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John Warner

Man and his Madness

At 32, I am still too young, but soon enough the time will come when I need to start planning my midlife crisis. Even my wife is starting to come on board with the idea that it may at some point prove necessary for me to rejuvenate my spirit with an overpriced auto and a tryst with a young lady of borderline age, just as long as I’m willing to conduct my crisis without the service of my gonads.

As cliché as the midlife crisis may be, it remains real, documented daily in the searching looks of men in hotel bars. In fact, in recent years it has even begun to acquire society’s sanction. Previously, the midlife crisis-guy with his fake tan and his hair plugs was pitied. He could not pull off the Miami Vice era Don Johnson look because his gut bulged beneath the pastel sport shirts, body hair crept up his knuckles, and there always was that unfortunate glandular problem. He was a clown, comic relief at best, or tragedy at worst, as we followed him back to his efficiency, the putative bachelor pad rented after deserting the wife and kids. We laughed at the man who imagined that black light was still cool. We shook our heads and tsk-tsked as he sat in front of the television, shirtless, fat and hairy, and shoveled microwaved turkey dinner into his face. So sad. The world had passed him by. His wife ends up remarried to someone better looking, with a higher income. On weekends, he sees his children who now seem to delight in calling this other man "dad." He buys them ice cream and they sit silently through movies none of them really want to see. A cautionary tale for sure.

Today, though, it seems as though the tide is turning towards an embracing of the midlife crisis. We see it in the rise of McMansions, or the increasing market for male cosmetics, or the speed with which new electronic "toys" are rushed to market to satiate the demand for distraction. We see it in the explosion of magazines like Maxim, which seek to move the midlife crisis forward, into one’s early 20’s, and declare it a lifestyle all its own.

Fortunately, when looking for models for my crisis, the turn of the century has brought us two celebrated movies which collectively form the current apotheosis in the portrayal of middle-class disaffection and midlife crisis, Fight Club and American Beauty. (Yes, I’m aware that Fight Club was a book first, but the ratio of those who have seen the movie vs. read the book is likely in the range of 10,000 to 1 or greater.)

American Beauty swept most of the major Academy awards in its year of release, including actor, director, screenplay, and picture. (So glad we were it won best picture over that hokey, middle-brow Green Mile garbage, weren’t we?) At the time it was embraced by those of us with "taste" and anointed as something different, a new perspective.

Of course, a wee bit of hindsight tells us all that happy backslapping over an "art film" that can gross a hundred million and win awards was only so much horse shit.

As the movie opens, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) informs us that in a year, he will be dead, but it doesn’t matter, he is dead already. His wife (Carolyn, played by Annette Benning) and daughter (Jane, Thora Birch) hate him. The downsizing axe hovers over his work as a journalistic pimp at a trade magazine named (oh, so subtly) Media Monthly. He declares that he moves through life feeling…"sedated."

But soon he is transformed by an encounter with youth, as embodied in cheerleader Angela (Jane’s friend, played by Mena Suvari as a kind of ur-Maxim covergirl), as he watches her bump and grind during the halftime routine of the high school basketball game.

Now we watch Lester go.

Lester smokes pot and works on his physique in the garage. Lester looks smug as he blackmails his bosses into a nice severance. Lester, looking smug, triumphantly hurls a plate of asparagus at the wall. Lester talks rough to his vapid wife and exposes her affair with the goofy-haired local lothario/real estate king and looks pretty smug doing it. Lester goes to the brink with his daughter’s nubile young friend. Lester blinks more slowly than before. In the garage scenes, his body appears to be greased with baby oil, so Lester appears to be literally shiny and new, improved. Clearly, Lester knows something we do not.

Lester is our hero. (So brave all of these things!) Lester even goes to work in fast food. (So very brave! Have you seen the people who work in fast food! Greasy-faced youngsters and old people! Ethnics!) In case it isn’t clear that Lester is to be revered for his regression, at the end, he is tragically martyred just after he realizes that he has moved from walking through life "sedated" to feeling, "great," but it’s all just as well, because dead, and soaring above (now an angel?) this horribly average, stultifying place we live in, he is frequently so filled by "beauty" he should burst.

The "beauty" of the denouement, though, seems to be mostly in Lester realizing that there were a few moments of his life – stretched out in a field, watching falling stars at boy scout camp, his daughter in a fairy princess costume at Halloween, his wife, mouth open and laughing as she rides the tilt-a-whirl – that weren’t so bad after all, and all it takes is a bullet cleaning out your brain to remember them. In the end, what we’re left with is that life is "great" if you just remember to look hard enough. This parade of Hallmark moments is what Lester, in all his smugness, has come to know. This. Oy. (Despite evidence to the contrary, there is no truth to the rumor that Maya Angelou served as script doctor on the film.)

