Tuesday 31 March 2020

Cult Cinema #27: The Ninth Rule

Fight Club (1999)

The single easiest and laziest thing in the world right now would be to start an essay about this movie with a gag about the First Rule of Fight Club, and the Second Rule of Fight Club, and the juxtaposition of the two and whether they're amusingly the same or amusingly not the same.

The second easiest and laziest thing in the world right now would be to make some point about how it would be the easiest and laziest thing in the world right now to joke about the First Rule of Fight Club. Which is to say, I'm beaten before I start whatever I do because this movie has, in the more than twenty (twenty!) years since its release, sewn up all the discourse. Everyone knows what the first two rules of Fight Club are, even the people who have never seen it. And the film is firmly in that peculiar category of movie which is undeniably great but shouldn't ever be anyone's favourite movie.

Obviously there are spoilers, but the likelihood is that if you get any distance into this, you've probably seen it (or read Chuck Palahniuk's book, or both, but let's face it, it's more likely you've seen the movie) so there we are.

You do not talk about Fight Club
The simple fact that if someone straight, white and male tells you that Fight Club is his favourite movie it is a reason to be very cautious around him is telling in itself.

In his (negative) review of the film on its release, the late and great Roger Ebert wrote:

I think it's the numbing effects of movies like this that cause people to go a little crazy. Although sophisticates will be able to rationalize the movie as an argument against the behavior it shows, my guess is that audience will like the behavior but not the argument.

That is, Ebert, probably the most humane mainstream film critic the US ever had, felt that Fight Club's stylised, glossy, loud and cheerfully flip presentation of what we'd now, two decades later, recognise as the alt-right playbook was too seductive to make its message felt. It's similar in that respect to The Matrix, or Robocop (but not Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, since if you don't get it, you think it's terrible and if you're a Nazi and/or a Heinlein fan and you do get it, it's absolutely rage inducing). And Ebert had a point. Fight Club is a cult movie about a cult that inspired a cult.

The insult of choice of the 21st century asshole, “snowflake”, comes from a misquotation of one of Tyler Durden's poisonous aphorisms, for example; in that respect, the snowflake is to Fight Club as the Red Pill is to The Matrix, and has the same godawful gravity. And this is why Fight Club shouldn't be anyone's favourite movie. Either you totally misread it and buy Tyler Durden's relentless bullshit, and fall in love with the underground Fight Club and the horrendous neofascist mind-control cult that Project Mayhem eventually becomes, or you recognise that it's telling you that we are part of the problem and our wish fulfilments are evil, in which case, we should find it horribly disturbing. Either way, it's not a movie to cherish.

But it's a film to talk about. It demands to be talked about. Its first rule, considered in the story so important that it warrants restatement, demands to be broken from the very beginning. Of course you bloody talk about Fight Club. That's the point.

You Do Not Talk about Fight Club
Spoilers are redundant here, but here are the spoilers. Edward Norton plays the necessarily nameless narrator/protagonist, lives in a world of insomnia-driven fatigue. A doctor tells him to stop whining, makes an offhand reference to the cancer survivor's group that meets on Mondays. Real suffering. So the Narrator goes to the testicular cancer group, Men Remaining Men, and puts on a fake name, and says nothing, and everyone just assumes he's dying too. He dissolves into tears in the hormonally unnatural bosom of Bob (Meat Loaf) and sleeps that night like a baby. He becomes a regular at all the support groups, wallowing in the pain of other people, until he clocks Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a messed up, chainsmoking goth who does the same thing as he does: finds comfort in wallowing in other people's sorrow. The Narrator is outraged that she is there. He calls her a tourist, confronts her angrily.

Right from the get go, our hero is signified as an awful person. He leeches other people's pain for the sake of his own catharsis, and when he meets Marla, his outrage is the outrage of the man caught in the act (Marla is no less revolting a person, but she is marginally more sympathetic because at least she owns what she's doing). They compromise and split the groups, and Marla clearly gets the worse side of the deal. The Narrator's selfishness is a straight man's selfishness. There is an entitlement there, an entitlement to exploit people with real pain for his own comfort, the sort of entitlement that won't even allow anyone else to join in the exploitation. It has to be his alone or it doesn't count. This matters because he's the point of view character. He's the everyman. You're supposed to identify with him. He's got a well-paying job, a nice flat, a lot of stuff. He feels hard done by. He can't tell you why. He doesn't connect. So he parasitises the pain of people who are actually hard done by.

