Darin J. Strohmenger Professor J Paul Johnson Film 340: Film Theory and Criticism 9 December, 2013 Fight Club: An Emasculated Generation’s Cry for Help Since the days of the cave men and Neanderthals, to the cowboys of the west, the same roles within society and principals of virility have always defined masculinity. Today, most of those cornerstones of masculinity have become frowned upon by civilized society, or dumbed down to leisure activity or sport. The 1999 film Fight Club directed by David Fincher, staring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, is a psychological thriller produced the film, all while that is widely criticized, praised providing audiences with one of and analyzed for its portrayal the most thrilling and raved of masculinity as well as about films of the decade. society. The film takes viewers Fincher’s film perfectly portrays for a rollercoaster ride of Jung’s psychological theories; it emotions and challenges social both portrays and criticizes the norms. Fight Club covers image of masculinity today as well everything from psychological the feminization and disorders, to criticizing the emasculation of the male corporate and role in recent culture. economical environment that A History of A Male Generation’s S.O.S. As one of Fincher’s first films, Fight Club is based off Chuck Palahniuk’s book. It starts with a scene many viewers forget, a character tied down and a gun in his mouth. Quickly realizing this isn’t where the story started the unnamed narrator(Edward Norton) begins to describe his life sometime in the past. An insomniac defined by his mediocre job and possessions that he scours for in IKEA magazines, he stumbles through life like a zombie. He finds refuge from his insomnia through going to therapy groups for those with terminal illnesses, until he finds another “faker” like himself – Marla Singer(Helena Bonham Carter). Because Marla attends he no longer finds refuge from the insomnia in the groups. Soon after this he meets a “man’s man” on a business trip, Tyler Durden(Brad Pitt). The two meet up, share a pitcher, and after experiment with hurting each other. The Narrator continues to live and hang with Durden, learning his unconventional lifestyle. Durden starts a strange, purely sexual, relationship with Marla Singer that Marla ruining The Narrator’s “happy place” w ithin the therapy groups
baffles The Narrator. The experimental fighting continues and grows into what the two name “Fight Club.” New franchises of the club spring up in other major cities. It gains a cult following and members begin to show up at Durden’s broken down house for “training.” The Narrator has no idea what Durden is up to and cant seem to figure out what the point of his “Project Mayhem” is. As The Narrator delves deeper into Project Mayhem he finds that people, including Marla, know him as Tyler Durden. Putting the pieces together, he figures out that Durden is an alter ego he created to help pull him out of his boring life and he therefore is solely responsible for Project Mayhem and everything else. After defeating Durden in “battle,” he is left with a gunshot wound in his cheek/jaw and the film ends as he watches Project Mayhem come to fruition while holding hands with Marla. Released in 1999, Fight Club was up against award winning films such as American Beauty, Star Wars Episode I, The Sixth Sense, The Green Mile, and The Matrix. With a budget estimated at $63 million, the film only gained $37 million from the box office in America. According to Mark Bedford, this came The “as a result of an inept marketing original campaign that included images of a poster frothy pink bar of soap accompanied by Bedford refers to. the obtuse, free-‐floating teaser tag line, ‘Mischief. Mayhem. Soap.’” (51). Since its release, however, the film has gained somewhat of a cult following and been named a classic by audiences and critics alike. Time has been generous to the film as it seems to get only better with age, making it one of today’s most popular and studied films, and has even made the Internet Movie Database’s top 500 searched films. The film has been both acclaimed and scrutinized for its themes and portrayals of society, masculinity, and today’s generation as a whole. In an interview Fincher explained, “Some people go to the movies to be reminded that everything is okay. I don’t make those kinds of movies. That, to me, is a lie. Everything is not okay” (qtd. Mockenhaupt par. 13). Jungian Structure of the American Male Psyche One of Freud’s most well known forms of the uncanny is “the double” or a “doppelganger.” To anyone who as seen Fight Club, the word uncanny brings up a familiar feeling. Much of the film is based around these principals, such as an insomniatic version of déjà vu, the automaton, and most importantly the doppelganger.
