American Beauty and Fight Club: Consumerist Rebellion

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) enjoys all the outward trappings of middle-class success in the aptly but ironically titled film "American Beauty": a beautiful wife named Carolyn (Annette Bening) with her own real-estate business and a teenage daughter with no obvious flaws. But his life is joyless. His sole pleasure seems to be masturbating in the shower each morning, an act that he keeps secret from his wife with whom he no longer has sexual relations.

Their life is filled with empty rituals. They sit in a well-appointed dining room each evening trading insults over their meal, while the strains of schmaltzy arrangements of Rogers and Hammerstein show tunes are heard on the stereo in utter contrast to the acrimony at the table. Sexual tension would explain most of the bickering between husband and wife. Their daughter Jane (Thora Burch) has no use for either of them as well, but holds her father in greater contempt for his remoteness. When he makes clumsy attempts to bond with her, she recoils in disgust.

A series of events will soon destroy any illusions that they had in normal family life. Lester has a meeting with a personnel manager whose task it is to figure out what people are contributing to the media corporation that employs them. Everybody, including Lester, is supposed to turn in a one page summary of what their job responsibilities consist of--presumably those whose summaries seem superfluous to the operation of the corporation will become superfluous themselves. A spark of rebellion prompts Lester to tell the manager that this is just a thinly disguised downsizing plot. This initial meeting leads to mounting confrontations with the corporate world that sustains him and his empty lifestyle.

Later that week the Burnhams go to see their daughter perform in an absurdly choreographed cheerleader dance number during half-time at a high-school basketball game. He fixates on Angela (Mena Suvari), the sexually precocious best friend of his daughter, who picks up on his interest later that evening in the parking lot of the high school. From that point on she finds excuses to drop by the Burnham household where she knows that Lester will leer at her. Their sexual flirtations disgust his daughter.

His wife is oblivious to all this. Her only interest in life is selling real estate. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, she is depicted feverishly cleaning a house early in the morning to make it attractive to prospective buyers. Her entire day is then spent with customers telling her that the house is unattractive. At the end of the day, with the house unsold, she collapses in tears. Selling houses is the only pleasure she gets out of life, an act analogous to her husband's masturbation.

Into their tortured lives enters a young man, who offers Lester liberation from boredom and oppression. Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) is a compulsive video photographer whom daughter Carolyn regards as a voyeur after catching him in the act of filming her late one night. Her father sees another side of Ricky. His other avocation besides video is smoking and selling high-powered marijuana out of the bedroom of his house. Lester soon becomes one of his best customers. Smoking marijuana combines with the realization that the corporate world does not matter to him anymore. What really matters is wooing his daughter's libidinous classmate and living the lifestyle he enjoyed as a 21 year old. He begins listening to Jimi Hendrix in his garage as he pumps iron after Angela has told him that he needs to work out a little. When he is not lifting weights, he is smoking expensive pot.

"American Beauty" is best at describing the futility of American middle-class life. It is understandably weak in presenting a believable alternative, since there is none within the confines of the capitalist system. Poor Earl and Carolyn are driven to find salvation within the system--her on the system's own terms and he within an "alternative" lifestyle that owes more to a Levi's commercial than anything else. Screenwriter Alan Ball's rebels are a middle-aged man who lapses into late adolescence and an adolescent drug dealer who operates within the fringes of consumerist society. What is marijuana, after all, than the ultimate commodity. When he is showing Lester his wares, he makes a sales pitch for genetically modified weed that uses top secret government biotechnology and sells for $2000 an ounce.

"The Fight Club" is ordinarily the kind of film I would stay away from. The only reason I went is that it thematically related to "American Beauty" and would serve as a useful counterpoint in preparing this review. It seemed over-hyped and, even worse, starred the odious Brad Pitt. Although I found the film nearly unwatchable, it certainly did satisfy in terms of documenting the current scene in the United States through the peculiar perspective of the young director David Fincher and the screenplay based on the novel of Chuck Palahniuk.

The central character in this film, who remains nameless and who is played by Edward Norton, is very much like Lester Burnham. He is trapped in the corporate world and finds himself increasingly dissatisfied with the fruits it is supposed to deliver. He works for an automobile company as a risk assessor. His job is to prepare technical reports on accidents involving his company's products. If it cost more money to fix a car rather than pay off successful claimants in suits against the company, the company opts for not making the necessary changes to make the car safe.

