied to the icons of Nazism as a landmark film. Reifenstahl’s documentary is distasteful but it is also a strange, beautiful and beguiling film. It is in this light we can see Bigelow’s film; a peerlessly crafted film of men under the pressure of war. At the same time acknowledging the film is complicit in making the colonised invisible, except in how it affects the coloniser; who are struggling on the margins of empire defending “democracy” and “preserving our way of life’.

Part 3: The architecture of empire – Wall Street parts 1 and 2 and American Psycho

Money don’t get everything, it’s true

What it don’t get, I can’t use

Now give me money (that’s what I want)

That’s what I want (that’s what I want)

That’s what I want (that’s what I want), yeah

That’s what I want[18]


Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA -- Gordon Gekko.[19]

In our era money has made the seemingly easy jump from being merely a medium of exchange to being a mysterious, almost theological commodity essential to the market system. But as in any biblical fable, the fall had to come. Ironically, it was greed in all its manifestations, combined with cheap money and even cheaper credit that resulted in the biggest crash since the Great Depression of 1929.

The spectre of the Great Depression haunted the films of the 1930s and the 1940s, especially those of Frank Capra. In films like Meet John Doe (1941), big money was critiqued and the hard-working individualist glorified in a populist setting. This political sensibility even left its mark on that great conservative filmmaker John Ford, who based one of his finest films on John Steinbeck’s left-leaning Grapes of Wrath (1940), a work whose spirit is reflected in the Occupy movement.[20] But these dramas, for all their moral indignation and brilliance, were at heart Manichean: on one side the rapacious capitalist, on the other the god-fearing individual, conscious of the claims of common people.

Oliver Stone, for all his considerable gifts as a filmmaker, has been limited by his obsession with good and evil. This is never more evident than in the drama Wall Street (1987), made around the time of the stockmarket collapse known as Black Monday. From the beginning of the film one is left in no doubt that we are in the heart of the empire. The opening montage of New York awakening in all its imperial majesty (phallic buildings piercing the sky) is sweetened by Frank Sinatra crooning Fly me to the Moon”. Juxtaposed with this are steel mills, people commuting to work and the Brooklyn Bridge, a technical wonder of its age.

Gradually we are introduced to the world of finance; a jungle of people yelling and gesticulating at each other or their phones, rows of computers with wires entwining each other like vines, and paper strewn across the floor. In this chaos certain faces gradually emerge: the good capitalist, played by Hal Holbrook, our protagonist, played by Charlie Sheen with all the bland good looks he can muster, ripe for corruption; his driven colleagues, furiously selling stocks which are less than gilt-edged. The most prominent of these is played with gimlet-eyed intensity by John C. McGinley. Charlie Sheen’s character is desperate to enter another, higher world -- one of takeovers, stock manipulation and enormous material wealth, personified by Gordon Gekko.

Like John Milton’s devil in Paradise Lost, Gekko is given the best lines by Oliver Stone – “Lunch is for wimps”, “WASPS – love animals, can’t stand people”. He is given the sharpest suits, the meanest of hairstyles (a gelled-down version of a 1950s pompadour) and is played by Michael Douglas with charm, guile and menace. Gekko corrupts Sheen by showing him the world the rich inhabit:

the art works, the huge offices, the gilded houses and apartments, the bespoke suits, fine restaurants and beautiful women. A world to be possessed but not lived in; though Sheen’s new apartment has killer views and the latest mod cons, he treats it as a hotel room, being too busy striking the next deal to enjoy it.

The denouement arises from a takeover by Gekko (helped by Sheen’s character) of a company in which the younger man’s father works and where he is a union representative. The younger protagonist is not initially aware that Gekko is not interested in building up the company. Gekko intends to asset strip it, making the employees redundant. By the end of the film the younger man is helping the regulatory authorities bring Gekko down.

Despite the film’s overt moralising, Gekko was and is seen as a hero, not a villain, for the new generation of traders. His words said what they thought:

The richest 1 per cent of this country owns half our country's wealth, 5 trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons – and what I do, stock and real-estate speculation. It's bullshit. You got 90 per cent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now, you're not naive enough to think we're living in a democracy, are you, buddy? It's the free market. And you're a part of it. You've got that killer instinct. Stick around, pal, I've still got a lot to teach you.