The version of the doppelganger in Fight Club is separate from the typical application of the term because Tyler Durden is not, at least in appearance, a copy of the Narrator. Instead he is a product of his subconscious that seems to have spilled over into consciousness in the form of a new character. It is near the end of the film, when The Narrator audiences as well as The Narrator discovering that he is find out he truth about Durden, Tyler Durden. that the uncanniness of the doppelganger appears. The Narrator tries to follow Durton, flying around the country, but is always one step behind. He finds that he is being saluted for the actions of Durden. This is the essence of the idea of a doppelganger, that one’s actions can be attributed to another, or vice versa. The Narrator’s doppelganger is not a copy of him in this case, hence Durton not looking like the Narrator, but it is in fact The Narrator’s id, shadow, or subconscious. The Narrator and Durden represent two sides of the same coin. According to Freud it is the ego and the id, to Jung it is the persona and the shadow. While both Freudian and Jungian criticisms apply to such a vastly psychological film as Fight Club, Jung’s model more appropriately describes the instances shown in this film, and perfectly outline the characters within the film. As the wearer of the mask, The Narrator is very clearly labeled as the persona. With his non-‐offensive, clever, and cordial mannerisms he attempts to create a “perfect life,” leave a good impression on everyone, and not disrupt the status quo just as Jung describes the persona. Similarly, this false image, hiding what is later shown to be Durden, is recognized even by his consciousness as he jokingly describes himself. It is the persona that has completely taken over The Narrator, brainwashing him to the point of not allowing any of his primal desires/needs to shine through, which eventually gives way to Durden’s side of the “character coin,” the shadow. Durden’s role, as he put is, is, “all the Durden ways you wish you could be, that’s me.” and other This is precisely the role of the shadow, in a portrayals sense. The shadow represents, similar to of Jung’s Freud’s “id,” the unconscious, primal “Shadow” instincts and desires, and anything repressed by either the conscious or society. One of Durden’s most famous lines explains the relation of the persona and the shadow almost to a ‘T’, “I look like you wanna look, I f*ck like you wanna f*ck, I am
smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.” Defined by the fact that he can do what he wants, when he wants to, and is free from social constraints, Durden is the epitome of Jung’s shadow. Jung characterizes several other archetypes within his theory, again relating to both Freud as well as Vladimir Propp’s characters. Marla Singer represents the last of these seen in the film, the earth goddess/great mother. The great mother character is both a destructive and life giving entity. This character both creates and takes lives while influencing the story. Singer, a strange and troubled woman, seems to be both a hindrance as well as a helping hand to The Narrator and is the instigator for the whole plotline. It is Singer that ruins The Narrator’s daily haven of therapy groups, resulting in the birth of Durden and sending him on a rampage that ends in Project Mayhem. Unknown to viewers until the close of the film, this is both the destruction and rebirth of The Narrator. The correlation of Carter’s character to a mother figure also brings up a slightly more subtle, but very prevalent, portrayal of the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus complex, so named after the classic tale, refers to a psychological attraction to one’s mother, or mother type character. Used by Freud to depict one of the stages of development, it is often referred to in other works and applied to adults. Fight Club portrays the Freudian theory unconventionally in a slightly untypical way. In the story Oedipus, unknowingly, kills his father and marries his mother. The film shows a relationship strikingly similar, yet not directly form the story. Durden, as mentioned earlier, gets sexually involved with Marla Singer. Singer, here, represents the mother figure, and Durden representing the father. Although neither are actually blood related, family, or anything of the sort it isn’t exactly typical, but fits the criteria non-‐the-‐less. It is at the end when The Narrator finally vanquishes his alter ego, Durden, paralleling the story, and unites with Singer.
After Durden is defeated, The Narrator and Marla hold hands, as they watch Project mayhem’s final mission complete.
Also unconventional about this Oedipal portrayal is the fact that The Narrator is “fighting/killing” himself or a figment of his imagination to win, in a sense, “his mother” rather than either an actual person or father/mentor figure. The last factor accounting to the unconventionality of Fight Club’s portrayal of the Oedipus complex is the on screen relationship between The Narrator and Singer. It is clear from the beginning that the characters are very unapproving of each other and their lifestyles. The two seem to be repulsed by each other even, with conversations often ending very abruptly and with fighting. Despite their strange relationship, once Durden is out of the way The Narrator has only one piece of his previous, “normal” life to grab on to, and that is Marla.
Durden, posed similar to a previously seen Calvin Klein Model, as others admire his fighting ability and position as alpha male.
