All Systems Go
James Crawford on Fight Club

The contemporary terrorist paranoia has distressed virtually every part of our lives. From the mundane—sagging consumer confidence and a staggering economy—to the trivial—those airport security who confiscate your nail clippers, of all things—Americans’ fear of being attacked by foreign enemies is readily visible on many different social levels. That fear has also crept into our subconscious as well. The attacks on September 11, 2001 have cast an undeniable pall over critical studies, affecting the way we attend and read the subtext of popular cinema. Even films with the most tenuous connections to terrorist themes—M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village for example—are interpreted as being wholly preoccupied with the subject. It’s as though the shadow cast by the towers is so long, the absence of their presence on the Manhattan skyline so great, that we, in moments of interpretational fallacy, project meanings onto films that aren’t necessarily there. No amount of academic charlatanry can turn Merian C. Cooper’s classic King Kong into a foreshadow of the World Trade Center’s collapse. Even so, it is difficult to view David Fincher’s 1999 polemic Fight Club and not recall the 9/11 attacks—in the final shot, two financial towers explode and collapse as Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter look on from a vantage point earlier dubbed “Ground Zero” by Brad Pitt. So freakishly similar is the situation that, had the film been screened two years later, its release would have been delayed like Schwarzenegger’s Collateral Damage, or more likely, would not have been made at all. Fight Club’s timing was fortuitous, for it presents an insightful critique of various American hierarchies that years later might have been lost in the rubble.

Citing Fight Club’s prescriptive value is controversial because it was widely lambasted upon its initial theatrical release. The film circles around the life of an unnamed narrator (Norton), who could also be called “Jack,” a pallid, disgruntled insomniac stuck in a dead-end corporate job. The only cure for his sleepless nights is attending weekly support groups—Alcoholics Anonymous, cancer survivors, etc.—even though he suffers from no maladies. There, he meets another support group “tourist,” Marla Singer (Carter) who becomes his nominal love interest and promise of a somewhat agreeable future. Any sense of normalcy, however, is destroyed when the narrator meets Tyler Durden (Pitt), a scruffily handsome soap vendor whose view of the world seeks to break down all the trappings of established society. After Jack’s apartment explodes, he’s left homeless and starts to live with Durden, who founds a “Fight Club,” an alternative kind of support group in which disenfranchised guys meet weekly to beat each other up until someone says “uncle.” The club starts small enough but mushrooms into a clandestine terrorist organization, whose ultimate act is the aforementioned destruction of the financial towers. Many major American media outlets trashed the film for its misogynistic machismo, superficial anti-establishment ramblings, excessive gore, and apparently cheery embrace of violence. On the other side, the film became something of a cult for its anti-corporate, anti-consumer message; around my college campus at least, I can remember 3 a.m. screenings of the film and a short-lived period where Tyler Durden’s rants (“You are not your fucking khakis,” etc.) became something like mantras for more than a few friends. In subsequent viewings over the years, it seems that the establishment’s outrage and the alternative stream’s endorsement of Fight Club are both somewhat misguided. This potently satirical film is more ideologically complex than either end of the spectrum had realized.

There is an explicit critique of the social malaise created by the sameness and superficiality of corporate culture, but that does not necessarily mean that Fincher (or Chuck Palahniuk, the source novel’s author) endorses the tendencies that have come to embody that culture’s verso. All Durden’s followers do is substitute one culture of conformity for another—trading the acceptable GAP-inspired clothing of the establishment for black-jacketed, jack-booted sameness; eschewing commercial jingles and sales pitches in favor of monotonous cultish mantra. Is it any wonder that these young wayward males willingly accept the ideology that Durden has projected for them? Both present ready-made identities and a sense of belonging for willing supplicants; both require (and, in fact, welcome) no input from the individual because that helps to sell their respective ways of living. The point here is that a corporate slogan like Nike’s “Just Do It” is merely one locus on the slippery slope towards the cultism of “We are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world.” The only difference is that the former identity-suppressing way of life is culturally sanctioned, while the latter is not. Importantly, we can faintly see Fincher (and, by extension, Palahniuk) condemn Durden’s cults—“Fight Club” and later “Project Mayhem”—because everything he espouses is a null ideology, a belief system founded on (ab)negation. (This is not the same “nothing” as nihilism, which at least bases its ideology on scientific absolutes.) Durden crows “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet,” that Gen Xers have “No Great War, No Great Depression,” etc. etc. without telling the following crowd what they are, or what they have to believe in. He proposes no construct, no founding principle, in short, nothing but negatives. Cap this all off with the fact that the man espousing the Fight Club ideal turns out to be the figment of a schizophrenic man’s imagination, then surely we cannot put much faith in his revolutionary agenda. Capitalist conformity may be deplorable, but Fincher’s depiction of the reactionary forces seeking its overthrow are so violent, so extreme, so singularly insane that the director clearly does not identify with them—all public outrage to the contrary.

