Bloody Rationalism David Fincher's Fight Club has one significant advantage over every other cinematic thrill machine out there: it feels genuinely dangerous. Stylishly funky yet faultlessly streamlined, a strange concoction of incessant momentum, spasmodic hilarity, insinuating weirdness and, not incidentally, a brilliant, catalytic performance by Brad Pitt, this fevered fantasy touches on the most primal of antisocial urges so directly that it risks being taken as a textbook for malevolent misfits. That, in part, is what's fun about the movie?it's bound to upset all sorts of people.
Is it fascistic? A Molotov cocktail in cinematic form? A death-metal liturgy more potent than anything in the Marilyn Manson songbook? More to the point: Do the names Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris ring a bell? In the movie, Edward Norton is a straitlaced business guy lured by Pitt's charismatic weirdo into starting their own shadowy cult of bare-fisted boxing matches, a movement that quickly metastasizes into a militia-style underground army of the disaffected, bent on mayhem. While the tale's metaphoric arms reach out to embrace?with a tricky, deliberate sort of provocativeness?various eruptions of violence in American public life of late, the events of last spring at Columbine High School are the hot button most likely to make Fincher's film widely and furiously debated.
I wish, in some ways, that I could ignore that discussion and talk simply about the film, but in this case the two phenomena promise to remain so intertwined as to be virtually indistinguishable. I don't think, however, that Fight Club can be accused of any kind of crass sensation-mongering. Some films get to be "controversial" because their backers and studios do everything they can to fan the sparks of controversy. Twentieth Century Fox, at the other extreme, seems to be doing nothing right now but holding its collective breath, and it's not hard to imagine why: Not only will the movie become extremely controversial without the slightest help from anyone, but it will go on to be insanely popular. The year's biggest box-office hit? I wouldn't be surprised?which will only further disturb its detractors and stoke the rhetorical fires already ablaze.
I will put my cards on the table and say that I enjoyed Fincher's film tremendously; it's as gripping and electrifying as anything I've seen in a movie theater this year. Am I bothered by the pleasure I derive from its sinister charms? A bit, perhaps: I should admit that, too. It's not hard to imagine the movie occasioning a few outbreaks of unwanted pugilism in parking lots and alleyways around the nation. But I would venture that greater risks of public boorishness are posed by A) Fight Club detractors who mount their campaigns without bothering to see the film and B) op-ed pundits who, yet again, fulminate and pontificate without the slightest reference to what finally makes any movie malevolent or not: film esthetics.
Am I not bothered by the effect of violence in movies? Quite the contrary. I've lambasted 8mm and The General's Daughter for their heavy doses of lurid, sadistic violence against women; both movies reveal the glaring faults of an industry that claims to police itself but too often fails to do just that. To me the violence in these films is objectionable because it is eroticized, made perversely attractive, and that is possible?and effective?largely because the cinematic context is essentially realistic. Of course, most Hollywood films today employ the same basic codes of realism, and for the same ends: the viewer is meant to understand that the events depicted correspond closely to "the world out there."
Fight Club, though, is up to something very, very different. This can't be stressed enough. Any synopsis of its narrative inevitably will miss what it feels like to watch the film, which owes everything to a mode of presentation that leapfrogs past conventional realism into a realm that's increasingly fantastical, outlandish, unreal. The opening scenes cut closest to reality, and they're bizarre enough. The nameless Narrator (Norton), a young, single salaryman afflicted with an epic case of insomnia, goes to a doctor who, as a way of warning against self-pity, half-jokingly urges him to attend a support group for men with testicular cancer to see what real distress looks like. He does, and finds that the release that comes from crying with the other men allows him to sleep like he hasn't done in months. So he becomes addicted to support groups of all types. In them, however, he soon notices a hollow-eyed, chain-smoking young woman named Marla (Helena Bonham Carter, spectacular in this surprising role), who's a "tourist" like himself, and who breaks his therapeutic spell until he's able to persuade her to attend groups other than "his."
Not long after striking this bargain, on a plane returning from a business trip, he chances to meet Tyler Durden (Pitt), a retro-clad, enigma-spouting mystery man who claims to manufacture soap but seems to know a lot about explosives. Reaching home, the Narrator finds his apartment destroyed and, taking out Tyler's business card, calls and invites him to meet at a bar. After three pitchers of suds, and in virtually the same moment as offering him a place to stay, Tyler invites his new friend to hit him as hard as he can, anywhere. The Narrator's first punch comically slices Tyler's ear, but that's incidental to what really counts: in this moment a friendship is christened in blood, and Fight Club is born.
When the two go to Tyler's house, any viewer with functioning eyesight should begin to glean that the film is transpiring in its own Never-Never Land. Located in a "toxic waste part of town," as the Narrator puts it, the place is a dilapidated manse entirely suited to Norman Bates' mom or Miss Havisham. And indeed, what follows owes plenty to the likes of Hitchcock and Dickens: a trenchant psychological fable flavored with puckish, acerbic cultural commentary, it has a fairy tale's power to enchant and disturb.