And it works: while he's the only one there he can sleep, he can achieve catharsis: faking a connection with sincerely suffering people in solidarity might be a pretty awful thing to do, but if an ersatz connection is the best you'll ever get, well, it makes sense to go for it.

The Narrator is the audience identification figure. This is underlined by the bit where he finds a stack of old (off-brand) Reader's Digests and begins voraciously reading those old articles where parts of the human body are described in the first person: “I am Jack's medulla oblangata”, and so on. He takes to describing his own emotions in this same general way, as if they are universals, things that any Jack might have. I am Jack's complete lack of surprise. I am Jack's burning sense of rejection. I am Jack's broken heart. I am Jack's smirking revenge. It's so successful that many viewers just assume the character is called Jack, and of course he isn't (although Edward Norton calls him that as a placeholder), but what he is in this is something other than a full person, only a template placed over human feeling, an affective blank slate. And the sense of slippery, incomplete identity is a trap, tricking us into putting ourselves in his place, but in order to work needing us to either own that, like him, we're assholes… or just be assholes.

Having a crappy person as the audience identification character is risky as hell. There's the possibility that you might spot how awful he is and refuse to identify, in which case you switch off (as in the case with several people I know), or, much worse, you identify fully and don't notice how bad he is, because, well, you can work that out, you're smart people. I think you are supposed to identify, and I think you're supposed to take that as an indictment. I also think that the slickness of David Fincher's direction takes the edge off the discomfort, and I think that's a double edged blade, frankly. Fight Club is, given its content and subject matter, a much easier film to watch than perhaps it should be. It's fun.

We see the narrator smugly describing his job to a woman on a plane – he decides whether the recall for faulty vehicles will outweigh the cost of out of court settlements – and describes to us the “single serving friends” he meets on plane journeys (because everything else is single serving). One of these single serving friends is Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) who seems, superficially, to cut through the bullshit. When he arrives home to find that his flat has blown up, the Narrator thinks about turning to Marla, but instead winds up living with Tyler Durden. But not before Tyler has forced the Narrator to fight him.

Someone yells stop, goes limp, taps out, the fight is over
This is the bit of the movie that everyone knows about. Regular fights become Fight Club, where men become men by beating the shit out of each other. We have the Rules, we see how it changes interactions, relationships. The Narrator valorises it, sees it as something heroic. But it's not enough: Tyler begins to make the members do stuff, prank people, start fights with strangers (and lose).

Eventually Fight Club metastatises into a cult. Now, its black-clad adherents belong to Project Mayhem, with its own set of rules (although we never get past the first: you do not ask questions), and a remit that starts with property destruction pranks and ends with a plan to blow up half of the city (and, it is implied, cities across America).

No one in the film calls Fight Club a cult, but it is exactly a cult, an apocalyptic death cult, and the means of control that Tyler uses – the rigid, repeated rules, the sleep deprivation, the agonising ritual of scarring your hand with lye, the breaking down of identity and removal of names, the ranted sermons with an exactly right truth-to-bullshit ratio calculated to change men's lives. Consider the final stage of Kai Anderson's alt-right following in American Horror Story: Cult. Every one of those guys has seen Fight Club. The history of the American cult in the pop culture imagination might be beholden to Koresh, Applewhite, Jones and Manson, but in the twenty-first century, its shape is Fight Club.

Only two people in the entire film appear to be immune to Tyler's powers: Marla, with whom Tyler begins an epic banging habit (to the Narrator's jealous and confused dismay), and the Narrator himself. Neither really are (and there's a third character who in fact is, although does not appear to be), but there are reasons for that.

Only two guys to a fight
The first time I saw Fight Club, I congratulated myself on picking up on the twist, that the Narrator is in fact Tyler Durden, but actually I shouldn't have, because it's not like it isn't signposted over and over. It's not subtle. Maybe it's like that so people like me can feel smug for getting it early? Like it's another way to sucker in the viewer? It worked anyway.

