Project Mayhem: Two Fight Club Virgins Watch the 1999 Cult Classic for the First Time

Project Mayhem: Two Fight Club Virgins Watch the 1999 Cult Classic for the First Time

It’s one of the most often repeated movie lines of all time: “The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about fight club.” Twenty-two years on, it is time to talk about Fight Club.

David Fincher’s 1999 cult classic film, an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s sardonic novel of the same name, is unavoidable, even for those who haven’t seen it—like my colleague Rich Juzwiak and myself, before last week. Part of the plot has infiltrated some collective understanding of pop culture: the name evokes the image of an underground bare-knuckle boxing ring, of barbarity, of stifled sexuality, and of celebration. Despite the cardinal rule, people fucking love to talk about Fight Club.

In 1999, that might’ve come as a surprise: Fight Club was a box office flop. The film grossed $37 million domestically off a $63 million budget, Indiewire reports, perhaps emblematic of its genius: Fight Club was misunderstood at the time, though it has stood the test of it.

Fight Club is layered, much more involved than the appropriative homoeroticism and Gen-X apathy-turned-violence of its marketing. It is a critique of capitalism, of masculinity, of apathy. Starring Edward Norton as “The Narrator,” an insomniac “30-year-old child,” as he refers to himself, an automobile recall specialist unfulfilled by his white-collar, hyper-materialistic life and Brad Pitt as “Tyler Durden,” an impetuous soap salesman, the film truly begins when the pair start a Fight Club—offering a frightening, boys-only release. What follows is, well, what follows—a great film worth watching. –Maria Sherman

MARIA: Prior to last night, Fight Club was a pop culture blind spotconsider it my version of binging the entire Sopranos series over quarantineand what a space to fill! I’ve never read a Chuck Palahniuk book. I knew it was directed by David Fincher; I’ve seen and quite possibly once enjoyed 2010’s The Social Network and 2014’s Gone Girl. I’ve committed the first two rules of Fight Club to memory, probably after watching 30 Rock’s parody, where well-to-do housewives pummel each other to take the edge off. (More embarrassingly, as a student of third-wave emo/Hot Topic-branded mall pop-punk, there’s a Taking Back Sunday music video where the Long Island band recreates scenes from the movie. I always thought it was stupid, now I see it simply lacks the disaffection of “The Narrator.”) I also pre-judged Fight Club as violent, braggadocious nonsense (much like third-wave emo), assuming it was a movie specifically engineered to appeal to, I don’t know, freshman film students and men with an exaggerated sense of machismo. I was wrong. I judged the book by its cover. Forgive me Fight Club fathers, for I have sinned. If someone told me a vampiric Helena Bonham Carter was in this, rocking stellar goth-y thrift store fit after stellar goth-y thrift store fit, I’m confident I would’ve watched it sooner.

I think I… liked this movie? And in a way where I was able to divorce my appreciation for it from our correct political momentthere are obvious and potentially lazy parallels to be made between Project Mayhem and far-right, incel groups, but overallgreat film? And Mr. Robot totally ripped it off, someone call Sam Esmail stat.

Anyway, this is Flashback Film Friends, and I want to make a conclusive judgment call. I think this movie is good, but too long. Or maybe my brain is mush. Perhaps from getting into too many fights.

Rich, did you enjoy rewatching Fight Club? When was the last time you saw it?

If someone told me a vampiric Helena Bonham Carter was in this, rocking stellar goth-y thrift store fit after stellar goth-y thrift store fit, I’m confident I would’ve watched it sooner.

RICH: Well, Maria, we’re actually deviating from the FFF format here because before yesterday, I, too, had never seen Fight Club. 1999 was the height of my, “I will avoid this pop culture thing that everyone is excited about for literally any reason” phase, and so I skipped Fight Club. (I’ve never seen Titanic or Men in Black, either.) I think beyond the hype, I could very easily detect the homoeroticism in Fight Club’s marketing and avoided it extra hard for fear of liking what I saw, as I was still closeted. Turns out my hunch was right—the intimacy between Ed Norton and Brad Pitt is audacious, the fighting scenes are barely veiled proxies for sex among men (complete with a pre-game cruising and the sort of dingy basement arena that is typical in underground sex clubs), and Pitt was never hotter nor has he been since. This movie is, in part, a succinct thesis on Pitt’s sex appeal, and I acknowledge that as someone who has never been particularly into him (until now, I guess?).

