Director: David Fincher (Germany, USA). Year of Release: 1999
Our (unnamed) narrator is getting sick of consumerist capitalism. He hates his boss and can’t sleep. He’s taken to visiting all sorts of self-help groups – for people with testicular cancer, leukaemia, whatever – as these are the only places where he can cry and loosen his anxieties enough to sleep. By chance, he meets Tyler Durden on a plane. Durden is a much more relaxed person who sells soap made from extractions from liposuction from [he says] fat women.
When the narrator’s luxury flat burns down, he moves into Durden’s large house. This might be a squat – the leccy is dodgy and the ground floor often flooded – but there’s plenty of room. The narrator gets into a beef with Marla – a woman who is visiting the same group sessions that he is, even the one for victims of testicular cancer. There’s only room for one imposter in these groups. One suicide attempt later, Marla is visiting the house and having very loud sex with Durden.
Durden and the narrator initiate Fight Club – basically a men-only night of bare knuckle boxing. Even people who have never seen the film know the first rule of Fight Club. Gradually the night of men just innocently hitting each other turns into something much more sinister. It seems that Durden is building a people’s militia aimed at laying bombs in credit card companies. Despite being a co-founder of Fight Club, the narrator is increasingly excluded from the decision making process.
Fight Club is one of those films like the Sixth Sense which depends on a single high concept which surely everyone knows by now. Still, I’ll do my best to avoid major plot spoilers. Let’s just say that when Durden tells the narrator never to talk to Marla about him, this is Significant. There are some nice little touches for people who know the Plot Twist. There are also a few scenes where the narrator and Marla misunderstand each other in exactly the same way that real people never do.
Fight Club has a patina of radicalism. Even Mark Kermode calls it an “anarchic anti-materialist tract”. This will just not do. Yes, there is a scene in which Tyler Durden tells a boss “we are the people who drive your cars and wait your tables.” But the whole film is shown through the eyes of a man who takes their executive flights and makes their excuses to hide fault designs in cars so that unsafe transport remain on the road. He lives in a luxury flat for which he buys furniture in block.
Yes some of the people who join Fight Club are workers – for some reason mainly waiters, but they all accept orders from their self-appointed middle class leader. We can argue whether Fight Club is a fascist film, but it is certainly about fascism and toxic masculinity. It even features one of the very first appearances of the word “snowflake” as a derogatory word. This is only anarchist to people who see anarchism as just smashing things up and without any political ideology.
The ideology depicted in Fight Club is quite different. Durden complains about a generation that has been raised by its mothers and never experienced a Great War or Depression. Mindless violence is necessary to turn men into real men. Now, I know that you can argue that this is just satire. This was the decade, of course, where David Baddiel could wear blackface on television and no-one batted an eyelid. But just saying you’re being satirical doesn’t make it ok.
The main problem is that even if Fight Club is satirising the ideas of the far right (and I’m not convinced that it is), it accepts most of their premises. So it really believes that men are from Mars, and its only the illusion of refinement which stops us (that is, the males among us – women really don’t count) fulfilling our hearts’ desires and pounding our opponents to a pulp. That way lies to the January 6th shenanigans and the people who will apologise for this as being entirely natural.
Fight Club contains of a whole lot of scenes of men hitting each other, which we’re supposed to enjoy on some level. It also contains very few scenes of women. There is a legitimate discussion about whether Fight Club passes the Bechdel test – there is one scene where a woman speaks at a self-help group and is thanked by the female chair. Arguably, this counts as two women talking about something other than a man. But this is about as near as we get.
There is no question that women are largely absent from the film, and those who are present – largely Marla – behave less like real women than as the fevered imagination of a man who’s spent too much time on his own. Marla is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl before the term was coined. It helps that she’s played by Helena Bonham-Carter in one of her first films since loosening her Merchant Ivory corsets, which no doubt excited the Incels watching (and writing) the film.
I find this one of the hardest films to make a judgement on whether it is any good, because it really depends on your criteria. On the one hand, it is offensive and potentially dangerous, especially in a world where Trumpian Incels have become more self-confident. At the same time it looks great and stars Edward Norton at his peak. Roger Ebert once called Alien 3, also by Fincher, “one of the best-looking bad movies I have ever seen”. I think Fight Club is a contender for that title.
Two props though. First for the cinema in the background advertising Seven Years in Tibet – Brad Pitt’s “no less Fincher” film. Second for Pixies playing Where is My Mind over the end credits. I know that we all know about this, but you can’t leave a film in a bad mood after hearing this.