The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, January 07, 2003
ANOTHER AMERICAN TRILOGY
Compromises between identity and reality

1. FIGHT CLUB

Edward Norton plays a yuppie who hates himself for what he perceives to be a falsity of a life. Self-misled into thinking that he has been granted immunity from death, only to be reciprocated with the scarcely more attractive option of a living death, he has to confront death in order to regain life. He attends testicular cancer self-awareness groups, indulging in bonding with, amongst others, Meat Loaf giving the finest and most selfless performance of his career, and every other self-help/bonding group he can find. Eventually he notices that there is another “tourist” attending all these meetings – a parody of a slut (some say a parody of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan) portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter. He attempts to break the ice by issuing portentous metaphors about their emotional tourism, but really he wants to get off with her. She is astute enough to realise this and also to know that in no way will he get off with her until he unlocks his own cage.

Thus does his suitcase sit so neatly next to the identical briefcase of the gentleman sitting next to him on the ‘plane, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Like the smug newlyweds who try to snatch at their desired “real” reflections in the "Haunted Mirror" section of 1945’s Dead Of Night, Norton is looking into a desired mirror – himself as he would like to talk, as he would like to look, as he would like to fuck. The split identity metaphor is established straightaway; his own briefcase disappears, his apartment mysteriously blows up, his “life” effectively devolves into a better, preferable existence. There is also a clear parallel with the toes of Robert Walker and Farley Granger’s shoes bumping into each other, forming the umbilical cord, in Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train – again, a study of one person split into two conflicting halves, the “bad” half irrevocably affecting the “good” half regardless of whether or not it is killed off (and, as with Hitchcock and Farley Granger, David Fincher doesn't quite know what to do with the "good" guy, the "bad" guy being so obviously preferable).

Norton/Pitt indulge in an apex of male bonding – the Fight Club (the S&M Club, the Gay Fuck Club). Blows rain upon joyous faces like cum. Only through pain can they achieve orgasm. Only then can Norton understand what an orgasm feels like, but he has not quite untied all the bonds from his previous life – no wonder Bonham Carter gets pissed off with him when he asks what she’s doing in his house, having just spent the whole night screwing her. It is not quite enough.

The standard criticism of Fight Club is that the first half builds up expectations of a grandly black comedy, only to be let down by absurd plot twists and machinations in the second half. I would argue that the first half, in spite of the above description and the graphic violence inflicted, constitutes a film in which a young Jack Lemmon would have felt entirely comfortable (The Apartment without Billy Wilder’s grandiloquent indifference, perhaps – Lemmon, Fred MacMurray (the apogee of fake niceness) and Shirley MacLaine could all have fitted in here with no trouble). Despite the vertiginous camera swings which open the film so exultantly, we know exactly where it is going to go. In the second half, elevation to absurdity is essential in order for the film to have any pretences towards radicalism. So the rapid metamorphosis of the Fight Club into an anti-capitalist terrorist organisation is essential, because it denies us a comfortable reality and therefore forces us to focus on the question of identity. As the remnants of the plot unfurl, we slowly realise that Norton has in fact sacrificed and thrown away nothing. The organisation is as efficient as the motor insurance multinational whom he has just quit, having blackmailed his boss into keeping him on the payroll, not just by threatening to divulge unsavoury company secrets, but also by the extraordinary feat of beating himself up and throwing himself around the boss’ office to form the basis for an alleged assault. In this latter sequence, Norton is wooden and physically graceless; the only way to play this sort of thing is to play it as slapstick, and there is certainly nothing to laugh at in his performance here – it is determinedly cold, and reminded me of nothing less than Viz’s Biffa Bacon, who in an early strip enters a chip shop, itching to pick a fight. “Who you fuckin’ lookin’ at?” he demands, then swivels round to find that he is the only customer in the shop. He cannot afford to back off, and thus has no alternative but to beat himself up. It is a remarkable sequence which punctures the superficial humour to find a deeper psychological truth – and it’s not something that Fight Club can match.

In any case, as I said, the terrorist organisation is precisely an organisation, as smoothly run as SPECTRE, with efficient minions and administrators. Buildings are blown up, no one is hurt, but still Norton cannot quite understand how this can be interpreted as liberation. Tyler Durden now obligingly disappears, leaving Norton to search for himself, so to speak. The film ends with Norton and Bonham Carter reunited, gazing lovingly at the skyscrapers outside their window which have all been wired up to explode simultaneously, and with Norton having just shot himself in the mouth but relatively and miraculously unscathed. The moral is straightforward and rather banal; in order to establish our own identity beyond question, one has to question and reinvent reality continuously – one has to repeatedly “shoot oneself.”

