It’s the first re-view this week in Erik Jaccard‘s double-header. Here, he considers Roger Avary’s adapation of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction with attention to self-created narratives, loops, and places one does not need an asshole.
Author’s disclaimer: Due to what was perhaps a scheduling error or a lack of judgment or an act of fate or a combination of all of these things and other things as well, I am here this week to offer you not one, but two re-views of things we may or may not have been watching and loving or perhaps merely tolerating Ten Years Ago, in early October, 2002. The two films in question—Roger Avary’s narrative-bending adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, The Rules of Attraction, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s wonderfully quirky and not a little unsettling dramedy Punch-Drunk Love, at first seem like an odd pairing. The first, a dark, kaleidoscopic whirlwind of a story about youth, affluence, sex, and love seems to offer a menacing appraisal of human desire and emotion, pairing them with the themes of fate and agency in such a way as to make both seem like Sartrean echo-chambers of hellish interpersonal repetition. The second, an almost Capra-esque fairy tale about a tortured soul seething with fury but soothed by affection and care, belies the former’s obsession with its own nihilism. The first is grounded in a particular (and particularly vicious) social milieu—affluent East Coast bourgeois society—while the second seems to turn on the head of some mythical, heavenly logic, as though its story might take place anywhere, at any time. The Rules of Attraction, both in theme and form, obsesses over the idea that it is only by telling disconnected stories, which can never form a whole, that we come to realize that we don’t—and can’t—ever know one another or understand experience, let alone ourselves. Punch-Drunk Love, on the other hand, playfully entertains the notion that life offers us touchstones, objects, people, and moments that shape and inform our ability to make positive, productive choices. It insists that people change, at least some people, and that this change is vital to understanding who we are and the things of which we’re capable (the big one being, of course, the ability to love). As I said, an awkward pairing, but one that might be said to produce fruitful results if only we let it.
These films return to me at a particularly volatile time in my life, under mercurial conditions in some ways similar to those in which I first watched them. These will, then, be understandably volatile and mercurial reviews. They will be stylistic and formal departures from what I would consider the standard format of the majority of my reviews, but will include variations on themes to which I continue to return. As always, they will attempt to know their creator (that is, me) in new and unfamiliar ways, as part and parcel of that self-fashioning that comes with channeling one’s person through some object or instance that happened to curl into its orbit, if only briefly. In any case, by whatever accident or twist of fate, you’re in for a two-part ride. I hope you’re still with me at the end. Here we go.
The Rules of Attraction
Adapted for the screen and directed by Roger Avary
and it’s a story that might bore you but you don’t have to listen, he says now, as he might not have said then, when he first watched The Rules of Attraction, because he had always known that it was going to be like that, and it was on a Sunday, in early October, at one of those charmless mega-cinema-mall-type compounds in a suburb of Denver, Colorado, and this was ten years ago, and he was entirely sober in a way, and in a way entirely drunk on something like love and something like self-deception, and he was so sure that this trip to the a city on a plain by mountains that always looked like a wall of teeth so high and so imposing that he was, only for a moment, frightened of what lay beyond them, he was so sure that this trip was the right thing, that the person to the right (or left) of him in this cinema in a city on a plain across the mountains was his person, his Victor, but better, real and not fake or dishonest or vacant, was his right thing in human form, so sure, so sure, so sure in fact that there was no point thinking or even talking anymore, so sure because he had always known it would be like that, with the girl with the red hair and the round face and the smile and a future that unfolded around him like delirium, like comfort, like nausea, and that person was either an angel come to save him or a witch come to tame him or an actual living, breathing human being, about which he knew nothing.
