08 January 2005

The representation of materialist-consumerism in Fight Club and American Beauty

I wrote this essay for my Media Studies A-level. Of all the essays that I've written it is one of my favourite simply because I get to be all cynical and knowing about the state of the world, plus I get to analyse two of my favourite films.


The representation of materialist consumerism in ‘Fight Club’ and “American Beauty” and the narrative parallels between the two

The classical meaning of ‘Materialism’ in philosophy differs greatly to the way we use it today.

In philosophy materialism is the belief that everything in the universe is a physical process. The meaning referred to in this essay is the pursuit of material possessions as a soul purpose in life. An end as apposed to a means. Consumerism is the acceptance of products, services and ideas in pursuit of certain lifestyle ideals, buying things, using them up, then throwing them away. In this day and age it is material-consumerism the rules our lives. That it is more important to buy that car, or wear those clothes and listen to that band than it is to try and be happy, that these things themselves can make us happy. This philosophy is blatantly apparent in Northern America where consumerism is rampant. Americans consume exponentially more than any other country in the world and are the leaders in waste production. Out of this ambience of self-indulgence springs forth the Anti-Consumerism movement, led by books such as ‘No Logo’ and magazine/websites such as ‘Ad Busters’ and it’s ‘Culture Jammers network’ - Culture Jamming being a difficult thing to define, but can be summed up as being a non-violent form of protest featuring activistic forms of creativity in public space, such as altering the messages of bill-boards and dropping message bearing $1 dollar bills from the top floors of malls. There has also sprung up the new wave of “anti-consumerist films” of which ‘Fight Club’ and ‘American Beauty’ belong.

‘Fight Club’ is a rampantly anti-consumerist film. Based on a novel by Chuck Paranuik it follows it’s narrator (who remains un-named throughout the film, but is usually referred to by critics as ‘Jack’) as he frees himself of his mat-con life through the creation of an alter-ego known as Tyler Durden. A lot could be said about this film and has been but we will focus on the way mat-con is represented. At the start of the movie Jack lives the perfect consumerist life. His apartment is decorated almost exclusively with items from the Ikea catalogue. He tells us that he has given in to the “…Ikea nesting instinct.” He seeks out dining sets that define him as a person and owns glass dishes that have tiny bubbles and imperfections in them, proof that they’re hand-crafted by the hard working people of some third world country. It is this concept of mass produced individualism that drives Jack. He is a victim of life-style concepts and novelty. His life has become what he consumes.

He suffers from insomnia and asks his doctor to give him something, some pharmaceutical solution that he can consume and allow him to sleep. He sees life through a cynical consumerism-tinted lens. He reduces the people he sits next to on airplanes to his clever label – single serving friends. Pre-packaged companions of the air. “Between take-off and landing we have our time together, but that is all we get.” He has lost interest in life and prays for death quipping that “Life insurance pays off triple if you die on a business trip.” He works as a Recall Co-ordinator for a major motor vehicle manufacturing company. This extremely amoral job involves working out whether or not the company should issue a recall on vehicles with faulty parts. He does this by applying a simple formula and comparing the results to the cost of a recall. If this result is less than the cost of a recall the company doesn’t do one, and peoples’ lives are reduced to a simple exercise in economics.

We find the protagonist of ‘American Beauty’, Lester Burnham, in a similar position. He has a beautiful house and a job writing for an anonymous magazine. He is bored of his life, his daughter Janie hates him and his wife Carolyn shows him nothing but contempt. He masturbates in the shower, stating that this will be the highlight of his day. Although he is certainly not the most interesting character (that honour falls to Ricky, I feel) in the film he is our protagonist and we hear his commentary throughout the film.

Carolyn works for a real estate firm and is obsessed with success. She keeps a perfectly tidy house, sets a perfect table, and forces her family to listen to “elevator music” while they eat. She takes off her trouser-suit to clean a house that she is selling, repeating the mantra “I will sell this house today” over and over as she goes. When she fails to sell the house she breaks down and cries before reprimanding herself. She slaps herself in the face and calls herself weak. She tells Lester to ‘act happy’ at a business party, saying that her business is “selling an image and part of my job is to project that image.” We can imagine what image this is, the image of the happy home, of the garden pool and the beautifully kept garden. The perfect Materialist life.

