“We’re men. Men is what we are.”
– Jack to Bob in Fight Club
“Tell everyone waitin’ for a superman that they should try to hold on as best they can/He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them or anything… it’s just too heavy for a superman to lift.”
– The Flaming Lips, fromThe Soft Bulletin
The only way I could save myself was to capitulate – to cave in to their demands: o.k., I said, Fight Club is a devastating critique of American materialist, consumer culture. As soon as I said it I regretted the lie, and they sensed my regret, and so I had to leave the party.
That was yesterday. Today I’m alone, in the cool comfort of my basement, and in the low black sky outside the window a hail storm beckons. No one can touch me now so I’ll say what I couldn’t say last night: that Fight Club is actually a nostalgia film. And so are American Psycho, American Beauty, and Being John Malkovitch. They look postmodern, sound postmodern. But they don’t bark postmodern, because they’ve got nothing to bark at. All worked up with nowhere to go except deep inside the Brain, these movies direct their furies at nothing less than the fact of their very own obsolescence in a culture where nothing really means anything, after all.
Why? Because there’s nothing left to fight against, and these films are the first wave to articulate this great and terrible lack. The visible horrors of the twentieth century – to which postmodernism was a response – have become the Visible Horrors of the Twentieth Century, memorialized through the stable filters of Encarta, The History Channel, postage stamps. The great betrayals of the past sixty years – the Holocaust, Atom Bomb, assassinations, Jim Crow, Vietnam, Watergate – have slipped into the distance of form, into myth where, according to Roland Barthes, “presence is tamed, put at a distance, made almost transparent.” As pop mythology (who, today, doesn’t know that history is a mere narrative?) history has no fangs, except where it intrudes on occasion in Rwanda, Bosnia, or Seattle. Fangless and danger-free, history no longer demands the fierce, ironic, deconstructing response that was postmodernism: it no longer needs Pynchon, Acker, Liechtenstein, Godard. The demons of the past – the Hitlers, the Nixons – exist as ghosts already hollowed out by parody and irony.
In Fight Club,</ i> this loss of history is figured as the obsolescence of the American male. “We are the middle children of history,” says Tyler, “with no purpose or place. We have no great war, no great depression.” The movie’s rebellion doesn’t seek so much to tear down the System, but rather to lash out at its absence, to re-create the Lost Father, to make Law in the Void, to reassert Order over Randomness: in short, to create rules (“the first rule of fight club …”). When history as simulacrum denies you real blood (“everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy,” says Jack) you invent your own rituals and myths in parking lots and warehouse basements. The message is simple: men – and their history – are obsolete. The great irony is that while Fight Club is praised – rightfully so – for its postmodern look and narrative inventiveness and for its devastating critique of consumer culture, its message is really one of Restoration, of Nietzschean longing for the Old Days, when women were invisible and the artificial social structures that protected the weak were but a quaint, utopian dream. Oh I know, I know, the movie contorts itself to assure us that the fights don’t participate in the logic of competitive, consumer capitalism. “Fight club wasn’t about winning or losing,” Jack says, though the entire logic of the film works against that hollow apology. Listening to people defend Fight Club as radical critique is like sitting through an earnest diatribe about how “new punk” sold out “old punk” when it went mainstream. Both arguments partake of nostalgia, a hardening of the arteries, a rigidity, a senility, a reverence for Old Forms that’s finally reactionary.
If nostalgia is the enemy of new social formations, then American Beauty has nothing on its mind except the good old days. Like Fight Club, it’s a narrative shell game whose postmodern sleights-of-hand do not, finally, work in the service of opposition but rather retreat. Watching it again you see how nostalgic it really is and how that nostalgia is hard to see at first through the film’s glorious critique of bourgeois and corporate culture. “That’s my wife Carolyn,” says Lester. “See the way the handles on those pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That’s not an accident.” It’s hard not to work up a kind of soft-hearted rage against Martha Stewart, or against corporate culture when Lester tells Brad that “for fourteen years I’ve been a whore for the advertising industry. The only way I could save myself now is if I start firebombing.” Sure Lester’s rebellion against his obsolescence as a Husband, Father, Worker, is a form of critique, but it’s one driven by a return to Old Forms and Orders. “It was great,” he tells Ricky about his misspent youth. “All I did was party and get laid. I had my whole life ahead of me,” before the scene cuts away to him lifting weights and smoking pot in the garage to the sound of 70s music (and it ain’t punk, either). So, we’re left with reminiscence as the new critique.
“We live in such a manufactured culture,” American Beauty writer Alan Ball has said, “one that thrives on simplifying and packaging experience quickly so it can be sold.” Twenty years ago, this would have sounded like weepy self-loathing, the complaints of someone who’s had it Too Good for Too Long. But today it sounds like sharp-edged social criticism, Frankfurt School for the masses. This is the dilemma of our place and time, one that the New American Film is exploring in a language that is both old and new, safe and risky, progressive and nostalgic. Bewildered by the rapid changes that have made them obsolete, Lester, Tyler, and Jack have a lot of work to do to restore the Old Order, even as the films position audiences to see these characters as heroic enemies of that Order. These films use the forms of postmodernism and the language of cultural critique (in The Matrix, remember, Neo hides his disks and money in a hollowed-out book entitled Simulacra and Simulation) in the service of Restoration narratives. Perhaps that was what postmodernism was always about, after all, a secret, under-the-table hand holding with the old categories, narratives, myths; a kind of irony that needed to retain its foil.
“We’re men. Men is what we are.” Those sound suspiciously like marching orders.
Lock your doors. Grab your gun. The Restoration has begun.