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
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
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
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
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.