Sunday, December 30, 2007

Part 2: I Am Still Talking About Fight Club

Reader Larry King had some interesting points to make about Fight Club:

As someone who saw Fight Club three or four times the year it was out, and who still considers it a great movie.... I would have to disagree that "consumerism" is the critique.

A huge number of movies today owe a debt to some watered-down form of Rousseau or Marx. The rich are evil, the poor are virtuous, money (and perhaps also power) are the great sources of corruption.

Fight Club, on the other hand, draws on a very different philosophical strain....If I tried to summarize it, I would say: It is civilization -- specifically, the comforts of civilization, including comfy chairs, anaesthetics, and coddling mothers and wives -- who have sapped the savage essence out of Men. This essence cannot be recovered by a change in social or economic structure (as Rousseau and Marx thought). Nor can it be recovered by a willingness to inflict pain (as the Nazi S.S. thought). Rather, it can be recovered by a willingness to receive pain (as the 1920s Freikorps, the early S.A., and the anarchist Bakhunin thought).

Now, I admit that the attempt to destroy the credit agencies in this film doesn't fit that template. However, I think to analyze the film's message you have to ask, who is right -- Tyler Durden or the protagonist? For the first two-thirds of the movie, TD and the protagonist are on the same side, and their message is the romantic savage ideal I outlined above. In the last third of the movie, TD and the protagonist are at odds, and TD goes on his anti-capitalist rampage. I would argue that the movie's message is that the protagonist is right, and therefore TD's crusade at the end is a corruption of the philosophy it endorses.

Here's my response:

You make some good points. However, I'm not sure if the critique of (or satire on) consumerism is inconsistent with the notion in the film that we need to feel pain to regain our humanity.

The idea of truly feeling life is there throughout Fight Club, even before Tyler Durden appears on the scene. (It's the trouble the protagonist is having that conjures up Tyler.) The fight club itself, of course, is about really feeling things (which is why it's supposed to be so attractive), but also there's the support groups, the burning lye, threatening to shoot someone who doesn't live his life properly, picking a fight and losing, the near car crash, etc.

But the whole film is also shot through with consumer products and how they're not good for you, as well as a clear suggestion that the world of business and of power are evil. Thus you get the scene where we see a whole apartment furnished by Ikea; the politicians being attacked by the proles who do the real work; proles messing with rich people's food; and lots of scenes that show the stifling world of business.

And what does Tyler Durden himself do? He sells soap--an item that prevents us from smelling as nature intended. But it's not just any soap, it's special, expensive soap which he makes from body fat. He's a salesman, but the very thing he sells is a sick parody of capitalism, and a comment on how we're selling ourselves.

I'd say the "official" view of the film is that Tyler goes too far with Operation Mayhem, but what films officially say and what they actually say are often two different things. It's like the old gangster films that allowed you to enjoy the gangster's rise, while "officially" condemning him at the end to teach us a lesson. What makes Fight Club Fight Club is the sexiness of what Pitt has to offer, not Edward Norton coming to his senses (though I do admit we're on his side in the final battle).

Speaking of the ending, it's one of the best parts in the movies. While I don't exactly buy that Edward Norton could survive the gunshot, the effects and the music (by The Pixies) work pretty well--even the "subliminal" pornographic image stuck in adds to the fun. I hear the ending of the novel is different. For one thing, the protagonist is stuck on top of a building that's supposed to blow up.

Larry also made some points on what it means to be masculine, but I guess that's a discussion for another time.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fight Club (the movie) sucked and it has led to bad violence in society like teenage fight clubs.

-- a concerned citizen

9:29 AM, December 30, 2007  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Anonymous: A movie can suck because it's shoddy, poorly written, and poorly made.

Or it can be bad because its message is unambiguously an evil one (e.g., Triumph of the Will).

Or it can be problematic because, while it raises truly important questions, it proposes solutions that are unacceptable. Such a movie can be powerful, and even useful if viewed with careful discernment, and yet harmful to those who accept its solutions on face value.

I think that Fight Club falls into this third category. So do many of the routine Hollywood movies which rail against America, capitalism, military force, and tradition. They almost always focus on actual problems that deserve to be addressed, but then propose a wrong solution. That's my opinion; others may believe their solutions to be correct.

Anyway, I would rather have Fight Club and The Decline of Western Civilization cause teenagers to beat each other up voluntarily, to having Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will lure teenagers into assaulting unwilling victims.

5:10 PM, December 30, 2007  
Blogger LAGuy said...

The aesthetic quality of a movie, which is how I judge whether it's a good or bad movie, has (unfortunately, some would say) nothing (or at least very little) to do with its effect on people's actions.

6:41 AM, December 31, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even if Fight Club has this neo-primitive strain to it, condemning civilization as a numbing and domesticating process, I'm not sure 1) this is correct or 2) that bad a thing considering there will soon be 10 billion people trying to live together on the planet.

In any case, I'm all for anything that takes us beyond the more reptilian fight or flight response. Meanwhile, the savage isn't lost--you can read about it in the headlines of every daily newspaper.

If social change can't return us to our pre-civilized state and sadism can't either, why should masochism? I know some submissives who like to be dominated so that they don't have to make decisions for themselves (which I do find odd but which they feel frees them from the "burden" of choice & self), but I can't personally imagine liking pain or finding some kind of liberation in it. It's like that Faulkner line that appears in Breathless: between grief & nothing, I'll take grief. Sure, if you are crying or having your arm twisted, you are feeling something as opposed to nothing, but you are feeling something bad & uncomfortable rather than pleasurable.

My Dinner with Andre was filled with debates about feeling. Andre goes out & freezes so that he can feel something. His dinner companion defends the use of his warm electric blanket. As far as I was concerned, Andre was a weirdo who deserved to get double pneumonia.

Crash is like Fight Club only with sex and car crashes instead of fist fights. Sex isn't enough. You have to have sex along with fetishes and near death experiences and then, maybe, maybe you'll feel something as if this kind of feeling born of danger has any real value anyway.

I understand the belief of some that we're neurotic, fearful, and compulsive until we tap into some of that uncivilized dark side. Take Apocalypse Now, Willard starts out upside down & on the other side of the screen from the Buddha figure and ends right side up and superimposed over the Buddha figure--in between he's killed a man & gone beyond all civilized rules.

Well, maybe that's what movies are for, to remind us house cats that we used to be tigers. But I don't really want to see us go back to being tigers. There are enough feral cats out there as it is.

9:17 PM, January 23, 2008  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Interesting that when you refer to Crash, you're talking about Cronenberg. Most people don't even know that movie, while Haggis's Crash won the Best Picture Oscar.

12:30 PM, January 27, 2008  

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