Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fight Club

My decision this year to revisit some of the more notable films of 1989 had obvious personal connections ('89 being the year of my birth), but had I decided instead to pick another anniversary I could have chosen one of two particularly bountiful years for cinema. The first, 1939, is often heralded as the greatest year for the movies, period (as a side note, the highly talented and perceptive Tim Brayton over at Antagony & Ecstasy has being doing just that all year); the second, 1999, sent the 20th century out in style. I even considered running a '99 retrospective concurrently, though I suppose it's for the better than I decided against it as I cannot even regularly update the ones I have now -- I swear I'll be getting back to '89 and to John Carpenter's oeuvre soon. Furthermore, most of the finest films of 1999 are still fresh in my mind, save for some of the foreign films I still need to see, and while I certainly enjoy revisiting films from, well, it would be absurd for a 20-year-old to say "from my youth" but you understand, none of the films I've seen and enjoyed from 1999 offer any sort of challenge for me at the moment.

A lone exception is that controversial, hotly debated wrecking ball of a film: Fight Club. Upon its release, Fight Club found itself in the center of a frenzy, surrounded by fans who took to its pitch-black comedy and the finest example yet of David Fincher's relevancy and innovation in contemporary cinema as well as detractors who called it fascist, misogynistic and childish, and those were some of the kinder pans. Now, it's an indelible part of our pop culture, its twist ending beloved by those who worship such things -- as I scanned over some old reviews of the film's theatrical and subsequent DVD release I was surprised, and distressed, to see its name mentioned alongside The Sixth Sense on numerous occasions -- and that line, that line, so endlessly quoted and parodied that its mere utterance should, in reality, warrant a genuine beating. But what is it that makes Fight Club so simultaneously alluring and abhorrent? Are its fans mongoloid Hitler youths reveling in the fascist orgy that shall be our undoing, or are the haters simply projecting this image because they themselves cannot or will not read into the film any deeper than its surface level?

Upon revisiting the film, I know on which side of the fence I stand: Fight Club, sensory overload that it is, is one of the finest and most complex satires of the '90s. Of all the films concerning the alienation of Generation X, none so perfectly captures its existential listlessness. Told from the fractured perspective of its unnamed Narrator (whom we shall call Jack, after his twisted synecdochical statements such as "I am Jack raging bile duct"), Fight Club builds a mood of post-Reagan miasma around its protagonist, a suffocating poison cloud of Ellisian soulless consumerism.

Jack (Edward Norton) works for an automobile company ("A major one," he darkly tells someone after regaling her with horror stories), traveling across the country to assess catastrophic design failures and decide whether to order a recall for that particular model. Jack suffers from insomnia and, trapped in the bleary stage between awake and asleep, he absent-mindedly fills his condo with all the latest furniture and accessories from IKEA. So obsessed is he with the Scandinavian DIY-retailer that he pores over catalog entries like centerfolds.

The sick embodiment of Gen X, Jack is so desperate for something to latch onto, something that will allow him to drop the artifice of his corporate-crafted identity, that he finds himself gravitated to support groups for the disease-stricken. At a meeting for testicular cancer, Jack at last lets go, weeping into the enlarged bosom of a man who had both testicles removed. He becomes addicted to the sense of belonging, and the acceptance allows him to sleep at night. Until Marla shows up, that is. Another "tourist," she is a beautiful but morbid creature, as warped in her own way as Jack. Her presence destroys Jack's narcissistic and vampiric need to feed off these people, so they divide the various meetings as if haggling custody rights. Nevertheless, the damage is done, and Jack needs to find another way to cope with his hang-ups, and he finds it in Tyler Durden.

Tyler, the irrepressible id to Jack's neurotic superego, is free of society's consumer-based values system: he works a number of odd-jobs around town simply to wreak minor havoc, from splicing in frames of pornography into children's films to peeing in the soup he cooks at a restaurant. He lives in a dilapidated house that he casually allows to fall even further into disrepair; a Fincherian nightmare of the place, the walls do not leak so much as pour, and the running water looks a lovely shade of brown. In Tyler Jack finds an idol, someone who's broken free of the system that tortures him and has crafted an independent lifestyle ungoverned by the norms of society. The two create Fight Club, a place for other disaffected men to vent their frustrations with the emptiness of the world around them. Once a week they come and beat the stuffing out of each other, and on Monday they go back to their jobs as file clerks and waiters.