Masculinity: Reality vs. Representation Fight Club is one of the few works to portray white male middle class as the victims of society. Interestingly enough, it is even generous enough to point out numerous scapegoats for which these victims can point fingers at. The film is one of the most acclaimed and criticized films of the past few decades, mostly due to its portrayal and ideas of corporate/economic America adjacent to its ideas of masculinity. The early portrayal of Edward Norton’s character makes it clear that he is a middle class zombie, addicted to his IKEA consumerism and owned by his apartment. As this white collared zombie, The Narrator has become somewhat of a slave to Corporate America in need of a form release. He is The Narrator, unable to sleep, w atching TV all night.
eventually pushed to the edge, where he creates Tyler Durden to fight the power for/with him. Tyler so gracefully puts it, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives.” So what caused the meltdown of this average, middle class American? Some critics have Bob embracing The Narrator linked the formation of Durden, fight club, Project Mayhem, and the mini male army as representative of the lack of Masculinity in today’s society. As a character, The Narrator shows at several points that he is and has always lacked a male or father figure within his life. Hugging Bob, the testicular cancer patient with “bitch tits,” and crying in his chest is one of these moments. This entire scene and idea of needing to hug people, in particular a man, is important according to Rudell, “in that it indicates the Narrator’s search for comfort from a man” (499). He also points out The Narrator’s “fragility” when his insomnia returns with the introduction of another woman, Marla, in the therapy groups, upsetting his balance and only refuted by the appearance of another male figure – Durden. In one of his early conversations with Durden they both openly tell audiences their missing or judgmental father problems, The Narrator missing his father and Durden’s supposedly telling him how he’s “supposed” to live his life. These stories are representative of the typical American male. This conversation ends with one of Durden’s most important and controversial lines regarding masculinity within the film, “A generation of men raised by women. I'm wondering if another woman is the answer we really need,” but these words come from the same mouth that is the pinnacle of today’s idea of masculinity.
Fincher attempts to make Durden, somewhat like Pitt in real life, the image of pure masculinity. This shows in his perfect charm and build, but also through his actions throughout the film. Ruddell points out that, “Tyler represents a far more masculinized image than the narrator, which is first apparent in his desire to fight other men” (499). From fighting, to seducing Marla(and somewhat The Narrator in the plane scene), to starting an underground boxing club, to carrying out Project Mayhem, everything he does is aimed at being the “cool guy,” in the most masculine way possible. Even the house and way he live are allusions to his masculinity, Ruddell notices, “he takes The Narrator away from his obsession with furniture and clothes(traditionally coded as feminine), to a place here he lives with no comfort, and with many other men, reminiscent of warriors or gladiators”(499). Durden is shown only winning fights, giving orders, or leading the group to victory – all “masculine” in the eyes of viewers. “Is that what a man looks like,” The Narrator asks Durden in one scene, both scoffing about the image of masculinity represented through a Calvin Klein advertisement. But not moments later Pitt is shown in a boxing scene replicating the same pose seen from the model. In the Calvin Klein scene, the characters joke and laugh about masculinity, but the joke is on Pitt as he portrays that exact model in a society that has lost its footholds in what masculinity once was. The idea of the ripped man in a loincloth with a dead animal slung over his shoulders was never the perfect image of masculinity, but it was close. For all of history a similar form of brute-‐ness has applied as a man’s model on how to be a man. Today this doesn’t even come close. “American manhood has become totally disconnected from meaningful social purpose,” Michael Clark says (66). Fight Club shows that outlets for males to show masculinity are dwindling today, and with globalization and the takeover of consumerism on culture, the scale on which masculinity is measured has switched, in part at least, to The measurement in participation in Narrator consumerism. “Consumer culture obsessing has emasculated men, pushing about his them increasingly into furniture collection. ornamental and passive roles traditionally associated with the feminine sphere” (67). “Many men have found themselves driven to more domineering … displays in their frantic quest for a meaningful showdown,” Faludi explains, in which they “attempt to compensate … for their lives of quiet desperation” (31). Fight Club is a perfect example of this, showing the masses of men eager to participate in the underground boxing cult. It shows the
idea that men must be pinned against an opponent of some sort. These opponents come in different forms from themselves to groups of people(gays, race, nation, etc.) or are replaced with “emasculating self-‐doubts”(67). To repeat what Durden says, this generation has no great war and no other sort of great problem to send men to release their masculinity upon to solve. For the first time in history real, true masculinity in its purest form has little to no value in society. Through this the film implies that without such an enemy “that white, middle American men are their own worst enemies” (67). Through a Jungian eye, we see both extremes of the male psyche. These two halves of the mind, one overly conservative and the other outlandishly irrational and eccentric, help portray the uncanny doppelganger and address the idea of the Oedipus complex. Today the luxury and civility is very apparent and seems to have taken the place of masculinity in society. As a film that seems to so accurately depict the bleak lives of people today, Fight Club sends an even bleaker message of the defeat and misplacement of masculinity. Today’s men may not be Hercules, or Daniel Boone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, but masculinity today is different than it has been in all of history, and men just need to find their new place and form of expression. Perhaps, after all is said and done, Durden still best describes masculinity today, “It’s not till we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
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