To the Narrator, the Brad Pitt character – more buff, more charismatic, more, well, masculine – is only the self he'd want to be. Which is a problem in itself because Tyler is, right from the beginning, a gaping, void-accessing asshole, eternally full of shit. Look at the way that the Narrator explains in adoring terms the way that Tyler, waiting tables, pisses in people's soup, or how, working as a projectionist, he traumatises children by splicing frames of porn into family films. The Narrator clearly thinks this is awesome and iconoclastic and subversive, but what even is this? What's he subverting? So what? He's ruining people's meals – sure, they're probably terrible people, but even if they are terrible people, where's the praxis in this, where's the point of it other than performing a consequence-free act of cruelty because he can? And as for the forcing children to see porn part – that's child abuse. Child sexual abuse. Does he mean it to be? Nah, he just wants to do a funny prank. He doesn't care. But it's what it amounts to. This guy is a basic jerk. But no, this guy is the Narrator's hero.

And when we discover that the Narrator's homoerotic man-crush is just a psychological construct of how he'd want to be, the full horror of this comes out, because what this means is that the Narrator, who we saw at the beginning is the sort of sociopath whose only response to people demanding compassion is to parasitise their solidarity for his own comfort, and who cheerfully ruins people's peace of mind by telling them what his (sociopathic) job entails, really wants to be the sort of narcissistic sociopath who gets away with it.

And these narcissists exist. I mean, look at the leadership of the USA right now. They're a bunch of Tyler Durdens, happily getting away with putting tiny children in concentration camps and stuff, because they realised that rules require consensus and all you have to do is go, “Nope, not following the rules, nope, nope, nope, now watch me while I perform another act of extravagant and pointless cruelty because I can.”

I look around me and I see a generation of men who saw Fight Club and thought, hell yes, and look at what they wrought. Ebert called Fight Club “cheerfully fascist” and don't make any mistake, he wasn't wrong. This is what fascism is – it's never, ever, ever ideologically coherent, but fucking hell, when fascists realise that all they have to do is act like the rules don't apply to them, then all bets are off. They can only win by cheating, after all.

One fight at a time, fellas
Marla seems to be immune to Tyler, but she really isn't. If she were, she wouldn't wind up having sex with him, coming back again and again no matter how many times both versions of him abuse and manipulate her.

She's just a plot device, literally the only woman of note in the film and one of only two women the Narrator meets who have names (the other is Chloe, the horny terminal cancer patient). Marla is signified as Bad News, with chain-smoking, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, narcissistic behaviour, and so on, but she only exists in the world of the film, as everything in the world of the film does, in the eyes of the Narrator, who is so unreliable a narrator that he even pretends to break the physical substance of the film itself. Everything is structured about you knowing the film is a film: both Tyler and the Narrator break the fourth wall, and repeated scenes are different the second time round (the “flashback humour” gag that bookends the movie is a case in point).

The only ways the Narrator/Tyler can communicate with Marla are through sex or confrontation. It's only when, right at the end, Tyler is destroyed that the Narrator can reach out to her with an act of genuine connection, holding her hand as the world burns. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

If Marla is the feminine version of the Narrator (as opposed to Tyler, the straight male version) it's not a good look for the feminine. She talks the talk, but she's subservient to both versions of him. He only bangs her when he's Tyler, though. This makes sense, because Tyler is the straight man that the Narrator, who is evidently not entirely straight, wants to be. Meanwhile, the Narrator is in love with Tyler, or thinks he is, and uses the language of unrequited love to describe his feelings for him (and yes, the writer of the original text is gay, but that's not as relevant here as it might be). The fact is, Marla is wholly here in the story to demonstrate that Tyler is straight.

Tyler is the straightest straight who ever went straight through a strait. All this stuff about being a generation raised by women, and not needing another one, and not really understanding each other until you've been in a fight, it's all stuff that we've been told for like forever that manhood is.

Again, welcome to the alt-right script, the repackaging of things we've spent our entire lives being implicitly told as subversive because, for the first time, the truth of them is being treated as open to debate. The subtext of Tyler's statement about being a generation raised by women is that previous generations weren't (which is manifestly untrue anyway, because in previous generations the women did the child raising too, only more so, but this kind of appeal to the past is always nonspecifically antihistorical, because fascism).

No shirts, no shoes
When Fight Club comes up against older male figures of authority, whether corporate (the boss), criminal (the mob guy who owns the bar) or legal (the police chief), they run rings around them. In the case of Lou the Mob Boss, Tyler intimidates him by being utterly unafraid of violence and pain. The Narrator's boss Richard (Zach Grenier) stands back aghast as the Narrator beats the shit out of himself and the police chief is held down by the Project Mayhem boys and threatened with castration. There's a progression: from having it done to you and not caring, to doing it to yourself, to doing it to the other guy.

