On American Beauty and Fight Club
Both American Beauty and Fight Club debuted in the summer of ‘99. Both are movies worth seeing that have some degree of following and have Existential motifs. However it seems to me that while American Beauty is truly profound and has interesting and realistic characters, Fight Club wants to be everything American Beauty is but comes off as a cheap adolescent knock-off, an angst-filled film trying to say deep things that are easily digestible for America’s youth.
It’s rather appropriate actually that one being the more mature actualized form of the other, because while Fight Club’s characters (to my knowledge) are in their late twenties, half the cast of American Beauty are middle-aged. American Beauty shows us through the interaction of the characters what each character represents; Fight Club has each character state almost directly what they are to the plot, “I’m a Christmas tree abandoned on the side of the road,” “I am Jack’s broken collar bone. Aren’t I so dark and brooding?” True American Beauty states some of the key aspects of the movie rather explicitly through the bag scene (which I’ll get to shortly) or through the character’s monologues, but they seem to be done with a touch of poetry and with an intelligence that Fight Club lacks.
What is Fight Club about? Someone who is deeply unsatisfied with their life and feels incapable of making change. What is American Beauty about? Someone who is deeply unsatisfied with their life and feels incapable of making change. One of the main differences however is how the characters respond to their existential dilemmas. Jack (or whatever the fuck his name is) essentially creates an alter-ego (who really isn’t him in the phenomenogical sense) to live the life he wants to live while he becomes a disgruntled bohemian writing shitty haikus and thinks he’s so radical for hating his boss and not wanting to live a corporate existence – what a fucking rebel. The father character of American Beauty however doesn’t try to play his development and disappointment off as this virtuous period of enlightenment as he feels contempt for people who have the audacity to buy cologne because they want to get laid. In fact he tries to help the people in his life try to reach a more authentic meaningful existence rather than bitching at them and calling them “phonies.” Wrong book I know but Tyler Durden is essentially for all intense purposes a Weatherman combined with Holden Caulfield. American Beauty is a soulful movie that says things that all human beings can relate to and understand to some degree but are aspects of our lives and ourselves that aren’t reflected in day-to-day life; it shows someone meaningfully making a change in his own life implicitly rather than directly against consumerism and all the things that Fight Club is little more than a angry blog post about.
Fight Club comes from the bitter juvenile place of anger and contempt for those who are different than them while they boast their differences as these grandiose achievements as if people should marvel that they’ve read Kafka. American Beauty is a movie of more subtle and confident intelligence about an older man who is awoken from his stupor by the mere lust felt for one of his daughter’s friends. Not exactly the cliché scenario for awakening and walking out of Plato’s cave, but that’s the thing; though Lester does experience several deep insights into life and people, the main difference is grounded on him merely enjoying his life while living it authentically. So it’s a difference in action that creates corresponding sentiments and thoughts rather than actions based off of ideals. This is how most change in our lives happen I think. Clearly there must be some type of motivation or sentiment to ground the action, but often we begin doing something and the sentiment of the action comes afterwards. As a writer, I find that though I have to at-times will myself to write, after I begin to write the thoughts and feelings I end up expressing on the page change dramatically – the action changes the sentiment just as much as vise-versa, if not more. If you disagree here’s an experiment, start yelling as loud as you can for no reason. Aren’t you mad? Smile for several minutes. Don’t you feel better? They’ve done studies and simply showing a certain facial expression or performing certain actions can create certain feelings out of the ether. This is essentially the argument that Philosophy and Psychology are things that need to be lived just as much as they are things that are thought out and studied – so yes, how very existential. Fight Club is actually the same way with the action preceding the sentiment, which we see in the beginning of his friendship with Tyler beginning with his invoking Jack to hit him, there is reluctance and then the sentiment changes afterwards. However, with the major changes in his personality not even being him but being his alternate personality, we see something that is not truly a legitimate change (Jack does change, but not in any meaningful or interesting ways) but rather the development of psychosis; not only that, we see something that we both cannot and would not want to emulate.
A lot of people make fun of the bag scene, though to me it’s one of the most touching scenes of personal proclamation that I’ve ever seen – and I disagree with half of its sentiment. The sentiment of course being of a benevolent force in the Universe moving plastic bags. But what’s far-more important here is the sentiment that it feels almost at times that there is a profound kindness and graciousness in life simply because we exist in this world to enjoy and are experiencing the euphoria and serenity that we’d experience in that moment, and not only have I experienced that but it’s one of my most treasured experiences. And the other sentiment in the speech (if we can call it that) being that we can experience joy (particularly in youth) in the mundane and trivial. In Grade School I chased leaves when I didn’t have other children to play with, and having them be blown about around corners on windy afternoons was one of the best experiences I can remember growing up. It almost did seem at-times that the leaves were playing with me, that they had this life within them and they wanted to give me a gift of exuberance – at-least that’s how I remember experiencing it. I find it particularly odd that anyone in the modern age would mock him or find him odd for filming this when we live in a culture that photographs everything. You take a photo of your plate of rigatoni from Favoli’s and you think the guy filming one of the happiest experiences of his life is odd? Really what I think this largely comes down to is a phobia of emotional depth and sincerity that permeates throughout much of our culture. This is another thing American Beauty addresses with most having a lack of sincerity out of various types of fear – the mother and the ex-army father hiding in the closet being the key examples of this. Once again this is something that American Beauty is wonderful at expressing that Fight Club tries to express but does so by simply railing against a major form of vapidity poorly.
To summarize, while Fight Club is the film that masquerades as an intellectual film (while being little-more than easily digestible Hollywood snuff) American Beauty achieves it in spades. It’s a film that expresses both the joy and “miracle” of being alive and the opportunity for each individual to change and live their lives more authentically and meaningfully and how deep truths are experienced through action just as much (and more naturally particularly in development) as through pure reasoning. Also the very nature of Fight Club is using violence and force to promote change while American Beauty expresses that real change must be made of volition. I guess I could be pissed off that conceited assholes think that Fight Club is a profound movie, but it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about, but don’t worry – you will someday.
And yes, the joke here is I’m bitching about how pseudo-intellectual and conceited people who praise Fight Club are, and yet the very ending of American Beauty can be construed as egotistical. But I do think that it’s something that a lot of people don’t have a full conscious understanding of, but easily could if they simply examine their lives. Goodnight ‘ery body.