Friday, July 13, 2012


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Fight Club tells the story of an Everyman who wanders from the safety of his nine-to-five life into a no-mans-land of violence and social insurrection. The protagonist, played by Edward Norton, is a white-collar cipher who joins an underground boxing society and engages in barefisted fighting in a desperate attempt to recover his sense of manhood. How did he lose it? Attaining the American Dream--the right job, home, and all the other trappings of affluence--caused him to lose any sense of himself as a strong, powerful, individualistic man with a purpose who is in control of his own destiny. At times, Fight Club plays like a fictionalized version of Stiffed. It closely follows Susan Faludis thesis that the masculinity crisis results from men participating in a dominant ornamental culture that robs any real, substantial meaning from their identities. The fight club becomes the means to prove and demonstrate their masculinity to themselves and each other.

As directed by David Fincher, Fight Club is a satire on both the dehumanizing effects of the corporate/consumer culture that forms the backbone of the American Dream, and the absurd excesses of the mens movement. The narrator is a wage slave in a nameless American city whose voiceover discloses a sardonic, dissenting, but impotent interior life beneath his subdued exterior conformity. Hes nameless, but lets call him Jack (as the film credits list him) after his penchant for ironically identifying himself with various parts of the physical and psychological anatomy (I am Jacks medulla oblongata, I am Jacks inflamed sense of rejection.) (Uhls) Finding relief from chronic insomnia by attending multiple self-help group meetings under false pretenses, Jack leads a vampiric half-life, feeding vicariously on the catharsis and suffering of others. His emasculation is so intense that he identifies most with the members of a testicular cancer support group. He reluctantly shares his perverse addiction with Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a fellow misery tourist who equally attracts and repels him. In the course of his travels as a recall coordinator for a major auto manufacturer (a job that deeply implicates him in the casual cynicism and corruption of corporate America), he encounters and falls in with an elusive, outrageous anarchist named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). The two men seal a kind of unspoken pact with a spontaneous fistfight--something that becomes a regular activity. Before long, other alienated men begin to participate, and a club is founded for weekly one-on-one fight sessions. Durden also takes up with Marla, to Jacks disgust. As Durdens influence on Jack grows, he becomes an accomplice in his escalating program of subversive pranks and mischief, until the fight club morphs into a quasimilitary all-male cult with an antisocial, revolutionary agenda--a kind of surreal prole insurrection against the bourgeois values embodied by the American Dream. Interestingly, this movie is the culmination of a recurrent scenario in David Finchers previous three films repressed white masculinity thrown into crisis by the eruption of an uncontrollable force that destabilizes a carefully regulated but precarious psychosocial order. In Alien , a shaven-headed, celibate, all-male penal colony of killers that anticipates Fight Clubs cult of violent, obsolete masculinity, is disturbed first by a woman, then by a libidinously destructive organism that needs to breed. In Seven, locked in an endgame with a killer whos equal parts deranged artist and Old Testament avenger, Morgan Freemans troubled, paternal detective seems to act with the stoic understanding that an older civilization of traditional male codes, values, and reason that he defends has been submerged in a Bosch-like world of corruption and chaos. The sterile, controlled universe of Michael Douglass uptight millionaire tycoon in The Game unravels until he is stripped of everything he relies upon to define himself--though in the end, masculine power and privilege remain intact and reaffirmed by the ordeal. In Fight Club, sweeping through Jacks tidy, airless life, Tyler Durden is a galvanizing, subversive force dedicated to revolt against the inauthenticity and mediocrity of the American Dream and modern life, seeking a nihilistic exaltation of disenfranchised masculinity through abjection and destructive transgression.

Despite the extreme politics and extreme fighting, Fight Club is really about how to become a man. There is a Buddhist proverb which states that on the path to enlightenment you have to kill your parents, your god, and your teacher. Jacks quest to forge a meaningful, authentic masculine identity for himself follows a similar trajectory. Thus, the story begins when Jack is still a self-described 0-year-old boy. (Uhls) Like Stiffed, Fight Club is preoccupied with the outcomes of sons who grew up with fathers who so often seemed spectral, there and yet not there. (Faludi, 57) Jack, like the men in Stiffed, was abandoned by his father at a young age. Hes a member of a generation of men raised by women, left feeling feminized by the experience and wondering if another woman is the answer we really need. (Uhls) But Jacks fathers real betrayal is his failure to perform what Faludi describes as a fathers duty and obligation. She writes that Having a father was supposed to mean having an older man show you how the world worked and how to find your place in it...Yet the fathers...seemingly unfettered in their paternal power and authority, failed to pass the mantle, the knowledge, all that power and authority, on to their sons. (57) Jacks been told that if he gets an education, a good job, is responsible, presents himself in a certain way with his furniture, car, and clothes, then hell find happiness. Hes accomplished everything his father taught him to do, but he remains unfulfilled in spite of possessing the American Dream. So the movie introduces him at the point when Jacks figuratively killed off his father and realizes that hes wrong. But hes still caught up in the materialism and consumerism thats part and parcel of the American Dream. And then he finds a mentor in Tyler Durden, and they fly in the face of God by doing everything theyre not supposed to do--namely, inflicting pain on themselves and others. There is a particularly telling quote spoken by Durden about renouncing fathers and God for failing to point out a satisfying path to manhood Our fathers were our models for God. And, if our fathers bailed, what does that tell us about God?...You have to consider the possibility that God doesnt like you, He never wanted you. In all probability, He hates you. This is not the worst thing that can happen...We dont need him...We are Gods unwanted children, with no special place and no special attention, and so be it. (Uhls) However, when the violence spirals out of control, Jack rejects the masculine model offered by Durden, thus completing the process of maturing into a man (as described by the Buddhist proverb) by killing off his teacher.

