Fight Club Came Out 20 Years Ago Today: Watch Five Video Essays on the Film’s Philosophy and Lasting Influence

“Kipling is in the pecu­liar posi­tion of hav­ing been a byword for fifty years,” writes George Orwell in a 1942 essay on the author of The Jun­gle Book and “Man­dalay.” “Dur­ing five lit­er­ary gen­er­a­tions every enlight­ened per­son has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlight­ened per­sons are for­got­ten and Kipling is in some sense still there.” A sim­i­lar truth holds for Fight Club, David Fincher’s film adap­ta­tion of the Chuck Palah­niuk nov­elwhich over the past twen­ty years to the day since its wide release has out­last­ed all the seri­ous, intel­li­gent, and indeed enlight­ened cri­tiques mount­ed against it. Fight Club has long been a byword, if not since its finan­cial­ly dis­ap­point­ing run in the the­aters, then at least since its deluxe DVD release. But what does that byword sig­ni­fy?

For many, it sig­ni­fies the tastes and atti­tudes of a cer­tain kind of twen­tysome­thing male — and giv­en the unabat­ed preva­lence of Fight Club posters in fresh­man dorm rooms and fra­ter­ni­ty hous­es, hard­ly with­out cause. At first glance, its sub­ject mat­ter also looks geared straight toward angry young men, telling as it does of a white-col­lar cor­po­rate drone who breaks out of his office dystopia by get­ting togeth­er with sim­i­lar­ly alien­at­ed late-20th-cen­tu­ry men and beat­ing one anoth­er sense­less. Before long, these “fight clubs” cohere into a nation­wide ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion bent on destroy­ing con­sumer soci­ety. For some view­ers, the movie would seem to have it all: vio­lence, of course, but also sex, spe­cial effects, and satire aplen­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly at the icons of so-called “late cap­i­tal­ism.” (Leg­end has it that Finch­er worked a Star­bucks cup into near­ly every scene.)

Oth­er view­ers argue — mak­ing what Orwell, writ­ing on Kipling, calls a “shal­low and famil­iar charge” — that Fight Club is “fas­cist.” They see it as glo­ri­fy­ing the act of rais­ing a shaven-head­ed, black-clad, repet­i­tive­ly chant­i­ng army under a charis­mat­ic leader, in this case a Niet­zschean Über­men­sch by the name of Tyler Dur­den. Por­trayed by Brad Pitt in per­haps the most mem­o­rable role of his career, Dur­den emerges from the mind of Fight Club’s name­less nar­ra­tor (an increas­ing­ly pale and wast­ed Edward Nor­ton) in order to set him on his jour­ney. “He’s tried to do every­thing he was taught to do, tried to fit into the world by becom­ing the thing he isn’t,” Finch­er has said of that nar­ra­tor’s jour­ney. “He can­not find hap­pi­ness, so he trav­els on a path to enlight­en­ment in which he must ‘kill’ his par­ents, god, and teacher.”

The nar­ra­tor cre­ates Tyler, his teacher, and “kills his god by doing things they are not sup­posed to do. To com­plete the process of matur­ing, the nar­ra­tor has to kill his teacher.” Writ­ing at philo­soph­i­cal sub­red­dit The Motte, Red­di­tor Dormn111 sums up Tyler’s world­view as fol­lows: “Men are suf­fer­ing today because they are inher­ent­ly unsuit­ed for the social demands of moder­ni­ty.” Evolved to be “vio­lent, aggres­sive, and dri­ven by their very real bio­log­i­cal urges,” men are now “told that these aspects of them­selves are bar­bar­ic, evil, and wor­thy of con­dem­na­tion.” There is no place in Fran­cis Fukuya­ma’s post-strug­gle “end of his­to­ry” for “the gut-lev­el desires that men feel in their bones. There is no vic­to­ry, no pow­er, no dom­i­nance. Every­thing the man is sup­posed to do builds towards some sort of high­er sta­tus, but the gains are illu­so­ry.”

Par­tic­i­pa­tion in a fight club is “an act of self-destruc­tion to counter the soci­etal obses­sion with self-improve­ment,” since it “makes men ugly, injured, tired, late for work, and shifts their pri­or­i­ties from the fem­i­nine social hier­ar­chy tread­mill to a nar­cot­ic-like rush of mas­cu­line grat­i­fi­ca­tion.” It gives them “a real sense of stakes in their lives, like the sort that mor­tal com­bat would have giv­en them in the past.” In the words of the Wise­crack video on the phi­los­o­phy of Fight Club at the top of the post, which draws on thinkers like Jacques Der­ri­da, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer, these men rebel against a sys­tem that “favors effi­cien­cy over tra­di­tion, cus­tom, or indi­vid­ual desires” and pro­duces stul­ti­fy­ing lives in which is every­thing is “designed for a spe­cif­ic pur­pose, mass-pro­duced and unre­lent­ing­ly pre­dictable.”

