Identity, who you are, is something I think everyone of us has thought about at some point in our lives. Not only in the sense of what is my purpose, etc. But also how others identify us. I think we can all agree that each one of us as different sides to them. No, not multiple personalities. Ok, some of us actually have multiple personalities. I’m not talking about those people, yet. We all have a work self and a home self. A friend self and a stranger self. A first date self and a married for 35 years self. There is a duality to each of us. And sometimes, at least for myself, the sides of this duality are battling each other. How others see us plays a big role in which self we show. Retailers have been taping into this idea forever, telling us that the materials we own make or break how we appeal to those around us. That we must keep up with the Joneses, both Henry and Junior. Archaeologists make inferences about people’s activities, choices, and artistic expression based on materials alone. Things matter in our culture. How much stuff is too much and when do we say no more? As long as there has been consumerism there as been the fight against consumerism’s takeover of our identity.
Now before I get any more philosophical, I’d like to talk about two films that deal with both identity and consumerism. And how, if at all possible, these films relate to each other. The two films are Meet John Doe (1941) and Fight Club (1999). First, a brief synopsis each film. Warning Spoilers
D.B. Norton, a rich oil tycoon buys a newspaper company. He hires Harry Connell as the new editor to thin out the heard employees. One of which is Miss Ann Mitchell, played by the lovely Barbara Stanwick. So what does Miss Michell do upon being let go? She writes a letter about the state of politics and those in power, vowing to jump off the City Hall building in protest. Signed not by herself, but John Doe. The letter has a dramatic influence on the readership of newspaper. This causes the poor Mr. Connell to begin a search for John Doe. He brings back Miss Mitchell, who explains it was all made up. But a rival paper’s claim of forgery forces the two to hatch plan, with the help of a bunch of hobos waiting out in the lobby. They will get a person to pretend to be John Doe. After a montage of interviews they get John Willoughby to play the part in exchange for some cash and a surgery to repair his arm so that he can return to playing baseball. They also get John’s friend, sidekick and in some sense conscience, the Colonel. The Colonel does not like this situation at all and urges John to return to their trek to the Columbia River. Miss Mitchell begins to write a series of weekly columns as John Doe. Now with an actual face to the name, the series takes off. This leads to a radio speech, written by Mitchell and to be read by Doe. During this time we are also introduced to the Colonel’s philosophy of the heelot.
The rival newspaper still thinks the whole thing is a fake and gets a man on the inside to offer John an indecent proposal. $5,000 for him to read an alternate speech on the radio announcing that all of this is a set up. Which, John begins to consider, but after speaking with Mitchell prior to the radio speech he changes his mind. Meanwhile, the Colonel is waiting in the sidelines for his partner to take leave with him. The radio speech goes well. However, John decides to take off with the Colonel.
As they make their way into a roadside diner for a sinker and some coffee, John sees a traveling sign saying “Join the John Doe Club”. He is recognized by the guy behind the counter and both John and the Colonel are rushed off the Town Hall. Crowds gather to see John Doe. Norton, Connell and Mitchell all show up to take John back. John doesn’t’ want to go but is persuaded after a story from the local soda jerk about how his speech affected himself and the people around him. John and Miss Mitchell begin a John Doe Club tour. The culmination of which will be a John Doe convention.
D.B. Norton is no fool. He plans to use the John Doe Clubs to parley a large section of the voting public into backing him as a presidential candidate under a new party. Connell does not like this so he tips John off, who shows up at Norton’s estate looking for answers. After some argument and a triumphant monologue by John, he vows to tell the people about Norton’s real plans. Norton using his vast media powers beats John to the punch by forcing him to reveal to the convention that he is a fake. John is shamed from the building and the clubs are disbanded. Miss Mitchell is in a state of inconsolable disrepair teetering on the brink of insanity as Christmas Eve approaches. No one thinks John will go through with the suicide his fake letter stated. He hasn’t been seen since the convention.
