Cosmopolis: Don DeLillo Goes to the Movies

DeLillo, Cronenberg, Pattinson--what could possibly go wrong?

DeLillo, Cronenberg, Pattinson–what could possibly go wrong?

For a writer whose first novel is about a filmmaker, whose most recent novel is a hybrid story and film criticism, who cites Godard as an influence, and whose magnum opus pays homage to Eisenstein, Don DeLillo has not gotten his due at the movies.  Cormac McCarthy gets the Coen brothers, Viggo Mortensen, and Matt Damon, but White Noise and Underworld elicit only confusion: students get excited to hear the books’ names, only to discover disappointedly they are entirely unrelated to the movies that share those titles.  DeLillo’s novels feature neither ghosts nor vampires.

Until 2012, of course—the movie, and the monsters.  Cosmopolis was released in theaters last fall and on DVD in January 2013, to the delight of DeLillo’s fans and apparent dismay of Robert Pattinson’s, according to these (typical) Amazon.com reviewers: “As much as I like Robert Pattinson, this was the worst movie I’ve ever watched. Wanted to throw away DVD afterward.” And this: “I love Robert Pattinson. … I loved all the Twilight movies… but Cosmopolis is … not a movie so much as a long nightmare in which every word is measured and every character represents something heavy…. Even Pattinson, who is very handsome in his business suit, isn’t enough to make me want to watch this again.”

Even for DeLillo’s readership, Cosmopolis is a strange first adaptation, a language-bound and seemingly unfilmable novel, especially compared with the black comedy of White Noise, which supposedly attracted director Barry Sonnenfeld before disappearing and being removed from IMDB, with only Wikipedia (!) aware that an adaptation was ever a possibility.  The eminently filmable Libra was famously optioned by Oliver Stone, who then shelved it in favor of that other JFK conspiracy book.  The less realistic one.

delillo_NYT_1998

On the other hand, the plot of Cosmopolis always struck me as similar to the one DeLillo film that did make it—Game 6, written by DeLillo and starring Michael Keaton, who was also in the non-DeLillo White Noise film.  (Everything is connected.)  At the time, Game 6 struck me as compressed DeLillo miscellany—Mao II’s author/reader dynamics, White Noise’s SIMUVAC, and of course Underworld’s mediation on the meaning of loss, in baseball as in life.  Now, though, Game 6 seems more of a blueprint for the future Cosmopolis than a retrospective.   I find myself returning to Game 6’s cross-town New York City long day’s journey into night, its Pinter-esque dialogue between driver and troubled passenger who happens to be toting a loaded gun, as so many of DeLillo’s protagonists do, less as Chekov’s symbol of narrative economy as much as DeLillo’s favored way of propelling the plot deathward.

Cosmopolis, though, the book and the movie, is a far greater achievement than Game 6. As Cornel Bonca begins in his brilliant essay “Contact With the Real: On Cosmopolis,” when the novel “first came out in 2003, it was regarded by most reviewers, myself included, as a disappointment,” but he rightly concludes that the film may give “renewed life and attention to a novel that tells us more about this culture’s hurl into the future than we want to know.”  And indeed, the film does tremendous justice to the novel’s ideas, criticisms, but especially, for me, its sub-zero sense of humor, including Kozmo on Brutha Fez’s death: “Hope you’re not disappointed…. That our man wasn’t shot. Hope he didn’t let you down. Natural causes. That’s a letdown” (132), or Vija Kinsky, on time, technology, and language: “Even the word computer sounds backward and dumb” (104).  Director and adapter David Cronenberg seems an obvious partner.  His concern with technology is pervasive, including films like Videodrome, but Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash demonstrates that, like DeLillo, in too many scenes to name, Cronenberg has had a particular ambivalence toward the automobile.  Cosmopolis, then, coalesces the DeLillian—and maybe American—obsessive trinity of money, guns, and cars.

Unlike those Amazon.com reviewers, I loved the movie. I was riveted, and I laughed out loud in ways that embarrassed me in front of only myself. But for me the surprise, and brilliance, was in casting Robert Pattinson.  Bonca suggests that Christian Bale, “whose imposing physicality and cruel intelligence[,] would have been perfect for Eric Packer.” Of course.  But the American Psycho-era Bale that Bonca envisions has turned into Terminator Salvation-era, Dark Knight Rises-era Bale—an action hero, or anti-hero, but either way a method-acting master and big budget Leading Man, too physically imposing,  ironically too well cast, for the ethereal weirdness of DeLillo’s prose and Cronenberg’s vision.  Pattinson’s casting reminds me of David Fincher’s at-the-time risk of with Brad Pitt in Fight Club: Pitt, like Pattinson, seemed less in keeping with the adaptation’s social satire and more like the thing the film was satirizing.  Yet instead, like Pitt, Pattinson brings an artless, rather than method, quality to the part—his ready-to-wear materialism and superficiality are neither teeny bopper nor ironic, but rather, perfect.  He even seemed out of control and frightened by the end, which works better than Bale’s perpetual imperturbability or even DeLillo’s paper Packer, who never loses his icy cool.

Pattinson fans hoping for a love story, or even a story, certainly set themselves up for disappointment. What DeLillo, Cronenberg, and Pattinson deliver is film’s most scathing critique of techno-capitalism in decades.  And once again, DeLillo comes off as the most prescient guy in the room, forecasting the possibility that a single hubristic day trader could threaten the entire global financial system, or even that a grassroots 99% movement could occupy New York—ideas that seemed unlikely in the shadow of 9/11 when the novel came out.  With its references to Marx (“A specter is haunting the world—the specter of capitalism!” [89, 96]), Cosmopolis positions Packer as the uncanny embodiment of Marx’s infamous monster metaphor: “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”  Pattinson/Packer is that ghost, and that vampire.  Awake all night, pacing his urban Gothic castle, perpetually prowling for food and sex, preternaturally smart, hiding behind sunglasses and in his cork-lined, hearse-like automobile, Pattinson carries his Twilight fame readymade into Packer.   As Vija Kinsky explains to Eric, “People will not die. Isn’t this the creed of the new culture? People will be absorbed in streams of information” (104).  And at the end of the film, as Paul Giamatti’s Benno Levin holds the gun to Packer’s head and the film abruptly cuts to black, Packer is left suspended between life and death, undead, the final moment of the murder never to arrive. 

Packer may not be Edward Cullen or sparkle in the sunlight, but I know a true vampire when I see one.  Cosmopolis may not be White Noise or Underworld (the movies, that is), but at last DeLillo has his ghost and vampire.

He's so sparklie!

He’s so sparklie!

Hourman Update: The blog is still on hiatus, but I wanted to crosspost this piece with the Don DeLillo Society Newsletter, Vol 7 no 1, March 2013. I expect Hourman to return, in slightly different form, in a few months. Thanks to everyone who has been interested.

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2 thoughts on “Cosmopolis: Don DeLillo Goes to the Movies

  1. Janis says:

    Why?! Why must you taunt us now with a new post, only to make us wait to end your hiatus?

    Also, now I’ll have to give the movie a chance, and get a hold of the book. I’ll let you know after I’m done how I feel about it…

  2. Hourman says:

    Aw, that’s nice of you, Janis. I didn’t know it was missed. It’s an interesting book, one that I like more now than when I first read it when it came out.

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