Rites of Passage Cinema
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche says "he who despises himself still respects himself as one who despises." It is a statement, from a certain perspective, that might serve as well as any other as a definition of 'cool nihilism'. In films like Fight Club, Trainspotting, The Beach, Point Break, A World Without Pity, The Opposite of Sex, Run, Lola, Run and Nobody Knows Anybody, self-hatred or personal indecision only goes so far as it takes to give the charcters a new found maturity, or as we will see in American Beauty, a new found immaturity. What is at stake in moments of despair or self-realisation is less the collapse of the self at its core, than the dismantlement of the social periphery, the shallow self that needs a wake-up call. This is nihilism as rite of passage.
Fight Club director David Fincher more or less says as much. He reckons his central character, played by Edward Norton, is just involved in a maturation process. Here Norton "goes through a natural process of experimenting with notions that are complicated and have ethical implications that the Nietzschean ubermensch doesn't have to answer to. That's why Nietzsche's really great with college freshman males, and unfortunately doesn't have much to say to somebody in their early thirties or early forties." Norton is a nine-to five-man who takes whatever is offered until he meets Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden. Durden reckons he needs to loosen up: "self-improvement is masturbation. Maybe self-destruction is the answer" he suggests. And, like Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, the film becomes an amoral roller-coaster ride as Norton gets involved in bare-knuckle fighting, fucking with corporate America, beating himself up in front of his boss as a crazy act of blackmail, and stealing human fat from plastic surgery dustbins. In both Fincher's and Boyle's film, though, this is an away-day amorality, a code of conduct not moving towards self-definition so much as escaping from it. In Fight Club's case, Durden turns out to be a product of Norton's imagination, an opportunity for Norton to escape the conventional codes of conduct through an elaborate act of wish-fulfilment. In Trainspotting, the opening voice-over ironically asks us to choose "life...choose a fucking great big television...fixed-rate interest..." before we see Renton (Ewan McGregor) instead settling for the pleasures of heroin, giving the odd wealthy tourist a doing in the pub toilets, and witnessing the death of a drug acquaintance's baby because the mum's too out of her face on H to look after it. When the same mantra that opens the film is offered at its conclusion, we're inclined to read it a little differently - maybe fixed-rate interest and a big television aren't so bad after all. Just as Norton's character needs to accept that ubermensch amoralism isn't for him, as he eradicates Tyler from his consciousness, maybe Renton takes a 'reality check' too.
The limitations of the amoral is also a lesson learnt in both Germany's Run Lola Run and the Spanish film, Nobody Knows Anybody, if in rather different ways. In Tom Tykwer's Berlin-based adrenaline movie, Lola (Famke Potente) needs to get hold of 100,000 Deutschmarks or her boyfriend will be killed by local gangsters. In the first two of the three similar but not quite identical episodes she or her boyfriend push people out of the way, hold up a shop and a bank, and generally act as if the world is an inanimate obstacle course they must pass through in reaching their goal. By the third episode, they show a bit more tact, decency and moral awareness, and the film gives Lola and her boyfriend a happy ending. Where in the first episode she dies, and in the second he's killed, in the third they end up together. Tykwer says he wanted the audience to start "sympathizing with Lola as the film progresses - and end up wanting her to be finally rewarded for everything she has gone through..." In Nobody Knows Anybody, Simon is in many ways unemployed drug dealing Lola's polar opposite. A decent young man without purpose who scrapes a living producing Crossword puzzles for a Seville newspaper, Simon's rite of passage and moral through-line comes out of conflict with a nihilistic flatmate, Toad, a man so bored he blows up Seville buildings for kicks. He's so devoid of feeling it is the only way he can get a buzz, he insists. But Toad's nihilism - not unlike Tyler Durden's - serves a moral function. It allows Simon to know who he is and what he wants by knowing who he isn't and what he's unwilling to do. Early in the film he explains to a priest that he doesn't really know what he wants out of life, and the film plays up the cool nihilistic irony of life lessons coming not from righteousness, but from realizing the outer reaches of degeneracy. Where Lola has a goal but initially little moral sense, and Tykwer waits until the third episode before giving her both at the same time, Simon possesses human decency from the film's beginning, but what can he do with it? Rather like Fight Club's protagonist, Simon is a decent fellow who finds the depths of his decency not in sensitivity (for Simon it's initially in seeing a priest), but in a temporary purpose - as if he needs to find, paradoxically, moral recognition out of moral debasement. It isn't enough either to assume moral purpose or conventionally to look for it. It has to be an extreme confrontation, a hyperbolic search for the morally decent. Thus in each instance, in Nobody Knows Anybody and Fight Club, as the characters' ethical nemeses set out to blow up various buildings, it's Simon and Edward Norton's character's job to act. Morality becomes not a code of being, a complex sense of ethical possibility, but an act of doing. The ethical dilemma is submerged, all but eschewed, by the necessities of the immediate action.
