Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fight Club- A Study

In David Fincher’s 1999 opus Fight Club, adapted from the Chuck Palahniuk novel of the same name , ‘Jack’, our protagonist and narrator played by Edward Norton, is an insomniac  working for an unnamed car manufacturer who is reliant on visiting various support groups and feigning serious illness in order to get the human contact he craves  and which is the only thing to help him sleep .Jack’s life changes when he meets Tyler Durden, a  charismatic soap maker played by Brad Pitt. After his apartment is blown to pieces in mysterious circumstances, Jack goes to live with Tyler in a seedy squat, and the fair form a secret bare knuckle boxing organisation, known as ‘Fight Club’. However, in a Freudian  twist, we discover that Tyler Durden is actually a manifestation of ‘Jack’ subconscious  , and repressed desires .

Fincher’s film is essentially about alienation ,and the repression of male anger and primal desire in a repressed and  conformist society  . Jack is a white collar worker, with no discernible friends ,or relationships, and the only female influence in his life is that of the mysterious Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) , who he treats with a mixture of disdain, pity and sexual desire. Indeed  , women do not feature much in Fight Club, despite Tyler’s assertion that :

“. .we are a generation of men raised by women”

Fincher foregrounds the male characters in the film, and any representation of women is as almost purely sexual creatures , for example a female cancer sufferer in one of Jack’s support groups is shown begging for sex before she dies, seemingly willing to debase herself in order for sexual gratification .. Similarly , Marla is portrayed as almost purely sexual, at least for the first half of the film, and after a botched suicide attempt, embarks on a torrid series of sexual encounters with Marla. This depiction of various female characters could be construed by many as making Fight Club a misogynistic text. The way in which Fincher portrays these encounters is through the sounds of Marla and Tyler making love in an exaggerated and almost comic way, with Jack enduring the exaggerated sounds of their love making .This is interesting because if we view this as Jack and Marla together on a second viewing of the film(after the aforementioned twist is revealed), we can see that Jack’s being alone in these scenes denotes his isolated and alienated mental state, even in an encounter as intimate as this. Fincher shows very little visually, for instance at one point we glimpse Marla through a door left ajar after one lovemaking session, but Tyler then blocks Jack’s view. We then view in a subsequent scene a dream sequence in which Jack makes love to Marla, however the sequence is edited in such a fashion (gausian blurs of the two, 360 degree angles of the two freeze framed, hours compressed to just a few seconds) that we are taken out of the action, in this way ,Fincher symbolises the protagonist (Norton)’s isolated mental state and feelings of alienation and also his repressed sexual desires. The  voyeuristic tendencies of  the narrator at this stage are indicative of the narrator’s fear of sexual difference(Hayward : 447)

Fincher also cleverly uses the mise-en-scene to  symbolise the narrator’s mental stae unravelling .At the start of the film , the lighting of the various scenes is sterile, washed out, fluorescent lighting abounds, and  the camera angles are mostly either static shots or slow tracking shots , these early scenes carry connotations of the narrator’s insomnia , and
    A   lethargic state of mind  . However , as the narrator’s relationship with Tyler Durden develops ,we see Fincher begin to add more of a greenish colour grade to the film.  . This colour scheme is most apparent in the brutal fight scenes depicted in the actual ‘Fight Club itself, and is key to decoding the meaning of Fight Club .On on one hand, green traditionally  carries connotations of growth and renewal ,and   we are shown ‘Jack’ finally finding purpose and his own identity as a man in the world through the release of brute violence. The use of green also denotes a sense of returning to nature , and acting on primal instinct, one of the underlying themes of the film.

We can also note Fincher’s clever use of mise-en-scene as an allegory of ‘Jack’ mental collapse  and growing alienation and isolation through his subtle changes in set design throughout. When we first meet the narrator/Jack , his world is one of endless sterile airports, cramped airplanes and ,although we only view it briefly, his staid ,catalogue furnished apartment, denoting a sense of familiarity but also boredom and repeitiveness. However, when Jack encounters Tyler, we see a shift occur quite dramatically when Jack ‘s apartment is blown up(later we find out this is self inflicted) .Jack and Tyler, as we see it, then move into a desolate and dank abandoned building, in the industrialised part of town, “miles from anyone” .This is significant because this change in location carries connotation of a change in personality, initially viewed by the audience through Jack’s growing confidence and rejection of societal forms . From this point the set design and also camera movements become more ragged and therefore exciting , signifying a change in the outlook of the narrator (Jack/Norton).

 The various men who begin to take part in the brutal ritual of ’Fight Club’ find , under Tyler/Jack’s charismatic tutelage, we are told ,find an escape from their humdrum lives of work and little else. Even Bob, a former weightlifter ( played by singer Meatloaf) ,who has grown female breasts due to treatment for testicular cancer, gets to reclaim his masculinity through the medium of Fight Club.

The subject of  the repression of male desires in Fight Club manifests itself first in the character of Tyler Durden , played by  Brad Pitt, an impossible example of iconoclastic cool and rebellious swagger , who himself acts as a  microcosm of one of the films main visual themes : the fetishism of the male form . Tyler as a projection of Jack’s imagination represents not only the attitude and aggression of the alpha-male archetype, but also represents the underlying longing in the male psyche for physical perfection(Giroux, 15). Fincher’s choice of Pitt, a former male model  and established sex symbol to play the part is a calculated  and canny one, his recognition  of Pitt’s star power and acknowledgement  the irony of casting  Pitt, at the time just starting to break out of his ‘pretty boy’ typecasting  , lends the role of Tyler a sense of the kind of wish fulfilment that Tyler represents for Jack  . In turn ,the audience, or at least in theory the male portion of the audience, recognizes themselves the desire to be Tyler(Hayward ,355).This is another example of Fincher playing on the theme of repressed male desire ,and has caused many to label Fight Club as a homoerotic text .

This fetishism of the male form is represented through long lingering close ups of both Norton and Pitt in various states of undress, counter to the blurred  views of Marla Singet mentioned earlier. As the film progresses , the shots of various fights are edited to be more intimate through the use of close ups and subtle movements of the camera ,for example , in one particular scene involving a fight between a character played by Jared Leto and Norton’s Jack, a long track in followed by several slow  motion shots give the fight a sense of  intimacy , and the  deft camera work denotes not only  a perverse pleasure in the brutal violence being perpetrated, but also a sense of a desire fulfilled, that of the primal male to dominate and destroy .

In conclusion, Fight Club could be described, in the sense of its coding, as a post-modern study of how globalisation and the culture of repressed white collar workers foregoing their primal male identity results in eventual alienation from this essential aspect of their personality,  and the need to express oneself through brute violence and also how this culture of the repressed male “a generation of men raised by women” results eventually in a ‘world outlook characterized by misogyny , nihilistic self isolation and eventual descent into mental illness’ (Giroux 17).
Stephen O ' Connor


  1. Hey, Nice job on the study Stephen, have you read the novel, it's a great book! I've started a blog on here, if ya want to follow it.

  2. Cheers man , did it for college and just kinda lashed it up for the craic , just followed ya back there :).Lookin forward to readin more of your stuff!