Fight Club: Pop anarchy and designer nihilism
Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whaddya got?
– The Wild One (1953)
Urinating on its own birthday candles this year, David Fincher’s argumentative, narcissistic, hypocritical Fight Club will be sixteen years old. It already feels like a period piece, a slice of premillennial angst full of smug slogans and speeches that can’t decide what it is fighting against.
It is the last “poor me” grumble of the 20th century from Generation X, almost exactly two years before Osama bin Laden weaponised some passenger jets and gave the Western world something to really worry about.
They say that you grow more conservative as you get older, and I guess that I’m a case in point – when I first saw Fight Club at twenty-one, I was exactly the right age. After seeing it, I just wanted to go out and smash something. I thought it was one of the coolest and edgiest things I’d ever seen.
The inherent hypocrisy of the project escaped me – this call to arms had a $60 million price tag, starring wealthy actors and marketed to squeeze the price of admission from its target demographic, to make bucks for the vast corporation, 20th Century Fox.
Now I’m older, I see it as a hollow piece of designer nihilism, the natural progression of film in the nineties. After the critical and commercial success of Pulp Fiction, mainstream Hollywood filmmakers could tackle far darker, edgier and violent material. It was inevitable that after QT’s triumph gave everyone carte blanche to say anything, someone would eventually use that freedom to try saying something.
Fight Club was the result.
The story focusses on our unnamed narrator (Ed Norton), a corporate shill who has trouble sleeping. His life is meaningless, living alone and populating his apartment with soulless furniture from Ikea. When his doctor refuses to prescribe him something for insomnia, he starts attending self-help groups for people with a wide range of ailments, from testicular cancer to tuberculosis. After a few hours in the presence of real suffering, our “hero” is able to sleep like a baby.
At the groups, he meets another tourist, the chain-smoking nihilist Marla Singer (Helena Bonham-Carter), and on a business flight, the charismatic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Returning from a trip, he finds his home in smouldering ruins, and ends up shacking up with Durden. After a few pitchers of beer, the narrator and Durden end up kicking the crap out of one another, starting a new underground cult for disenfranchised young men, Fight Club.
Most of the narration and dialogue in Fight Club sounds exactly like something written by a bright, young and angry student who has started figuring out how the world works, and wants to lash out. They imagine themselves as controversial and daring, but have yet to learn perspective and humility, resulting in a blow out of obnoxious navel gazing.
Fight Club is a shopping list of First World problems posing as something revolutionary, a pop-anarchic 101 for people who can’t figure out for themselves that their money and possessions don’t represent their true identity or worth.
Film-wise, the big problem is that Fight Club never changes tone up until its ridiculous twist, flitting from one antisocial idea to the next without settling on a defining credos.
As the hero and Durden’s underground boxing circuit turns into something more organised and paramilitary, their manifesto is never clearly stated. What are they rebelling against? Well, whaddya got? It is something anti-authoritarian, anti-feminist, anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist, anti-materialist, with elements of eco-terrorism thrown in.
What it boils down to is that the narrator and Durden feel emasculated by their comfortable western lives, and through Fight Club and their fledgling terrorist organisation, Project Mayhem, become the liberators of all the other lost, emasculated men out there.
Fight Club inhabits a sexist mindset. “We’re a generation of men raised by women,” says Durden in one of his wrong-headed speeches, as if the malaise of modern man is somehow linked to female empowerment. When exactly was it when children weren’t largely raised by women? Are we saying that gender equality has led to the emasculation of an entire generation of young men?
Durden’s leadership of Project Mayhem is uncomfortably dictatorial, and he imagines society reverting to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, as if regressing to grim Cro-Magnon survival is something to aspire to. I guess that in Durden’s version of the world, at least men could be real men without beating each other up in pub car parks to reassert their masculinity.
Although I have little positive to say about Fight Club, I’m still giving it four stars. Whether you are seeing it for the first time, or revisiting from a different place in your life, it still generates conversation. It’s a rare thing, a mainstream Hollywood movie bursting with ideas, so no matter if you love it or hate it, Fight Club deserves credit for getting people talking.
Fight Club is showing at Kino Scala on May 28 at 8.30 pm and at Kino Art on June 6, 11, 20 and 21 at 5.30 pm.