20 July 2009

Trends: The Mainstream Anti-Normalcy Films of 1999

At the end of the past century, The United States of America was at its political and economic peak of power, ready to crumble. I always consider movies to be a great insight into our collective cultural sub-conscious, and I believe this a breakdown in our cultural and power-hungry trends can be easily seen in a few landmark films of 1999, all of which share the same basic message of anti-suburbia, anti-white collar, anti-authority, which I, in the spirit of Warren G. Harding, collectively named "Anti-Normalcy." Considering it's the 10-year for a lot of these flicks, 2009 seemed a pretty good time to look back.

In an earlier post, I made the claim of a steep rise and fall of intense, epic Patriotism in film in the mid-to-early 90s. By 1999, however, there was a major shift, likely as a reaction to these sort of narrow-minded, jingoistic films. Instead, these handful of renegade films expressed the concern that something was very wrong with not necessarily our politics, but a society that kept people bored and agitated. This stems, or course from our very prosperity. We had no major concerns or problems in an economically wealthy and secure daily life, so these movies tend to inflate our propensity to spice things up a bit, seeking spiritual and domestic freedom in order to seek an interesting life over a bland one. So, without further ado, here are what I am calling the Four Anti-Normalcy Movies of 1999:

1. Office Space (February 19)

2. The Matrix (March 31)

3. American Beauty (October 1)

4. Fight Club (October 15)

I wanted to go through these film by film to examine how they express my point, but some of them seemed so similar, I wanted rather to highlight some of the similarities through a series of Four Common Plot Points. Here we go:

1. For Starters, Your Job and Life Sucks.
Each of these movies start off with the protagonist in a menial, white collar job, where they do not necessarily express open antagonism, but moreover seem extremely unsatisfied, yet do not know how to break free. They are spiritually devoid and ignorant. This is quite literal in the Matrix ("The wool that has been pulled over your eyes," etc), more grounded in Office Space (something as common yet dreary as TPS Reports), and possibly the protagonist, Peter Gibbons, who is most aware that something needs to change in his life (although still searching exactly how), the Narrator in Fight Club tries to find an outlet through support groups. American Beauty adds a few more layers in this respect, in that it is the only film of this quadrilogy to feature a main character who also has a wife and family. The rest, arguably, are basically angsty gen x-ers whining and dissatisfied with how normal their lives turned out. Lester Burnham in American Beauty, though, is more of an older, family man, who is trying to catch up to the spiritual liberation he sees that the younger generation has attained. His spiritual desolation comes not only from his boring job, but from his boring wife, his boring daughter, and his boring suburban home. The real message of the flick, though, is that none of these things are actually that boring, but their yearning to get some spice spirals out of control. But now I'm getting ahead of myself. All four movies establish that the lives of their protagonists suck, but are not necessarily physically painful or dangerous. They suck spiritually.

Each film after establishing the banality of everyday life then introduces an outside force that "awakens" or initially attempts to spiritually wash the bored protagonist. In Office Space, this is the Occupational Hypnotherapist, Dr. Swanson, who hypnotises Peter, but dies before he can take him out of hypnosis. In The Matrix again, this tends to be very literal, Neo takes the Red Pill, after which, he is freed from his stasis in the "fake" world of the Matrix. Fight Club again tends to complicate this, but with the same result. Tyler Durden only seems like an outside force affecting the Narrator, and for a while the premise holds identical to the Matrix and Office Space, but Durden is actually the same person as the Narrator. Thus, the Narrator actually frees himself, but like I said, the results are the same, and shit, he might as well be an outside force. American Beauty introduces Lester to Ricky Fitts and Marijuana, essentially giving him an outlet for his latent subversive tendencies. His descent is slower and not as literal as the other three films, but the point is that he does not initially seek spiritual purity, he is locked into what life has given him. Only through guidance and happenstance are these men free from the mundane they built around themselves.

Now, we can stop here for a sec and examine a few things. First of all, this is all capturing the trials of 25-40 year old white men at the end of the 20th Century (there's some leeway here, Samir from Office Space and many different races and genders from The Matrix, but the main protagonist is the same, young-to-middle-aged white men). So what does this mean? Basically, they are films highlighting the spiritual emptiness of men who society and culture have deemed to do things in a certain way, although this way is not proper for all people. It's a rebellious statement that runs through all four of these flicks, that the shallow and hollow mainstream culture cannot satisfy the desires of a good chunk of the population. Women and other races all of the same problem, of fitting into a stereotype or cultural standard and expectations, these four films merely highlight those of 30-yr old white men, and their standard of laying low, working white collar jobs, and having a nice home and family, white picket fence, all that shit. The simple statement is that there should be more uniqueness and individuality than that.

3. Wait a Minute, Waking up Sucks!
Beyond the initial bliss of achieving spiritual happiness, all the protagonists find that their new way of life heavily conflicts with the status quo, as well is should. Peter in Office Space is on the serendipitous end, finding that he can succeed by being more honest with himself, his co-workers and employers. His overconfidence, however, leads him to embark on a risky money-stealing and laundering scheme that costs him (temporarily, of course, c'mon, it's a comedy!) his girlfriend, friends, and freedom. Neo in The Matrix, after waking up finds a world much harsher than the ignorance of being in the Matrix. This is reflected through Cypher, who wishes to return to ignorant bliss within the walls of the Matrix, treachery which dooms most of the Nebuchadnezzar's crew. The Narrator in Fight Club, after having some fun fighting, also finds Tyler Durden's schemes and overconfidence spiraling violently out of control. As Tyler pleads with the Narrator to "just let go" of his life and fate, Tyler's control over the Narrator's destiny tightens. The last half of the film is essentially the Narrator working to win back his life after the momentary bliss of freedom and attempt at Messiahship blows up in his face. In American Beauty, Lester's obsession with freedom and working out to impress faking lusty underagers leads to the resentment and jealousy of Ricky's Marine Core Father. He also loses control of his own freedom and new found confidence.

