Glamorama: An Epic Poem for the 90s?

I’m currently reading Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama, his 1998 novel about a very good looking model living in New York City. I don’t think in my entire life have I been so bombarded with pop culture, and yet, the novel probably doesn’t even come close to touching on the real celebrity and cultural saturation I’m exposed to on a daily basis. I’m far from finished the novel, and I haven’t even hit the midpoint, so I’d appreciate no spoilers from this point on but I can’t help wondering if any film has successful captured the anarchy, lifelessness and over-saturation of celebrity and brand culture. I can think of some filmmakers who come close, in one way or another, but none who do it with the viciousness and skill of Ellis.

Two names do come to mind, Quentin Tarantino and Richard Kelly. Tarantino’s oeuvre is unfortunately too limited to really touch on what I am referring to, though I think he is capable of what I’m searching for. Death Proof especially brings Tarantino’s favoured classic throwbacks into a candy coloured 21st century, porn-ification and girl power coming face to face. Richard Kelly, most notably in Southland Tales, probably comes closest to achieving a kind of over-saturation of shallow material culture, but lacks all of the artistry, violence and comedy that Ellis is so good at.

From what I can tell, Ellis may be the closest we have to an epic poet for an era. His vision may be limited, but it is focused on the central “ideological” founding of most of our lives. I remember once doing a brief, mostly un-memorable, project on the poet Ezra Pound, who had attempted and failed to write an epic poem about the era he lived in. At its core, an epic poem is not just a piece of art, but it is an instructional pamphlet on the ways of life and values of a particular culture. Pound found the globalized, capital obsessed 20th century impossible to really pin down, and he never completed his piece (which was focused almost entirely on money), but maybe Ellis comes close. If there is one thing that even Ellis’ detractors can agree on, is his rare ability to evoke and capture an era, even if it is largely negative.

Personally, though there are certainly a lot of problematic ideas and interpretations associated with post-modernism, would argue the necessity of a lot of its artistic “tools”, in reflecting our modern era. For a film or any piece of art to truly capture or reflect our modern culture, and still be critical of it, I cannot see how you could avoid or ignore elements of pastiche, collage and referencing. To ignore the intertextuality of the world that surrounds us is futile, even conversationally and in terms of connecting with each other, pop culture has taken the place of religion and ethnicity.

Of course, maybe it’s wishful thinking that any filmmaker could truly capture the insanity of Glamorama, or maybe we’ll have to wait several years down the road for some visionary to capture the work of another visionary. Film has a way of sometimes needing to catch up with fiction, and I’m not sure there exists a filmmaker who is insane or ambitious enough to tackle this pickle. Then again, American Psycho was made… and it’s a decent film.

Some inane questions:

  1. In an ideal world, who would you choose to adapt Glamorama?
  2. What film would you say is most reflective of our current way of life, at least in the sense of an epic poem… not only an accurate re-creation of our world, but one that embodies or even criticizes our values, etc. You can also set your own boundaries in terms of years, and location, if you so desire.

5 responses to “Glamorama: An Epic Poem for the 90s?

  1. For Glamorama I think Francois Ozan embodies the perfect mix of glam, surrealism and modern ethos. Imagine he’d probably refuse something so American. Otherwise, Lisa Cholodenko would certainly deliver the goods.

  2. A lot to chew on here– the only passage of Glamorama I’m familiar with is a group sex scene which was excerpted in one of Susie Bright’s “Best American Erotica” collections the year it came out (and yes, Dudeorama is quite apt to think of Ozun as somebody with a sensibility that might mesh well for it– though perhaps Ozun has ‘moved on’ in terms of his aesthetics?).

    I’m something of a well-wisher of Jay McInern(e?)y, whose “Bright Lights, Big City” came to prominence in the 80s, treading some of Ellis’ stomping grounds though with rather more naturalism (and, I would say, wit). Haven’t read his later works but they *do* have their admirers– the 2nd one’s heroine was supposedly modeled on Rielle Hunter, now notorious as John Edwards’ mistress.

