This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of the best years for modern cinema. A simple online search brings up articles describing 1999 as a year that was “uncommonly good for movies”, “the greatest year of modern cinema”, even “the last great year in movies”. But perhaps a more accurate and optimistic definition might be “one of the finest movie years that most of us have been alive for.”
Nineties: Young Cinema Rebels runs at BFI Southbank from July-August 2019
A quick glance reveals this enthusiasm to be largely US-centric but not entirely unjustified. It is indeed slightly overwhelming to think that, in a single year, American cinema gave us The Matrix, Election, American Beauty, The Blair Witch Project, Fight Club, The Iron Giant, Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense, Magnolia and The Virgin Suicides.
Many have attempted to explain this surge of great, ‘cult’ and influential films within popular American cinema, as well as explore their enduring popularity. A few contributing factors to this wave of iconic films appearing might be: the presence of stars in the 1990s as they don’t quite exist now; the existence of mid-budget, risk-taking studio films at the time; and more broadly, basic nostalgia.
Yet, looking at this crop of American cinema from the outside, in isolation, and 20 years after the fact, can be revealing in its own way. What remains consistent across many of these diverse films of varied genres, budgets and scale is a pervasive and acute sense of anxiety – a common thread that is all the more apparent as it stands in sharp contrast with our current climate and corresponding US cinematic output.
Though the contemporary superhero blockbuster dominating the US and global box office often deals with death, grief and the end of the world, among other downbeat ideas, said genre films also represent the most comfortable, reassuring option for viewers. These films and their dominance in the popular imagination have shifted blockbuster cinema away from any kind of realistic mode, reducing problems to simplistic binaries of good and evil, allowing for little grey between the black and white. The franchise principle offers over and over the same characters an audience knows and loves, while reboots revive past, familiar stories. Anxiety is certainly present in the modern blockbuster, but it is more apparent as the hidden force guiding the decisions of an industry struggling to recoup costs. In the 90s, and in 1999 most of all, anxiety was directly on the screen.
At first glance, this angst seems to be an everyday, rather mundane kind of frustration and anguish, and it is striking just how often it takes the exact same form: a story of a middle-aged man struggling to stay sane working a boring office job he despises. There is the unnamed narrator from David Fincher’s Fight Club; magazine executive Lester Burnham in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty; file clerk Craig Schwartz in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich; computer programmer Thomas Anderson in the Wachowskis’ The Matrix; even Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s American Psycho. All these men are bored to their core by the drudgery of jobs which do not require any particular talent, do not engage their hearts or their personality and could be done just as well by somebody else. As the unnamed narrator from Fight Club explains: “Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.”
In American Psycho, antihero Bateman is regularly mistaken for other men who work the same job as him, at the same company, sport the same suit, and even visit the same barber. Bret Easton Ellis’s original novel was a bestseller, while the film gained a cult status of its own. We all well know how Bateman countered the dread of life in mergers and acquisitions – with a hefty dose of murder and executions. In both novel and film, explosions of violence are shown to be orgiastic and cathartic, the only experiences that do not bore Bateman and reveal just how empty his everyday existence really is.
Violence is also the entertainment of choice in David Cronenberg’s Crash, from 1996, in which various bored, rich people realise they can only feel genuine excitement and arousal when narrowly escaping death in car accidents. This shocking de-regulation of pleasure reaches even more disturbing extremes in Todd Solondz’s controversial 1998 film Happiness. A perceptive critic and satirist of the American family unit and the American search for – you guessed it – happiness, Solondz’s bleakest and funniest film follows members of a family each desperately seeking satisfaction without any care for how amoral, selfish or disgusting that search might prove to be. If Lester Burnham’s obsession with his young daughter’s best friend in American Beauty is perverse, Solondz goes a step further, presenting a dissatisfied middle-aged character engaging in paedophilic sexual assaults of even younger children to escape the pervading mundanity of the film’s world.
But the most obvious example of this desire for violence and perversion remains Fight Club, in which the bored, middle-aged, unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) finds catharsis in bloody, bare-knuckle fights with strangers. Much like American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, this nobody feels alienated from his own life. His description of the impersonal way he decorates his apartment – “slave to the Ikea nesting instinct” – echoes Bateman’s cold enumeration of the many complicated steps in his morning routine. Neither man takes any real pleasure in those rituals dictated to him by society. However, though they are both painfully aware of the misery their hyper-capitalistic lifestyles cause them, they cannot fully escape. Violence offers them a temporary respite, but in Fight Club the narrator objects to the more extreme acts of his new anarchist friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), and in American Psycho Bateman never quits his dull job.
The two films appear strikingly similar at first, but they ultimately reach diametrically opposed conclusions. In American Psycho, Bateman comes to doubt his own sanity and whether he has in fact committed any violent acts at all. When he reaches self-awareness at the end of the film, he is more hopeless than ever, declaring in narration: “This confession has meant nothing.”
By contrast, in Fight Club, when the narrator realises that the unhinged, uncompromising terrorist Tyler Durden was in fact himself all along, he finds a kind of perverse hope in knowing that it was he who ultimately rebelled against the world. The film certainly does not advocate blowing up credit card companies as a good way to enact change, framing its story and machismo instead in rather arch, satirical terms. It does, however, present us with a hopeful character, a man who abandons his defeatist attitude, acknowledges his responsibility in things being as bad as they are, and tries to evolve.
