It was 1999, I had just turned 17, and my friend Jake and I were driving back from watching Fight Club in the theaters. Jake jokingly hit the gas in his Mustang and took his hands off the wheel. Like Tyler Durden in the film, we were flirting with the idea of just “letting go.”
Fight Club, for all its hyper-masculinity and shots of Brad Pitt’s abs, turned out to be more than a joke for me. Its critique of consumption and the yuppie American lifestyle cut deep. Perhaps it was because I saw the film at a formative age, on the threshold of becoming an adult, but I moved forward into college and afterwards into my working life afraid and determined to not become Edward Norton’s character, trapped in an IKEA prison in some high-rise condominium. Much of my career–from working in independent publishing to living in Oakland* to working as a freelancer with one foot always outside of corporate IT departments–was driven by this fear of becoming just another soul lost in a vapid life of duvet covers.
The other week I noticed American Beauty pop-up on Netflix. After re-watching the film, I realized that it, too, was released in 1999 alongside another favorite of mine, Office Space. I had never put it together that these three films were released in the same year, and all three directly criticize the American dream of a salaried position and a comfortable, predictable life. All three films also tackle the concept of re-invention, whether it be into a construction worker, weed smoking fast food worker, or terrorist cell leader. The American dream was something to be avoided, and if you found yourself trapped in it, then it was time for a metamorphosis.
A co-worker who is nearly ten years my junior was recently having some issues with hardware, and I sent him the infamous beat-down clip from Office Space. He sent back some lols and then asked “if that was from a TV show.” I was surprised that he had never seen the cult favorite, although less so since he grew up in Iraq and Turkey. Nevertheless, it brought to mind the fact that people that are a bit younger than I am, true millennials you could say, were less effected by the three films than I was. This makes sense, since seeing these films at say, the age of 12 instead of 17, would make a huge difference. Could you really have been expected to understand the pitfalls of the American dream in the sixth grade? Confirming this theory, I have some friends and acquaintances who are in this younger age bracket that appear to have less issues with taking a typical “corporate” job or, in general, conspicuous consumption. Perhaps this be a defining line between those who, like myself, are on the border between Gen X and Gen Y, and those who are true Gen Ys/millenials.
But is this defining line really just the timing of three major Hollywood releases that took a critical glance at America? Probably not. I think they play a role, but what we really might be talking about here is pre 9/11 versus post. When I started thinking, “well what happened to that critical spirit present in these films,” the memory of waking up in an oddly quiet dorm my freshman year and walking out of my room to see people gathered around small TVs, some crying, flashed into my mind. 9/11 really did change everything. Suddenly we didn’t have time to question the vapidness of our lives–we had a new everpresent boogeyman to contend with. Things became more serious, and American life was re-affirmed in a sense. It’s interesting to try and envision where we would be had we sat, for the next 15 years, contemplating whether or not we really needed another duvet cover.
* This was the Oakland, CA of 8 years ago, which was a less typical city for recent college graduate to begin their career. Rougher and cheaper, West Oakland seemed like the place where Edward Norton’s character found the dilapidated house there he lived in after his condo imploded. Oakland has since changed with influx of people priced out of San Francisco due to the tech boom.