What Fight Club really resembles is a boys’ club run amok, but this is only part of a broader schema that illuminates the power that male homosocial institutions wield in American society. It all starts “innocuously” enough, with a few wayward twenty- and thirtysomething men beating the daylights out of each other. Is this really much different from turn-of-the-20th-century backyard wrestling or bare-knuckle boxing? Things start to get troublesome when this too-too violent schoolboy roughhousing becomes allied to ideology, and the boys become infernally convinced of the nobility of their undertaking. Their implied assertion, that contemporary males live a life free from pain, is fundamentally correct, but the contentious aspect is how they act on that realization. The desire to actively seek out pain by fighting in their own little club smacks of a renegade alternative underground movement but in actuality tends more towards the upperclass whitebread set; the pampered bourgeoisie, like the protagonists in Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, could unabashedly romanticize and extol the virtues of experiencing pain, having never experienced it themselves. To borrow from the Jack’s Alcoholics Anonymous-inspired narration, the Fight Club experience is tourism for agony—you can actively court it on the weekend but go back to a comfortable, affliction-free life during the work week. Because pain is exalted, experiencing more pain means a greater degree of enlightenment, and so violence spirals out of control. The rationale invoked is that this makes these men feel alive, “in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word.” But this is again fallacious (and anachronistic) because contemporary American society has progressed so far beyond issues of mere sustenance. A similar canard is frequently proffered by hunters to justify their “sport,” that shooting deer with long-range, high-powered rifles helps them get in touch with the wilderness and their fundamental nature. Fight Club occupies the same bourgeois territory as that mostly white, predominantly middle-class pastime of hunting.

Small wonder then, that as the scope of Durden’s Fight Club grows, it takes on middle-class institutional overtones. With its stringent initiation ritual for membership, hazings, and bunk beds stacked high, Durden’s Paper Street headquarters come to resemble an industrious frat house or an anarchist’s country club as much as it does a proto-terrorist organization. As the scope of Project Mayhem grows, it becomes a semi-secret organization with privileges for its indoctrinated members like an ivy-leaguers old boys’ network that hires none but their own. Towards the end of the film, Jack visits a diner and is told by a bruised and battered waiter that dinner is free. Fight Club members and alumni occupy positions in the food-service industry, transportation, even the police force—every facet of city life is under their control (like the infamous Yale Skulls organization), and it all found genesis, absurdly, in one guy beating himself up. Thus Fight Club traces the trajectory from boys club to frat house to the highest annals of power, structuring the development of male America as a series of transitions from one homosocial group to the next. Fincher merely demonstrates how they all exist on the same ideological continuum, and that the boundaries between each might not be as impermeable as we think.

One suspects that the reason these boys go so horribly wrong is that their world is exclusively male. Of the three women in Fight Club with speaking parts, two are ridiculed (Chloe the cancer victim, for resembling Meryl Streep’s animated skeleton; the other, a guided meditation specialist, for the absurdity of her healing techniques), and the third is Marla Singer, whose only purpose is to have wild, feral sex with Brad Pitt and is made sterile by her explicit use of birth control. These two men (Durden and the Narrator), were raised without mothers, meaning that their formative years were spent bereft of one-half of a parental unit—that nurturing maternal side. In a reductionist “blame the parent” mode crudely derived from Freud, that absent mother means that Durden and Jack were not instilled with the more stereotypically feminine qualities of empathy, sociability, etc. and instead left with a brace of masculine traits, for example the belief that rough physical play is an acceptable form of expression. Female qualities are clearly unwelcome, as evidenced by the fact that Robert Paulson (Meat Loaf Aday), the only male in possession of female qualities, is shot and killed during a mission for Project Mayhem. More than once, Paulson draws Jack into his swollen, breast-like pectorals, nurturing him through his grief so that Jack is able to cry without reservation; with Paulson’s death, the feminine is removed from the midst of these men.

