David Fincher's Fight Club is one of my all-time favorite movies. And like any great film it is open to a wide spectrum of interpretation and analysis. Various themes that run throughout Fight Club include anti-modernism, Buddhism, societal alienation, nihilism, and non-conformism – just to name a few.
There's one theme in particular I'd like to flesh out, and that is Fincher's interpretation of the modern male condition. If you've seen Fight Club you know he doesn't paint a rosy picture, largely portraying men as fish out of water. Very violent fish out of water. The film suggests that men no longer have a proper outlet to vent their latent aggression, and to make matters worse, they have been conditioned by society to suppress their instincts.
Fincher goes on to assert that men have become feminized by society. This idea shouldn't be any great surprise to anyone; it's a commonly held in-joke that women work to domesticate their wild men. And given the propensity for male aggression and violence, this shouldn't be unexpected. It's been said that testosterone kills.
This domestication and feminization of men is conveyed by Fincher a number of ways. The main character, as portrayed by Ed Norton, obsesses about the decor of his condo and religiously pours over the latest IKEA catalogue. Men are no longer hunters, says Tyler, they have become gatherers. Society has made them into consumers where their sense of self-identity is wrapped around their possessions. As Tyler says, "the things you own end up owning you." Men have become the bi-products of the life style obsession.
Our protagonist starts to suffer from insomnia and eventually discovers a cure: support meetings. He finds that letting out his emotions helps him sleep like a baby. In one memorable scene, he attends a support group for men recovering from testicular cancer. One of the attendees, Bob, has developed large breasts as a result of the treatment. Tyler buries his face in Bob's breasts and has a good cry; the room is filled with men who have had their testicles removed, some have breasts, and they hug and cry. They've been completely stripped of their masculinity.
Eventually all this repression leads to a rather extreme bi-polar counter-reaction: the ultra-violent Fight Club where two men battle it out with their fists in the basement of a bar. It's an opportunity to return to the jungle where men can enjoy a cathartic, testosterone delivered release. Males have been stunted by society; and it is through the Fight Club that they can retain their physicality and feel alive. It may be a negative sensation, but at least it's something.
The Fight Club also provides an outlet for non-conformism. Men are the middle children of history, says Tyler, with no purpose and no place. "Our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives," he says. Men, raised by television to believe they'll be great superstars, have seen through the myth and have become "very, very pissed off."
At the same time the Fight Club showcases the insanity of male aggression. The fights, while highly romanticized, are violent and bloody. The viewer is completely detached from the pain, titillated by the action while utterly immune to the consequences.
The homoerotic element to the Fight Club is also undeniable. Men and women have sex, while men fight with other men. It's still two bodies coming together in physical union, the bringing together of flesh for the purpose of deriving pleasure. Rule #3 of Fight Club: only 2 men to a fight.
And what would a film about male alienation be without commentary about women? There's a palpable misogynistic tone in Fight Club. It was Marla Singer, after all, who "ruined everything." She came between the two friends and created jealousy and unrest. It was Marla who invaded the support groups and their home. "We're a generation raised by women," says Tyler, "I wonder if another woman is what we really need." Moreover, when Tyler said that "the things you own end up owning you," he could very well have been referring to women.
In the end, we realize that we're watching a man struggle with his own inner dualism. Tyler is literally a man of two minds, and he's being ripped apart. On the one hand he is driven by atavistic and reactionary urges, and on the other hand he wants calm and rationality. He is tortured by his restraint and repression, while at the same time seeks a life of freedom and careless abandon. Ultimately it's a futile struggle that leads to his self-destruction. The bombs, the destruction of buildings, the nihilism – these are all projections of male aggression, a violent backlash against society.
But it's through this nihilism that there's hope for Tyler. He is admonished by his inner self that "it's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything." Man has to "stop trying to control everything and let go." It's only through mature acceptance that the inner struggle can be quelled.
Which reminds me of an old Buddhist lesson about how to catch a monkey. What you do is attach a box with a coconut inside to the base of a coconut tree. The box has a hole in it the size of a monkey’s hand. When the monkey comes along he will put his hand through the hole and grab the coconut. When you come out the monkey screams because he sees that he’s trapped; he will refuse to let go of the coconut! He’s a prisoner. All he has to do is let go of the coconut and run, but he can't do that because he wants both the coconut and his freedom.
Tyler needs to let go of the coconut. And the IKEA catalogue.
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