When I was a high schooler, my favorite movie was Fight Club. Living in the fog of 9/11 and the Iraq War, the film already had a certain, late 1990s nostalgia to it. It was pre-Osama Bin Laden, pre-dotcom bust and pre-“American Idol” — as a pimply-faced, technical college-bound teen, it gave me a very, very simplified (if not wholly inaccurate) look at what middle-class bachelor life was like before the War on Terror.
Of course, at the time, I didn’t like the film because it gave me a window into a world that had been so recently walled off to me. Instead, I liked it for the same reason teenagers like shattered glass and fast cars and hockey brawls — it was pure, undiluted, overcompensating testosterone, intensified by some sort of abstruse anti-consumerist message. As a hormonal mess filled with confusion and anger over how the “adult world” worked, of course Fight Club would have tremendous appeal to me.
Recently, I watched the movie for the first time in about a decade. Expecting the same sort of instant nostalgia that I get from other adolescent favorites such as The Evil Dead and Re-Animator, I was instead left shaking my head. There was so much about the movie that was completely oblivious to 15-year-old me; watching it as a nearly 30-year-old man, I couldn’t help but scoff at the film’s paper-thin philosophies and soft anarchy fantasies.
Fight Club is a pre-recession film if there ever was one. While the 2006 housing crash and worldwide economic downturn in ‘08 pushed millions of Americans into financial uncertainty, the merry protagonists of Fight Club do nothing but moan and groan over how painfully stable their lives are. Ed Norton’s main character lives in a lavish apartment, filled to the brim with pricy IKEA furniture and designer suits. Sure, he hates his job, but it certainly allots him access to all of his consumerist desires. Compared to the alternative — being a blue collar worker on the constant brink of insolvency, or worse yet, being someone without any job — I’d say that Mr. Unnamed Narrator had himself a pretty peachy deal.
The anti-materialism message in Fight Club comes of as almost self-parodying now. One has to wonder why the protagonists of the film — the world-weary pop-nihilists they were — didn’t try investing some of their disposable income into more worthwhile causes instead of bellyaching about that same money not granting them some sort of greater existential purpose. That said, who wants to watch a movie about guerilla philanthropists who fund childhood cancer research and urban renewal projects over a movie about guerilla terrorists who blow up credit card buildings and pummel each other mercilessly in bar basements?
Director David Fincher said the original plan was to have Radiohead score the entire movie, a’la Simon and Garfunkel’s The Graduate soundtrack. That makes a lot of sense, as the entire movie feels like a visualization of “Pablo Honey” or “The Bends.” Fight Club really taps into that sad sack, suburban, white-privilege rage better than any mainstream Hollywood movie I can think of. Here are people with all of the financial opportunities in the world, and they’re still completely miserable. There’s an obvious reason why Fight Club, despite its glorious violence, never connected with working class America. If they had the kind of salaries Ed Norton was making, they wouldn’t be fist fighting on the weekends — instead, they’d be using the money to buy better health insurance plans and pay off their car loans as soon as possible.
Roger Ebert notoriously criticized the film for its cheerily “fascist” disposition. Oddly enough, that same review savaged the movie for its celebration of hyper-heterosexual masculinity. Seeing as how the author of the film’s source material was a closeted homosexual and numerous gay organizations praised the flick’s unstated romance between Ed Norton and Brad Pitt, the only real political message Fight Club seems to be sending is a rather opaque one about LGBT rights. Of course, U.S. moviegoers never picked up on that, even when Tyler Durden dropped such ham-fisted dialogue as “we’re a generation of men raised by women … I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.”
So what is this film, considered by some to be the zenith of Gen X cinema, actually saying? That popular culture has turned us into wussy men, and the only way to reclaim our XY chromosomal glory is to punch the hell out of each other and have emotionless affairs with chain-smoking nymphos? That advertising has warped our brains and made us a bunch of label-dependent wage slaves? That we invest too much time and energy into consumerism and ought to spend more time drinking locally-brewed beers in alleyways and golfing off the top of our palatial apartment buildings?
As with Office Space — yet another 1999 film about upper middle class ennui — Fight Club is a movie with a strange resentment for personal responsibility. Both films entail dejected, despondent white collar employees who feel they deserve better by divine right striking back against their corporate overlords through criminal schemes, with both films ending with the workers obtaining some sort of newfound liberty once their employers’ ivory towers are burnt to the ground. One could erroneously consider this a sort of Marxist victory, but the office drones in both films most certainly are not the classical communist proletariat. Instead, our entitled heroes gain independence only after they blow up their credit card company’s headquarters, eliminating the debt they themselves chose to rack up.
Fight Club, then, is really a fantasy about the victory of an incredibly childish and immature mentality. Unable to cope with the unbearable restraints of total and complete freedom, our protagonists decide to maim themselves and break their own toys before deciding that mass violence against their perceived oppressors is the only way to break free of the invisible shackles they more or less created for themselves. Once again, its easy to see why the film never resonated with middle America — how do you expect carpet mill workers and landscapers to root for a bunch of dudes who are exacting revenge on the world for being too easy on ‘em?
Alas, despite these thematic flaws, Fight Club remains an immensely entertaining movie. It’s certainly a much more enjoyable film than something like American Beauty, whose more realistic take on suburban mediocrity feels far more dated than Fincher’s flick. Aesthetically, it’s still a tour de force, and how can anybody completely despise a movie that ends with both the Pixies and subliminal genital shots?
It’s just that over the last 15 years, the film’s then-revolutionary anti-modernity message feels almost comically misdirected, while its edgy philosophical overtones about manhood and capitalism feel much, much duller in a post-9/11, post-economic meltdown society.
Well, that, or my goodness, I have a gotten a lot squarer over the years.
I am Mike’s ironic product placement.