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Entertainment Geekly Mailbag: A serious attempt to explain movies about White Dude Problems

FALLING DOWN

1999 will always be one of my favorite years for movies. This is partially because there were a lot of great movies released that year, but mainly because in 1999 I was in high school, and as we all know, the world was more important and less terrible when we were in high school. Last week, I took a look at which movies from 1999 had aged well, and asked which had aged poorly. The response was overwhelming, insofar as it’s overwhelming that anyone likes American Beauty.

However, one reader email in particular struck me as a launchpad for an important conversation. Here it is:

Going forward will all movies that have a Caucasian lead in them simply be dismissed as “white dude problems?” Guess I can check off Citizen Kane and North by Northwest from my good movies list.
–Nicholas

This is a totally valuable statement, albeit ideologically flimsy for reasons I will attempt to elucidate. It’s a direct reference to my assertion that Fight Club is “another vintage white-dude-problems movie.” Actually, Fight Club forms a trilogy alongside Office Space and American Beauty, two other class-of-‘99 all-stars.

All three movies are about white dudes of a certain age—roughly 30 in Fight Club, roughly mid-30s in Office Space, just beyond 40 in American Beauty—who are frustrated. The inciting situation of all three pictures is roughly equivalent: Man works in office, dislikes his job, dislikes himself, feels aimless.

The three movies go in wildly different stylistic directions, but it’s not too hard to tease out similarities. In each movie, there’s a scene where the frustrated worker bee gets to Talk Back To The Boss; in each movie, this Talking Back To The Boss earns the frustrated worker bee more money (American Beauty), or computer equipment (Fight Club), or a promotion (Office Space.) Each movie’s protagonist is a white collar employee who dreams of a non-white collar job: Ron Livingston in Office Space wants to be a construction worker, Kevin Spacey in American Beauty ditches the banality of office life for the redemptive proto-normcore thrills of fast food service; Edward Norton in Fight Club begins a soap manufacturing business on the side, although it takes Edward Norton awhile to realize that.

Does it necessarily matter that all these movies star white dudes? Does it necessarily matter that, besides Ajay Naidu in Office Space, the only characters in these movies are white dudes and one beautiful plot-motivating woman, two tops? Short answer: Not at all. It’s always tricky bringing up identity politics with regards to Hollywood movies, and it’s always worthwhile to insist that movies should be more diverse both in front of and behind the camera, but it’s wrong to throw a film aside just because it doesn’t reflect one’s own hyper-specific dream of a  progressive multicultural gender-norm-defying utopia. Like, does it matter that the Avengers are mostly white dudes? Yes, it matters; yes, it should change; yes, Avengers is still a fun movie.

But I think we need to clarify the difference here between the films of 1999 and the films of yore, Citizen Kane and North by Northwest and the whole host of brilliant movies made throughout Hollywood’s not-completely-but-generally-quite White Dude’d history. Put simply: There’s a difference between movies about white dudes with problems and a White Dude Problems movie. The latter is a subgenre that positively flourished in the ’90s. The tenets of the genre are simple: Passive white dude feels somehow left out and/or left behind by the modern world. There’s a speechifying instinct in these movies, a sense that the white dude at the center of the story is an everyman—and, as an everyman, he is actually symbolic of Larger Things.

The best example of this is Fight Club, a movie where Brad Pitt plays a character who speaks almost exclusively in quotes that would look great on a Hot Topic T-shirt. But the magnum opus of the White Dude Problems genre is unquestionably Falling Down, a movie where beleaguered white male Michael Douglas walks across Los Angeles and finds himself positively hounded by wild stereotypes from all across the socio-economic/ethnic stratosphere. Everything Michael Douglas says in the movie is a variation of Randy on South Park screaming “I thought this was America!” some greatest hits:

-You’re Korean? Do you have any idea how much money my country has given your country?

-In America, we have the freedom of speech, the right to disagree!

-Well, maybe if you wrote it in f—ing English, I could f—ing understand it.

 -Did you know I build missiles? I helped to protect America. You should be rewarded for that. But instead they give it to the plastic surgeons, you know they lied to me.

-I’m an American and you’re a sick a–hole.

-I think you’re just trying to justify your inflated budgets! I know how it works! If you don’t spend the projected amount this year, you don’t get the same amount next year!

-It’s not enough you have all these beautiful acres fenced in for your little game, but you gotta kill me with a golf ball? You should have children playing here, you should have families having picnics, you should have a goddamn petting zoo. But instead you’ve got these stupid electric carts for you old men with nothing better to do.

Now pause to imagine anything like any of that happening in North by Northwest. Imagine Cary Grant, not long after narrowly avoiding death at the hands of the crop duster, hailing down a taxicab with, like, a French driver, and the cabbie says “Sorry, sir, I’m off-duty in half an hour, I can’t take you all the way back to Chicago,” and then Cary Grant says, “Listen hear, Kermit, if it weren’t for chaps like me, your whole family would be speaking German right now, now how about you stop surrendering for once in your life and take me to the auction house and if you’re lucky I’ll give you a big fat tip so you can eat some extra croque monsieur next time you take a five-hour lunch break. SEE VOO PLAY, MOTHERF–KER!!!!!!!”

Or, for that matter, imagine that Citizen Kane had the same in-your-face, voice-of-a-generation speeches that define American Beauty and Fight Club. This isn’t a lunatic proposition: Orson Welles was all of 26 when he made Citizen Kane, about the same age that Lena Dunham was when she decided that the Lena Dunham character on Girls wanted to be the voice of her generation. And you could argue that, if anyone ever had claim to being the voice of their generation, it was Orson Welles in 1941. And Citizen Kane is explicitly an Important American Story.

Now imagine that Kane gave, like, any of the speeches that Tyler Durden gives in Fight Club; or imagine if, at any point, Kane explicitly stated that he himself was a symbol of Something Larger. Like, one of the reasons why I think people still think they like Fight Club is that they remember the much more fun first half of the movie and forget the weird, didactic latter half, when Brad Pitt shaves his head and starts talking all about he’s going to save the world by destroying it. Imagine Kane doing anything like this; imagine, in that tense scene where Kane has a showdown with his second wife, he suddenly launches into a long speech:

“You don’t understand, Susan, you can’t understand! Sure, I was raised with money. But you know what I didn’t have? A mother to love me. A father to teach me. When I was a young man, they told me that the world would be mine. But they lied to me. They said that we were fighting the war to end all wars. But then came the Depression; and then another war. They lied to us, Susan. Maybe it’s time we stop believing their lies. Maybe it’s time we fight back. You think I built Xanada for you, Susan? You think this place is just an unfinished house? No. It’s a fortress. And soon, my army will rise.”

Doesn’t this all sound totally silly? Yes. And it’s all quite silly in Fight Club, and Falling Down, and in American Beauty. Now, you could argue that all three films are supposed to be satire—that you’re supposed to take all the statements made by Brad Pitt and Michael Douglas with a grain of salt, that Kevin Spacey and Edward Norton ultimately experience grace only by turning their back on their motivating anger. Personally, I am suspicious of all the movies’ intentions: Falling Down takes tremendous glee in letting Michael Douglas fire a rocket launcher at a lazy construction crew, and American Beauty lets Kevin Spacey nobly refuse to bonk Mena Suvari, and Fight Club’s ending welcomes the apocalypse with open arms.

(Conversely, those interested in teasing out the social semiotics of blockbuster movies might note that The Matrix inverts the White Dude Problems movie script: Keanu Reeves is a boring office drone, beset upon by exclusively-white Agents, who gets drawn into an exciting new world of multicultural androgyny.)

The point is: No one is saying you should cross Citizen Kane off the Great Movies list just because it doesn’t fulfill some abstract ethnic/gender quota. But I am saying that after 73 years Citizen Kane has only gotten better, and after 15 years Fight Club has gotten notably worse.

Eyes Wide Shut, The Insider, and Run Lola Run. I know none of them caught fire in the public’s consciousness back then (nor have they since, although I still meet people who HATE that final Kubrick film), but for me they remain not just great films but ones that don’t look or feel like other films from that year.

–Gareth

Run Lola Run is such a ludicrously good movie—probably one of the best running discoveries of the DVD era, insofar as by 2002 everyone seemed to have a copy of it. It’s not generally classified as an action movie, but I wonder if we should start floating Franka Potente-as-Lola when we talk about the great action heroines, since she’s engaging in physical activity for basically the entire running time of the movie.

Eyes Wide Shut I have more mixed feelings about. I saw it around opening weekend with my older brother. If memory serves, this was about one week after we saw American Pie together—which means that July 1999 was when Teenaged Me learned a lot of extraordinarily confusing things about human sexuality. I love Kubrick and am a Cruise devotee, but the one time I rewatched Eyes Wide Shut, I found it painfully antiseptic. Lots of Kubrick’s movies are slow—I love Barry Lyndon, and that movie is positively glacial—but Eyes Wide Shut is the only one that feels boring. I will give it a rewatch, though.