Beyond pushing my gay button, I just loved this movie. In the ’90s, movies really earned their keep. The talk-at-the-camera, self-referential style (Pitt’s Tyler Durden is a projectionist who inserts frames of porn into kids movies for kicks and is, himself, introduced in a series of subliminal frame slices before his Ed Norton’s Narrator officially meets him) was taken as gimmicky by some critics; now it just reads like personality, which so many studio movies are lacking. David Fincher employs a kitchen-sink approach to his audio-visual storytelling (the catalog-esque labeling of all the furniture and its costs in Narrator’s apartment was my favorite visual flair). The message of the movie is opaque—is it, as some feared, a call to arms for men to take back their masculinity by any means necessary, even fascism; a satire of men trying to hold onto antiquated ideas of manhood; or an illustration of the discontents of the disaffected yet possession-consumed Generation X—which makes its style that much more crucial. Fight Club is a mood, one of pre-millenium tension—note how Durden and Narrator’s plan to blow up credit card companies and wipe out debt would be doing the job that many hoped/feared Y2K would do.

Screenshot:Fight Club (1999)/20th Century Fox

I didn’t mind the length, though as is the case for just about any movie that hits the ground running (except, maybe, Trainspotting), Fight Club can’t quite keep up the pace it sets for itself. But I wouldn’t cut much more than 10 minutes out of this perfectly realized vision that manages to both reflect its time and transcend it.

Were you surprised by anything you saw, Maria?

MARIA: Ahh, brilliant, I’m glad we’re sharing this experience! (Let’s do Men In Black next.) I, too, found myself lusting after Pitt in campy collared shirts and colored leather in a way I never have before (save for a few moments in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and no, I will not elaborate further). In particular, I’m thinking of a scene near the end of Fight Club in the hotel room, where Pitt’s Tyler Durden wears what appears to be an orange crochet crop-top and glamorous fur overcoat; he is an alternate universe’s Penny Lane and I’d risk it all for him.

Screenshot:Fight Club (1999) / 20th Century Fox

Horniess aside, and to answer your question with a hasty generalization—there wasn’t much I wasn’t surprised by! Half an hour in, I was weary the movie was going to be a hamfisted, nihilistic treatise on unbridled and misogynistic masculinity positioned as a critique of insatiable consumerism: primarily in the ways Norton’s Narrator treats Carter’s Marla, or in a throwaway line about Durden’s soap business being made from human fat stolen from Liposuction clinics and “selling rich women their ass fat right back to them,” or in treating bare-knuckle fistfighting as therapy overall, or even in the way the film is lit—there’s so much darkness—and the list goes on. But as you pointed out, I think the film’s message is opaque because there are so many readings of it, which makes it challenging to distill into a central ambition. And, as I imagine for some people, quite frustrating to watch. Happy to report I am not one of them!

Considering the prevalent homoeroticism of the film: I found myself moved most by the brief moments of quiet intimacy between Norton and Pitt’s characters—when they’re shaving or brushing their teeth together at a shared sink, when they’re opening up in a dilapidated kitchen, and most significantly, when Durden’s bathing in a grimy porcelain tub, cigarette dangling from his lips, and the Narrator is sitting on the ground inches from him, cleaning his wounds. While one is naked and the other literally has some skin exposed, they discuss their estranged fathers. (There’s a great scene, too, where the Narrator asks Marla, “Why does a weaker person need to attach themselves to a stronger person?” and she flips it back on him, “Tell me.”) But because of that fact, I—as I imagine anyone with blood in their veins and a beating heart would—grew increasingly invested in their relationship, no matter how unbalanced, hoping there would be some romantic solution. Of course, the last 20 or 30 minutes jettisoned that narrative for me. And I’m not just talking about the excellent use of Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” at the end.

