348. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”–Zen koan

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DIRECTED BY: David Fincher

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: A yuppie actuary with chronic insomnia  becomes obsessed with going to self-help groups for ailments he doesn’t have. At one, he meets a woman who shares his obsession, but resents her for infringing on what he thought was his unique form of self-therapy. Later, he meets and is befriended by a soap-maker named Tyler Durden; together, they form a “fight club” where men reassert their masculinity with bare-knuckle fighting, but the group’s activities grow into a cult.

Still from Fight Club (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was based on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 debut novel of the same name. The genesis of the novel came when Palahniuk got into a fight over the weekend. When he returned to work with two black eyes, he was surprised that no one asked what had happened; instead, everyone avoided looking him in the face. He theorized that if you looked bad enough, no one would ask what you were doing in your free time, because they’d be scared to find out the answer.
  • Pepsi provided product placements for this anti-consumerist movie. Fincher also claims to have hidden a Starbucks cup in every scene.
  • Budgeted at $63 million, Fight Club lost money in its theatrical release, but quickly became a cult film and recouped its cost on video.
  • Fight Club placed #5 in Rolling Stone‘s poll of readers’ favorite movies of the 1990s, #17 on Empire‘s readers’ poll of the best movies of all time, while American Movie Classics named it the 20th best “guy movie,” among other lists the film made.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be one (any) of the many scenes of brutal bare-knuckle boxing, overseen by a shirtless, cigarette-smoking Brad Pitt, oozing sweat, blood, and raw liquid testosterone.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: D-cup dude; penguin spirit animal; subliminal Durden wang

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Yes, it’s possible to be popular and weird. Often misunderstood as a simple adolescent anti-consumerist message movie aimed at impressionable young men, Fight Club is actually a movie-length hallucination about the painful process of becoming a man.


Original trailer for Fight Club

COMMENTS: How do you talk about Fight Club? I first saw it in a theater with a male friend, a blues band trumpet player who had hocked his horn for gambling money and was now slaving away at data entry at the same call center as me—someone I had been hanging out with for weeks or months, a bit more than a “single serving friend.” When the crowd let out, we got separated on our journey out of the darkness, losing track of each other until we finally met up again minutes later in the lobby. We both freaked out just a bit when the other one disappeared, and had the same sense of relief at finding the other guy. Anyone who’s seen the movie can imagine what was going through both of our minds. Now that is a powerful movie.

Indeed, Fight Club works on every level. The script is as tight as a balled fist and delivers its plot points like gut punches, with not a moment that doesn’t add to the whole. It begins as a consumerist satire, then appears to become an anarchist screed, before a reversal at the end that changes the meaning of everything we thought we knew—both in the narrative and the thematic senses. It has one of the most quotable lines in all of movie history (I won’t talk about it; you probably know what I’m referring to). The performances by the three principals are flawless. As Tyler Durden, Pitt is top-billed, though not the most important character. He’s usually decked out in a thrift-store red leather jacket, Hawaiian shirt, and yellow-tinted sunglasses, worn with the insouciance of a guy who’s so confident about his handsomeness he can neglect his wardrobe. His inherent movie star charisma (and cut physique) makes him perfectly cast as the archetypal manly man. Helena Bonham Carter is a sarcastic, heroin-chic nihilist goth femme fatale who comes off as totally unsympathetic for the first two acts, then abruptly changes. But the movie belongs to the meek and perpetually underrated Edward Norton, who begins narrating his story with gentle, mildly bitter irony. He seems to be just second fiddle to the dynamic Durden, until he shows how far he was willing to go when he beats himself up—literally pummeling his own face, throwing himself backwards into a glass table—in front of his astonished boss in a performance that is like Jerry Lewis by way of Raging Bull. In the end, he proves both fiercer and stronger than Durden.

