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Non-Review Review: Fight Club

Fight Club was released in 1999, and seems to perfectly capture a brief moment in the history of disemfranchised American masculinity.

Situated between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror, Fight Club is the story of disenfranchised middle-class masculinity, a cultural group gripped by sense of impotence and despair and lost amid an era of financial prosperity and material success. “We’re the middle children of history, man,” Tyler Durden informs his followers. “No purpose or place. We have no Great War… no Great Depression.” It’s a line that gets more bitterly ironic with each re-watch.

A film frequently misunderstood by a significant portion of its fans and its critics, Fight Club is perhaps the quintessential cult film of the nineties. A clever hook that encourages further viewings, a mean subversive streak and a bleak irreverence that is impossible to look away from, Fight Club manages to perfectly encapsulate a moment of shared cultural consciousness and insecurity.

Seeking a friend at the end of the world...

Seeking a friend at the end of the world…

Note: This review contains spoilers for Fight Club. Consider yourself warned.

It’s hard to talk about Fight Club without discussing the movie’s rather infamous twist. As a structural element, the twist is nothing short of brilliant. Much like the twist to The Usual Suspects, it is a reveal that encourages the viewer to return to the film. “How did you miss this?” it seems to ask, inviting the viewer to watch the movie one more time to see if they can pick up on all the set-up and foreshadowing that was buried so efficiently and so cleverly beneath the surface.

In hindsight, it’s hard to believe that film pulled the wool over anybody’s eyes. The answer is so obvious – saturated throughout the film in both dialogue cues, directorial decisions and other manners. “If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?” our anonymous narrator wonders as the camera first focuses on Tyler. Of course, this sin’t Tyler’s first appearance – the character has been trying to force his way into the film, appearing for a frame or two at a time in the movie’s first fifteen minutes.

The sleep of the far-from-righteous...

The sleep of the far-from-righteous…

“I know this because Tyler knows this,” the narrator tells us, attaching no significance to the line. Even during their first meeting, the similarities are obvious. “We have the exact same briefcase.” Tyler’s father issues reflect those felt by the narrator. “Sounds familiar,” the narrator agrees at one point. After another recollection of the troubled relationship, he offers, “Same here.” Characters acknowledge the narrator or Tyler, never both. “Who are you talking to?” Marla asks Tyler as he converses with the narrator.

“For some reason I thought of my first fight with Tyler,” the narrator admits as he throws himself around his boss’ office. After he first fight with Tyler – where he hit his opponent in the ear – our narrator claims that his ears are ringing. It all makes sense, even as Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls manage to conceal the truth for so long. The movie builds it up to the point where the conclusion is unavoidable, but Fincher and Uhls manage to hide the answer in plain sight with a confidence and skill that remains impressive on re-watching the movie.

Smokin'...

Smokin’…

Perhaps the most obvious clue to his nature might come as Tyler himself, as he reflects on the images of masculinity used to sell underwear. “I felt sorry for guys packed into gyms,” the narrator informs us, “trying to look like how Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger said they should.” Almost immediately, the narrator notices the picture of a male model on a bus. “Is that what a man looks like?” Of course, Tyler is a very embodiment of the narrator’s vision of masculinity. Brad Pitt looks like an underwear model, as the movie takes pains to remind us – cutting directly to a scene of the muscle-bound Pitt brawling.

Fight Club remains controversial. It’s a film that leaves itself open to interpretation and some small measure of ambiguity. After all, fight clubs really exist. It is tempting to suggest the movie endorses – at least, casually – the attitudes of our lead characters. Tyler Durden’s rhetoric is catchy, lending itself to soundbytes and quotations. “Reject the basic assumption of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions,” Tyler offers at one point, just a single example of dozens of philosophical statements intended to be packaged and repeated to help foster the illusion of profundity.

Fight for your right...

Fight for your right…

Tyler’s attacks upon consumerism and raw capitalism are not entirely baseless – after all, they are rooted in the narrator’s own sense of existential ennui. It is easy enough to take Tyler’s philosophy at face value. Of course, this is an incredibly simplistic approach to the film and to the character, an approach that pays more attention to what Tyler says about society than what the film says about Tyler.

For all that Tyler advocates individualism and anarchism, it is worth noting that Tyler is constructed from stereotypical cookie-cutter versions of masculinity. He is incredibly hypocritical. After all, the narrator created his own shadow self who bares an uncanny resemblance to the underwear models he claims to despise. For all that Tyler claims to be a unique individual who stands opposed to everything society expects from him, he feels more like a toxic cocktail of masculine entitlement fed by that culture.

Read too much into it?

Read too much into it?

Tyler’s attitudes and his arguments are juvenile, simplistic and self-serving. Tyler is unrestrained id, a pampered man child trying to rationalise his own destructive tendencies and misogyny by disguising it as considered philosophy. “We’re a generation of men raised by women,” he muses in a moment of especially-poorly-disguised misogyny. “I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” Much of Tyler’s rhetoric sounds like something that the so-called “men’s rights movement” would agree with.

(Indeed, the movie suggests that Tyler is the very embodiment of disenfranchised nineties masculinity. One of his quick “pre-appearances” comes when a doctor recommends that the narrator visit a testicular cancer support group, defining “real suffering” in terms of lost masculinity. There is a reason that Tyler – and thus Project: Mayhem – is so fixated on castration and defacing “corporate art” that looks like a giant metal ball. It’s the ultimate expression of the narrator’s selfishness that he tries to take the suffering of testicular cancer survivors and fashion it into the basis of his own warped alter ego.)

Flight into fantasy...

