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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:

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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:

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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:

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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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