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Dissecting the Classics – Fight Club

February 1, 2019 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Who’s ready to break the first two rules?

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Fight Club

Wide Release Date:
Directed By: David Fincher
Written By: Jim Uhls, based on Chuck Palahniuk’s>Fight Club
Produced By: Art Linson, Céan Chaffin, & Ross Grayson Bell
Cinematography By: Jeff Cronenweth
Edited By: James Haygood
Music By: The Dust Brothers
Production Company: Fox 2000 Pictures, Regency Enterprises, Linson Films
Distributed By: 20th Century Fox
Edward Norton as Narrator
Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden
Helena Bonham Carter as Marla Singer
Meat Loaf as Robert Paulson
Jared Leto as Angel Face

What Do We All Know?

Fight Club is perhaps the most enduringly popular work of director David Fincher. While it received mixed reviews from contemporary critics and a modest box office performance, the film found its true audience on DVD, becoming a cult film in the early 2000s. It has since been reevaluated as one of the best films of the 1990s, with Empire Magazine going so far as to call it one of the ten best films of all time in 2008. But the film also has its fair share of detractors: many take issue with the glorification of violence and social terrorism, fearing the impact it would have on male viewers. Those fears aren’t totally unfounded: several fight clubs were started in the early 2000s, and an attempted bombing of a starbucks in 2009 was attributed to trying to recreate Project Mayhem.

If you haven’t seen Fight Club and are reading this for some reason, this review is going to be very spoiler heavy, and I recommend seeing the film first. That’s partially because it has a brilliantly executed twist that I’d hate spoiling. But primarily it’s because Fincher and his team excel at crafting complex themes that require a deep dive and it’s better if you’ve scratched the surface by yourself. With that out of the way, let’s talk about Fight Club.

What Went Right?

Discussing every facet of Fight Club that is good would take up more time and space than I can devote to a weekly column. I’m going to primarily focus on one aspect of the film: its analysis of the male psyche. But before I turn on my attention to that, it seems prudent to praise Fincher’s excellent direction and the excellent cinematography and editing of his collaborators, as well as the innovative score and restrained use of quality visual effects. And another core theme must be acknowledged: the societal malaise of men in the face of the 1990’s omnipresent consumerism. It’s a fascinating topic in its own right, but also hardly unique to Fight Club; whether you were watching this, Best Picture winner American Beauty or groundbreaking action movie The Matrix, the feeling of malcontent among white-collar white men in the Clinton years was an inescapable topic of 1999 movies. I’m more interested in what makes Fight Club unique in its time, although there is more than a little overlap with the themes of The Matrix.

With that heavily condensed praise out of the way, let’s get to the main topic I want to discuss. It’s no surprise that the film has a lot to say about men and our psyches, or that it frequents lists of “Greatest Guy Movies”. The film is focused so entirely on the male point of view that many critics consider it to be sexist, though I think the philosophy is more condemning of men’s worst traits. Much is made of how the movie glorifies violence and appeals to the basic instinct of getting in a fight to feel more “like a real man” – and yeah, I enjoy the fight scenes as much as anybody. But I think what is often overlooked is that the emphasis of Fight Club is on the second word: this is a community of men who fear losing their manhood and individuality because of consumer culture and the reality of their dreams being crushed (“We are the middle children of history.”) Ironically, they lose their individuality by allowing Tyler Durden’s extreme beliefs lead them to domestic terrorism and cult like behavior that is as much a sales pitch as the Starbucks cups they film shows such disdain for. In short, the film condemns both extremes; the emasculated do-nothing male who is identified only by his status and his stuff, and the indoctrinated man who lets his hatred of “the system” lead him to a brainwashed, violent lifestyle that seeks to replace individuality with a false sense of community.