This is a point made in one of the two epigraphs that opens Run Lola Run, where the film offers, in loose translation, T. S. Eliot's notion that morality is to some degree a priori, and the youthful characters just need an event that illustrates its natural status. "We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." In Run Lola Run, moral purpose is presented at one remove through Tykwer's device of showing Lola - and to some degree boyfriend Manni - becoming more decent as Tykwer interrogates the same situation three times, and leaves Lola's moral consciousness on the edge of her own comprehension - subconsciously present, if you like. In both Fight Club and Nobody Knows Anybody an equivalent unthinkingness - an equivalent unnecessariness to create one's own value system - is achieved by the 'extreme nihilism' of the antagonist. As we suggested earlier, one doesn't achieve moral maturity so much through an investigation of one's own inner and outer consciousness, as one would find in individuation, in a Jungian search for one's self alone, but in reaction to another. Hence we find in 'cool nihilism' so often its opposite: the 'extreme nihilism' represented by Tyler, Toad and, of course, Begbie in Trainspotting. It is after all in the wake of killing or shopping the antagonists that the films conclude, as if our heroes in Fight Club, Trainspotting, and Nobody Knows Anybody find not so much their souls - the films don't dig so deep - as their social role. They realize their own essential decency and sense of purpose. This is the key theme, here: a social role accomplished over a personal soul explored.
What is central to cool nihilism is the way this decency comes out of realizing the limitations of the adrenaline fix. A cool nihilist demands the adrenaline buzz, but it is the radical nihilist who will stop at nothing to achieve the fix. Near the end of Trainspotting, Begbie picks a fight and pushes a pint glass into a stranger's face simply for the hell of it. In Fight Club, Tyler works as a waiter in upmarket restaurants for no better reason than to pee in the soup and humiliate the diners. We might also think of Point Break, where Patrick Swayze robs banks more readily for the buzz than for the cash. Here we notice cool nihilism has a Manichaeism that isn't just about good values versus bad values, but also the adrenaline rush with or without limitations. Certainly, at the end of Point Break, Swayze proves his extreme nihilism attached to the adrenaline buzz by preferring death to capture. Arrested by FBI undercover agent Keanu Reeves, the cool nihilist who's become involved in Swayze and his gang's high-adrenaline surfing and skydiving activities, he releases him into the huge waves that will kill him.
Here we have a curious, bastardized version, if you like, of Nietzsche's physiological morality when he says that the philosopher "lives 'unphilosophically' and 'unwisely', above all imprudently, and bears the burden and duty of a hundred attempts and temptations of life - he risks himself constantly, he plays the dangerous game..." (Beyond Good and Evil) But the films aren't seen from the perspective of the extreme nihilism proposed by Nietzsche, but from the cool nihilist perspective that is finally closer to Kant's moral imperative: "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law." (The Kant Reader) An extreme nihilist isn't interested in the universal, nor even the Kantian rational, but instead, for better or worse, in the truth of his own instincts. "In short," as Nietzsche puts it, "moralities are only a sign language of the emotions." (Beyond Good and Evil) This isn't to say Nietzsche would side with extreme nihilism - what he proposes, in fact, is often an anti-nihilism that strongly works from aesthetics, from possibilities in thought as readily as in action. But - taking into account Fincher's attack on Nietzsche at the beginning of this piece - better surely the extreme nihilist than a watered-down compromise who finally returns to the conventional fold?
What is at the heart of cool nihilism is the underlying assumption that for all the characters' posturing, the conventional morality still holds good: that the Kantian categorical imperative is the language of the appropriate emotions, and any other merely a discourse of bad moral grammar and half-finished ethical sentences. A bastard language, if you like. The characters don't so much have a value system as busily escape from one. They resemble, in this sense, Terrence Rafferty's definition of Sean Penn's character when he reviewed Dead Man Walking in The New Yorker: "Like many self-styled bad boys, the face he puts on is also, to some extent, a reflection of society's low opinion of him and his kind."
