It’s a banner week for 90s classics/films adored by film-addled teenagers everywhere. Yesterday saw a number of publications celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Pulp Fiction’s” Stateside release, and today marks the 15th anniversary of “Fight Club,” David Fincher’s landmark satire of consumerism, nihilism and hypermasculinity. The film has gone from critical and commercial disappointment to cult classic, but it’s also been embraced by the alpha male bros it’s ostensibly lambasting. Most viewers probably agree that Fincher, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt make youthful nihilism seductive for most of the film’s first 90 minutes, but there’s still heavy disagreement over how hard it really comes down on Tyler Durden’s toxic worldview in the film’s final act.
“Fight Club’s” anniversary also comes at a particularly sensitive time regarding male violence and misogyny. Where it was once a post-Columbine whipping boy for its violence and depiction of an anarchist (really fascistic) movement, it’s now celebrating its 15th anniversary following a summer of Men’s Right Activist terrorism reaching its horrible peak with a massacre in Santa Barbara by Elliot Rodger and, more recently, GamerGate’s threats of violence against women like Anita Sarkeesian, who dared to suggest that maybe video games could stand to treat women better. Not coincidentally, a pair of “Fight Club” anniversary articles today mentioned these looming specters while writing about the film.
The first, by Decider’s Tyler Coates, argues that “Fight Club’s” autocriticism is half-hearted at best, and that the film ultimately worships the violence it pretends to decry:
You could argue that “Fight Club” is in fact a satire of this mindset, but that the film sparked the kind of Men’s Rights Advocacy that is now responsible for threatening women across the Internet and blaming feminism for their own failures is particularly amazing. Straight white men aren’t lesser than because of the culture the rest of us created; rather, it’s the silly importance placed on basic notions of masculinity that have affected their brains like some sort of psychological disease, simultaneously propagating a sense of victimhood and subjecting the rest of us to the insane idea that fighting back against the culture and systems for which they are responsible is the only way to preserve a sense of identity and individualism.
On the flipside, Eric D. Snider of Complex wrote that the film ultimately mocks that mindset:
What I didn’t fully appreciate at 25 that I do at 40 is that “Fight Club” doesn’t endorse Tyler Durden’s nihilism, it mocks it. Tyler is an extremist, taking good ideals too far and losing the moral high ground. Peeing in soups and blowing up buildings isn’t rebellion; it’s idiotic and pointless. Tyler Durden’s followers are too blinded by their perceived wrongs and grievances to see that. Society deserves all this chaos for what it’s done to them.
He also notes how the attitudes once confined to basement brawls have now taken over the worst crevices of the internet:
The very essence of the notorious Internet cesspool 4chan can be summed up by the Narrator’s reason for pummeling Jared Leto: “I felt like destroying something beautiful.” Why do these creeps steal, publish, and gloat about nude photos of actresses? Because they can never have sex with those women and IT’S NOT FAIR. While pummeling Leto, the Narrator explains, “I felt like putting a bullet between the eyes of every panda that wouldn’t screw to save its species. I wanted to open the dump valves on oil tankers and smother all the French beaches I’d never see.” If I can’t have it, no one should. Nothing even matters anyway. YOU’RE ALL JERKS!
I’m ultimately with Snider on this. While “Fight Club” does suffer from an occasional smugness and self-satisfaction with its own cleverness (a byproduct of original author Chuck Palahniuk more than anything else), I find the film’s comedown more than satisfactory in its repudiation of Project Mayhem’s stupidity and insanity (pun intended) and its ultimate message of the need for maturity, responsibility and moderation (it’s one of Fincher’s most optimistic films, in this regard). But I can’t dismiss Coates’ view of the film, either. One can’t criticize a film or filmmaker solely by using its dumbest fans as a bludgeon (see: the fans of one Nolan, Christopher), but dismissing those fans’ reactions and the reactions of those who think “Fight Club” either mucks up its satirical aims with “they didn’t get it” would be equally myopic. “Fight Club” isn’t a difficult film to get into or glean but it’s a bit more slippery with regards to where it stands and how successful it is at communicating that.
That’s why, I’d argue, the film still matters and is still worth seeing and arguing over 15 years later. It’s far from being David Fincher’s richest or deepest film, but there’s something vital about how it’s still able to generate controversy and debate about its ideas and its stance. It’s damn near impossible to have a neutral response to “Fight Club.” That doesn’t make it great, necessarily, but it does make it a great conversation starter. And for those who hate it, here’s a silver lining: the film was made by 20th Century Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, who loathed the film. Personally, I take any situation where Rupert Murdoch pays for something he hates as a win.