90s Movie Challenge Week 9: Fight Club (1999)

Welcome 90’s Fans! This week Marc Paterson takes us by the hand into 1999’s seedy world of … Well, we’ll let you find out for yourself because we don’t talk about Fight Club.

Where do I start with Fight Club? I’ve read the book twice, maybe even three times and in my late twenties, it was my bible.

Nihilism was my coping strategy, living in a concrete box, alone, not really knowing who I actually was. That book held me together by telling me that everything falls apart in the end. That, and that people will always need soap.

As with most books I read, I discovered it because a film was being released about it and, if it’s a story that excites me, then I want to read it before I see the movie. 

I can tell you it takes a full day, if you’re committed enough, to get through the novel. Two if you prefer sleep in between. A chapter a day, it would last you the month of November. Palahniuk said of the book, that “no chapter was longer than a music video”. 

Palahniuk wrote this book in a house propped up on concrete blocks that he couldn’t afford. He had a bed, a desk and his brain and he’s the reason I write.

I used to be in a band and, when that fell apart, two of us moved up North and shared a flat and, when that didn’t work out, the two of us lived up North in separate flats. We still used to get together to watch movies every now and then and that’s how I finally came to see David Fincher’s Fight Club.

Fincher is a director most notable for his psychological thrillers, Se7en being the most well known and fighting for first place with Fight Club for the most aped and parodied. But before he got his hands on the wheel, Peter Jackson, Brian Singer, and Danny Boyle were also in the frame to direct. David O’Russell, director of I Heart Huckabees was even considered. Danny Boyle actually met with producer Ross Bell but eventually moved on to other things so Fincher landed the whale and set about making his ultra-black comedy.

The opening track by the Dust Brothers — who provide the slick electronic score — does get the pulse racing. The use of CGI in this film is inspired. It’s like a graphic novel come to life. 

Then we’re into it. We meet our insomniac hero, who stays nameless, he’s us. The doctor tells us that our problems are insignificant and we should swing by the testicular cancer support group. Ironic that he’s effectively telling us to “grow a pair” when the room we’re headed to is full of men without any. The vulnerable men in the support groups are treated like pussies, they’re the butt of the joke.

Then we meet Tyler. From here on in this movie has you by the balls.

Seeing it for the first time in well over a decade, my perceptions have changed somewhat. Is it a sneering indictment of ‘snowflake’ men raised by women (like that’s a bad thing)? Is it a romantic comedy (a love triangle between two people)? Fight Club is a story about identity. For a comedy, the mood and tone is confusing.

At the halfway point, after we’ve scorched our hand with lye, when we’ve hit rock bottom and life, the universe and everything seems utterly pointless. At the point where we’ve almost lost the will to live and this film has dragged us down to our knees in despair, wanting to laugh but not finding anything remotely funny, Marla Singer calls our office and says:

“My tit’s gonna rot off.”

And finally, the sun rises on this comedy.

“Fuckin’” Lou only adds to the zaniness. At this point, we could be watching a Mel Brooks movie. “Fuckin’” Lou brings a whole other movie genre into the basement with him, like Cleavon Little, riding through the plains and meeting an entire big band jazz orchestra, playing the Blazing Saddles score in the middle of nowhere.

It’s like Goodfellas shows up to reinstate what a masculine movie should look like — expensive suits, expensive soundtracks, and an Italian American accent. 

It’s all going swimmingly and then we put a gun to Raymond K Hessel’s head and threaten his life and there’s no punchline. The comedy is sent, cowering back into the dark.

Know this: it was us who put the gun to the convenience store clerk’s head and told him to go back to school. Not Tyler, us.

This movie is our identity. we imprint our frail sense of self into the movie and the movie rewards us with a sense of belonging. We’re in the club. 

Like the bible, it’s a recruitment tool, turning us into space monkeys, revering every word, like gospel. The final reveal is shocking despite its inevitability. You are not a unique snowflake, you never were. You are nothing beyond the confines of the movie.

At age 46, what do I think a man is now? I think a generation raised by women is a good thing. I think a world governed by women would be a better thing.

“You had to give it to him [Tyler]… the ability to let that which does not matter, truly slide.”

It depends who it matters to. Trump had the ability to do whatever he wanted and let his country slide into chaos. The Proud Boys, the Alt-Right… young idiots, raging against a system that protects and cosets them. This is their club, and the ethnic minorities and the gays and the women are not invited. A system that, when truly challenged, is defended by those same young, white idiots.

Helena Bonham Carter’s character, Marla says, “Tyler, you’re the worst thing that ever happened to me.” But there is no Tyler. There’s only you and me. There’s only men. She is saying, for all women: 

“you’re the worst thing that ever happened to us.”

The movie even ends with a dick joke.

Fincher’s film — and Palahniuk’s book — is comedy. But the joke is on us if we take what’s being presented seriously.

Next week we stay in 1999 with Rebecca Aulburn who asks you to let it all go; fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind as she takes us down the rabbit hole to look at The Matrix.


Marc Paterson

Freelance writer living in Norfolk. Film nut.

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