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Posts Tagged ‘Roger Ebert’

(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 27 of an Ongoing Series)

Holy Smoke9

The mind’s a damn mystery. Why do people believe in God? Why do people believe they’re in love? Why do I tell myself every day, ‘You’re fat, mate. Today I’m not gonna eat cake, butter, or bread.’ And by lunch time, I’ve done the lot?

Stan (Sandy Gutman)

Holy Smoke! jumps off from a millennial anxiety over the dark powers of late 20th Century cults (Manson, Jones, Koresh, Applewhite), but it ends up swimming in a trippy, sweaty stew of twisted, erotic, psycho-sexual mind games before coming up for air on a surprisingly tender shore of platonic love.

When the movie was released, some critics wrote of its “feminist” qualities (The AV Club mentioned Jane Campion’s “torrid feminism;” Ebert called the film a “feminist parable”). And while I totally see Holy Smoke! as a torrid parable, I call bullshit on it being all that feminist. This has little to do with my personal feelings on the word “feminism,” and how I think it’s a lousy word for a movement that claims to seek gender equality (though I won’t get into that here, lest any Jezebel feminists come at me armed with inane Seussian analogies). No, this has more to do with Campion’s own views, like, “I don’t belong to any clubs, and I dislike club mentality of any kind, even feminism—although I do relate to the purpose and point of feminism.” And also because the whole point of Holy Smoke! seems to be that both the man (Harvey Keitel’s PJ) and the woman (Kate Winslet’s Ruth) are equally transformed by each other, each one stripped of some of their gender’s stereotypical flaws.

I can’t say I entirely buy these transformations, at least based on how these characters are initially developed. But hey, it’s a parable, and insanely seductive in that 1999 way, so I’ll cut it some slack if its characters don’t exactly follow the most believable arcs. And besides, if I was stuck with Ruth for three days in the Australian Outback, I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t wind up sprawled on the ground in a nice red dress, lipstick smeared across my mouth, crazy from the heat, reveling in an epiphanic hallucination of a Hindu goddess. I mean, there but for the grace of Lakshmi go I…

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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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