Friday, March 15, 2024

Cult Corner: FIGHT CLUB

 by Anthony King

I am Jack's raging defense of a movie.

Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Jim Uhls, Chuck Palahniuk (novel)
Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf Aday, Zach Grenier, Jared Leto
Released: October 15, 1999

1999 cult movies: American Movie, The Blair Witch Project, Galaxy Quest, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, The Iron Giant

Pairing recommendation: Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
It's common knowledge amongst even the most casual of movie-watchers that 1999 was a banner year. The top five movies of the 20th century's final gasp were Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, The Sixth Sense, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Toy Story 2, and The Matrix. Way down the list, sitting at number 56 in box office grosses, below Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo and Inspector Gadget, but above Mickey Blue Eyes and Lake Placid, is David Fincher's Fight Club. For many impressionable, young (white) men this was a seminal film. And mostly for all the wrong reasons.

David Fincher had been through his own Fight Club of sorts getting to this point. He began work at George Lucas' ILM, stepped into the spotlight for the first time with a commercial he filmed for the American Cancer Society showing a fetus smoking a cigarette, and co-founded Propaganda Films where business was split between shooting some of the top musical artists of the time, and directing commercials for some of the biggest brands of the time. His first feature, Alien 3 (1992), was a disaster, mostly due to studio interference from 20th Century Fox. Fincher swore off films and went back to music videos and commercials. But then Michael De Luca came calling from New Line Cinema and offered Fincher a little serial killer thriller called Se7en (1995), which became the little film that could and grossed more than $320 million worldwide, affording Fincher a “blank check” for his career. He followed Se7en with the runabout San Francisco paranoid thriller The Game (1997), which didn't do Se7en numbers, but still promoted Fincher to be a sought-after name. That's when 20th Century Fox knocked on his door again and handed him a novel by author Chuck Palahniuk called Fight Club with its screenplay adaptation by first-time screenwriter Jim Uhls. Fincher hesitantly agreed, and after casting Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in the lead roles, the movie about anti-consumerism in America and the ill-effects of a commercial lifestyle on Gen X was a go.
Fight Club opens with Norton's unnamed character (known only as “The Narrator”) staring down the barrel of gun before a figurative record scratch and a, “Yep, that's me. You're probably wondering how I got here” moment. Cliched to the point of painful eye-rolls in 2024, young men of a certain age ate that shit up in 1999 (including yours truly). We go back for a proper character introduction and meet this lame-ass who works a cubicle 9-5 and walks through life like a zombie. While I was born in that constantly-questioned time between the Generation X and Millennial cut-off, and although I was still just a senior in high school at the time I saw this in theaters, I found myself relating to this character. I didn't want to end up like this loser, baking under fluorescent lights 40 hours a week, my head buried in the feedbag of commercialism, and aimlessly wandering through life without a purpose. When The Narrator calls himself a “30-year-old boy,” I felt that in my bones (even though I was only 17 at the time). I felt that in my bones up until my second son was born. Until I was in my 30s, every cheap line of inspirational dialogue bloviated in this movie spoke to me. It was the Bible, the Quran, and the Vedas.

I've seen Fight Club a hundred times, but I haven't watched it since 2018. I was 36 years old at that time, married for eight years, with a six-year-old and a five-month-old. I watched it as pure entertainment. I found nothing embarrassing or cringey about any of the dialogue, yet I didn't relate to anything said. I was no longer that angry young man who wanted to burn the world down. It was simply a fun movie and nothing else. Soon after, my drinking was out of control and I wanted to see the world burn. So I got into a twelve step program, and two years later I found myself watching Fight Club again. The anger was gone. My wish for the world's end was gone. The movie still played to the rafters, and I was laughing. Watching Fight Club in hindsight, peripherally seeing that angry young man with his boiling blood and raised hackles, was an enlightening experience, not unlike shadowing someone for research purposes. Fight Club is great. But no longer for the reasons I used to consider.
The characters in Fight Club are insufferable – portrayed perfectly by a stupendous cast, but still insufferable. “I was the warm little center this world crowded around.” This line, uttered by The Narrator, speaks volumes of his selfishness. He envisions grabbing Marla by the shoulders and screaming in her face. “You tourist!” While he could be considered the original “tourist.” A younger Anthony would refer to people as “tourists” constantly. Posers. Anyone that I correctly or incorrectly pegged as not belonging was a tourist. I was the icy little center this world should have crowded around, is how I viewed myself. Fight Club is often pointed to a perfect depiction of toxic masculinity. According to a list on Letterboxd titled “Movie Poster In Toxic Male College Dorm Rooms,” Fight Club is joined by films like The Dark Knight, Scarface, American Psycho, Pulp Fiction, A Clockwork Orange, among others. I have a hard time disagreeing with this list. Right or wrong, aside from Bob (Meat Loaf), the characters in Fight Club are not good people. That may be unfair as well since The Narrator is (spoilers) suffering from multiple personality disorder. My immature brain in 1999 couldn't separate satire from reality, and along with some of the people I surrounded myself with, I saw Tyler Durden as the perfect male specimen.