    There’a a passage on Dante in a little pamphlet of a book called “A Student’s Guide to Literature” that covers well this notion of the epic dealing with encompassing issues including the “spirit of the times” but also of course universal themes, & I’m not sure Ellis is really the go-to guy for the later. At least, if he’s working that angle he buries it quite deeply– though the fact that Donna Tartt is such a close friend of his speaks something in his favor.

    I guess I’m not sure how much you really *want* this book to be filmed, as opposed to the fact (as I surmise!) that you are currently “filming” it inside your head!! Wouldn’t something a bit akin to “Boogie Nights” or “Nashville” be something like what you are aiming for? Insofar as all Ellis novels tend to blur a bit into one another, you may recall the film of “The Rules of Attraction” by Roger Avery– not so well regarded.

    I’d say, finally, that you’re probably thinking of “epic” here more in the sort of Thackeray sense of a very wide-encompassing social epic, a ‘vision of the times’. I can understand your enthusiasm, but I don’t think Glamorama will probably exert so much staying power in the long haul. Do our “time” really deserve that kind of treatment? I’d say with Paglia that it’s probably pointless to try, certainly not because there’s something so awesomely creative & wonderful about cultural fragmentation, but because the model of the panoramic social realist narrative barely funcitons anymore. Instead of Tolstoi we get Tom Wolfe “reportage”. If you want to create believable characters, a storyteller can’t be trying to keep up with the latest internet slang or some such– inevitably they get it “wrong”, and the people who are offended by that will document it, and anyway, all the while, one misses the bigger game of creating emotional truth.

  3. I was going to ‘recommend’ (conditionally) that you might try Rick Moody’s “The Diviners” as something analogous to what you’re enjoying with Ellis right now. Most of Moody’s work I *despise*– and I haven’t bought TD and read the whole thing– but I sampled a big chunk of it one night in the store and he was being a good boy. It’s very ‘artificial’ but he’s not repeating himself with every sentence [dear god he *does* know how to do that!] and he was making some salient satirical swipes. A take-down on pop culture.

    Jane Smiley did a Hollywood comic novel which I also sampled and thought was *awful*; but I loved her episodic comic novel “Moo” so I want to be forgiving. But I don’t think her bad Hollywood references were intentionally as pretentious and awful as they are (one character beamingly asks the Hollywood director what movie he would most like to have directed, and he answers “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, because . . . ” very artificially elaborate answer ensues]. Hmm.

    I know how exciting it can be to read or watch something that has that *panoramic* quality you seem to be thrilling to right now with your Ellis! I’m just not sure it’s different from what you’d get from (practically) any other Ellis novel. It may be a fleeting excitement.

    That said, I’d love for you to read Fay Weldon’s “She May Not Leave”, a novel panoramic in its own narrowed sort of way. No peeking! It’s modern satire, with a vengeance.

    And finally– did you *really* read “Cantos”? Because it’s sort of unreadable! I mean, it’s like saying you’ve read “The Four Zoas” or “Finnegan’s Wake” or something. I’d give you the Larry David twice-over to see if you’re giving tell-tale lying signs or something. 🙂 But if you skimmed enough to do a paper on it, you did quite well (and this was an ambitious subject to be tackling, non?)

  4. Ozon could work, I definitely see what you see there… but I don’t particularly like his films I’ve seen. I suppose that is neither here nor there though. Swimming Pool is pretty American I think though… not necessarily in terms of production, but style and narrative. Then again, I think my idea of American is not too accurate. I unfortunately haven’t seen any Lisa Cholodenko, despite the fact I own High Art. So I can’t comment on that really.

    Jason: I still haven’t gotten to that sex scene, but I would like to throw out there that I like the way that Ellis writes sex. I find it is one of the hardest things to do, and he does it well, especially contextually and aesthetically. It never feels out of place, it’s pretty awesome actually.

    I’m not a big reader, so I am not familiar with Jay Mc… I may check out his stuff, seems up my alley, though it is entirely dependent on how I grasp his prose… I am notoriously picky when it comes to that kind of stuff.

