“Fight Club” - David Fincher (1999)

Fight Club (1999) is a bipolar film that has elicited a bimodal response.  Some people (exclusively men, as far as I can see) love it; others dismiss it as drivel. Though the film was panned by a number of reviewers [1,2,3] and the film was not initially a big box office success, it has a phenomenally high rating at the IMDB Web site. And for some people today, the film remains a coming-of-age testament for an entire generation of thirty-somethings.

The film, directed by David Fincher, starts out with an explosive scene showing a man with a cocked pistol pushed into his mouth, and then the story unwinds into a two-hour flashback describing how this man, who narrates the rest of the tale, got to this extreme life-threatening point. 

Our Narrator (Edward Norton), we learn, is something of a wimpy, middle-class guy working in a soulless corporate environment.  His work at an automotive corporation involves determining, whenever a safety defect is found, whether a mass product recall that would save lives is worth the expense.  With his professional life based on heartless numbers and with no apparent social life, his main personal interest seems to be acquiring the next IKEA furnishing to add to his upscale condo.  It is clear that his life is a bore, and it’s no wonder that he suffers from severe insomnia, where day drifts seamlessly and uneventfully into night.

To treat the insomnia his doctor advises him to see what real suffering is like by attending support groups for those diagnosed with terminal illnesses.  He enthusiastically starts doing this on a daily basis, masquerading as a fellow sufferer at gatherings of people more victimized by life than he is; and these visits do seem to help with the insomnia for awhile.  Though he gets a false sense that he is engaging with people, actually these meetings are basically just joint sessions to express impotence and self-pity.  And soon the hypocrisy of this “therapy” dawns on him, and his insomnia returns.

But later our Narrator hooks up with a guy, Tyler Burden (Brad Pitt), he met on a plane during a business trip, and after some convivial drinks at a bar this odd new friend takes our Narrator outside and asks him to give him a punch. The narrator has to be coaxed to fulfill this weird request, but he goes ahead.  Soon the two of them are engaged in boisterous fisticuffs and loving it.  So commences the “fight club”. 

From here on the film shifts into a male fantasist’s wet dream of masculinity and violence.  The fight club under the charismatic leadership of Tyler Durden (the Narrator is nominally a co-leader, but Durden is in control) grows in popularity as more and more disaffected men are attracted to participate in the bloody one-on-one fights held in the bar’s basement.  Like the Narrator, these men are also captivated by the nervy confidence of the nonconformist Durden, who goes his own way in all things.  Gradually the fight club evolves into a destructive revolutionary organization devoted to “Project Mayhem”, a mission bent on sabotaging the conformist society that has emasculated so many men. 

Eventually things go too far, even for the Narrator, and the action reaches a climax as the long flashback returns to the present and the narrator facing his assailant.  There is a quirky plot twist at the end of the film that appeals to some viewers; but to me this psychological twist is implausible even within the weird logic of this implausible story, and it raises more questions than it answers. 

Rather than going over further details of the story, though, it is best to jump to a consideration of what is the film’s main idea and why it is so popular with some sectors of society. First off, the film is clearly a comedy, but it is a very black comedy, since there is so much savage physical violence going on.  This puts some people off, but other people – mostly young men – revel in the wanton destructiveness of it all. 

The main point here is that men these days are more and more emasculated by our consumption-obsessed advertising-dominated society that has made people into conformist copycats.  In the midst of this materialist frenzy for more and more stuff that we have to buy (e.g. the IKEA furnishings), men have lost their manliness and sense of autonomy.  So without clearly knowing why, many frustrated men are moved to drop out of the rat race.  This has led some reviewers to compare Fight Club with Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which also traced inarticulate young people who were looking for something they couldn’t name but which society couldn’t offer.  But Fight Club is much more abstract than Rebel Without a Cause – it comes equipped with its own theoretical backdrop. 

The fundamental notion behind it all is autonomy – the basic issue of being able to have some effect on the world around you and thereby expressing your own identity.  This urge to express our autonomy is elemental. If you were lucky enough to have grown up in a climate with cold winters, you may remember seeing a thin layer or ice frozen over a puddle on the street when you were very young and feeling the urge to crack the ice with your foot.  This was your harmless expression of (destructively) impacting the world in front of you without there being negative consequences.  You could wreak some minor havoc and get away with it.

When you fight with your fists, it is even more central to your identity.  You are getting down to (and going back to) man’s most primitive and primordial engagement with the world – a violent interaction that engages your most basic instincts and thereby gives you a most elemental sense of autonomy.  Under the circumstances of a fight, you are not passive and impotent you are taking action. In those moments you are fundamentally autonomous, relying on your own body, and therefore you are fully alive

Now you might say, hey, isn’t this what action sports are all about?  What about boxing?  In fact, to be more precise, what about bare-knuckle boxing?  Those activities have been done for a long time and do not represent anything novel.  Yes, but there is a difference here, because the goal in Fight Club is not to win, but simply to engage in some desperate acts of violence.  In sports, you try to win, to achieve a goal, but in Fight Club, you just want to punch.  This is the clarion call of the “I Don’t Care” generation. Men who feel powerless and subservient in the external world (as the Narrator does) can go to the fight club and interact in this primitive way that makes them feel more fundamentally engaged – more alive.

