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On Teaching Fight Club to Students Inclined to Love It

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(This be yet another one of them posts.)

Fight Club, like its latter-day counterpart Inception, is the sum total of its wasted talent. Unlike Christopher Nolan, for whom Inceptionrepresented his personal white whale chased, captured, and carved, Fincher can’t be held to accountable for the many weaknesses of Fight Club. That can be blamed on his source material: the singular novel Chuck Palahniuk’s been writing for the better part of the past two decades—Fight Club is merely an early incarnation. Read in isolation, it’s possible to believe than any one of Palahniuk’s books contains the potential to be more than it is—that its strengths, few though they are, may augur the arrival of a more sophisticated writer. Unfortunately, Palahniuk’s development as an author could never eclipse the logic behind shampoo: He lathers. He rinses. He repeats. So if I seem particularly annoyed with any isolated moment inFight Club, know that I’m not merely annoyed with that particular moment, but with its many kin. All of which is merely a long preface to a fairly simple argument:

David Fincher’s film far outstrips its source material. He accomplishes this not by altering fundamental elements of the plot, but by filming those elements in a way that undercuts, for example, explosive statements or implications of masculinity. For example, when charged to locate and lose a fight with a stranger, Fincher presents the scene comically:

Fight club2012-01-11-14h45m27s46
He uses a long shot to emphasize how unnecessary this altercation is. That priest can turn his other cheek and exist the mise-en-scène without being goaded by the mechanic and his hose a second time. The priest isn’t, to paraphrase the narrator, doing just about anything he can to avoid a fight. He’s walking away. It’s not until the mechanic steals and waters his Bible that the priest becomes disturbed enough to muster a shove. The ensuing “fight” consists of the priest slapping the mechanic twice before running away. Moreover, the goofy non-diegetic sound playing throughout this sequence undercuts the bravery of all involved. The priest doesn’t embrace his masculinity when he confronts the mechanic, nor is the mechanic’s masculinity challenged by the priest’s feeble attempt to confront him. Compare the Keystone Kops routine above with Palahniuk’s description of the same in the novel:

By this time next week, each guy on the Assault Committee has to pick a fight where he won’t come out a hero. And not in fight club. This is harder than it sounds. A man on the street will do anything not to fight.

The idea is to take some Joe on the street who’s never been in a fight and recruit him. Let him experience winning for the first time in his life. Get him to explode. Give him permission to beat the crap out of you.

You can take it. If you win, you screwed up.

“What we have to do, people,” Tyler told the committee, “is remind these guys what kind of power they still have.”

Fincher took what had, in the novel, been a call to male empowerment and castrated it. Combined with the punctuated humdruming of the non-diegetic track, the long and extreme long shots Fincher uses throughout that scene undermine Palahniuk’s insistence, voiced by Tyler, that the purpose behind this random violence “is to remind these guys what kind of power they still have.” Fincher disagrees. In addition to the altercation with the priest above, he presents two more:

Fight club2012-01-11-15h24m05s227
The first he shoots from quite a distance—one might even call it a safe distance. Moreover, the level of framing is so high above its subjects that the angle of framing is necessarily high too. The camera looks down upon the members of the Assault Committee, that is, it diminishes them by emphasizing their smallness. Nothing so small could exist independently, and the fact that this assignment’s called “homework” hammers home that point. Fully fledged adults may have to take work home, but they’re not assigned “homework.” Only children are. Speaking of which:

Fight club2012-01-11-15h24m07s245
Here’s the audience’s vantage point for the third “homework” assignment. Instead of being safely across the street, as we were with the priest, or ensconced two stories above the action, as we were in the lobby, Fincher shoots this fight sequence from behind what appear to be the bars of a crib. Whatever happens in that parking lot, the audience need not fear. If even those tiny men in the distance were to traverse the deep space between their current location and ours, Fincher provides us protection in the form of an infantalizing set of iron bars. The lesson Palahniuk’s Tyler would have all men learn? Fincher’s actively working against the possibility that his Tyler might communicate it to his audience.