Norton and a group are at city hall just in case. The Colonel and Connell are there waiting for John also. A little after midnight, John slowly makes his way to the edge of the building. He is stopped by Norton who assures him that if he does jump no one will ever know about it. In rushes Mitchell, distraught. She begs John not to jump telling him that she loves him. While this is all happening, a small group of former John Doe Club members have been watching. They tell John they’re going to start the club up again and that they knew he was a good person. Mitchell passes out and John carries her away. The film ends with Connell stating to Norton “There you are Norton! The people! Try and lick that!”
Meet John Doe (1941) is often lumped together with two other films in Director Frank Carpra’s canon, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). This is largely due to the theme all three films have of the little guy against the big guys. The average Joe against the big corporation. It is also can be interpreted as a treatise against growing state of fascism in America at the time.
Fight Club begins with a monologue from the Narrator, played by Edward Norton. We never get his name. The Narrator opens the film with a voice over, due to the fact that there is a gun in his mouth, which is held by Tyler Durden. Much like that of a noir film, the Narrator begins to recall how he came to be in the situation in which he is in currently. The Narrator can’t sleep. Working for an insurance company as a recall specialist involves a lot of travel. Time zones, flight changes, and hotels. A single serving life, which leads to insomnia. Insomnia leads to over consumption of the IKEA catalog. So he goes to the doctor. The doctor no helpful suggestions, but recommends that he attend a support group for men who have testicular cancer in order to gain some perspective. He goes to the meeting and meets Bob, Robert Paulson, played by Meatloaf. The Narrator find solace between Bob’s heaving bosom and cries it out. “Babies don’t sleep this good.” he continues his voice over. He begins to schedule his evening around different support groups. It is at one of these support groups that the Narrator comes into contact with Marla Singer. Like him, Marla is a “tourist” going to multiple support meetings. This disruption at the one place where he can emotionally let go brings his insomnia back. But as Marla says “It’s cheaper than a movie and there’s free coffee.”
On a flight back from one of his many insurance excursions the Narrator meets Tyler Durden. Tyler gives the Narrator his card, which the Narrator has reason to use when he comes home to his apartment literally blown to pieces. He phones up Durden and the two of them meet at a bar. After drinking Tyler agrees to let the Narrator live with him for a while as long as he agrees to hit Tyler as hard as he can. Because “How much can you know yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” So the two fight. They fight some more and begin to notice that other men are into the idea of fighting. They begin to meet in the basement of a bar. Here is where we are introduced to the concept of fight club, with its eight rules. The first two of which I am technically breaking at this very moment. Members of fight club also do not obey the first two rules and the club gain new members. The Narrator runs into Marla who inquires as to why she hasn’t seem him around the support group circuit. He says that he’s joined a men only group. Marla calls the Narrator later to tell him she’s overdosed on Xanax. This, the Narrator disregards, however Tyler comes along and takes an interest. An interest that leads to Marla hooking up with Tyler.
Tyler and the Narrator make soap, discuss the correlation to soap and explosives, and get matching lye burns on their hands. Tyler and the Narrator prompt a young man to return to veterinary school. Tyler begins to experiment with the production of explosives in the basement of their house. Fight club continues to grow, but Tyler has given the members homework assignments. One of which is to pick a fight with a stranger and lose. The assignments lead to the formation of Project Mayhem. Project Mayhem also includes recruits living in the house the Narrator shares with Tyler. Project Mayhem members begin to perform acts of vandalism. One of which leads to the death of Bob. The Narrator wishes to end Project Mayhem, much to the confusion of the members. He tracts down other locations throughout the country where Tyler has set up “franchise” clubs. It is here that the Narrator is identified by a bartender as Tyler Durden. A fact he confirms with Marla. The Narrator, also known as Tyler Durden, wakes in his hotel after passing out from this revelation. Determined to stop the destruction of multiple financial institutions set in place by Project Mayhem, the Narrator tries to inform the police. Unfortunately for him, the police are in on it as well. Narrowly escaping castration, the Narrator finds himself in one of the building set for demolition. Tyler appears and they fight. Tyler wins and the Narrator is taken to the viewing area to watch the demolition show. Which brings the audience back to the beginning of the film with the Narrator at gunpoint. The Narrator comes to an epiphany, whatever Tyler has, he has. This thought puts the gun once in Tyler’s hand in his. He puts the gun in his mouth and fires ending Tyler’s existence. Somehow the Narrator has survived. Marla has been brought by the Project Mayhem members that arrive, surprised at what they see. The buildings blow and the Narrator and Marla hold hands.