1. Put your own history in order. I will do with you what I will.
The facts even when beaded on a chain, still did not have real order. Events did not flow. The facts were separate and haphazard and random even as they happened, episodic, broken, no smooth transitions, no sense of events unfolding from prior events—
—Tim O’Brien, Going After Cacciato
I start with this quote of Tim O’Brien’s because Brett Easton Ellis chose to start his novel, The Rules of Attraction, with it and because it is the ghostly stylistic lynchpin to Roger Avary’s 2002 adaptation of Ellis’s novel. I also begin with it because it nicely encapsulates something most of us English Lit. kids know by heart after a few years of study, that histories—both personal and social—emerge out of conscious acts of narration and self-creation. But as much as I might understand this fundamental truth intellectually, it is one that still often escapes me emotionally, blinded as I am (as we all are) to the origins of such processes within ourselves (I feel like there’s something Heisenbergian about this: it’s tough to be both the person creating and the person watching that creation happen). This is a rough truth that has come around again on me recently, the idea that the stories you tell about yourself and your own life are simply that—versions of the truth. And oftentimes, in taking that version for the version, it’s easy to lull oneself into thinking that those facts you’ve beaded onto a chain have what O’Brien might call ‘real order.’ This is not to say that one’s personal version of events is ‘false’ because not universal, only that its truth is relational to the other, parallel stories of others with whom you interact.
Perhaps this is too vague. Let me explain. I first watched The Rules of Attraction in a Denver cinema at the end of a weekend-long getaway, the point of which was to visit a certain girl with whom I had been variously involved for quite some time. It only occurred to me much later the extent to which I had been arranging the facts of our relationship in ways that suited my needs, and how I had managed to do so by way of supposedly validating her own version of events. I had strung together what seemed like a credible version of events that led to a predictable point: us being together. Because that was how I had decided the story ended. It was this strange microcosmic ideology at play in my head that then allowed me to watch The Rules of Attraction that day in October and accept, in theory, the idea that my own version of the truth was not as watertight as it seemed, while all the while denying that theory any practical consideration.
Much like Ellis’s novel, Avary’s film treats facts as though they were contingent pieces strung together at the behest of whoever might have access to them at any given time. Both as a novel and a film, the narrative begins and ends in medias res, thrusting the reader and viewer into a story that has already started and which ends mid-sentence, as though there were simply no longer a point to dithering about with the fictional constructs of beginnings and endings. It doesn’t matter whether you pay attention to what’s happening when, or whether certain scenes take place junior, sophomore, or senior year, or whether they are all components of one consensual, linear hallucination. Events occur, but as O’Brien surmised, they do not flow, they do not form a pattern until a pattern is forced onto them by a mind with its own agenda, its own blind spots, and its own particular ways of looking at, and thereby shaping the world. The execution of this idea is clearly meant to function as both the formal and stylistic medium through which the story unfolds, but it is also its primary thematic concern. Alongside, of course, the nebulous notion that gives the film its title—the ‘rules’ of attraction. In 2002 I had somewhat lazily concluded that ‘the rules of attraction’ was a misnomer and that there were no rules. What noble sentiment that must have seemed at the time (we’re all free to love whoever and however we want! Huzzah!). But now, I can see that whatever we mean when we talk about the rules of attraction can really only be grasped by accepted that these things are fundamentally negotiated and contingent—like ‘facts’ and like stories. It’s not that there are no rules; it’s that the rules are constantly being shaped and defined by those to whom they apply.
Following Ellis’s novel quite faithfully, Avary’s adaptation tells the story—or, more accurately, patches together a number of stories—of a group of students at an affluent, prestigious New England liberal arts college. Distracted, distraught, confused, and aimless, the narrative’s expansive cast of players careen around free from the constraints of narrative order and employment, flitting from one party to the next, everyone fucking everyone, everyone high or drunk most of the time, everyone running in what seems to be a static pattern of debauchery, recovery, and more debauchery. What’s more, the story is told from a variety of viewpoints, each contributing something the patchwork truths that slowly form throughout, but of which the reader/viewer can never be fully confident. While Ellis’s novel introduces an expansive cast of characters by way of illuminating a diverse cross-section of disaffected East Coast affluence, Avary narrows this dizzying and somewhat anarchic array of experience by focusing on the text’s three ‘main’ characters and, further, by structuring his story around the supposed ‘love triangle’ that develops between them. Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon), who might be a ceramics major or a poetry major or an art history major, pines after Victor, for whom she holds what can only be called a naïve and hyper-romanticized flame. Though she ‘knows’ Victor isthe one for her, she is nonetheless drawn into the vacuously carnal world of the university, where people seem to do everything but study. Sean Bateman (James Van der Beek) moves from one party to another, dealing drugs, makes evil ‘I will conquer you’ eyes at any girl who will talk to him, and occasionally goes to class (like once a week). Despite himself, he eventually falls in what he thinks is ‘love’ with Lauren. Paul (Ian Somerhalder), an ex of Lauren’s, is willing to sleep with just about anyone, but fixates on Sean, with whom he may or may not be having an illicit and hushed up affair. Each version of events offered by the main characters differs from one another, and it is only in seeing them all play out that we come to understand each one alone. Yet this is something to which each of the characters does not seem privy; while us audience members might come to understand the ways they delude themselves into thinking that they are the heroes of their own story, the characters themselves do not. In fact, it is one of the defining features of the film and novel that they do not. They loop, and loop, and loop, and this is supposed to be some kind of farcical tragedy, but
