Seriously, though, fuck the rules. I could probably spread out discussion of Fight Club over several days. I don't know that I need to, however.
I would like to begin the discussion with my usual go to--Roger Ebert. His review ranges from insightful--"eroticism between the sexes is replaced by all-guy locker-room fights"--to the... well, not quite getting it, I think--"the movie stops being smart and savage and witty, and turns to some of the most brutal, unremitting, nonstop violence ever filmed."
Regarding the first quotation there, I get it. It's like the homoeroticism that sat right under the surface of so many manly 80s movies grew up to become this. Damn the women--except Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), but we'll get to her later--you don't need to include every gender to explore every gender... or to explore gender at all. I know, I've said numerous times in this blog that every film offers commentary on (or at least insight into) the way gender plays or was playing at the time the film is (was) made and is (was) released. But, I think it's shortsighted to simply say that Fight Club is about masculinity. Before you disagree, I also think it's shortsighted to say Fight Club is not about masculinity. But, it's like those action movies of the 80s that I watched last January--masculinity is not just masculinity, it's a stand in for something bigger. There it was American hegemony, here it's a sort of ennui that any gender can experience in the face of modern capitalism, modern politics, the modern thermonuclear capabilities and all the other ways we can destroy ourselves. The ways we already destroy ourselves bit by bit each and every day. No not ennui. Anger. Resentment. Powerlessness. Sure, a man who is feeling emasculated could watch Fight Club and see it as being about that, but--and, maybe it's because I've never much cared about my masculinity as such--I just don't see it as being just that. There is room for so much more.
(For example, Fight Club has eight rules. (Eight for infinity? Marla also calls The Narrator (Edward Norton) after he has been absent from the groups for eight weeks.) Not one of those rules dictates that only males can participate. Plus, the very notion that--as Ebert puts it--"It is not without irony that the first meeting [The Narrator] attends is for post-surgical victims of testicular cancer, since the whole movie is about guys afraid of losing their cojones" implies that Bob (Meat Loaf) is not a man because he was one of those victims. But, that's commentary on our idea of masculinity far more than it is a reification of it. Perhaps we should be thinking of someone like Bob, who can actually demonstrate genuine feeling, as truly masculine.)
It's also about materialism... consumerism. Or the opposite, really. The emptiness we feel when all of the material goods that we're told we need just don't fill all the holes in our souls. It's about mind-numbing jobs, mind-numbing jobs, mind-numbing life. It's about figuring out how to feel life, even if only through pain. It's like cutting for everyone.
Regarding the second quotation from Roger Ebert above, he really needs to watch more films... which is something I can't write without laughing because that guy had seen more movies in his lifetime than most of us ever will. But, the implication that unremitting violence is somehow diametrically opposed to being "smart and savage and witty" bugs me a whole lot. Sure, violence in film is not for everyone. Sure, some films take violence much farther than they've earned the right to take it. A smart story and a violent story don't have to be separate. Plenty of films have offered a great deal of violence to prove very "witty" points. And, I don't think that Fight Club ever leaves the one track for the other.
Hell, after so many movies--and remember I grew up in the 1980s, grew up on late-Cold War action films like Rambo andCommando, films that turn violence into little more than balletic abstraction. I mean, John Rambo and John Matrix kill how many nameless soldiers? And, for what? So we can win the Cold War we're already winning in order to make up for losing in Vietnam? Or because men weren't manly enough next to our cowboy president? Or because America was born in violence and we can't help but return to it again and again and again. Fight Club is not some new idea. We've got a global Fight Club--hell, the Cold War was our Fight Club for a while, with the USA in one corner and the USSR in the other, like The Narrator and Tyler Durden (but, which one is imaginary?) egging on the lesser countries to join in the violence and fight our proxy wars because we want even more ways to ruin the world....
Like violence is something new to film that Fight Club invented.
Films have been violent as long as films have been films. I was going to end my month of Westerns with The Great Train Robbery, to mix up the chronology and prove a point--that Westerns, as the quintessential American film genre, are built on an atmosphere of violence.