But all of these denials of authority depend on the Fight Club guys understanding and speaking the language of manhood they use, and flatly refusing to honour the social contract, the rules of hierarchy – to a degree.

It's interesting that the one person on whom the bullshit machismo of Fight Club and Project Mayhem doesn't actually work is Bob, who can be said to have more or less already to have lost the trappings of masculinity, his pendulous breasts the result of a testosterone overdose creating an oestrogen overload and his attitude gentle, almost peaceful. He joins Fight Club solely because the idea of a secret club is fun, and only gets through the initial hazing to join Tyler's Space Monkeys because the Narrator explains what you have to do to get through it (i.e. stand there for three days until they let him in). Bob just goes along with it because he likes the Narrator, and while the Narrator at least likes Bob enough to cheat him through the hazing, he misses that connection. His grief and guilt when Bob winds up dead is perhaps genuine, but it doesn't absolve him.

Fights will go on as long as they have to
The reach of Project Mayhem is, because it simply thumbs its nose at social conventions, entire. Nothing can stop it from bringing society to its knees. The Space Monkeys are everywhere: the service industry, retail, security, even the police (and again, we're back with the alt-right playbook, since the real world far right do indeed make a point of recruiting among the police).

It's interesting that in Palahniuk's original novel, the bombs are stopped and the Narrator winds up in a secure psychiatric ward. It closes with the Narrator realising that Project Mayhem is going to continue, whatever he does, whether he wants it to or not, because he keeps having orderlies approach him and quietly confide that everything is going according to plan.

In the film, while the Narrator does kill Tyler Durden, the bombs go off. But the scene, although explosive and impressive, is sort of anti-Freudian, with phallic skyscrapers sort of deflating and disappearing from view, and a subliminal flash of a flaccid penis (Tyler Durden style) presumably there to underline that point. Like the book, the film suggests that what's going on is outside of the Narrator's control, and like the book, it's sort of prophetic. But unlike the book, it's, well, a bit rubbish, weirdly anticlimactic, in every possible sense. It's happening and it can't be stopped, but its goal, the reification of manly masculinity, is a failure.

The Narrator is free of Tyler, and immediately his behaviour signifies differently – he connects with Marla, as I said, and describes himself as having gone through a difficult time. But although he blithely stands aside as if none of this is his responsibility (surely the single most masculine thing he does in the film) this is all his fault. All the death, and the abuse, the incessant metafictional asides, and the endless, surround sound thwacking that accompanies fist on face. All him.

And most of the brainwashing too… but not all of it.

If this is your first night at Fight Club, you have to fight
Look, Fight Club is a cult from the moment that Tyler gets to the eighth rule. If it's your first night at this illicit and secretive gathering, you have to take part. You cannot be an observer. Attend and join.

That's Tactics of Control 101. And it works in every sort of cult context, from full religions down to Multi-Level Marketing pyramid schemes and LGAT (Large-Group Awareness Training) scams. It works. It makes you part of the belonging group, from the start. And when the group is, like Fight Club, in some way illicit, it ensures your complicity. You're in on a criminal conspiracy, participant and accessory.

The rules in general have the affect of a cult anyway. They're simple, and aside from rule one, two and eight, are obvious common sense, there to make for an orderly and relatively safe environment, to keep track of who's fighting who, and maintain some sense of structure.

But then, this is how cults work. If they weren't in some way reasonable (and in most cases reasonably utopian) no one would join. Even Heaven's Gate made sense to some people, and most of them left when the option of cutting off their gonads was mooted.

The sermons of Tyler Durden – for that is what they are – are poisonous bullshit, patently, obviously so, but they sound like they make sense because they're wrapped up in the same script we've spent our whole lives unconsciously listening to, narratives of manliness and glory and strength and fraternity, and then repackaged to sound like rebellion.

And that's what cultists, political demagogues and self-help charlatans do. Their narratives of change and development and perfection work because they're essentially conservative, but marketed to look like they're revolutionary. The evangelical Christians who got me when I was 19 had a story of radical countersocietal transformation that… well, looked a lot like polite society. Branch Davidians? Right wing. Sun Myung Moon? Super right-wing. Falun Gong? In bed with Donald Trump.

