The End of the 80s? Brief notes on Cosmopolis and the film history of the yuppie
Could it be that the yuppie is finally dying? And does that mean that the eighties are over? Is it a burial ode that David Cronenberg has given us with his latest film, Cosmopolis?
Bred by the neoliberal stage of finance capitalism, the yuppie personality was made up of nine parts Social Darwinism and one part cocaine. There seems to be no agreement as to when exactly the term was coined, though 1982 is the year most frequently offered. That is also the year Michael J. Fox first appeared on American television screens as teenage Reagan-loving wannabe yuppie Alex Keaton in the generational sitcom Family Ties. Fox also garnered the lead when Jay McInerney’s 1984 debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City, was adapted for the screen in 1988. But neither of Fox’s characters had the indomitable cynicism needed to become the face of the era. And the same was true for Tom Hanks, whose Sherman McCoy was, in a commercial miscalculation, deliberately “niceified” when Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities was brought to the screen in 1990.
In 1987 it was to be Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas that gave us the cinematic character that more than any other came to symbolize his era. Gordon Gekko had indomitable cynicism to spare and lived the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. But, strictly speaking, established and middle-aged Gekko was not the yuppie of Wall Street. The role of young upwardly-mobile professional was that of Charlie Sheen as the stockbroker Bud Fox. In the end, Bud Fox turns out to be little more than a good kid led momentarily astray, whilst neoliberalism is brushed off as the product of individual greed that can be outmaneuvered by the collaboration of a “responsible” labour union and a morally superior capitalist. Stone’s naïve social liberalism made sure his ending had little resemblance to the real world of relentless top-down class war.
Instead, the ultimate yuppie, Patrick Bateman, was brought to us in 1991 courtesy of Brett Easton Ellis in his third novel, American Psycho. That same year Time magazine famously published the obituary of the yuppie. But that was way, way too early. To be sure, the self-confidence of the yuppie was shaken by the crisis of the early nineties, much as it was ten years later by the dot com crash and 9/11, but both times he (or more rarely she) would return with a vengeance. How could it be differently when economic inequality was forever on the rise and finance capital kept being treated as the all-powerful divinity whose appetites must forever be satisfied, no matter the human cost. “Compared with us, the eighties greedhead was practically restrained,” concluded one self-styled yuppie recently: “If anything, your average upwardly mobile young professional has so outstripped and outclassed the mid-eighties yuppie that if Gordon Gekko himself were to show up in polite society in 2006, he would look kind of provincial.”
Today research has taught us more than we knew thirty years ago about how inequality destroys the humanity of us. The economic divide that places a super-wealthy elite in a condition of invulnerability, social and physical isolation, simultaneously blocks the ability to empathize. The distance separating them from the rest of us becomes so great that they simply lose the ability to see us as proper fellow humans. The logic of the market that transforms everything and everyone into commodities does the rest. When a yuppie looks at us we should probably imagine that he looks at us much as we might look at a dog. Of course there are all sorts of dogs; good dogs, cute dogs, difficult dogs, dangerous dogs, dogs that need to be put down. This is the psychological realism that was captured with such steely elegance by Mary Harron and Christian Bale when they brought American Psycho to the screen in 2000. Patrick Bateman is the image of a monstrous, deranged neoliberalism at its peek; invincible and opaque. No matter how far into madness Bateman takes his blood thirst the world cannot see through the polished masque that he ritually dons every morning with the help of his battery of ultra-exclusive skin care products.
The 28-year old financial billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), whose continuously disrupted journey across Manhattan in a sound proof limousine is narrated in Cosmopolis, is every bit as mentally estranged from the everyday world around him as Bateman and just as brutally indifferent. But Packer’s universe is falling apart around him, assaulted both by anti-capitalist protesters and a market that suddenly turns unpredictable. In the course of the film’s 108 minutes he loses everything. Seen as a story about the financial crisis as such this is obviously not a very realistic depiction. With very few exceptions, the ultra-rich have become even richer, protected with absolute loyalty by the neoliberal state that remains the slavishly obedient guarantor of their wealth and power. But Cosmopolis is, perhaps, rather more realistic if understood as the nightmare of the contemporary yuppie in a time when neither the vulnerability of the economy in itself nor the realization of Earth’s incapacity to sustain the capitalist production system can be fully repressed. Perhaps, then, what we see here is the initial crumbling of the psychological foundation of the yuppie, the sociopathic self-confidence.
Erich Hobsbawm has spoken of “the short twentieth century,” from the outbreak of World War One to the fall of the Soviet Union. Giovanni Arrighi, on the other hand, wrote about “the long twentieth century,” starting with the Great Depression of 1873-96. Perhaps we could also speak of “the long 1980s” of unlimited neoliberal self-confidence, beginning with the election of the first Thatcher government and possibly reaching the beginning of its end with the Lehman Brothers crash in September 2008. Then again, Eric Packer may well wake up from his nightmare once more, like he did after the initial crisis of the twenty-first century, the period when Don DeLillo’s here adapted novel was written. After all, the yuppie has proven just as difficult to kill off as those other monsters of the long 1980s, Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.