Posts Tagged ‘Fight Club’

2015 was a Kingdom of Bullshit. We were assaulted by a relentless barrage of bullets and bile from real-world terrorists & political hate-mongers, all while media-trolls across the spectrum stoked the blazes for revenue clicks. It all fed our frenzy so hard we became indignation wendigos, our frothy jaws devouring each other’s fury and spewing it back so forcefully we even hated those we should’ve considered comrades. South Park killed it this year with its satire of the Outrage Industrial Complex, but the most 2015 show by a hair has to be Mr. Robot. It captured the zeitgeist perfectly without ever quite snagging the zeitgeist’s attention, but something tells me (even if it’s just wishful thinking) it’ll have a much bigger cult by the time Season 2 starts in 2016. Yeah, in a lot of ways Mr. Robot is just picking up where Fight Club left off 16 years ago— but goddammit, it’s about time somebody picked up where Fight Club left off.

2014 Was a Flat Circle

2013 Was The Climb, Time After Time

2012 Was Louis C.K.’s Foolish Flailing

2011 Was Walter White’s Mad Cackle

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(The 40th and final chapter of a year-long series)

Edward Norton Fight Club

It was right in everyone’s face; Tyler and I just made it visible. It was on the tip of everyone’s tongue; Tyler and I just gave it a name.

Narrator (Edward Norton) 

The movies of 1999 were brimming with life, but Fight Club actually felt alive, a sentient being unleashed into the collective unconscious, taking leaks in our brain stew and splicing subliminal porno into the reels of our childhood memories.

In the fall of ’99, I remember talking with one of my film school bros who, like me, had seen Fight Club multiple times in the theater. Of course we knew (unlike most of the movie’s harsher critics) that it didn’t exactly endorse the hyper-rebellious terrorism of Project Mayhem, the army of angry white men spawned by the Narrator’s alter ego Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). And yet, my schoolmate and I semi-sympathized with it, while sharing a dread that maybe it was already too late, that Tyler Durden’s nebulous fury had already infected us, and unlocked the very same nebulous fury that had been festering in the angriest chambers of our young male American hearts. “You think it’ll make guys wanna start their own Fight Clubs?” my schoolmate asked me. From the hook in his eyebrow, I could’ve sworn that beneath his question was a tacit invitation, like he was extending a feeler to gauge my interest in the Fight Club/Project Mayhem he’d been daydreaming about starting. I paused, because despite how wrong I knew it would was, my 18 year-old self also knew how amenable I might be to such an idea. All I could say was, “Who knows?” After all, I didn’t want to die without any scars…

14 years later, real-life Fight Clubs have become a thing, and yet the closest thing we’ve had to a real-life Project Mayhem in this country was the disorganized pseudo-nuisance known as Occupy Wall Street. In a sense, this is a complaint. Not that I had hoped Occupy Wall Street would literally blow stuff up, but was it unrealistic to hope they would’ve at least shown a little menace? Mayor Billionaire must’ve been somewhat afraid of them, otherwise he wouldn’t’ve ordered his Brute Squad to sweep them out in the dead of night. But Mayor Billionaire and all the other wealthy politicians should’ve been trembling in fear of working class outrage. No wonder it’s all still business as usual. The pissed-off revolutionaries were supposed to crash the economy, not the apathetic money-snatchers. We were supposed to take Tyler Durden’s philosophy, chuck the fascism and misogyny and nitroglycerin, and channel it into a new world where capitalism and socialism weren’t antithetic but symbiotic. Now, “What Would Tyler Durden Do?” is a website that exists mainly to ridicule Kardashians. By the end of the decade, You Are Not Your Fucking Khakis will be a tagline in an Old Navy commercial. Months ago I swore I’d close my HSBC account and join a local credit union, and yet I haven’t even brought myself to do that because it would just be such a hassle, you know?

When Tyler Durden tells the Narrator in their first official meeting that “You have a kind of sick desperation in your laugh,” he says it more like a question. Like, “Have you not noticed before how pathetic you sound?

Later, Tyler shows the Narrator what Sick Desperation In Your Laughter’s supposed to sound like. The Narrator’s laughter was feeble, phony, eager-to-please. Tyler’s laughter is a bloody middle finger straight up The Man’s butt.

