Life's a bitch, and then your Volvo dies. As millennium fever reaches hysterical new heights in the final months of 1999, it seems that everything and everyone in America has something to be worried about: computers, Bill Gates, non-Christians, even yuppies. That's right: if movies are any indicator of the American psyche, even the high priests of American consumer culture have been bit by the Y2K bug. There's a new genre in Hollywood that is threatening to flood out the competition from the tide of teen comedies: yuppie angst. Friday night at your local theater means choosing between American Beauty-in which a quiet suburb of yuppies cracks under the vacuousness of their up-and-coming lifestyle-and Fight Club, where nameless corporate yupster Ed Norton finds the only way to reclaim his micromanaged and overworked sense of self is to beat the living daylights out of other men.
The idea of "yuppie angst" seems inherently oxymoronic. Yuppies are clean-cut, clear-headed people with successful jobs, shiny new sport utility vehicles, a weak spot for IKEA furniture, and happy families barbecuing behind white-picket fences. With such stability in their lives, what could yupsters possibly have to be all worked up about or dissatisfied with? Well, precisely that: stability. As Brad Pitt's character Tyler Durden mentions in Fight Club, thirty-somethings are the "middle children of history:" forgotten in the shadow of those who come before and after them. Yuppies are expected to make it through somehow, become an accountant, and show up for Thanksgiving with a crock-pot or two of mashed potatoes as bland and frothy as their own lives. Yuppies have had no Great War or Great Depression in their time; their Great Depression is, as Durden says, "their entire lives." A yuppie's existential malaise springs from the very stability and conformity that defines him or her as a yuppie: day in, day out, day after day after day, it's the same damn thing.
In a sense, then, yuppie angst is the dysfunction that dares not speak its name. Edward Norton's character in Fight Club is so ashamed of the fact that he is bored with the Gap(tm)-bland banality of his successful life he is forced to pretend that his affliction is something completely different. Hence his addiction to group therapy sessions, where he can pretend that his unhappiness springs from testicular cancer or OCD rather than from the cookie-cutter pointlessness of his life. Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) in American Beauty faces the same dilemma: she's wealthy, she has a nice little nuclear family, she likes martinis...of course she should be happy. Just as the narrator in Fight Club spends the entire movie running from his problems (an escapism he admits to in the final scene), Carolyn also spends her entire life trying to sell herself on the idea that she is living a happy, harmonious life (we already know how successful a salesperson she is).
A TV commercial that's become popular recently chirps "It's about suppression." The commercial is referring to a sexually transmitted disease, but it could very well be referring to yuppie angst. Pop psychology saw this coming: because it's not really socially acceptable to be unhappy about happiness, the Carolyn Burnhams of the world can't really make any sort of change to it. How to cope? Why, by suppressing everything inside, be it good or bad-thereby further emphasizing the emotionless tedium of yuppiedom. After all, the first and second rules of Fight Club are that you don't talk about Fight Club.
Now, most people try to counter feelings of listlessness with activity, motion, movement. Yuppies seem to take this to an extreme and counter feelings of extreme ennui with extreme activity-i.e. violence; repress your IKEA-fueled angst long enough and it'll explode in your face like a computer at midnight on New Year's Day 2000. Aggression seems truly to be the key to defusing the ticking time-bomb of yuppie angst. This is obvious in Fight Club: the entire movie is centered around the premise that yuppie poster boy Edward Norton finds escape from his micromanaged world only when he is pounding someone else to a pulp with his bare hands. Everything is frenetic, violent, and rough-cut in retaliation against the stuffy conformity of yuppie existence: in this angst-ridden world, movies have violent spurts of hardcore pornography, people commit random acts of senseless whoopass, the corporate oppressor gets his well-deserved comeuppance only after a violent "brawl"-even soap is not the innocuous cleansing agent you might think it is. Fight Club makes it very clear what the effects of yuppie angst are on the rest of the world: men beat each other up for fun, blocks of skyscrapers explode in quick succession, and innocent people die.
Everyone knows that if we have accomplished anything it is because we have stood on the shoulders of giants, but Douglas Coupland decided to step on the giants' toes and give them a swift kick to the crotch when he came out with his novel Generation X only a year after yuppie whining manifesto thirtysomething went off the air. In this book and in Microserfs, Coupland chronicled the effects of yuppie angst on the rest of the world-that post-yuppie generation bit by their own species of the Y2Kare bug. Just as middle-management yupsters lashed out against the oppressive ineffectuality of upper management, so too did young up-and-comer twentysomethings feel oppressed by the IKEA angst of their yuppie superiors. Darwin would have had a field day-suddenly angst is an inheritable trait, passed on from one generation of the urbanite species to the next. Unlike their forefather-oppressors, however, the post-yuppies had no outlet for their angst. They couldn't claim a cultural disaffectedness of their own, as Seinfeld and thirtysomething had been there and done that, and made it clear that fin-de-sicle unhappiness on TV was for their generation only; TV twentysomethings were left to stake new claim in another territory, the frothy world of Friends. That's where Kevin Smith stepped in. Taking a cue from Whit Stillman's so-so trilogy of yuppie angst (Metropolitan was delightfully disaffected, but did anyone really care about Last Days of Disco?), Smith began a series of post-yuppie angst-noir with 1994's Clerks, a grimly hilarious movie that combined Seinfeld's inane blabber and outlandishly tragicomic situations with more angst than you could scrub out with a bar of Fight Club's Paper Street soap. After that came Mallrats and Chasing Amy, more dismally delightful chronicles of the post-yuppie malaise, all starring the director (in a requisite self-referential flourish) as the omnipresent Silent Bob. Not content with Stillman's trilogy concept, Smith has spawned an entire cottage industry with this year's forthcoming release of Dogma (with Alanis Morissette, which is Canadian for "25-year-old angst queen," in the role of God).
Fight Club tries to turn the same self-referential tricks as Smith's movies as an antidote to the violence of yuppie angst. The Clockwork Orange-esque rejoicing in mayhem that characterizes so much of the movie is contrasted with its many self-referential moments (without giving too much away...): the bizarre walk through the IKEA catalog; the moment when movie projectionist Tyler Durden, discussing the "change filmstrip" blip that appears on movie screens, points to the one on the screen of the movie he is in; and a final revelation about the relationship between Durden and the narrator. Unfortunately, these po-mo asides don't detract from the fact that one man's yuppie angst has spawned an entire world where violence is not the answer (because there are no questions to answer) but the only thing to do. Granted, Marla and Jack end the movie silhouetted hand-in-hand like any good love story, but the fact is they are silhouettes against a background of exploding skyscrapers.
Fight Club is not the first time someone has tried to grapple with yuppie angst. When the New Beetle was unveiled in 1998, the cough-drop-on-wheels was touted as the ultimate antidote to the ennui of the under-40 crowd. It was deja vu all over again: here was the "Love Bug," the charmingly rotund little symbol of all things flower-power, updated for the era of power-lunches. The folks at Volkswagen hoped to invoke the freewheeling Age of Aquarius (when most yuppies were too young or to stoned to care), making every yupster on the planet nostalgic for their childhood daze free of micromanagement. Young urban professionals did flock to the adorable car, charmed by its revamped but just as roly-poly look (an adorable sleekness of sorts) but truly won over by its clean-cut practicality (35 miles to the gallon). Yet this year VW was forced to introduce a new New Beetle with a juiced-up "Turbonium" engine (George Jetson would swoon). It seemed the innocuous, angst-free image of the New Beetle just wasn't cutting it with America's angst-free consumers.
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