While Fight Club is about male identity in pre-millennial America, it is also an indictment of modern consumerism and it’s connection to identity. As the Narrator notes “I'd flip through catalogs and wonder "what kind of dining set defines me as a person?". The Narrator of Fight Club, was as the Colonel would say “a heelot“, driven by the culture of consumerism. His identity was defined by his materials. In the same sense Meet John Doe is about how consumerism can separate us from others. John is not a “…slave to the IKEA nesting instinct.”, but he does long for life he had. A life within the confines of “normal” society. Each film portrays the ideal that less is more. And that once we have moved beyond those material things that separate us; fences, clothing, cars, jobs etc, we can be free and perhaps become better humans. How do we let go of material culture we hold dear? Through the tiny house movement. No, through a club, of course.
Although the two clubs are very different in how they’re run, what they’re goals are and how they want to achieve those goals. The clubs have some similarities to them. The John Doe Club and Fight Club attempt to break down the barriers that separate us from each other. Primarily the barriers created material things. Initially, Fight Club is about stripping off the layers of the world around and becoming more primal. Even the fights themselves require the participates to strip down almost as a metaphor for what needs to take place, if not for safety purposes. Eventually this stripping off is a removal of all things makes us unequal. John Doe Club is trying to accomplish the same thing by having people move outside the confines of their constructed culture, buildings, fences, and get to know those who share the same space as them. There is an idea that we are all equal if we look past material culture.
The means by which each club accomplishes this is another thing. While Fight Club and its offspring Project Mayhem seek to destroy the cultural constructs of the world, the John Doe Club takes a friendlier approach. “Be a better neighbor” and world becomes smaller. In both clubs the impersonal separation caused by material culture is a gap each member is trying to fill. Either through an open handshake or a closed fist.
Fight Club eventually evolves into a more sinister Project Mayhem resulting in the destruction of major financial institutions and the collapse of western capitalist society. The John Doe Clubs begin to take shape into something more sinister, but is stopped. The result is the disbanding of all clubs. But just as there were multiple attempted to stop Project Mayhem, the destruction of the John Doe Clubs didn’t end the movement. It was imbedded in the people. It couldn’t be stopped. Granted no one tried to castrate D.B. Norton, but you get the point.
Both the Narrator and John Willoughby have two sides to them. John is both the lovable tramp Willoughby and the social commentator Doe. The Narrator is both the unhappy insomniac and the anarchist Tyler Durden. While John’s transformation is chosen and in a way forced, he eventually begins to believe in the ideals of Doe. Perhaps even believing himself to be John Doe. I mean everyone calls him Mr. Doe. Whereas the Narrator’s alter ego is presented not as a transformation, but as a realization. That he is in fact Tyler Durden. Unlike John, the Narrator is very confused when people call him Mr. Durden. John Doe is not John Willoughby’s subconscious creating a way for him to retreat from the norms of society, but is a creation in which he inevitably embodies. Even if that creation is not his own. While the Narrator has created Tyler as a means of escaping society, John Willoughby is using the creation of Doe to return to society.
At the end of both films it is attempted suicide that brings both sides of each protagonist together. Whereas, the Narrator shoots himself, killing Tyler Durden. John Willoughby in a sense dies on the roof of City Hall as John attempts to be a man of Doe’s word. Fulfilling Doe’s statement makes him become John Doe.
