Fight Club (1999)
Dir. David Fincher
Written by: Jim Uhls (from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk)
Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham-Carter
Over the years, media collections have always served as markers of an individual’s personal tastes. An album collection, a bookshelf, or a list of favorite movies can be a representation of one’s personality and interests that they can cultivate and put on display for the world to see, a Rosetta stone to unlock the mystery of someone’s cultural affinities. The media that we choose to collect and value can make an important statement about our personal identities. While much of my collection is probably a testament to my overall movie snobbery, there are certain movies in it that are so culturally universal and so definitive of a time and a place in American cinematic cultural history that they fail to reveal much about my actual personal tastes. Just like “Rubber Soul” or “Four Way Street” in my mother’s album collection, there are simply certain movies that it seems like everyone who was alive and consuming mass culture during a certain time can agree upon, and seems to have a copy of floating around in their collection somewhere. Fight Club is one of these universal movies for people, such as myself, who came of age in the late 1990s.
Despite being only a modest box office success, Fight Club is the movie that helped put both David Fincher and Chuck Palahniuk on the cultural map in a big way. Fincher already had a few features under his belt, including his helming of a major misstep in the Alien franchise, and his redemptive efforts in directing the cult hits The Game and Se7en. Palahniuk became a household name after the film adaptation of his first novel became a cult hit and a cultural touchstone. Fight Club’s story of disaffected, displaced masculinity, embodied by the Narrator (Norton), came to resonate with a generation of young men who identified with the film’s anti-corporate message and with its ultraviolent content. The film sees the Narrator leave a comfortable white collar job after a chance meeting with Tyler Durden (Pitt), a misanthrope and social provocateur who comes up with the idea for a secret club that can help men struggling with a perceived loss of agency in the face of societal change. Tyler and the narrator found Fight Club, a secret underground fighting league in which men can vent the frustrations of existing in a post-Industrialist, post-Feminist world through brutal fist fights. The fights help these aimless men feel alive and vital, giving them a sense of belonging and purpose, and Fight Club begins to spread across the country, with its adherents praising Tyler like a cult leader. Eventually, Fight Club begins to change into a more organized and militant force, Project Mayhem, as Tyler’s devotees begin to engage in more bombastic, socially motivated acts of vandalism and anti-corporate mischief. The Narrator starts to worry that Project Mayhem has gotten out of control, but there doesn’t seem to be much he can do to stop the momentum that Tyler has built in creating an army.
I can remember watching Fight Club for the first time with one of my best friends when we were sophomores in high school, a year or two after it had been out in theaters. We watched the movie on VHS and I was taken in by its highly stylized visuals and its hip, sardonic take on modern workplace culture. I clung to Tyler Durden’s sloganeering in the film, taking phrases like “How can you know anything about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight,” and “You are not your fucking khakis,” to heart and starting to turn them into the building blocks of my nascent teenaged personality. I found Fight Club’s anti-corporate, anarchic sensibilities to be mature and enlightened viewpoints, and the film’s overall theme of rejecting societal expectations in favor of a return to a primal sort of self-exploration truly resonated with my developing worldview. Eventually, I bought the movie on DVD, and I became totally obsessed with it. I watched it over and over again, listening to various commentary tracks, watching deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes vignettes. Even though I already knew the outcome of Fight Club’s famous twist ending, I didn’t care, and I reaped just as much enjoyment from my tenth viewing of the film as I had from that first time watching it. Fight Club was exactly the sort of smart, stylish, edgy movie that boosted my credentials as a fan of ”important” movies, and when I moved to Pittsburgh for college, I chose to display my tastes for the world to see by purchasing a Fight Club poster and tacking it to the wall of my first dorm room.
It’s easy to see why Fight Club became such a hit with a generation of movie watchers. The movie is perfect for the DVD era, with its dense and twisting narrative rewarding repeat views. Its cutting edge visuals, for the time, were eye-popping in the relative high fidelity that DVD offered, and lent themselves well to the types of supplemental material that were popular on the prestige DVD releases of the early 21st century. These qualities, and the increasing affordability of collecting DVDs, led to Fight Club’s ubiquity in millennials’ movie collections and helped turn a box office disappointment into a run-away cult success that has garnered praise as one of the best films of its period. Though it tells the story of disaffected members of Generation X, who came of age in a rapidly changing world where the workplace success and stable domestic life that seemed to be enjoyed by their predecessors was rapidly eroding, Fight Club’s sloganeering and paint-by-numbers approach to societal discord and extreme civil disobedience made it a perfect movie to be adopted by the next generation of young people who were actually coming of age upon the film’s release. These teens and preteens took the movie’s simplistic politics to heart and many started to form an identity based around the primal, uber-macho points of view that are embraced in Fight Club. Just like the members of Project Mayhem who mindlessly parrot Tyler’s screeds and credos back to him and to each other, Fight Club’s fans were having the film’s messages drilled into their heads through repetitious viewing at home.
