Monday, March 10, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: Fight Club (1999)
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham-Carter
Fight Club is not a movie about men who fight. Rather, it is about the feminization of men through consumer culture and the subsequent alienation of men from their own bodies. The idea here is that the only way to reclaim the essential masculinity that has been lost is by beating the ever loving Jesus out of another man, and by getting your own ass kicked in turn. These are men boiled down to their primitive essence which, as the protagonist discovers, only leads to a different form of chaos.
Short version: An unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton) who can’t sleep, whose possession have all come from an Ikea catalogue, who spends his free time crashing various support groups, meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a plane. They get into a fight. They get into more fights. They start a club. The club becomes a cult. The cult deals a blow to the Capitalist infrastructure. The end.
Long version: The Narrator can’t sleep because he can’t reconcile his conception of masculinity to the way that he and the men around him live their lives. He goes to support groups, including one for men suffering from testicular cancer, where all the men cry and one has developed breasts. “This is Bob,” the Narrator says. “Bob has bitch tits.” We then see Bob hug the disgusted Narrator to his chest. Bob is no longer a “man” in the traditional sense because of what he now has (the aforementioned “bitch tits”) and because of what he’s lost (his testicles). Instead, he’s a grotesque mutation representing what the Narrator fears that he himself is becoming mentally, if not physically. In contrast to Bob, the group also includes Marla Singer (Helena Bonham-Carter) who, like the Narrator, is a support group crasher. “I have more of a right to be there than you. You still have your balls,” she tells him. When the Narrator asks if she’s kidding, she replies, “I don’t know… am I?” When the women are “men” and the men are “women,” how can anyone develop a stable sense of identity?
But the Narrator’s problem isn’t just the support groups, it’s also the way that he’s surrounded himself with catalogue merchandise. He informs us that everything in his apartment has been ordered from Ikea, that each item only fed his desire for the next. This is problematic because men are not meant to be consumers. Women are supposed to be the consumers, women like Marla Singer (as in the sewing machine). Being a consumer invariably leads to being image conscious (when the Narrator asks Tyler, “Is that what a man is supposed to look like?” he’s asking the central question of the film), they become brand loyal, they become feminized through their heightened awareness of how they look. “Do you know what a duvet is?” Tyler asks. “It’s a blanket. Why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is it essential to our survival in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then? We are consumers. We’re the bi-products of a lifestyle obsession.” This is why Tyler, the soap salesman’s (the creator of product, not the buyer) first task is to cleanse the Narrator’s life by ridding him of all his possessions. Once free of his “things,” the Narrator is free to embrace his true, primal self. He gets in fights, he doesn’t care if he shows up to work with a swollen face and bloodstained clothes. He’s a real man, the way that he’s supposed to be.
Or is he? The fact that the Narrator and Tyler are the same person becomes apparent fairly early to anyone who is paying attention. The fact that the Narrator kills Tyler, or, rather, the Tyler part of himself, suggests that the lifestyle Tyler is promoting is just as wrong as that which he rejects. When Tyler turns the Narrator away from the dominant culture, he isn’t encouraging him to embrace his individuality, but a different version of conformity, where the male body is fetishised not according to the aesthetics of advertising, but in correlation to its ability to give and take punishment (it might as well have been called Fight Porn for the way the camera lingers lustily on Pitt’s bloodied torso). There are no individuals in Fight Club, just uniform creatures seeking to attain a kind of ultra-masculinity that is no more real or true than the feminized masculinity they were embracing at the beginning. Both are just images, poses that have been adopted to suit a lifestyle they’ve decided to live. What the Narrator discovers in the end is that his identity (both his gender identity and his identity as a person) depends not on how he looks or what he does or the items that fill his life, but instead on what and how he thinks about those things. It’s individuality that he attains at the end, which is freedom from neither the feminine nor the masculine, but rather from the Image Cult that both sides attempt to impose. While this message can sometimes be lost in the blood and gore of the story, it remains that this film has more to say about the way the we relate to – and are defined by – culture than any other film to come out in the last decade.