It’s very difficult for me to find movies that are less violent than Fight Club in a lot of ways. Fight Club is a movie that has a kind of psychic violence to it, because what it’s really going after is not, ‘I can bruise you,’ it’s saying, ‘You’re a fraud and you should know it. Here are some of the fraudulent things upon which your life is based.’ Which puts people in a more defensive position than just to say, ‘You’re a wimp, and I can kick your ass.’

David Fincher, quoted in Sharon Waxman’s Rebels On The Backlot

A lot of us are still living in fraud, and now we’re aware of it, too. (Fincher himself made Benjamin Button.) Too often we’re laughing like the Narrator, and too rarely do we laugh like Tyler. Maybe we could live “realer,” but how much realer? And how much more can we really do about it? Tyler saw us “pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.” Sure, it was an extreme prophecy from an imaginary lunatic, but poetic all the same. On one end, we’re running from mass-market consumerism, raising rooftop gardens and homebrewing beer. On the other end, we’re more materialistic than ever, camping on lines for golden iPhones. In this life, in these times, maybe the best you can do is keep growing up, keep dreaming of a better world, and find someone who’ll hold your hand as the skyscrapers come tumbling down.

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(Part 13+13+13 of an ongoing series)

Who do you think those people were? Those were not just ordinary people there. If I told you their names– I’m not going to tell you their names– but if I did, I don’t think you’d sleep so well.

Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack)

“He is morbidly afraid of giving away any of his secrets,” says Eyes Wide Shut co-writer Frederic Raphael of Stanley Kubrick, “the best of which may be that he has none.” Raphael and I agree that Kubrick was a genius, and the Best Director despite never winning “Best Director,” though I’d add that Kubrick’s most genius gift was his ability to create the illusion– nay, the unshakable certainty— that his films contain galaxy-sized rabbit holes teeming with secret meanings, hidden agendas, conspiracy revelations, occult mysteries, coded confessions, esoteric symbolism, and arcane wisdom.

As the recent documentary Room 237 shows, viewers have concocted all kinds of elaborate speculations as to what Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining is really about, from the Holocaust to the genocide of American Indians to Kubrick’s alleged fakery of the Apollo 11 moon landing.* It’s doubtful any of said speculations would’ve been inspired solely by readings of Stephen King’s original novel; similarly, no one ever would’ve dropped Kubrick’s name into their moon-landing conspiracy theories if 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t feel so uncannily like a space travelogue. Kubrick’s legendary fastidiousness and reclusiveness may have added fuel to this fire of overzealous theorizing, but there wouldn’t have been any sparks to begin with if he didn’t fill every frame of his films with authentic, palpable mystique.

*One night in college, I watched The Shining on repeat for like 10 hours to write a paper for some class with the word “Narrative” in its name. The result was 12 pages on the film’s parallels to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

How deliciously appropriate, then, that Kubrick’s final work was an endlessly fascinating, immensely analyzable, Illuminati-laced joint called Eyes Wide Shut.


Simply search “Eyes Wide Shut” on YouTube and your results include “The Hidden Messages In Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut,” “Eyes Wide Shut Unveiled, Decoded & Explained,” “Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Illuminati Symbology,” “Eyes Wide Shut – a steganalysis,” and “Kubrick & The Illuminati–” and that’s just Page 1. Of course, when the centerpiece of your movie involves a ritualistic orgy with super-rich folks in masks and robes listening to backwards Latin chanting, you’re begging the conspiracy junkies to watch it frame-by-frame and leap to their own paranoid conclusions. Which, if I may add my own wild conjecture, may have been Kubrick’s intention all along, his own trollish way of singing The Walrus was Paul!

Eyes Wide Shut (an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s novel Dream Story) is the tale of Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), an Upper West Side doctor who spirals into a surreal psychosexual odyssey after his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) confesses fantasizing about another man– an odyssey that eventually leads him to the aforementioned orgy. According to Frederic Raphael, the idea of the orgy being organized by a clandestine association of wealthy amoralists was his own purely fictional creation. Funny thing is, when he faxed the idea to Kubrick in the form of a classified FBI report, the director actually got a little paranoid himself:

FR: Get the material I faxed you?

