Fight Club (1999), 20 years later

Whether you are watching David Fincher’s iconic film for the first time, or revisiting, it doesn’t carry the same meanings it did 20 years ago.

Originally a box office disappointment for Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox, it went on to sell more than six million DVDs over the coming years, creating widespread, but wildly divergent, perceptions about its significance.

Looking at my original review in 2000, I’ve certainly come to see it differently if only because I know there are millions of men out there who subscribe to a literalist interpretation that glorifies toxic masculinity, violent vigilantism, and misogyny.

That’s not at all how I saw it 20 years ago, or now, but history cannot be erased, and its significance to a corrosive, Trumpist Weltanschauung won’t go away for wishful thinking.

Superficially, what we see is a rollercoaster descent into madness for ‘Jack’ (Edward Norton), an insurance analyst for a major car manufacturer, whose insomnia and ennui drives him into support groups for illnesses he doesn’t have, where he meets the dissolute Marla Singer, with whom he establishes a love-hate relationship.

Worse, on one of his frequent flyer trips to accident investigations, he meets and befriends Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who makes and sells soap, as well as a street-smart line of home-spun philosophy.

When Jack’s condo explodes, he is taken in by Durden, into the dilapidated Paper Street house that becomes the headquarters of the fight club they start, and the subsequent paramilitary group of anarchist pranksters-turned-terrorists they lead.

In 1999 this was new territory.  After 9/11, the various global financial crises, and Donald Trump, it’s hard to see it without thinking of the neo-Nazis and other white supremacists so encouraged by recent populist demagogues.

All the same, some things haven’t changed for me.  In 1999, Fight Club was a Zeitgeist message about, and for, a cohort of Gen-X men coming to grips with buttoned-down jobs, well-paid or not, stultifying domestic routines, and meaningless lifestyles modelled on glossy but impersonal marketing.

I am a year younger than Chuck Palahniuk and David Fincher.  I am the same age as Brad Pitt, and six years Edward Norton’s senior.  This film had me right in its demographic crosshairs.

We knew all about the flatulence of Baby Boomers, and their surrender to Mammon.  We knew all about the 1970s punk ethic, with its anarchist theme turned fashionably feral, and ‘don’t give a shit’ answer to everything.

Even then, though, I didn’t see the film as a glorification of macho shithead behaviour and sociopathic terrorism, the way some do today.

Voluntary and habitual brawling, as in football louts and the fictional fight club, always struck me as more homo-erotic fetish than the homophobically-driven gladiatorial machismo it is; the terror, in some men, of yearning for an intimacy with other men they can conceive of only as violence.  Guys getting it on with fists instead of soft caresses, and in the film’s case, bare-chested, hunky men, with rippling muscles, right out of a Gaultier perfume advertisement, getting it on for us, so we didn’t have to look as good, be as crazy, or suffer the very real pain you experience in a fist fight.

Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and David Fincher discussing a scene on the set of the ramshackle Paper Street house.

That perspective makes much more sense when we realize, eventually, that the whole story is a fake, and we were really looking at a free-for-all struggle between id, ego, and superego–animal instincts, pragmatic understandings about satisfying animal urges, and the superstructure of whatever morality has been absorbed.

Equally, I still don’t see the ‘space monkeys’ as the same kind of arsehole as white supremacist paramilitaries in the USA and Europe.  Space monkey is what Palahniuk called the fight club devotees who enlisted in Jack’s and Durden’s anarchist army:

… you’re one of those space monkeys. You do the little job you’re trained to do. Pull a lever. Push a button. You don’t understand any of it, and then you just die.

In the film, Durden calls the first paramilitary recruit, an unnamed mechanic (Holt McCallany), a space monkey, ready to be shot into space.  One of the monkeys does actually die as the lunacy of the group escalates, but it isn’t the mechanic.

The silliness of boyish conceptions for fraternal secret societies remains: indescribably facile rules; moronic repetition of ridiculous slogans; nauseating herd mentality.  All the qualities that make the murderous, contemporary right wing militias so detestable.

Some of the hijinks in Fight Club remain amusing: stealing human fat from cosmetic surgery clinic dumpsters; pissing in soup at exclusive restaurants; splicing single frames of hardcore porn into ‘family’ films; the maddening jealousy about Marla, which turns out to be entirely illusory.

Post-9/11, the destructive nihilism culminating in the destruction of office towers, even for the purpose of obliterating credit card companies, takes on quite sinister and uncomfortable overtones.  Fincher forecasts the consequences in the sequences showing ‘Operation Latte Thunder’, during which one of the space monkeys, Robert Poulson (Michael Lee Aday, AKA Meat Loaf), is killed by police.  The group’s response is chilling, with its grotesque rationalization of the death, and the simple-minded chanting of slogans.  Watching that today makes it impossible not to think of the white supremacist extremism, with which some Western leaders have been flirting.

