Chris Versus the Movies: A Brief Defense of Fight Club

Posted: October 16, 2014 in Threat Quality
Tags: , ,

I guess it’s the 15th anniversary of the release of Fight Club, so everyone is talking about it again I guess. Fight Club gets a bad rap these days, and there’s a feeling that maybe the Suck Fairy came and worked her magic, turning a film that a lot of folks kind of liked fifteen years ago into a big pile of crap. What is this movie? A testosterone-saturated pile of White Male aggression, a maybe kind of racist, patriarchical Trojan horse fed to a new generation of teenage boys under the guise of an appealing adolescent nihilism? It is gross, who even liked this, right?

I liked this, and actually I think it’s pretty brilliant. Hear me out though, I’ll explain.

What Is This Movie About?

A lot of people have ideas about what Fight Club is about. If those ideas are different from what I am about to tell you, they are wrong, and they are somehow ludicrously wrong, because Fight Club is not, in any way a subtle movie. There is no way to watch this movie and not clearly see what it is about, unless you are a maniac.

Fight Club is about how late-stage capitalism creates a state of personal alienation in the previously-privileged classes, which makes them uniquely susceptible to cults of personality. The defense against this sense of alienation is human relationships.

So, look, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that you don’t care about what Middle Class White Guys face in the late 20th / early 21st century. Absolutely, I don’t disagree if you want to say, “Oh, white dudes are sad? I don’t give a fuck.” A-okay. To be fair, though, that doesn’t make Fight Club bad, it just makes it specific. Now, I’ll admit that it was appealing to me precisely because of this sense of alienation from the self that it evokes, I had a strong emotional reaction to it; that is because I am a middle class white guy who experiences a profound sense of alienation due to late stage capitalism.

However, even if you don’t have a personal emotional reaction to it, I don’t think you can argue that it’s not worth knowing about. Even if you want to say, “any more contributions to the White Dudes are sad about stuff genre is excessive, we already have enough, they’re all damaging because they support the status quo”, I will argue that Fight Club is actually a uniquely valuable contribution to that genre.

Most of the White Guys Are Sad About Stuff movies trace the Sadness to a specific, personal event – often the loss of a loved one, sometimes a mid-life crisis, sometimes an affair, &c. They describe a universe in which White Guys Just Can’t Get Ahead, even though we are privileged beyond any other class, and we’re therefore entitled to engage in irresponsible or dangerous behaviors (or, as is usually the case in A Sad White Guy Has an Affair movies, at least be forgiven for our irresponsible behaviors).

Fight Club is unique in that it very explicitly says: “No, man. You are sad because of capitalism.” It is unique in that the dangerous and irresponsible behaviors (the pranks that Project Mayhem engages in – pointless acts of vandalism or terrorism) are never really (by the film) forgiven or justified; Tyler Durden’s terroristic war on the bourgeoisie is wrong. It gets people killed. It turns them into dangerous fanatics. It serves no purpose except to satisfy the sense of neglect or angst that the members of Project Mayhem feel. The happiness that the Narrator finds is not in the catastrophic destruction of the credit market, but in holding Marla’s hand while it happens – not the freedom of imminent catastrophe, but the certainty that this human connection will enable them both to weather it.

(A really fascinating departure from the book, while we’re on the subject – in the novel, Project Mayhem plans to destroy the Museum of Natural History; the book is a nihilistic rejection of all forms of modernism. The destruction of the Museum is a symbolic destruction of the memory of a civilization, a gleeful destruction of the world for its own sake. The movie Fight Club sees Project Mayhem destroying the credit card companies, because it unequivocally locates the source of the problems of the modern world in capitalism. Like, literally unequivocally, the Narrator basically comes right out and says it: you are sad because capitalism is an engine for destroying humanity.)

So, we can say, “I don’t care about how sad white guys are,” but I think it’s vitally important to recognize the message of Fight Club, even if you don’t have a personal connection to it, which is that: “The alienation of late-stage capitalism makes men susceptible to fanatical cults of personality.” And I think if there’s anything the last decade and a half has done, it has vindicated this message, which is that Sad Middle Class White Guys will get down with any kind of behavior, no matter how dangerous, irresponsible, pointless, or maniacal, if it makes them feel like they (we) have value again.