Norton's character leads an unfulfilled and aimless life. Rather than masturbating as an outlet, he buys furniture from Ikea. His entire apartment is covered with tables, chairs, lamps and sofas ordered from their catalog, which also appears to be his only reading material. He also suffers from insomnia for which the only cure seems to come in the form of going to self-help groups for terminal diseases like testicular cancer or tuberculosis. The emotional confessions of the participants gives him a vicarious sense of being alive, which then allows him to sleep soundly. While he enjoys good health, he is closer to death than the people he communes with on a nightly basis. They face physical mortality at any moment. He faces spiritual mortality every moment of his waking life.

On an airplane ride to visit an accident site on behalf of his company, he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) who is everything he is not. Brash, self-confident and dressed like a pimp, Durden describes himself as a soap salesman but he gives every indication of leading a darker existence. The Norton character finds himself drawn to Durden.

When he arrives back at his apartment building, he discovers police cars and fire trucks on the scene as flames pour from the windows of his apartment. His precious Ikea furniture and all his belongings have been destroyed in a mysterious explosion, possibly the result of a pilot light having failed on his stove.

Since Durden gave him his business card on the plane, he decides to call him up. In the back of his mind, he considers staying with him until finding a more permanent residence. The two men meet for drinks at a seedy bar and continue the conversation they had on the plane. Basically, Durden puts forth a critique of consumerist society that is absolute to the point of being monomaniacal. There is nothing more evil in this world view than shopping and status-seeking.

After they have had several pitchers of beer, they leave the bar and continue talking in the parking lot. Out of the blue, Durden asks the Norton character to punch him. There is no particular reason for this, but he accommodates him. Whereupon Durden punches him back and the two men trade blows until they fall to the ground bloody and exhausted. Meanwhile, a group of men from the bar stand in a circle around them both entertained and bemused. Why are the two men, who appear to be friends, pounding each other into senselessness? Eventually other men follow in their path and a fight club becomes a regularly scheduled event in the basement of the bar.

While the film does not really take the trouble to explore through dialog the appeal such pointless violence has for these men, it obvious that we are dealing with violence as a form of existential authenticity. Men--and it is men we are talking about--feel trapped in a meaningless existence. To transcend the emptiness of such existence, the only release seems to be the feel of a punch in the nose and the sight of blood pouring from it, either your own or your opponent's. In many ways, this message is simply a recycling of the theme of Camus' "The Stranger", whose existentially unrealized French Algerian character discovers authenticity through the murder of an Arab on the beach, whom he has never met. It also evokes "Clockwork Orange," whose teenaged rebels inflict random violence on peaceful citizens in order to protest the social control of a well-engineered and well-controlled society of the future. "The Fight Club" would seem to be saying that such a world exists today.

Eventually fight clubs spring up around the United States and begin to mutate into nihilistic bands of black clad militia types with shaved heads, who attack symbols of consumer society. In a very telling scene, evocative of recent events in Seattle, they send an immense globular corporate sculpture crashing into a Starbucks coffee bar. The revolution of fight club activists is designed to destroy modern society, not transform it into a positive alternative. This is not far removed from the vision of the Unabomber and the intellectuals like Kirkpatrick Sale and John Zerzan who provide spin-doctoring services for him.

Where "The Fight Club" fails as both cinema and as effective social commentary is in its total lack of engagement with the ideas that might propel these men into such an extreme posture. While one would not expect a film to include the sort of psychological and political analysis of Dostoyevsky's "The Possessed", its total absence leaves the viewer with an inability to understand their motivations. It is simply not sufficient to state that all of a sudden men find themselves willing to be beaten into senselessness as an escape. Anybody who has been beaten up, and I speak from personal experience, does not go through such an experience as a lark. In contrast "Clockwork Orange" is filled with characters explaining why they commit random acts of terror. Their words, drawn from Anthony Burgess's capable prose, are indeed what makes the film successful.

Both films are worth seeing--whatever their flaws--as a snapshot of American society at a peculiar juncture in its unfolding as an empire. In the final years of the second term of the Clinton administration, which by some standards has produced more material success than has been enjoyed in many years, Hollywood is turning out films that curse the system that produced it.