Monday, May 19, 2008

Deconstructing Fight Club

Updated: Be sure to read the comments to this post where I clarify the claims I am making.

I've already written about a couple of movies that seduce us into a kind of self-deception. Rashomon tempts us into reading its ending optimistically, thereby confirming its pessimistic thesis that we often lie to ourselves. (You can read my analysis here.) And The Matrix tempts us into ignoring its Marxist political implications, thereby confirming its thesis that our society is in the thrall of a capitalist ideology. (You can read that argument here.)

Now I want to give a brief argument that Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) does a similar thing: it tempts us into idolizing Tyler Durden as a pumped-up man's man, while simultaneously undercutting traditional masculinity with a pervasive homoerotic subtext. I won't bother to detail the gay imagery and symbolism in the film here. Just take my word for it. (One essay which gives a good catalog of the homoerotic references is Robert Alan Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus, "Hiding Homoeroticism in Plain View" in Critical Studies in Media Communication, March 2002.)

For now I'm more interested in self-deception. The most interesting scene along these lines is the one where Tyler looks directly into the camera and says, “You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis.” On the surface he is giving a kind of anti-advertisement meant to counter the consumerist messages of the media. But note that the film literally breaks down at this point – the sides of the image warp and we see the sprocket holes.

Here is the scene:

This cinematic device can be read as a simple homage to Bergman's Persona, a film, like Fight Club, about two people with an ambiguous relationship and which also includes a similar scene where the film breaks down. Here is that scene:

But the Bergman reference doesn't entirely make sense. Persona is about the nature of art and the human capacity for communication and other concepts which make sense of Bergman's self-reflexivity. But why is David Fincher revealing the cinematic basis of his film? Why does the film break down at exactly this point in Fight Club? I propose that our attention is being drawn to the fact that we are watching a movie -- a product of the mass media -- at exactly the moment when Tyler is attempting to undermine the influence of the media. Fincher is deconstructing himself. There is another example of this technique when Tyler is getting on a bus and sees a Gucci ad of a naked man and wonders "Is that what a man looks like?" The irony is that Tyler is played by Brad Pitt who has the exact same body as the model in the ad!

Fincher wants us to see that although Tyler is the unnamed narrator's image of an ideal man, that image is something socially constructed by the media. The things Tyler says sound a lot like people such as John Eldredge in his book Wild at Heart (e.g., "God designed men to be dangerous" but our culture teaches us instead "to be a nice guy"). And it is easy to get caught up in Tyler's speeches. But the film subverts itself, pointing out that the message that a "real man" is a macho brute like Mel Gibson (Eldredge argues that Jesus was more like Braveheart's William Wallace than Mother Theresa!) is just another one of the social constructions presented by the mass media.

But we don't notice these acts of self-deconstruction, because we don't want to. In order to realize that the film doesn't think Tyler's brand of machismo is the self-evidently true masculine ideal, you'd have to be able to admit that Fight Club is actually a gay film.


Brandy said...

Have you read the other article by Westerfelhaus and Brookey "At the Unlikely Confluence of Conservative Religion and Popular Culture: Fight Club as Heteronormative Ritual" in Text and Performance Quarterly, Vol 24, No. 3/4, July/October 2004, pp. 302-326???
It makes the argument that Fight Club actually upholds traditional masculinity. Its interesting. And I think it makes a lot of sense.... they point out how it is telling that the narrator is holding Marla's hand at the end of the movie instead of a mans.
I enjoy your blog by the way. I found it by way of your wife's, which I found randomly. I actually graduated APU back in 2006. :-)

leavingtheeddy said...

i half agree with you and i half disagree with you. there are definitely elements of homoeroticism in fight club. no argument there. and i agree that in some ways there is this tension between upholding what would be considered "traditional" masculinity and deconstructing it. on its surface this film is about ed norton's character hating himself and creating a persona that is badass. but i think the film is about more than that, and more than just a gay film. it's about the ways that society tricks us into being a certain kind of man, one that is domesticated and focused on the things that we buy, while at the same time, it's saying that a totally violent man will eventually destroy himself and everyone around him.