    Universality is something of a stretch for Ellis’ that I’ll agree with, however I think the worlds he creates and explores often deal with extremes and “ideals” of a capitalist society. These are successful people, the idols and Gods of our current and past generation. I think on one hand, it embodies what epic poetry could be in the past (especially pre-Christian), where the focus was largely, if not entirely, on the upper class. I think it is only in the Christian era, with writers like Dante, do you begin to delve into more accessibly universal themes, as Christianity is inclusive, which was one of its greater appeals in a class based society.

    I am filming it inside my head, but I would like to see some talented auteur tackle it. I am actually extremely open to adaptations and not particularly picky. Many of my favourite film adaptations are based on my favourite books, not particularly dependent on how accurate they may or may not be. I think figurative adaptations are often the most successful anyway.

    I’m not sure being a visionary for an era involves recreating or keeping up with trends or slang, rather being aware of it and creating your own framework and language based off of those images and situations. It’s like looking at screwball comedies from the 1930s and 40s, especially Wilder and Sturges. People don’t really talk like that; some of the mannerisms are based on real incidents, situations, cultural allusions, etc. But it is filtered through the mind and talents of the artist. Being reflexive of an era requires a great deal of skill, and I’d say it’s extremely rare that someone goes out with the intention of writing something of that sort. It happens that someone does or will, but it’s rarely successful. It is an art of exaggeration, I think it’s difficult and unnecessary to be subtle when tackling pop culture.

    I’ll give The Diviners a go, but as I said, I am a ridiculously picky reader. It might not work particularly well!

    I see what you mean about Ellis,a nd I’m sure you’re right. I think though, I am so enamoured with his writing style and characterizations that once I get over the panoramic high I’ll still be enjoying his work. I don’t need diversity to be happy.

    She May Not Leave is probably the most interesting sounding you’ve presented to me so far, that one I may actually read and finish!

    Yea, no. I read like a few lines, and then just read a summary of what it was. I think that was best.

  5. Funny, I was just browsing a journal (the Lapham Quarterly?) and there was a good article on Pound– I think this autonomous subset of Cantos he published as “The Pisan Cantos” might be more accessible/pleasurable.

    Your points are always thoughtful and informed, but I’m going to dissent on your take on the ancient writers. I’d make two points: 1) that, especially in Virgil, the universality that you (correctly, of course) ascribe to Dante and his successors is already there, as the “Aeneid” is, I think, consciously a ‘civilizational’ epic, not even just about Rome in particular but about the entire Hellenistic ‘cosmopolis’ of the Roman Empire. The presence of hierarchy (class-based or otherwise) in no way necessarily defeats the message of universality; the “Essay on Man”, for instance, is no less addressed to all mankind because it embraces the Great Chain of Being (I’m not sure there’s an “epic” proper so far that *hasn’t* embraced hierarchy); in supporting Rome’s greatness all Romans are partaking of a giant, divine plan for the world; in acquiescing to its government and civilization all peoples are being brought into harmony in a universal (divinely ordanined) plan of law and peace. Such was the dream, anyway! But not for nothing did the Church adopt this poem as an allegory/prophecy of the Christian order; and I freely admit that, for me, the Aeneid is a personal Scripture.

    Oh, and 2)!– Ellis would be much more in line with the content of the Roman historians of the Imperial decadence, Tacitus and Suetonius, as well as the satirists like Juvenal. Ellis (whatever his personal moral views or absence thereof?) certainly walks much the same beat. If you can take Tacitus’ “Annals” as a kind of “epic” in the novelistic sense (and certainly Tacitus ‘invents’ speeches, and perhaps was just wrong about many of his gossipy particulars) then you might find his reportage on a world empire in the throes of decay quite a parallel to Ellis. I might go so far as to recommend you flip open the “Annals” at random and see what you think. They’re quite terrifying, and make one feel, as Nietzsche suggests, that it’s quite understandable how Christianity could, indeed must, flourish in such an environment. So too with Juvenal, with such tidbits as the empress Messalina, nipples painted in gold, whoring herself out in the stalls after-hours for kicks, or to afford more jewellry, depending on the take.

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