SK: That’s the thing. Where’d you get this stuff?

FR: … Where do you think?

SK: This is classified material, how’d you get hold of it? I need you to tell me.

FR: You’re kidding.

SK: I don’t think so. Where’d you find this stuff? Did you hack into some FBI computer by chance, or what?

FR: Hack in? Are you crazy? I can’t hack into my own work without help. You asked me to give you some background on Ziegler and company. I gave it.

SK: Freddie, I need you to tell me totally honestly where you got this stuff. This is potentially…

FR: Stanley, totally, honestly, I got it where I get everything: out of my head.

SK: You’re telling me you made this up?

FR: But only because it’s true. You asked for it, I did it. I enjoyed it, as a matter of fact.

SK: It has no basis in fact?

FR: Stanley, I made it up, okay?

SK: How did you do that?

FR: Making things up is what I do for a living. It’s pretty well all I do. I write fiction. I make things up. I look at the world and… I make things up on the strength of what I see and hear, and guess. I do not mend fuses or water-ski or have a pension scheme. I made it up. It was fun; much more than fun…

SK: Okay as long as we’re not… on potentially dangerous ground here. It’s pretty convincing, you know that?

FR: Nice of you to say so. Think of it as an example of what I do when I’m free to play by myself. An apple for the teacher.

SK: And it didn’t come from anywhere that might be… you know… embarrassing?

FR: Look, it came out of my head, fully formed. How embarrassing is that? I made the whole damn thing up. It was not a big problem.

SK: How long did it take you?

FR: Maybe an hour, but I’m never going to tell you that.

from Frederic Raphael’s Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir Of Stanley Kubrick

Yet even though the whole Illuminati angle sprung from Raphael’s imagination (unless Frederic Raphael IS a member of the Illuminati spreading disinformation!), that doesn’t mean Eyes Wide Shut isn’t one of the most subversive films of 1999. There’s plenty of legitimate evidence that the film is thick with overtones echoing the oppression of the masses by sinister, ultra-powerful elites. Its messages are just a bit more subtle than those in SUBVERSIVE!!!! 1999 movies like Fight Club or The Matrix, a bit harder to notice amid all those sexy, naked women.

Then again, Kubrick’s depiction of sexy, naked women in Eyes Wide Shut is awfully subversive too. 1999 was a breakthrough year for unsimulated sex in non-pornographic films, thanks to Leos Carax’s Pola X and Catherine Breillat’s Romance.  It’s hard to tell for sure if those couples are truly copulating in Kubrick’s climactic orgy (even when they aren’t shielded behind digitally-inserted bystanders), but it’s still pretty hardcore stuff for a big-studio Cruise/Kidman summer multiplex vehicle. (Link EXTREMELY NSFW.)

The subversive use of sexy, naked women doesn’t stop there. While a lot of the sexy, naked women are here for erotica’s sake, Kubrick features others to provoke more complicated responses. We see sexy, naked women in settings that are clinical (receiving breast exams in a doctor’s office), macabre (a hooker unconscious after an overdose, and later dead at the morgue), and borderline incriminating (15 year-old Leelee Sobieski, though not technically naked, struts around scantily clad for all her screen time).

All of which serves to tease and intensify the Sick Desperation of Dr. Bill. Like many straight white males of 1999 movies (Fight Club‘s narrator, American Beauty‘s Lester Burnham, Being John Malkovich‘s Craig Schwartz), Dr. Bill’s Sick Desperation involves a struggle against feelings of jealousy, sexual frustration, and emasculation. The more he tries to transgress the sexual boundaries of his marriage as a means of avenging himself against Alice’s fantasy, the more he fails, the more he’s taunted by strange flesh he can never possess. And to add insult to blueballs, Dr. Bill doesn’t even get the cathartic release of a good Sick Desperate Laugh; he merely gets to hear the Sick Desperate Laughter of Alice as she dreams of cuckolding and humiliating her husband.

