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Films and existential angst

Ladies and gentlemen… 21st Century Philosophy Now is proud to present the first showing in a new series of philosophical film articles by Thomas Wartenberg. In this installment he looks at American Beauty, Fight Club and Being John Malkovich.

If one were to judge solely from the front pages of the New York Times, life in America would seem to be proceeding smoothly. Despite the frequent dips and surges in the stock market, Americans are reported to be generally quite content with their lot. The concerns foremost on Americans’ minds seems to be how to cash in on the internet and whether they can join the swelling ranks of the new internet millionaires and billionaires.

Yet a number of recent films suggest that things are not going as well as the news headlines might have us believe. Indeed, these films have more in common with post-War Paris, the home of French Existentialism, than with the optimistic worldview registered so widely by the American media. American Beauty, Fight Club, and Being John Malkovich – to name three current films – suggest that all is not well in the heartland, especially the heartland of the American male.

Take American Beauty, the film that dominated the recent Academy Awards. Sam Mendes’ exploration of the alienation of the middle-class American male stars Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham, a forty year old trapped in a marriage that he no longer takes any pleasure in, father of a daughter who seems to hate him, and worker at a job that he finds totally boring and morally compromising, and from which he expects to be removed for the sake of efficiency. During the film, Burnham comes to the realization that he doesn’t have to go along with the routines that have come to define his life, that he can simply say, “No,” to all the things that entrap him. So he quits his job (but not before getting a great payoff from his knowledge of his boss’s misdeeds); attempts to change his marriage and his relationship with his daughter; and develops a crush on one of his daughter’s friends.

American Beauty is remarkable for its portrayal of the emptiness of the American Dream. On the surface, Burnham has it all: a well-paying job, an attractive wife and an intelligent daughter, and a pleasant home in the suburbs. The film is ruthless in its comic unveiling of the reality behind this appearance, showing, for example, that Burnham’s wife, Carolyn, played superbly by Annette Bening, clings so desperately to appearances that she can’t really experience authentic emotions any longer. Even when pushed by Burnham to re-experience the passion that they once shared, Carolyn cannot shelve her neurotic attention to her home’s appearance long enough to submit to the tide of emotion that threatens to sweep over her. The American Dream, at least in this film, is made of deceptions and lies that place those pursuing it on a treadmill.

Once it has staked out the alienation of the American male as its subject, however, American Beauty seems eager to contain the possibility that there is something deeply rotten at the core of the American Dream. Faced with the possibility that Burnham’s discovery of the emptiness of his own life will lead to a more general condemnation of Americans’ lust for more, the film proposes an aesthetic stance to life as the solution to Burnham’s angst. As he learns from his daughter’s boyfriend, life can be borne more easily if one simply distances oneself from the specific outcomes of any event – even, ultimately, one’s own death – and simply perceives the beauty and mysteriousness of it all.

This ‘solution’ to the problems of alienation is one that holds many attractions to Americans, as the film’s triumph both at the box office and on the award circuit makes apparent. The possiblity that adopting a different attitude towards one’s life, an attitude that acknowledges and yet transcends the alienation inherent in modern American life, is deeply enticing. Yet by offering such a possibility to its viewers, American Beauty shifts its criticism of America from the social institutions it so deftly satirizes onto the American male whose consciousness it initially depicted as the locus of the critical attitude.

Fight Club (David Fincher) initially seems cut from the same mold as American Beauty. Here, too, we find an American male whose life begins to unravel. The film’s central character, known only as the Narrator (Edward Norton), leads a life that he increasingly sees as devoid of any significance. His job – he flies to accident scenes to determine whether it would be cheaper to settle or to fight a claim in court – is the epitome of meaninglessness. The emptiness of his personal life leads him to pose as a fellow sufferer in selfhelp groups in order to achieve some human contact, albeit contact predicated on a lie.

When the Narrator meets the mysterious Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a trip, it turns out that the two have a great deal in common. After spending some time in a bar, the two discover that slugging it out in a parking lot provides them with greater satisfaction than they have had in their shallow lives. The idea of staging such fights in underground locations – the Fight Club of the film’s title – proves popular, tapping in on the frustrations of American males from all walks of life. Indeed, more and more men flock to Durden’s side as they find their lives acquiring meaning through their participation in the ritual slugfests he promotes.

