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“Fight Club” is one of those nostalgic movies that has a special place in my heart. It wasn’t even until recently, after dusting it off and giving it a watch, that I hopped online and learned that it was heavily panned by critics and performed poorly at the box office. Even the late great Roger Ebert had some pretty sour words. Maybe it’s a ‘generation’ thing. Upon my first viewing of “Fight Club,” I knew I would never stop loving it. It is has issues – some pretty big ones, in fact. There’s a hugely problematic third act, and there does appear to be a ‘style over substance’ quality to the whole endeavor that’s pretty hard to ignore. I still think it’s pretty damn fantastic.
When “Fight Club” was released back in 1999, Roger Ebert was quick to disregard it as “macho porn.” There’s truth to this, in a sense, but I think the movie was both self-aware and intentional. Fifteen years later, considering a post-911 audience, some topics have shifted. Critics now focus on themes of sedition & terrorism, and tend to highlight the film’s wonton (and somewhat gleeful) destruction of city skyscrapers. This, I suppose, might not be as humorous to contemporary moviegoers.
The thing to keep in mind is that the film doesn’t advocate for the violence and destruction it presents. “Fight Club” is a meditation on the male animal, disenfranchisement, and the appealing but dangerous nature of herd mentality. I think it’s a careful tableaux of an imbalanced, post-modern, consumer-based society that pits “individual” and “communal” values against one another, with tragic results.
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Roger Ebert opened his essay:
“Fight Club is the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since “Death Wish,” a celebration of violence in which the heroes write themselves a license to drink, smoke, screw, and beat one another up.”
The only thing he’s correct about is the ‘fascist’ remark, but that’s kind of where I think the brilliance of the film lies. It’s anti-hero is quite literally a fascist, a charismatic sociopath who leads the members of Fight Club into a barracks and enlists them into his cult – complete with initiation rituals, hazing, forced labor, the relinquishing of individual names, and reeducation seminars. By the end of the film, these men are barely able to communicate, lest they regurgitate the nihilistic pieces of wisdom fed to them by their messiah. What I find even more fascinating is the audience who, wool over eyes, happily watch the members of Fight Club descend into destructive madness. Rather than explain precisely what was on the surface – unbridled testosterone, homo-eroticism, locker-room brawls, drinking, and sex – Roger Ebert would have done well to consider, for even an instant, what it must have been that led these men into their cult, into lives of anarchic criminality. The most fascinating thing about David Fincher’s “Fight Club” is it’s depiction of modern masculinity and the film’s ability to ask the audience a simple question: what kind of insanity can alienation & self-hatred lead to when all the dominoes are set up just right?
We all know the plot, so you’ll forgive me if I jump around a bit. It isn’t the plot that entirely interests me. The resolution plays second fiddle to the set up, and the set up is so good we can forgive the film it’s lack of focus in the final act.
The depressed, white-collar outsider of “Fight Club” is simply called “The Narrator,” and it’s effective to keep him nameless, relegating him to “everyman” status. His life presents all the hallmarks of modern American success – job stability, a well-adorned condominium, nice clothes, and a college education. The reality of his life is far different. He is lonely, wracked with insomnia and anxiety, severely discontent with his cubicle job. Not only is he dejected, but he sets the tone for every other character in the film. Foreground and background characters universally struggle with feelings of inadequacy and defeat.
Yes, indeed, “Fight Club” is macho porn, and it has gotten me off for fifteen years. But, more accurately, “Fight Club” is exquisite satire of macho porn. These aren’t the greased-up volleyball players in “Top Gun.” These are saddened and angry men who discover some sort of sick pleasure in self-destruction. It’s not a notoriously unbelievable premise. It’s not the relentless celebration of hyper-masculinity that so many critics have insisted it is. To my mind, it’s an exploration of an abstract, simplified archetype of ‘man’ and his movements in a world that has locked him in, shut him up, pumped him full of needless responsibility, rendered him fearful & subservient, and has preyed on his unrequited desire for meaning in life.
The symbolism isn’t subtle. The Narrator, quite early on, begins attending support groups – cancer, brain dementia, alcoholism, et al – as a means of putting his misery in perspective. The first group he visits is a cancer survivor group: “Remaining Men Together.” In a film about modern man’s struggle with his own masculinity, it makes sense to surround the main character with post-surgical victims of testicular cancer – men who have literally been castrated.