I Don’t Know If That’s Exactly Brilliant

In itself, maybe not. But I do think there is something brilliant about the fact that it predicted its own asshole fans.

I don’t think there’s any question that somewhere between 50 and 80% of the reason people don’t like Fight Club is because of the dummies that came along and idolized it afterwards, and that they idolized it for all the wrong reasons. Instead of waging war against the bourgeoisie, and instead of focusing on their personal relationships and rejecting the dehumanizing system of 20th century capitalism, they went out and started literal fight clubs. Failing to recognize that the message of personal empowerment that Tyler Durden offers is at direct odds with the message of susceptibility to bad ideas that Fight Club offers, these idiots went out and took it all completely literally.

(Down to, hilariously, some bonehead on the internet who uses “Tyler Durden” as a pseudonym to spout brainless neoliberal capitalist ideology. This would be like if we…I don’t know, if someone saw Atlas Shrugged and then used the name “John Galt” to run their blog about statist Communism or something. It’s bonkers.)

What makes Fight Club brilliant satire (and it is satire, it is unquestionably satire) is that those idiots are in the movie. Remember those guys, chanting “His name is Robert Paulson”? The dummies who can’t see the forest for the trees? Those are the fans of Fight Club, walking away from a movie that was purposefully ambiguous with a painfully literal, cognitively-dissonant, interpretation of it. (Almost like some regular guys, desperate to have a sense of value and worth, forcibly making sense of the contradictory philosophies of an actual schizophrenic.)

Look, don’t listen to what anybody has to say about this movie. (Especially don’t listen to what Fincher, Norton, Pitt, and Palahnuik have to say, for chrissakes.) Fight Club is about the tension between the visionary class war, the ordinary life of human connection, and a mass of men – white, middle-class, straight men – so desperate that they will believe anything, do anything, submit to anything if they think it means they will matter again.

And, importantly – what makes this a satire and not that sort of revolutionary-porn that you see a lot of times, where the People Wake Up and Overthrow the System – the revolution here fails, and it fails because of basic human fallibility. The men of Project Mayhem want to believe they have value, they want their struggles vindicated – and they vindicate that struggle in the easiest, most straightforward and literal way possible.

The argument of Fight Club is that late-stage capitalism creates a sense of alienation in middle-class white men, and those guys will do anything to get their feeling of self-worth back, but they’ll do it in the stupidest, most asinine way you can think of, probably by worshipping Tyler Durden as a hero.

It’s definitely legitimate to say that you don’t care about White Dude Problems (I am a white dude, and I don’t care about White Dude Problems), but that is a pretty amazing piece of satire isn’t it?

How Is This Not Just a Fantasy About Being Awesome?

Okay, look. It’s always going to be a challenge to make a movie about a rebellious anti-hero that also criticizes that hero. You can make a movie about how War Is Hell, but even then, it’s hard to avoid, at some level, making it seem awesome. War may be awful, but it’s also the force that gives us meaning – it gives us the opportunity for courage, sacrifice, the force of will. Those are all characteristics that we admire in regular life, and so it’s going to be a challenge to make something that’s wholly critical of it.

I think one of the important parts about Fight Club, though, is how at the end of the day, it’s not the Narrator who turns into Tyler Durden. Tyler Durden is the fiction; the Narrator wins by realizing that he, the human being, is real, and that Durden is just a fantasy that he has about having value in the world. It is vital that the Narrator doesn’t turn into a violent, visionary fuck-machine at the end, but the other way around. The Narrator first rejects the fantasy of middle class capitalist life, then creates a new fantasy of violent, fearless, revolutionary independence, then also rejects that, and accepts that the life for himself is an ordinary life where he is in love with a woman and they’ll make it through as best they can.

It is very natural to want to be Tyler Durden, I guess, but the movie makes no bones about the fact that you can’t be that guy. That guy is awful, but more to the point, that guy is impossible. He isn’t real, he’s a fantasy created to fill the void created by dissatisfaction, so if you don’t walk away from that movie rejecting the idea of being Tyler Durden…

Well, look. If you didn’t walk away from Fight Club rejecting both the fantasy of capitalism and the fantasy of being an invincible ubermenschen, then you’re the kind of person who is susceptible to exactly the same kind of dangers that Fight Club is trying to warn you about.