The very conceit of Fight Club is one of the most deeply satiric creations ever to grace contemporary literature/cinema: these men, so shiftless in their lives, are the dead-eyed wanderers of America's spiritual post-apocalypse. That the people who are so deadened by anomie that they beat each other to feel alive are yuppies only makes it funnier. The accusations of misogyny here seem meaningless, as Fight Club represents the bizarre need of some men, and men specifically, to experience pain to feel alive. That inherent need explains why the number of attendees appears to have compounded each time Fincher takes us back to a fight, and soon the yuppies prop up Durden as a hero, spurred on by his anti-materialistic screed: "You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis."

Under Tyler's tutelage, Fight Club morphs into Project Mayhem, directing that drive for self-harm outward into a mixture of masochistic fascism and social revolution. It starts with general vandalism: Tyler and Jack take bats to the sleek new VW Beetle -- the symbol of '60s youth repackaged by the sell-out baby boomers to foist upon the new youth both as the ultimate corruption of their values and their lingering, narcissistic infatuation with those abandoned values -- and the makeshift army loots a Blockbuster (prominently displaying a poster of Independence Day, no less, a cheeky reflection of the freedom these men feel).

But it soon escalates into threatening police commissioners and, ultimately, planning some mysterious bomb plot that might be what would have happened if Timothy McVeigh had led Jim Jones' cult: no other scene in the film is as funny and hopelessly pitch-black as the one where a squad comes back after a "mission" carrying with them a dead Bob (the large-breasted man from the testicular cancer group). A stunned Jack cannot believe what Tyler's escalation has led to, and he tries desperately to break the men of their insane conditioning. Tyler, like the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, destroyed these men to rebuild them into a tool of destruction, and they no longer have names when they meet. So, when Jack screams that Bob was real, that his name was Robert Paulsen, these fascist idiots accept this as Jack, (co-?)founder of FC, elevating the dead to a position of honor, that in death they truly become worthy. Anyone who dismisses the film as the ramblings of fascist teenage morons -- as did Kenneth Turan -- must simply have left the theater before this scene, because it makes explicitly, hilariously clear Jack's horrified realization and disdain of the end sum of Fight Club.

Project Mayhem eventually becomes the ultimate attack on the society these men just cannot accept. Consider the brilliant extended metaphor of the soap that Tyler sells: the soap is made from liposuctioned fat, taken from people who got fat through consumerist gluttony then paid to have it removed because of society's perception of beauty. Tyler then sells it back to the people who, in a way, made it. Finally, the soap is used to make the bombs to bring down credit card headquarters, a symbol of the consumerist world that emasculates them. It is utterly insane, yet perversely ingenious.

Palahniuk's depiction of these men, perfectly refined for the screen by Fincher and writer Jim Uhls, works precisely because the satire of the men of Fight Club/Project Mayhem favors neither the anarchic revenge fantasy nor the sadomasochism of a bizarre subset of men that truly drives it. Fincher finds a perfect balance between the two, one that only fully reveals its brilliance on a second viewing because it's, dare I even say it, subtle. The yuppies fight to free themselves, if only for a few minutes of bloody pain, from their vacuous lives, yet they prove just as slavish in service to Tyler Durden as they do the corporations they so virulently hate. More so, even, because Fight Club offers them a psychosexual outlet: remember that Bob, who lost his testicles to cancer, takes to Fight Club with vigor. Through pummeling other men, he and the others find a solace that takes the place of sex.

Which brings us to the funniest aspect of the film's humor: the rampant, unyielding homoeroticism. Palahniuk, now openly gay, has long been the subject of debate for the perceived "macho" quality of his writing, but here all of the posturing and sweaty fisticuffs only feed an atmosphere of nascent homosexuality. Of course, now we all know the truth of Jack and Tyler Durden's relationship, but Fincher misdirects from it for most of the film by suggesting a borderline homosexual relationship between them: Jack sits in the bathroom while Tyler bathes, he appears to be as mad at Marla for sleeping with Tyler as he is with Tyler for sleeping with her. The first flashback places Jack in the support group, where men hug each and other and cry because they're no longer sexually active, and the members of Fight Club often clasp hands and embrace after a slugging match. Of course, the reveal of Tyler Durden as nothing more than Jack's id turns that particular relationship into an off-kilter demonstration of pure narcissism, a lingering shade of the consumer vampires that populated Bret Easton Ellis' work, but even in the end, as Jack looks forward to a relationship with Marla, Fincher has one last bit of fun by splicing in a few frames' worth of a shot of a man's penis, both a nod to Tyler's "editing skills" and a final reminder that what you just finished watching was gayer than gay pornography.

