David Fincher’s Adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club’ Leaves You Bruised

Although Fight Club is cynical, misogynist, homophobic, and violent, with respect to American fantasy it has the bruising virtue of clarity.

Does capitalism have you by the balls? If you’re feeling a little limp lately, a little flaccid, emasculated, or impotent, then David Fincher’s Fight Club may just have your number. This film kicks butt, and in doing so it also manages to suggest that your need for it and for other butt-kicking films is a late capitalist symptom of contemporary psychosis.

In the universe of Fight Club, there are two options. Either you become an Ikea-Boy seeking your erotic gratification in the Horchow collection, or you seek out an alternative male community. In this respect, the film reminded me of Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause in its creation of intense relationships and of a hero critical of the social order depending upon its delimitation of homoeroticism via the narrative-prohibition of homosexuality.

The narrator, a corporate secretion stunningly played by Edward Norton, first compulsively attends meetings of AIDS patients and victims of testicular cancer. At one point he cries in the huge feminine bosom of Bob, a former body-builder and abuser of steroids (consummately rendered by Meat Loaf), who has recently lost his testicles. But in part because of the disruptive presence of a phallic woman (Helena Bonham Carter), the cathartic embraces quickly become beatings. There can be no Fight Club if male-male desire leads to gay sex. At the same time, the film suggests that only by blowing his brains out, or at least half of them, can a man have a satisfying heterosexual relationship. And given nuclear-family, two-career monogamy, maybe that’s not too far from the truth.

Fight Club begins with a hyperreal journey through what first appears to be cosmic outer space, becoming neuronal tissue, becoming testicular vas deferines. In positing the deep unity of these three elements, which are, in principle, at least, differentiable, Fight Club organizes the transformation of the narrator from a white-collar wage slave into the leader of an anti-capitalist terrorist organization. His transformation, which involves rediscovering primal masculinity, is wrought through his identification with alter-ego Tyler Durgan, expertly played as the long lost rebel by Brad Pitt. In Fight Club, Pitt is literally the phallus, the film’s image of male power. It becomes exceedingly clear that the narrator desires this stylized phallic image to combat the emasculation dealt out in daily life. Through a truly brilliant organization of image clusters and narrative, the film thematizes the problem of masculinity by seeing Pitt as the utopian dick he is.

Tyler has several activities, and to each, he brings a unique dickishness: As a waiter, he urinates in the soup of fancy hotels; as a cinema projectionist, he cuts a couple of porn frames of his penis into children’s films; as a vandal, he furiously drills one-inch holes into rows of new computers. What unites all of his phallic activities (including his formation of a terrorist army to blow up credit card companies), and what gives him his extraordinary charisma is a profound hatred of the castrating reality of bourgeois life.

Although Fight Club is cynical, misogynist, homophobic, and violent, with respect to American fantasy it has the bruising virtue of clarity. It activates a structure of feeling while making it legible. Tyler’s splicing of subliminal cock-shots into family entertainment (hilariously answered by reaction shots of various perturbed, aroused and balling viewers, some of them children, who see them but don’t know they saw them) is the key to understanding his significance. He is the subversive masculine, internal to yet undermining the image of commodity culture. The film cuts to the core of straight white masculinity, powerfully activating in the space of the theater its homophobic and indeed racist dimensions and its simultaneous utopian aspirations for liberation.

The vector of desire sustained between the narrator and Tyler and thus between spectator and Tyler has its conditions of possibility in the exclusion of homosexuality and of an incipient racism (as made manifest by a scene where an Asian grocer is nearly the victim of “human sacrifice”), even as it is driven by its hatred of postmodernity’s economic automation and its callous indifference to individual potentiality. A communist revolution organized to overthrow capitalist domination, tomorrow’s revolution, not yesterday’s, appears as a legitimate if vexed erotic and political option.

Tyler’s army is not composed of mere spectators of phallic power but of participants. You viewers aching to cease channeling your desire through designer dishes and minivans to reach down to the real man lying dormant in your scrotum are sick, and your sickness, according to Fight Club, is nothing less than the castrating anomie of corporate power and its consumerist disciplinary regime. The film appeals to you to consider and, indeed, to grasp the revolutionary potential of your manhood. Why?

Ahhh, the mysteries of the male psyche. I’m not just talking about Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, the stars of David Fincher’s Fight Club, but Chuck Palahniuk, the novel’s author of the same name. A brutal and graphic movie to complement the brutal and graphic novel, it still makes me wonder what might be floating in Mr. Palahniuk’s and Mr. Fincher’s tap water.

Fight Club is a jolting endeavor, to say the least, and it packs quite a few punches, literally, as well as a few surprises. The most surprising aspect is that this is a wonderful adaptation of the book – rare is the director who can manage that task. Fincher does, though, and keeps us riveted until the end with tricky visuals, plot twists, and narration. The latter itself is preserved from the book so well that not much is lost in the translation to the big screen. However, the attractive cast doesn’t detract from the film either.

Worker-bee, furniture freak, corporate climber, (Edward Norton), known only as “Jack,” who possesses body parts and bile, meets nihilistic, group therapy addict, alluring degenerate, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), then just happens to run into anarchist, virile, soap-maker Tyler (Brad Pitt) on an airplane. Seductive is the atmosphere that surrounds these major players, and violent is the circumstances that brings them together. It is with a look, a drag of a smoke, and a flowery statement such as “You know, Jack…you’re the worst thing that ever happened to me,” that Carter’s portrayal of the lonely waif with “issues” comes out on top, helping to ease the overkill of manly machismo. Without her, the movie would lose much of its focus towards inevitable destruction.

In two interesting roles are “space-monkey” Jared Leto, who in a particularly brutal scene with Norton is mangled beyond recognition, while onlookers can only stare after Norton who merely states, “I just wanted to destroy something beautiful.” Secondly, there is veteran musician and actor Meatloaf, who is outstanding as a group therapy member with a certain “condition,” who is just trying to fit in with society. Much of Meatloaf’s career has been about just doing his own thing, and it pays off for him here as well.

Impossible to predict and a probable choice to be directed towards the “cult classic” section in ten years, Fight Club has not done as well at the box office it seems as studio execs would have liked. Even in Canton, Ohio, Fight Club barely lasted two weeks before being ousted by several other films. Fight has also stirred up a bit of controversy in Brazil, as well, but then again, most violent movies stir up a controversy somewhere on the planet, don’t they?

Edgy humor, blurry and surreal sequencing, killer narration to string it all together, Nazi-esque soap techniques, and a master plan to ruin all master plans before it, Fight Club risks quite a lot, but in the end, comes out a winner with its keen peak at middle-class discontentment, the extremist views of stress, and the draining point of nothing ever being what it first appears to be. Cliche? Maybe. Intriguing, nonetheless? Definitely.