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Nashville Scene A Man's Man's World

What it means to be male in two current movies

By Jim Ridley

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  It's tough to be a guy these days, and tougher still to be a white guy. At least that's the impression I'm getting from the news and from pop culture. Whenever somebody "goes postal," the perpetrator is inevitably white and inevitably male. A stockbroker goes on a killing spree in Atlanta; blank-looking dudes go up on unthinkable murder trials in Texas and Wyoming--in one case, for dragging a black man behind a truck until his body separated; in the other, for virtually crucifying a gay college student on a fence in bone-chilling cold.

A friend of mine argues it's the pressure of privilege--the fear of losing dominance--that's created the phenomenon of going postal. Gotta watch out for the damn minorities; gotta watch out for the women. Especially the women. As a result, there's a backlash brewing that makes the one Susan Faludi described look like a NOW meeting. On TV, multiple channels of pro wrestling swap viewers with the woman-haters of The Men Show. The enemy now isn't just feminism; it's femininity, period.

If angry white guys can take comfort in one thing, it's that Elizabeth Dole has fallen to Dubya, the frat-party candidate, and "reformists" can align behind their choice of Donald Trump, Pat Buchanan, or Jesse Ventura. But that won't lessen the sense that men have to stick together against women--that masculinity can only be defined by stomping out the other. For men who no longer see how they fit into a changing social order, being a guy means belonging to an exclusive club. Two fascinating new movies deal with what it takes to be a member, and how swiftly and brutally your membership can be terminated.

On the surface, the docudrama Boys Don't Cry and the apocalyptic satire Fight Club seem radically dissimilar, in content as well as style. Yet as an examination of men's terror that they're being pushed aside--a fear that specifically involves women--the two movies fit together in startling ways. Fight Club tells the fictitious story of an insider: a guy who helps create a violent underground men's movement that he ultimately can't escape. Boys Don't Cry tells the true story of an outsider: a woman who attempted to join the company of men disguised as a peer--and was ultimately destroyed for trying.

Kimberly Peirce's shattering Boys Don't Cry is based on an infamous 1993 murder case in which two ex-cons, John Lotter and Thomas Nissen, killed three people at a Falls City, Neb., farmhouse. The case made national headlines when one of the victims was identified as Teena Brandon, a woman from nearby Lincoln. What attracted the media was that Teena Brandon had been known in Falls City as a boy named Brandon--a boy who even had several girlfriends. A cross-dresser who couldn't afford a sex change, Brandon had been accepted as a guy by his buddies John and Tom until the local paper printed his/her actual name as part of an arrest record. Feeling betrayed, they gang-raped him, then killed him and two companions after he defied them and filed a police report.

The crime doesn't interest Peirce as much as the issues Brandon's story raises about the flimsiness of identity--the roles of men and women in particular. In a subtle, brilliant early scene, Brandon ventures into a roller rink as a boy for the first time. Giddy with excitement at going undercover, he starts to appropriate gestures from the guys around him, and he's so good at it he starts to transform before our eyes. That's as much because of Hilary Swank, the remarkable actress who plays Brandon, as because of the alert, unobtrusive way Peirce lays out the scene.

That thrill deepens when he's accepted as a guy by the people who will eventually kill him. According to the movie, what initially draws John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III) to Brandon is his foolhardy willingness to punch a hulking bully in a beer hall. Nothing separates boys from girls like a senseless beating. John and Tom may treat all the women around them as subordinates or groupies, but they welcome Brandon as an adoring kid brother, initiating him into macho rituals of drinking, lawbreaking, and tailgate rodeos.

It's clear to John's girlfriend Lana (a deeply felt performance by Chlo' Sevigny) that Brandon is somehow more sensitive than the other guys. But to John and Tom, there's a world of difference between being a guy, however bewilderingly soft, and being a woman--there's no androgynous in-between. This black-and-white sense of gender becomes a prison for Brandon. In a powerful scene that makes the metaphor explicit, he's forced to define himself to fit either a man's or woman's jail cell. John and Tom end Brandon's charade with the only tools they know--rape and violence--only to find they lead to the same prison.

Class is an unspoken issue in Boys Don't Cry. We're always aware that the women work in factories, the men blow off steam, and the lack of options is an oppressive fact of life, but the movie never scores easy points off its heartland milieu--when Lana and Brandon fall in love, Falls City becomes a stylized fairy-tale idyll. In Fight Club, however, the setting is an unnamed urban jungle, stylization is rampant and overwhelming, and the rumbling corporate underclass is magma waiting to erupt. Where Boys Don't Cry is specific and perfectly focused, Fight Club is grandiose and free-swinging--so much so that it compromises some of its satirical points. But in its overwrought way, it's just as effective a portrayal of the male psyche in siege mode.

In a performance that strikes just the right note of ironic detachment, Edward Norton plays an insomniac corporate drudge drowning at home in consumer goods. Unable to feel anything, he starts to sample vicariously the suffering at support groups for cancer victims. But he doesn't snap out of his torpor until he encounters Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), an anarchic soap salesman who hips him to the empowering catharsis of a good fistfight. The pair's recreational beatings tap into some nameless, voiceless hostility and soon spawn an underground "fight club" network where disaffected waiters and wage slaves pound each other into meat--until they develop more militaristic aims.