In many ways, I feel that Fight Club may be the prototypical film confronting the themes of toxic masculinity. I know that phrase is enough to send some men into a goddamn tizzy because they think it means “being male” is bad, so to clarify for any readers who may not understand what the term actually means and its use here: Toxic Masculinity refers to negative behaviors that are reinforced by societal systems as being stereotypical male traits. Being aggressive and competitive in the confines of a sport or a business is great; bullying those who are weaker than you because you need to feel dominant is toxic. Being sexually active is great; feeling entitled to sex and doing whatever you feel like to get it is toxic. Being a male is awesome; not acknowledging that you can be a better person than patriarchal society expects you to be is childish and shows a deep insecurity about your masculinity. Are we clear? Cool, because Fight Club definitely understands this phenomenon even if it doesn’t spell it out for us. It showcases that our worst behaviors are often symptoms of our own self-hatred: our inability to truly succeed in the way we were told we could, our insecurity because of our deadbeat parents, our inability to be as physically dominant or sexually potent as society says “real men” should be. And it shows that when a bunch of malcontents get together, we like to displace our anger away from ourselves and put it on some external force for us to fight. Fight Club is escapism, but Project Mayhem is extremism, and the film strongly condemns it.

While the film’s look at masculinity is valuable for any male viewer, the film does have a more specific audience. More educated folks than myself have noticed the queer theming of the movie: the Narrator never has sex with Marla except when he is overtaken by Tyler, an idealized alter personality that is everything the Narrator wishes he could be. He and Tyler have a close physical relationship; they share a cigarette after their first fight, the Narrator is comfortable being in the room while Tyler bathes, and at one point Tyler dominantly puts his gun in the Narrator’s mouth. Tyler, despite being straight, is a projection of what the Narrator finds attractive in men, and is a way for him to cope with his self-hatred about being gay. This is a common trend among LGBTQ men, and it gives a deeper meaning to the story. The Narrator is willing to become the absolute extreme visions of dominant Alpha Male just so that he doesn’t have to confront the fact that he can never live up to that expectation in reality.

What Went Wrong?

Obviously, Fight Club has a lot on its mind, but I do think it sometimes struggles to get all of its point across to a general audience. Now, a movie has no obligation to explain itself to everyone, and the ones that do are frequently of lesser quality. But it’s impossible to ignore that Fight Club in particular is beloved by many for the wrong reasons. Those who view Project Mayhem as a blueprint rather than a cautionary tale, or view Tyler Durden’s philosophy as profound wisdom instead of adolescent insecurity make it difficult for me to want to engage in conversation about the film. The discourse surrounding Fight Club is varied, and while that is a testament to its ability to be many things to many people, sometimes it is exactly the wrong thing to exactly the wrong kind of people.

Lastly, I do share the belief of some that Helena Bonham Carter is somewhat wasted in this film. By necessity of the plot, Marla is the third wheel in the relationship between Tyler and the Narrator. She’s charismatic and enigmatic, but it would be nice if we got to see a little more of what makes her tick. It’s definitely not a damning flaw, but Carter is a legitimately great actress when she’s not hamming it up in Tim Burton films and I wish she had more to work with in this movie.

And In Summary…

I don’t think I can adequately review Fight Club in a short amount of space, but to sum up, I think the film really is brilliant. David Fincher is one of our most consistently great directors, and Fight Club is probably the first true indicator of just good he would turn out to be. It’s very much of its moment, capturing the mood of white-collar men in 1999 and creating a story that is engaging and thoughtful. But it’s also a deep look into the male psyche, analyzing where toxic masculinity originates from and how it perpetuates, while encouraging us to become fully realized people apart from consumer culture or societal expectations. While I occasionally feel like its praised for exactly the wrong reasons, I think it holds up to real scrutiny and deserves its status as a classic.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, The Exorcist, Psycho, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Haunting, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Citizen Kane, Mary Poppins, Christmas Vacation, The Iron Giant, The Secret of NIMH, Duck Soup, Unbreakable, The Day the Earth Stood Still

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