Author Bret Easton Ellis on guilty pleasures, illogical musical tastes, and the provocative film ‘High Fidelity.’
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.
“I never understood why some magazines do those annual ‘Guilty Pleasure’ lists,” says author Bret Easton Ellis, speaking by phone from his parent’s den in sunny Los Angeles. “You know the kind of list I mean? The one where some filmmaker or critic writes about all the movies he thinks of as ‘guilty pleasures?’
“Well, I never understood what that meant,” confesses Ellis, who’s visiting from New York. “I mean, why would pleasure be guilty? And why would you have a list of movies or songs that you think you should feel guilty about liking?
“Hey, if you liked it, you liked it.”
It is mid-afternoon, and Ellis–the controversy-causing author of Less Than Zero, American Psycho, and the recent Glamorama–has just returned from a matinee screening of High Fidelity, the critically-acclaimed film starring John Cusack.
Based on the best-selling book by British writer Nick Hornby, High Fidelity follows a callow, selfish, music-obsessed record store owner (Cusack). The main character is a not-quite-grown-up guy who is undergoing an extended psychological melt-down triggered by the unceremonious exit of his gorgeous girlfriend–she being the latest in a long string of humiliating romantic debacles.
Ellis liked High Fidelity–and he’s not ashamed to say so.
“Though I thought it would have been a stronger movie if it hadn’t had such a happy ending,” he admits. “But of course, this is Bret Easton Ellis speaking.”
Anyone who’s read the ultra-harsh American Psycho–or the sharp, fashion-world mayhem of Glamorama, for that matter–must know what he means.
Often deeply cynical, Ellis’ books aren’t likely to inspire a wave of rampant optimism among their readers. Even the relatively tame new movie-version of American Psycho, significantly less upsetting than the book, has added to Ellis reputation as a guy who doesn’t mind bumming people out. On the other hand, since the release of Less Than Zero in the late 1980s, Easton has not lacked for eager readers, so he’s clearly not alone in his views.
He even ends up on an awful lot of those ‘Guilty Pleasure’ lists.
And speaking of lists, the characters in High Fidelity are fairly obsessed with them. At the drop of a hat, Cusack and friends–specifically the acerbic, smart-ass record store clerk played by singer Jack Black–will invent a list of their five most degrading break-ups, or their five worst jobs, or the five top songs about death or rain or policemen or cowboys or just about anything.
“And what was sort of refreshing about the movie,” observes Ellis, “was its unapologetic elitist attitude about those songs, in terms of not caring if the audience knew a lot of these musical groups. It was cool that it didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator, that it stayed smart. These guys knew what they liked, and didn’t apologize for it.”
“On the other hand,” I point out, ‘They were disgusting snobs. They terrorized anyone with different musical tastes.”
“Exactly,” Ellis replies. “That’s the point. They were trying to be intellectual about something you can’t be intellectual about. And they learn that.
“We all have these intellectual notions and attitudes about music, all the things we learn from reading about music, the way we shape our own tastes and the way we want to present ourselves to the world–in terms of saying, ‘I really like this and this and this, and I don’t like that’–yet at heart, we really do react to music emotionally,” he continues. “We don’t react to it intellectually. The albums we might admire a lot are not necessarily the albums that we play the most, or the songs that mean the most to us.
“When you’re that age, and you’re of a certain class, there’s a part of you that is displaying yourself, that wants people to approve of you because of your cultural preferences. But really, at heart, the things that make you who you are the things you connect with on an emotional level, the things that matter the most to your heart and not your head.”
He pauses a moment.
“I know that, coming from Bret Easton Ellis, this must sound kind of sappy,” he allows. “But I do think it’s true. And I think that’s basically what High Fidelity is all about.
“It’s about growing up and accepting that who you are . . . is who you are.”
Who Bret Easton Ellis is, in terms of favorite movies, is a guy who especially loves The Phantom of the Paradise. The Paul Williams movie. From the seventies.
“Exactly,” he affirms. “I have to watch that movie at least once a year. I also own the soundtrack. Yet I know there are very few people who would put it anywhere near their top ten. What are your favorites?”
Well, since were sharing so openly, I deign to list my favorite movies, one of which–also from the seventies–is, um, Barbara Streisand’s A Star is Born.
“Really? Wow. Have you seen it recently?” Ellis asks. “It’s one of the worst movies ever made.”
“I know,” I reply. “I must have responded to it emotionally.”
He pauses. Perhaps he’s re-thinking his whole there’s-no-such-thing-as-a-guilty-pleasure argument.
“Well, that is totally valid,” he finally allows. “That’s why art is democratic. There isn’t a list of rules we have to follow in order to respond to something. It’s different for everyone. We respond the way we respond.”
Web extra to the April 27-May 3, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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