Janie, Lester says, is a pretty typical teenager. She’s Angry and Insecure and has extremely fragile relationships with her parents, whom she hates. She is obsessed with the size of her breasts, which she thinks are too small, and we see her looking at a website on breast augmentation. She is best friends with Angela who is typically beautiful and as such has quite an ego and thinks that all men lust after her.

Ricky Fitz, the son of the Burnham’s next-door neighbours plays a key role in the narrative. He is responsible for enlightening both Lester and Janie, with whom he becomes romantically involved. His father Colonel Fitz, an ex-member of the US Marine Corp, is a strict Disciplinarian an Authority figure. He sent Ricky to military school after catching him smoking a joint. Despite this Ricky lives his life how he wants, simply by acting under his Father’s radar, and giving the impression that he is the person his dad wants him to be. He sells Pot to make money, although holds down jobs doing waiter work in order to throw him off the scent. He gets urine samples from a client of his which he gives to his dad, who is constantly checking to see that he is “clean”. He is fascinated with the world, recording snippets of what he sees on DV, and has a huge library of them of cassettes. Janie comments that “He’s so confident, that can’t be real.” Which I feel is what ultimately attracts her, that and his outlook on life can be summed up by the line “There is so much beauty in the world, sometimes I feel I can’t take it.” Which he says to Janie.

There are clear moments of subversion in both films. Points where the protagonists lives begin to change. These changes are down to other characters that appear within the narrative. They are Agents of change.

In ‘Fight Club’ this Agent of Change takes the form of Tyler Durden. Tyler acts as a catalyst for Jack’s anti-consumerist philosophy. He drives him along as he rejects material possessions – his Ikea furniture and his condo, which Tyler blows up (Although, really it is Jack that blows up his condo). By moving in with Tyler, who lives in a dilapidated house in a “…toxic waste part of town…” Jack begins his journey away from his consumer life. The house had faulty electrics and no TV and is filled with cultural debris in the form of magazines, which Jack reads to pass the time. He becomes an outsider looking in on the life he once led. Together they form ‘Fight Club’, a men’s only club where the members happily beat each other up, not for the purpose of winning, but simply just to fight. It is through this terribly macho pursuit that Jack begins to fully realise the futility of his previous existence and how it held no answers or happiness. Tyler sabotages consumerism. He urinates in the soup at his job at a high-class restaurant and splices single frames of photography into children’s movies while working as a projectionist. These are the only reasons he holds he jobs. He has no interest in money or material possessions. He makes soap from fat stolen from lypo-suction clinics and sells it to department stores at $20 a bar. Jack comments, “It’s beautiful, we were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them.” He becomes intrigued with Tyler, he reveres him for freeing him from his previous life. Jack begins to lose interest in his job. He turns up with bruises from fighting, doesn’t wear a tie to work, uses the photocopier to print out copies of the rules for ‘Fight Club’, and smokes in his cubicle. Him and Tyler go out and set off car alarms and turn the “Severe Tire Damage” devices in car-parks the other way round so that people wreck their radials when they leave. Tyler uses the members of ‘Fight Club’ to perpetrate other “Culture Jams” and pranks. They demagnetise all the barcodes in convenience stores and blow up Apple dealerships. In the end Jack blackmails his boss by going into his office and threatening to go to the department of transportation with knowledge of all the faulty vehicles his company manufacture. His boss initially tells him he’s fired and to get out of his office but after Jack beats himself up and makes it look like his boss did it he gives him what he asks for, his salary in exchange for never going to the office ever again. He successfully severs all ties to his former material-consumerist life.

In American Beauty there are several Agents of Change whom effect the lives of the different characters in the film. One is Janie’s friend Angela for whom Lester develops a crush. He becomes infatuated with her and it is because of this infatuation that he realises how empty his life is and begins to change it. He blackmails his boss for a healthy severance package and quits his job, taking another working at a fast-food restaurant. Another Agent of Change for Lester is Ricky. Ricky introduces him to the simple pleasure of pot which he begins to smoke profusely while he works out. He doesn’t do this because he want to get in shape he just wants to look good naked. He buys the car he always wanted as a teenager, and begins listening to Jimmi Hendrix.

Ricky also changes Janie’s life. She becomes interested in him after she sees him filming her with him mini-DV camera. He tells her he does this because he finds her interesting and her immediate reaction is that he is a freak. She hears stories in school about how he was taken away to a mental institution and is disturbed by the fact that he films her. After Janie gets over her initial fears of Ricky they begin to fall in love. It is through this love that Janie gets over her obsession with the size of her breasts and begins to live life, although we only see the beginnings of this in the film. They make plans to run away to New York together.