Because they were raised only by fathers, all these errant overgrown boys know (and all they can understand—hence the symbolic necessity for Paulson’s removal) is a tough, masculine form of love, and as such their euphoric reaction to Fight Club is perversely understandable. Men hug each other in a state of exalted bliss after pounding upon each other, while the throng of male spectators urges them on with neo-Neanderthal grunts, and so legitimate this barbaric spectacle of violence and pain—which, as explored earlier, has been lent the air of rarefied, exalted ritual. Able to get away with the taboo practice of underground fighting, they’re inclined to push the envelope a touch further and engage in practices even more taboo. It’s a cautionary tale showing what can happen if a schoolboy prank was pushed to its logical extreme or when a destructive ideology is allowed to take hold unchecked—in short, what might happen if men were allowed to rule the world without even a modicum of restraint by the fairer sex. Lest you think this interpretation is stretching the bounds of Fincher’s or Palahniuk’s intentionality, remember that in Fight Club, cutting off a man’s testicles would rob him of his power (e.g. the chief of police); dominant power rests exclusively in potent manhood. Moreover, a strong female presence—Marla’s—has the ability to alter or curtail a man’s activities; Marla’s appearance at the various support groups is enough to reanimate Jack’s insomnia and dissuade him from attending the weekly meetings for bowel cancer or blood parasite survivors. Without a little female temperance, this hyperbolically male world, basically parody of a predominantly androcentric corporate culture, is skewed beyond all reason and rationality. In an exemplary moment of irrational logic, the motive Jack gives for mangling Jared Leto’s face beyond all recognition is that he “wanted to destroy something beautiful.” The camera lingers on a shocked crowd of onlookers and then rotates 180 degrees over the vertical axis so that Jack and Durden ascending the stairs is transformed into a shot of them moving downwards. These men are descending and degenerating into ideological hell.

Without women, men turn to each other not only for the aforementioned ideological structure but also companionship and even amorous affection. While there are no explicit homosexual relationships in Fight Club, a current of homoeroticism flows under the surface. Durden and Jack act like a married couple, Norton fixing Pitt’s bowtie and engaging in other convivial household behaviors. When Durden seems to favor Leto’s character over the Narrator, he acts like a jilted lover, bemoaning “Tyler dumped me. I am Jack’s broken heart.” However, Fincher manages to invert the homoeroticism that pervades his work. Jack is in love with Durden, but Durden is nothing but the idealized mental projection of Jack himself; therefore, homoeroticism for these men is inseparable from narcissism. The Fight Club they attend with such fervent devotion is only a projection of how much they love themselves.

Admittedly, ascribing intention to the layers of philosophical underpinnings in Fight Club is difficult because it has an ambivalent relationship with its own subject matter. While riding public transportation, Durden points to the chiselled torso of an underwear model and, smirking, asks Jack “Is that what a man looks like?” citing the preening, self-absorbed image as an object of contempt. The problem is, Brad Pitt looks exactly like the advertisement, his image outside the film just as carefully controlled, his physique just as indebted to sculpting by a personal trainer; while Durden the character crows about breaking down the establishment, Pitt the actor’s fame and fortune is owed to that very institution.

Another confounding problem is Pitt’s performance. His portrayal of Durden is so charismatic, so laden with breezy rock star charm and common-sense humor that it’s easy to identify with him and align with his project—and assume, mistakenly, that the film is doing the same. The flaws in his dogma are obscured the penumbra cast by Pitt’s megawatt star, and so we’re forgiven for believing that Fincher endorses his hyper-masculinized, nullifying way of life. Fight Club is deeply divided in the way it presents its convictions, and, like its lost boys, is furiously seeking for something to believe in. But in surveying the alternatives—commercial excess on the one hand and absolute nothing signified on the other—neither alternative is appealing. As the two towers crumble around him, supposedly reconfiguring the contemporary economic system, there is a faint promise of redemption as Tyler Durden has exorcised his demons and passed through this bizarre threshold of his life. However, that promise is significantly marred in light of the damage that Durden’s actions have wrought. Neither an average teenage rebellion nor a harmless midlife crisis, his actions have wreaked real injury and cost actual lives. Durden, like many similar corporate drones, may have a frat boy’s mentality, but his mischief calls for a mature man’s reckoning, and there’s the rub: the disparity between male America’s mental and physical age, and the trouble that ensues when seductive sophomoric fantasies are given free reign. In the real world, college disciplinary boards are called “police”; suspension from school is called “jail time.”