Fight Club (1999, David Fincher)
It’s because Fight Club is so incisive as satire that it has invited a decade and a half now of misinterpretation, first from writers and commentators who hated what they perceived as its nihilistic pessimism, then from vapid fanboys who managed also to completely miss that the nihilistic pessimism — the violence, the antisocial off-the-grid “freedom,” the suspicion of consumerism stretched into macho new-age egomania — is what’s being mocked. The brilliant director David Fincher’s achievement is bringing this complex, audacious work, fairly faithfully based on a Chuck Palahniuk novel, into cinemas without compromise, with a large budget and with seemingly no concession to the big studio making it. One thing for sure: love it or hate it, and despite its considerable influence far afield of the usual box office, critical or awards-season rubrics, it’s a marker of its time. Only this many years later, we can already sense it could not possibly be made today.
The story is built on several Clinton-era dilemmas. Remember all the talk back then about how the traditional male was becoming sidelined or whatever, before that became niche nonsense amplified only by the dregs of Reddit? Remember support groups and new-age self help before the internet revolutionized, enhanced and largely de-commercialized those pursuits? Remember all the worry about how self-absorbed we were becoming in a prosperous (!!) country just before 9/11? Remember before “irony” died in a terrible explosion? Into this world slouches the unnamed hero played by Edward Norton, a comically dead-eyed white-collar Gen-Xer wandering through Ikea-haunted days and unable to sleep at night, his thirst for a connection finally offset by an act of dishonesty that’s just on the cusp of unforgivably fucked up and sort of understandable: he visits support groups for cancer, AIDS, even sickle cell and hugs and converses at length with the non-fake sufferers. Anyone who’s lived alone for a spell will probably at least kind of relate to the sentiment behind this vile and depressing behavior.
Into Norton’s orbit come twin tornadoes to disrupt his routine of placid deceit: Helena Bonham-Carter as Marla, the troubled but tirelessly independent (and great in bed, it seems) mate he’s too blind or pathetically misogynistic to realize is perfect for him — they can even parade their fake need for support groups together! And then, Brad Pitt as an obnoxious hybrid of Deepak Chopra, Robert Bly and the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now named Tyler, because total creeps are always named Tyler. Tyler fills our guy’s head with notions about how his, y’know, job and furniture and life just indicate that he’s dead inside, maaaan. It’s persuasive to him in part because it’s kind of true — he really has escaped into a numb holding pattern to avoid emotional pain, but Tyler is just a physical manifestation of an easy, lazy way out of this.
His endless psuedo-philosophical railing eventually comes around to the formation of an underground boxing club, not for sport but so that the guys in it can, y’know, learn to feel something and shit. But Tyler’s an enterprising sort and this stunt is only the beginning of a regimen of anarchy that seems at first silly and only sporadically menacing then gradually builds into the formation of an Orwellian army of dunderheaded zombielike guys preaching the Tyler gospel and preparing mass fascistic terrorist attacks under the ominous christening “Project Mayhem.” And all because one dude had bad feels. The Third Reich parallels are unmistakable, right down to Tyler’s inarticulate anti-intellectualism.
Despite initial box office doldrums, Fight Club rather quickly grew into a phenomenon — walk into the apartment of anyone who was in college in the early 2000s and if they haven’t sold it already, you’re almost bound to find a copy of the intricately designed DVD edition on the shelf. Among internet denizens in particular, it’s a bible of philosophies, jokes and quotes. Along with the suspicion that a number of its “fans” missed its point entirely, the film’s ubiquity has allowed it to lose some of its luster over the years. The endless recitations of the lines Pitt gets into the camera and yells like George C. Scott at the beginning of Patton have removed their icy, deadpan humor and any sense of the impact that he means them to have. The mass misinterpretation of the film as coming down on Tyler’s side leads to an uncomfortable awareness of the flatness of the world depicted here, wherein seemingly everyone we meet is some sort of a drone. And while Norton’s lazy-eyed adolescent arrogance toward all things for the first two thirds is a lot of fun and even cathartic to watch, in a film this long it stretches credibility to see a grown man behaving like someone who’s just discovered J.D. Salinger.