  1. I tell you what, Fight Club is EXACTLY the kind of movie men need to be watching these days. The PC culture is out of control, men are being steadily un-manned left and right, we NEED a little anarchy and testosterone in our lives.

  2. braak says:

    Man, I wish I could like this comment one thousand times.

  3. John Jackson says:

    Interesting. I started to lose my enjoyment of Fight Club because of its more rabid fans. I knew it was a well made film, but the more I heard Palahnuik’s short fiction, the more I was sure that not only was no one understanding it, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t fully understanding his own use of pathos and gory details to make a point. That opinion coloured my viewing of Fight Club, especially in light of its more rabid fans. Knowing now that the film takes a more specific destruction of capitalist modernism, instead of what Palahnuik aimed for, does make me realise I’ve been doing the film a disservice in my memory for the past ten years.

  4. Carl says:

    I’m profoundly ambivalent towards the whole thing. I think the distinction between the movie and the source material that you’re predicating your endorsement on (advocating the pointed destruction of capitalism in particular instead of raging against any and all kinds of structured society) is maybe overstated. The narrator’s personal rejection of Durden doesn’t undo the necessity of Durden to the ‘great work’ the film advocates. Like the book, the movie locates freedom from social constraint– okay, fine, the social constraints of late-stage capitalism– in machismo and animalistic nihilism. There is a cautionary tale in the different and unique dangers that path brings in the narrator’s story, but there’s nothing in the film counter-balancing the theme that says: only the purity of a violent and schizophrenic mind could produce the army necessary to undo capitalistic tyranny and bring down civilization. Given the fact that Mayhem members hold the narrator to Durden’s directives even after he’s banished Durden, is there any reason to think Mayhem won’t outlast him or the end of the film? It doesn’t seem like it. Nor does it seem like the film thinks that’s particularly problematic in the grand scheme of things.

  5. Carl says:

    For what it’s worth:

    ‘At the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con International, Palahniuk announced that a sequel to Fight Club is in the works and will take the form of a serialized graphic novel. According to Palahniuk, “It will likely be a series of books that update the story ten years after the seeming end of Tyler Durden. Nowadays, Tyler is telling the story, lurking inside Jack, and ready to launch a come-back. Jack is oblivious. Marla is bored. Their marriage has run aground on the rocky coastline of middle-aged suburban boredom. It’s only when their little boy disappears, kidnapped by Tyler, that Jack is dragged back into the world of Mayhem.”’

  6. braak says:

    @Carl: I mean, I don’t know where the argument that the film doesn’t seem to think that Project Mayhem is problematic comes from. Yeah, I think it definitely suggests that Project Mayhem will outlast him, but it’s also pretty clear that those guys 1) are dangerously incompetent (see the death of Robert Paulson), 2) don’t know what they’re talking about (see the funeral of Robert Paulson), and 3) are dangerously close to being psychopaths (see the attempted castration). The entire point of the movie is that violent nihilism, the rejection of “civilization” unmoored from anything like compassion, yields a lasting neo-fascist cult of incompetent assholes.

    That is exactly the thing that happens in the movie. And I think importantly, there’s no reason to think that destroying the credit card companies is going to do anything — Tyler Durden says that it’s going to knock humanity back to the stone age, but so what? For one thing, Tyler Durden is a delusional schizophrenic. For another, he’s been wrong about the the actual effects that Project Mayhem has had — the only thing he’s ever really right about is (after the manner of every cult leader) exploiting the particular emotional weaknesses of his acolytes.

    So, while the movie makes the argument that Capitalism Must Be Destroyed, I think the movie is also pretty clear about not thinking Tyler Durden’s Personal Army of Maniacs is an especially good way to do it — it isolates the problem (the alienation of the privileged class) and then warns about one solution (charismatic nihilists who offer salvation through destruction) and then endorses a different solution (empathy towards another human being).

