Fight Club
Jim Uhls, Chuck Palahniuk, and David Fincher, 1999
#3, 1999 Skandies

When I wrote about this one seven and a half years ago I talked about how I would have worked it into my honors thesis on generational polemic seven and a half years before that. I said that the way it differs from Douglas Coupland's Generation X in its treatment of the economic opportunities of the born-in-the-1960s cohort was "what I was most struck by" about the film the second time around. This was my third viewing. This time I was most struck by the fact that it's about masochism as a superpower. The narrator's key asset is the ability to punch himself in the face.

I have seen other movies with fight clubs in them. When I was ten, for instance, I saw The Karate Kid, which had a fight club in it called Cobra Kai. Cobra Kai's motto was "Strike first, strike hard, no mercy." Tyler Durden agrees with the "strike hard" part, but "strike first"? Quite the opposite. He initiates his string of fight clubs with the line, "I want you to hit me as hard as you can." I've encountered that sort of line before, of course. Sometimes it's bravado: "Go ahead. Take your best shot. Then it'll be my turn." Sometimes it's self-sacrifice: "If you need to hit someone, hit me! I deserve it!" Neither is the case here. Tyler is being selfish. He wants to be the first to receive the life-affirming gift of pain.

"Pain does not exist in this dojo!" barks the head of Cobra Kai, but pain certainly exists in Fight Club. "Stay with the pain, don't shut this out!" Tyler commands, having inflicted a chemical burn upon his nebbishy sidekick. "Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing. This is your pain! This is your burning hand! It's right here! It's the greatest moment of your life, man!"

"Defeat does not exist in this dojo!" barks the head of Cobra Kai, but defeat certainly exists in Fight Club. We see the narrator participate in many fights; he loses most of them. What the participants in the various fight clubs show off are not tokens of their victories but the injuries they've suffered. "This week, each one of you has a homework assignment," Tyler says at the midway point, kicking off Project Mayhem. "You're gonna go out, you're gonna start a fight with a total stranger. You're gonna start a fight, and you're gonna lose."

And of course Tyler's homework assignment comes immediately on the heels of his great triumph over Lou, which consists of cackling wildly as Lou beats his face to pulp, then tackling Lou and bleeding all over him. It reminded me that, after I wrote up The Dark Knight, someone mentioned the fact that one of the most frustrating things for the good guys (such as they are) is that they can't vent their righteous fury on the villain because "beating the shit out of the Joker only makes him laugh." Now throw in the pranks, the army of goons, and the outré fashion sense. Tyler Durden is the Joker! The '60s gave us the Joker as goofy "Clown Prince of Crime"; in The Dark Knight Returns he was a queer serial killer; in the '89 Batman movie, a smarmy middle-aged dandy; in The Dark Knight, a sociopathic loner anarchist; and here we get the Joker as charismatic idol of millions of civilization's discontents.

However, I happen to be rather a big fan of civilization — my complaints against capitalism stem from the extent to which it keeps us from advancing far enough away from savagery. And I think the whole "embrace pain" schtick is a glib, unhelpful approach to the problem of suffering. Nor is it anything new, really. How different is Tyler Durden with his chemical burn from Gordon Liddy holding his hand in a candle flame? How different is Tyler letting Lou beat his face in from Mel Gibson and his hagiographic gore-fests? Hell, the very first article on this web site that ever attracted attention was about the 1997 "blood-winging" scandal that erupted when videotapes surfaced of Marines hazing new paratroopers by violently and repeatedly slamming the spikes of their medals directly into their chests, making a bloody mess. Is this really the company the filmmakers want us to keep?

I mean, I suppose the answer might be no, given that Tyler ends up with a gaping hole through his skull, but I'm not sure this makes up for the two hours of Tyler-luv that precede his demise. So, yeah, while I was still very impressed by Fight Club's style — e.g., it's still got the most exciting title sequence I've ever seen — I think I have to give this one a slight dip.

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