In honor of Fight Club’s ten year anniversarynt and recent release on Blu Ray, I will be posting a three-part ode to this classic anti-capitalist film.
Here is part 1:
In opposition to the celebratory policing of the body so in vogue in the contemporary USA, Fight Club scorns a society that has allowed the body to become a mere object. Deriding the very technology that many other films (such as Forrest Gump) celebrate at both the level of content and form, Fight Club refuses to buy into the supposed technological promise of disembodied capitalism where we can project our bodies into the past or future.
Through a contemplation of the pervasiveness of violence, ennui, and lack of affect definitive of the late 90’s, the film meditates on the body as brutalized not only by the self and by other bodies, but by the whole ethos of capitalism.
In contradistinction to Forrest Gump, the film did not celebrate the current state of affairs in America by offering up a bodiless white male hero. Rather, it introduced us to a dejected and morally bankrupt capitalist everyman who suffers profoundly due to the disembodied and depersonalized capitalist landscape in which he must live.
Most reviews and articles about the film did not consider it in this light though. Instead, they focused on its supposed celebration of violence and virulent masculinity.
Again and again, writers interpreted the film as a sort of call to arms that inveigled viewers to reject ideas about the ‘new man’ and return to ‘traditional masculinity’, complete with bloodthirstiness, aggression, and domination.
For example, Henry Giroux claims the film “locates violence as the privileged vehicle for male community and solidarity.” I myself see it as critique of violent masculinity, rather than a celebration of it.
The film’s critique of consumer capitalism was not lost on most, but the majority of commentators felt this focus was overshadowed by a larger concern with the supposed ‘crisis of masculinity’ occurring in the late 90’s. Giroux argues the film in fact reduces the crisis of capitalism into a crisis of masculinity arguing that “the crisis lies less in the economic, political, and social conditions of capitalism itself than in the rise of a culture of consumption in which men are allegedly domesticated, rendered passive, soft and emasculated”.
In a sense, Giroux is suggesting that the film serves as a rallying cry to re-masculinize the body, to bring back the brawn and bravado of the Rambo age. To him, this is a key weakness of the film as it focuses on an individualized politics that waters down real world issues into mere fist fights. However, Giroux’s reading of the film focuses mainly on the surface images – he spotlights the violence, the quasi-fascism and celebration of militaristic hard bodies that the camera repeatedly captures. Yet his reading fails to address the fact that that the main character Jack ultimately rejects his alter-ego’s violent credo and that Tyler is, in fact, an undesirable double that is destroyed by the film’s end.
What readings such as Giroux’s also fail to consider is the film’s sustained focus on the body – at both the level of form and content. At the formal level, the camera zooms in on bloodied faces, battered bodies, and black eyes. The film is also awash in the fluids of the body – blood, sweat, spit, and urine practically ooze from the screen.
The sound editing further accentuates the material factors of embodiment, emphasizing the thud of punches, the thump of bodies hitting the ground, the thwack of fist against bone.
At the level of content, the film contemplates the status of the body within the advanced capitalist American landscape. This bodily fixation is not quite as apparent in the film as it is in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, but the movie nevertheless gestures towards broad questions involving what consumer capitalism does to the body. And what it does is not pretty.
Up next: Part 2: (Dis)Embodying Capitalism