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Credit: 20th Century Fox

This Week in Genre History: Let's talk about Fight Club

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Oct 14, 2020, 11:30 AM EDT

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

“I want you to do me a favor. I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” 

Lots of films are about masculinity, but none of them was ever quite like Fight Club, which stunned audiences when it barreled into theaters on Oct. 15, 1999. Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s controversial novel, this punchy thriller — or was it a satire? — spoke to the bad vibes that were in the air as the 20th century was fading into the distance and the terror and uncertainty of Y2K loomed. It starred Edward Norton as the film’s unnamed narrator, a miserable office drone who feels like modern life is slowly killing him. (The guy gets his kicks going to support groups for ailments he doesn’t have.) But his ultimate refuge comes in the form of a quirky new friend, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), one of those cool guys who seems to understand the secrets of the universe. Tyler takes the narrator under his wing, introducing him to a dangerous club where the members beat the hell out of one another. Tyler’s reasoning is simple: “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”

As much an ethos as it is a movie these days, Fight Club still has the power to shock, examining male bonding, consumer culture, class resentment, and revolution with a snarl and a wink. It’s foolish to take the movie completely seriously — aggro dudes who treat the film like gospel are missing the point — but at the same time, it is a very thoughtful meditation on the need to feel alive in a culture that increasingly tries to beat you down with advertising and self-help nonsense. Fight Club was never a big hit, but this is the kind of film whose legacy you judge by its influence, not its box office. Still endlessly quotable, still stylish, funny, and hip, Fight Club became a way of seeing the world. And it still defines a certain type of repressed male ego, for better or worse.

Why was it a big deal at the time? Today, if there was a movie starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton directed by David Fincher, it would be a major event. But for all three men, Fight Club came at a moment when they were names, certainly, but still on the rise. 

A celebrated video director who had recently made the leap to features, Fincher rebounded from the reviled Alien 3 to impress critics with Seven, only to confound them all over again with the twisty The Game. So it was no slam dunk when he signed on to adapt Palahniuk’s 1996 novel, which wasn’t a bestseller by any stretch. But one suspects that’s what appealed to Fincher — not to mention the book’s jaundiced look at society, which was in keeping with his previous films’ bleak worldview. “I read it and couldn’t stop laughing,” Fincher once said of the novel. “Who the f*** doesn’t want to see credit card companies blow up?”

As for Pitt, he was starting to transition from hunky leading man to serious actor, earning an Oscar nomination for 1995’s Twelve Monkeys and more than holding his own opposite Morgan Freeman in Seven. And Norton, who came to moviegoers’ attention with his scene-stealing turn in 1996’s Primal Fear, got an Oscar nomination for that movie as well as American History X, demonstrating that he was more than capable of playing dark, tormented men.

All three of them responded to the primal power of Palahniuk’s conceit about a fight club where beleaguered urban men could throw off the niceties of real life and reconnect with the savagery of their “true” selves. It was a phenomenon the author saw in his own friends. “My peers were conflict-averse,” Palahniuk explained in Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. “They shied away from any confrontation or tension, and their lives were being lived in this very tepid way. I thought if there was some way to introduce them to conflict in a very structured, safe way, it would be a form of therapy — a way that they could discover a self beyond this frightened self.”

Still, this was a movie about guys beating up one another and eventually forming a terrorist organization. That doesn’t sound like your typical feel-good studio fare. But at the end of the 1990s, Hollywood was showing a willingness to take risks on provocative directors like Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and David O. Russell (Three Kings). As entertainment journalist Sharon Waxman put it in Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System, “Despite the deadening crush of the studio system, their talent could not be denied, their visions could not be suppressed, and their efforts yielded movies that reflected our time and point to where we were headed.”

In other words, the revolutionary mindset wasn’t just in the movie: Filmmakers like Fincher felt like they were changing the rules of Hollywood. It was an incredibly exciting era. Fight Club was the sort of big swing that corporations rarely tried back then, and almost never do now.

Credit: 20th Century Fox

What was the impact? The movie topped the box office its opening weekend, but it divided critics. The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan declared that Fight Club was “an unsettling experience, but not the way anyone intended. What’s most troubling about this witless mishmash of whiny, infantile philosophizing and bone-crunching violence is the increasing realization that it actually thinks it’s saying something of significance.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, critic Gavin Smith wrote in Film Comment, “It’s tempting to describe David Fincher’s stunning, mordantly funny, formally dazzling new movie Fight Club as the first film of the next century and leave it at that. It certainly suggests a possible future direction for mass-appeal cinema that could lead it out of the ‘90s cul-de-sac of bloated, corrupt mediocrity and bankrupt formulas.”

Fight Club has resided between those two poles ever since, with as many people considering it a masterpiece as those who regard the film as little more than macho posturing that pretends to be profound. But after its release, it seemed destined to be a weird curiosity, not a landmark. The film only grossed about $100 million worldwide — hardly a blockbuster — and come Oscar time, it received a grand total of one nomination. (Any guesses? It was for Best Sound Effects Editing.) 

But although the movie failed to light the box office on fire — maybe not the best choice of words considering that Fight Club ends with the narrator and the bewitching Maria (Helena Bonham Carter) holding hands while watching buildings explode around them — it quickly started seeping into the culture in ways both obvious and subtle. To this day, you’ll hear people do some jokey variation of “The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club,” but even more so, the film’s view of toxic masculinity proved prescient. In our modern age, in which white supremacy and #MeToo are part of our national dialogue, the impotent rage of the movie’s male characters feels like a warning. (Not that the studio that put out Fight Club knew exactly what to do with the film’s dissection of male aggression: In 2014, Fincher complained, “Fox marketed Fight Club mostly on the World Wrestling Federation. That’s when I knew we were doomed.”)

And so a cult classic was born, with the movie proving popular on DVD and among online fans. (As of this writing, it is No. 11 on IMDb’s list of all-time top-rated movies by its users, right between The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Forrest Gump.) Fight Club remains heavily debated, with viewers still arguing if Fincher was condoning or satirizing his violent malcontents. Even though it wasn’t a smash, it quickly became a movie you had to see simply to be part of the conversation. And liking the movie served as a way of separating yourself from the square conformists that Fight Club’s characters mocked. “If you felt more like the guy who plays my boss in the film,” Norton said in 2019, “then you tended to not like the film.”

Has it held up? Anarchic and uneven, liberating but also bratty, Fight Club now feels like a generational anthem, a lament for Gen-Xers who, as Tyler puts it, are “the middle children of history.” (There’s nothing more perfectly melodramatic/1990s-y than when Tyler declares, “Our Great War is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives.”) That makes it a time capsule of a decade’s grungy, anti-sellout attitude, which doesn’t negate how funny and how despairing Fight Club can also be. Even all these years later, there’s something troublingly unsettled about the movie. Even when it doesn’t all work, you can’t stop thinking about the ideas at play.

Speaking of debates, Fight Club came a few months after The Sixth Sense, the movie with perhaps the biggest twist ending of its time. But Fincher’s film has its own doozy, revealing that super-cool Tyler was in the narrator’s mind the whole time. And there’s something profound about that surprise, suggesting how often we project qualities that we wish we had onto others, even if they’re just a figment of our imagination. The macho, suave rebel that the narrator always wanted to be? Well, turns out that guy was inside him all along. But is “Tyler” the movie’s hero or villain? Is Fight Club a cautionary tale or a call to action? That fight still rages on.

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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