And this is where the homoerotic subtext comes in.  Tyler Durden is everything that the somewhat effeminate Narrator (and the other impotent men drawn to the fight club) are not.  He is spontaneous, wild, and super-confident.  He doesn’t reflect, he acts on impulse.  He wears wild clothes and does weird things whenever he feels like it.  He is the ultimate masculine role model for the Narrator, because he doesn’t care about the things that people in mainstream society are supposed to care about. The Narrator doesn’t want a women, he really wants to be one with Tyler Durden so that he can achieve his masculine fulfillment. In fact it is revealing that there are almost no women characters in this film besides Marla Singer (played nicely by Helena Bonham Carter).  She is the only feminine presence, but she is like an inscrutable Goth phantasm that only haunts the Narrator’s life. 

So thematically, Fight Club does have some kind of tale to tell.  And director David Fincher pulls out all the cinematic stops to present the story at a breakneck speed.  But the problem is that the film tries to bite off more than it can chew and doesn’t deliver.  I will list some of the shortcomings here, which fall in several thematic areas.

  1. A first problem is the fighting, itself, which is unrealistic. If you watch a Tom and Jerry cartoon, the animation is sufficiently unrealistic, that the viewer is comfortably distanced from the physicality of broken flesh. But here in Fight Club the fight scenes are relentlessly bloody and filmed to convey maximal in-your-face brutality. Although in real life these kinds of fights would result in broken bones, permanent injuries, and often death, the guys in the story get up after being bloodied and clobbered in these ferocious fights with smiles on their faces.  So we have unrealistic fighting, but with lots of blood thrown in for . . . what, to make it more realistic?  Anyway, this bloody brawling is still unrealistic, because the "Fight Club" fights don’t present the pain and hostility that are intrinsic to all physical fights.  All it gives us is the blood, and that is apparently supposed to be funny.
  2. When the “Fight Club” evolves into “Project Mayhem”, its zombie-like personnel have become so dominated by Tyler Durden that they evince no autonomy whatsoever.  But the very point of joining “Fight Club” is to express one’s autonomy, so the depiction of their subservience doesn’t make sense in the context of the main storyline.
  3. The plot twist that comes late in the film seems to have been inspired by The Usual Suspects (1995) [4], but it is not nearly as good as the plot twist that occurs in that film, and it doesn’t make sense here.
  4. There was an opportunity with this material to represent and express paranoia (think Shutter Island (2010), for example), but it wasn’t taken up.  Instead, the confessional narrator is more whimsical in the fashion of Hi Fidelity (2000), only without the redeeming treatment of that latter film.
  5. There are odd scenes in the film that make their appearance, leading the viewer to expect some further consequences, and then just vanish and are forgotten.  For example at one point some mafioso figure dramatically interrupts the “Fight Club” operation in the basement and ups the level of savagery.  We expect him to show up later, but he doesn’t.  On another occasion the Narrator and Tyler beat up a Chinese man at a convenience store.  But there doesn’t seem to be any point to this scene, and the humor was lost on me.
Ultimately, the idea of celebrating, or making fun of (take your pick) the “I Don’t Care” attitude of many people in today’s world is the wrong story to tell. The problem is that the malaise afflicting these people is an inability to engage authentically – they continually hold back and look on the scene vicariously. So if this film is going to attack our increasingly vicarious culture, dominated as it is by spectators watching Youtube on their computer tablets, then it needs to attack vicariousness at its core. But Fight Club is, itself, just a vicarious joke.  It simply creates even more of a sense of “I Don’t Care”, rather than addressing the problem of disengagement, the social malady from which these people in the film suffer.  Such a treatment leaves the film as only a nihilistic expression of destructiveness that masks a miserable feeling of impotence.  It’s an insincere comedy that can only amuse the “I Don’t Care” sector.

  1. David Edelstein, “Boys Do Bleed”, Slate, 15 Oct. 1999, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/1999/10/boys_do_bleed.single.html.
  2. Roger Ebert, “Fight Club”, RogerEbert.com, 15 Oct. 1999, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/fight-club-1999.
  3. Peter Rainer, “Pulling Punches”, New York, 25 Oct. 1999, http://nymag.com/nymetro/movies/reviews/1248/.
  4. The producers of Fight Club originally considered hiring The Usual Suspects’s director, Bryan Singer, to direct their film, before settling on David Fincher.

No comments: