Is Fight Club an assault on consumer culture or a treatise on the sorry state of manhood?
It was near the end of Fight Club, when Brad Pitt hurls the epithet "Ikea Boy" at Ed Norton, that I had a paranoid thought: Is this a product placement?
Think about it: Have you read a single review of Fight Club, director David Fincher's fantasy of male rebellion against the Empire of Brands, that failed to mention Ikea? When we meet Norton's character, Jack, he's flipping through an Ikea catalog, the camera peering over his shoulder as he ponders which dining room set "defines me as a person." Of course, he's being ironic--like, duh. Yet I haven't seen so much screen time devoted to a product since introduced James Bond to the latest BMW.
Then there's the visual motif of crumpled Krispy Kreme bags and the totemic shot of a Starbucks cup. If nothing else, the presence of these brands is a tribute to their mighty meme power, further proof that one logo-ed grande latte is worth a thousand words. When Jack grumbles, "We used to read pornography. Now it is the Horchow Home Collection," I understand: I'm on the Horchow Home Collection mailing list, too.
Yet Jack has another problem with consumer culture: His manhood is at risk, held hostage to his cushy condo lifestyle. "How do guys like us know what a duvet is?" complains Pitt's Tyler Durden. Before meeting Tyler, poor wussy, alienated Jack seeks comfort in 12-step programs, where the afflicted hug and weep like girls. Then Tyler teaches him--and, ultimately, every bus boy, barkeep and beat cop in the nation--to take spiritual nourishment from a knuckle sandwich.
The movie's antidote to a consumer culture that promises 24/7 pleasure is pain, inflicted mano-a-mano--a thesis that provides the excuse for lots of nasty, mesmerizing fight scenes during which a succession of faces are pummeled into purplish goo.
Fight Club has attracted controversy not just for its seductively stylish brutality, which has been damned as irresponsible in post-Columbine America. It also touches a sociocultural nerve in the era of erectile dysfunction ads: consumer culture as the emasculator of men.
In the heyday of feminism, consumer culture was the agent of patriarchy, reducing women to sex objects in service to the marketplace. Today, it's the long arm of feminization, offering men empty narcissism in place of masculine achievement.
Wipe the fake blood off the movie's characters and they'd make perfect subjects for a chapter in Susan Faludi's Stiff: The Betrayal of American Men. Like Faludi's lost boys, Jack and Tyler are literally and/or spiritually fatherless. In place of meaningful work or the heroic demands of war, they have credit cards. They traverse, as Faludi herself wrote in Newsweek, "a barren landscape familiar to many men who must contend with a world stripped of socially useful male roles and saturated with commercial images of masculinity."
What is to be done? Faludi's vision of manhood redeemed looks a lot like a WPA mural, resplendent with the lunch-pail solidarity of men who labor with their hands and their brawn to put food on the table. Fincher's is more like an apocalyptic music video, in which the guys find redemption through the fascist bonds of blood and obedience.
In truth, it's difficult to decide which of these scenarios is more unlikely: the resurrection of worker solidarity or the conversion of today's iconoclastic consumers into brainwashed, black-shirted terrorists. Both are pretty farfetched, though the fascism gambit makes a more commercial movie.
In my more generous moments, I think of Fight Club not as a celebration of fascism as the cure for consumer culture but as a satire of it. Jack and Tyler's all-powerful-leader fantasy is the kind of photogenic evil you'd dream up if you were someone who spent a lot of time watching movies like Fight Club, complete with buckets of special-effects blood and an artfully engineered soundtrack of fists thudding and skulls cracking.
We must be meant to laugh at the final scene, in which Ikea Boy and his nihilistic soul mate Marla clasp hands while they watch the destruction of capitalism's infrastructure as if it were a movie. Surely it's all a big goof on virtual violence, the opiate of the male masses in a post-masculine consumer age.
If Fight Club is not a satire, however, then it's one of the most cynical movies I've ever seen. It pretends to criticize the deadening effects of consumer culture so it can push the hot buttons of its young male target audience. In that case, I would like to propose a sequel.
In Fight Club II, Jack and Tyler return with their homemade bombs and their ambition to bring down the advertising-industrial complex. But instead of blowing up credit-card companies, they'll plant them in movie theaters--the ones showing Fight Club.