Visually, the film was and remains arresting, though some of Fincher’s devices have now been used so many times they no longer seem original.  A personal favourite was the IKEA catalogue ‘nesting instinct’ scene.

Fincher’s vision for Jack’s apartment, furnished directly from a glossy catalogue, and ending up as impersonal and sterile as the catalogue itself.

For some time, I was unsure why Fincher would splice single frames into the film, flashing by so fast we barely noticed it happened, let alone recognised what was in the frames.  Sitting in a cinema, there’s no way to rewind and double check.  But even with the BluRay, I just couldn’t be bothered hunting for ‘easter eggs’.  When Jack explains how Durden lined up reels of film as a cinema projectionist, with ‘burn mark’ cues (using the job to splice the porn into unnamed Disney animations for kids), he explains to us exactly what Fincher played with.  Some people have hunted down all the hidden visuals, but I never bothered.  I realized that noticing something is slightly off was already Fincher’s message: we passively ignore how mass media manipulate and shape us in our everyday lives.

Some of Fincher’s techniques undoubtedly influenced and infused film and television.  It’s impossible for me not to think of the many visualizations of metabolic processes in the long-running medical psychodrama House (2004-2012) when I see the Fight Club title sequence.  And you could even regard the central character, Gregory House, as a space monkey let loose in a hospital, pranking his way through the episodes, wreaking his own kind of havoc.

The unreliable narration in Fight Club, breaching the ‘fourth wall’ (by self-referentially addressing the audience directly) may not have been original, but it seemed to have become more common since Fincher’s subversion of its use.  I saw it to particularly good effect in The Big Short (2015), where director Adam McKay uses cameo appearances by economist Richard Thaler, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, singer-songwriter Selena Gomez, and actress Margot Robbie, to explain financial market concepts directly to the audience.  Brad Pitt was one of that film’s producers.

Fincher’s use of Durden as a walking Anarchist Cookbook doesn’t seem quite as eccentric now, with the ubiquity of the internet meaning that any kid can look up how to make a bomb and blow his own hands off.  Many have. 

In 1999, however, many internet connections were so slow that this page would have taken minutes to load. Online information was still being aggregated and indexed, meaning you had to know where to look, not rely on Google.  Mobile phones, the way we know them now, were still fantasy (I think I had one of those black-screen Nokia pocket bricks).

Meta-narrative in film has changed, too, since Fight Club.

Watching Brad Pitt, as Durden, lecture the audience with pop philosophy was amusing back then, and stays on-topic today for its denunciation of neoliberal political economy, but in a treatment that seems a little stale.  Perhaps the best screen explanation of the underlying message was an Aaron Sorkin script for the landmark television serial The West Wing (1999-2006).  The episode, ‘Red Mass’ (2002), has White House deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman send his assistant, Donna Moss, to a motivational seminar by Teddy Tomba, because he is an adviser to the Republican challenger for the presidency.  The staccato dialogue perfectly summarizes what happens when we hear even slick exponents of sloganeering: we get a ‘fortune cookie’ version of important concepts dealt with by serious thinkers.  And that fortune cookie wisdom is dangerous when relied on to make serious decisions.

Fincher’s Durden was a magnetic figure in 1999.  Not so much now.  If all of us, addressed by the film back then, haven’t grown up a bit, and understood better the complexities of the alienation and inequality Durden railed against, we are probably members of some conspiracy theory cult by now.

How things turned out in the world isn’t something Palahniuk or Fincher could have foreseen, but we can’t ignore it now, watching Fight Club again, or for the first time.

The trick about Jack’s connection to Durden is impossible to forget once seen, and not new even in the 1990s.  To his lasting credit, Fincher handled the panic and paranoia of schizophrenic self-realization better than anyone since Philip K Dick.

What I see in 2020 is a film that addresses people permanently the same age as we were in 1999.  Still enticing, but a little less exciting and fresh than it was.  All the same, I wouldn’t be without it on my shelves.

Credits

20th Century Fox/Regency Enterprises/Linson Films, 1999, 139 minutes.  Directed by David Fincher.  Produced by Art Linson, Ceán Chaffin, and Ross Grayson Bell.  Written by by Jim Uhls, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk.  Cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth.  Edited by James Haygood.  Music by The Dust Brothers.

With Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, Edward Norton as Jack/the narrator, Helena Bonham Carter as Marla Singer, Meat Loaf Aday as Robert ‘Bob’ Paulsen, Jared Leto as Angel Face, Zach Grenier as Richard Chesler, Joel Bissonnette as a food court waiter.

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