4. Soooo, What Did We Learn Today?
In the end, all the characters tend to compromise their desires for excessive freedom, their need for spiritual fulfillment, and disdain for a normal life. This is where each movie tends to stray into different territory, depending on the message they wished to send. The end of Office Space finds Peter not with his dream of doing nothing, but rather at a more blue collar job that he enjoys doing (exercise and fresh air, baby), although at first glance it may seem like the choice between a construction worker and office worker would be redundant. Peter obviously goes for lower pay and lower social status in favour of greater job and spiritual satisfaction. Like I said, he is able to real in his love for doing nothing and find a middle ground, or third option - a job that makes him happy (this is the Awwww moment of this blog).

Neo in The Matrix ends up on a very different path. Whereas the Narrator and Tyler Durden failed in becoming a new Messiah, Neo (Overtly by Revolutions [2003]) is very much a Christ figure. His spiritual freedom continually escalates throughout the movie, and though it leads to deaths and pain, instead of reeling in his excess, he finds he needs to push through, until his freedom is quite literal at the end, bending the Matrix to his will and flying around like a birdie. There may yet be some medium ground, however, as his power only extends to within the Matrix itself, his need for freedom in the outside world still leaves him in tattered clothes and gruel for dinner. It ends up being ironic that he has near unlimited power in a system that their final goal is to destroy. So what seems like freedom in reality (damn, reality is subjective in The Matrix) he is powerless. Well...until the sequels.

The Narrator in Fight Club ends up rejecting a lot of Tyler Durden (read: his own) teachings, also attempting to find a middle ground; preserving his new spiritual independence but neglecting the violent and cult-like tendencies Project Mayhem has afforded him. Project Mayhem succeeds at the end, though the Narrator manages to kill his alter ego Tyler. This is the only film that ends with such enmity between pupil and teacher, and is also probably the most open-ended Anti-Normalcy Movie of 1999. It is clear that much of the common population is headed towards the same kind of what Tyler may have thought was spiritual fulfillment, but what may actually turn out to be chaos and anarchy, which might as well have been Durden's goal anyway. It is unclear what the Narrator would do in Tyler's New World, but it is clear that he has moved substantially enough away from the white collar spiritual void, but pulled himself in enough from the insanity of being a cult leader with split personalities.

The only one of these movies where the protagonist dies is American Beauty (Not Counting 'Dies more than Optimus Prime' Neo here). Arguably, American Beauty takes place in the most realistic world (other than Comedy weirdness, Sci-Fi Apocalypse, and Quirky, Green-tinted fighting movie), which bodes interesting things towards their approach to someone seeking spiritual cleanliness. In Lester's last moments, he also rejects the freedom he sought for himself, not bringing himself to do the nasty no-pants dance with jailbait Angela, as well as admiring a picture in his kitchen of his family and daughter, perhaps remembering and appreciating the good life he had. Well, oh well, you're dead now. The ultimate price for his wish to work out shirtless, smoke pot, then reject the approaches of the closeted gay Marine next door, I guess, but that's life in America for ya. His attempt for moderation comes too late, after driving away everyone in his life who he realises actually cared deeply for him and vice-versa. Oscar winner.

Honorary Mentions
There were a handful of other movies in 1999 that stressed some outside-of-the-box thinking and individuality, that did not necessarily follow the road to spiritual purity that I have listed above. Real quick, these include, in my opinon, "Man on the Moon," "Being John Malkovich," and "Rushmore." All of these involve protagonists that do not fit into the mold society crafted for them and feature them seeking some sort of personal destiny. None of them were necessarily ignorant white collars, though, nor were they all introduced to spiritual purity or find moderation.

Finally, a move that came out about nine years too late, but perfectly fits the mold of the 1999 Anti-Normalcy Movies is Wanted (2008). While the comic is a sweet, original look at a world of comics where a handful of Archetypal Supervillains have won against the heroes, the movie became essentially a showcase for outdated Anti-Normalcy rhetoric and super-cool gun and car scenes. It does follow precisely my formula, however, so it deserves some mention. Wesley Gibson has a shitty job, his girlfriend cheats on him, and he's basically a wiener. Angelina Jolie, through her hotness, introduces him into a new super-cool society where he has freedom to do much more than he thought he could. Shit goes bad, everybody dies and there's some ridiculous conspiracy, causing immense problems in his new world. Wesley rejects the new world's rules, forming his own (essentially a combo of Neo's unlimited freedom and Peter Gibbons acceptance of independent thought and action but rejection of complete nihilistic freedom. Wesley does not reject violence like the Narrator, in fact, he still revels in it, only rejecting what he realises to be the identical arbitrary rules of The Fraternity of Assassins).

Eager to hear your own thoughts, calling this post out as straight up bullshit, or even finding a better collective title than "Anti-Normalcy Movies." Also eager to hear any other movies that may follow this formula, as you can tell, there are a plethora of genres covered here, and none is necessarily perfect.

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