The movie’s other hero figure, next door neighbor Ricky (Wes Bentley) clearly understands this, has understood this the whole time in fact, as throughout them movie, he sees beauty everywhere -- in a wind blown baggie, a dead bird, Jane’s humble breasts, or even Lester’s staring corpse bathed in its own blood and brain matter.

If the movie’s conclusion is somehow meant to be delivered with an elbow into our sides, wink-wink, nudge-nudge style, the clues are well-hidden. If it is sincere, then…I don’t know what. Either way, we are left nowhere.

Ultimately, therefore, American Beauty makes a lousy model for my future midlife crisis, as there’s little fulfillment as the aesthetic fetish object of the creepy next door neighbor kid.

With Fight Club, (for my money, a far more cohesive and superior film to American Beauty) smashing each other’s brains in as a reaction against the so-called "Ikea-ization" of our culture was made to seem so sensible, people actually started doing it.

Like American Beauty, Fight Club portrays the soured American dream. In Lester’s case, the promise of a loving family has dissolved into hateful stares and silences from his daughter, and a frosty marital bed. For the unnamed narrator of Fight Club (Ed Norton), his job has become rote and defeating, and the stuff this awful job can buy him (i.e., his IKEA furniture) has ceased to provide solace. He sleeps only on planes and fantasizes about dying horribly. Like Lester, he has become almost completely inert, tugged around only by abstract obligations and expectations.

As we find out in the end (spoiler coming), this kind of negative pressure has caused him to literally split his personality, giving rise to the Tyler Durden alter ego, a sizzling, macho, libidinous, active man with the good looks of Brad Pitt (mostly because he’s played by Brad Pitt). From this point on, no matter which personality he inhabits, pain and terror are the chief sources of energy, be it found in getting pounded (or pounding someone) in a dingy basement, suffering a horrific chemical burn, or threatening a convenience store worker at gunpoint to quit his job and enroll in college.

The message is clear. (Abundantly so, and delivered with enough winks and laughs to let us know that Fight Club is intended as a burlesque. I mean, we’re treated to Meat Loaf with breasts in case we were wavering.) Our consumer-oriented lifestyle has left us numb to the kind of struggle that gives life meaning. The army of ascetics that assemble under the Project Mayhem umbrella in the dilapidated headquarters that the narrator/Durden has made home, understand this, or at least understand that a punch in the face is preferable to the comfort of a Swedish foam mattress because the knuckle sandwich at least allows them to feel something.

To set the rest of us free, they are going to erase the source of our narcotics, consumer credit. The movie’s conclusion is ambiguous. (As opposed to American Beauty, which is simply mushy.) The narrator is apparently redeemed by the love of a strange woman, and slays the Durden alter ego (with a bullet to the head, mirroring Lester Burnham’s release), thus becoming whole again, but is too late to prevent the massive destruction that his project intended. He is reborn, but the world as we know it is over. On screen, the exploding and tumbling buildings are literally beautiful, rendered with incredible detail and loving care by the best CGI technicians money could buy. It is not clear what is left in its place, but at the very least, it will be different, which we’ve come to learn is de facto better.

Fight Club didn’t win any major awards, but its fan base was incredibly passionate about the film, as witnessed in the innumerable home made web pages featuring Fight Club that embrace and espouse the philosophy of the film. The rise of real life fight clubs following release of the movie is well-documented. Clearly, the movie struck a cord.

Let’s not get too wrapped up in this particular revolution, though. It is a safe bet that there’s an extremely high incidence of households that own Fight Club (on DVD, no less) while also subscribing to the consumerism orgy known as Maxim. These same households, I imagine, display a very low incidence of awareness of the irony in this juxtaposition.

In the end, American Beauty is a movie that has been labeled smart, but is, in reality, rather dumb, while Fight Club is a dumb movie that is much smarter than it first appears.

However, as radical as either of these movies may have felt in their celebratory embrace of the midlife crisis, neither is particularly revolutionary in its suggestion as to the cure for my forthcoming postmodern malaise. The self-centered devolution of Lester sees its kin in awareness seminars, or Dr. Phil haranguing some poor couple into finally telling each other what they really feel.

Fight Club is simply souped up firewalking, or an EST seminar moved from the Hyatt conference room to the bar basement and eliminating yelling and being denied use of the bathroom, in favor of fisticuffs, thanks to my wife whom I love, any of which would be a cakewalk compared to the reality of my existence if I ever do decide to go ahead with a "real" midlife crisis.

John Warner writes fiction, non-fiction and humor, and is co-author (with Kevin Guilfoile) of My First Presidentiary: A Scrapbook of George W. Bush. ( He is a contributing editor to McSweeney's Quarterly, and his work has appeared in Book Magazine, Salon, Zoetrope All Story Extra, the Chicago Reader among other places. His essay "Stroking the G(rief) Spot" is included in the current issue of Public Scrutiny. John teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Virginia Tech University and can be reached at

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