2. There are no tragedies in the loop/The loop is tragedy made visible.
There is the theory of the Mobius…a twist in the fabric of space where time becomes a loop.
—Lieutenant Worf, Start Trek: The Next Generation, S2, Ep. 6 (“The Schizoid Man”)
In 2002 I was somewhat dubious that there could ever actually be a place like Camden College, where no one went to class, professors didn’t give a crap about teaching, and everyone partied like their real goal was to achieve major brain damage (or a degree in pharmacology). Then again, at the time I didn’t really have much context for understanding the level of affluence that the kids in the film are meant to emerge from. It didn’t make sense to me that anyone would waste their parents’ money like that, much less that parents would put up with it. At the time, I let it slide, perhaps simply concluding that it was all meant to be hyperbole, or else a glimpse into a world I would probably never know (and which was, therefore, as real as Shangri-la). It was only in reviewing the film this time around that I came to see how the film (and especially the novel) construct a series of interlocking loops through around which the characters revolve, and against which they attempt to define themselves. One of Avary’s more inspired visual conceits plays with this notion by structuring sections of the film in such a way as to make visible its own looping form. Scenes play out, then rewind, then play out, then rewind. This has the effect of allowing for multiple points of view to emerge, but also to create the sensation of watching a tape playing over and over and over, underneath the passing of historical time. For example, one feels that they could take this looping film and fast forward from 1987 (when the novel was published) to 2002 (likewise the film) and on again to 2020, where they would see the same business repeating itself, just with different faces.
Throughout the film, most of the major characters, along with a few of the minor ones, play on what seems to be the theme of a mythical, nightmarish construction of fate. This works on both personal and larger, more broadly social levels. In one sense, each of our main three characters seems glumly committed to an idea that neither they, nor the world they know, will ever change. At the same time, they all irrationally believe that their fated love interest will somehow rescue them. As Sean retreats from another of the story’s endless parties with yet another aimless girl, he notes that she slowly followed him back to his dorm like she knew this would happen (this seemingly being another round of meaningless sex). Paul, in one of his more ruminative moments, complains that his life lacks forward momentum. And Lauren, the film’s most articulate, sympathetic, and poignant character, begins the narrative with a brutal account of her first sexual experience, which she somewhat glumly (and not a little ironically) notes she knew was always going to be ‘like this’ (a moment which works in apparent contradistinction to her simultaneous ‘knowledge’ that her first time would be with her carefully guarded fantasy of a gentle, caring Victor, who is absent and therefore idealizable). Each of the characters seems to hold onto an idea of destiny that works in their favor (Lauren with Victor, Sean with Lauren, Paul with Sean), but each can only maintain it as a buffer against the larger circularity unfolding around them at Camden, and against the deeper class narrative of which they are all a part.
This seems to be why no one needs to study at this college, and why professors don’t seem to give a fuck about teaching. Jessica Biel’s Lara can wander drunkenly into a frat house and fuck the entire football team and still end up married to a senator with four kids. Sean, if he cared enough, could drop out of college (for him it is merely a stepping stone on a ladder already trodden by his successful older brother, Patrick, Ellis’s infamous ‘American Psycho’) and retreat into the warm confines of a six-figure Wall Street salary. Paul, in one of the more amusing scenes in the film, learns (or, more accurately, already knows) precisely where he will end up in the ‘real world,’ a male version of his well-meaning but spaced out and defeated mother, fighting off despair with sex, pills, and booze. Each wants desperately to avoid the larger social trajectory structuring their lives and futures (what, in the novel, is the materialistic ethos of the Reagan ‘80s, but which is here transmuted into the neoliberal fantasyland of the Bush 2000s), but each can only escape this by entering into another, more personal, but equally as vicious cycle. In this cycle, people feign emotion and attempt to ‘know’ one another, yet treat each another like interchangeable parts in a grumbling machine. To ‘know’ another person is, as Lauren finally admits, to realize that you can never know anyone. Or, importantly, it is to know that these people will never know one another. This seems to be what the film wants us to believe is the real tragedy of the kids of Camden College: while their futures seem set, they have no futures. They lack, as Paul puts it, forward momentum, dynamic movement. The board is set and their moves charted. That the film acknowledges this systemic principle is not surprising. At the same time, it takes a very hard line on human beings, reading them as capable only of dominating and being dominated by their own self-constructions. No matter the social and political context, this is not a conclusion I am willing to accept, nor does it seem one validated by my experience of the world.