That’s not to say it didn’t (and doesn’t continue to) happen, only that those who fail to pay attention end up reading Palahniuk’s book through Fincher’s film, which would be all well and good if the former weren’t so simplistic. Treating film as the sum total of the words spoken by characters in it denies the medium its unique ability, for example, to ironize any phrase by means of its delivery. Such irony is lost to the majority of the film’s fans because they find the subculture depicted in it (and the novel) as too seductive. These are the boys Robert Stacy McCain fears won’t grow into men:

In much the same way as the Bolsheviks claimed to speak for the workers and peasants, feminists nowadays claim to represent the interests of all women. On the basis of that usurped authority, feminists wield the awful fury of revolutionary terror against their enemies, so that even Jeff Goldstein seems afraid to openly oppose them.

Am I alone in seeing this? Is there no one else who recognizes the dictatorial ambitions of feminism, the steel fist inside the velvet glove? Do you not understand that you can no more placate these would-be tyrants with soft words of reasonable compromise than you can negotiate with a ravenous shark?

This is the world Palahniuk’s readers believe they inhabit. Hemmed in on all sides by distaff-wielding forces, the only alternative is to reembrace a violent and muscular culture of masculinity. Society has let these boys become men unworthy of the word, and Fight Club taught them how to do something about. The fact that it taught them that doing so entailed acquiring the radically bicameral image of a self that can only communicate with its parts through flagellation (temporary) or mass destruction (permanently) is lost on these literalists.

Fincher’s film appeals to uncritical viewers because they fail to understand it as a film. They read it. They take from it the notion that there was once a Golden Age of Masculinity and they assign themselves homework designed to bring it back. Critical viewers appreciate a film that undermines and undercuts everything their uncritical compatriots take from it. In short,Fight Club bears the same relation to its source material as I argued Kick-Ass did to its.

 

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  • UberMitch

    I suppose it’s worth noting that when I (regrettably) clicked through to Robert Stacy McCain’s site, the ad placed in the sidebar was for Russian mail-order brides, which meshes entirely too well with the substance of his post.

    • timb

      As long as they are white, he is almost okay with them

  • Number Three

    Patton. ‘enuf said.

    • SEK

      It’s hilarious that you answered a question I edited out of the final draft of this post (“Is it possible to make anti-war film that doesn’t glorify violence the same way war films do?” My answer was going to be the first half of Full Metal Jacket, but it’s an old, old debate.)

      • sleepyirv

        I would say the Kangaroo Court double feature Paths of Glory/Breaker Morant fit the build. I understand why something like say, Das Boot makes the band of brothers look attractive but there’s nothing in military law that makes people want to join the army.

        • timb

          Paths of Glory is one stunningly perfect movie to refute the glory of war

        • Njorl

          I was just thinking about “Breaker Morant” this morning. It was SEK’s posts that made me think of it,too. I had never paid attention to framing before – not conciously. I tried thinking back to examples of framing that affected me, and the first thing I thought of was the execution scene.

          Then, I walked past an office with the nameplate “Edward Woodward” (aka Edwuddwuddwudd).

          Now I have to see if it’s available on Netflix streaming.

      • Ben

        All good choices. The Thin Red Line manages to do it while devoting a large chunk of running time to depicting visceral blood-n-guts violence. (Does Platoon belong in this group? Never been able to figure that out.)

      • heckblazer

        I’d find it hard to do better than the Soviet film Come and See. It’s about the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Byelorussia, and it’s not thrilling at all.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Come_and_See

      • dave

        Of course, it is possible to believe in the glory of war, and be entirely aware that it blows young, healthy people into bloody chunks. Some might say that to do so renders you psychotic. Others might note that there must be an awful lot of psychotic people scattered through history on that score.

      • Quercus

        Not quite war, but The Unforgiven is pretty good at unglorifying violence.
        Three Kings is pretty good at anti-war without glorifying anything.

      • davenoon

        Since no one’s mentioned Wechsler’s great article on this issue, I’ll mention Wechsler’s great article on this issue.

  • Sam

    When I read the book I always thought that Tylers statements about masculinity were just setting up the big revelation at the end. Having it all said by a man who isnt just deluded, he’s someone elses delusion did a fairly good job of undercutting any kind of call to male empowerment anyone might take from it.

    Are there really that many people who saw the entire thing as a straight statement about the male condition? I can understand that some people might take it all literally but they have to be missing a fairly obvious point to do it.