The problem here is, as with Fincher’s other work, that the film is caught in a limbo – afraid to be truly radical, but without the unadorned carefreeness to allow itself to become a truly fantastical and playful fable. At some stage, he always seems to cop out at a crucial point – the artificially imposed “seriousness” of the second half of The Game, even all of Kevin Spacey as John Doe in Se7en. In an odd way, it might have been preferable to give the key role of the latter murderer to a proven expert in neurotic hamming like John Malkovich (see how much more playfulness there is in the latter’s cat and mouse game with Eastwood in the roughly contemporaneous In The Line Of Fire). Similarly, in Fight Club, identity is never really lost; Norton will always end up with the same result, will always climax by shooting his mouth off. Nothing is at stake and no answers can be provided because the questions have not even been asked.

Where, then, can we find the right questions? Why not try the unlikely blood relative – the smarter older cousin of Fight Club?

2. MARY POPPINS

David Tomlinson plays George Banks, an Edwardian proto-yuppie who hates himself for what he perceives to be a falsity of a life. Self-deluded into thinking that he has been granted immunity from death, only to be reciprocated with the scarcely more attractive option of a living death in the form of the family which he is slowly and steadily strangling, he has to abandon an “identity” in order to regain life.

It is purportedly set in London, adapted from a popular series of children’s books by a British writer who acted as a consultant to Disney on the film, but it is an American film through and through. Disney’s London is as intangible, as unreal and as impermanent as the Scotland of Gene Kelly’s Brigadoon – so it’s only appropriate that Dick van Dyke’s Cockney accent is so inadequate; it is an American appropriation of a never-existent idea of Englishness, as much of a phantasm as Welles’ idea of England in the contemporaneous Chimes At Midnight; it is a prerequisite of this film’s palpable illusion. When not seen, it will vanish. Both Banks and his children stroll over from what, geographically, would approximate Belgravia to the City in a few minutes; a suspension of London time comparable (but inferior) to that of Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.

Mary Poppins the film is, of course, all about sex, in the most literal sense; sex is the absent centre around which all the other characters and factors rotate. Everything – both Banks’ obsession with his bank job and, more damagingly, his wife’s insincere dalliance with the Suffragettes (early on there’s a jolly song which observes that the Suffragettes “as a group, are rather stupid;” it’s unclear whether this is meant ironically, as an exemplar of Mrs Banks’ dilettantism or, worse, feminism as a substitute for not getting any) – revolves around an essentially joyless and grey existence. Even the children have already had any ambition drummed out of their heads; here they are as meekly compliant and lifeless as any children in the sorry later days of Ealing Studios, representing no real future. Their outgoing nanny (a nicely self-aware cameo by Elsa Lanchester) resigns as they keep running away – but they have nowhere to run to. It is as dead a city as could be imagined outside of The Omega Man.

Thus is Mary Poppins herself spiritually summoned – the children’s pleading letter, their last hope of connecting with the outside world on their own terms, literally goes up in smoke; but Poppins is there to catch the fumes and breathe life back into them. It is a remarkable measure of this film’s asexuality that it manages to make even Julie Andrews appear sexy and enticing (alas, thereafter she became overly aware of this, and in her later films she over-compensates with decidedly unsexy results). She is the absent parent figure; Banks is aware of her power and understands that he is powerless to stop her – because of course she is he as he would like himself to be.

One very pronounced moment of punctum comes very early on in the picture when Andrews is trying to get the children to sleep by means of singing what is ostensibly a lullaby, “Stay Awake” – but the unmistakable trace of despair as her voice rides the poignant minor key change in the chorus’ second half betrays a deeper wish; stay awake, don’t go to sleep, help me make it through the night. It is a subliminal wish for sexual fulfilment and, in this context, extremely sinister and unnerving; and a few years later the fear will become explicit in Carla Bley’s “Stay Awake” from Escalator Over The Hill.

The split-identity theme is sustained here, but Disney goes one better by splitting the “better” half of George Banks into two quarters; the virgin Mary, and Bert the jack of all trades (van Dyke). The latter is an energetic mockery who helps the children to escape – but they can only escape into unreality, a Song of the South cartoon world transposed to Newmarket. In the animated sequence, one should take especial note of the foxhunting sequence; the humans save the fox from the hounds, and the fox furthermore speaks in an Irish accent, albeit a beyond-cliched “begorrah wouldn’t it I be telling you that it’s Oirish that I am, to be sure sir” variety. Still, it bears a faint comparison with that other odyssey between real and unreal worlds, A Matter Of Life And Death, with the IRA man in the afterworld acting as a prosecution witness against the British, and Raymond Massey’s subsequent meaning glance at a visibly contrite Roger Livesey. Also the fact that “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is loosely based on a traditional klezmer tune, as indeed is “Chim Chim Cheree” (so there was a further subversion when Coltrane tackled the latter tune and introduced it to Eastern tonalities). It’s an idyll, but a fundamentally precarious one; one shower of rain will wipe the world out forever. The comparison with the Banks’ lifestyle is obvious; Mr Banks is desperate to hang on to it for fear of losing his job, his home, his “identity,” even though it is so precariously balanced and he is, as the phrase goes, only two paychecks away from being homeless.