not only that, there is a tension between men feeling like they need to be macho and constantly being told that their machoness is no longer acceptable. so what do men do when they feel as if they are no longer men, and that even if they were men they wouldn't be allowed to be the kind of men they want to be?

i realize some of this sounds convoluted, but these are some of the things that i was thinking through when i most recently watched this film. as a transman who is learning for the first time about masculinity and is working to form my own sense of maleness without having been socialized male i find a lot of beautiful things in fight club, as well as a lot of awful things. but i think characterizing it simply as a film about queerness doesn't do it full justice.

The Film Philosopher said...

Brandy, I had not read the article you mentioned, but on your recommendation I looked it up. Thanks! It is actually a better article than the one I cited by the same authors.

But I have to disagree with their reading of the end of the movie. Here is what they say about the Jack (i.e., the unnamed narrator) killing Tyler:

"Jack rids himself of what is, from the heteronormative perspective that informs the Oedipal myth, an improper, narcissistic, homoerotic object of desire. This normalizing act is not only rife with homoerotic symbolism, but it reflects as well a primary cultural assumption shaping the heteronormative social order: homosexuality is destructive of self as well as society."

On their view, Jack enacts a queer version of the Freudian-Oedipal drama by killing Tyler (his homoerotic father-figure) and accepting a heterosexual relationship with Marla (his father-figure's love interest and hence his symbolic "mother").

In general I'm suspicious of Freudian film analysis because I think it tends to be reductive, squeezing every film into a single mold. I'd rather take a film on its own terms. That said, this film definitely cries out for an Oedipal reading. But I think it subverts this reading in the final scene.

Watch the ending scene again:

Notice that Jack has lost his pants and in silhouette his coat looks exactly like Marla's dress. Jack and Marla are MIRROR IMAGES of each other! When Jack killed Tyler, he didn't eliminate his father out of fear of emasculation. Quite the opposite, the in fact emasculates himself. Remember that Tyler IS Jack. He is the macho part of himself. And Jack kills that part off, accepting his feminine side.

We have to keep in mind what happened to the character of Bob, the ex-champion weightlifter who got testicular cancer from taking steroids:

Jack says, “Eight months ago Bob’s testicles were removed. Then hormone therapy. He developed bitch-tits because his testosterone was too high and his body upped the estrogen. And that’s where I fit in…”

I this statement about Bob to be basically the structure of Jack's own narrative: Symbolically, Jack’s testicles/masculinity have been removed/repressed by modern society, so he needs a kind of hormone therapy (fight club = injection of testosterone) but he gets too much testosterone (Tyler = Jack's out of control masculinity) and ends up having to castrate himself (shooting himself to completely remove that aspect).

Once you add to this narrative, the evidence of all the homoeroticism, you start to see that the sexuality Jack is repressing is a homosexuality. He can't admit this to himself, but neither can he replace it with heterosexuality. (Notice how, when Tyler asks Jack if he ever had sex with Marla, he seems disgusted by the thought. He's simply not attracted to her.)

His only option is to channel that homoerotic energy into an extreme form of masculinity in the fight clubs. But once his masculine side (AKA Tyler) starts to get out of control, he is shocked into accepting his repressed feminine (gay) side.

The Film Philosopher said...

To leavingtheeddy,

Thanks for your comments. You're definitely right that there is more to Fight Club than a simple queer manifesto. I was only discussing one element of the film.

And for many years I actually had the same interpretation you had of the film. But once I notice the gay subtext (which was right there in plain sight, but which I was choosing not to see), I began to realize that the movie is actually making fun of the idea that there is such a thing as a "real man" which must resist being "domesticated" (to use your word) by civilization.