Twenty-three years later, in the middle of the GFC, Stone made a sequel: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). In this new film Sheen is given a cameo role[21] and new characters are introduced. Greed now has reached the stratosphere. Companies can be plundered, destroyed and money offloaded in the billions of dollars in an afternoon. Gekko, though ruthless, is softened, and the film is less interesting as a result. Too often he is seen commenting and explaining, rather than being part of the action. The villain, played by that fine actor Josh Brolin, is surprisingly colourless. The good and ultimately ruined financier is ably played by Frank Langella who is not given enough screen time. The juvenile leads have little to do, except moralise. The saving grace of the film is the 96-year-old Eli Wallach who, in his role as one of the key financial players in the city of New York, displays an oily, patrician malevolence.

The editing is suitably jagged and the actors do what they can with the script, but the film lacks an edge, its ending resembling Ron Howard’s Parenthood (1989). Gekko reconciles with his daughter, grandchild and her husband at a family party with a 1980s soundtrack in the background, sheltering us and them from the mayhem this form of capitalism engenders.

Perhaps Stone is wary of the monster on the trading floor and in the boardrooms: people who seem almost blissfully unconcerned about the financial and moral havoc they are creating.

Mary Harron’s underrated satire, American Psycho (2000),[22] boldly and brilliantly posits the notion that people living the “American Dream” are devoid of empathy and are misogynist and narcissistic.

The opening shots of American Psycho recall Vanity Fair or Vogue: overhead and side shots of the New York skyline, with a jaunty faux classical score. We get glimpses of nouvelle cuisine as designer porn – all those dribbles and sizzles of red on the whitest of china; we see beautiful young men and women perfectly styled, manicured and coiffured; an apartment that is cool, stylish and minimalist. A world of surface charm, where empathy, individual taste and feeling are absent.

This is the world of protagonist Patrick Bateman. His conversation, essentially banal, is enriched only by the naming of expensive objects. He is a misogynist. Relationships are based on how a person looks, where he eats and what suits he wears: platitudes of style rather than real experience. Real people frighten Bateman or repulse him. In the end they have to be killed.

In this world of appearances, owning a thing or naming it are more important than their actual use and enjoyment. One of the more delicious moments in the film sees the young guns comparing business cards, each a work of art. When Bateman’s card is trumped by another, he attempts to kill his rival.

Bateman, we gradually discover, is sane only on the surface. While preparing to kill his victims he plays the most banal of 1980s pop artists – Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and the News. In one excruciatingly funny scene he plays Lewis’ “Hip to be Square” on a sublime sound system. While commenting on the importance of the track (at one point he compares Lewis to Elvis Costello), he is deciding on what implement he will use to kill his guest.

The ironic style of the film, its pictorial surface of chrome, silver, white and grey, could have distanced us from the barbarity of the Bateman’s acts. Christian Bale’s performance ensures this does not happen. Bale is a fine actor who immerses himself in a role. In a bland role, as in Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), he makes the audience feel that blandness, paradoxically reducing our interest in the film. He can be heroic and chiselled, as in the second instalment of the latest Batman franchise, The Dark Knight (2009). Bale lets his co-stars, like the late Heath Ledger, and the industrial-size hardware and armour take centrestage. Even when he plays a drug-addled boxer in The Fighter (2010) he still compels our gaze, though we cannot recognise him.

In American Psycho (2000), he holds our attention as a man who is simply not there. We see the surface – the perfectly coiffured hair, expensive Italian suits, buffed, hairless body and bland handsome face – and beneath it, the narcissism and murderous rage that are the substitute for a personality.

Despite their virtues, none of these films really convey the worst of the system that they criticise and satirise, the capacity for destruction not only of the American economy but economies around the world. The sad truth is that these films, for all their respective worth, do not provide a counter moral and political framework to the unseemly worship of wealth, that is permeating societies around the world.

Ironically this sense of wanton greed regardless of its costs is now so inculcated into the ideological bloodstream of not only the American and the European but also the Indian, Brazilian and Chinese middle class (among many others). Thus making them blind to the misery they not only impose on their fellow citizens, but also to their respective country’s fragile ecology.