(Honestly, I just forgot that I had that short film waiting for me on Netflix when I finished watching Rango to end 42 Westerns in 32 days.)
But, that short film is important not just in that the Western was basically one of the first film genres--Méliés' A Trip to the Moon (science fiction) had come out the year before, so, there's that--but that violence was integral. Hell, there's fantastical violence in A Trip to the Moon as well. We've always put violence in our films, just as we keep coming back to violence in our lives. But, so much of that violence became anonymous along the way, the good guy gunning down (or cutting with a sword) a nameless horde because it's an easy exercise is power. It's simplistic shorthand for a much more difficult idea.
The thing is, we need brutal violence in our films. We need violence to be horrific, to be disgusting. We need it as an inoculation against our usual celebration of abstracted violence. One detail I absolutely love about the sex scene with Marla is how it is blurred and obscured while all the violence is deliberate and "unremitting" and impossible to ignore. That is something we could really use in film--and hell, we've gotten a lot of it; it has even come to television in shows like Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Banshee, Game of Thrones (though that one softens some of the worst violence from the books). But, we still get action films that treat violence as something as simple as walking, as running, as dancing... and that last one not necessarily in a good way, though a beautiful display of violence like a the way some movies treat dancing can serve a slightly different purpose than the more brutal violence. We get films like The Expendables that rehash old cinematic standards of violence as something closer to a cartoon than anywhere near reality.
The violence in Fight Club hurts. It's supposed to hurt. Those bruises and cuts, those swollen eyes and broken faces should make us wince.
Ebert asks, "What is all this about?" He answers: "According to Durden, it is about freeing yourself from the shackles of modern life, which imprisons and emasculates men." But, it is not that modern life imprisons and emasculates men. It is that modern life imprisons and dehumanizes us all. Tyler never says that the modern world emasculates. The is the inference of the audience. Of Roger Ebert.
In fact, the film doesn't even celebrate masculinity, except ironically. The Narrator looks at a Calvin Klein ad on the subway, an impossibly chiseled male torso--the script calls it a "bare-chested MUSCLE STUD"--and asks Tyler: "Is that how a man looks like?"
Tyler responds, with a laugh: "Ah, self-improvement is masturbation. Now, self-destruction..." Cut to the very next scene and a shirtless Tyler is fighting and, will you look at that? Brad Pitt, i.e. Tyler Durden is just as chiseled, just as much a MUSCLE STUD. And, though Edward Norton is not as obviously well-built, when we see him beat Angel Face, it turns out our Narrator is pretty chiseled himself. Tyler tells us that all of this is just masturbation and self-destruction (depending on how your read the incomplete line; in the script, Tyler finishes with "Now, self-destruction is the answer"). And, then Project Mayhem proves it in the third act. This movie doesn't celebrate its violence. It allows us to be amused by it, entertained by it. But, ultimately, this film is about the consequences of violence. An audience member in the right state of mind might see those buildings fall in the end and wish we could really take down the credit card companies and erase debt and reset our financial system. (Hell, that's the premise of the recent first season of Mr. Robot, though with less physical destruction.) I know I could appreciate that idea when I saw Fight Club in the theater opening weekend. But, even with the implicit chaos of destroying our financial system, the film never promotes anarchy. Not really. Fight Club has eight rules. And, Project Mayhem adds more. The Space Monkeys are trying to reset the system, not destroy it. It is The Narrator who actively seeks to "destroy something beautiful" in Fight Club. Tyler wants to destroy (if we must use that word) something that is far from beautiful. Modern materialism and consumerism. The shit that gums up the works of us just trying to live meaningful lives.
The things you own end up owning you. - Tyler Durden
You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. - Tyler Durden
Reject the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions. - Tyler Durden
Or, there's this:
Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who have ever lived. I see all this potential. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas and waiting tables--slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We are the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War, or Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual war... Our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised by television to believe that one day we'll all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars--
Ironic, this next part, with Brad Pitt saying it.
--but we won't. And we're learning slowly that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.
Or maybe just let your ming linger on this, which is initially so damn negative but really is quite beautiful in its equity:
Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. - Tyler Durden
And, so much more to say...