Of course, Fight Club is a work of satire and its politics and social commentary should be taken with a grain of salt. I recognized the film as such, and while I never espoused the macho posturing in the film, I was taken in by many of its more pointed social critiques, particularly its examination of the inability of the modern American worker to exist as anything other than an undifferentiated cog in a heartless, brutal corporate machine. I took to heart Tyler Durden’s warning that “the things we own end up owning us,” and tried to eschew materialist or corporatist urges, but I didn’t need a movie to tell me that big businesses and corporations were bad for individuals, and that working people are endlessly exploited by a profit-hungry system of Capitalism that values them only for their productive capacity and not for their creative or humanistic qualities. Watching a movie like Fight Club helped to crystallize some of my beliefs, but as I got older, I started to see the fallacy in living your life by movie quotes or by letting a piece of pop culture become a guiding or defining part of your life and personality. I still enjoyed Fight Club as a movie, but eventually the poster came off of my wall, and my viewings of the film became fewer and more far between. Changing tastes and a broadening world view shifted my interests towards more intellectually rigorous and nuanced films, but Fight Club still existed in the background of my cinematic excursions, an old favorite waiting to be rediscovered in a new light, or simply to be returned to as a form of filmic comfort food.
While I have watched Fight Club a handful of times since it ceased to be a very important movie to me in my late teens and early twenties, I think that watching it for this project must have been my first time really sitting down and engaging with the movie in a deep and relevant way in close to a decade. The experience didn’t disappoint, and, if anything, I found Fight Club to perhaps be more relevant today than it was when I first saw it almost twenty years ago. Watching a movie that attempts to explore the fragility of modern, white-collar, White American masculinity in the age of the Me Too movement and the resultant backlash from so-called “Men’s Rights” advocates was an interesting experience, to say the least. It was difficult for me to watch Fight Club without coming to the realization that perhaps this ubiquitous movie could be, at least partially, to blame for a subset of the male population in my age group who seem bent on creating grievances and blaming the world, and particularly women, for their own shortcomings or disappointments in life. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these Men’s Rights types held Fight Club in high esteem, while certainly missing the movie’s satirical critique of the macho culture that it depicts. Tyler Durden, and the club that he creates, are responses to the perceived marginalization of the White American male, in the face of increased visibilities and opportunities for women, people of color, and other traditionally marginalized groups. In the film, the formation of a heterosocial group, in which physical assault is the only outlet for these men to feel alive or to come into contact with their own conflicted, and conflicting, emotional centers, is celebrated as a return to some sort of male primacy. However, as the film shows, embracing that vicious, violent form of machismo has deadly consequences for many of the characters, and leads to a series of counterproductive and empty revolutionary gestures. Fight Club should be read as a cautionary tale for men against letting too much of the Id control our behaviors, but instead I think that there is a large portion of the movie’s fandom that sees it as a primer and a call to arms against societal strictures that are “emasculating” a generation of men.
I guess the question that I was left with after rewatching Fight Club and thinking about the movie in the context of its potential role in creating, or at the very least reaffirming the beliefs of, a group of vile, hateful men, was whether or not the film’s positive qualities outweigh the connection that I’ve now made between the movie and a real world ethos that I find incompatible with my own point of view. In the end, I think that I still enjoy Fight Club. Although I’ve found Palahniuk to be something of a provocateur in his own right, I find it hard to believe that either he or Fincher would support the reading of this text that I’m imagining some fans clinging to. Perhaps because the film isn’t ostensibly branded as a comedy, its satirical point of view is easier to lose, but I think that most viewers will very easily realize that Tyler is the film’s antagonist, rather than an idol to be worshipped. As a movie, Fight Club still holds up visually in spite of two decades of technical progression since its release. The film’s gritty, grimy visual aesthetic is perfect, and finds Fincher expanding on the visual aesthetic of his earlier films to incorporate limited CGI, and employing some flashier camera work and editing than he had previously in his feature films. Its twisting, non-linear narrative is still a joy to unpack, and the film’s pacing is spot on, with its lengthy runtime seeming to fly by. Fight Club is a movie that is indelibly of its time, both in terms of its larger context and its role in my own personal development as a film viewer, but like other great movies it remains culturally and cinematically relevant. Great art should be a mirror for the society that produces it, and Fight Club uses its violent, satirical narrative to great critical effect, but there’s often no accounting for the ways that an audience will warp and distort that reflection based on their own prejudices and predilections.