Is it not this which draws together the voice-overs in both The Opposite of Sex and Trainspotting? In each instance a sense of moral degeneracy dissolves into cool posturing, with the characters playing up what they are by knowing exactly what they refuse to be. In one early voice-over in Don Roos's film, the sixteen-year-old central character informs us "if you think I'm just plucky and scrappy and all I need is love then you're in over your head. I don't have a heart of gold, and I don't grow one later, okay." But of course just as Trainspotting repeats its opening gambit with a subtle variation at the end, so The Opposite of Sex plays the same game. At the conclusion, she says, "I told you right off I don't grow a heart of gold, and if I do, which is unlikely, give me a break and don't make me do it in front of you." Here rebellion is little more than moral denial - that human decency is finally a priori; and that moral aberration a period of immaturity.
From this perspective the Nietzschean position is used not as a higher radicalism, as the ethical constraint implied by Nietzsche when saying, "every artist knows how far from the feeling of letting himself go his 'natural' condition is, the free ordering, placing, disposing, forming in the moment of 'inspiration.'" (Beyond Good and Evil) Nor does it come close to the Nietzsche who suggested philosophizing with a hammer; in destroying standard notions of being and behaviour. Nor, we might add, is it like Dostoevsky's Kirilov in TheDevils, whose desire to die is so strong that all he needs to do is find a cause equal to the urge. In cool nihilism, it is instead so often no more than a piece of petulant hedonism.
Thus so often we find in cool nihilism the characters shadowed by authority figures, however ineffectual. We might think here of Renton's arrest at the beginning of Trainspotting, Dedee Truitt's brief imprisonment near the end of The Opposite of Sex; Lola's bolshy attitude towards her father in Run Lola Run or Norton's grief at work in Fight Club. The key here lies in what the characters can get away with. Their nihilistic attitude towards authority isn't the controlled anarchism of Nietzsche's search for alternative values, based on the demands of a body increasingly controlled physiologically, a kind of bio-constraint - nor the Dostoevskian need to die, famously represented as we suggested by Kirilov - but instead close to a child's self-centredness.
There is a scene in Trainspotting, for example, where Renton goes cold turkey after his parents lock him in his bedroom, with the film playing up the childishness of the interior design: this is very much Mark Renton back at home, with his childhood wallpaper and the accoutrements of youth. In Run Lola Run, Lola throws a tantrum in her father's office. In The Opposite of Sex, the film constantly positions Dedee's awfulness not only in relation to her stepbrother's decency, but also through a general value discrepancy. Where Dedee's more or less introduced to us throwing things at her stepfather's grave, brother Bill, a high school teacher, lectures a teenager on his bad grammar after the boy writes some smut on a toilet wall. The point in each instance isn't so much to play up bad values versus good ones (none of the authority figures are that saintly, not even Bill). It is instead to emphasize the lack of values in the young, who cannot see enough of principle in the older generation to accept their assumptions. These characters are undeniably immature - the film makes that clear - but what will give them maturity? After all, at the beginning of Run Lola Run it's twenty to twelve in the morning and Lola's mum's still sitting in her dressing gown, working her way through a bottle of spirits. In Trainspotting, Renton's parents' life seems to be a round of beer drinking, bingo and council house survival. They're clearly decent folk - but where has that got them? Between comfortable but dubious parents - Lola's dad's a too cosy banker, mum an apparently stay at home alcoholic - and Trainspotting's poor honesty, where is the value system to buy into? If so often the cool nihilists position themselves against the radical to find values; equally, often part of the problem in not having them lies in rejecting whatever values the parents seem to possess. Between the radicalism of a 'Nietzschean' Tyler, and the failed categorical imperative of parental limitation, where does the cool nihilist find a position of conformity?
The answer in most instances lies in irony and love, in a position that allows youthful characters to hold on to a sense of cool whilst rejecting the nihilistic. For much of A World Without Pity, Hippo (Hippolyte Giradrot) drifts through the film without any sense of purpose. In one scene the woman with whom he's fallen in love, hard-working student Nathalie, asks him what the unemployed Hippo usually does. He replies that he passes the time. When she asks if he sees films he shakes his head. Then she asks if he eats out, and again he offers the same response. About the only thing he has time for, she surmises, is chasing girls. In the plural. In the closing moments, with Nathalie returning from a year in the States, and Hippo apparently having let her down a year previously, will he be able to make amends? The film ends with Hippo waiting at the airport as Nathalie drives off with a pal. But at the last moment she turns around in the back of the car and recognizes Hippo waiting for her, and gives him the sort of wracked, desperate look that makes it clear she is still besotted. Will Nathalie be able to forgive, and will Hippo be able to commit to singular love? There is the suggestion here that this is where love and irony meet. It lies in the sense that nothing finally matters except the possibilities in young love, and in the characters being too bloody-minded to see it staring them in the face.