Many people view Fight Club differently today than they did back in '99. I wonder if this movie would play poorly to Gen Z. I imagine it would. The same way I assume it plays poorly to younger millennials, possibly worse. “You're the worst thing that's ever happened to me,” Marla tells The Narrator. In 1999, I was, if not the worst, not the best thing that happened to several young women. “Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing. First you have to give up. First you have to know – not fear – know – that someday you're gonna die. This is not the worst thing that can happen.” This was my mantra for my life. It seems unhealthy. It seems, well, toxic, and judging by an admittedly small sample size of very vocal, very online movie people, those sorts of characters don't fly with the younger crowd.
Nevertheless, the toxicity found within Fight Club isn't some sort of newly-discovered revelation. In his review from Film Comment in 1999, Gavin Smith said this: “This film is the culmination of a recurrent Fincher scenario: repressed straight white masculinity thrown into crisis by the irruption of an anarchic, implacable force that destabilizes a carefully regulated but precarious psychosocial order.” In an interview with Salon in 1999, Fincher said “'Fight Club puts violence in a context that is moral.' Fincher went on to say that he saw the film as the journey of the narrator to maturity, and that he hoped it would appeal to people who are not doing what they want to do and are tired of letting others define them.” This is a privileged statement if I've ever heard one, especially in 2024. Roger Ebert saw through it as well. “None of the Fight Club members grows stronger or freer because of their membership; they're reduced to pathetic cultists.” I wonder if older adults scoffed at the film and its “messaging” at the time, not able to see it for its satire.

In his review, Ebert gave the film two stars. "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... It's macho porn – the sex movie Hollywood has been moving toward for years, in which eroticism between the sexes is replaced by all-guy locker-room fights. Women, who have had a lifetime of practice at dealing with little-boy posturing, will instinctively see through it; men may get off on the testosterone rush. The fact that it is very well made and has a great first act certainly clouds the issue... I admired The Game much more than Fight Club because it was really about its theme, while the message in Fight Club is like bleeding scraps of Socially Redeeming Content thrown to the howling mob.”
While all this sounds like Fight Club has lost its hold over me, and you may think that the scales have fallen from my eyes; that I can now clearly see the vapidness lurking within this film. You would be wrong. Fight Club still remains one of my all-time favorite movies. I see through some of the bullshit, but I believe everyone from Fincher to Palahniuk to (most of) the actors see/saw Fight Club as satire. Like all art, it's open to interpretation, and to be quite frank, I think some people interpret Fight Club incorrectly. As a young man I wrongly interpreted Fight Club as a calling card to throw away my TV and CD player and live off the grid as an anti-corporate punk. I vowed to never wear a suit (still never have), work a desk job, or buy brand name. As a middle-aged man I find humor in the dialogue and chortle at how it calls out the assholes. I see Fincher making a film only he could make. I see an absolutely perfect ending with a perfect song that makes me forget that two minutes prior I was thinking, “My god this is a long movie.” My love for Fight Club has gone through phases, but my love for Fight Club has never waned.



    seriously thou....great article!!! I love this movie and really dig how many ways it can be taken. Action flick, satire, social commentary, fantasy, psychological, super deep or super surface, hopeless or hopefull, and so on. As for the topic that regularly accompanies the movie, interpretation of it, i think its great that there is so much wildly differential interpretation. Thats what art is all about.

    Peace and, in reference to the question of "who would you fight if you could fight any celebrity alive or dead",....hrmm...... id pick Jackie Chan in a Costco....oh, i know he'd kick my butt toot sweet, but it would be AMAZING watching him use everything as a prop weapon and tons of incredible jumping around high shelves.


  2. Thank you for the article, Anthony! Very interesting. My college media professor (my crush) was so into Fight Club that he wrote a book about it and several chapters in other books. He had a full on blog/website about it. A guy I know who got divorced got that last still from Fight Club (Marla and the narrator looking out the window) tattooed on his arm. My best straight friend growing up said he was crushing on Tyler Durden. And a 9th grade boy asked me just last week if I'd seen it. It was like such a cultural phenomenon and I didn't even understand it. I haven't seen it since college but I probably still wouldn't get it. But I'm interested by it because how could I not get a movie that so many people say describes their life? When I was young I just thought it was because I'm not into Brad Pitt. I should watch it again...maybe. For Ed Norton. I love him.