Mischief, mayhem, soap: Fight Club, 24 years on

By Caitlin MacDonald

The first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club.

24 years on since its UK release, David Fincher’s Fight Club remains one of those films. Divisive, clever and a certified cult classic, Fight Club’s reputation precedes it. It’s one of those films that your flatmate’s annoying friend from back home won’t stop going on about. It’s the sort of movie that misogynistic podcast hosts go buck wild over. It’s the type of film you see on £1 DVDs in every charity shop in the West End. It’s Fight Club.

When I first watched it, last January—lured by friends on the basis of its griminess and how much I liked Seven—I had no idea what I was getting into. I was in a tricky situation at the time, considering changing my whole life from the meticulous 5-year plan I had created back when I was 17. I wasn’t sleeping well. I hated my chemistry degree. Lost and disillusioned. I knew nothing about the film- all except the iconic and grotesquely overquoted “first rule of fight club” line—and fell head over heels in love with the film. After watching it on that cold January night, I rewatched Fight Club again the following month, after thinking about it anytime I washed my hands or saw seagulls scrapping over some food, and then again and again and again until I had wound up on my 15th rewatch of it and a certified obsession. I felt like a light bulb had switched on in my mind; watching Fight Club was making some sort of sense, in a Tyler sort of way. Every time I rewatched it, I found a new nugget of information that only further built my love not only for the film itself but for the film as a whole. I pestered both friends and family alike to rewatch it (it’s practically banned in my flat now). In time, I eventually left my chemistry degree to study film so in a complete unironic sincerity, I can say I have Fight Club to thank for changing my life (and that my love for it grows upon every rewatch).

Together with his good friend and soap salesman, Tyler Durden, our protagonist—Jack to some fans, Joe to others but in reality, simply just named the Narrator—is an insomniac office worker, played by Edward Norton, who starts a club for men to fight each other. Eventually, one impoverished Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) drives a wedge between the two. It’s a simple premise, really, the classic hero’s journey. Brad Pitt, who plays Durden, summarised the film best back in a 1998 interview on the American Today show: “It’s about two guys who start this amateur boxing league for underprivileged youth and the woman who comes between them. But we, uh, twist it a bit.”

That’s not to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows and artisanal soap. It’s very easy to criticise Fight Club. It’s very easy to love Fight Club, but it’s even easier to hate it. They say love and hatred are two sides of the same coin. In most film circles, it’s low-hanging fruit. Its violent, brazen message of misogyny and homophobia and its radical acceptance of nihilism, cynicism and terrorism has left an unsavoury taste in many viewer’s mouths (even David Fincher has admitted he has no urge to rewatch it). What I have always adamantly refuted is the notion of Fight Club’s ‘taboo’ nature. ‘Dudebros’ and incels alike (the unfortunate majority of Fight Club’s fans) will jump to defend the film’s view of the patriarchy and women, not realising Tyler Durden is completely satirical, as well as an emotional stand in for the author of the book, Chuck Palahniuk (If you think Chuck Palahniuk wrote Tyler Durden to be relatable, you’re sorely mistaken). Palahniuk, a gay man whose own struggle with his sexuality and masculinity is evident within Durden’s psyche, has refuted this incel ‘reclaiming’ of the film, saying “it’s fascinating that the incels have adopted Fight Club. It shows how few metaphors men have. Just that and The Matrix.” Sure, Tyler Durden does rattle off numerous ways of making explosives (all the recipes included the film are incorrect, one of the most drastic differences from the novel), interposed on how all men should reject the notion of the traditional nuclear family and embrace a violent, Dionysian hedonism instead, but at the same time, there’s something extremely satisfying watching Edward Norton beat the living daylights out of a peroxide blond Jared Leto.

So why are we still talking about Fight Club? The film explicitly tells you not to (not once but twice). Fincher’s moved on, Palahniuk’s moved on, Norton, Pitt, and Carter have all moved on (Edward Norton, like Fincher, holds a certain level of prestige now that Fight Club doesn’t qualify for). I, however, haven’t moved on. In a way, I never will.

My love for Fight Club comes from its timeless relatability. Men will fight tooth and nail to claim that “they’re literally Tyler Durden” (none of them cool enough to pull off Tyler Durden’s fire truck–red casual nihilism), but at its core, the Narrator is our relatability factor here. He hates his job and boss; he lives a consumerist nightmare and has no close relationships to establish any meaning in his life. The Narrator wants more; like all of us, he is reaching for the rung just above his pecking order. He has a nice flat and some decent furniture (I would kill for his little ying-and-yang coffee table), but his life has no meaning. It’s an attractive and all-too-real premise for most. We all want more. We all want what we can’t have. We all hate our jobs. This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time. Fight Club tells us to embrace the uncontrollable, to desire something more than a nice condominium on the 18th floor and a career as a salaryman. Fight Club tells us to fight, scratch and claw at our futures, to reject flat pack furniture and fancy French mustards and a life dictated by spreadsheets and numbers and to just let go.Fight Club met me at a very strange time in my life. And in 50 years’ time, when we’re on AntMan14, The Social Network 4: Enter the Metaverse, and another Exorcist reboot, I’ll still remember Fight Club with the sort of fondness one reserves for reminiscing about hot summer days gone by.


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