It is so often in the possibility of lost love that the films' characters find their meagre souls. In Run Lola Run, Tom Whalen notes, in a Film Quarterly essay on the film, that Lola "learns from round to round" and the film is about "Lola's passion, never overtly a sexual passion, but one of love..." Thus, like A World Without Pity, the ending emphasises the need for love on the strong possibility of its absence. At the end of the first and second episodes Lola and Manni lie in bed and discuss the significance of loving each other. This is a significance all the more relevant in the third episode if we accept that on the edge of Lola and Manni's consciousness, and certainly at the forefront of the audience's, is the notion that they've come close to losing each other twice. In Fight Club, this idea of love and its loss is an internal paradox. It is not until the end of the film that Norton accepts he's been turning his denial of Helena Bonham Carter's Marla into an act of jealousy - having sex with Marla whilst all the time believing it's been his other self, Tyler, who's been taking her each night. Can he now take responsibility for his feelings, no matter if he has blown his cheek away?
So the cool nihilist turns into a warm romanticist, hinted at not just in A World Without Pity, Run Lola Run and Fight Club, but also Point Break, The Beach, even Trainspotting. Here, generally, the idea of the adrenaline fix to fill that apparently fundamental loss of meaning gets eschewed by the conclusion for the more sustainable feelings of affection. After all, while at the end of Point Break Reeves' cool nihilist gets the girl, Swayze's the extreme nihilist who, albeit without many options, surfs a wave that will kill him. InTrainspotting there may be the initial thrill involved in Renton's one night stand with what turns out to be a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, but, come the conclusion, if the characters are to see each other again, it is likely for something more sustainable than a quick bonk and a frisson of dangerous sex. In The Beach, Leonardo DiCaprio's initial seduction of the lovely Virginie Ledoyen is for the thrill of the chase; if they meet again, after their learning curve on the island, as the film's closing scene suggests, then it is perhaps predicated on the wisdom of a shared experience. They've both survived a rite of passage and grown-up.
What we certainly don't find in Fight Club et al is anything close to Colin Wilson's definition in The Outsider of the lonely figure in art and literature. "The Outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality." Of course, what Wilson proposes is the existential problem of nausea, of trying to believe in the texture of the world on other people's terms, on terms one cannot make one's own. Thus, Fincher's comments, and also the Eliot quote utilised in Run Lola Run, propose a final assumed value. No matter the problems with the world, basic human decency wins out in the end, and the world is left essentially untouched. But that is all very well if the characters possess the shallow souls we've proposed, where the problem doesn't reside in the inability to make sense of the world in its present state because of a phenomenological problem with it, but instead chiefly because of a sociological and egotistical problem. Generally, the characters want to fit in, they want to belong, and they want half-decent social status within that belonging.
But they would still very much be caught within a reality that they've contributed very little to making, no matter that the actions the radical nihilist involve them in are usually much more extreme than, say, that of the outsider. Thus there's Renton's thieving, heroin addiction and violence, Fight Club narrator's punch-ups and terrorist activities and Lola's gun-waving - but to what end? They all seem very much characters belonging to The Consumer Society as Jean Baudrillard would define it. Though in the following passage he focuses mainly on the body, Baudrillard illustrates a certain type of false emancipation where he talks about how "one of the basic mechanisms of consumption is this formal autonomization of groups, classes and castes (and the individual) by and through the formal autonomization of systems of signs and roles." Thus the affluent society consumer doesn't really question the signs; they're caught in a binary system of rejection and acceptance. If nausea is a problem with the signs themselves, with the constant, hesitant need to find meaningful signifying systems that can keep one alive, give to life a sense of purpose, then in cool nihilism the signs, while often rejected, are rejected with an assertiveness that leaves them curiously intact. Now whether this is the opening gambit of Trainspotting, or the narrator in Fight Club disdainfully dissing Ikea furniture while Fincher brings these material items miraculously to life with impressive cinematic effects that basically replaces one tool of ego (Ikea), with another (CGI ingenuity), we're still in the world of a confident sign language. It's this confidence in the sign that Baudrillard is really talking about when he says, in the same chapter on The Body, "what we are saying is that this relative, concrete emancipation, because it is merely the emancipation of women, young people and the body as categories immediately indexed to a functional practice, is accompanied by a mythical transcendence or, rather, itself divides to produce a mythical transcendence, an objectivization as myth."
