David Fincher films are all about exposition. This is why Zodiac is his perfect vessel: it reduces the world to a case file. Fight Club is no exception but the trick is that in this film, exposition is not different from philosophy. It narrates at length in a way that belittles narration. Its main self-advocacy is the denial of self. The question is whether all this preaching can escape the pull of its cultural upbringing, or outgrow “the IKEA nesting instinct.” Can a corporate product like a film be an argument against corporate products? The fact that this is the question about a film that inserts single frames of male genitalia into extended sequences of people clobbering each other is something, at least.
The aspect of rebellion in Fight Club makes it the anthem of a cinematic generation, who may not understand it at all. Remember, “the first rule of fight club is that you do not talk about fight club.” If you argued about its philosophy, its meaning, its impact, its significance, the movie would punch you in the nose. It advocates non-advocacy. It does it so well in the first act that the switch is tragic, when the film starts to take seriously the things that don’t matter at all.
The Narrator (Edward Norton) is a cipher: we can decode ourselves with him. He goes to cancer support groups because he wants to see people open up to him; he cries because the lie of his need is the only truth he’s ever told. That could be a line from the movie, and if it could be, it would be: Fight Club will never let a lesson slide by untaught. This is where it runs into trouble later. It has an incessant need to be understood, a philosophy nesting instinct. This is why so many people feel they’ve learned something from it: you can’t watch it without knowing everything there is to know. This makes my job rather hard. I’ll always be talking to experts of a film they’ve seen once.
The fight with Angel Face (Jared Leto) is a good example. The Narrator (he takes many names throughout the film) beats the pretty face until it’s gargling its own teeth. Unprompted by anyone who asked him why he did it, he answers the question with, “I just wanted to destroy something beautiful.” The nihilism of the scene isn’t enough, though it’s inherent: Fight Club has to keep chewing on the book’s leftovers to make sure we got it. Well, we got it.
The film enters the second act in a way I remember Pauline Kael saying of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, not with a chip on its shoulder, but with everything gone except the chip. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) likes it that way. He pulls the Narrator into a world with no redundancies. Male aggression, which the author seems to expand into an inevitability, allows them to destroy what they don't need. Nietzsche talked frequently about Tyler Durden, a man who cannot exist without changing the world forever. He's the television generation's Zarathustra (and he works for the Facebook generation even more so). He makes us realize we're "the middle children of history" (a term from Cinema of Simulation). We are people simulated into a society that doesn't want us. We are rebels with too many causes.
Durden uses male aggression without succumbing to it (he gets happier and prettier as the film goes on) but Fight Club itself is as brutal as the rat races it satirizes. Rob Bottin tore dogs apart and rearranged them into pus flowers for The Thing, and does so with white collar cheekbones in Fight Club. The film’s ability to remain humorous during its self-destruction keeps it alive, but I wonder how much of the violence we're meant to enjoy, not like philosophers, but like sharks smelling each other die. When Angel Face's nose is hanging off his face and he's swallowing his tongue, I didn't get the impression I did in Raging Bull, of a man who didn't know how to interact with the world except by destroying it. Fight Club gave me the impression that it wanted to prove how much smarter it is than the men (and the movies) that don't know why they act out, by not knowing on purpose.
Nihilism doesn't want for friends in the movies. My problem with Fight Club isn't that it has so few values, but that it explains the ones it has to such self-congratulatory lengths that I ended up enjoying it less than ignorance. It adapted so much criticism that it kind of did my job for me.
At least it does it enjoyably: particularly in the underground ring’s “homework assignments," the film bounces along with surprising, demented joy. One particularly involves picking a fight with a stranger and losing, which they discover to be more difficult than cutting off each other’s testicles (a common threat). Most people want to avoid fighting. They want to keep their heads buried in IKEA catalogs and expensive coffee drinks. Tyler’s ambition is to be the piss in their frappuccino. He wants to dismantle the world in the smallest ways, which to him are the ways that matter. At gunpoint, he forces a convenience store cashier to resume his dream of becoming a veterinarian. He makes gourmet soap out of fat recycled from a liposuction clinic. For the Narrator, he offers only the cul-de-sac of existing as an aware person. He has no out for him. There’s no reason to change themselves; as he says, “self-improvement is masturbation.”
The last act is full of so much rigmarole, so many reveals, that it dissuades me from even what I like about the film. The ideology of giving up furniture shouldn’t just be about furniture, but also about the way third acts work, the way plot-centric dialogue can turn a wisecracker into a ham. Yet the film becomes very workmanlike, complete with a twist easy enough to predict that it seems self-evident. The Narrator loses his riotous perspective on himself and I lose touch with him; it begins to feel like the movie is happening somewhere other than where the camera is pointing. Fincher discourages himself from using handheld shots, and this detaches Fight Club from the intimacy it would have had under someone else’s eye. This is essential to its premise because in truth, the Narrator doesn’t matter. We don’t matter. To communicate this, Fincher films at a perfect angle, the movement clean and precise, the editing invisible. The problem is that in knowing that he doesn’t matter, in the first act the Narrator is someone who matters to me. The camera is cold and aloof because it doesn’t care what we think about that. But the film degrades as it becomes more like the material it seems to urge against, a “you’ve got the wrong man” film where the man doesn’t even know who he is. You will leave it feeling like you’ve been given a sermon by people who didn’t want you to listen, or who want you to act on their lessons while acting like there aren’t any. The result is without character by definition, and fascist by default.
Notice how fascism seems to just catch on. Self-denial is always at the center, to such a degree that some greater cause, usually of social upheaval, becomes the only proper means of expression for the frustrated meat-sacks that adhere to it. Fight Club is a rebellion against advertising culture with nothing on the other side. It is the rage of giving up shopper’s rage, intensified into a military.
But Fight Club isn’t an angry movie; it wouldn’t be following its own guidelines if it had any aggression that it didn’t deal with by punching or screwing people (I know someone who refers to Helena Bonham Carter as “that hot mess,” and it may be because of Fight Club). It has no heart by choice, and no brain by the accident of being discernible to teenagers. As Tyler and the Narrator stand above the animals thrashing in their basement, the viewers of the film leave believing they now have a larger stake in the world, somehow. I don’t doubt they picked fights over it. I had this complaint when people started preaching Dudeism from The Big Lebowski: you cannot preach a religion of religious-lessness. Fight Club is essentially about not believing what consumer products tell you to believe. You must trust it by ignoring it completely, and especially by not talking about it. Obviously, I've already failed.
It comes at an odd time for Fincher, as a film made of apathy made by a director with a lot to prove. Fincher over-stylizes Fight Club at times, with dream sequences and slow motion that seem to erase his cold hands from the camera crank, which can handle something as boring as paper-shuffling with the cool resonance of a moment in history, and yet struggle to find meaning in scenes of grandeur without accompanying it with a slick pop song. And Pitt, warming the whole place like his loony toon from 12 Monkeys ratcheted up to superstar status, almost seems like he should have been running the show. Maybe he was. I do know that Fincher has a firmer grip on his art from here on, directing smaller, tightening the cleanliness of those angles and the omniscience of his exposition. I guess you could say he’s good at self-improvement.
Image is a screenshot from the film.