Satirical novelist and sometime cultural geographer Bret Easton Ellis produced a podcast from 2014 to 2017 (and has continued it sporadically as a paid product) in which he interviewed people in the Hollywood entertainment industry, where he now mostly makes his living. He has some excellent discussions with aging scriptwriters and movie directors such as Paul Schrader, Walter Hill, and Peter Bogdanovich. Ellis’s new book titled White is, for the most part, a compendium of the essay-length introductory pieces with which Ellis opens his podcast episodes, revised and topically arranged.
The theme is Ellis’s awakening awareness of, and growing repulsion to, woke culture. The perceptive reader will chuckle a bit (or perhaps experience a shudder of schadenfreude) at his seeming naivete, but for the most part, Ellis delivers a heartfelt defense of the good old days when free speech meant free speech, and people didn’t excuse atrocities like the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staffers with clouds of critical theory blather.
Because Ellis is mainly a creature of Hollywood now, there’s a great deal of movie discussion and analysis in White, along with reflection on the entertainment industry’s political antics in the past few years. There is also a big chunk of deadening material on what makes a good “gay” film, a discussion for which Ellis himself might be the only audience.
But the book gets good when Ellis opines on “Generation Wuss,” his term for so-called millennials, who simultaneously amuse and disgust him, and when he reflects on his own deracinated childhood in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, and the circumstances surrounding the writing of his novels Less Than Zero and American Psycho, among others. There’s also a nice bit on his influences, and I was not surprised to see Joan Didion as chief among them.
The Identity Politics Trap
Ellis despises identity politics. “Across the board, identity politics endorse the concept that people are essentially tribal, and our differences are irreconcilable,” he says, “which of course makes diversity and inclusion impossible. . . it’s a trap.” And there seems to be no way out, even for a good old-fashioned liberal, “not even vehement liberalism could save you anymore, not in a tyrannical and oppressive Hollywood culture that was now dictating how we expressed ourselves as comedians, filmmakers, artists. Freedom of expression had become, it seemed, an aesthetic death wish, effectively suicidal.”
Ah, the pain of the liberal mugged by reality. Or, in this case, by Identity. How could the lefty book tribe, which celebrated the empty hedonism, sex, and drugs of Less Than Zero as a fun satire on the early 1980s and, let’s face it, a how-to manual for Gen X literary hipsters, turn so viciously on Ellis when he produced the far creepier and more prescient American Psycho? Then, two decades later, Twitter, which seems ephemeral at first blush, turns out to be a version of eternal damnation for Ellis.
I have often been at odds with the notion that anyone could really, deeply care about a tweet in the first place. You tweeted, people screamed, people laughed, you shrugged, everyone moved on—that’s how I initially saw Twitter. But after a while I realized that Twitter actually encourages anger and despair—from the overly sincere, the virtue signaler, the ignorant, the literal-minded, the humorless.
The minor muggings continued in Ellis’s Hollywood hothouse. The first brouhaha Ellis chronicles in the book is his shunning by the organization GLAAD for not being a woke enough gay guy. The second is the reaction to Ellis tweeting in December 2012 that Kathryn Bigelow, director of The Hurt Locker, “would be considered a mildly interesting filmmaker if she was a man but since she’s a very hot woman she’s really overrated.”
Ellis later apologized to Bigelow in the pages of Vanity Fair for the mistaken perception (among the usual suspects) that the tweet was sexist. It is not, of course. It is what used to be called an “opinion.” Or, to put it the way we used to, “merely an opinion.” It’s not even an effective smart-aleck remark.
His point is that he thinks she is a mediocre talent who has been overvalued because she is good-looking. So what? Does that make her a mediocre talent? No, Bigelow does that well enough without the help of Ellis. It is the “good-looking woman” part of the tweet that offends, one imagines. Yet Bigelow cannot be called ugly by any standard, except maybe that of the creators of Dove soap commercials. It has ever been the case that good-looking people have an easier time in the world, at least before they make Strange Days or write Undertow. This most certainly applies to men, too.
It isn’t sexist to say so. It’s just — well, you know. Merely an opinion. The real point of the tweet is that Ellis didn’t think “The Hurt Locker” was particularly great, and that Quentin Tarantino, whom Ellis admires, should have won best director for “Inglorious Basterds” instead. (If Bigelow ever should have won, it ought to have been for wrangling Gary Busey in Point Break.)
Lecturing the Enfant Terrible
Then there was the tweet from April 2011 stating that, although he liked “the idea of ‘Glee,’” watching an episode of the television show was like “stepping in a puddle of HIV.” That is an effective smart aleck critique. And fairly funny.
Ellis doesn’t necessarily label himself, but he has been in gay relationships for the past 30 years. He’s a gay guy. With an opinion. Because of this tweet, and others objecting to the stereotyping of gay men as “magic elves,” the organization GLAAD disinvited him from a dinner honoring, of all people, Bill Clinton.