Like Stiffed, mans enemy in Fight Club is an insidious ornamental culture saturated with commercial images of masculinity. Jack has bought into the cultures dictates about the kind of man he should be. His soul is numb and empty and, in a kind of sublimation of ancient hunter-gatherer instincts, he keeps trying to fill it by buying expensive products. When men acquire the American Dream through rampant consumerism, it can turn into a nightmare since they become hooked on maintaining the Dream at the expense of performing functional public roles that empower them as men. Were supposed to take it as an indication of the extent to which Jacks been feminized and emasculated by the affluence of the American Dream when he comments, I would flip through catalogs and wonder, What kind of dining set defines me as a person? We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow Collection. (Uhls) Faludi claims that the masculinity crisis is partly the result of men nowadays lacking a mission to manhood encompassed by the promises of a frontier to be claimed; a clear and evil enemy to vanquish; and an institution of brotherhood. (Faludi, 6) The phenomenon of Angry White Males going ballistic is a symptom, a reaction, a backlash against the shiny flat surface of a commercial culture, a looking glass before which men could only act out a crude semblance of masculinity. (Faludi, 7) Durden echoes her sentiment when he laments, We are the middle children of history, with no purpose or place. We have no great war, or great depression. The great war is a spiritual war. The great depression is our lives. We were raised by television to believe that wed be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars--but we wont. And were learning that fact. And were very, very pissed off.

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The fight club, an ultrasecret male society, becomes a substitute for the corporations and other traditional institutions of brotherhood that have disappointed men. Its a form of manual electro-shock therapy, a way of jolting themselves out of their numbness and reconnecting with reality. The point is not to win, but to experience maximum pain in a desperate attempt to find some shred of authenticity as a man. And as Faludi notes in Stiffed, ...what act could be more stereotypically masculine than a show of violence? (7) For these anomic men who are offered fewer and fewer meaningful occupations, beating each other up may seem like the one thing they can still excel at as men. In the film, the basement fight scenes are all shot dark and, more important, damp--with rusty water, gushing blood and other bodily fluids of less determinable origins. Its a style that signifies the contrast between the dry sterility of Jacks aboveground life and his underground one. Water, even when its polluted, is the source of life; blood, even when its recklessly spilled, is the symbol of life being fully lived. We are meant to understand that in the ecstatic, bonding blood rites, some deep atavistic warrior instinct (not quenched by living out the civilized American Dream) is finally satisfied.

Freud would have a field day with the subtext in Fight Club. The movie literally begins and then stays deep inside Jacks brain. Everything that happens in the film happens inside his consciousness--or unconscious or subconscious. The movie continually reminds us that were watching one mans illustrated interior monologue; the other characters are seen as projections of his own psyche--his desires, his fears, his frustrations. This point is driven home with the plot twist that occurs in the third act of the movie Durden, as embodied by Brad Pitt, can only be seen by Jack, who gradually becomes aware that his friend and mentor exists only as a figment of his own imagination. Tyler Durden is Jacks own id, his alter-ego, his doppelganger. Jack, although his mind is on fire with revolutionary ideas, still feels the pressure of the severe super-ego, which holds up certain norms of behaviour. (Freud, The Structure of the Unconscious) Hes so heavily indoctrinated with the corporate/consumer values of the American Dream that his guilty conscience would not let him directly act on his fantasies; consequently, he must create Durden to live them out. In sharp contrast to the drab ambiance and bland fluorescent lighting of Jacks prosaic daytime world of offices, hotels, and public spaces, Durden inhabits a disorderly realm of eccentric decay and lurid colors that suggests a shadowy subconscious underworld. Freud writes that the ego stands for reason and circumspection, while the id stands for untamed passions. (Freud, The Structure of the Unconscious) Thus, Durden is everything the repressed, mild-mannered Jack isnt, but wishes he could be--hes a projection of Jacks fantasies about masculine mastery. Durden (decked out in garish red leather and loud print shirts to signify danger, excitement, bloodlust, and a complete lack of anything resembling taste) is a volatile dude--cocky, confident, spontaneous, irrational, infantile, aggressive, antisocial, amoral, hedonistic, uncontrollable. But for all that, Jack sees Durden as his breakthrough, the voice that will finally tell him to stop defining himself with the materialism/consumerism of the American Dream You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank. You are not your fucking khakis!

