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The first half of “Fight Club” feels like a remake of Woody Allen’s 1978 film “Interiors” with the genders reversed. Where Allen’s vanilla ice cream-looking study of Geraldine Page’s cold beige rooms contrasted her womanhood (or lack thereof) to that of joke-cracking, red dress-wearing life-force Maureen Stapleton, “Fight Club” throws a squeaky clean corporate mouse played by Edward Norton into the grimy macho world of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). You know Pitt plays a real man because his hair’s messed up and he lives in what Norton’s character calls “a dilapidated house in a toxic waste part of town.”
Norton is psychologically castrated because of his office job, condo ownership and addiction to catalog shopping. Fincher’s hilarious tour of the condo pans the living room and floats the Ikea catalog description of tables and chairs above the pieces, so that the catalog copy becomes the air Norton breathes. Similarly, Geraldine Page in “Interiors” arranged perfect white flowers in perfect white vases because she was a repressed aesthete, and Maureen Stapleton knew how to have a good time since she knocks over one of said vases — drunk and dancing. If both maddening films are partly about gender, they are also partly about housewares. Namely, the neuroses not just of ownership and consumer goods, but the supposed spiritual void symbolized by a nice-looking room.
The difference between exploring overboard feminine home decoration and male domesticity is of course that the home front is the female domain. The catalyst for Norton, whom Pitt nicknames “Ikea Boy,” to dump his cozily crisp Scandinavian modern digs for Pitt’s rat-hole, where even sheets on the bare stained mattresses would be too soft, is an exchange the two men have when they meet on an airplane. Pitt asks Norton if he knows what a duvet is — he does — and poses the philosophical inquiry, “Why do guys like you and I know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word?”
That the word “dude” doesn’t crop up in this dialogue is some kind of miracle. And thus Norton’s horrifying textile awareness — call it the embarrassment of stitches — sends him to the rest of the film, which is all about bloody male bonding and hitting and is more or less furniture-free. (On the duvet question, my friend David blurted, “I’d rather know what a duvet is than an Abdominator, which is clearly all Brad Pitt did to prepare for his role.”)
I called John Christakos, a co-founder of the delightful Minnesota furniture design company Blu Dot, and asked him if he supposed his shelving and coffee tables were contributing to the downfall of masculinity in America. He said, “I hope so. That is our goal.” I asked him about his son, pictured in the Blu Dot Web site’s very manly recipe section, and his son’s mother. Are his wife’s girlfriends jealous of her having a husband with a sense of the domicile? “Yeah. Chicks dig that. I’m a designer,” he laughed. “It’s like being a rock star.”
One of the most horrifying aspects of “Fight Club” is that the transformation of Norton from nerd to asshole is not motivated by the most proper reason for a young straight man to change his life, which is of course to impress girls. If he wanted to attract more women (or at least women other than the movie’s sole female star, the skittish mascara vamp Helena Bonham Carter), he would have become himself, but more so — better house, better furniture, better job. He would have turned into Chris Noth’s infuriating charmer Mr. Big on HBO’s “Sex in the City.” Because when Big breaks the heart of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), the viewer isn’t wistful because she’ll miss a shallow cad like him but because now she’s going to have to settle for sleeping with guys with lower thread-count sheets. What if, heaven forbid, her future boyfriends’ bedding will be part polyester percale? It could turn into one of those princess-
Ben Karlin, head writer for the relatively butch “Daily Show With Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central, divides his current obsessions among his dog, finding a balance between comedy and truth, and, not least, his new crushed velvet moss green chaise longue. This is not just a man who knows what a duvet is, he is a man who asserts, “I think a nice duvet can help make a room.”
In “Fight Club,” Norton’s character complains, “I’d flip through catalogs and wonder what kind of dining set defined me as a person.” Asked if he feels that way about his chaise, Karlin says, “I’m afraid of it defining me is what I would say. I couldn’t buy it without in some way undercutting that purchase. It’s such a fancy piece of furniture — and not just fancy for a male, it’s fancy for a young person. When I got it, I insisted on the store giving me the sign that hung over it. It was this flourishy description of it: ‘The chaise longue is the most decadent feeling in the world! Crushed Velvet!’ I got the sign and hung it over the chaise in the apartment. You can’t look at one without the other. A purchase like that is loaded.”
If Karlin, like Norton in “Fight Club,” were called Ikea Boy, would he take offense? “Yeah, but probably not for the same reason. I think Ikea is cheap. Most of their stuff looks like the stuff you try to get to make your place look nice if you don’t have a lot of money. But if you don’t have a lot of money, you should just be a little more creative. Spend a little time, whether it’s flea markets or whatever. So if someone called me Ikea Boy, it wouldn’t bother me because I surrendered some notion of toughness but because it implies I have bad taste.” He chuckles a second before adding, “But I’m telling you! I’m straight!”
The thing cartoons like “Fight Club” and “Interiors” miss about human beings who are concerned with the domestic sphere is a certain realistic complexity. There’s nothing wrong with living somewhere decent. Is there a more appealing scene in cinema than the one in John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” where the Joad family finally lands at a clean, kind migrant camp? The look on Henry Fonda’s face when he learns his tired old ma can rest in lovely surroundings after so much meanness and filth is one of the most human expressions ever captured on celluloid. Remembering that look when Pitt utters generational, are-we-not-men nonsense like “our Great Depression is our lives” in “Fight Club” is, well, depressing.
Because you don’t have to wear red dresses like Maureen Stapleton to be a passionate individual and you can, like I did last week, spend 18 seconds plopping daisies in a vase without forgetting more important things like my workload and that I love my father enough to call him on his birthday. When Ben Karlin was talking up the simple joy of his new chaise lounge, I brought up a scene in the other current middle-class-male-gets-real film, “American Beauty.” Married couple Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening are finally getting along well enough to make out on their living room couch and the mood gets ruined when Bening notices Spacey’s about to spill beer on the upholstery. If things were going well with Karlin and a lady friend on his beloved chaise, would he mind a little mess? “I thought that was a great scene,” he answers. “This has happened to me before. If I’m having a really good moment, I don’t give a shit about anything. The way they played that scene was very arch. I know there have been times with food items on my nice stuff, and you just kind of go with it because you realize, you hope that if you’re young and you’re in the middle of life, that’s the reason you’re alive.”
Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.More Sarah Vowell.