The epic “Step In Time” dance sequence climaxes with the massed chimney sweeps invading the Banks’ home, dirtying it up and generally introducing it to “life;” benign weasels revitalising a decrepit mini-Toad Hall. But nothing will change. True, Banks makes the fatal error of taking his children to the bank and trying to persuade them to invest their tuppence there instead of feeding the birds with it. He almost comes with excitement when singing about all the good things that his bank can do, such as funding empirical invasion of other lands (“foreclosures! bankruptcies!” he exclaims delightedly – his own potential bankruptcy being foremost in his mind). Needless to say, the birds prevail, Banks is humiliated and summoned later that night to be summarily stripped of his hat, carnation, umbrella and, of course, manhood. He is faced with the grotesque creation of the bank president, Mr Dawes Snr (van Dyke again in what seems to be a parody of Ernest Thesiger’s senile industrial baron in The Man In The White Suit). With nothing now to lose, he attempts to essay a joke, with little or no immediate reaction. He leaves. Will he jump off Southwark Bridge?

No possibility of escape even here. Dawes belatedly gets the joke and dies laughing; the bankers therefore return the next morning, offering Banks a partnership for learning to laugh (never mind that the father killed their father). He now devotes himself to his children and flying kites; Mary realises her work is done and vanishes back to her Woolf-like tower of loneliness. But the status quo is reasserted. Identity is as fragile as any reality.

One other sequence deserves a mention: Ed Wynn, as “eccentric” Uncle Albert, does a turn halfway through the film in the resolutely unfunny song “I Love To Laugh.” But the subtext! Uncle Albert is seated at his dinner table, but floating high above the ground, practically on the ceiling. To reach him, Mary, Bert and the children have to laugh, and as they do they…get high. There’s no getting away from it. Stoned laughs, stoned dialogue; did director Robert Stevenson realise what he was getting away with? This film was made both in the then recent light of the JFK assassination and the rise to prominence of the Beatles. Make of that any ambiguity that you will.

3. AMERICAN BEAUTY

Yes, Sam Mendes knows how to let film float (and I don’t just mean that plastic bag either), but this is Kevin Spacey’s film, his exhibit. One could imagine what a heartless meal Peter Sellers would have made of the role of Lester Burnham, but even though this is directed by a Brit, we encounter the same, peculiarly American avoidance of adventure. Again it is arguable whether Burnham really loses anything; as with Norton, he blackmails his employers to giving him a year’s salary and sundry office equipment, and Annette Bening’s neurotic estate agent wife will keep the dollars rolling in. There is here, as in Fight Club, no real sense of life having to be held onto or fought for. One major mistake was the sub-Sunset Boulevard narration at the beginning (“In less than a year, I’ll be dead”) which immediately puts the viewer on guard and unnecessarily diverts them into thinking this is a murder mystery and wasting too much time wondering who will kill him (the answer, when it comes, is so banal that it hardly matters).

And there is no sense of ensemble playing here, either. Everyone looks as though they’ve strolled in from a different film; Bening from a screwball comedy, Wes Bentley and Thora Birch from some sub-Egoyan exploration of the mind, Chris Cooper from Dysfunctional TV Movie Of The Week. No, this is Spacey’s show, and the film sags badly whenever he’s offscreen. Wes Bentley’s camcorder-wielding, unblinking, existentialist drug dealer teenager is so annoying in his pseudo-mystical, nothing is everything, please hit me, sub-sub-Michael Rennie persona, that one is nearly driven to applause when Cooper’s dad storms into his room to beat him up. Only Birch shows any signs of life outside of Spacey; and even she seems to be treating the film as a dry run for the subsequent and far superior Ghost World. Only she, at the film’s climax, realises her own inherited conservatism and manages to escape – but hopefully managing to dump drippy Wes into a convenient trashcan on her way. She is the only player here who doesn’t suddenly start acting out of character to facilitate a convenient ending for the film. It’s a fairly meaningless fable – one second of the gravitas of Welles’ narration in The Magnificent Ambersons beats all of it – and on close examination becomes as fragile, both in terms of identity and reality, as to dissipate when breathed upon; just like the London of Mary Poppins, the Oxford of Endeavour Morse, the ghosts who circulate at the climax of Mulholland Drive, Lynch’s second real masterpiece which makes mincemeat out of all three of these films, because unlike any of them it impels you, the viewer, to work out exactly what, and who, you’re looking at, and why you’re even there. It goes that one identifiable step further. I will return to this theme shortly to examine how Britain’s cinema and television approached the same, fundamentally anti-naturalist dichotomy.


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