The distance from 1999 has also helped Fight Club in a few ways. Namely: it’s now baffling that anyone ever thought Tyler was meant to be taken at face value, now that we’ve been subjected to the Alex Jones age of crazed men’s-rights activists and conspiracy theorists who spout the same hybrid of fascistic nonsense, silly machismo and post-new age outsider juvenilia. Pitt is hilarious in the role, enhanced by Fincher’s great sense of irony, and makes more sense than, say, Heath Ledger’s Joker because as a figment of another character’s imagination, he doesn’t have to follow any higher logic than a cubicle drone’s Deliverance fantasy life really would. Secondly, well, this many years out from 9/11 it’s finally possible to see the final scene — in which the heart of the credit industry collapses before our eyes — as just as beautiful and redemptive as it was meant to be at the time.
At the time of Fight Club, Fincher had one masterwork under his belt but had yet to really prove himself as a malleable and genuinely great filmmaker. It cannot be argued from any standpoint that he doesn’t leap into this project with the most relentless of enthusiasm. The sheer sprightliness in his rogue use of the resources at Fox’s disposal gives the movie a manic, delightful intensity, overflowing with clever ideas like nothing less than Citizen Kane. Early on, Norton’s apartment transforms into a three-dimensional catalog as he orders more shit; a trash can full of corporate logos is modeled like something from PBS’s Nova. And for sheer outlandishness, one must pay respect to the use of a giant special effects team in service of a film this genuinely subversive and unconventional.
What makes the film such a consistent pleasure on repeat viewings is its humor. Despite the stressful length and the somewhat stomach-churning way that it extrapolates endlessly (by necessity) until its scope has elevated almost beyond recognition, the comic bite of even some of the more pointedly embittered moments, like that in which Norton beats himself up to make his boss look like a psychopath, is delicious and rather exhilarating. (It’s especially wonderful to realize that Fincher spent Rupert Murdoch’s money to make this thing.) But the funniest, most telling moment in the film is a lower-key one: when Holt McCallany nods thoughtfully and spits out wide-eyed “I understand! In death, a member of Project Mayhem has a name” like he’s a character in The Secret of NIMH deciphering some major philosophical revelation — thus, in a couple of seconds, perfectly defining the improvised haphazardness at the core of all zealotry. Conversely, when seeing the film now it’s hard not to see Tyler’s well-trodden humor overtaken by Marla’s. Bonham-Carter has the best timing and presence of any of the three main actors, imbued with no-bullshit humanity, and it’s significant to note that the film’s conclusion about Marla essentially makes it in part a screed against the slut-shaming she endures by Norton’s squeaky-clean counterpart for the first half.
On the other hand, cleaning house on previous convictions: this is in a lot of ways a remake of Stanley Kubrick’s free will / violence parable A Clockwork Orange, with the latter happening to start about halfway through the same story, but while Fincher’s grasp on the real message of his material is stronger, Kubrick’s film is more conceptually complete — and already less dated (goddamn CGI). Fincher’s boy eventually becomes a man, unlike Alex, or Ben in The Graduate which this also strongly resembles. That “man” corresponds to no outside ideal like Tyler’s or that of the underwear ads previously mocked, which Fincher uses fully expecting us to know he participated in the creation of numerous similar campaigns. Alex was happily lost at sea, a troubling conclusion, while Norton’s shot-in-the-throat lovebird sees something like an actual future ahead of him. That’s good and well, but there’s something to be said for the honesty in The Graduate‘s conclusion, which faces up to the reality of being set free to find a new illusion, with no clue of what happens next. Additionally, made over a decade after this film, The Master follows the same arc in a manner more satisfying than either Fight Club or Clockwork. But there is something moving, if pat, in seeing Norton shed his aimlessness for something so simple as the human warmth he longed for in the very beginning.
As much as our shared relationship to it has grown more complex with the years, and as much as Fincher has proven himself capable of even better things, Fight Club remains an almost exhaustingly exuberant and witty film with moments of surprising poignancy (again, it’s hard to know how anyone thought the movie was making fun of Rachel Singer’s heartbreaking Chloe), but I gotta tell you, the same way that kids with Alex posters make me wary of someone who tells me how much they love Clockwork, the years and years of people actually adopting and claiming to identify with (!?) Tyler Durden have dimmed some of the film’s impact. I always fought against it happening; I knew even at 18 that the movie was my bag because Tyler was the kind of entity I hated, just as it seemed so obvious that the film was designed for people who thought the idea of a movie called “fight club” was the dumbest thing ever. But what can I say? It happened — and sadly, as long as so many people remain completely oblivious to the machinations of actual satire, it will probably get worse with time.