Fight Club, American Beauty: the Search for Beauty and Meaning

photo of stenciled artwork on a blast wall on a military base in Afghanistan, recalling a scene from Fight Club, via Wikipedia

Thinking about why my younger self was obsessed with Fight Club and American Beauty.

Both films are a true picture of life in a fallen world where people do not know God but recognize that there is something profoundly wrong with the world. They are seeking something— an escape? A reprieve? But they don’t know where to look for their salvation.

In Fight Club you find a rejection of materialistic consumerism and a desire for connection. But in a broken fatherless world, the yearning for connection is frustrated. Without the model of human fatherhood, people cannot begin to imagine God’s fatherhood. Furthermore, sex is frustrated by the use of condoms, true connection is impossible, all that can exist are meaningless sexual acts of pseudo-intimacy. So the intimacy and connection of fruitful married love that leads to children and the community of the family is truly unfathomable.

There’s a sort of nascent desire for asceticism, but no sense of its proper end. There’s a rejection of the worship of self and of the worship of health and of the perfection of the body. So a desire to mar and disfigure the human form is a sort of asceticism– somewhat akin to the medieval practice of flagellation. And yet, the fighting, too, is meaningless– merely destroying beauty does not create meaning.

At its heart Fight Club is a rejection of so many of the ills of the modern world. And an acknowledgment of the fundamental insanity and sickness of that world. But… there’s no positive vision. It can only see the beauty of the destructive act. There’s a desire to destroy all that is false but an inability to envision the truth that lies behind the illusions. It’s bleak but it’s sort of an accurate mirror. Or an accurate diagnosis by a doctor who has no clue how to treat the illness but can see that it is an illness.

American Beauty is similar but with a protagonist who clings to physical beauty in the hope that it can save him. He acknowledges that beauty is good and he chases after it. But it is insufficient and cannot save him because it is only created beauty and not knowledge of the Creator. And yet there is something haunting about the portrayal of the souls who are desperate for something transcendent and beautiful, and desperate for connection, in the midst of modern ugliness.

I also think both films do interesting things with unreliable narrators and narrative structure. I’m a sucker for the unreliable narrator device. And I love non-linear structures. Give me a film that tells the story out of order in an interesting way and I’ll probably obsesses over it.

Some of my favorite obsess-over movies have been in a similar vein, either the themes are about the meaninglessness of the modern world and the need for connection even in the darkness, or the narrative structure is non-linear, or there’s an unreliable narrator– or some combination of the three: Run Lola Run, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pulp Fiction, Memento, The Truman Show, Fifty First Dates, Sliding Doors, Next Stop Wonderland. I keep trying to figure out why these particular movies touched a similar note for me. And I think it’s that combination of the theme and the particular kind of storytelling. But it’s been the project of decades to try to tease out what I have to say about them– a pot that’s been on the back burner of my mind for a very long time.

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