Dr. Bill finally achieves closure by learning some valuable secrets, but not the kind of secrets he thought he wanted, the kind that get naughty in Masonic Long Island mansions in the abysses of night. Because, despite all the occult symbology and class warfare that may or may not exist in this movie, it’s ultimately about marriage. It has to be about marriage. It’s right out there in the open. Kubrick’s simply making a film about marriage in a mythical way, where the mundane concerns of mere mortals get caught up in the epic, dizzying dream logic of the gods.

Once again, Frederic Raphael: “…like a man stirring in his sleep, S.K. almost faces the mundane American reality which says that a couple like [Bill and Alice] would ‘get a divorce.’ Yet he has become enough of a European for the marital myth to have leeched onto him. (We are probably the two most long-serving husbands in the movies.) He cannot quite see that the durable myth is pretty well autonomous, and its plot, however elasticated, largely determined: Oedipus and Jocasta will never be able to avert trouble by spending more quality time with the kids…”

The lesson, I suppose, being that love and marriage can survive much more easily when partners are honest and unashamed of their primal desires. Only when deceit and transgression come in to play is love seriously in peril. And even if the world is truly haunted by shadowy, amoral cabals, then you can always take solace in some good make-up sex.

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Punch & Judy

Punch & Judy

Before Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the last time I was this hopelessly addicted to a book was when I read Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan. (Or was it The Ruins? Whichever one of those I read second. Anyway, I found it totally apt that Smith wrote a big juicy blurb for Gone Girl‘s book-jacket.) Flynn’s story starts out like one of those true-crime Lifetime movies, until it gets flipped over and piledriven onto the arena floor. Then just when I thought the damage had been done, this crazy monster got back up and smacked me upside the face with a barbed-wire folding chair again and again and all the while I just kept thinking Keep comin’ at me you diabolical psycho.

There are some cliches here but at least they’re acknowledged. Besides, there are so many unavoidable cliches in the Missing Wife/ Suspected Husband Story (both fiction and non-) that it’s near-impossible to subvert them all in a single book. So of course there’s a very predictable extra-marital affair. Yet for the reasonable price of a few cliches, we don’t just get all that subversion. We’re also treated to pages and pages of vicious musings on marriage, male-female relations, criminal psychology, post-recession America, and the elastic hysteria of Public Opinion. Yes, there are some cliches in that stuff too, but honestly, can we ever have too much Nancy Grace-bashing?

I’m utterly amped for the movie. It might have to be like 80% voice-over, but if anyone can work wonders with wicked voice-over, it’s David “Fight Club” Fincher. Reese Witherspoon will only be producing, not starring, and thank goodness- not because she wouldn’t be perfect in the title role, but because she’d be so obviously perfect. I’m hoping for someone who hasn’t already played this kind of character. Sure, Jessica Chastain; fine, Amy Adams. But if I had the rights to Gone Girl I’d wait about five more years and then cast Alison Brie. (Granted, I kind of wish Alison Brie was in everything.)

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I was instructed long ago by a wise editor, “If you understand something you can explain it so that almost anyone can understand it. If you don’t, you won’t be able to understand your own explanation.” That is why 90% of academic film theory is bullshit. Jargon is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Yes. But if a work seems baffling yet remains intriguing, there may be a simple key to its mysteries.

Roger Ebert, “O, Synecdoche, my Synecdoche!” (November 10, 2008)

When I started really thinking about the movies I watched, Ebert was the one reviewer I read religiously. And when I started to write about movies (and music, books, TV shows, et cetera), Ebert’s was the style I tried to emulate most. His opinions sometimes baffled me but he didn’t write like a pompous twat and he didn’t write like a snot-rocket philistine. He could poetically, profoundly explain why The Tree Of Life isn’t pretentious nonsense  and why The Rock is a transcendent blast.

In 1999 I emailed him a paragraph on how the flashing images of Tyler Durden early on in Fight Club occurred at key moments during the narrator’s subliminal creation of his alter ego. Ebert kindly emailed me back: “I think you’re right. Best, RE.” I didn’t shut up about that for weeks.

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(Part 10 Of An Ongoing Series)

Some magic’s real.

Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment)

Two of movie history’s most renowned twists came from 1999: Fight Clubs Tyler Durden was actually an alter ego, and The Sixth Sense‘s Malcolm Crowe was actually a ghost.  In other words, these two major characters were never “really there.”  Maybe there’s something very 1999 about that.  Maybe deep down, a lot of us ’99ers wondered how much of ourselves were ever “really there,” and these movies lifted those anxieties to the surface for further examination.

Yet even though the twist is the first thing we tend to think about when we think about The Sixth Sense, there’s so much more we ought to think about.  Like how it made us associate the name “M. Night Shyamalan” with names like “Spielberg,” “Hitchcock,” and “Kubrick,” unlike his more recent movies, which evoke terms like “preposterous,” “self-indulgent,” and “megalomaniac.”

Considering how angry Shyamalan’s post-Unbreakable movies have made me, I went into my latest viewing of The Sixth Sense (my third overall, and first since ’99) assuming I’d be far less enthralled this time around.  I assumed wrong, though.  The Sixth Sense is practically perfect, maybe even better than I remember it, even though I couldn’t stop thinking about how Bruce Willis was already dead.

Shayamalan’s crappier cinematic tricks, like the so-called twist in The Village, are a lot like the so-called magic trick Dr. Crowe performs for Cole.  But The Sixth Sense‘s sleight-of-hand is so Ricky Jay slick, I still can’t help but admire it.  We really should’ve known better- a movie like this begs for at least one scene between Dr. Crowe and Cole’s mom, but Shyamalan merely makes us think we’ve seen that scene by cutting to what appears to be the end of it.

Aside from being slicker than I remember, The Sixth Sense is also scarier, sweeter, and funnier than I remember.  It often shifts between these tones gradually from scene to scene, but at times they all smash together exquisitely, like the scene in the kitchen where the audience’s gasps collide with laughter, and are quickly broadsided by swells of tender sympathy.

For all the talk about the movie’s twist ending, there’s another aspect of the ending that feels overlooked these days: The Sixth Sense has one of the happiest endings I’ve ever seen in a scary movie.  Everyone, alive or dead, is getting some much-needed closure, all of us learning to make friends with the horrors.  And instead of feeling like some Disney-mandated cop-out, it feels refreshingly cathartic and puckishly subversive.

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(Part 6 of an ongoing series)

…I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey)

American Beauty is a movie that asks us to “look closer,” and yet, so much is right there on the surface, painted in bold red.  This isn’t in itself a problem- after all, 1999 wasn’t exactly a subtle year.  The biggest problem is that there’s two clashing kinds of bluntness fighting for our attention, each one constantly threatening to undermine the other.

On one side of the picket fence, American Beauty flashes us with its bald emotional honesty.  Sometimes that honesty is powerful, like when Ricky (Wes Bentley) says a tender goodbye to his near-catatonic mother (Allison Janney), or when Lester (Kevin Spacey) and Angela (Mena Suvari) bond after almost having sex.  Other times, the honesty is banal.  Where, say, Edward Norton’s voice-over in Fight Club offers wicked, subversive commentary, Lester’s narration pretty much exists to underline obvious subtext: “Of course, in a way, I was dead already,” or, “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for about 20 years and I’m just now waking up.”

And quite often, the honesty is just plain schmaltzy.  Part of me wants to be moved by the windblown plastic bag, and I do think it’s a poetic metaphor.  But I can hardly stand to watch Wes Bentley’s monologue spelling out why the plastic bag is such a poetic metaphor that makes his heart hurt.  Even Forrest Gump had the decency to simply let the feather be the feather.

I’d be inclined to cut the sentimentality more slack if it weren’t constantly undermined by the other bluntness, the kind that keeps trying to pole-vault American Beauty into campier territory.  Character traits are too-frequently highlighted through words rather than illustrated through actions.  Chris Cooper’s Colonel Fitts is a strict homophobe who HATES FUCKING FAGGOTS.  Angela’s a vain sexpot who LOVES MAKING MEN WANT TO FUCK HER.  Of course, the third act shows that Col. Fitts might actually be a severely-repressed homosexual, and that Angela is actually an insecure virgin, but these revelations shouldn’t have been treated like big twists.  They’re such obvious choices, they’d have been better off revealed in the first act and explored with more complexity throughout the story.  That is, if American Beauty really wanted to “look closer.”