That the narrator can only do this through Tyler Durden for the majority of the film reflects just how hopeless and powerless he feels. Indeed, in the face of outsized forces as enormous as pervasive consumerism and climate change, and on the verge of witnessing the end of a thousand-year era – which many predicted to be the end of the world – it was probably quite normal to feel small. This could explain why so many films from the 1990s follow middle-aged, slightly impotent men who, like the narrator in Fight Club, would rather be someone, anyone else.
In Office Space, this wish manifests itself through self-destructive, out-of-character acts in which Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) – as with Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) in American Beauty – places his job, romantic situation and entire lifestyle in jeopardy. These are spontaneous, unpredictable acts, rather than carefully thought out plans for leading better, happier lives. Peter and Lester do not have any solutions to their misery; they simply can’t take it anymore.
In Being John Malkovich the escape from the self is even more radical and literal. Bored loser Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) finds a way to be – or rather inhabit the body of – rich, famous and respected actor John Malkovich. Whoever enters the John Malkovich portal in the film gets to see, hear and feel whatever John Malkovich is seeing, hearing or feeling in a given moment.
Craig’s form of escapism proves strikingly similar to the one seen in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days. Released in 1995 but set in 1999, Bigelow’s futuristic vision of a hellish, chaotic Los Angeles follows Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a man who makes his living selling ‘SQUID’ discs (illegal virtual-reality-like recordings that allow users to experience the sensations of other people). These two otherwise very different films push their premise to the same logical conclusion. The Malkovich portal and the SQUID recordings are largely used as a way to experience sexual encounters with very beautiful women, who the consumer would otherwise never get near.
Similarly, in both American Beauty and Office Space, our heroes in mid-life crisis mode make their move on women who are “out of their league” and outside of the realms of possibility established by mainstream society. Lester crosses a line by flirting with underage girl Angela (Mena Suvari), while Peter transcends the boundary between the professional and the personal by asking a restaurant waitress out for a date. Both of them, in the meantime, ignore their longtime girlfriends and wives.
That the frustrations of these men are so often reflected in their treatment of women – forgetting them, flirting with them, or in Bateman’s case (fantasising about) murdering them – is hardly surprising. The dynamic is a clear reflection and a consequence of the sense of impotence created by the anonymity and powerlessness of white-collar office work, its stasis and lack of physical demand.
Significantly, the emergence of these films also coincides with the arrival of third-wave feminism. Questioning stereotypes about womanhood in all areas of life, the movement offered a much more individualist, empowering vision of the feminist woman – in other words, the very opposite of the impotence felt by so many men in these movies.
Torn between an acute sense of powerlessness, and a realisation that the alpha male mode of masculinity is not an option anymore, the insomniac narrator from Fight Club is utterly lost, unable to process his emotions in a manner that would not in fact make him feel more powerless or more antiquated. Before the ultra-macho fight clubs, the narrator’s only emotional catharsis at the film’s start is found in attending support groups for mental and physical troubles he does not suffer from. Surrounded by people who sympathise with his presumed pain, he is finally able to cry and to sleep.
The genius of Fight Club is to align us with a protagonist who, for most of the film’s duration, feels superior to the ‘pathetic’ men seen in the film – braver than the cancer patients crying at the support groups, and more reasonable than alpha male caricature Tyler Durden. But when the narrator finally realises that Tyler was, in fact, himself all along, he/we also understand the extent of his denial and cowardice. He could only cry and enact his fantasies through performance and delusion.
Thankfully, the anxiety seen on screen in the 1990s was not only that of straight white men confused about how to adapt their masculinity to the times. It is telling that the only full blown misogynist among these characters is Patrick Bateman, a man who embraces the corporate lifestyle to the end. All the other men rebel, to some degree, against the capitalism that defines the eponymous American Psycho. But Strange Days and The Matrix also hint at wider forms of emancipation that involve people of genders, colours and classes other than their own.
Initially self-centred, apathetic and completely disengaged from the political struggles of his time, Lenny Nero in Strange Days eventually uncovers a story of police brutality that echoes the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Outnumbered and alone with his girlfriend Mace (Angela Bassett), Lenny nevertheless resolves to take political action against oppressors.
In The Matrix, Anderson/Neo is liberated from the collective hallucination of the boring corporate world by a group of ethnically diverse, pan-sexual and singular individuals. With their help, he fulfills his destiny to become a kind of Jedi knight who can bend time and other laws of physics at will. The anxious people of late 1990s America could certainly not do what Neo does, but his and the film’s message was clear: the solution to their nightmare lay in reclaiming the power of the individual, certainly, but also of the collective in the face of adversity.
Both Strange Days and The Matrix end on a hopeful note but one that remains coloured with uncertainty about the future. Without jumping into sci-fi mode, Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped animated feature Waking Life thoroughly investigates those doubts, going as far as it can into all of the insecurities plaguing humankind at the eve of a new millennium. The many conversations with thinkers, scientists, artists and other random people that make up the film do not give its unnamed protagonist any specific solutions. But the film does suggest that this investigative, curious, empathic spirit might be the best answer to the doom-and-gloom mentality that infused so much of American cinema and culture at the time. To quote Neo: “I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin.”