The Real Man Show

By Adam Blair

Warning: The following article contains plot "spoilers" for the movies Fight Club and Three Kings.

It may still be a man's world, but that doesn't make it easy to be a man.

This thought occurred to me after a DVD double feature, courtesy of Netflix. For those unfamiliar with the service: for a monthly fee you can pick DVDs online and have them mailed to your home. You get a maximum of three at a time, and you keep them as long as you like. When you mail them back in the neat little postage-paid envelope, the next DVD in your "rental queue" arrives in the mail a few days later.

With Netflix, you trade away the immediate gratification (admittedly rare) of serendipitously finding something interesting at the local Blockbuster for the security of always having a couple of DVDs either in the house or on the way. It's a grown-up way of renting DVDs: you have to plan ahead and be patient, but it's generally worth the wait.

The downside is that Netflix makes you lazy. With no overdue rental fees looming, you can go weeks without watching the DVDs, patiently waiting in their red envelopes to be popped into the machine. When a long, rainy weekend does provide the missing motivation, the juxtapositions of the personal tastes of your household's members can create a thematically coherent or dramatically discordant double feature.

It was a little bit of both when, over a long weekend, I finally watched Fight Club in the afternoon and Three Kings in the evening. The unexpected concordance is what both films have to say about being a man in today's society. This is fairly explicitly the subject of Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk (which I admit I haven't read). The film is either a gaudily violent fantasy, a gory slice of underground reality, a homoerotically charged world nearly bereft of women, or a terrorism handbook, a.k.a. Raising an Army for Dummies. It may be all of these. Director David Fincher, bless his sick little heart, his creepy production design and his fast-moving camera, keeps things rocketing forward so efficiently that it's difficult to know what's real, what's "really" real, and what's a psychotic, insomnia-induced fantasy (his or the characters', it's difficult to decide).

For those who haven't seen the film, Edward Norton is searching for meaning in his empty, consumerist, single-serving life. The single-serving thing is because he flies a lot for his job, and everything on a plane is single-serving - liquor, sugar, milk, friendships. His first try at human connection comes when he begins haunting addiction, recovery and support groups for a hilariously horrific group of illnesses he doesn't happen to have.

This seems to be working out until Helena Bonham Carter's character, the chain-smoking, wise-cracking petty thief/Goth princess Marla, begins shadowing him. She first shows up at "his" testicular cancer support group, and it gives you some idea of the alternate reality Fight Club creates that no one seems to notice there's a woman in what should be by definition a male-only enclave. The group's members are probably confused because there's a lot of gender-bending happening already. Meatloaf (remember Meatloaf? Remember the biker with the gash in his forehead from The Rocky Horror Picture Show?) is a member of the group, and his hormone therapy has caused him to grow really enormous man-breasts. I mean really huge melons, lying low on his torso. It would be sickening if it weren't so funny, which is right in key with how a lot of Fight Club plays.

Eventually Edward Norton runs into Brad Pitt, the ultimate in mysterious-stranger-dom, with whom he starts the Fight Club of the title. This consists of shirtless men beating each other up for the animal thrill, the resounding slap of fist on flesh, the spurt of blood and authentic pain that is missing from safe, suburbanized, homogenized, IKEA-ized modern life. Eventually the Fight Club metastasizes from a nihilistic rejection of capitalist society into a coordinated attack on its very roots.

There's a lot going on in this film, not all of it clear or clearly thought out. It's undeniably a powerful piece of filmmaking, in all senses. And it's not really Fight Club's fault that its depiction of home-grown terrorism (complete with bombing high-rise buildings as a finale) has gone over the edge from black humor to bleak horror since it came out in 1999.

Among the things that struck me was how marginal, or downright invisible, women are in Fight Club's schema. Early on, there's a dying woman in one of the support groups, who uses her time at the microphone to lament that because of the advanced stage of her cancer she'll never have sex again - and then begging for someone, anyone to remedy that situation before she dies. Laugh? Cry? Both?

Mothers and sisters - really any nurturing or effective female - are neither seen nor mentioned. Norton and Pitt do talk briefly about their fathers, and how they reject their male parents' expectations without having anything substantive to put in their place. Norton and Pitt do have each other, except that it turns out they really are each other. Pitt is "really" Norton's id (he has a name - Tyler Durden - while Norton remains name-free, much like the wimpy narrator of Rebecca played by Joan Fontaine. It's a sure sign that writers and filmmakers want to deny you a separate identity when they don't even give you a name.)

