On The Cusp of Millennia: A Society Entangled in Cinema

As art gallery attendances dwindled throughout the 20th century, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, among other institutions, began to show prevailing evidence for cinema being the favoured artistic medium of the Western world (ABS, 2010). With the new millennia coming into full view, it was only natural, then, that in 1999 the auteurs of the people’s chosen medium would come to reflect the fear and uncertainty that had become near-universal in the West. At a time where many expressed fears about the future, over 50% of people cited Y2K as something they genuinely feared (Rosen & Weil, 1999). 

While watching the new millennium approach, society began to feel dissatisfied with the state of itself—‘why isn’t 2000 looking like it will be what we expected?’, ‘why aren’t things changing?’, ‘is this it?’. So although the films of 1999 do not claim to answer any of these questions, or solve any of the apparent problems, the most important factor, as is a virtue of art, was that the issues were being acknowledged and discussed. The broad tonal similarity in affirming society’s worries—the violent Fight Club and the experimental The Virgin Suicides thematically matching films such as the Oscar-winning American Beauty—is something that a single year of cinema cannot be said to have reflected so poignantly since.

Tyler Durden, in David Fincher’s cult classic Fight Club, summarised three decades of angst by declaring that ‘our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives’ (Fincher, 1999). The economic disenfranchisement portrayed here—reflective of falling mean income values for the middle class—rang true with many in 1999, perhaps because it revealed something about the audience themselves—in this case, a latent desire for control over their own lives in place of debt and brutal economics. As such, the film left both bitter and reverent tastes in filmgoers’ mouths; many cried Durden’s rhetoric (‘advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need’ (Fincher, 1999)), while others, like critic Roger Ebert, dismissed the gratuitous violence as mere ‘macho porn’ (Ebert, 1999). He claimed that the violence actually diminished the weight of a generation’s angst as they looked from their bleak perceptions of the present towards an uncertain, bleaker future. But perhaps this was, in a way, what has made Fight Club so popular: it tapped into the desire for heightened levels of power over lives that had seemed so out of peoples’ own hands in 1999. The film allowed an audience to invest in a world where economic strife was void, and where purpose could be dictated to them by another. But Fight Club did not seek to answer any questions; it simply acknowledged and affirmed their existence, and that in itself was powerful enough.

The brooding over an uncertain world was present also in Sofia Coppola’s seminal debut feature, The Virgin Suicides. This brooding follows the demise of five sisters, as narrated in the first-person-plural by a group of boys—now men—who still, decades on, have ‘never found an answer’ to the meaning of the girls’ deaths. The film opens with a blunt observation: ‘Cecilia was the first to go’ (Coppola, 1999); the narrators have grown up, and become purely analytical of the tragedy experienced during their adolescence. They narrate as though disillusioned with the world that, in their eyes, betrayed them—boys became men, and yet this magical transformation did not provide them with all the answers they desired. It is this simultaneous knowing (of the girls’ deaths) and unknowing (why it happened) which reflects 1999—a society that recognizes the world’s decline, but cannot fathom a reason for its being so. This same phenomenon of the era gave a resurgence to popular conspiracy theories and theorists (for example, ‘New World Order’, (Kessler, 1997)) throughout the decade preceding The Virgin Suicides—an attitude manifested, troublingly, throughout this film, echoing the desperate cries of a society demanding explanations where they receive none, or where, perhaps, there are none to be found at all.

Cinema tends to either offer insight or escapism, and in the case of 1999 there happened to be a prevailing amount of insight into a society that desperately needed some. While the questions that concerned people remain unanswered, and perhaps still topical to this day, it was the perception of empathy offered by the visions of film in 1999 that was so powerful. The year, I would argue, was so thematically bound because society found itself on a shared brink of change. It was one of those rare times in our modern society where cinema did not have to focus on a splinter of society, but rather could focus on the themes of existentialism and fear in a way that resonated so strongly then with both the filmmakers and their audience. 

Now, considering the 21st century, the most recent period in cinema that I would relate to 1999 is the resurgence of apocalyptic films in and around 2012 (This is the End, 2012, and thirty others), which capitalised on the scientifically-unfounded, hearsay Mayan prediction of the world’s end (whereas Y2K was founded on science, and economic woes of the time were perceivably ‘pure fact’). And no apocalypse film won an Academy Award as did American Beauty, whose Lester Burnham character (‘I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated. But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back’ (Mendes, 1999)) caused the avid filmgoer to recall Fight Club once more, and to understand that Tyler and Lester were, films apart, two men fighting the same internal battles to take some control of lives that they did not understand, attempting to find themselves in the confusing world they were hopelessly lost within. 

1999 was a year on a brink of change; the end of an era, as considered by some—especially in hindsight. So universal was this sense of uncertainty that I question whether such a phenomenon as all these shared, simultaneous cinematic visions will ever recur, or that, alternatively, we have become too culturally splintered in this increasingly technological world to unite artistically as we did back then. And perhaps this is a good sign; 1999 was tied together by fear, after all.

Fight Club, 1999. Film still. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The Virgin Suicides, 1999. Film still. Courtesy Paramount. 

American Beauty, 1999. Film still. Courtesy DreamWorks. 

notes: 

References
ABS, Silver screen devotees: cinema still Australians’ favourite cultural activity, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, 2010.
Coppola, S., (Director), The Virgin Suicides, 1999. Motion Picture.
Ebert, R., Fight Club, 15 October 1999, Retrieved from RogerEbert.com: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/fight-club-1999
Fincher, D., (Director), Fight Club, 1999. Motion Picture.
Georgaris, B., Anderson, Paul Thomas, 2013. Retrieved from They Shoot The Pictures Don’t They: http://www.theyshootpictures.com/andersonpaulthomas.htm
Kessler, B. R., Bush’s New World Order, 1997. Retrieved from Biblioteca Pleyades: http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/sociopolitica/esp_sociopol_nwo72.htm
Mendes, S. (Director), American Beauty, 1999. Motion Picture.
Rosen, P. L., & Weil, P. M., Y2K Survey Results, Technostress, San Francisco, 1999.