All that said! After speaking about the movie with a friend, I found myself really invested in the turn to fascism: where the undeniably charismatic leader Durden manages to create a militia with no immediately clear objective (which, of course, leads to terrorism). What did you make of that development?

Fight Club is a formal exercise, a masculine answer to the “women’s pictures” that have been a fixture of Hollywood since its virtual inception. It exists in ambiguity between satire and straightforward commentary on masculinity.

RICH: So, though I avoided viewing Fight Club during the 21-odd years after its release, I did not avoid being spoiled and I was well aware of the twist going in. I will assume that readers are too or that they will turn away now: Norton and Pitt’s characters are one and the same. Two sides of a coin. Id and ego, or something like that. Knowing this did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the movie, I’m happy to report. There are lots and lots of clues that give it away (Norton beating himself up in his boss’s office and saying that doing so felt like his first fight with Tyler; Marla’s incredulity at the way Narrator treats her after she has just had sex with Tyler). Like many a ’90s twist, I thought this was handled extremely well—I imagine the clues are quite easy to miss and thus the reveal is potentially flooring.

I loved how the militia grew without a moral center—the first two rules of Fight Club are to not discuss it and the first rule of Project Mayhem is to ask no questions about it. Id trumps ideology, and catharsis without direction is terrorism. I thought of that as commentary on unfettered emotions among men. In a way, Fight Club is a formal exercise, a masculine answer to the “women’s pictures” that have been a fixture of Hollywood since its virtual inception. It exists in ambiguity between satire and straightforward commentary on masculinity—at least, as it has been presented and socially acquired. It’s social commentary ad absurdum.

There have been pieces written about Project Mayhem predicting/inspiring the Proud Boys. You pointed out the obviousness and potential laziness of these parallels, which I agree with. At the very least, I don’t think it serves anyone to spend much time sketching them out. Something that did strike me is how much Joker owes to this movie—as well as a lot of the male behavior I’ve observed in the years since its release. I had no idea how many douchebags I encountered were just doing bad Tyler Durden drag until now.

Screenshot:Fight Club (1999) / 20th Century Fox

One thing I do want to point out is Helena Bonham Carter’s insanely good performance—subtle, sexy, weird. Years before the term “manic pixie dream girl” was coined, she was already subverting it. The movie’s Wikipedia has an interesting rundown of other actors considered for the role of Marla:

Fincher’s first choice for the role of Marla Singer was Janeane Garofalo. While Fincher initially stated that she turned it down because she objected to the film’s sexual content, in an interview in 2020, Garofalo revealed she did accept the part but was dropped because Norton felt like she was wrong for the part. The filmmakers considered Courtney Love and Winona Ryder as early candidates.The studio wanted to cast Reese Witherspoon, but Fincher felt she was too young. He chose to cast Bonham Carter based on her performance in the 1997 film The Wings of the Dove.

I quite enjoy the work of everyone mentioned, especially Garofalo, though I really can’t see her in this role, unlike, say Courtney Love. I’m happy it shook out the way that it did. Marla isn’t a particularly generous role, and Bonham Carter took a huge risk by playing Marla with such subtlety, but I think she helps make a good movie perfect in a role that could have seemed inconsequential in other hands.

MARIA: Agreed on all accounts—I have a hard time imagining Garofalo in that role, and hopefully not only because my image of her during this time period is tethered to Reality Bites and Romy and Michele’s Heather Mooney. (Unless my memory fails me, I don’t remember either film as being particularly violent, and her distinct brand of edginess strikes me as more darkly humorous; Carter has a range of danger.)

Also, while you were writing your response, I learned I always misunderstood the Fight Club film poster. Pitt holds a pink rectangle baring the movie’s title, and it’s a bar of soap. I always thought it was an eraser. The gifts, they just keep on giving.

And with that, I’ll end the conversation here, with a sentiment we both can agree on: Fight Club is a rare and wonderful thing—a movie that actually lives up to the hype.

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