Joe Gould’s Secret
Produced by First Cold Press and October Films
Directed by Stanley Tucci
Screenplay by Howard A. Rodman, from an article by Joseph Mitchell
Released by October Films

American Psycho
Produced by Single Cell Pictures
Directed by Mary Harron
Screenplay by Mary Harron, from a novel by Bret Easton Ellis
Released by Lions Cate Films

Joe Gould’s Secret is an unforced, unhurried narrative filled with the quiet strangeness of a Henry James’ story. Stanley Tucci, the film’s producer, director, and co-star, renders events so that they seem as equivocal as life itself. Only slowly do we realize this is a tale of a soul’s possession.

The film is based on two articles published by New Yorker staff writer Joseph Mitchell in 1942 and 1964. Both concern his acquaintance with Joe Gould, a well-known Greenwich Village eccentric. (Tucci plays Mitchell and Ian Holm, Gould. As in Tucci’s 1996 film, The Big Night, they are perfect together.) Other than being descendants of families dating back to pre-Revolutionary America, the two men could not have been more dissimilar. Gould was a raucous, bumptious braggart from Massachusetts, a Yankee self-promoter; Mitchell, a refined, courtly gentleman from North Carolina, an unassuming Southern aristocrat.

Mitchell encountered Gould in the late 30’s while publishing a scries of profiles on New York characters. He was having a cup of coffee in a diner when Gould came bustling in with his trademark pasteboard folder and oversized, filthy, hand-me-down clothes. Without as much as a hello to the proprietor, the bald, bearded derelict demanded to be fed for free. Served a bowl of soup, Gould proceeded to empty a bottle of ketchup into it. At the other cud of the counter, Mitchell watched, his journalistic antennae aquiver.

He soon learned that Gould had graduated from Harvard in 1911 and had come to New York to be a journalist. Instead, he had gained notoriety on the streets of Greenwich Village as the genius bum whose work in progress, The Oral History of Our Time, might one day turn out to be a masterpiece. At nine million words and counting, Gould grandly compared his work to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He had been at it since 1917, he explained, the year he had fully committed himself to his project.

I would spend the rest of my life going about the city listening to people—eavesdropping, if necessary—and writing down whatever I heard them saying that sounded revealing to me, no matter how boring or idiotic or vulgar or obscene it might sound to others. . . . I decided right then and there that I couldn’t possibly continue to hold my job, because it would take up time that I should devote to the Oral History.

Mitchell was hooked. Gould’s project bore a remarkable resemblance to his own, but on a far more vast scale. Then he read some of its chapters, which Gould had inscribed in dime composition books. Disappointingly, he found them to be largely the alcoholic vaporings of a would-be social philosopher, sprinkled with a promising sentence here and there. They were clearly the work of an educated man, but they were neither unique nor professional. Yet Gould had managed to have a few extracts published in little magazines such as the influential Dial. So Mitchell asked to see the rest. Gould, however, could not or would not produce any other manuscripts. Instead, he proposed to recite them from memory, assuring Mitchell he had “what the psychologists call total recall.”

The wonder is that Mitchell believed in The Oral History at all. Ultimately, he concluded what we can tell quite early on in the film; Gould was a megalomaniacal con artist. For nearly 40 years, he fed his stomach and his vanity by trading on the reputation of a couple of dozen essays, the supposed selections from his magnum opus.

Gould was an extreme specimen of a type: the professional raconteur one can meet in any bar and grill across our intemperate land. He told an endless stream of stories and anecdotes with preternatural panache. He had measured the heads of a thousand Chippewa Indians, “the only” civilized people left,” he would routinely claim. He had learned to speak with seagulls and would waddle and mew to show how it was done. Gould had the Ancient Mariner’s glittering eye and incantatory voice. But this kind of act can charm only so long. When the eye dims and the voice falters, the stage-managing ego in the wings becomes all too visible. It is never pleasant to witness such an unmasking. Certainly, Mitchell felt no satisfaction when he finally saw through Gould’s imposture to the naked, childish appetite for attention behind it. Such a revelation in others has a discomfiting way of mirroring our own deluded self-importance. In perhaps the film’s most powerful moment, Gould himself gets a glimpse in this mirror. As he sits alone on a subway car grimly writing about the difficulty of distinguishing the sane from the insane, we hear him in voice-over saying, “I have a delusion of grandeur. I believe myself to be Joe Gould.” His summing up of our common affliction is succinct and devastating.

Mitchell wrote “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, seven years after Gould died. He would never publish anything again. He continued to report to his office at the New Yorker for 32 years until his death in 1996, nearly the same length of time Gould had haunted the Village. His colleagues heard him typing behind his closed door, but nothing emerged. It’s a strange conclusion. Tucci doesn’t try to dramatize it—how could he? He merely states it in a closing paragraph against a black screen and lets us draw our own conclusions. Was it guilt? Having propelled Gould to his little perch of fame from which he inevitably tumbled, did Mitchell feel he didn’t have the right to intrude on other lives? Or did Mitchell come to recognize in Gould’s self-aggrandizement a shocking semblance of his own neediness?

