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.