Carolyn also changes her life, although it pushes her further into her mat-con existence. Her Agent of Change is Buddy Kane, the “Real Estate King” whom she admires greatly but show contempt for in the beginning of the film. They begin having a shallow affair and Buddy introduces her to the “simple pleasure of firing a gun”. He also fills her head up with power-slogans and philosophies for succeeding, including the refusal to be a victim. This comes to a head when Carolyn seemingly plots to kill Lester, but is beaten to the act by Colonel Fitz who kills him after he rejects his until recently latent homosexual advances.

The Alternatives to the consumer-materialist lifestyle that the protagonists pursue ultimately lead to their downfall. In American Beauty Lester pursues a life of Hedonism, he drops out from his previous life and dedicates himself to enjoying his new one. He acts selfishly with little or no concern for his family but he achieves what he sets out to do. He finds happiness in his relatively simple indulgences. He does not escape mat-con, he simply turns it to his own advantage. Things are much more complicated in Jack’s case, as there is a philosophy behind his actions. By removing himself from his previous life, through the actions of his alter-ego, he comes a guerrilla on the edges of the culture he has rejected. He seeks to sabotage and destroy it. Tyler encourages Jack to “hit rock bottom” helping his along with the odd act of mutilation. “It is not a weekend retreat, it’s not a seminar… It is only after we have lost everything that we are free to do anything.” He mutters, sage like, to Jack while burning the back of his hand with lye. Together with the members of Fight Club and eventually Project Mayhem they become guerrillas, going about destroying pieces of corporate art and franchise coffee bars. They set out to enlighten through precise acts of violence against symbols of the consumer culture they have rejected.

There are narrative parallels between the two films. Both feature narrator/protagonists who have existential crises. They both blackmail their bosses and quit their jobs with healthy severance packages. They both go on journeys of self-discovery. Both characters require agents of change in order to change their lives, although in the case of Jack this change comes from within (although he doesn’t know it for most of the film). The major differences between the two films however lie in the philosophies. American Beauty is some what simple in this respect – Lester simply sets out to find the joy he has lost over the years. Ricky does talk about beauty, and how it’s not to be found in material possessions and the place people usually associate it with, and the theme runs throughout the film, although there is no definite “philosophy” behind the actions of the characters. The main characters in Fight Club on the other hand, are neigh-on driven by philosophy: The rejection of Material Possessions and consumerism with a desire to return to the Hunter-Gather way of life. There is the discussion of the failure of the family unit, which we see played out in ‘American Beauty’, and the emptiness of modern life. Jack is driven by Tyler to embrace violence as a tool to change the world, a tool that has been used throughout history to repress and terrorise. Tyler creates his own Fascist regime (Project Mayhem) and inflicts his desires for change upon the world around him. Tyler is a dictator and Jack comments on this. “Sooner or later we all become what Tyler wanted.” This differs greatly from ‘American Beauty’ where the only acts of violence are those carried out by Colonel Fitz, who beats his son and shoots Lester in the head at the end of the film. He is the representation of authority within the film. Tyler represents both Anti-Authority and Authority.

There are no clear moral messages in either film. Both feature characters that drop out of their previous lifestyles, although as I have argued Lester doesn’t reject Materialist-Consumerism, he simply rejects his Life. Fight Club can almost be seen as a manifesto for the Anti-Consumerist movement (although it does feature some highly undesirable elements that should be dropped if it’s ever to be put into practice). Through the excitement the film creates, through its elements (particularly the editing) it encourages people to look at their lives. American Beauty also does this, puts a mirror up in front of the audience and causes them to realise the parallels in themselves. Both movies can be thought of to end badly. In ‘American Beauty’ Lester is killed and in ‘Fight Club’ Jack shoots himself in the head, erasing Tyler and watches the Credit Card companies headquarters coming crashing down in a rain of fire, but I felt positively giddy at the end of both. There is something perversely “Happy” about watching Jack and Marla hand in hand watching the destruction, and I remember coming out of the theatre after watching ‘American Beauty’ with a strange feeling of contentment. The people I talked to afterwards thought it was a sad ending, but overall I felt it to be “feel-good”. I guess it all depends on your perspective. Both films received notable critical success (American Beauty won 7 Academy Awards) and present the downfalls of materialist-consumerism and modern life.