Sparring with David Fincher’s transgressive exercise in cult appeal
There was a time when I considered Fight Club to be one of the greatest movies ever committed to celluloid.
I was seventeen when David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s transgressive novel hit the theatres, and after seeing it I was immediately convinced that what I had just witnessed was a philosophical happening of monumental importance. Further watches only confirmed my feelings, but the passing of time has altered my opinion somewhat. In hindsight, it is easy to see how the movie could have affected me so deeply. For a rebellious teen looking to carve out a groove in the world, this was Friedrich Nietzsche for the GAP generation.
Palahniuk invents wholly fantastical solutions to banal realities. They are clever and cynical and cutely delivered — everything a newly independent soul is searching for in a world that contradicts the facile dreams of adolescence. The movie is also extremely well made. It is executed at a blistering pace — slick and stylish as flash cuts and subliminal flickers sprinkle events with stardust, resulting in a once high-tech spectacle of chic dissidence.
Though its satirical tone sometimes feels forced in a way that devalues its message, the set-up is quite brilliant, as buttoned-down corporate lackey Edward Norton has his catalogue life blasted into oblivion, only to discover that it’s only when we lose everything that we’re free to do anything. All his character needs is a push in the right direction, and that push comes in the form of Brad Pitt’s fearless and insouciant Tyler Durden, who doesn’t so much push him as he does knock him to the cold, wet concrete, a place where Norton’s character awakens to something known as Fight Club.
Tyler Durden – God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.
The first rule of Fight Club is . . . well, you get the picture, and before long an entire generation of unfulfilled office jockeys are lining up to beat the shit out of each other in acts of vicious self-cleansing. Durden is everything the movie’s narrator wants to be. He is fearless and resourceful and oozing with philosophical resistance, an enigmatic figure who plays by his own rules. Scenes in which Durden splices images of penises into family screenings or pees in the soup of affluent diners are wish-fulfilment for anyone who has ever been stepped on, as is the irony of using the fat from a liposuction clinic to make soap and sell it to department stores for a small fortune. Pitt cuts a hip figure who screams cult appeal, much like the filmic prose of the source material’s author.
The movie’s lead players are all in fine fettle here. Pitt is Fight Club‘s most appealing icon, but Norton is typically first-rate as the reborn protagonist, while Helena Bonham Carter adds her own inimitable touch as Gothic harlot and support group phoney Marla Singer, a brazen flake who breezes in-and-out of proceedings like a dime store fairy fluttering on the periphery of Project Mayhem. Project Mayhem is the code name of an underground movement which plagues the city with varying degrees of ironic terrorism, one with a very familiar first rule. Durden begins a one-man crusade against capitalism’s modern entrapments, attacking everything from corporate art to the world’s bank, but when a global megastar with a washboard stomach and fur coat decries the fashion industry’s destructive representations of what a person should look like, all you can do is snigger.
Later, Durden holds up a liquor store with the sole purpose of scaring Korean clerk Raymond K. Hessel (Joon B. Kim) into going back to college to resume his former goal of becoming a veterinarian, holding a revolver to his head and threatening to return and finish the job if he is not on his way to graduating in the near future. But what if Raymond didn’t want to save animals for a living? What if he wanted to graduate from business school and become a ruthless property developer? Would he have followed through with the strength of his convictions and pulled the trigger? It seems unlikely, though the movie is mired in hypocrisy; not because of the script, but because of the medium that represents it and the inevitable contradictions that arise.
It is around this time that the movie becomes increasingly supercilious, undoing much of the fine work that went before. Durden becomes an unlikable bully, creating a cultish army not dissimilar to the power structures he so openly disparages as the movie explores Project Mayhem’s inevitable descent into hypocrisy. It is here that Fight Club‘s tone changes from cutely acerbic to borderline farcical. Norton’s narrator goes in search of the suddenly elusive Durden, who ups and vanishes shortly after the big-breasted Bob (Meatloaf) is shot in the head during an ill-fated mission. Of course, this is all just a set-up up for the kind of shock pay-off that was all the rage back in the late ’90s.
Narrator – You met me at a very strange time in my life.
This kind of reveal works better in the written form, as literature tends to imply rather than show, and can more suitably convey such an unlikely and ambiguous revelation, presenting events as fractured elements of a character’s persona. The visual incarnation doesn’t work quite so well. When you watch Edward Norton throwing himself down flights of stairs or crashing through plate glass windows as he scuffles with a figment of his imagination, it is difficult to swallow, as is the sight of a self-inflicted gunshot wound as closure.
This is all very self-aware, but just because something is aware doesn’t make it noble. Ultimately, the movie has the opposite influence on its impressionable target audience, promoting an image of commercial perfection in the form of Pitt’s Durden. This is irony, but calculated irony from a marketing perspective, another reason why the material is more suited to the literary form. Fincher does the best he can in delivering Palahniuk’s message within the boundaries of the Hollywood marketing machine, but for me it proves an irony too far.
Still, this is superb entertainment for the most part, delivered with a blistering pace without an ounce of fat, and it’s easy to see how it garnered such a huge cult following as the millennium approached. Back in 1999, the year 2000 was looked upon as an almost mythical landmark. For anyone who remembers the countdown to the long-fabled 21st century, you’ll recall those tall tales of technological and economic meltdown. The fact that civilisation was coming to an end had been bounded around so much that many of us began to believe it and prepare for the great unknown. More than anything, Fight Club‘s frenetic sense of rebellion captures that hysteria, and for those with a grudge to bear against the continued evolution of deregulated capitalism and all of its consumerist entrapments, the movie provided a much needed shot in the arm. It was an ode to social anarchy in a world of growing conformity, both self-imposed and otherwise, and a generation would consume it like a drug.
But in the end, what is the moral message of a story that spouts the kind of philosophical titbits that its cinematic embellishments contradict? Is it simply an attack on corporate aspirations and wage slavery? You’d need to ask Fox, whose own corporate aspirations failed to bear fruit, Fight Club managing a paltry cumulative worldwide gross of $71,000,000 from an estimated budget of $63,000,000. Now there’s an irony with some genuine anarchic credentials, and arguably one they deserved. Maybe the film is a commentary on man’s innate barbarism, perhaps even seen through the disillusioned lens of its maltreated heroine? Maybe it’s a commentary on the corruptible nature of power and humankind’s inevitable push for personal glory. The fact is, it could be all of those things, or even none of them, and in the end it probably doesn’t matter. What matters is the movie’s ability to appeal to youth’s rebellious urges, a task that talented storytellers Palahniuk and Fincher are experts at delivering.