It becomes clear, about halfway through the film, that “Fight Club” seeks to obliterate masculine stereotypes, strangely, by employing them. The film also inverts stereotypes, allowing male protagonist to emote in ways typically reserved for female characters. For instance, The Narrator finds catharsis in these support groups; he cannot sleep without experiencing an emotional release (in this case, by being in an environment that allows him to cry). The men in “Fight Club” clobber each other in one moment, only to cry and embrace one another the next.
But in a locker-room brawl, we also remember that boys bloody-well don’t cry; an emotional man is a lesser man, probably a gay (or at least feminine) man. “Fight Club” does something interesting with this: it dismisses these negative stereotype of the emotional male. Release, be it in the form of punching somebody in the face or crying buckets of tears, proves to be empowering.
In one scene, The Narrator points to a billboard underwear ad. Taking it in – a sculpturesque man, tanned and hairless, sporting a substantial bulge and six-pack stomach – The Narrator scoffs: “is that what a man looks like?” Anti-commercialism takes a front seat. A declaration is made about advertising and it’s negative impact on the male psyche. “I felt sorry for guys packed into gyms,” he narrates, “trying to look like how Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger said they should.”
Not surprisingly, the men of “Fight Club” rally behind a renegade figure, Tyler Durden, whose condemnation of materialism and commercialism is beautifully expressed. The irony, of course, is that Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) embodies the wash-board ab movie-god with clear skin and perfect teeth. We watch members of Fight Club tacitly elect a figure that, more than anything else, resembles the ideals they purport to reject. I understand, once the final reveal is made in the third act, that Tyler is a manifestation of what The Narrator views as the ideal man – good-looking, confident, and capable – but the audience doesn’t know this. The audience can’t know this in order for the story to hold any interest. It’s accidental meta-humor, our first hint that something isn’t right about Tyler’s philosophy, no matter how much we’re fooled into liking him. Remember, it’s this anarchic pseudo-messiah who convinces them to tear it all down – bathwater, baby, and all.
Along with the evolution of Tyler’s cult following, the story opines about an archetypal “primitive” man. The narrative hints not just at the reptilian brain (and the violence that comes from it), but at the notion of man as hunter-gatherer. The men fetishize Tyler, and they fantasize about a bygone era in which strength – especially strength in numbers – was essential for survival. Rejecting the conveniences of modern society, they glorify tribalism. In the dimly-lit urban backdrop of the film, we’re reminded that muscles no longer assist man the way they assisted his primitive counterpart. They’re more useful on billboards than anything else.
So sure, Mr. Ebert took issue with the drinking, smoking, screwing, and violence. But what leads to that kind of reckless behavior – and how reckless is it, really? And why weren’t these questions asked? Discontent, in any of its forms – depression, a failing relationship or broken childhood, substance abuse, illness, et al – almost always leads to the kind of aggression, violence, and other base behaviors presented in “Fight Club.”
And beyond such base behaviors, the unhappy men in “Fight Club” are – by virtue of their discontent – susceptible to the influence of their charismatic leader. With well-constructed speeches about the evils of advertising, the fruitless pursuit of material wealth, and the helplessness of “playing along,” Tyler promises liberation – through sacrifice, obedience, and conformity. Deeply fed-up with the workaday world, these ’emasculated’ followers line up without question. The Tyler Durden character is so well-written, so wonderfully executed, that it’s easy to be taken in, even from the comfort of our living-rooms; he speaks to an oppression that we all feel.
Tyler’s more laughable pranks – urinating in soup pots and vandalizing coffee shops – give way to more severe “assignments,” which he hands out in sealed envelopes. His actions become increasingly destructive and, even though his motives seem somewhat plausible (and while many of us may be along for the ride), we ultimately know that nothing good can come from this kind of top-down leadership, and from such extreme and unquestioning obedience from his wards. Tyler manipulates his followers – using their own sadness and frustration against them – in order to achieve his goals.
“Fight Club” is a film with no heroes and only one villain (if we even want to call him that). This is precisely why things fall apart in the third act: there’s no way to effectively resolve the conflict between The Narrator and Tyler Durden. I can forgive this because the film isn’t really a ‘good versus evil’ morality play. Nobody wins in the stalemate anti-climax of the film. Nobody. Instead, we watch lost boys stumbling through life, struggling to make sense of the world – and we sympathize with them on some level. Much like in real life, nobody really wins – not even the audience. This may not have been the intended result, but it works…for the most part.
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And any of you who have endured my insufferable ramblings, don’t think for a second that I’ve forgotten about Marla Singer. I’ll have more on her later.