Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fight Club (1999)

Released last week on a fancy 10th Anniversary Blu-ray, David Fincher's Fight Club has wormed its way so deeply into our popular conscience it's easy to forget that the film was a box office failure. Tailor-made for a fervent cult following, it's a greasy, sleazy vulgar entertainment full of now-classic one-liners and pop philosophy.

I was in high school when the movie came out in 1999, and I recall with great affection the boys in my circle of friends that took inspiration in the movie's ethos. There was talk of starting our own Fight Club; there's a contagion in the hilarious pranks staged by the black-clad soldiers of Project Mayhem. To this day, impressionable kids are still being given the wrong idea. Brad Pitt's powers of persuasion, as Fight Club founder and terrorist mastermind Tyler Durden, clearly extend beyond the world of the film and into ours.

1999 also saw the release of The Matrix, a film that drew intense criticism for allegedly inspiring socially awkward kids to, alternately, don trench coats, play video games and shoot up their schools. The film came out less than a month before the Columbine High School shooting, and was repeatedly referenced that summer in the ensuing conversation about violence in youth culture. I think reports such as this one from the Federal Trade Commission serve little purpose other than to demonstrate that the government doesn't know much about teenagers, and I assert that any kid who goes to see The Matrix and then murders his schoolmates had some issues before he saw the movie.

Fight Club, which wouldn't come out until October of that year, managed to avoid being a part of the debate at the time. Perhaps the talking heads had moved on to another topic. It's also worth considering that Fight Club - a Brad Pitt action movie that couldn't even make its budget back at the box office - was released with an 'R' rating in the wake of a NATO (the theater owners, not the treaty organization) agreement to more strictly enforce the MPAA ratings. The movie slipped under the radar. Yet in the ten years since, it has somehow become arguably the most widely seen movie to be considered "cult".

While I never agreed with anybody drawing a correlation between violent actions in teens and viewings of The Matrix, I'm inclined to say that I can see how Fight Club has, for ten years, had a gradual but severe impact on the behavior of dumb little shits. The Matrix is a fairly straightforward fantasy/adventure epic; it boasts a strong philosophical complexity, but Fight Club is the galvanizing story.

"Our great war is a spiritual war," says Durden to his minions in one of many inspirational monologues. "Our great depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won't. We're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off." The film, through Durden, makes some pretty weighty statements about the strangulation of masculinity in what's become of corporate America. It's also a pretty astonishing pre-9/11 endorsement of terrorism.

What Fight Club ends up doing (and I would vote this was absolutely intentional) is glamorizing the decay and squalor of the Paper Street Soap Company and exposing the collapse of the establishment as something within the realm of plausibility. The assholes who watch this movie and go off trying to blow up a Starbucks might be cool in Tyler Durden's book; what they neglect to factor into their playbooks is the fact that Tyler Durden is a half-person, the deranged alter-ego of a schizophrenic insomniac and ultimately the bad guy (not to mention patient zero for every goddamn plot twist of the past ten years). Also, Durden ended up with what seems like two-thirds of the male population of the United States in his ranks, another thing lacking for the casual emulator trying to "destroy something beautiful". This final third of the film is where it crosses a boundary from fable into farce.

The legacy of Fight Club ends up being that it has created the hipster as we know him today. Despite being a decent story with a lot of laughs and fun, the movie's potency lies in its polemical quandaries. A generation of boys have been growing up with this movie being the closest they'll bother with to reading Das Kapital and now, before having a chance to become men suffocated by America, they are living beneath the fray. They are the front lines of gentrification, moving to the bad parts of town because it's cool and cheap, and then moving on to the next bad part once the first one became safe and more expensive because a lot of white kids were living there. We have yet to see an organized Project Mayhem stem from unhealthy reverence of Tyler Durden (except possibly 9/11, but talk to the conspiracy theorists), but his influence is clear in the post-ironic lifestyle choices lived by a generation of ne'er-do-wells downloading their music and movies because the establishment owes them shit for free. They'd sell old rich ladies their own fat asses right back to them if only they had a shred of follow-through.


  1. Have you read Das Kapital, Todd? Just, you know, out of curiosity.

    As for the pernicious influence of Fight Club/Tyler Durden, I think you might have overstated things. Personally, I lay the blame for hipsters at the feet of Woody Allen.

    However, Fight Club and Chuck Palahnuik do appear on the favorite list of basically EVERY man on OkCupid... so you may actually be on to something.

  2. You got me: I have not read DAS KAPITAL in full. I will, at least, try always to admit to gaps in my education, unlike that animal known as the "Hipster", which has always been and will always be.

  3. You're right Todd-- hipsters ruin everything:

  4. (and I haven't read Das Kapital either-- but The Communist Manifesto was pretty good)

  5. Non sequitor, but what's the image you're using in the blog's title from?

  6. Figure it out! It'll probably change sporadically.

  7. The only things I can come up with are:

    A) Marie Antoinette


    B) The Patriot

    and I kind of hope you don't like either of those movies, but ESPECIALLY not Marie Antoinette. It definitely isn't 1776.