This week marked the ten-year anniversary of the film's release, marked by the release of a gorgeous Blu-Ray that brings out Fincher's jaw-dropping visual craft more than ever, and it's interesting to note how opinion has changed over the years. Roger Ebert initially questioned the clarity of the film's message and gave it two stars, but he has mentioned in passing how going through the film shot-for-shot at Boulder College with a room full of intelligent film buffs turned him around on the picture. In the current IMDb ranking of its 250 highest-rated films (not, of course, a concrete source of a film's quality but an interesting gauge of the "average Joe's" opinion), Fight Club comes in at an impressive #18. I cannot help but feel, however, that the overall shift of opinion in the film's favor is not necessarily positive, as I'm quite certain that a sizable portion of the people who voted Fight Club up the charts of IMDb merely think that it is cool and has a wicked ending -- by point of reference, The Usual Suspects, a film that lives and dies on its twist reveal, comes in at #21. In 2003, the magazine Men's Journal so thoroughly missed the point that it placed the film on a list of "The 50 Best Guy Movies Ever Made," and one of the features on the Blu-Ray consists of Mel Gibson bestowing the Guy Movie Hall of Fame honor to Fight Club at Spike TV’s 2009 Guys Choice Awards. It would seem that Fight Club has been fully assimilated into the materialist pop culture it so mercilessly mocks, "The first rule of Fight Club" being the "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" of the modern era in terms of joke-killing ubiquity.

I do not, however, believe that the perennial inability of some people to get this movie constitutes a failure on the filmmakers' part not to slam on the brakes to make its message (even more) inescapably clear. Fight Club is many things: a frenetic slice of pop-Nietzsche. An attack on consumerism and evil corporations, but specifically on the IKEAs, Apples, and Starbucks of the world, the companies that insidiously posit themselves as "one of us" and use youth's hipness against itself. A homoerotic revenge fantasy carried out by emotionally stunted morons who pin their problems, consciously or subconsciously, on their mothers and make a play at macho posturing to prove their manliness in a metrosexual world that frightens them. At its heart, however, Fight Club is a romantic comedy. Like all the other Generation X rom-coms, it's about a nerdy, neurotic loser who nervously tries to get with a beautiful, often slightly quirky, woman. Hell, the whole reason Tyler exists is because Jack envisions him as a reaction of his sexual terror over meeting and confronting Marla. Fight Club: Woody Allen meets MMA. That's why the ending is so happy: it's romance!


  1. Damn - this here is one in-depth review.

    I really don;t know what it is about FIGHT CLUB that has allowed it to gain a foothold as a cult classic over the last ten years. I'm almost tempted to nail it to Palahniuk's rise in popularity as an author.

    Part of me just wonders if back in '99 - as vanguard a year as that was - people just didn't get it. Things in the world were going quite well that nobody wanted to think about how we might be fooling ourselves into nirvana by way of The Gap and IKEA.

    Maybe after their brain was melted by finding our Bruce Willis was dead all along, they just couldn't handle any critique on consumerism and self-understanding.

    Oh, and for what it's worth - my favorite line in the film has always been "When people think you're dying, they really listen to you instead of just...waiting for their turn to talk."

  2. 1. IKEA is Swedish, not Scandinavian.
    2. Paragraph 7: "that they beat each other too (to) feel alive"

  3. Anon: thanks for the "too" spot. IKEA was founded by a Swede but today it's technically Dutch. I put Scandavian (which isn't a country but a region that includes Sweden) because it got its start in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

  4. My favorite scene in the movie is when Edward Norton beats himself up in front of his boss.

  5. Ikea is Swedish, not Scandanavian is a top line! The mind boggles, lol.