Postmodern psychopathic characters  

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 This page Postmodern psychopathic characters is part of Psychopathy and psychopathology series. Illustrated by the head of Elagabalus, one of the five "mad emperors" of ancient Rome
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This page Postmodern psychopathic characters is part of Psychopathy and psychopathology series.
Illustrated by the head of Elagabalus, one of the five "mad emperors" of ancient Rome

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
See fictional portrayals of psychopaths in film and postmodernism.
Examples of postmodern psychopathic figures include John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as a pair of casually murderous hitman-hipsters in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction; Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as the giddy white-trash spree killers, Mickey and Mallory Knox, in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers; Peter Stormare as the surly, soft-spoken, soap opera-watching Swedish-American kidnapper/murderer Gaear Grimsrud in the Coen brothers' Fargo; Frank Giering and Arno Frisch as the cleancut dilettante sadists Peter and Paul in Michael Haneke's Funny Games; Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a callous and superficial serial killer who lives a materialistic yuppie lifestyle in American Psycho; and John Cusack's hitman, Martin Blank, in Grosse Pointe Blank, a nice, ordinary guy who doesn't have the slightest qualm about committing murder for a living.

Since the second half of the 20th century, psychopathic figures, comedic or otherwise, have increasingly been portrayed in popular movies as a kind of postmodern sensibility of cool. This type of fictional psychopath assiduously cultivates and promotes his deviancy amid a pervasively cynical and nihilistic pop culture wasteland. The postmodern psychopath necessarily exists in a chaotic, fragmented, anti-humanist universe — one devoid of any authentic values and feelings, saturated with banal consumerism and ephemeral mass media simulacra, and informed by what French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard has called "an incredulity toward metanarratives".

Hence, extreme antisocial behavior becomes the normative method for negotiating one's way through all of the violence, confusion, vacuity and absurdity that abounds. It is by remorselessly and efficiently committing crimes with deadpan indifference that the postmodern, fictional psychopath attains the nihilistic grace of self-referential coolness which is his calling card.

The appeal of postmodern psychopathic characters in the current popular culture is not entirely clear, but it is quite possible that they are meant to reflect and cater to the narcissism, hostility, jadedness and cynicism of a certain portion of the contemporary audience, which prefers to experience garish displays of violence and criminality unencumbered by the implied moral framework of the classical "grand narrative" pretext that is traditionally grounded in the Aristotelian and Kantian imperatives of teleological catharsis and transcendental justice. The influence of the French New Wave films of the 1950s and 60s, particularly the self-consciously philosophical and formally experimental crime melodramas of Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean-Luc Godard — as well as the style and tone of less reputable genres like the blaxploitation flick and Hong Kong action picture — are also quite evident in many current movies which adopt the ironic, self-referential, and playfully amoral and pitiless worldview of the postmodern psychopathic character.

Indeed, Jean-Paul Belmondo's iconic performance as the remorseless and self-consciously fatalistic car thief and cop-killer, Michel Poiccard, in Godard's À bout de souffle (1960), is perhaps the first cinematic example of the postmodern psychopath. Godard seems to suggest that it is the residually accruing collective memory of conventionalized portrayals of gangsters and underworld criminals in American B-movies and pulp fiction since the 1930s which have made Poiccard a kind of wannabe tough-guy psychopath-poseur through the cultural-ideological effect of osmotic suggestion and participatory facsimile.

The notion that the omnipresence of mass media simulacra (and the ideas and attitudes contained therein) induces a contemporary identity crisis — which, in Althusserian terms, perhaps even precedes the existence of the individual or collective subject — is certainly the film's main concern. Such a traumatic disintegration and dispersal of selfhood and personal values creates a moral and spiritual vacuum which is subsequently filled by the ritual internalization of, and interpellation by, orientating external signs — succinctly indicated by Poiccard's self-conscious gesture of rubbing his lips in imitation of Humphrey Bogart. A dubious and obviously limited style and stance, the burlesque of postmodern psychopathic figures is most comprehensively represented in the highly self-referential seriocomic crime films of Quentin Tarantino as well as the satirical 1991 novel, American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis.

Examples of postmodern psychopathic figures include John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as a pair of casually murderous hitman-hipsters, Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction; Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as the giddy white-trash spree killers, Mickey and Mallory Knox, in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers; Peter Stormare as the surly, soft-spoken, soap opera-watching Swedish-American kidnapper/murderer Gaear Grimsrud in the Coen brothers' Fargo; Frank Giering and Arno Frisch as the cleancut dilettante sadists Peter and Paul in Michael Haneke's Funny Games; Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a callous and superficial serial killer who lives a materialistic yuppie lifestyle in American Psycho; and John Cusack's hitman, Martin Blank, in Grosse Pointe Blank, a nice, ordinary guy who doesn't have the slightest qualm about committing murder for a living.



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