To top it off, GLAAD asked him not to speak or write about the disinvite, but instead to sit down so they could explain to him what he’d done wrong. Did they not realize they were saying this to a man whose foundational artistic persona is the enfant terrible? Ellis was never going to be lectured by the likes of them.
What GLAAD reinforces is the notion that gay men are oversensitive babies who need to be coddled and protected—not from the hideous anti-gay assaults in Russia, the Muslim world, China, or India, to name a few, but within domestic cultural sentiments. GLAAD was at the red-hot center for the creation of the magical elf as an absurdly high-minded and cutesy role model—hopefully a victim with great pecs—and had often applauded the stereotypes we saw paraded around in embarrassing queer movies and degrading retro sitcoms as ‘positive’ simply because they were, um, gay. All the while they conveniently disregarded the truth, that a silent majority of gay men actively loathed and resisted the caricatures on display.
In the past decade, particularly after the presidential election, Ellis has been on a journey from generally not caring about Hollywood political ranting to being forced to choose sides, to becoming an active rebel against conformity. For those of us outside the bubble, he provides a great deal of amusement at his self-congratulating discovery of the blindingly obvious. In the end, however, he is a real artist with good instincts who has the proper reaction to the totalitarian mindset that has taken hold of the entertainment and news industry in America: disdain.
Ellis claims to never have really been in the bubble himself. He says he had a presentiment President Trump would be elected because he had acquaintances who were planning to vote for Trump. He puts the split in his circle at about 55 percent Clinton to 45 percent Trump, which may seem remarkable for Hollywood, but not so remarkable when you factor in that Ellis, who is trying to get his own projects made, moves among not just performing artists and creative types, but also producers and film financiers—in other words, people who put the money in and stand to lose their shirts and more if a movie doesn’t turn a buck.
On the downside, Ellis often speaks in generational clichés and hypes up unexceptional truisms enough to make one cringe. Gen X. Boomers. Millennials. These categories are frequent placeholders for thought throughout White.
. . . they’d never really been loved by their own selfish narcissistic true-boomer parents, and who as a result were smothering their kids and not teaching them how to deal with life’s hardships about how things actually work: people might not like you, this person will not love you back, kids are really cruel, work sucks, it’s hard to be good at something, your days will be made up of failure and disappointment, you’re not talented, people suffer, people grow old, people die. And the response from Generation Wuss was to collapse into sentimentality and create victim narratives, instead of grappling with the cold realities by struggling and processing them and then moving on, better prepared to navigate an often hostile or indifferent world that doesn’t care if you exist.
Victimization as a Drug
Much of White is melodramatic and overwritten. As an artist, Ellis does not seem to know when to shut up. He tells us that a boyfriend once referred to him as “Overdramatic Chipmunk,” after the meme making the rounds in 2006. One can see it in his prose. Yet he can surely turn a phrase, and his heart is in the right place: “I have to believe in free speech no matter what—that’s as simple and true as it gets.”
Also, in the spirit of Ellis’s confessional style of essay in which literally anything anybody says to him—whether in confidence or not—seems to be fair game for an anecdote, I would add that I had a good friend who was peripherally a part of Ellis’s Bennington clique during college, a group that included writers Donna Tartt and Jonathan Lethem. My friend had traveled a difficult road by the time I knew him in the ’90s and was sometimes a bit erratic to say the least, but Ellis was always kind to him and invited him to get-togethers. He impressed me with this loyalty and decency.
Ellis is certainly not a progressive. He most definitely has the woke mob’s number.
If you feel you’re experiencing ‘micro-aggressions’ when someone asks you where you are from or ‘Can you help me with my math?’ or offers a ‘God bless you’ after you sneeze, or a drunken guy tries to grope you at a Christmas party, or some douche purposefully brushes against you at a valet stand in order to cop a feel, or someone merely insulted you, or the candidate you voted for wasn’t elected, or someone correctly identifies you by your gender, and you consider this a massive societal dis, and it’s triggering you and you need a safe space, then you need to seek professional help. If you’re afflicted by these traumas that occurred years ago, and that is still a part of you years later, then you probably are still sick and in need of treatment. But victimizing oneself is like a drug—it feels so delicious, you get so much attention from people, it does in fact define you, making you feel alive and even important while showing off your supposed wounds, no matter how minor, so people can lick them. Don’t they taste so good?
Ellis claims not to be a conservative or libertarian, but a sort of apolitical artist type who has some conservative and some liberal beliefs. Most importantly, he is a proponent of freedom of speech as the foundation for a free society and for all artistic expression.
Nowadays, this, of course, makes him a conservative by dint of occupying the same beleaguered patch of ground as the rest of us in the sane remnant. Sorry about that, Bret. As the Rainbow Tribe likes to say to those newly arriving at a Gathering: welcome home, brother. Pull up a log. There’s room for you at the fire.