Adapted by Jim Uhls from a cult novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club is never keener than when it's skewering the reactionary, tribalistic terror of the men's movement. What is Fight Club, after all, but a 12-step program for guys who'd tell you 12-step programs are for wusses? The difference between it and some kaffeeklatsch of Oprah's book clubbers is that it's legitimized by macho brutality.

From inside Norton's warped mind, the movie carries misogyny to deliberately cartoonish extremes: It doesn't just hate women, it holds up for ridicule everything even remotely associated with femininity. (As in American Beauty, the fall's other men-in-peril satire, women are directly linked to an emasculating consumer culture.) The harshest yuks are directed at Meat Loaf as Bob, a weightlifter whose steroid abuse led to testicular cancer--and to a massive pair of "bitch tits" that envelop Norton in sweaty embraces.

Because of this satirical viciousness, and director David Fincher's obvious relish in staging the yahoo mayhem he's supposedly condemning, Fight Club has been willfully misread as a celebration of fascist might. Like Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, an obvious inspiration, its biggest liability as a satire is that it doesn't seem underpinned by any values of its own. When Norton expresses his contempt for a dying cancer victim, the woman is presented so cruelly that we feel invited to laugh at her. But the movie has the guts to follow the deranging effects of misogyny right over the brink. Once unleashed, the movie's id threatens even the celluloid itself.

Of the two movies, Boys Don't Cry seems far superior. It treats its subjects as people, not state-of-the-art abstractions, which doesn't give us the comfort of distancing us from its darkest truths. But both Boys Don't Cry and Fight Club face up to the rage that results from blind fear of the other. Though one's based in fact and the other in furious fantasy, their conclusions are the same: It's the other that should be afraid. --Jim Ridley


Mortal thoughts

Death is a subject Martin Scorsese already seems to have covered quite thoroughly. The fear of it, the threat of it, the dread of it, the horror of it are on constant display in movies as diverse as GoodFellas, Cape Fear, Casino, and The King of Comedy. Yet his latest film, Bringing Out the Dead, finally brings the theme to the foreground. Written by longtime Scorsese collaborator Paul Schrader, the film works better as a companion piece to the duo's previous work than on its own. But that doesn't mean Bringing Out the Dead can be easily dismissed as incomplete or lacking--only that it seems to have some secret that cannot be uncovered from within.

Based on Joe Connelly's memoiristic novel about his life as a paramedic in New York's Hell's Kitchen, the film follows Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage) through three nights on the job. Frank's been on a cold streak, and he's jonesing to save a life. His weekend begins with a likely candidate, a cardiac arrest named Burke whom he revives and takes to the hospital. But as he passes Burke's daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette) several times in the waiting room over the next few days, he begins to see a deeper significance in the old man hooked up to tubes and heart monitors--one that goes beyond his own personal need to save a life. Meanwhile, he drinks, deals with a new killer drug on the street, chases recidivist junkies and homeless drunks, and waits for the shot of godlike power that comes from bringing someone back from beyond.

Audiences and critics aren't likely to warm up to Scorsese's film or its characters. Despite the voice-over narration and the scrutiny of Cage's cadaverous face, Frank rarely comes across as a three-dimensional character. With his sleep-deprived, alcohol-poisoned, nerve-deadened madness, he doesn't seem to be quite human, and the viewer gradually gives up trying to identify with him. And the structure of his story, hurtling from anecdote to anecdote with breakneck speed, then halting for reveries that seem to exist outside of time or narrative, doesn't give us much to hang on to.

It's worth considering, however, that the film's failure to connect with its audience is intentional. If Scorsese and Schrader--masters of the penetrating character study, as evidenced by Raging Bull--do not present an electrifying protagonist, it's possible that they decided to work in the realm of Terrence Malick, or Schrader's own Mishima, rather than on more familiar and accessible ground. The film's repetitive framework doesn't form a plot arc so much as an impressionistic portrait.

The same can be said of the way Schrader draws the protagonist: Frank is a collection of traits, a role chock full of backstory spilling over into the present. Like a romantic composer trying to capture a single fleeting feeling, or like Van Gogh (whom Scorsese portrayed in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams) fixing onto canvas an instant of light, color, and emotion, Schrader forsakes to a large extent the linear nature of a film's unspooling. His two hours of story accumulate to form an impression, rather than a tale. And the impression can only be processed by stepping away, closing our eyes, and forming something out of the loosely gathered pieces we've been provided.

The impression left by the movie's final scene is of redemption--that much is clear from what drive Schrader and Scorsese have lent to the plot. But does Frank truly earn redemption, or is this cheap movie grace yet again?

Perhaps the answer doesn't lie in the portrait before us, but in the other works that surround it in the gallery. In Schrader and Scorsese's first collaboration, Taxi Driver, the story of Travis Bickle climaxes in horrific but essentially meaningless death. Through his indiscriminate killing and lack of response, we are supposed to feel the chilling inhumanity that has taken hold of Travis. Yet the explosion of violence has a manufactured quality, as if its bloodiness is meant to cover for Schrader and Scorsese's failure to find a reason for it.

In their last work together before this current film, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus' death not only has meaning in itself, but is meant to render the random, messy event of human death meaningful, wherever it occurs. Scorsese and Schrader arrive at Jesus' shout "It is accomplished!" after a long exploration of what the world would be like without the cross. Frank Pierce begins as Travis, surveying the human garbage dump of the New York City streets, and ends as Jesus, taking on death, guilt, and responsibility in humility and triumph. --Donna Bowman


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