The Insider is a tremendous film, and the only reason I didn’t include is that I don’t think its reputation has notably changed in the ensuing decade-and-a-half. If you’ve seen The Insider, you know it’s great; if not, nothing in our culture has provided added motivation to check it out. This is a shame, because The Insider’s central idea—how Big Business collaborates with Big Media to eliminate inconvenient truths—is only more potent today. In the demerits column: Al Pacino isn’t bad in The Insider, but he sure isn’t good.

Good list for movies in 1999. One film I’d say that aged well from that year was The Mummy. I’d say that was one of Brendan Fraser’s best moments and was one of the movies where it showed how good the digital effects can be in story telling.
Another good movie from 1999 was Tim Burton and Johnny Depp version of Sleepy Hollow. Depp just put on a clinic in that movie. Plus the set design was excellent!
A movie that definitely does not hold up 15 years later is the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough. Saw it opening night with my friend and loved it! But when I watched it about five years later I couldn’t even finish it and shut it off around 40 minutes! Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist? You kidding me?
–Keith

Bizarrely, I have never seen Sleepy Hollow. Actually, not bizarrely: I prefer to live in an alternate reality where Tim Burton stopped making films after Mars Attacks! However, the phrase “just put on a clinic” is my new favorite euphemism for “crushing it,” so I will have to check it out.

The Mummy is one of the best movies ever made to be specifically viewed on TNT around 4 p.m. on a rainy Saturday. The World Is Not Enough is absolutely unwatchable now—I suspect that we all gave it slightly more credit at the time just because we all still thought that Pierce Brosnan could deliver another GoldenEye. That never happened, and it’s possible that Brosnan’s entire Bond era hasn’t aged well—although I remain a strident defender of the kookbat wonder that is Die Another Day.

Your year 2000 article on movies that didn’t age well should have a title and then consist of exactly two words: Road Trip.
-Will

2000 was actually one year after 1999, but Will’s comment is still spot-on. Road Trip feels like a ’90s: Stifler, Amy Smart, Tom Green, Andy Dick, Horatio Sanz, the plot-centralizing presence of a VHS sex tape and Actual Mail. (Tom Green in particular seems like one of those defining zeitgeist things that no one ever gets nostalgic for. This is too bad, MTV’s The Tom Green Show was bizarrely mesmerizing television during the little-over-a-year that it aired.)

Bizarrely, I think that EuroTrip has aged better than Road Trip? Is that possible? I feel like someone makes a “Scotty Doesn’t Know” joke at least once every three months.

I think The Sixth Sense is only disappointing if what you liked about it was the twist ending.  I always felt the best part of the movie was the conversation in the car, when Cole tells his mother that he spoke to her mother, and to prove it he tells her the answer to her question.  When she tells him the question is “Do I make you proud?” it destroys me.

-sheepy

A great point, which connects to an important thing to remember about M. Night Shyamalan: There’s more to him than his twists. For my money, his masterpiece is Unbreakable, a completely stripped-down superhero story. Most people remember the movie for “the twist,” but the final revelation enriches the movie considerably. Conversely, Signs and The Village have goofball story zigzags, but both films also feature great filmmaking. Signs in particular already feels like a “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” artifact: An alien invasion thriller focused entirely on one family, set almost entirely on a single farm.

The return of Star Wars in 1999 was exciting and at the time it was easy to forgive the shortcomings in The Phantom Menace.  Over the years it becomes less easy. It is the worst of an amazing franchise and cultural icon. It’s still better than many other films.
My favorite of 1999 and remains is Princess Mononoke, interestingly described by one critic as the animated Star Wars.
A film that has grown in my estimation over the years to become one of my favorites is Almodovar’s All About My Mother.  The cast is perfection and the pathos incredibly deep.  Whenever Cecilia Roth is made to remember her dead son you feel her pain.
I agree that Dogma is the best film ever by Kevin Smith.  It was the 1999 film I wish I had written.
I don’t necessarily agree with your thoughts about The Sixth Sense. Even while Shyamalan’s reputation has been ruined, The Sixth Sense stands alone as an engaging film with one of the best performances by a child actor. I also disagree about Fight Club which has grown in my estimation. It wasn’t originally on my top ten for the year but it may now be in my top ten for the year. It took repeated viewings to fully appreciate and understand the film. I love looking for the clues that Tyler Durden isn’t real.  Many of them are in the reactions and comments by Helena Bonham Carter which originally made me question whether she was in the same movie as everyone else.
Steve

Princess Mononoke is a masterpiece. The Phantom Menace is whatever the opposite of a masterpiece is. I’ll agree to disagree about Fight Club, but I strongly recommend that everyone rewatch Dogma now.