There is Marla, but she acts suspiciously like a stereotype of a gay man rather than an authentic woman (you begin to think it's not so weird that she attends the testicular cancer support group). She's wisecracking even following a suicide attempt, and then exists mostly as a fuck-buddy for Pitt's character, uttering post-coital phrases like "I haven't been fucked that good since grade school." By the time she comes around to the Edward Norton side of him, which seems marginally less insane than the Pitt side, it's too late to save him, or them.

So what is Fight Club saying about a man's options in today's world? You can be a passive, nameless, corporate drone, identifiable only by the furniture you carefully select from catalogs (Norton before he meets Pitt). You can be an anarchic free spirit who inserts single frames of hard-core pornography into G-rated films, giving a subliminal shock to Mommy and Daddy and their little snot-nosed brats (Pitt as movie projectionist, one of his many jobs/roles). You can be a soldier in Norton and Pitt's army, stripped of your name and identity to make you a more effective cog in their destructive machine. If you show emotion, like Meatloaf's character, you die. If you betray the movement, you get your balls cut off. Literally. Perhaps it's an advance on the 20th century's take on Freudianism that Fight Club's castration anxiety comes from other men rather than from devouring, smothering mothers. Then again, maybe not.

I realize Fight Club is an extreme statement, but it does resonate. We're suffering from a serious machismo deficit in this country. George W. invaded a whole freakin' other country (to avenge his daddy? Or finish what daddy couldn't?) and he still had to land on an aircraft carrier in a package-enhancing flight suit to seem manly. Can you say overcompensate? What's next? Bare-knuckle fistfights with Howard Dean instead of debates?

I'd say a lot of us are suffering from a serious masculinity deficit as well - and I mean the good kind of masculinity. Men have traditionally been defined by their ability to succeed in the world, to bring home the wooly mammoth and protect their family. As work gets further and further away from actual physical labor for a good portion of the population, and as women's earning power rises in relation to men's (maybe everybody's is just falling down to a lower level), the old parameters of success are shifting and crumbling. No wonder men are tempted by the extremes seen in Fight Club.

The military has traditionally been a place where boys became men, where their animal instincts were tested, trained and focused at an enemy. David O. Russell's excellent film Three Kings is both an inversion and a celebration of "traditional" war movies (if there is such a thing any more in the post-Platoon world).

George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze (yes, the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation - he's a pretty good actor too) are Gulf War I soldiers languishing in the excitement vacuum after that war's combat is over. They decide to steal back the gold that the Iraqis had stolen from the Kuwaitis. Almost inadvertently and certainly reluctantly, they back into doing something approaching the right thing.

It's funny, fast, exciting and surprising in any number of ways, not least of which is the honest sentimentality of Clooney's character, who seems at first like a 1990s version of Sgt. Bilko and who metamorphoses into something better: a smart operator who cares both about his own people and the anti-Saddam Iraqis they encounter. There's no question that Clooney will do his utmost to save Wahlberg's character when the latter is captured, and for once in a war movie that seems less like a plot conceit and more like a character-defining stance. Real men don't abandon their brothers, even when there's gold in them thar' sand hills.

Politically the film is a rebuke of the first Bush administration's half-hearted encouragement of the Iraqis and the Kurds to rise up against Saddam, followed by our high-tailing it the hell out of there. Isn't it wonderful that we live in a country with the attention span of a Ritalin-deprived nine-year-old?

In the context of masculinity, Three Kings offers a more hopeful set of archetypes than Fight Club. For one thing, even though war is man's work, women are crucial to the plot. Clooney & Co. are only able to help the Iraqis because television journalist Nora Dunn (wigged and made up to look like CNN's Christiane Amanpour) is broadcasting their exploits, allowing them to shame their U.S. Army superiors into actually helping people instead of just following orders. It's an acknowledgement that there is a society "back home" that might be made to care - if the packaging is compelling enough - and that a woman, even one who has been the butt of jokes through most of the movie, is the vehicle needed to connect with that society.

So there can be masculinity, and men, who can care for others - including other men. And as in so many other areas, homosexuals are leading the way. I'm convinced one of the key reasons for the astounding success of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," the Bravo television show that features five fabulous homos making over a clueless, clunky straight guy, is that it's about more than hair, clothes, décor and food. The fags of the Fab 5 really care about their straight guy, not just as a "project" but as a person. They cheer him on, even amid their snarkiest comments. There aren't enough demonstrations of guys being cared for in a thoughtful, playful way by other men. I know there are real-life fathers, brothers and friends who do this every day, but in movies and TV it's still male-on-male aggression, not affection, that usually fills the screen. "Queer Eye" and Three Kings are both a nice change from all that bull. Apparently testosterone comes in several different flavors.

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