Fight Club can never quite stay still. It starts out as a film about the boredom of being a modern middle-class male, with touches of black humour. Then it’s about the pleasures of male company. The joys of two men hitting each other really hard. It’s the story of how one becomes a terrorist, that becomes a psychological thriller. (And all the while, hidden underneath is a love story, or maybe two.)
The second thing about Fight Club is, it’s very, very far from subtle. And there are a few good reasons for this:
One, for the sheer joy of the thing. I often talk about how much I love Ideas in film. To anyone who’s been following this list closely, you’ll probably notice that this ranks about concerns like Narrative for me. I’m talking about those big pop Moments where you’re presented with something you’ve never met before – the way a song intersects with a scene, or the way a camera moves, or observing something about life you’d never considered before, or the casting of Meatloaf in a supporting role. Director David Fincher had come to films from adverts and music videos, and Fight Club feels almost like a patchwork of three-minute experiments in style, stitched loosely together.
Which – two – is more or less exactly how the novel it’s based on was written, with Chuck Palahniuk collecting together all the stories he’d heard or lived and finding a framework. In this sense, it’s a perfect adaptation, changing and cutting where necessary but keeping the spirit. It’s the same in the dialogue, which is not quite real, and full of loose slogans and Did You Know?s, but is enchanting for it.
Three: Tyler Durden. Cinema is brilliant at crafting characters like Tyler Durden. It’s a medium where charisma rules and, looking back over the list – Ferris Bueller, John McClane, Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski, Samuel L. Jackson, Ash Williams – it’s clearly something I’m susceptible to. Brad Pitt makes Durden the absolute bottled essence of cool. He’s fidgety, angry, attractive – even when he’s delegated to the back of the frame, swinging nunchuks or flicking away a cigarette, he’s the centre of the attention. He’s the hot centre the film crowds around, and like an impressionable youth, Fight Club copies its hero.
And also, four, his philosophy. Fight Club is about nihilism and anti-consumerism and anarchism, always the coolest standpoints, in that sixth form-y kind of way – screw buying stuff, eff the man! Those slogans the characters talk in really are slogans. The film itself is a manifesto, a doctrine, propaganda, and like any piece of propaganda, you can’t give the audience a moment to think about what they’re being fed.
But it’s (five) not necessarily the film’s philosophy. Really, Fight Club is a satire on all that, and satire is by necessity always an exaggeration. It pushes all the arguments of the above to their logical extreme, to show us how ludicrous they become. The slogans echo and, coming from the mouths of Durden’s mindless followers, become uglier, climaxing in the horror of a houseful of idiots chanting “His name is Robert Paulsen” like it’s scripture.
All those big issues it deals with – whichever side of the fence you’re on – never really touched me, though. I liked the swagger of Durden, and some of the lines struck a place in my young lyrics-quoting heart, but the core of Fight Club for me is the friendship. (It’s actually not that different from Fincher’s Social Network in that regard, but that’s a discussion for another time.) The love between two men that, like the Romans believed, could be the greatest and purest love of all, and whether it’s compatible with a heterosexual relationship with a woman. For all its messiness, the story can be thinned down to: boy meets girl, refuses to admit he likes her, boy meets boy, tries to navigate relationship with both, chooses girl.
And that choice is celebrated with literal fireworks, as some triumphant Pixies plays us out. It can’t resist a last big wink, though, a big fat screenful of penis for one moment. This is still Fight Club, after all.
It’s that lack of subtlety that has often made me fearful to revisit Fight Club. It was the single piece of culture that had most impact on me as a teenager, and probably has the most responsibility for the person I am now – pushing me towards certain films and especially (via the original novel) books, and subsequently towards writing, and it made me think about cool, and the roles I’ve played in friendships, and I probably still cop some of Tyler’s swagger occasionally, especially when I’m drunk. To borrow the bit of Phonogram I always borrow, it was the fuel I burnt to become me.
And, as he’s mellowed out over the last decade into one of the greatest filmmakers we’ve got, I’d suggest maybe the same is true for David Fincher too. Perhaps Fight Club is meant to be grown out of. Those youthful relationships, forged in the early hours. Thinking you could change the world. Being able to laugh off losing a tooth. Being angry with the world in a way you don’t think anyone has thought about before…
It’s embarrassing to look back at those moments, isn’t it? But that never makes them more worth regretting than celebrating. Why shouldn’t it be the same for the films you loved?