Here, again, we find the idea that American men cannot find meaning in their lives through the usual route of ascending the corporate ladder. But unlike American Beauty, Fight Club has no interest in an aestheticized approach to life. Indeed, it asserts that what American men need in order to find their lives fulfilling is a return to a more primitive and atavistic level of their own desires. The reason that men flock to Durden and the Narrator’s Fight Clubs are that these venues allow them to find an outlet for the violent urges that they have been forced to suppress by our culture.

But just when you think that Fight Club is giving voice to some of the ideas behind the Men’s Movement, the film changes gears. The Fight Clubs evolve into a more sinister fascist movement that intends to destroy corporate capitalism through a series of crimes and bombings. Once it moves down this path, and despite some rather bizarre yet intriguing narrative reversals, the film loses touch with its concern for the alienation of American men. Nonetheless, the frightening scenes of American men from all walks of lives finding fulfillment by beating each other to a pulp in abandoned basements remains a haunting image long after we’ve forgotten how the film moves beyond it.

Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), the hero of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, is yet another man trapped in a life that provides him with minimal sustenance. His problems, while similar in some ways to those of Burnham and the Narrator, have one significant difference: Schwartz is a failed magician. As a result, he has to work at a job he does not like and live in a grungy basement apartment with his rather odd, animal-loving wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Schwartz’s life is transformed by his discovery of a tunnel that allows people the ultimate in voyeuristic thrill: anyone who enters the tunnel gets to occupy the actor John Malkovich’s consciousness, as a sort of interior voyeur on the life of this quirky star, before being dumped unceremoniously on the New Jersey Turnpike. Schwartz and his coworker Maxine (Catherine Keener) turn this discovery into a profitable business by letting people pay for the thrill of being John Malkovich for a moment.

The sinister side of Schwartz’s desires take over when it emerges that one can do more than simply inhabit Malkovich’s consciousness: Schwartz is able to take over Malkovich’s body. When he does so, he becomes a hyper-successful magician, trading on both Malkovich’s celebrity and his own skills.

When I first saw the film, I thought that it was a brilliant attempt to analyze the power that movies have over their viewers. Many theorists of film have claimed that the pleasure we take in fiction films stems from our ability to identify with the idealized characters portrayed on the screen. So why not go all the way and present a technology that allows viewers a more intimate sense of identification, allowing them to quite literally become part of a character’s consciousness. By adopting such a narrative, a film could show us the real nature of our obsession with stars and their lives, as well as with the films that they make.

But as I thought about the film more, I saw it related to the other two films I’ve been discussing. For Being John Malkovich also focuses on the life of an American male whose life lacks meaning. In this film, though, the source of that emptiness is Schwartz’s inability to “make it,” the fact that he cannot succeed as a magician. The film then shows the lengths to which he is willing to go in order to succeed, even if it means taking over the life of another human being. For me, the clever and humorous plot of Being John Malkovich conceals its deeper darkness: a sense that American men are so driven to achieve success that they will not let others stand in their way.

In discussing these three films, I’ve been focusing on the ways in which all three contain images of modern American life that diverge fundamentally from the upbeat rhetoric that seems so prevalent in political life today. At the same time that Americans are being told by both Gore and Bush that they’ve got things pretty good, these films convey a different message. They ask Americans to acknowledge that life in the modern world is not as easy and fulfilling as the latest Nasdaq averages would make it seem, that alienation lurks inside of those carpeted suburban houses so many work so hard to inhabit.

At the same time, the films seem unsure how far to push their critique of American society. While they all portray American men as burdened by angst and ennui, they seem unwilling to attribute the causes of those feelings to a society that channels the lives of so many along paths that inevitably self-destruct. In place of criticisms of society, the films tend to develop narratives that place the problems in the characters of their main characters.

For a philosopher, the idea that life in society is threatened with meaninglessness is a familiar one. Perhaps the central idea that animates Existentialism, the movement that came of age in post- World War II Paris but traced its roots back into early 19th century Germany, is that the modern world brings with it a crisis in the ability of human beings to find meaning in their existence. Sartre, Camus, Merleau-Ponty, and de Beauvoir, among others, attempted to carve out a response that did justice to the depth of this problem while still holding out hopes for constructing a meaningful human life.

What’s surprising about the resurgence of alienation as a theme in recent American films is that it is no longer a big topic on the contemporary philosophical scene. Perhaps as a result of the postmodern distrust of the idea of a stable self, philosophers have been reluctant to talk about alienation as a pervasive feature of our lives in contemporary society. If the common threads among these three films is more than a simple coincidence, however, it might turn out that existential angst is staging a comeback.

© Thomas E. Wartenberg 2000

Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

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