The same cre­ators break down the act of inter­pre­ta­tion, using the tools of semi­otics and prag­ma­tism, in their video on the mean­ing of Fight Club and why we still can’t agree on it. Fans and detrac­tors alike come to espe­cial­ly dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions about the film’s end­ing in which the nar­ra­tor kills his teacher, a scene The Take attempts to explain in its own video essay. And despite being idea-dri­ven, Fight Club also offers one of the more vis­cer­al view­ing expe­ri­ences (and for some, an entire­ly too-vis­cer­al view­ing expe­ri­ence) in all of cin­e­ma, thanks not only to visu­als that strug­gle against con­tain­ment by the very medi­um of film, but also to the work of foley artists revealed in Film Radar’s video on the movie’s sound design — the crafts­men tasked with mak­ing the impact of a punch sound, unlike in most Hol­ly­wood pic­tures, as if it actu­al­ly hurts.

Fight Club con­tin­ues to make an impact of its own, as exam­ined in the Fan­dor video just above. It names among the film’s lovers Quentin Taran­ti­no and among its haters Paul Thomas Ander­son, so whichev­er side you take on it, you’ll share an opin­ion with one of the most respect­ed film­mak­ers alive today. But then, Fincher’s own auteur sta­tus should give pause to any­one who dis­miss­es Fight Club out of hand. As the rel­e­vant chap­ter of Cameron Beyl’s Direc­tors Series video essay tells it, mak­ing the movie was itself an act of rebel­lion against “the sys­tem,” specif­i­cal­ly the stu­dio sys­tem, and even more specif­i­cal­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry Fox, the stu­dio that ruined his fea­ture debut Alien 3 with its inter­fer­ence. After Finch­er bounced back with hits Sev­en and The Game, Fox want­ed him back to direct an adap­ta­tion of Palah­niuk’s nov­el. Despite describ­ing him­self as a“non-reader,” Finch­er devoured the book, which shared some of his own pet themes, includ­ing nihilism and anti-com­mer­cial­ism.

Fox, see­ing the ben­e­fit in smooth­ing out their rela­tion­ship with a film­mak­er who showed signs of becom­ing a box office-friend­ly Alfred Hitch­cock crossed with Stan­ley Kubrick, allowed Finch­er a near-carte blanche, cre­ative­ly speak­ing. “Once Finch­er knew how to play his med­dle­some exec­u­tives to his ben­e­fit,” Beyl says, “he became tru­ly unstop­pable.” Finch­er and his col­lab­o­ra­tors, most notably screen­writer Jim Uhls, did­n’t make the kind of rad­i­cal changes to Palah­niuk’s nov­el that film adap­ta­tions usu­al­ly do to their source mate­r­i­al. The Cine­Fix video below goes point-by-point through all the dif­fer­ences between book and film, many of which have to to with the char­ac­ter of Tyler Dur­den: the book presents him as more of a psy­chot­ic killer, while the film presents him as a kind of an ide­al­ist: down-and-dirty yet high-mind­ed.

But does it also make him too hand­some, too cool, too quotable? No exam­i­na­tion of Fight Club, no mat­ter how close, con­clu­sive­ly deter­mines the film’s own posi­tion on Tyler or any oth­er char­ac­ter, let alone its judg­ment of broad eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, and ide­o­log­i­cal con­cepts like cap­i­tal­ism and fas­cism (put on screen, in one of the film’s many ironies, by a for­mer com­mer­cial direc­tor and a Hol­ly­wood heart­throb). “I love this idea that you can have fas­cism with­out offer­ing any direc­tion or solu­tion,” Finch­er once said. Fas­cism insists on going in one par­tic­u­lar direc­tion, “but this movie could­n’t be fur­ther from offer­ing any kind of solu­tion.” Fight Club endures because it resists straight­for­ward inter­pre­ta­tion, ensur­ing that dis­agree­ments about it will nev­er be set­tled. And indeed, now that its themes hap­pen to dove­tail with so many of today’s vogue terms — “patri­archy,” “bro cul­ture,” “tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty” — the argu­ments have grown more heat­ed than ever. 

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Did David Finch­er Become the Kubrick of Our Time? A New, 3.5 Hour Series of Video Essays Explains

Why 1999 Was the Year of Dystopi­an Office Movies: What The Matrix, Fight Club, Amer­i­can Beau­ty, Office Space & Being John Malkovich Shared in Com­mon

Watch Author Chuck Palah­niuk Read Fight Club 4 Kids

The Truth Behind Jane Austen’s Fight Club: Female Prize Fights Were a Thing Dur­ing the 18th Cen­tu­ry

How Rid­ley Scott’s Blade Run­ner Illu­mi­nates the Cen­tral Prob­lem of Moder­ni­ty

Wes Anderson’s Break­through Film, Rush­more, Revis­it­ed in Five Video Essays: It Came Out 20 Years Ago Today

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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