    • Chet Murthy

      What he said.

      When I saw it, I thought “wow, he’s talking about the irrelevance of males in modern technological society; he’s making it clear that for most males — the ones who aren’t rich or powerful — there’s a strong sense in which their reproductive chances are *better* if they tear down the edifice of civilization”.

      _Fight Club_ had a profound impact on me, because it started me thinking about the adaptivity of males to modern, complex, technological society, long before all these studies came out about exactly that — how males are worse stock-pickers, worse at math (on average), etc, etc, etc. Sure, there are outliers. But that’s just it: in the hunter-gatherer world, an outlier cannot literally gather up the surplus that went to supporting thousands of males. Or, to take another example, I don’t think Genghis Khan makes sense without at least pastoralists.

      Poor beta (or gamma) males …. condemned to lives of irrelevance. The future belongs to women.

      And I thought the ending, where he “gets the girl” (in, sure, a snarky scene) was quite fitting, since in a way, that was what the entire delusion was about — a way of setting himself up to get the girl.

      Idunno. Maybe I read too much evo-psych into it.

      • NBarnes

        Maybe I read too much evo-psych into it.

        It’s a mistake that’s easy to make.

    • timb

      There were plenty of film reviewers who saw it that way. To this day, I chuckle when I hear Kenneth Turan (sp?) for NPR. His review of Fight Club is so hysterically aggrieved. it’s the anti-Stacy McCain

    • dangermouse

      I’ve always had kind of mixed feelings about both the book and the movie in this regard.

      I almost feel like the movie ultimately does less to undercut the message about resolving your anxieties about masculinity by tearing down the world in that in the book the narrator ultimately ends up kind of basically trapped by Tyler’s grand delusion but then in the movie it kind of just goes ahead and gives the narrator and Tyler both everything they’d apparently wanted.

  • Medrawt

    My appreciation for this movie, unlike many others I once loved, has yet to dim with time.

    I read the book after seeing the film, so maybe that colored my interpretation too much, but I didn’t feel like the film subverted the message of the book – I thought the book was equally intending to satirize that which at first you thought it was valorizing. I don’t think it did this as well because the book’s not nearly as good as the movie (although there was one joke I liked that wasn’t in the film, about buying a small dog and naming it Entourage), and I never read any other Pahlaniuk (though I went to a reading once where he selected a passage that involved one character explaining felching to another).

    I suppose I can understand the goons who missed the point of the movie, but I never understood the critics who attacked the movie for endorsing the same perspective the goons mistakenly love about it. For someone to think Fincher intended Tyler Durden to be a worthy savior would require the belief in the following: he shot a scene in which BRAD GODDAMN PITT looks at a Calvin Klein-esque underwear add and sneers at it, and he didnt intend the moment to be ironic. In other words, it requires Fincher to be a drooling idiot, which he obviously isn’t (and neither, judging from the commentary track, are Pitt and Norton).

  • Ben

    Treating film as the sum total of the words spoken by characters in it denies the medium its unique ability, for example, to ironize any phrase by means of its delivery.

    Isn’t this unique ability shared with any visual medium? You may mean that the way in which film can do so is unique, I guess, but it seems like any visual medium can ironize a phrase through the way it’s presented.

    • SEK

      Comics or paintings can juxtapose text and images, but only film can further distort the pictural/textual dynamic by introducing audible tone.

      • dave

        Wireless? Gramophone records? Shoot, live-action theater. There are bags of media, non-visual or visual, that can do irony.

        • SEK

          I wrote that a little oddly: to each medium its own, is what I basically meant. Film can produce an irony that painting and prose and song can’t, because it can combine elements of each to create an overall effect different than any of those can attain on its own.

  • brad

    The thing that gets me about Fight Club isn’t the question of whether the idea of masculinity presented is being approached ironically or not, it’s that the credit card companies whose buildings and records he’s having people give up their lives to destroy at the end are the very companies he’s established as being in debt to in the beginning for all the Ikea crap he shoved in the apartment he then blew up.
    I’m a white guy so I probably shouldn’t talk, but it all just reeks of unexamined privilege and entitlement to me. Certainly one can work against an injustice that affects you personally, but there are limits, particularly when the whole invented persona can be read as a defense against any kind of self-examination or -awareness.