  7. braak says:

    Also, I don’t really care what Chuck Palahnuick thinks about Fight Club or the sequel; the movie is really orthagonal to the book, anyway — you can definitely make an argument that the book kind of IS the thing that the movie warns against. It’s similar to how the movie Starship Troopers is both an adaptation and a commentary on the book, and I don’t know if that’s a happy accident, or if David Fincher is just smarter than Chuck Palahnuick, and has managed to play a pretty good joke on him.

  8. Carl says:

    Maybe you’re right about Fincher. I don’t know.

    I would suggest, though, that Mayhem’s not really incompetent at all. They disappear Marla pretty seamlessly. They pull off a series of increasingly outlandish and spectacular anarchic crimes. And so far as the rules of the credit system are outlined by the movie, unrealistic though they are, they achieve the destruction of that system, a major pillar on which late-stage capitalism / civilization rests. You say, well, we don’t know that with certainty; Durden is a delusional schizophrenic, etc., but absent evidence to the contrary, which the film does not provide, the conceit of the plot is that destruction of the servers is destruction of the records, which is treated as an unmitigated good. I don’t see any reason not to accept that as so. Robert Paulson gets killed, and I’m sure he’s not the only one, but that’s the nature of fascistic cults; they consumes those who serve them. That doesn’t make fascism incompetent. The narrator rejects that cult and we are made to understand that it terrifyingly grows beyond his control, but its work is hallowed by the film, it feels like. The collapse of those buildings is a beautiful and triumphant moment. There is no visual sense of danger or regret communicated by their destruction. The two are framed lovingly by what Mayhem has wrought. The plot is carefully arranged so that no one is hurt, which importantly provides moral cover for that outcome. Through Durden, madman though he is, a powerful and important good is achieved that Jack could never have begun to contemplate without his mental illness, the film seems to say.

    All of which turns me off. Anyway, how does the narrator and Marla coming together at the end explicitly relate to the overthrow of capitalism? I mean, beyond the fact that he’s managed to displace Ikea from the center of his life and ostensibly replace it with her. That’s a personal rather than political or systemic epiphany.

  9. braak says:

    “That’s a personal rather than political or systemic epiphany”

    Well, I don’t think it really makes the argument that a systemic destruction of capitalism is desirable, or even possible. I think the argument it makes is that these broad systems — capitalism or fascism or nihilism — are not the important thing in human experience; that genuine human connection is the actual rebellion against capitalism, i.e., that it’s the personal that’s important, not the political.

    Anyway, of course the destruction of the credit card companies are framed lovingly; destruction is beautiful and the destruction of debt and system oppression is satisfying and moving. But Tyler Durden’s vision of the future — of people pounding corn on abandoned freeways — is given a romantic quality when he says it, but doesn’t sound very much like any society I’d want to live in. And, importantly, neither do its fans — you don’t see any of them retreating to cabins in the woods where they grow all their own vegetables or something.

    I’d furthermore suggest that the conceit of the plot is not that the destruction of the credit card companies will lead to the destruction of capitalism; the conceit of Tyler Durden is that this is what will happen. No one besides Tyler Durden — certainly no one in a position of authority — ever agrees about that. And while it’s true that the movie doesn’t explicitly say that he’s wrong, it doesn’t give us very much evidence to believe that he’s right, either; we’re left at the end not knowing the outcome of the destruction of the credit card companies, but we’ve followed a movie that has, up to this point, almost universally portrayed human beings (specifically: middle-aged white men) as easily-influenced, desperate, often violent, and occasionally sociopathic. It seems to me that this pretty directly refutes any idea we might have that the destruction of a capitalist institution is going to lead to some kind of anti-capitalist utopia.

  10. Moff says:

    Just chiming in to say I don’t think it’s quite correct to reduce a protagonist’s epiphany to a personal epiphany. A protagonist in a story is a stand-in for a larger group of people in the form of an audience; there’s nothing incongruent about a protagonist’s personal experience representing a theoretical political shift among a bunch of people out here in the real world.

    (I agree with Chris that it’s the personal that’s important, but a sizable shift in personal beliefs has political implications.)

  11. braak says:

    yeah, I guess I should have gone on to say that a personal epiphany about human connection as the true rebellion against capitalism IS a political epiphany; the political is personal, the personal is political, &c.

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