How Fight Club fought a crisis of masculinity

Celebrate David Fincher's BAFTA retrospective with a look at how Fight Club spearheaded a crisis of late 90s machismo

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David Fincher’s Fight Club turns 15 in October. It’s one of the great subversive coups of mainstream Hollywood cinema; a thrilling primer in pre-millennial angst and part of a wave of films from the era that spoke to an ongoing crisis in masculinity (American Beauty, Trainspotting, Magnolia, American History X). These films all traded stock in the average joe exploring any and all means to subvert a creeping sense of malaise.

If you haven’t seen Fight Club for awhile, it’s worth another look. For starters, it’s a much smarter, funnier film than its enduring rep – as a kind of knuckleheaded Guy Debord for philosophy undergrads – would suggest. It’s also chock-full of brilliant lines, many of them lifted directly from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name (Ed Norton’s “I felt like putting a bullet between the eyes of every panda that wouldn’t screw to save its species” must sound very prescient to the Chinese right now). And it boasts some unexpectedly subtle touches despite the breathless mise-en-scène, like the bit where Norton weeps into Meat Loaf’s hormonally-induced bosom only to see he’s left a Rorschach imprint of tears on his t-shirt; or the meta-moment near the end of the film that revisits a scene from the start, but with Norton’s line changed from “I can’t think of anything” to “I still can’t think of anything.”

But whatever your take on Fight Club’s merits as a movie, it remains an explosive encapsulation of the zeitgeist on the eve of the new millennium, evoking everything from the anti-corporate manifestos of No Logo author Naomi Klein, Bill Hicks’s contempt for advertising culture and the white-collar malaise of Radiohead (whom Fincher originally wanted for the soundtrack).

It’s also a trenchantly funny indictment of modern male disquiet, a trope that filmmakers returned to with increasing frequency in the mid/late-90s (feminist author Susan Faludi famously dubbed it “Thelma & Louise for guys”). Consider as an example Tyler Durden’s anti-consumerist speech on how “You’re not your fucking khakis”, and how close it is to Renton’s “Choose life”  diatribe in Trainspotting (1996), another film-poster fave for 90s students. The men in both films feel contempt for the “IKEA nesting instinct” that consumer culture seeks to foster in them; Durden reasserts masculine agency through cathartic violence, Renton through heroin and nicking drug-money off his mates.

Fight Club is talking about very simple concepts,” Fincher told Film Comment in 1999. “We're designed to be hunters and we’re in a society of shopping. There’s nothing to kill anymore, there's nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that societal emasculation this everyman is created.”

That emasculation is perhaps best understood in terms of the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy, with increased insistence on consumerism, which was already well underway in the US by the 1990s. This new economic landscape was littered with people working dead end ‘McJobs’ (Clerks), white-collar drones (Office Space) and working class poor angry at immigrants for the sudden lack of traditional jobs (American History X).

“The men in (these) films feel contempt for the ‘IKEA nesting instinct’ that consumer culture seeks to foster in them; Durden reasserts masculine agency through cathartic violence, Renton through heroin and nicking drug-money off his mates”

As Durden puts it in the film, there was “an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables. Slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no great war, no great depression. Our great war’s a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives.”

Fight Club echoes other male-crisis narratives from the era, too. The film saves some of its funniest barbs for new age culture, which it seems to suggest has been instrumental in shaping today’s brand of docile, ‘feminised’ masculinity. Before starting Fight Club, Norton’s character becomes addicted to self-help groups inviting him to “imagine (his) pain as a ball of white light”, beginning with a session for people with testicular cancer where one guy has literally sprouted a pair of tits. (Self-help groups for confused men are also skewered in Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 film Magnolia, via Tom Cruise’s misogynistic “Respect the cock! Tame the cunt!” guru.) But here’s an irony: Durden’s philosophical rantings are, by Palahniuk’s own admission, a rather literal take on the writing of men’s movement advocate Robert Bly). Bly, a key figure in the American Men’s Movement, used Jungian psychology to diagnose what he saw as a psychic imbalance in the modern man, suggesting that guys enact tribal, war-like rituals with each other to restore a sense of fraternal bonding that was missing from contemporary society. Jungian psychology? Neo-tribal rituals? That’s right: Durden’s ravings are just as much a product of new-age philosophy as the ideas he rejects.

"If we try to suppress that (violence) completely, it is going to erupt in some horrible uncontrolled way,” Palahniuk told The Guardian in 2002, closely echoing Bly’s sentiments. “In a culture where we have condemned all forms of violence as invalid and not needed, violence still comes up. It comes up in hyper-violent ways, like in school shootings."

The sense of a latent violence lurking under billboard ideals of masculinity was also tackled in Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho, released in 2000. And Norton’s voiceover, which does a fine job of ironising the film’s more troubling aspects, sounds awfully like Kevin Spacey’s similarly droll narration in the same year’s American Beauty, another dark comedy about an average joe who feels trapped by the mundanity of his existence.

In other ways, though, Fight Club remains a bloody mess of contradictions. Fincher shrugged off early criticism of his film by insisting that its violence was a “metaphor” for feeling, which is pretty much in line with Bly’s philosophies, but it’s a problematic one at that. Firstly, because it presupposes that all men have an innate desire for violence. And also because the film can’t help but glamourise it, even though Norton finally rejects the ideals of his alter ego in Pitt.

But mostly, it’s just a thrill to see a mainstream film with the courage of its own crackpot convictions. And if in hindsight some of Fight Club’s sermonising feels a bit self-serving (what are the implications of a consumer society for me?), the final scene, where Norton and Helena Bonham-Carter watch the city’s financial instiutions fall in a terrorist attack, anticipates the new millennium with eerie prescience. Post 9/11, post-credit crunch, America would begin to reap the whirlwind: Fight Club feels poised on a knife-edge between two worlds.

BAFTA A Life in Pictures: David Fincher takes place today

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