When the prevailing narrative is challenged, it repositions itself with the pretence of having become the underdog. Cults and self-help scammers like Jordan Peterson and company are often impregnable on ideological grounds because the core of what they're saying is based on the traditional defaults of our society, good and bad (note: and this is why the traditional liberal defence of free speech, that society filters out the worst opinions doesn't hold: apart from it being demonstrably untrue, its because the worst opinions are shielded by a teflon coating of traditional opinions). And they often take these traditional defaults to dangerous extremes. This is the trick of the worst sort of cult: it lures you in with the excitement of sticking it to the proverbial Man, and then gets you to swallow a nasty, abusive ideological pill by coating it in stuff you were told when you were a kid, and the media just assumes is true anyway, even though it pretends it's countercultural.

And then come the methods of control. Tyler's Fight Club does the classic “first timers have to participate” thing. Then Tyler sets homework. They perform acts of domestic terrorism, the instructions sealed in envelopes, and presumably don't get to turn them down. By the time we get to Project Mayhem, the aspirant members have to stand outside the house for three days, while Tyler comes out and occasionally abuses them. As is the way with many cults – see also Martha Marcy May Marlene and Split Image, for fictional examples – the members no longer have names. When Bob dies, the Narrator tells everyone that this man's name was Robert Paulson. A member rationalises it: in death, he says, they all have a new name, and now any time someone in Project Mayhem dies, everyone calls him Robert Paulson. Again, while that's a dark joke, it's the way of cult members to rationalise and synthesise the contradictions of their leaders.

The first rule of Project Mayhem is, “You do not ask questions.” We don't get to hear what the subsequent rules are, and I suspect the joke is that this is because there aren't any. There doesn't need to be. Because you don't act questions. You've been depersonalised, sleep-deprived, endured an elective chemical burn which serves as a brand, and, living in a commune, you're in a self-regulating community which exerts social control through shared activity and constant reinforcement of norms. Your brain is washed so shiny clean you can see your face in it. And it all started with connection. You got suckered into a self-help pyramid scheme-cum-terrorist movement that erased your ability to relate to anyone outside of blowing them up, thumping them in the face or mocking them with memes (and Fight Club is a pre-meme movie, but what else are they doing?) because you wanted meaningful connection. You wanted to be seen, to belong, to be valued as a human and so you let them steal your identity.

That the alt-right use this movie as a playbook to groom and brainwash their recruits, that they see it as an ideal, should come as no surprise. I mean, illiteracy is a cornerstone of fascism.

But the thing is, it's easy enough to say that. OK, this is a movie that satirises the worst things about our idea of manhood, based on a book with a strong subtext of homoeroticism by a gay man. But people, even smart people – I'm not even talking about fascists here, they're barely even people, let alone smart people – have looked at this movie and saw in it, as Ebert thought, “cheerful fascism”.

The Ninth Rule
I've mentioned a few times now in my writing the problem of critiquing misogyny in movies, namely that if you want to show misogyny, you have to do misogyny. In Fight Club, if you want to show fascism, you have to do fascism. And Fight Club is beautifully made and constructed, and very, very funny in the way it shows fascism. And although everything he says is rubbish, Brad Pitt is very charismatic and his bullshit does superficially make sense (because of all the reasons I mentioned above). And Edward Norton is witty. And Helena Bonham Carter is scabrously amusing and sort of sexy, even if she is a strong contender for the worst halitosis in cinema. And the fights look kind of awesome. And the film does fun and interesting things in the way it breaks the fourth wall. And who doesn't want to show up their dur-brain boss like that?

And if you're going to make a blackly funny and beautifully constructed film about fascism, and you try your absolute best to make its fascist demagogue charismatic, the risk is that you make the fascist demagogue charismatic. You want to show it working, you have to make it viable. It's impossible to tell the story of being suckered in effectively without there being a risk of it suckering you in.

And this is the big problem with this film. It has to undermine itself, constantly, to work. It has to make itself the opposite of what it is to effectively be what it is. To immerse yourself in Fight Club is to lose. You can only stand and look at it at a distance.

The ninth rule of Fight Club, then, is that you have to disregard rules one through eight. Any other way, you lose.