Begin with a cluster of molecules in the void. The camera zooms away from them, sucking you back through some dim anatomical corridor. Lights waver and flash; the soundtrack delivers jolt after jolt of fry-your-head-in-the-microwave music.
Now begin again. The soundtrack thrums with power chords and a punkish beat. Lights waver and flash. The camera zooms forward, hurtling you down a dim two-lane asphalt strip toward the void.
These are the first images of Fight Club and Boys Don’t Cry, films that ponder the crazy, violent souls of American men. One movie locates itself along a neural path; the other, on the rock ‘n’ roll highway. So the question is simple: Would you prefer to be inside or out?
If you choose the outside world, you find yourself in the Nebraska of Boys Don’t Cry, Kimberly Peirce’s harrowing reconstruction of the last weeks of Brandon Teena’s life. Born in Lincoln in 1972, Brandon died in a burst of gunfire a mere twenty-one years later, having outraged part of the community of Falls City with his biological impertinence. Though he felt himself to be a man–felt it so deeply that he died for it–the police always knew him by his birth name, Teena Brandon, a label that fit him as uncomfortably as did his breasts and vagina. The details of the case have made their way into one previous film, Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir’s well-received documentary The Brandon Teena Story (1998). Now, in Boys Don’t Cry, we get a fictionalized account, which suggests as much as it records. The film evokes the longings of the young women who were Brandon’s girlfriends; it lays bare the rage and confusion of the men who raped and murdered him. Most of all, most compellingly, it dwells on Brandon’s inability to be like these men–an inability that pained and alarmed him, got him killed and was clearly his best quality.
But before I go on about Boys Don’t Cry, let me inquire into the more highly touted of these Machodämmerung movies. What are the best qualities of the men in David Fincher’s Fight Club?
What, for that matter, are the good qualities?
Written by Jim Uhls, based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club is a delirium that roils through the brain of Cornelius or Roland or somebody, a reedy-voiced narrator portrayed by Edward Norton. Too much of a postindustrial cipher even to have a name, he is at first a creature of interchangeable airports and businessmen’s hotels, of plain white shirts and plainer cubicles. According to Fight Club, this Everyman no longer has any licit means of self-expression beyond shopping and twelve-step programs. He is neutered, to the point that a mere conversation with an alluring woman–Helena Bonham Carter, in this case–can drive sleep permanently from his eyes. Should he finally work up the nerve to hold her hand, as he does some two hours later in the movie, the whole city skyline might go up like fireworks.
No, hand-holding and other physical expressions are the province of Tyler (Brad Pitt), the free-living opposite number whom our narrator encounters one night on a business trip. There Tyler is in the window seat, his hair running wild while our narrator’s lies tamed, his well-modeled features dancing loosely while the ovoid Everyface slumps, his clothes such a riot of red plaids and black checks that the suit in the aisle seat might just as well be invisible. And Tyler’s speech! Out of those moist, confiding lips pours a basso monologue about panic, public relations, anesthesia and the making of soap. Everyman can’t quite follow it all, but he knows it sounds self-assured, and he knows he likes it.