Notwithstanding this, it would be fair to say that American Psycho is a masterwork in its own way, though it never attracted the attention given to Stone’s films. Ironically, elegantly and bloodily, it tells a truth too bitter to contemplate for long.

Such is life.


Cohen, Leonard (1993), Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, Jonathan Cape.

Dylan, Bob (1974), Writings and Drawings, Granada Publishing.

Ellis, Bret Easton (1991), American Psycho, Vintage Books.

Fagles, Robert (translator) (1998), The Iliad, Penguin.

Gordy, Berry and Bradford, Janie (lyrics and music) (1959), “Money (that’s what I want)”.

Manne, Robert (2011), “Bad News Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation”, Quarterly Essay 43, Black Inc.

Mascaro, Juan (translator) (1978), The Bhagavad-Gita, Penguin Classics.

Pilger, John (director) (2011), The War You Don’t See.

Richards, Jeffrey (1973), Visions of Yesterday, Routledge and Kegan Paul.


[1] Dylan, Bob (1974) All along the Watchtower in Writings and Drawings Granada Publishing 411.

[2] A speech given to the principal villain by the director and screenplay writer Cameron, James Avatar (2009). The speech expresses the view of an industrial military superpower on why it is necessary to subdue worlds outside its realm.

[3] The trilogy is Fort Apache (1948), She wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950).

[4] The film is a version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, with the nuances toned down and the patriarchy turned up.

[5] In the Hindu lexicon an avatar is the human form taken by a god so that earthly spectators will not be blinded by its divine splendour.

[6]Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991).

[7] Pandora (endowed/gifted) was a woman created by Zeus. In a fit of curiosity she opened a forbidden jar, thus releasing a multitude of plagues and diseases on the inhabitants of the Earth.

[8] Raoul Walsh (1887-1981) started his film career as an actor, one of his famous roles being that of Lincoln’s assassin Booth in the ground-breaking and racist D.W. Griffith film, Birth of a Nation (1915). He later became a director of action films. One was High Sierra (1941), in which Humphrey Bogart, as a fugitive gangster, portrayed his character in a sympathetic and romantic way. In White Heat (1949) in contrast, James Cagney played a violent and mother-fixated hoodlum.

[9] The abilities and screen charisma of fine actors like CCH Pounder and Wes Strudi are drowned by the banal dialogue they are given to enunciate. Only newcomer Zoe Saldana is given room to breathe and behave in a natural way.

[10] Cohen, L. (1993), Any System in Stranger Music: Selected poems and Songs, Jonathan Cape, p. 179.

[11] Directed by George P. Costmatos.

[12] Without the epic sweep, moral ambiguity and surreal madness that was Apocalypse Now.

[13] The phrase “hurt locker” refers to the state of being shell-shocked, in particular the physical trauma of being repeatedly in close proximity to the deafening blast of an explosion.

[14] Mascaro, Juan, translator (1978), The Bhagavad-Gita Gita, Penguin Classics.

[15] Fagles, Robert translator (1998), The Iliad, Penguin, p. 605.

[16] Robert Manne calculates that between 300,000 to 400,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the current conflict. See Manne (2011), “Bad News Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation”, Quarterly Essay 43, Black Inc, p. 22. We can only estimate the toll as the US and its allies have never properly quantified the number of civilian casualties.

[17] Pilger, John, director (2011), The War You Don’t See.

[18] Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, lyrics and music (1959), “Money (that’s what I want)”.

[19] Stone, Oliver (1987), Speech by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.

[20] Tom Joad’s soliloquy: “Fella ain’t got a soul of his own. Just a little piece of a big soul. One big soul belongs to everybody. I’ll be around. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat. Wherever there is a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there”, quoted in Richards, Jeffrey (1973), Visions of Yesterday. Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 275.

[21] Even he has sold out. One of the more delicious moments in the film when Sheen, whose hedonistic lifestyle is etched on his fading good looks, meets Gekko; the contempt and hate that emanates from Gekko is palpable.

[22] Based on the controversial bestseller by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho, Vintage Books. The film, unlike the book, has a feminine sensibility is less macabre and more disciplined sense of the satirical.