Fincher handles it all with a confident style that balances the multiple tones of very black humor, brutal violence, cod philosophy, and hallucination. The director doesn’t hit you over the head with style, and much of the movie proceeds in a classically realistic Hollywood manner that helps sell the bizarre premise. But there are plenty of odd flourishes to take you off-reality and remind you that Fight Club is something of an extended dream. The opening credits promise psychological strangeness, appearing over a tracking shot that moves through a steel-gray CGI neural network and emerges onto Edward Norton’s terrified face, pulling back further to show a gun barrel in his mouth. The narrator’s tale begins (after a couple of flashbacks) with his announcing his liminal insomnia: “with insomnia, nothing is real.” Most of the film is lit in a neo-noir style, with the major action happening at night, in the shadows. Early on, in his support group addiction phase, Norton does guided meditation and meets his “power animal”: a penguin. (In his DVD commentary, Fincher says he put this scene in early because he wanted the audience to know “that’s right, things can get this surreal.”) Subliminal Durdens start flash in for a single frame, before we have been properly introduced to the pugilist demagogue. All of this helps the audience orient itself in Edward Norton’s dream space; although most of the later scenes are shot in a realistic fashion, we are conditioned early on to accept a movie where anything can happen. This makes the unlikely development of a crypto-fascist anarchist cult based around the idea of an underground boxing club seem not as weird as it should when it actually coalesces.

Fight Club‘s explicit message that corporate-sponsored materialism saps the vitality out of human life. Tyler’s manifesto is “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.” While this message contains wisdom, to see it as the “meaning” of the movie would be superficial. It’s also a dangerously seductive reading, because it might lead the (male) viewer to consider Tyler Durden as a prophet and role model, an inspirational hero, rather than what he is—the villain of the piece, the embodiment of a noble idea taken to extremes and twisted into an absurd conclusion. Fight Club is interesting not as a simplistic, didactic screed against the alienation of American masculinity at the turn of the millennium, but as Norton’s character’s spiritual and psychological journey to manhood. He eventually finds a path between the poles of a robotic existence as a cog in consumer culture and the unfocused, angry destructivism of hormonal youth. Durden’s ultimate plan is nothing more than to burn civilization to the ground so it can start anew. He wants to get rid of the “debt record” so that society can “start over”: as self-sufficient “real men” who make their own soap and whose homes aren’t furnished from the IKEA catalog, men who will no longer know what a “duvet” is. But he offers no guide for what a better world would actually look like; he only harnesses the destructive power of disaffected males, turning them from brainless consumer zombies into brainless followers of Tyler Durden. (Roger Ebert amusingly described Durden’s rants as sounding “like a man who tripped over the Nietzsche display on his way to the coffee bar in Borders.“) Norton’s break with Durden’s misogynist machismo, and (crucially) his acceptance of the alternative offered by a female, marks the final destination of his hero’s journey. Norton begins with no sense of purpose, then temporarily finds a false salvation in his role as a tourist of pain in support groups. But this path, where he makes false confessions and cries false tears, is inauthentic and emasculating. He then veers to the opposite extreme—Durdenism. But his moment of true masculinity occurs when he rejects Tyler, and becomes—quite literally—his own man. The movie is about restoring a natural balance, finding the middle path, about growing up. It’s about developing a self-assuredness not based on narcissism, about being conscious of the shallowness of materialism without being overcome by the temptations of nihilism, about integrating feminine openness to emotion with masculine rigor and integrity. It is only by mocking each extreme, showing either alone as insufficient, that Fight Club hints at finding a real way for men to live.

