My favorite essayist, when it comes to movies, is the Hulk*. Note that this is something entirely separate from my favorite film critic, which is Anthony Lane. Hulk is only okay when it comes to writing a film review. But as an explainer and explorer, he’s top notch, though I frequently disagree with him.
Here’s one piece that I think is great and interesting and yet fundamentally misses a key point. Hulk claims that David Fincher has a deep problem of matching tone, theme, and plot, while talking about Fight Club. He actually goes through a good chunk of Fincher’s filmography in doing so, sometimes quite convincingly, sometimes not. His central claim about Fight Club is a version of a fairly common one: that the movie’s conclusion suggests that Tyler is right to reject “Tyler” and Project Mayhem, but “Tyler” and Project Mayhem are so alluring as to undermine the point. Fincher the technician of anarchy is more compelling than Fincher the moralist. You can get to the point where you recognize the scariness of “Tyler” and perhaps even the evil in him, but damn, Brad Pitt always looks really cool.
True enough! Like I said, it’s a common complaint. And let me say, I am totally incapable of reading Fight Club as satire at all– as incapable as I am of reading “A Modest Proposal,” which Hulk invokes, in that way. The experience of satire requires the shock of recognition, and in neither case do I feel it, in Swift’s case in Swift’s case because political satire is based on political timeliness and in Fight Club for the reasons Hulk lists. But Hulk underestimates the power of the conclusion, even if we admit that general observation, and it hurts his understanding of why the movie was as effective as it was with some people. Hulk, to his credit, doesn’t come to an overly broad conclusion, but he does seem very sure that the ending isn’t nearly as attractive as what precedes it. I don’t quite agree: I think the gap Hulk recognizes is just that, a gap. Both are extremely attractive to men of a certain culture and age; it’s the lack of a narrative of how to get from one to another that dramatizes the disconnect a lot of men feel.
What I mean is that I think the Hulk badly misreads people if he find the very ending– not the lest 20 minutes but the last five– ineffective. I think, in fact, that the final shot of the buildings collapsing, Tyler and Marla grasping hands, and the Pixies playing is incredibly moving, at least for the movie’s probably audience. It certainly still moves me, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. It’s profoundly romantic, in several sense, and I would say that what the movie best understands about this generation of men who feel lost is their deeply romantic ontology, their desire to be rescued by love and by a woman. (Feminist theorists can feel free to pull that all apart.) Yes, “Tyler” and what he represents are still alluring. And Hulk is right to say that Edward Norton’s turn seems unconvincing. That’s the point, and that’s the problem: the kind of men who Fight Club is about want to engage in Project Mayhem even though they know they ultimately want to get to Marla. They seem romantic love, or at least familial stability, as the righteous and natural endpoint of their progressing into actual adulthood. But they have no idea how to get there. That’s what’s dramatized in the movie, including its unconvincing character progression: distinct and vastly different conceptions of male adulthood, both essentially romanticized, and a profound lack of direction.
If you’d like a little textual support, I would say that the first most important small moment in the movie is when Tyler’s house blows up and he first calls Marla. (The second most important bit is the overly deliberate shot of Brad Pitt holding down the chief of police while Ed Norton very specifically is turning the lock to the bathroom stall.) His first instinct is, as the conclusion suggests, the correct one: go to the girl. Team up. Make a family. But his fear keeps him from trying to connect– he’s completely inarticulate, literally not saying anything into the receiver. So then he goes to Tyler. Again, I don’t deny that the transition isn’t convincing. But then I think this speaks to a disconnect experienced by the men who are being simultaneously spoken to and sent up by the movie.
Did Palahniuk/Fincher/Norton and Pitt/etc. intend that? I have no idea, and I don’t care.
*I suppose I’m obligated to say something about the whole Hulk thing. Well, I guess I don’t find it too distracting. He often just sort of lets it go, and I sometimes think he would rather just abandon the gimmick altogether. But it’s not a big deal. You could go into a whole examination of how it’s a gimmick that’s so self-consciously gimmicky that it kind of wants it both ways. But who has the time.
cross-posted at L’Hote