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.
That, more or less, is how Everyman winds up living with Tyler, sharing his picturesquely stained and peeling house in an industrial no man’s land (think of the settings of Fincher’s Seven) and learning to think with the blood. Tyler reintroduces Everyman to the reality of his body by the most direct means possible: He hits him. And Everyman discovers it’s good to be hit and to hit back. Soon others, too, are fighting. Eat some pavement, smash open some skin, exchange hugs when it’s over and strut around the next day, enjoying a secret your boss wouldn’t even know how to guess.
All this, and we’re still within a neural pathway, as Fight Club occasionally reminds us. At some moments, the narrator’s flashback takes the form of computer animations, hilarious in their overelaborate detail; at other times, the action turns into a hazy, off-kilter dream sequence or collapses into frenetic montage. The only objective views we get come through surveillance cameras, which begin to play a role in Fight Club as Tyler’s mischief-making becomes more elaborate. From random, individual assaults on bourgeois decorum, such as peeing in the soup that’s served at a banquet, Tyler escalates to an organized campaign of sabotage. Shop windows burn. Sculptures at corporate headquarters blow up. Franchise coffee bars are flattened. Past a certain point, Everyman no longer thinks it’s funny.
As the instigator of the sabotage, Brad Pitt bronco-rides through the movie, using many of the nutsy-dangerous mannerisms he previously unloosed in 12 Monkeys. It’s the performance you’d expect Pitt to give, and still you can’t take your eyes off it. Norton gets the role with all the nuances–the one that requires him to respond to others, the one that involves what we conventionally call acting. He makes his subtlety fully competitive with Pitt’s rampages, shifting quietly but deeply from haplessness to self-conscious toughness to pit-of-the-stomach desperation. As for Fincher’s direction, it’s a known quantity by now: kinetic, varied, in love with distressed and decaying surfaces, enraptured by muted light. Everything that cleverness can do for Fight Club, Fincher accomplishes.
And yet the movie turns sodden. The nervy humor of the first part dissipates; so, too, does the pretense of caring about consumerism, or lives spent in quiet desperation. These announced concerns may be no more than an excuse for some splashy fun, but they do launch Fight Club, and they do make sense. Men unquestionably become sexier when they’re willing to risk their bodies. You could make a movie on the subject titled Touch Football Club, or Pickup Basketball Circle, or (for the solitary competitor) Lactic Acid Junkie, about a compulsive runner who’s hooked on the vicious rush he gets blowing past chumps on the uphill. But since Brad Pitt’s available and the movie is wide-screen, flat-out brawling seems a fitting choice. Overstatement is cinema’s friend.
The problem arises, and the film begins to slog, once Everyman decides that the overstatement has gone too far. American men really don’t need any more opportunities for violence, no matter how quiet or consumerist they may be–so the narrator must labor through the movie’s third act trying to deny the clear implication of the first two. Social critique falls away; personal drama and moralism take over. The plot grinds.
That’s what can happen when a movie locks itself in somebody’s head. So let’s return to the open air. Back to Boys Don’t Cry.
You will notice it’s a strikingly nocturnal movie. As if to emphasize Brandon Teena’s self-invention, his disregard for his origins and even his anatomy, the film keeps posing its characters against the field of the night sky, which is photographed to seem depthless and utterly black. Everything is foreground for Brandon (the almost painfully vivid Hilary Swank), whose movie-life begins on the night he cuts his hair short and stuffs a pair of socks down his shorts. Everything is foreground for Lana (Chloe Sevigny), Falls City’s would-be tough girl, who gets bombed every night so she won’t notice she’s working at the canning factory; everything is foreground for John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendon Sexton III), the onetime jailbirds whose only occupation is to hang around Lana, and who have a little problem with “impulse control.”
Much of the pathos of Boys Don’t Cry lies in Brandon’s flailing efforts to imitate these guys. What other form of manhood is available to him to copy? Though born in a university town, he’s among the majority of Americans who never get to college. His information on sexual identity comes from cheap pamphlets. His friendships are formed in bars. With or without a pair of socks stuffed down his shorts, he’s going to find life passing quickly, as the clouds or river or highway lights in Boys Don’t Cry sometimes run at triple time.
In this world outside the movies, Brandon Teena aspired to be like his killers. These men were real. They didn’t need a fight club.
Given a magazine to fill and not just a column, I would find words sufficient to praise David Riker’s The City (La Ciudad). The product of five years’ work among immigrant communities in New York City, the film is simultaneously a documentary and a fiction: a record of faces and streets, housing projects and factories; a web of stories about hard-pressed Spanish-speaking people trying to make lives in the North.
The Manhattan skyline is always far away for these characters. A day laborer, lonely for his wife and son back home, might glimpse the skyscrapers in the distance from the rubble-strewn lot where he works, salvaging bricks for 15 cents apiece. A newcomer from Mexico, still full of optimism, wouldn’t know where to look for the famous buildings, so lost does he get amid housing projects and his hope for love. A homeless man, a puppeteer by trade, camps out in a station wagon with the daughter he’s afraid of losing, while Wall Street looms across the bay. A sweatshop worker, unpaid for two weeks and desperate for cash, might catch a view of Manhattan from the elevated train, if she weren’t caught up in her prayers.
Most of these characters are played by nonprofessionals, whose performances before Riker’s camera intertwine with a framing device. Throughout The City, we see ordinary folks come into a photo studio under the el to sit for their portraits. The poses are not at all realistic; but they adequately represent these people’s ideas of themselves. So, too, do the film’s four little stories touch on a hard reality, within the stately, elegiac fiction of The City.