The Unreasonable One Persists: Fight Club, Office Space, and The Matrix
I got my first DVD player at the beginning of 2001 when I got a new computer to replace a lemon that had crashed three times per day for three years despite having every single component of it replaced one by one. The case itself was malign, worming into perfectly good hardware through the mounting screws. The DVD drive at that point was a decent bit more cash than a mere CD drive, but still less than an actual DVD player, and since my beast of a CRT monitor was 4 inches bigger than my television, it only made sense.
The first three DVDs I purchased, and the only ones I had for some time thanks to Hollywood Video and being a broke college student, were Fight Club, Office Space, and The Matrix. We're all products of our time, and 1999 was a fine vintage. I watched those three films damned near as much as I watched the Star Wars trilogy as a kid, dialogue and sound effects sinking into the subconscious so that I could just about transcribe out their scripts from memory, complete with stage direction.
They are three films that have little in common on the surface, yet all tap from different angles into the same roiling mass of half-formed anger and disillusionment seething beneath the surface. We're presented with three protagonists floating miserably through a world of boredom, coasting along in khakis to the endless meetings, eyes glazing over at the interchangeable drones with their interchangeable lives. The horror is not the drones, but that you are one of them too. Work, buy, sleep, rinse and repeat. The Matrix is the most literal minded of the three, but all are grounded in an almost existential question: this can't really be the real world, can it?
I watched these films for the first time in college, enjoyed them but did not grok them for several years. Wearing the uniform of khakis, sitting in on conference calls and brainstorming sessions, learning how to corporate speak. Work hard, here's more work, same as the last. Spending every paycheck and having less you care about than when you had no paycheck at all. Always being angry at nothing and going home to a cat, a television, and vodka.
I remember reading a review of Fight Club by Roger Ebert, how he had problems with the film teetering on endorsement of fascism, that for him the biggest problem in the movie was Jack not repenting at the end, not learning the error of his ways and just growing up already. I thought for the longest time that Ebert missed the point, but having given it a decade of marination I think that some perspectives just can't see certain points of view. Even the Mona Lisa is just white canvas when you look at it from behind. Ebert's not wrong that the proper ending of these films in the context of a traditional story is to grow up and accept the world as it is, to be responsible and give up what amounts to childish fantasy and revolt. Part of growing up is realizing that you're not going to be an NFL linebacker or a fighter pilot.
But that definition of growing up is contingent on the world actually being sane in the first place. If it isn't, then the difficult decision, the responsible decision is not to learn to live with the world, it's to break with the world itself. All three films make the same artistic decision to challenge that conventional thinking that growing up means giving in.
All three protagonists commit suicide, at least in so far as the logic of their worlds goes. Neo turns to face the agents, Peter slides a confession under the door, Jack pulls the trigger. And they all watch the buildings tumble in one way or the other. They come out the other side of the fire, scorched but not burned to ash. Death is just a metaphor for being born.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.