The film does offer some clues, and one seems particularly apt. The always importunate Gould calls at two in the morning. Mitchell’s wife answers and, turning to him, announces, “It’s your Mr. Gould.” Mitchell grumbles, “He’s not mine.” To which she replies, “Well, you’re his.” James would have appreciated this multileveled irony.

The 69-year-old Holm is superb as Gould. In lesser hands, the role could have easily devolved into just another portrait of a lovable rogue. Instead, Holm shows the man to have been as boorish as he was charming. He makes you understand that, at 60, Gould remained a brat, wholly unwilling to acknowledge the rights of others. Tucci has the more difficult assignment. As the diffident, kindly Mitchell, he must restrict himself to reacting to Gould. He does so with a subtlety that goes beyond acting. His attentive, ever respectful gentleness makes you mourn for a decency that has passed out of our world.

Speaking of decency, we come to American Psycho. Had Joe Gould arrived in Manhattan 65 years later than he did, he would have found none at all, according to director Mary Harron. Instead, an investment banker would have dispatched this jobless parasite with a few flourishes of a Henckels carving knife, carefully wielded so as not to bloody his Armani overcoat.

In the 1980’s, it seems, hordes of Harvard Business School graduates descended like Goths upon Gotham, shoving the weak to the wall. They were pumped on steroids, cocaine, and boundless entitlement. When not pleased with services rendered, these heartless louts would casually threaten harm to their servants, doormen, house cleaners, waiters, limousine drivers, and, last but perhaps not least, their women. Then one of them, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), takes the next logical step. He rapes, murders, disembowels, and dismembers merely to assure himself he’s top dog.

Harron clearly intends her adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s nauseating novel to be a leftist-feminist critique of American capitalism. This is ironic, since, from the moment the credits roll, she capitalizes on the novel’s scandal value. The film begins with red droplets falling one by one against an entirely white screen. Anyone at all acquainted with the novel will assume this is blood from a freshly carved corpse. When the camera pulls back, however, we see the droplets are really raspberry syrup being drizzled onto a plate to decorate a haute cuisine concoction in a tony restaurant. At nearby tables, impossibly tidy waiters intone the evening’s specials to bored yuppies. “Tonight we’re serving a swordfish meatloaf with a marmalade of lime and papaya.” The image of dripping blood, however, lingers in our minds. These gilded youth are not just ordering a meal; they are cannibalizing the lower orders who are forced to serve their pampered appetites.

This is one idea of both the film’s and the novel’s and it’s repeated incessantly. The privileged live at the expense of the less materially fortunate, who are reduced to wholly expendable commodities, things to be used and discarded.

Well, yes. No doubt wealth and the lack of it can and has corrupted social relations. Jonathan Swift said as much in his 1729 essay, “A Modest Proposal,” in which a lordly reformer counsels cannibalism to alleviate the Irish problem. But Ellis obviously felt his readers needed something stronger than Swift. He has Bateman turn his fashionable apartment into a private brothel and amateur abattoir: pornographic sex followed by torture murders, both described with an obsessive attention to anatomical detail. This is more than a cynical bid to stir controversy and boost sales. Ellis clearly relishes Bateman’s use of knives, nail guns, power saws, and drills on young women.

Ellis has been hailed as his generation’s spokesman. Perhaps he is. His vision is the grim, ineluctable terminus of a steady diet of our popular culture with its endless pornographic merchandising. Appetites fed to excess always end up in self-lacerating disgust.

The only thing to be said for Harron’s film is that it leaves out almost all of the novel’s graphic carnage, making do with suggestion instead. As for the sex, it’s rendered briefly but explicitly enough to reveal why Harron was drawn to the novel. These scenes display sex as a joyless exercise of male power over women. So we don’t miss the point, she has Bateman flex his biceps in his mirrored walls as two prostitutes serve his needs. Who says feminists aren’t subtle?

Belatedly, we discover Bateman’s murders may be no more than hallucinations. This is, I suppose, another attempt to make sure we get the point. Really, folks, this ain’t no horror story; it’s a sure enough sophisticated allegory of capitalist decadence. I wonder. Would Ellis and Harron be as willing to use their metaphorical carnage in a narrative about the former Soviet Union, where making the communist omelet required breaking some 22 million eggs?

The pièce de résistance comes in the final scene. Bateman and his banker buddies are drinking in a cocktail lounge as an overhead television runs a tape of Ronald Reagan addressing the Iran-Contra issue. The young men jeer and snicker at his image.

That’s right. Ronald Reagan did it. His hypocrisy deprived an entire generation of rich boys and girls of their innate moral idealism. He made them materialistic predators. It wasn’t their absentee parents, their soulless education, their exposure to a steadily coarsening culture. It wasn’t the constant counsel to serve yourself first and enjoy as much no-fault sex as early and as often and as promiscuously as possible. It wasn’t the insistent assurance that inconvenient babies could be aborted with little or no consequence. No, it was those nasty conservatives who transformed these hapless innocents into monsters of greed and hedonism.

I confess I was puzzled. Curiously enough, Bateman’s ungentlemanly behavior and sordid fantasies reminded me of another, much younger resident of the White House.