Like A Clockwork Orange (1971) or Natural Born Killers (1994), Fight Club is a movie ripe for misunderstanding and moronic copycating. Fortunately, real fight clubs did not spring up on a widespread basis, although there were naturally exceptions (the most disturbing—and absurd—of these being toddler fight club). The pseudonym “Tyler Durden” was also adopted by a couple of wacko conspiracy-theorist economics bloggers. Durden’s throwaway line about “snowflakes” has been recycled into a meme blizzard. But allegations that the movie was/is “pro-fascist” are silly; most critics (Ebert, again) were smart enough to understand it wasn’t, they just didn’t trust audiences (particularly young men) to have the level of sophistication to appreciate the movie’s irony. But arguing against satire on the basis that susceptible souls might start earnestly chowing down on Irish babies is not a position most critics are comfortable taking. Palahniuk’s novel was truly prophetic in anticipating how the feminization of American culture (whether real or imagined, it doesn’t matter) would inevitably result in a backlash of toxic masculinity. Perhaps this 20-year-old film has some relevance to our own time, with its vague yearning for destruction of the current order (“drain the swamp!,” “lock her up!”) and its macho posturing (picking fights with foreign dictators and/or American statesmen on social media). There also may be a cult-like figure involved somewhere, who may be nothing more substantial than a projection of our current identity crisis. Maybe now would be a good time to break the rules and start talking about Fight Club again.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as strange and single-mindedly conceived as ‘Eyes Wide Shut’… the film hurtles along so smoothly that its meaningfully bizarre touches, like Meat Loaf Aday as a testicular cancer patient with very large breasts, aren’t jarring at all.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“It’s tempting to describe David Fincher’s stunning, mordantly funny, formally dazzling new movie Fight Club as the first film of the next century and leave it at that…. In sharp contrast to the drab ambiance of the narrator’s prosaic daytime world of offices, hotels, and public spaces, Durden inhabits a disorderly realm of eccentric dilapidation that suggests a shadowy subconscious hinterland. As Durden’s influence on him grows, the protagonist becomes an accomplice in his escalating program of antisocial pranks and subversive mischief, until they take an abrupt left turn with the formation of a quasimilitary all-male cult with an expressly antisocial, revolutionary agenda—a kind of surreal prole insurrection against bourgeois values.”–Gavin Smith, Film Comment (contemporaneous)

“This movie is almost hypnotically weird, and I liked it for that very reason. Not everyone will.”–Mike McGranaghan, Aisle Seat (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Fight Club – There’s not much at the official 20th Century Fox site except for ways to buy copies of the film

Fight Club | Home – The official Facebook page is occasionally updated with news

IMDB LINK: Fight Club (1999)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Fight Club | The Cult – The Fight Club page on Chuck Palahniuk’s fan site, with even more links to peruse

The blood, sweat & fears of “Fight Club” – A long essay interview with director David Fincher for Entertainment Weekly

‘Fight Club’ a weird ‘Catcher in the Rye’ – Michael Saragow describes a 1999 press conference and a separate interview with screenwriter Jim Uhls

Forget Rule No. 1: Still Talking About ‘Fight Club’New York Times critic Dennis Lim looks back on Fight Club’s endurance ten years after its début

Brad Pitt spars with ‘Fight Club’ critics – Pitt addresses what he believes to be unfair criticisms from early reviewers of the film

Chuck Palahniuk – Author of Fight Club – DVD Talk conducted an interview with the novel’s author about the adaptation

Joe Rogan – Chuck Palahniuk on the Impact of Fight Club – The author discusses the book/movie on the popular podcast

The Philosophy of Fight Club – Wisecrack Edition – A YouTuber looks at the philosophical underpinnings of the film

“Fight Club: An Exploration of Buddhism” – Charley Reed argues for a Buddhist reading of the film in this article for the “Journal of Religion & Film,” Vol. 11 : Issue 2

11 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘Fight Club’ – Deep trivia from Todd Van Luling for the Huffington Post

Filming Locations of Fight Club – A virtual tour of the locations in the film

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk’s original novel

Fight Club 2 – Palahniuk’s 2016 sequel (in graphic novel form)

Fight Club (Philosophers on Film) – An anthology of philosophical essays about Fight Club

You Do Not Talk About Fight Club: I Am Jack’s Completely Unauthorized Essay Collection – Another academic essay collection, focused on both the book and the movie

HOME VIDEO INFO: This might take a while. Although the DVD has been released in several different formats—region 2, region 1, a single disc,  a “collector’s edition,” a “definitive edition,” a steelbook, and probably more—most contain the same basic features.