Then there’s Annette Bening’s Carolyn Burnham, who tends to tap-dance toward farce while everyone else in the cast keeps it more or less real.

I feel like I could’ve loved American Beauty if it either added a few more shades of gray, or went all the way over the top into full-farce (which would’ve made the more contrived elements in that rain-soaked third act easier to swallow).  As it is, I can’t take it as seriously as it wants to be taken.

That said, I can never stay too mad at American Beauty, since it’s often very funny on purpose.  I still quote “I rule!” and “You wanna have like 10 thousand of his babies!” at least several times a year.

But most importantly, I still often think about Lester Burnham’s beautiful Mona Lisa grin as he lies dead in a pool of his own blood.  Like, Smile!  You never know when a psycho’s gonna sneak up behind you and blow your brains out!  That image is so very 1999 that I can’t imagine 1999 without it.

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(Part 5 of an ongoing series)

You don’t think about getting old when you’re young.  You shouldn’t.

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth)

If you knew nothing about The Straight Story except that it was a 1999 movie directed by David Lynch, of course you’d assume it was the 1999-iest, David-Lynch-iest movie ever.  But spoiler alert, you’d assume wrong.

As we’ve already mentioned in Sick Desperation, and will mention at least several times more, most 1999 protagonists were 18-49 year-old white males in existential crises.  Now, there’s nothing inherently absurd about 18-49 year-old white males in existential crises; while white male privilege clearly has its benefits, it’s certainly no antidote for the angst, ennui, and the absurdity of life. But while 1999 movies like Fight Club were all about us bitching how we didn’t have any wars to fight, and our lives were glossy IKEA catalogs, The Straight Story is about this kind-hearted 70-something dude who did see some shit, and his life’s a 1952 John Deere catalog, and the whole time he’s telling mortality to suck his shriveled old sack.

And at first, when you see it’s directed by David Lynch, you start feeling uneasy.  There’s the good-old Americana with the slightly-eerie Angelo Badalamenti score, and you’re just waiting for the horrific surrealism to kick in.  But nothing really horrific ever happens, and on a scale of 1-10, the surrealism barely hits 2.5.  In a way, The Straight Story is only David Lynch-ian if you’re already familiar with David Lynch and know little else about the movie itself.  In that case, it’s unsettling and, ultimately, a big fat subversive mindfuck.

Which, on second thought, might make The Straight Story the David-Lynchiest, 1999-iest movie ever.

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(Part 3 of an ongoing series)

…it’s not that I’m lazy.  It’s that I just don’t care.

Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston)

If I wasn’t so convinced by the idea that we’re essentially helpless against the eternal, spirit-crushing march of industry, I’d shudder to think of how unimpressed- if not outright embarrassed- that 1999 would be by 2012.  Surely the future will see its share of dingbat preachers predicting apocalypses that won’t come, but 2012 is basically the last “official” apocalyptic year.  And while most people think of the apocalypse as the end of the world, the word “apocalypse,” as Alan Moore demonstrated in his millennial comic Promethea, actually comes from the Greek for “revelation.”  As our previous apocalyptic year, 1999 gave us a cornucopia of revelations for us to learn from, but so far 2012 hasn’t really applied those lessons very well.

The idea of corporate America as a heartless, soul-sucking behemoth wasn’t exactly novel in 1999, but the movies of 1999 did their best to bludgeon us in the face with more warnings and helpful tips.  When doing battle against The Man, 1999 protagonists often started by retreating into adolescent rebellion.  But where American Beauty, Fight Club, and The Matrix advanced into bleaker, more dramatic theaters of war, Office Space channeled its cubicle-fury into lighter, wackier, more optimistic wish-fulfillment.

There’s truth, for instance, in Mike Judge’s barb that those who are invited to climb the office ladder are often the least deserving.  Yet we need a powerful suspension of disbelief to buy that Ron Livingston’s Peter would get promoted after weeks of aggressive, devil-may-care slacking.  Try doing that at a job you hate in the real world and watch how quickly the axe falls.

