It's been nearly seven years since Fight Club left its trail of blood and spit in middle-American theaters, but with each passing year, it seems more like an eon. After 9/11, the "war on terror," a few cataclysmic natural disasters, six years of Bush II and six seasons of Fear Factor, director David Fincher's apocalyptic ode to finding and destroying your inner frat boy seems more and more locked in a time capsule of its own making. It's a blurry, Photoshop-enhanced snapshot of who we did and didn't want to be as we nervously anticipated Y2K; it's also the longest sustained jerk-off in cinematic history (not counting the career of Oliver Stone). After all these years, Fight Club still hates you. It still loves you. It still wants to have your abortion. It still feels your pain. But more than ever, it wants you to feel your pain.
It sure seemed like the right idea at the right time. After a decade of Clintonian self-denial ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman") and men's movement drum-circle bullshit, the late '90s were overdue for a testosterone injection. The movies hadn't had a charismatic, self-serving counterculture hero since at least Al Pacino and no, '80s troglodytes like Schwarzenegger and Stallone didn't count. Looking to fill the void, a few headstrong 20th Century Fox execs snapped up Chuck Palahniuk's first novel, a seemingly unfilmable hybrid of Catcher in the Rye and The Anarchist's Cookbook. Pairing it with a hot director (Fincher), an even hotter young actor (Ed Norton) and one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood (Brad Pitt), the studio was sure they had the next generation's equivalent to Easy Rider.
Only it didn't quite work out that way. The movie didn't set the world on fire as planned when it came out in the fall of 1999. Audiences looking for a pre-millennial mindfuck preferred to get it in a tidy, single-genre package: The edgiest hits that year came in the form of The Matrix's postmodern sci-fi, The Blair Witch Project's minimalist horror or American Beauty's Oscar-baiting suburban melodrama. Controversy usually fuels box office, but in Fight Club's case, even the nastiest press couldn't persuade Americans to show up in theaters. Heads rolled, studio-executive parking spaces were lost, Norton got kicked out of the Oscar club and Pitt treaded back to the safer waters of the Ocean's Eleven franchise.
In a way, it was fitting that a movie about one man's masochism would sabotage itself. Selling a zeitgeist isn't an easy thing, especially when you don't have a linear story to tell, and when what you're selling is an anti-consumerist rant that looks like a glossy commercial. The very people who should've shown up to Fight Club were the very people who didn't go to movies: the skaters who were too busy getting stoned in industrial parks, the corporate drones who weren't yet disaffected enough, the goth chicks who were too busy prepping for their City Club appearance.
The movie, as brilliant as much of it is, didn't help things. Bolstered by a stunning black-and-blue visual design, two very good performances and one great one Helena Bonham Carter, whose acid-tongued femme fatale Marla launched a thousand copycat performances Fincher's adaptation worked better as a stream-of-consciousness philosophy bull-session than a probing examination of anarchy and disaffection. When the irreverent, machine-gun-paced jokes of the film's first hour gave way to the "downward spiral" of its second half, audiences could be forgiven for thinking they were watching a routine crime thriller instead of a cultural revolution. Hell, even the film's title was a bit of an empty tease: The "fight club" itself took up a surprisingly small amount of screen time, as our anti-heroes traipsed around rendering soap from liposuctioned fat and planning the demise of credit as we know it.
And then, a couple years later, a funny thing happened: Everything started to look like Fight Club. Movies like Memento, Adaptation and The Machinist started to parrot its ideas. Backyard wrestling, bum fights and Jackass made real the sick stunts that were only hinted at by Pitt's urban commando Tyler Durden. Zit-faced teenagers started emo bands dedicated to the film's legacy (with names like Forgive Durden, no less). It's not a stretch to assume that some of the once-suburban twentysomethings who chose to live in the most dilapidated parts of Detroit were inspired by Durden's beautifully decaying digs in the "toxic waste part of town," as Norton's character puts it.
Fight Club, it seems, has come full-circle. Even the wave of empathy the urge to feel someone else's pain that followed in the years after 9/11 has given way to a backlash, a rejection of anything that smacks of a group-hug mentality (Dr. Phil, this means you). In other words, if "self-improvement is masturbation," as Durden puts it, then maybe the time is ripe for another circle jerk of self-mutilation.
Fight Club kicks off the summer midnight movie series this Friday and Saturday, May 26 and 27, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.