Flight into fantasy…

For all that Tyler protests the nefarious influence of corporations and franchising, he builds himself an empire based on the same principles. Are his own philosophies that different from the companies he claims to despise? He treats his recruits like garbage, dehumanising them to the point where they are not allowed to keep their names. He charges them “three-hundred dollars burial money”, despite the fact that those killed in action wind up buried anonymously in his backyard.

The film reinforces the idea that Tyler is a massive hypocrite. “Tyler had been busy, setting up franchises all over the country,” the narrator explicitly notes at one point, observing that Tyler had been using the flight coupons acquired via the narrator’s “corporate sponsorship” to facilitate such expansion. During the final confrontation, the film makes sure to focus on Tyler’s shiny leather shoes and his lavish fur coat. Given his rather modest wardrobe at the start of the film, it seems like the times have been generous to Tyler Durden.

A driving force...

A driving force…

For all that Tyler seems to embody working class rebellion and anarchy, he is very much an expression of middle-class anxieties about such things. The narrator describes Tyler as “the guerilla terrorist of the food service industry” and a projectionist who slices pornography into family films. These are not actions that advance any particular agenda or serve any particular purpose, they are just acts that reflect middle-class anxieties.

Tyler does try to present his terror campaign as class warfare in action. “Look… the people you are after are the people you depend on,” he warns one potential victim. “We cook your meals. We haul your trash. We connect your calls. We drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep.” However, there’s a sense that Tyler is just exploiting middle-class fears for his own cult of personality, not unlike how Charles Manson tried to disguise his murders as race-related crimes.

Watching...

Watching…

Is Tyler’s campaign a working-class rebellion by service-industry staff? Is Tyler attempting to reclaim masculinity for a generation of disenfranchised men? The movie suggest that there is no real rhyme or reason to Tyler’s actions beyond wanton destruction – he is just acting out in order to make himself feel important. He is looking for any avenue to justify his desire for wanton destruction and his bitter resentment of society as a whole.

It doesn’t matter that his philosophy isn’t entirely consistent. It’s just a framework to justify the violence he inspires. Tyler Durden isn’t advancing some bold or important philosophical cause, he’s building a cult of personality from a bunch of disillusioned individuals. After all, Fight Club evolves into a cult, with its own rules and regulations. The members are broken down and built back up in Tyler’s image, dehumanised and indoctrinated.

Best served ironically...

Best served ironically…

It’s telling that most of the operatives of Project: Mayhem seem to be more middle-class rather than working class. The detectives that question the narrator are hardly the sort of people you would imagine engaged in class warfare against capitalism. When the narrator tries to warn people about the impending threat, he is stonewalled at the “supervisor” level, rather than among the people working on the ground. Tyler describes the membership as “slaves with white collars”, and it seems like Project: Mayhem’s recruits are those wearing suits and ties, belying Tyler’s assertions about the membership.

Tyler is the result of the lead character’s faded sense of self-importance. The narrator is a white middle-class man who lives a nice life on a reasonable salary, but who has never been the centre of attention in the way that he had been raised to expect. The film opens with our narrator visiting support groups of terminally ill patients just so he can feel special. “I was the warm little centre that the life of this world crowded around,” he reflects on his experience. He finally feels special, which is ultimately what all of this is about. It doesn’t matter how many people suffer or die for him to reach that point.

Peace out...

Peace out…

The movie’s harshest criticism of Tyler comes from the narrator himself, as he lays into one member of the local club. Brutally and angrily, he attacks the recruit. Trying to justify all his pent up frustration, he explains, “I felt like destroying something beautiful.” That seems like the most succinct expression of Tyler Durden offered over the course of the film. Tyler is just resentment and bitterness given form. Destroying society itself is just the ultimate expression of that same sentiment.

This would seem to be the big confusion that exists around Fight Club. It’s easy to buy into Tyler Durden’s rhetoric about how middle class men need to reclaim their masculinity. However, that would miss the point of the film itself. Tyler Durden is a reflection of the narrator’s own grotesque sense of entitlement. Fight Club is a criticism of this sense of entitlement, rather than an endorsement of it.

Bruised ego...

Bruised ego…

Fight Club is a fantastically structured film. Jim Uhls has actually constructed a wonderful adaptation of the source material. Despite being adapted from a book, Fight Club is a story that only works as a film, with the movie repeatedly drawing attention to its nature. Tyler seems to edit himself into the film, much like he slices pornography into the reels at the cinema – and as he does towards the end of the movie itself.

Despite being a character in the narrative, Tyler is self-aware enough to point out the “cigarette burns” that mark the gap between reels of a film. When the narrative catches up with the opening scene, after a movie-length flashback, Tyler quips, “Ah, flashback humor.” At another, Tyler shakes the film in the projection reel. In the end, the narrator seems to defeat Tyler by manipulating the continuity of the film itself. One minute, the gun is in one place; the next, it is somewhere else.

Burn, baby, burn...

Burn, baby, burn…

Fincher’s past career as a music director comes in handy here. Flashbacks blend seamlessly into a narrative that manages to jump around without ever losing its place. The soundtrack by the Dust Brothers sets a tempo and pace for the film that Fincher consciously plays into. There’s a point where it seems like the narrator’s account of his day-to-day life (“single-serving butter, single-serving cream”) might turn into a spoken-word song set to a catchy techno beat. (At one point, rescuing Marla from her apartment, Tyler seems to dance to the soundtrack.)

Fight Club benefits from a wonderful central cast. Brad Pitt is beautifully charismatic as Tyler Durden, embodying all the stereotypes that you would expect from such a character. Edward Norton has a much tougher job as the narrator, the character who must really justify the movie’s central twist, and who must straddle the line between contemptible and sympathetic. Norton is phenomenal. Helena Bonham Carter rounds out the movie’s leading trio with a beautiful performance as another damaged individual.

Fight Club is a cult masterpiece, although it remains a controversial and challenging piece of cinema.

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