Before we begin, I just have to issue a warning: This is yet another essay on Fight Club, David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel. You would have my utmost sympathy if, upon knowing this, you stopped reading immediately, honoring a pledge you made some time ago to never again read anything related to the greatness and/or pop cultual impact of this film. Because of the film’s exceptionally rich and vivid historical reception, over the years writing about Fight Club has devolved into pondering what not to include in your review, more than what to actually include. As in asking yourself: Could I be excused for trotting out this or that once-groundbreaking, long-since internalized reading of its politics or significance? When, despite all this, I’m actually writing about Fight Club, this has to do with a discussion I had with Franz back in February concerning recent Oscar snubs. In it, I mentioned Fight Club and 2007’s Zodiac, and labeled them ’classics’. Franz, while confessing a certain admiration for Fight Club, confessed to not liking it as much as many others did, and he also expressed some frustration with the status Fight Club has earned since its release. In a way, Fight Club is beyond unassailable. It has become one of those films people don’t even feel they have to explain why they like, much like (I sense) The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, or Pulp Fiction before them. I admire Fight Club as much as the next guy, but I think it’s both important and fun to actually think through whether my previous assessment still holds up. So, a big thanks to Franz for inspiring me to see it again, and goodbye to those of you who are still not convinced I’ll have something remotely original to offer.
Our shared sense that Fight Club has somehow garnered an almost unassailable position also speaks to the fact that any attempted blacklash against it so far has not gained traction. It’s still good latin to speak about Fight Club in words otherwise reserved for classics, while Forrest Gump‘s status as a classic seems to have been (perhaps rightfully) challenged somewhat by the sheer broadness of its appeal, and possibly also its overly nostalgic feel. Whether this perceived Gump backlash is real, or even deserved, is not the topic of the day, but it doesn’t take away one of the paramount questions surrounding the critical reception of Fight Club: How could a film this firmly placed within a 1990’s pre-9/11 context, still feel so relevant and fascinating? While it’s certainly debatable whether the nineties where actually as peaceful as they may seem in retrospect, Fight Club‘s main premise nevertheless was that successful thirtysomethings somehow found their lives so mind-numbingly safe they needed to beat and blow each other up simply to feel something. Anything, really.
Yet however alienating or even naive the film’s portrayal of creative destruction (note that I’m not suggesting that it endorses terrorism) might be, I still think it can offer an interesting mirror to the psyche of the 1990’s,when people abandoned politics to exchange symbols of cultural capital instead, for lack of a project that was more important than themselves (to replace religion, or the War On Terror or whatever with individualism and consumerism, if you get what I mean). This somewhat apolitical (or even anti-political) tone may make it seem irrelevant in today’s world, but that doesn’t mean it cannot provide a key to understand a slightly caricatured version of the 1990’s as an era of cynical irony and self-presentation (how Jack/Tyler define himself through his design furniture, much like Patrick Bateman in ‘American Psycho’). And as anti-political as it may have seemed at the time, it nonetheless coincided perfectly with an international movement of globalization- (and in extension consumerism-) skeptics, whose adbusting campaigns mirrored those used in the films, though used in a non-militant way.
I think this is one of several core points that split the audience. If you don’t agree that this could say something profound about human interaction, then it’s only natural that you find Fight Club‘s protagonists to be self-absorbed, pathetic and hard to relate to. To me, though, Fight Club‘s (admittedly misanthropic) view of the modern uprooted consumer is crucial to accepting why the fight club concept is such a success. The violence finally represent something ‘real’ in their lives, in place of the fake emotions and materialism they generally use to get by. In that light, Jack/Tyler’s self-pitying reference to being part of ‘a generation [of men] raised by women’, could be read both as a satirical knock at Freudianism and traditional masculinity, and as an aggressive dig at a society somehow better attuned to the emotional needs of women than men. Whether you find the latter argument persuasive or not (and I don’t) this then again opens a whole new set of questions, like whether there even is a moral core to Fight Club, if in the end just about anything could pass as satire? And the frustrating answer – that the questions the film poses are invariably more interesting than its attempted answers – could well serve to prove that very point.
Until now, I have tiptoed around Fight Club‘s little twist (spoiler ahead) – that Tyler Durden is actually only a product of Jack’s twisted imagination – for the simple reason that I don’t think the nuts and bolts of the plot are nearly as interesting as the broader issues it raises, but when it comes to the film’s view of masculinity, I suspect it cannot be ignored any longer. One aspect is that Tyler allows Jack to be everything he has previously denied himself: self-confident, entrepreneurial, sexy and, in a paradoxical way, even independent (even though we eventually understand that Tyler is more of a mental crutch than a tool of actual liberation, and even though we learn to question whether any of this even happened outside of Jack’s brain). Another is the centrality of the male physique. In a way, the fighting aspect takes the usual awkwardness of human (and particularly) male interaction out of the equation. The honing of the male physique is encouraged, but in the end it’s not about how you look; it’s about how you fight, or even how you feel about fighting. Jack’s brutal takedown of Jared Leto’s Angel Face character also has a disturbingly ‘democratic’ feel to it; he feels threatened by the physical superiority of his opponent, and therefore he uses his only possible venue to level the playing field. The message to us is the same as Tyler’s to Jack: You can be anyone you want to be. The question is how far you’d go to realize it.
And this also points to the film’s latent homoerotic undertones. I’ve already mentioned that Tyler could be considered merely as a ‘crutch’ Jack uses to flee from a complicated world, but that’s not the only possible interpretation. Going back to the relationship between Jack, Tyler and Leto’s Angel Face character, one could read some homoerotic undertones into Jack’s sense of being replaced by Angel Face in the planning of Project Mayhem, and that his eventual fight with him is really a fight for Tyler’s attention. Again, I’m not sure how persuasive the argument is, but taken together with the film’s focus on the explicitly physical elements of male bonding, it’s could be a fair reading.
Which brings us to Brad Pitt, whose gorgeous face has become so intimately linked to Fight Club’s inherent coolness that the film in some ways has influenced how I understand all of his other performances. The casting of Pitt, and his willingness to play with our preordained perception of him as just a pretty face, serves to underline the fundamental playfulness that saves the film from drowning in self-serious political allegories. Pitt came to Fight Club from the inexcusable Meet Joe Black, and he obviously enjoyed literally smashing his carefully honed prettyboy image. It’s absolutely incremental to the story that Pitt succeed in making Tyler Durden a character so magnetic that we accept that people would follow his every word blindly. On a sidenote, I have to say I never thought Brad Pitt had this kind of sexiness in him.
Thus far, all my points have been related to the plot or message of the film, but if Fight Club had not had any specifically cinematic qualities, I would have considered it a failure. In fact, Fight Club’s narrative and visual style is the reason why I have met every David Fincher film since with interest, regardless of whether the film itself spoke to me in any way; Panic Room may have given away too much too early, but I would still watch it for the panoramatic virtuosity of the opening five minutes, and to me the technical aspects of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button always felt more organic than the frequently emotionally distanced epic storytelling. Likewise, every frame of Fight Club smells of blood, sweat and fears, making the most of Dust Brothers’ pulse-pounding soundtrack, to no less effect than his enigmatic ‘the-city-by-night’ portrait in the excellently tight-knit Zodiac.
All this adds up to my, hopefully fairly coherent, case for Fight Club. My perspective on it probably has changed more than other film is my personal canon, but my admiration for it is still intact. A historian I know always insists that my understanding of Fight Club will unavoidably be a better source to understanding me than to understanding the film, or the time in which it was created, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this holds through even here.