The original 2002 single release (buy) advertises no special features. But when you get to the two-disc release (buy), the sparks start to fly. (In 2001, Entertainment Weekly anointed this release the most essential DVD edition of all time). Disc one includes the feature film an incredible four (!) commentary tracks. Director Fincher’s solo track is there for technical information; the liveliest commentary puts Fincher in a room with stars Norton and Pitt, while Helena Bonham Carter adds observations on her character (recorded separately); a third commentary is a conversation between novelist Chuck Palahniuk and screenwriter Jim Uhls (notable for how appreciative and deferential Palahniuk is, always eager to find out why Uhls made the choices he did); and last of all is an even more technical commentary featuring the cinematographer, costume designer, production designer, and two digital effects people. On disc two you’ll find a bundle of supplements: deleted scenes, outtakes, still galleries/key art, seventeen featurettes, numerous trailers, fake PSAs, and more… some of it hidden fairly well (look for Tyler Durden’s copyright disclaimer with your freeze-frame feature).

The Blu-ray (buy) even adds a couple of new features, as well as a useful online index to help search through the bewildering array of material. For anyone who loves the DVD/Blu-ray formats, and has any affection for this movie at all, it’s a must-buy.

If you don’t need all those bells and whistles, you can always just rent or purchase Fight Club on demand.

Truly, these are remarkable times.

(This movie was nominated for review by Justin Gans, who marveled, in late 2106, “Fight Club still isn’t on the review queue?!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

7 thoughts on “348. FIGHT CLUB (1999)”

  1. Man, I have not seen this movie in years, but it’s always hovered somewhere in my “Best” list. That’s no doubt a sign of the film’s qualities, but I also saw it at one of my more formative phases of young adulthood. (Around the time that I saw “Liquid Sky” for the first time, as well as “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & her Lover”… God bless Eastside Video Rental.)

    Like many, I read the book after having seen the movie. Both endings were very satisfying, with the book’s being perhaps more subversive than the movie’s (wholly enjoyable) gang-busters finale.

    I’m always pleased to read a book and find that the film-makers did justice to the source material. “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” and “American Psycho” also fall into this category as far as I’m concerned.

    1. Amen on American Psycho (which would probably make the list if the film was as demented as the novel).

  2. A great review.

    Yes, Fight Club was definitely prophetic. And in some ways, today’s reality is even weirder than the fiction.

  3. I figured you could all hear the millstone sound of my eyeballs rolling in their sockets from where you’re sitting. Might as well comment anyway.

    Hey, I like the movie. It’s one of my favorites too, for its script, performances, humor, pacing, and snappy tight cinematography. And now that I come to think of it, between titty Meatloaf and messiah Robert Paulson, it does squeak onto the weird list.

    But this movie is also directly responsible for #OccupyWallStreet and most of the other toxic children’s crusades that will mark the Millennial generation’s page in history. There’s a problem with next-level post-society satire: The people who take it at face value. So really, let’s do be careful laureling this movie as an awakening. You never know when some impressionable dolt will read “Catcher in the Rye” and decide the message was “shoot John Lennon.”

  4. Criticizing the lauding of a film that was unintentionally taken at face value (over a decade after being made) suggests the point of view that the screws should be tightened on any artist just in case his or her work is, at any future time, looked at the wrong way.

    And while I am personally somewhat troubled by a number of behaviors found in a cross-section of today’s younger adults, I know that the pool of these adults (80+ million, according to the latest census) is far too large for me to be comfortable making sweeping statements about the whole.

    1. Giles, I agree with every word. But there’s a sour pill to swallow with it: New media brings new responsibilities.

      Regardless of how we might feel, we’re all somebody’s mentor, because what we write on the Internet lives forever. Six thousand years ago you’d be lucky if you scribbled your blog on parchment and stashed it in a clay jar along the Red Sea and whoops, became part of the Bible. Now you barely dare make “The Matrix” trilogy without somebody making it into a religion called “Matrixism.” The D.E.N.N.I.S. system, a joke started in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” is now being passed around Red Pill forums as viable pick-up artist theory.

      Yes, it is funny to feed the hippies bum acid and watch them barf, but it’s also tragic when we get a Charles Manson.

      I know we can’t walk around on eggshells never daring to spread an idea or even make a joke again for fear of it influencing the lesser primates. But the least we can do is put up a sign post for those who would come to this point and think “That’s it! The answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything!” with a precautionary marker “No it’s not; keep looking.”

      If that makes me paranoid, well, nobody’s perfect.

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