So much for the Freudian interpretation of Fight Club. I think it can also be argued that the film is a postmodern work. It follows the postmodernist tenet about refusing the insistence on an absolute distinction between high and popular culture. (Storey, 17) The movie questions the facade of the American Dream, with its devotion to materialism and self-improvement, and takes an anti-capitalism, anti-consumerism stance. This seems like the type of statement a low-budget, independent art film would make. Ironically, the message is in a movie, produced by the mainstream Twentieth Century Fox, that stars the popular Brad Pitt and was directed with the same sleek, hyperkinetic style found in TV commercials. With its lofty, highbrow statement delivered in a mass culture format, Fight Club fits the postmodern rule of blurring the distinction between high and low culture. Moreover, Jack states in the film that his life has a postmodern feel in that it seems like a copy of a copy of a copy. (Uhls) This is very similar to Baudrillards concept of the simulacrum as an identical copy without an original. (Storey, 177) He tries to glean his identity as a man from Ikea brochures, entertainment magazines, and self-help gatherings--as a result, his life is not tied to any stable or permanent reality. Like the simulation, Jacks life is all surfaces, without depth.

Aesthetically, Fight Club seems to adhere to some characteristics of postmodernism. In Klages Postmodernism, one of the features mentioned is an emphasis on how seeing takes place, rather than on what is perceived. The film shares this reasoning; its use of evident digital imagery has less to do with expanding the boundaries of what can be visualized than with a derangement of, or disregard for, cinematic conventions concerning authenticity and the representation of space and time. For example, in an early, defining scene, Jack, ironically contemplating the hollowness and flatness of his consumerist lifestyle, moves through his condo as it transforms around him into a living Ikea catalog with prices floating in space. Fight Club also has the postmodernist tendency toward reflexivity, or self-consciousness, about the production of the work of art...calling attention to its own status as a production, as something constructed and consumed in particular ways. (Klages) The film continually tinkers with the properties of the medium to emphasize the sheer movie-ness of whats on the screen. For instance, Fight Club first introduces Durden as a series of scratchy, flickering images subliminally spliced into the background of the film. This technique signifies how Durden is Jacks imaginary id, but also reminds us and points out that we are watching a film.

Finally, postmodernism includes a movement away from the apparent objectivity provided by omniscient third-person narrators, fixed narrative point of views for an emphasis on fragmented forms, discontinuous narratives. (Klages) Fight Club follows this pattern by using Jacks first-person narration to twist, rewind, flash forward, and otherwise manipulate every frame of the story. Its the visual equivalent of stream-of-consciousness because the camera illustrates what Jacks thinking just as hes doling out information in his voiceover. The narrative is disjointed in a conversational way. Its as erratic in its presentation as the unreliable narrator is in his thinking.

Like Stiffed, Fight Club ends on a hopeful note. When Durden and Jacks exclusive basement ritual spreads and becomes a very successful corporate franchise, a messianic cult, and a fascist, terrorist paramilitary organization, Jack is appalled and attempts to tame his own creation-run-amok. He realizes that in his struggle to rehabilitate his individuality as a man he has merely gone from one extreme to another, conforming now to a Lord of the Flies morality. Jacks revelation that violence leads him nowhere parallels Faludis observation that while violence uses all the visible aspects of male utility--strength, decisiveness, courage, even skill--its purpose is only to dismantle and destroy. Violence stands in for action but is also an act of concealment, a threatening mask that hides a lack of purpose. (7) For Jack, in an image-conscious world, violence becomes just another celebrated affectation or pose. Fight Club is all about individuals losing sight of their most important dreams in the consumer culture of the American Dream. Jack can never articulate what his dream is, even though Durden tries to tear it our of him. Still, he seems poised to begin life as an adult man when he sees the error of his violent ways, sends away the Fight Club members and stays with Marla, his tortured soul-mate. This ending reflects Faludis view that men and women hold the keys to each others liberation. (55) For men facing an increasingly hollow, consumerized, world, the solution lies not in conquering women or perceiving them as the enemy, but in uniting with them against the hollowness.

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