Essay, Research Paper
An analysis of the film Fight Club
For years, David Fincher has been turning out some of the most stylish and inventive thrillers to ever hit the American screens. In spite of critical and public backlash, his Alien 3 remains the most technically interesting of that series, and Seven stands as the suspense film upon which all other modern suspense films are based. With The Game, he proved himself more than a one-movie wonder and emerged as one of the most original filmmakers working in Hollywood. His new film, Fight Club, however, is his most challenging piece of work. It is a film that demands that its viewers look past what’s on the surface and find something deeper.
Fight Club is a multi-layered film with many subplots and multiple themes. Fincher delves into such topics as consumerism, the feminization of society, manipulation, cultism, fascism, and even the psychosemantics of the human id and ego. Primarily, it is a film that surrealistically describes the status of the American male at the end of the 20th century: disenchanted, unfulfilled, castrated and looking for a way out. It depicts how consumerist males have been emasculated by their modern life styles, by a feminized consumer culture that places more worth on nice furniture and nice wardrobe than masculine values like power and strength.
The central character in the film, who remains nameless and who is played by Edward Norton, is very much like Lester Burnham of American Beauty. He is trapped in the corporate world and finds himself increasingly dissatisfied with the fruits it is supposed to deliver.
Norton’s character leads an unfulfilled and aimless life. Rather than masturbating as an outlet, he buys furniture from IKEA. It is by no chance that our Narrator is not given a name: he is the Everyman of the 90s, “a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct” (Fight Club) with an apartment that owns him more than he owns it. He also suffers from insomnia for which the only cure seems to come in the form of going to self-help groups for terminal diseases like testicular cancer–testicles and their absence being one of the themes–or tuberculosis. The emotional confessions of the participants give him a vicarious sense of being alive and provide emotional release, which then allows him to sleep soundly. While he enjoys good health, he is closer to death than the people he communes with on a nightly basis. They face physical mortality at any moment. He faces spiritual mortality every moment of his waking life.
It is through the depiction of the Narrator’s support groups that the feminization of men in society is most effectively described–through the one for men suffering from testicular cancer in particular. These are full of men opening up, crying, exploring feelings… doing all those things women are supposed to do. One of the testicular-cancer patients, Bob (Meat Loaf) has, as a result of his hormone treatments for the disease, developed huge breasts. The representation of this man–a former champion body builder–weeping openly, clasping Jack to his ample bosom during a session, is the prefect image of the emasculated man.
Soon, the narrator’s world is invaded by another emotional tourist, Marla Singer, a suicidal waif living on the edge of society. The Narrator is both repelled and intrigued by this woman, who cheats and steals, scratching out an existence while the Narrator struggles with his daily grind. Unlike the Narrator, she attends support group meetings purely for the voyeuristic entertainment value. Since the Narrator cannot cry in the presence of another “faker”, his insomnia returns.
On an airplane ride to visit an accident site on behalf of his company, he meets Tyler Durden who is everything he is not. Brash, self-confident and dressed like a pimp, Durden describes himself as a soap salesman but he gives every indication of leading a darker existence. The Narrator finds himself drawn to Tyler.
When he arrives back at his apartment building, he discovers his apartment on fire. His precious Ikea furniture and all his belongings have been destroyed in a mysterious explosion. With no one to call, he turns to Tyler and the two bond immediately. Tyler identifies the cause for the Narrator’s desperation: he is a victim of a feminized consumer culture. Tyler’s therapy is simple, he helps the Narrator remedy the imbalance in his own life by making him feel like a real man by fighting, actually beating each other to bloody pulp. Together they establish a fight club for men, as an underground way to express rage and living on the edge, to feel alive by approaching death.
Much criticism has been made about the film, especially that it glorifies violence (Ebert, “Fight Club”, http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1999/10/101502.html). Perhaps in a way it does, but so do thousands of other films, such as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Saving Private Ryan, etc. What differentiates Fight Club is the fact that while it is a condemnation of society’s dehumanizing effects, it is also a warning. Violence, just like therapy groups and other various drugs is addictive and it quickly leads to disturbing acts of terrorism. Violence is not the answer to men’s problem, it is merely another problem. Fight Club realizes that it does not have a good answer, and it does not offer one.
This is a provocative film, and there is a danger of many people missing the point. Those unwilling to look deeper than the surface may see Tyler’s philosophy as dangerously fascist and nihilistic, a call for random violence and the destruction of civilization. There is little doubt that Tyler is advocating these things, but the film is not. The Narrator’s way of living like a sleepwalker is certainly no way to live a fulfilling life, but Tyler’s Project Mayhem group is no better. Its members can eventually do little more than recite “Tyler-isms” and follow orders, essentially becoming mindless drones of another sort, the only difference being that they are now drones following a different dogma from the corporate one. This is definitely not presented as ideal in the film.
There is one very interesting aspect which provides a cunning twist and adds another thematic layer to the film. It is first when Tyler sleeps with Marla that we get a hint that Tyler is pure id unbound, and this sets up what we eventually discover: that both Tyler and the Narrator are the same person, the ego and the id fractioned, disassociated from each other. The fact that they live in a decaying house but in different rooms is symbolic of that separation. The Narrator’s transformation is brought about through his identification with his id, the instinctive self that is dominated by the pleasure principle. Tyler is the image of male power, literally the phallus, while the Narrator, the ego, struggles to control the socially unacceptable impulses. Their yin yang dynamic is also symbolized by the Narrator’s IKEA table.
After only three films, Fincher has developed a distinct style. There is a consistent tone running through all his films which could perhaps be characterized as bleak. In Fight Club he creates a dark, murky world which is reminiscent of Seven’s shadowy yellowed tones. Fincher proves that he is a master visual expert by fascinating us with some stunning shots, starting with the opening credits sequence which takes place in the Narrator’s brain. In one spectacular scene, the Narrator’s apartment is laid out like a page in a furniture catalogue with text blurbs on the screen describing the various pieces.
Fight Club’s hallucinations are real, we see the imagined plane crash, the penguin at the center of the Narrator’s being. There is a sort of dream logic in the direction; Fincher strays from conventional storytelling by using non-linear chronology and frequent breaking of the fourth wall. At one point, our narrator explains how reel changes work, and how this enables Tyler to insert a single frame of porn into family movies. The film ends with a single frame shot of porn which suggest that it is actually being projected by Tyler himself.
Crucial to the film’s success is the Narrator’s voice-over, a device that often does not work in movies. In Fight Club it is essential, not only to comment ironically on the action, but also to raise the idea that our narrator may indeed be completely unreliable.
Also, before Tyler enters the film, he appears several times, flashing into scenes subliminally for one frame at pivotal points where the Narrator moves a step closer to his change of life. This element was already used by Fincher at the climax of Seven, where he flashed a quick frame of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head.
Fincher works in the nether regions of the color spectrum, preferring blacks, grays and other muted colors. The only truly lively color used is red, which is Tyler’s color and symbolizes fire, blood, rage, passion, etc.
Fight Club can perhaps most precisely described as provocative. It is an exceedingly violent, self-consciously subversive film that will provoke repulsion, controversy, and laughter. Fight Club should, however, provoke thought, which is clearly its primary intention. Intelligent viewers who see beyond the nihilistic surface will discover a movie of multiple layers and metaphors that is as rich in ideas as it is a visual feast.