I just happened to see these two movies on the same day in a rare (for me) double bill. Like anyone, I brought my own background to the show, projecting my own light onto the films. Fight Club is a movie I had put off seeing for many years, and Blue Jasmine is the first Woody Allen film I’ve seen in decades. I’d had enough of that guy but was willing to give this one a chance on account of the best-actress hype around Cate Blanchett’s peformance. Spoilers alert! Seriously.
The movies share common themes of gender issues and mental illness. On the latter score, both do a genuine disservice to the subject. While Jasmine is portrayed as mentally ill – she talks to herself out loud in public, has panic attacks defined by shortness of breath, pops a lot of pills and mentions she was subject to electroshock therapy – to me it didn’t ring true. She was only mentally ill sporadically, whenever it suited the needs of the script. Her supposed illness matched only one diagnosis I know of: a sort of 19th century mysogynist definition of “Woman” in the abstract: Jasmine was a weak, dependent, greedy, lying, vindictive, hysterical bitch who wildly over-reacted to her husband’s “natural tendency” to stray by ruining everything for everyone rather than calmly settling the matter to her own financial benefit like a sensible rational person (male) would have done. What was the crime after all? He fucked a few other women and then left her for a younger one! No biggie, right? Unless that wasn’t really the crime. Unless the younger woman thing was just a cover up of the real crime, let’s say a man who raped his seven year old daughter and then went off and married his teenaged one. Like Woody Allen did. Jasmine as Mia Farrow, flying off the handle about such things!
The background I brought to this one, of course, was that yesterday, the same day I saw the movie, was also the day that Dylan Farrow, the daughter molested by her father, Woody Allen, published a public letter detailing those crimes, and talked about how her mother decided not to pursue criminal charges (for the sake of the children?) and how guilty she felt all those years about all the other girls who might be victims of the same man who was free to go around the world making movies year after year and reaping rewards and awards, even lifetime achievement awards at the Golden Globes earlier this year. A real man might well have spent those years in jail, perhaps committing suicide like Hal in the movie, instead of merely having his reputation soiled.
Blue Jasmine, the movie, was also absurd in the way that every single (cardboard) character was simpy a function of how much money they had, or had lost. You could plug in the numbers and arrive at Augie and Hal, Ginger and Jasmine, Dwight and Danny, and so on. It was also remarkably Caucasian for a movie set in San Francisco and its largely Latino Mission district (Ginger lived on South Van Ness, around the corner from 16th and Mission). The working class Italian mokes who dominated the male set of figures might have come straight out of that area some three or four generations ago, like my late father-in-law. But anyway. The men in the film are straight-up fuckers and nothing else, and the women are all basically fucked.
Fight Club is the world where men become men and there’s not much about women at all. The only women in that film are the ones dying of various illness and Marla, Helena Bonham Carter, in a performance I quite enjoyed, as a grown-up goth girl, a reckless careless death-bent mess. She comes into the picture as the other “tourist”, like the main character (Jack – played by Edward Norton), an addict to recovery meetings, be it Cancer or Alcoholism or anywhere that suffering people meet to cry on each other’s shoulder. Marla is there, utterly inappropriate, chain-smoking and bearing witness to the inevitability of death wherever she goes. Jack attends these meetings because he cannot sleep. He hasn’t slept in six months but he accidentally discovers that if he lets go and cries then he can sleep, so these meetings become indispensable to him. He is only able to maintain his normal, Ikea-filled white-collar life by pretending to be suffering from some horrible ailment like testicular cancer. Of course his real ailment is mental. He is supposed to have either a multiple personality disorder or some kind of schizophrenia because he is, of course, also the macho, evil Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt, in an exceptionally vintage Brad Pitt-like performance). I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure that people with multiple personality disorders don’t actually hallucinate their other selves as imaginary friends they see and interact with as physical other beings, but hey, it was a fun plot device, even if it made no sense. (People who don’t sleep at all also cannot function at all)
Jack must attend his recovery meetings every night, and resents Marla’s presence exposing him as a fraud. For her part, she doesn’t give a shit if she’s exposed or not. She is far more self-aware. Plot hole #1? He attends every night, and yet his job requires him to travel around the country continually? Okay, if you say so. Plot hole #2? The Fight Club itself begins when he and Tyler have a fist fight outside a bar and others come to watch. Yeah, but they’re watching a guy punching himself in the face? They are going to join up with that? Actual real guys?
Of course the heart of the movie is about being a real guy – in the sense of taking your shirts off and punching each other in the face. That’s where you get in touch with your masculinity and it is far better therapy than crying on shoulders in recovery meetings, which, need I say, is seen as highly effeminate. Real men don’t cry, they just beat each other up. Or off. One of my favorite lines in this very cynical movie is “self-improvement is masturbation”. To me the fights were brutal and kind of gross to watch, but I am a man who was bullied and beaten up rather often as a kid, and had my life threatened enough under some dire circumstances later on – some of the baggage I bring to this film – and as a result I’m not a man who has a high regard for fighting or knives or guns.
About a year ago I came back to the States from a period abroad (in New Zealand) and at a welcome-home party thrown by friends I had a conversation about Fight Club with a friend’s boyfriend. This guy kind of lived that creed – he and his buddies like to punch each other in the face. I was in a pissy mood (I did not want to be home. I wanted to stay in New Zealand, and I had not missed these friends very much if at all) and I sort of slammed the guy (verbally) and all Americans in general for their endless stupid obsession about “the dark side” of the human psyche (America was at that time in shock over the slaughter of kindergartners in Connecticut, but by now we’re back to being used to mass shootings nearly every day in one happy little town or another). But it made me want to see Fight Club, and I’m glad I did.
Real men? Hardly. The men who join the fight club turn into passive, submissive cult-followers eager and willing to sacrifice their lives and personalities to the charismatic leader. They are soldiers, warriors, gangsters, and punk-slave-bitches every one. This was a subtext I had not expected to see, and was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie. Is this the true nature of Men? There’s an argument to be made. Our history is full of violence and war and religion and follow-the-leader mentalities, and the quickest way to make a man your lackey is to assert a more macho masculinity. Ask any Stalin or Hugo Chavez. And there’s even something very macho about surrendering yourself to torture and showing that you are man enough to overcome even that kind of death – eh, Jesus Christ?
There was only a pretense of mental illness in these movies, mental illness as convenient plot device, as excuse for crimes both physical and thought. The real mental condition in both movies is gender confusion, men who don’t understand women and men who don’t understand men (or women). There’s a lot of fear in that, and guilt.
On the purely viewer level, I enjoyed watching Fight Club much more than Blue Jasmine. The latter seemed like the same scene over and over again. It had almost no dynamics. It was “here’s a rich person scene. Here’s a normal person scene. Now here’s a rich person scene again. Now back to the normal people once again. Oh, and isn’t she totally fucked up? It’s her own damn fault you know.” Fight Club was many things, intentionally mythical in a bold way, dramatic and exaggerated, intense and different, as if it were a movie that was worth being made!