As a young twentysomething I was pleased with the idea that it was mostly these spoiled rich kids who didn’t and couldn’t know one another, easy as it was for me to think of myself as something other than ‘those people.’ This is undoubtedly true, though it doesn’t change the fact that in the ensuing ten years I have most definitely participated in my own looping constructions, both personal and social. Hiding in circular truths is a comfortable evasion. It allows us to legitimate our strengths and confirm our insecurities at one and the same time. In 2002 I was once again able to deny that this looping mechanism had anything at all to do with me while at the same time reproducing much of my tacitly accepted static behavior with that denial. I like to think I’ve come a long way since then, but recent experience has given me reason to question the ways in which I have come to know myself and others. At times it has been tempting to resort to the facile conclusion that, when all’s said and done, we really can’t ever know one another. It is, like the loops I discuss above, a deceptively comfortable position to take. It absolves one from needing to understand themselves and lets one keep reminding themselves that ‘it was always going to be like that’, whether ‘that’ is the thing you always knew but kept from yourself, or the hope you held out against all reason.
I started driving faster as I left the city behind. I knew exactly where I was going. Someplace occupied, some place full and thriving and vital and necessary and new. There were certain things that were gone and certain things that I knew I would cling to for a long time. There was music in my ears, music that kept me removed and safe and invulnerable, in a citadel of my own making. Home was gone and the present, as much as I could tell, sucked. I looked at my watch. It was only noon. It seemed weird. And it was no relief to be driving around with all this excess baggage.
“I love you,” I said to her the last time we were together. I knew it would be the last time. The two of us were on a porch. It was that weird moment of afternoon you get in the fall when oblique sunlight looks like gauze and you can’t be sure what you’re staring at is real or a mirage. The two of us were standing, her slightly above me, on the porch, on these steps that seemed broken, or at least crooked, and I looked at her face, her hair was down, wispy, dancing weirdly in a breeze, just above her shoulders, her face set, convinced, determined, already older. There are things about her that I want to forget and things I will never forget.
I stopped at a convenience store to buy a drink. I thought about calling someone I knew, an acquaintance, maybe a friend. I left the car running when I went in. The sky outside was leaden with indecision, clouds all kinds of gray, some black, undecided if they should rain or not. I knew where I needed to go. I decided against making a phone call. I got back in the car, wondering whether or not I had really changed.
On the way out I saw a girl hitchhiking on the shoulder. I remember thinking how strange that seemed, as people rarely hitchhiked anymore, not so close to the city, and certainly not women. She looked at me as I passed by, already driving too slowly, obvious, strange, making some kind creepy impression I hoped to avoid. I made it another two hundred yards, then flipped an unnecessarily dangerous u-turn and picked her up. She was small and shy, with a funny, dolorous voice that sounded affected. She seemed unsure, so I smiled to put her at ease. Maybe it worked. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell with these things. She smiled slightly, then got in. I asked her where she was going. She mentioned some town twenty miles away but seemed unsure. She started telling me her life story. It was interesting and I found myself nodding a lot, which I then got really self-conscious about, the nodding I mean. But I listened. When I could I turned to her and smiled, let her know I was paying attention. I turned the music down because I wanted to hear more of what she was saying, I wanted her to build for me something I could name and admire. I turned to her, my eyes interested, a serious smile, nodding, and she
Thoughts all shapes and sizes
I don’t care for the music that plagues the opening credits of this film, all half-Phantom of the Opera,half-epic Kung Fu showdown. For that matter, I care very little for the film’s score in general, what felt to me like an extremely generic affair by the film score factory tomandandy.