Thus there are categories of transcendence rather than an amorphous reality constantly being negotiated. Signs, whether accepted or rejected, lived within or gone beyond, retain their certitude. Fight Club may appear to be doing radical things by producing another character as the figment of the narrator's imagination, but it is about the only nauseous problem in the film if we take into account a passage from the first page of Sartre's Nausea: "There is something new, for example, about my hands, a certain way of picking up my pipe or my fork. Or else it is the fork which now has a certain way of getting itself picked up, I don't know." Sartre's narrator insists, "just now, when I was on the point of coming into my room, I stopped short because I felt in my hand a cold object which attracted my attention by means of a sort of personality. I opened my hand and looked: I was simply holding the doorknob." Our narrator in Fight Club might be disgusted by the whole Ikea furniture experience, but a sofa is still very much a sofa.
Now let us take American Beauty as an example of this insistent assertiveness. Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, would also seem entitled to the sort of phenomenological crisis Roquentin undergoes in Sartre's novel, but in fact the assertiveness of signs prevails. Burnham may lose his job in advertising, and ends up taking employment at a burger joint, but he quickly reconfigures his social status by realising in his lowly position he needn't any longer take anybody's abuse, and in fact can dish out ironic asides of his own: evident when his wife and new lover buy a burger at the drive-in diner where he works. Like most of the other cool-nihilist films, American Beautyplays off semiotic binaries: there is conformity and there is non-conformity, and each has its own sign system that quickly allows for an identity to reestablish itself. In some ways, of course, Burnham is flying in the face of the other cool nihilists, not least because he's a good fifteen to twenty years older than the other characters, and searches out not a new found maturity, but a new found immaturity. He hangs out with his daughter's burgeoning boyfriend, becomes obsessed with a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, and bulks up his body through weight training like an adolescent looking to broaden his chest. But lest we're in any doubt that Burnham doesn't quite know who he is, at a key moment he backs away from sex with his teenage object of desire, and the viewer is once again aware of certain values as givens.
This is no more to say than that cool nihilism as we've defined it, is a cosy pseudo-radicalism, a vacation nihilism for those who want to escape into a fantasy world of nihilistic cool whilst still retaining all their phenomenological coordinates in the viewing experience. It doesn't only lack what Wilson demands, it also has very little to do with the intense suffering that Al Alvarez, in The Savage God, sees central to a strand of romanticism, the Romantic Agony in The Sorrows of Young Werther, where he says the novel brought forth "that martyr of unrequited love and excessive sensibility [and] created a new international style of suffering." Would such a statement have any relevance to cool nihilism? In cool nihilism, the Outsider and the Romantic have clearly been absorbed. But they've been reduced to the ironically dissatisfied, to the sort of state that wants the same general things as the bourgeois - peer acceptance, true love, and social purpose - but want to retain the inverted commas, the hip belief that what they want can just as readily be rejected. Hence, unlike the Romantic or the Outsider, the cool nihilist accepts social belief over self-belief. They don't formulate from their souls a way of being, so much as find a contrary position that allows them to give the impression they are their own person. This is a position that simultaneously rejects parental imperatives and extreme nihilism, while often tentatively accepting the possibilities of monogamous love. Wrapped up in all this is a sign system that is never really questioned.
For something more complicated we have to look elsewhere, to other filmic traditions that have worked with elements of the nihilist. To the Nouvelle vague, perhaps, where so many films end in death (A bout de souffle, Les Cousins, Shoot the Pianist) and where the image is played with and questioned. There is also the paradoxical road movies of Rafelson (FiveEasy Pieces), Wenders (Kings of the Road), Antonioni (The Passenger), and Garrel (Levent de la nuit), or the abject picaresque movies likes Don't Believe You're Going to Die, Seul contre tous and A Vendre. These are all films where the feelings blow arrogantly hot (A bout de souffle) or a chilly, deathly cold (Le vent de la nuit), but never allow their nihilism to settle for, finally, a cool and tepid room temperature.
© Tony McKibbin