In Which We’re the Middle Children of History
I usually never approach these articles with trepidation or pause. They’re pieces to reflect on a specific era of filmmaking by reconsidering hits, highlighting underseen pictures, and looking at junk for purpose. But just now I felt hesitation as I consider one of the defining features in the oeuvre of turn of the century angst. Fight Club is the putrid pinnacle of impotent male rage at the settled and comfortable world of 90’s America, and it’s also a fierce rorschach test of a film. Is it’s depiction of nihilistic violence in the face of bland consumerism a cutting critique or ignorant endorsement of the platitudes of literal head case Tyler Durden?
In a way this conundrum has defined this movie’s legacy, for better and for worse. Fight Club serves as a kind of testosterone infused inverse to The Matrix. Both grapple with the ills of late century America, both struggle with split identities, and both dabble in a bit anti-authoritarian terrorism. But where The Matrix felt open and inviting in its everyone can learn Kung Fu kind of way, Fight Club is an intentionally alienating experience, purposefully thumbing its nose at the audience and betting the viewer on how far they’re willing to follow the story down the rabbit hole.
Because of these factors Fight Club has become a fulcrum for critical divisiveness, and your enjoyment of the film rests mainly on the issue of whether you can take what your being shown as direct satire or as dangerous and toxic ideology. Being the incredibly decisive and critically attuned person that I am, I can definitively say that the film…falls somewhere between those two points. Yes it runs way closer to satire than the legion of trollish fans would like you to believe, and is, in the end, a take down of what Tyler Durden represents. But to get to that point it has to charm the viewer into buying into what Durden sells.
This seduction manifests itself in two ways: narrative and filmmaking form. From a storytelling perspective, Fight Club offers more than cold comfort for a disaffected viewing audience before the eventual rug pull. For a majority of the run time it does well by explaining and offering a balm for the existential crisis of late century living. There is no definition to the modern man’s life, and has been pointed out in past articles, no conflict for him to define himself against. That’s why the in universe fight club is so appealing. It reaches to the depths of the settled time to draw out the angry resentment that comes from the seeming denouement of history. If there’s nothing spiritual to lose by acting out, you might as well burn the whole world down. After all isn’t Project Mayhem what, “the middle children of history,” would do to get attention.
The other hard sell comes from director David Fincher; the stalwart cinematic perfectionist to whom every shot and cut must be just so. His fastidiousness and sense of style has frequently been used more to terrorize the audience or investigate the mundane horrors of the world, but here you can feel that he mostly wants to have a good time with material. Every elegant camera move, fourth wall breaking device, and intricate implementation of effects work is suffused with a sense of verve and pep to entice the watcher.. Even when Fight Club enters it’s most grotesque and off-putting moments, Fincher keeps things lively and poppy, always willing to pull the viewer in deeper to the toxic world onscreen.
These two components combined together create a heady and toxic broth that might fully infatuate a member of the viewing public into the world Durden represents. Throw in some big twist spice and star power charisma and the glamour becomes undeniable. So it’s easy to see why many fall for the fully by in to what Tyler is selling, but then that ignores the trauma and humor underneath. Because against the bravado and masculine posturing there is a consistent through-line with every man in Fight Club. They are children who are afraid of women.
I keep pulling on the “middle children” quote because in all the psychobabble that Tyler espouses he never conceives his followers as mature, adult men. Instead they’re boys dressed up in adult clothing. Infantile beings that need to be coddled by a seemingly ideal representation of masculine force to assuage all the deeply seated castration fears they seem to have (the testicular cancer group at the top of the film feels more like an overbearing joke and on reflection). And these men solve their problems in childish ways. They may be dangerous and well organized, but it all boils down to schoolyard emotional catharsis from violence and petty vandalism.
Arguably these reactions all stem from the same source, the fear of properly interacting with a woman. During an early scene between the Narrator and Marla we see a brief flash of Tyler. A form of the subliminal messaging that the film mentions later. And Tyler’s facade fully covers up Marla’s form. Here wee the exegesis of the Narrators ability to cope, he’s so scared, so unwilling to actually engage with what’s in front of him that he needs to disassociate from himself to even begin to interact with a woman.
This disconnect quite intentionally runs through the whole film. The narrator doesn’t want to believe he’s Tyler Durden, because then that implicates him in his own misdeeds, but this split is childlike in another way. Durden, after all, is an imaginary friend, a phantom used to cope with mundane fears and terrors, to absolve the guilt of his own actions and act as a figure of admiration.
So what to make of the final moments of the film. Does the Narrator realize that Durden needs to die for him to actually move forward, does the Narrator need to die to cut the poison he spews from the root, or does it not matter either way? The word of Tyler has seeped into the world, buildings crumble, fight club has become the order of the day. And yet the Narrator is finally, fully able to express himself to Marla. He’s broken out of his head, and is ready to move forward, perhaps the first fully mature act he takes in the film.
Still the ending remains tonally and emotionally ambiguous Is this finally the catharsis the characters need to move forward in a radically changed world or only minor shift as society as we know it slowly erodes away. It’s impossible to say, but the uncertainty lodges the film into the recesses of the mind and forces one to actually think about what they’ve seen. This final moment is why the debate around this movie will never end, will never be resolved, because even if the whole thing was nihilistic joke, there just might be something on the other side after all.
Odds and Ends
- I wish Fincher would make another movie. It’s been five years since Gone Girl and I miss his big screen presence.
- Meat Loaf is very good in this movie.
- I would love to have seen this film unburden from the past 20 years of cultural baggage. Not knowing the twist, not knowing all the catchphrases, not knowing any of the iconography. One of the reasons I believe this movie has stuck is because of the first wave of people who were genuinely shocked at what they saw.
Next week: can you believe it’s been 20 years since Being John Malkovich.