Still, there’s a good lesson there: one of the first steps toward enlightenment is to stop giving fucks you shouldn’t be giving, while still giving the necessary fucks.  As they say in Richard Linklater’s Slacker– a 1991 film that’s one of 1999’s cool older brothers- “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy.”  In Office Space, Peter’s biggest mistake is that his withdrawal goes so far he becomes petty and criminal.  And though he eventually sees the error of his ways, he only gets off the hook because he’s lucky enough to have Milton torch all evidence of his misdeeds.

Milton’s deus ex machina may not be terribly satisfying in a narrative sense, but if Office Space is a fable, the resolution feels like a good moral.  As in, the cognitively-dissonant upper-management Lumberghs kept swiping our staplers and telling us yeah, I’m going to need you to go ahead and come to work on Saturday, and we the Peters didn’t do nearly enough to subvert the system. So inevitably, the Miltons will just burn the Initechs to the ground.  (Not saying I condone arson, necessarily, but seriously, the Lumberghs are totally begging for it.)  And in the end, maybe the best we can do is shovel up the rubble and construct another office building.

But hey, we’ve still got a whole quarter left in the year, and that whole Mayan calendar mythology says our apocalypse/revelation isn’t due til late December.  Maybe there’s still time for us to make 1999 proud.

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Part 2 Of An Ongoing Series

There is truth, and there are lies. And art always tells the truth. Even when it’s lying.

John Malkovich as John Cusack as Craig Schwartz as John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich

John Cusack’s Craig Schwartz has plenty of sick desperation in his laugh during the first act of Being John Malkovich.  We hear it when he flirts with Catherine Keener’s Maxine, the out-of-his-league co-worker he wants to have an affair with.  She’ll rip his pathetic ass down like it’s her favorite hobby, and he’ll often respond with that sick, desperate, 1999 laughter.

It’s not just because Craig’s intimidated by Maxine.  It’s also because Craig’s a lot like so many other notable 1999 protagonists: dispirited, frustrated, adrift, unfulfilled.  (See also Fight Club, American Beauty, Office Space, The Matrix, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Election, the ensemble of Magnolia.)  Like his own puppet, he’s stuck in a “Dance of Despair and Disillusionment.”

Funny thing is, Craig’s the protagonist in the most humorous of all those other movies- maybe the most hilarious 1999 movie that isn’t South Park– and yet he suffers the most tragic fate.  And that sums up why, if I were forced to choose the best 1999 movie, Being John Malkovich would barely edge out Three Kings and Fight Club.  Being John Malkovich is so great it baffled me with its greatness the first time I saw it, and its greatness still baffles me to this day.

It’s the type of movie you’d think would spawn a decade’s worth of imitators, like Pulp Fiction or There’s Something About Mary.  Only it didn’t, really.  Its fine balance of surrealism and poignancy is so perfect, it’s like the world’s filmmakers simply stood back in awe of Being John Malkovich and were like, “We’re just gonna let Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze handle this shit from now on.”

If the movie has spearheaded one trend of the past few years, it’s the one where actors play comically unflattering caricatures of themselves.  (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kirstie Alley, Matt LeBlanc, James Van Der Beek, half the people who’ve appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm.)  Of course, none of those actors went nearly as far down the rabbit hole as John Horatio Malkovich.

Then again, maybe other filmmakers will eventually get around to imitating the rest of Malkovich once they’ve finally finished processing it.  There’s a galaxy of ideas in this movie, all zipping by at madcap speed, and a lot of those ideas really started to mushroom in the new millennium.  It’s not merely about “celebrity,” it’s about the desire to attain celebrity, the emptiness of celebrity, the misguided sense of entitlement we often feel we have over celebrities.  It’s not merely about the quest for immortality, it’s about how the quest for immortality is not necessarily a bad thing- although it can definitely be a very bad thing.  It’s not just about the search for identity, it’s about fucking identity until identity forgets what gender it used to be.

Most of all, though, Being John Malkovich is about Craig Schwartz, and how not to end up like him. That means doing your damnedest never to drive yourself crazy from unrequited love.  It’s very bad for the skin.

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