Eric's Ten-Year Itch: Fight Club (Oct. 15, 1999)

(Note: This column contains major spoilers for Fight Club. If you have not seen the movie -- or at least read the book it's based on -- you should do so at once, and then come back and read the column.)

In 2006, in conjunction with its 10th anniversary, the Online Film Critics Society produced a list of the 100 best movies released during the group's decade of existence. We did this by compiling each member's personal top 50 list, then adding up the points. My own No. 1 film was Fight Club, which placed high enough on my colleagues' lists to make it to No. 14 on the group list. I believed it was the best film released between 1996 and 2005. I still feel that way.

Oddly, I did not feel that way when it came out, on Oct. 15, 1999, 10 years ago this week. Oh, my review was glowing. I gave it an A. But less than two months later, when I compiled my top 10 list for 1999, Fight Club only ranked seventh. I was too promiscuous with my A grades in those days, giving them to B+ and A- films like The Sixth Sense and American Beauty and thus diluting the power of true Grade-A films like Fight Club.

The problem was that my enjoyment of Fight Club was shallow, which my review clearly demonstrates. While I acknowledged that the film was "about" much more than the fight club itself, I barely discussed what those things were. I was caught up in the film purely as entertainment -- funny, offbeat, and with a great twist ending. (I am a sucker for a great twist ending.) I loved the visual style. All of those things are important, but they barely scratch the surface of the film's much deeper and more complex ideas, which I didn't come to fully appreciate until later.

(My review also described Edward Norton as "Oscar-worthy." Bleh. I don't necessarily disagree with the sentiment, but that overused movie-critic cliche makes me grimace.)

After further reflection and a few more viewings over the last decade, I'm in awe of how Fight Club, directed by David Fincher and based on Chuck Palahniuk's novel, manages to cover multiple complicated themes simultaneously. At its most basic, it's about male friendship. Our nameless narrator (Edward Norton) is bored, depressed, and lonely until he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a whirlwind of a man who helps restore his joie de vivre. This is accomplished not just through the underground fight club, which lets men explore the primal instincts usually tamped down by society, but through a general disassembling of all the things the narrator has been told he's "supposed" to do. Who needs a fancy condo when you can live in an abandoned house on the outskirts of town? Who needs a regular job when you can make soap out of liposuctioned fat and sell it to boutiques?

The narrator and Tyler become inseparable friends, though it is clear the narrator needs Tyler much more than Tyler needs him. Their affinity for one another is strictly platonic and heterosexual, yet underneath it is a truth that many men find uncomfortable: the love we have for our friends is often similar to the love we have for our lovers. The narrator is jealous when Tyler spends too much time with his girlfriend, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), or with the other guys in their expanding circle of fight club buddies. The narrator wants Tyler for himself -- not a rational feeling, really, but an honest one, and one that many perfectly straight men have felt at some point. It has nothing to do with sexual attraction but with the natural desire for fraternity and acceptance.

But of course what we eventually learn is that Tyler doesn't exist at all: He is a figment of the narrator's imagination, a separate personality. This makes perfect sense in hindsight; the second time I watched the film, I was shocked by how many blatant clues there were to this fact, including the narrator saying of some piece of information, "I know this because Tyler knows this." Well, duh. Tyler does all the things the narrator wants to do but feels like he can't. Tyler is the Id to the narrator's Superego. (He's a physically ideal specimen, too. I mean, if you were going to imagine a better version of yourself, wouldn't he look like Brad Pitt?) Separately, neither character is a whole person. Together, they are.

This means the film is also about an even more uncomfortable subject: the fact that all men have a side of themselves that is weaker and more "feminine" than the side they like to project. Whichever person you think is better, Tyler or the narrator, it doesn't matter -- you have 'em both inside of you. Most of us combine those elements (and elements of other "characters") into one fully formed personality, and that's who we are. A little bit of Tyler Durden is good. We all need some Narrator, too. It's when you're entirely one or entirely the other that there's trouble.

Fight Club is a bona fide cult classic and is often voted one of the best "guy movies" ever made. It's a movie for manly men, like The Magnificent Seven or Die Hard. We feel like women don't "get" the movie the way we do. It's just for us. And yet the film deeply addresses the topics of masculinity and homosocial relationships -- subjects most "manly men" normally avoid like the plague, especially in entertainment -- and was based on a book written by a gay man. You'd think men would be made uncomfortable by the movie, and yet they love and embrace it. Tyler Durden, who liked to splice single pornographic frames into family movies, would be pleased that a film this subversive would gain such widespread popularity.

Fight Club

1999 Eric says: Director David Fincher takes us on a twisted journey through the male psyche, full of flashbacks, freeze-frames, and eye-catching cinematography. Jim Uhls's screenplay (based on Chuck Palahniuk's novel) is clever and witty. There is delicious, ironic humor in Edward Norton's detached narrations, and the movie is undeniably funny -- up until the last half-hour or so, when things get REALLY weird. It's a compelling, entertaining film. Even when it's nihilistic, pessimistic and macabre, it's still eminently watchable and profound. Grade: A

2009 Eric says: Few films have examined -- I mean really examined -- modern masculinity and the nature of male friendships as astutely, humorously, and alarmingly as Fight Club does. The film is enjoyable as a darkly funny story about an underground fight club, but is also deeply rewarding as a look at the way men relate to one another, and at how the male brain works. It helps that David Fincher is the perfect match for author Chuck Palahniuk, their nihilistic visions of the world complementing each other the way few novelist/filmmaker teams have. Grade: A

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Eric's Ten-Year Itch appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, where the first rule is that you should tell everyone about it.