I can only assess things from my own perspective, naturally, but having read this novel twice prior to seeing the film the first time, and then once again here, I remain unconvinced by some of the casting choices and what seem like intentional script manipulations meant to accommodate them. A pre-Lostand Vampire Diaries Ian Somerhalder performs admirably as Paul, refining the latter’s well-intentioned desperation and desire into a series of moments that I found quite fitting to the ethos of the story. In 2002 it was very difficult to see James Van Der Beek’s Sean Bateman as anything more than the evil doppelganger to that Dawson kid and his creekfull of angsty teen ne’er do wells, and that hasn’t much changed in ten years’ time. Shannyn Sossamon as Lauren is a choice that grows on me the more I watch the film, but the real test of what would have been this character’s potential for dramatic gravitas—her relationship with Sean and its dissolution—falls to the wayside in Avary’s adapted script, leaving Sossamon to master a trio of faces—aimless and jaded, incredibly intoxicated, and orgasmically content. Which she does, to her credit. Kip Pardue’s Victor, whose kaleidoscopic, drug-fueled monologues make for some of the more entertaining moments in the novel, is given more screen time than necessary here, as is Jessica Biel’s Lara, a character that, as far as I can tell, was created by Avary out of thin air, likely as a composite of the various women that flit in and out of the main trio’s central inter-relationships. Both casting choices (as well as Kate Bosworth’s brief appearance) seem intended to fill the film out with beautiful human flesh and recognizable, salable names. But they add little to the film, doing more to date its obsession with young actors then in vogue. Given how much the Rupert-Sean-Drug angle is inflated in the film’s version of events, it’s not surprising that Clifton Collins Jr.’s Rupert, the one extremely inspired piece of casting, steals the show.
On that note, the best—or at least funniest—line of the entire film, as far as I’m concerned, is Rupert’s indignant exclamation to Sean that “I NEED YOU LIKE A NEED A MOTHERFUCKIN’ ASSHOLE ON MY ELBOW! RIGHT HERE! AN ASSHOLE! THAT’S HOW MUCH I NEED YOU!!!” It really just made me pause and consider, if only for a second, all of the places on my body where I may or may not want an extra asshole.
Oh Fred Savage. I think it’s time to bring the rest of the Arnold’s in for an intervention. Kevin has turned into a motherfuckin’ junkie who doesn’t know his asshole from his elbow.
Is it me, or does Van der Beek have a pillow fort in his dorm room? That must get all the chicks excited.
In our post-Glee, post-It Gets Better world of 2012, the sight of a young gay man overdosing in an apparent attempt at suicide seems to have gleaned an even more poignant resonance. Yet, true to the novel, this scene is (at least meant to be) one of the funnier ones in the film, channeled as it is through Paul’s frustration, self-loathing, and impatience. The clear disconnect between the obviously tragic content and its stylistically farcical presentation left me feeling amused yet uncomfortable with what is a justifiable serious problem being treated so absurdly.
James Van der Scary’s attempt at ‘evil eyes’ just makes me laugh, no less now than it did ten years ago. You can’t make those eyes, at least not when anyone’s looking. It just makes you look like a poseur or a tool trying too hard to seem dangerous. Trust me, I’ve tried.
Given the film’s thematic concern with circularity and fate, it’s not all that surprising that the fashion aesthetic seems stuck in 2002. It makes sense, really. These kids are just as at home in 2002 as they were in 1987, when the novel was published, and whatever they are wearing would seem to make little difference in relation to the fact that their lives run in circles as though time had effectively stopped. The actually existing world outside the narrative intrudes only insofar as it lends a very dated lilt to the ‘contemporary’ idiom of the script and the fashion choices currently in vogue. Whatever they’re wearing, and whatever slang they’re using, they’re still stuck in the same rut, and would be, no matter when the film was made.
Is it me or does Sossamon’s Lauren look kind of like Rachel Leigh Cook’s Laney Boggs (from She’s All That), only a few years down the line? She’s quite a bit hotter (see, she didn’t need Freddie Prinze, Jr. after all!), but still quirky, arty, and somewhat brooding.