Tyler Durden is not only the doppelganger of the Narrator, but also in a way his conscience. He says and does the things the Narrator is unwilling. While in a sense John Doe does the same for John Willoughby, Doe’s words are not Willoughby’s and therefore not his conscience. Willoughby’s subconscious is the Colonel. The Colonel, like Durden, is constantly saying nuggets of wisdom to the protagonist. And anyone else who will listen. Both the Colonel and Tyler Durden are the voice of anti-consumerist philosophy within each film. As the Colonel says “You're walkin' along, not a nickel in your jeans, you're free as the wind. Nobody bothers you…Then you get ahold of some dough and what happens? All those nice, sweet, lovable people become heelots. A lotta heels! They begin creepin' up on ya, tryin' to sell ya something. They get long claws and they get a stranglehold on ya and ya squirm and ya duck and ya holler and ya try to push 'em away, but you haven't got a chance. They've got ya. The first thing you know, you own things - a car, for instance. Now your whole life is messed up with a lot more stuff. You get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and courtrooms and lawyers and fines - and a million and one other things! And what happens? You're not the free and happy guy you used to be. You've gotta have money to pay for all those things. So you go after what the other fella's got. And there you are - you're a heelot yourself.”. Or as Tyler paraphrases it “The things you own end up owning you.”
While the Colonel doesn’t advocate for destruction as a means of social change. Like Tyler, he does longs for a simpler life. A life spent traveling the country with no money, free. Tyler longs for a life void of confinements of money as well “…You’re stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.” This ideal that to be truly free one must cast aside unneeded objects is laced throughout the speeches of both the Colonel and Durden.
The women in both films play a role in prodding the protagonist forward toward their inevitable creation of alter egos. Whereas Ann Mitchell actually structures the personality of John Doe through her writings, thus creating the persona that Willoughby will embody. Marla Singer aids the Narrator in his creation of Tyler Durden by disrupting his only means of achieving sleep, the support group circuit. This forces him to create another means of escape in Tyler. Some have also argued that Marla and Tyler are both creations of the Narrator’s mind. They dress similarly, cast no reflections, and are not in the room at the same time. This interesting theory aside, Marla’s interaction with the Narrator is one of confusion to say the least. She makes statements which are confusing to the audience at the time. Only after the revelation that Tyler and the Narrator are the same person do they seem to make sense.
Where John Willoughby is head over heals for Mitchell, the Narrator is at first put off by Marla. Only letting his other self, Tyler, enjoy her company. Marla’s confusion is also felt by Mitchell who is initially in love with John Doe, a figment of her own imagination. Doe’s words being not only hers but also the embodiment of her father’s ideals. Daddy issues. It is only at the end of the film that Mitchell realizes she loves John no matter if he’s Willoughby or Doe. Marla gets a better understanding of the man she has grown to love at the end of the film as well. As they hold hands watching the building falls the Narrator says “You met me at a very strange time in my life.” Both women are a constant within each film. A grounding for the protagonist in which his separate personas revolve around.
Meet John Doe and Fight Club do not speak to the powers that be, but to the everyman. As John puts it in his radio speech “He's the man the ads are written for. He's the fella everybody sells things to. He's Joe Doakes, the world's greatest stooge and the world's greatest strength…You'll find us everywhere. We raise the crops, we dig the mines, work the factories, keep the books, fly the planes and drive the buses, and when the cop yells, 'Stand back there you,' he means us, the John Does. We've existed since time began. We built the pyramids. We saw Christ crucified, pulled the oars for Roman emperors, sailed the boats for Columbus, retreated from Moscow with Napoleon, and froze with Washington at Valley Forge. Yes sir, we've been in there dodging left hooks since before history began to walk. In our struggle for freedom, we've hit the canvas many a time, but we always bounced back because we're the people, and we're tough.” This sentiment is also expressed by Durden, “We cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances.” It is the little guy that truly has the control over himself and over society. “The little punks have always counted because in the long run, the character of a country is the sum total of the character of its little punks.” If he is able to break free from the confines materialistic culture. And no longer have his identity defined by that culture.
So what should you do after reading this post? Get out of your apartment, meet a member of the opposite sex, stop shopping excessively, be a better neighbor, start a fight, don’t be a heelot, and of course, use soap.
The Distracted Blogger
I watch movies. I write about them here. I watch more movies. I get nothing else done.
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