The point I was making in my original post was that the film is set up in such a way to allow us to deceive ourselves about the true message of the film. Many people watch this movie and find it to be reactionary, anti-feminist, etc. And conservative film critics think those are its GOOD qualities! But in order to give this sort of reading (which I myself gave when the film first came out), you have to blind yourself to the film's pervasive queerness.

Thanks again for your comments. I'm glad my post sparked enough interest for you to write me. I hope to read your comments again on my future posts!

leavingtheeddy said...

i totally understand what you're saying. and your explanation to brandy made your queer reading of the film make a lot more sense to me. it's a fascinating read to look at the intersection of queerness and traditional masculinity.

what would the film have looked like if in the end jack and tyler were holding hands: for jack to have embraced both his feminine and masculine sides.

thanks for an interesting discussion and much to think about.

The Film Philosopher said...

The Feminarian forwarded me the following comment from our mutual friend Edette:

"tell him i am loving his blog, wanted to strangle him over the fight club post yesterday but i am over it now. i just think that movie gets way over thought. i think it is about men just manning up and being something other then the crap version we have made them into - but thats just me."

I don't know why she didn't just post these comments directly to my blog, but I wanted to put them up here so I could respond to them.

Edette's use of the term "manning up" proves that not only has she bought the surface reading of the film, she has bought the traditional vision of masculinity that the surface reading of the film is promoting.

Edette's my friend, so I know she won't take it the wrong way if I say I find the term "manning up" offensive. It implies that if you're not "tough" (read: aggressive and violent) then you're not a "real man". Which, conversely implies that if you are a woman, you can't be tough without looking "manly". I'd rather say that true strength has nothing to do with aggression and is equally available to all genders.

As to the comment about "over thinking" a movie, I agree that this sometimes happens. For example, the point of my post about The Matrix is that it has been "over thought" in the sense of making it look like it's interested in the sorts of questions professional philosophers are interested in. Instead I think its message is fairly obvious and doesn't require us to "over think" anything.

I suspect that much of the resistance to my post on Fight Club comes from the fact that I didn't bother to detail the homoerotic subtext of the film. Here are some of the more obvious points:

1. the opening image of Tyler's gun in Jack's mouth is composed to look like an act of oral sex. In this scene, Jack says: “That old saying, how you always hurt the one you love, well, look, it works both ways." In other words, you love the one who hurts you (= Jack loves Tyler).

2. Jack and Tyler's first fight is after a "date". Tyler says "Cut the foreplay and just ask" if Jack can come home with him. After the fight Jack and Tyler share the proverbial "post-coital cigarette".

3. The first two rules of fight club are "do not talk about fight club" -- in other words, keep it in the closet.

4. On marriage, Tyler says “We're a generation of men raised by women. I'm wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” Just afterward, we see scenes of domestic life (e.g., Jack fixing Tyler’s tie) as Jack says “We were Ozzie and Harriet.”

5. Jack beats up “Angel Face” (“I felt like destroying something beautiful.”) right after Tyler congratulates him and makes Jack feel jealous (“I am Jack's inflamed sense of rejection.”). He even says “Tyler dumped me” followed by “I am Jack's broken heart.”

6. Jack has no sexual interest in Marla (the only woman in the film).
He seems disgusted when Tyler asked if he had ever had sex with her. When she asks him to check her for breast cancer (to “play doctor” as she later says), she asks “You feel anything?” and he replies “No. Nothing.”

7. The final image of Jack and Marla is composed so Jack looks like a woman -- his silhouette is a perfect mirror image of Marla's.

The key scene to me is the scene where Jack beats up "Angel Face" (Jared Leto's character). I'd seen the movie almost ten times before I realized that Jack was jealous of him. I never understood why Jack beat him up. But evidence of the jealous is right there on the screen when Jack watches Tyler congratulate Angel Face and Jack says he has a "broken heart". But I repressed this obvious reading so as not to admit the queerness of the film.

Hence the "self-deception" described in my original post.