Tyler and the Narrator live a life dredged from a 14-year-old's guilty imagination. Charged with a homoeroticism that only gains an edge of sexual jealousy when Marla appears and begins screwing Tyler, the guys' relationship finds its release in their nocturnal bouts of pounding each other bloody, a ritual that moves into a seedy bar's cellar and there begins to attract a crowd. Thus does Fight Club become communal. Tyler spells out its rules: no talking about Fight Club (that's numbers one and two), no shirts or shoes, and so on. Soon enough, the city is crawling with guys who, like our still gainfully employed Narrator, show up at work sporting black eyes and bloody welts.
Tyler and the Narrator, it should be noted, are in no way equals. Our trusty chronicler merely follows. Tyler, a sleek-muscled trickster given full iconic force by Pitt's beauty and charisma, is the stud, the leader, the point man. It is he who provides Fight Club its rationale, a de facto ideology that runs something like this: Guys today are hollow and enfeebled. Raised by women and trapped in boring, passionless jobs, they are doubly emasculated. They have no Great War, no Great Depression even ("our only depression is our lives"); consumerism and materialism are the sops that keep them in place without providing real meaning or challenge. Blood sport a la Fight Club is the beginning of recovery, because it involves returning to the primal, physical urges beneath civilization's debilitating veneer. But complete rebellion means truly "hitting bottom." Says Tyler: "Self-improvement is masturbation. But self-destruction..."
It's easy to surmise that any civic outfit based on such a credo might be cause for concern. And so it is. At Tyler's instigation, Fight Club becomes Project Mayhem. The members move into his derelict castle, shave their heads, adopt black paramilitary uniforms and begin a program of social disruption. In part, this involves mass-erasing tapes at Blockbuster, destroying examples of bland public art and wrecking chain coffeeshops. That such actions may be funny doesn't blunt their impact; in fact, the film's satiric wit will only up the ante for those alarmed by its gist.
Ostensibly, Fight Club shares with American Beauty a mood of disaffection with the placid regularity of current American life; indeed, the films have similar scenes in which their protagonists tell off their bosses and exit their jobs with a sinecure provided by blackmail. Yet American Beauty has not and will not inspire the expressions of public dismay and condemnation that are almost sure to greet Fincher's film, and I think that's largely because it's not nearly as psychologically acute or imaginatively forceful. American Beauty, after all, vaguely implies that its protagonist's problems stem from his family situation or his society, which lets the hero himself (and by extension, the identifying viewer) off the hook. Fight Club does nothing of the sort: at first and last, it aims its primary accusations at the face in the mirror.
Will its critics have the smarts to do the same? I doubt it. Most broadsides bemoaning the movie will almost surely carry the sense, "Reader, you and I as responsible, discerning adults will not be drawn into face-smashing and fascistic hooliganism by this film: it's those others, the young and unsophisticated, we have to worry about." First of all, for reasons I'll get to below, I don't think the mass audience at large is any less sophisticated than most editorial writers when it comes to interpreting a movie like Fight Club. Yet the real, unadmitted reason the film will bestir those pundits in the first place is that it taps into emotions that, at least among males, are well-nigh universal: In this case, one should not presume to accuse without first acknowledging the little atavist within.
In many discussions of the film, "movie violence" will be a predictable canard. The first five minutes of Saving Private Ryan, though, are far more violent, bloody and brutal than the totality of Fight Club, which points us to a more pertinent issue: movie fantasy. This is where esthetics come into play, and where the most important factors are likely to remain undiscussed. Granted, the violence in Fight Club is psychologically powerful, alluring, almost magical. The crucial question, though, is whether it's violence that incites or does the opposite?vents, purges, releases.
I think most audiences, while experiencing the film's carnage and mayhem as exciting, will also understand it as purgative, i.e., basically benign, because of two things about the cinematic setting that contains it. First, the context is deliberately, exaggeratedly fanciful and unreal; it's quite obviously a "theater of the mind," not anyone's actual world. Second, the violent urges the film evokes it also disperses by allowing the tale's dream-logic to go full circle: as much as the Narrator is inexorably drawn into Tyler's violent world, he is eventually repelled by it and, in effect, not only "wakes up from" it but also (unlike the hero of American Beauty) recognizes his own complicity in conjuring it up in the first place.
The film actually disturbs, I think, both because it testifies so powerfully to the movies' connection to dreams, and because it leaves many upstanding adults no ideological cover. The story (scripted by Jim Uhls from Chuck Palahniuk's novel) latches onto discontents and hungers that are very real, volatile and political. Yet the left has never been good at dealing with primal urges and fantasies because its standard mode of understanding tends toward bloodless rationalism. And can you imagine the discomfort of some neoconservatives in trying to assert that untroubled consumerism is finally what life is all about? From where I'm sitting in the national theater, Fight Club may not be a flawless argument itself, but its provocations are as valuable as its spell is enrapturing.