The First Rule Is…
Posted by That Other Mike on 22/11/2007
Some of you may have noticed the Fight Club quotes I’ve been putting up at the top. It’s definitely one of my favourite films, although not for the reason that a lot of guys like it; it’s not to do with the fights and the mayhem, although those are pretty entertaining. It’s not to do with the erroneously-claimed endorsement of nihilism.
It’s a lot to do with the funnies. It’s not immediately obvious to some people, but Fight Club is a comedy, albeit one of a dark and bitter variety, shot through with a strangely-seductive political message.
The film is leavened with a dark and bitter sense of humour which seems very much at odds with the usual Hollywood comedy offerings, and it is partly this which makes it an attractive film to me. It serves to soften the harshness of Tyler Durden’s gospel of anarcho-primitivism; had Fight Club been served up straight and serious, it wouldn’t be half as good a film, and wouldn’t have been able to make the valid points that it does. It would have become not a believable polemic but a rather obvious propaganda film1, and thus lost any credibility.
David Fincher, the director, takes the humour as an opportunity to test the belief in a simpler, more organic, less consumerist and consumption-driven society which is at least half-advocated throughout the film.
The criticism of modern consumer society is levelled throughout, and made more believable by the way that Fincher and Jim Uhls (the writer) use dark and bitter humour to test the tenet that we would be better off being less consumerist; that we can watch the film and at the end still, after the sly digs and characterisation at its own message, find that message worthwhile is a testament not only to the skill used in its making but also to the essential truth of it. The film is its own proving ground, the ideas sent into their own fight club to come out battered but whole on the other side, victorious.
The dark humour which draws me in is not especially subtle, I must admit; once you start looking at the film with a definite eye for the satire, it becomes obvious. The scene where the Narrator is sitting on the toilet looking at an Ikea catalogue as if it were a Playboy centrefold is one example of this; the deliberate comparison of consumerism to masturbation is obvious, so the filming ramps that up a little and plays to that obviousness.
Similarly, the theme of societal emasculation or, perhaps more accurately, societal impotence2 is strongly displayed throughout; the narrator’s encounter with Bob, the former body builder with “bitch-tits”, is at a support group for men with testicular cancer who attempt to find solace in crying on each others’ shoulders. This is very much an explicit embodiment of the emasculation, both in the obvious way and in the subtext that instead of actually attempting to better their situation they are talking about it; they are simply searching for yet another consumer good in the form of acceptance and understanding, and they are paying for it with their tears. The narrator’s crying and subsequent ability to sleep again thereafter simply go to show how deeply he has become mired in consumerism.
This is again brought up to us in several other parts of the film, most notably the scene where Tyler says
Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, 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. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
thus directly equating consumerism and the consumption society with impotence.
It’s interesting that while the narrator (called “Joe” in the shooting script) explicitly repudiates Tyler’s methods as they become more extreme while he goes about his crusade to bring society down to a more “natural” state, he never actually stands against the goal itself.
That said, I don’t think the central message of Fight Club is that we ought to pursue anarcho-primitivism as a goal. Rather, it is that as a society, we have become so consumerist and so drawn to consumption that it has begun to do us harm. The things we own have come to own us, to paraphrase Tyler; we have become enslaved by our possessions and the desire to own more and better and newer things that we just don’t need.
When we look at the characters in Fight Club, we see some pretty strong symbolism; the narrator is the tortured man struggling to break free of his situation while loath to do so. The very embodiment of better the devil you know; he is afraid of freedom while at the same time lusting after it, and it is only at the very end that he finds the courage to break free.
Tyler is very much his opposite, being the embodiment of the end of consumerism, with his restaurant guerilla warfare and subversion of capitalism in “selling rich women their own fat asses back to them”, and drawn in very stark and unsubtle lines. This may be deliberate, given that Tyler himself is nothing more than a symbol writ large of the narrator’s desire to escape his own life and his fear of doing so; the fear overcomes the desire, which is projected outwards as Tyler.
Marla represents a more interesting take; she is less a part of society than the narrator, more so than Tyler. She occupies the middle groud, and is possibly, in a strange way, the most sane character in the entire film. Unlike Tyler and the narrator, she wants back in to society. Her going to groups is largely down to the fact that there is free coffee, representing her own desire for material possessions, which is further demonstrated by her selling other people’s clothes stolen from laundromats and then using the proceeds to buy horrible clothes from thrift stores. She is on the outside of consumerism, desperately trying to get back inside in whatever small and tawdry way she can.
As the film comes to an end, the humour becomes even less subtle, while the political message takes something of a backseat; I would call the final fight between the narrator and Tyler a short stretch of comic genius, as it ricochets between slapstick and clever wordplay.
On the other side of things, looking at Fight Club as a whole, it is definitely a flawed film.
The satire can be a little heavy, as in the case of Bob’s “bitch-tits” or the narrator wasting his life in support groups which are supposed to strengthen and affirm life; the political message can be obvious and sometimes oversimplistic.
In spite of that, my admiration for the film continues. It is skillfully written and shot, the dialogue is slick and well-done, and the message and satire shine throughout.
1 The irony here, of course, being that David Fincher, the director, was once managed by the film talent agency Propaganda Films.
2 One might argue that emasculation and impotence are synonymous; I would disagree. Emasculation implies the loss of an attribute, while impotence implies the loss of ability.