    • brad

      D’oh.
      *effects.
      Sorry.

      • dave

        Right the first time, dude.

        • mark f

          And all the jokes about “injustice that effects you personally” are ghastly.

    • timb

      Those buildings are empty.

      • brad

        Nope, they establish that there’s night time security and cleaning crews in at least some of them, all of whom are part of the fight club and ready to die.

        • Captain Splendid

          I’m fairly certain they established that those buildings were controlled by fc members and were therefore totally cleared of everyone. The bombs were on timers, not triggers.

          • timb

            correct.

        • Tcaalaw

          In the movie it’s specifically stated by Tyler that the buildings are empty (“security, maintenance, all our people!”). However, in the book, where the plot only involves blowing up one building, it was pretty clear that the members of Project Mayhem in the building would almost inevitably die in the collapse, although I don’t think it was clear whether they themselves knew that.

    • dangermouse

      It’s never established that he’s in any kind of debt.

      Which is a shame because that would actually have made the story much more interesting.

  • Manju

    The first rule of Fight Club is…gender is a social construct.

    • Xenos

      …and that gender fundamentalism is not much different from any other kind of fundamentalism – promoting violence in the name of reasserting an imaginary past state of grace.

      The split personality describes the effect of refusing to acknowledge the moral contradictions of fundamentalism, like so many 911 hijackers hanging around in strip clubs.

      • timb

        This, plus one million. If you have a newsletter, Xenos, I’d like a subscription

  • Quercus

    I always took Fight Club as a warning: There are lots of young dudes out there just smart enough to see that consumerism isn’t meaningful, but too stupid to find real constructive meaning in their lives on their own; and so they might get a sense of worth in stupid and destructive ways.

    You could take the warning personally as aimed at yourself (don’t fall for the next Tyler Durden, whether internal or external), or as aimed at society (if we don’t give these guys something meaningful, we might get blown up).

  • Halloween Jack

    What I got out of Fight Club the book is that Palahniuk was doing his version of The Illuminatus! Trilogy, only instead of positing a world in which all conspiracy theories are true, he posits one in which all (or at least a substantial portion) of urban legends are true, and uses those in turn to critique things like evo-psych (at least the popular version of it) and the Iron John-spawned men’s movement as wish fulfillment (in the same way that urban legends are wish fulfillment, in their own way) dressed up with bad science and bad history. (Otherwise-smart reviewers, like Salon’s Laura Miller, tend to miss this rather badly.)

    To me, the key scene in the book is where Tyler Durden describes the post-infocalypse world in idyllic terms, as if pounding corn by hand were preferable to being a cubicle drone. (I think that I actually giggled a little when he talked about climbing the Sears Tower on wrist-thick vines, as if getting rid of The Man would give Chicago a tropical climate.) His “empowered” disciples end up doing the most tedious yardwork in order to keep the soap business going. I have to wonder if the book’s fans, who Miller rants about (apparently based on a real encounter with one at an airport) paid attention to that bit of the book.

  • Jaime

    On 1st viewing I saw FC (the movie) as a thematically incoherent and unsuccessful examination of the Male Condition, though insanely brilliant on every technical level. On later viewings, it’s clear to me that it’s entirely about macho failure, whether the novel and the author say otherwise. Norton’s character is psychotic, yo – the ultimate Unreliable Narrator.

  • Walt

    SEK, you’re pointing at the very reasons the movie is a masterpiece. The movie isn’t held back by its source material — it utterly transcends it.

    • SEK

      Isn’t that what I said? (Sorry, I’m tired, and can see how my first sentence might suggest otherwise.)

  • wengler

    I really liked Fight Club because it was way different than I thought it would be.

    I felt cheated by the ending though, because I considered it impractical.

  • Tone

    Hi! My name is Tone, and I am a filmstudent at University of Southampton. I am currently writing my dissertation on ‘Fight Club’ and I was wondering if I could get permission to use your post as part of my research? I am having a closer look at the reception of the film. Your name will not be used at all in the dissertation, I will be referring to my subjects by using character A,B,C etc. Your post will be useful for me in analyzing the reception of the film, and I would really appreciate it.

    Kind Regards,
    Tone

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