The second rule of Fight Club (the movie) is You Should See Fight Club Again.
Obligatory “Rules of Fight Club” references aside, I’m being completely serious and not entirely motivated by fanatical appreciation of the 1001 Movies Blog Club weekly selection in question. Fight Club is one of those movies which packs a serious punch (ha ha) into the viewing experience partly (but not entirely) because of a major twist at the beginning of the third act. And oddly enough it’s one that I almost never hear people going around making jokes about, the way they do about, say, The Sixth Sense (which came out the same year as Fight Club) or The Crying Game (which came out just seven years earlier). I’m not going to get into spoilers about it here, either; if you’ve seen the movie you know exactly what I’m talking about and if you haven’t seen it, well, I refer you to the rules enumerated above.
The way I remember it, my Little Bro saw Fight Club in the theater and almost immediately thereafter was exhorting me to see it as well. And somehow we ended up seeing it in the theater together, when one of us visited the other. So that was his second viewing, which he enjoyed every bit as much as the first, and afterwards we talked about how the whole movie was put together and how it had made my Little Bro want to re-watch it almost immediately the first time. I don’t think I saw it a second time in the theater, but it was one of the first movies I ever bought on DVD when I got my first DVD player (which was like five years later, but still). I’ve seen it multiple times since, and I have nudged people in real life to see it, going so far as to lend them my copy, and when they give it back I always say, “Let me know if you want to borrow it and watch it again some time. You really should.” So these rules of mine pre-date this blog. Just sayin’.
Most good movies reward multiple viewings, because those returns to the material allow you to pick up on little nuances and details you might have missed the first time around, to appreciate the work as a whole from end-to-end. That’s true of Fight Club as well, but much more overtly. The act three twist is something which could easily call into question the internal logic and cohesion of everything that comes before it, but if you watch the film a second time you’ll see that it all still works. The movie emphatically does not cheat; despite (or maybe because of) essentially being told from the point of view of one of the most unreliable narrators in all of western literature, everything that is shown on screen before the twist still makes sense if you know the twist is coming. Not only that, but the twist is foreshadowed pretty heavily in quite a few spots, which will jump out and grab you by the throat when you re-watch the movie. There are moments of pure poetry throughout Fight Club, particularly in the combinations of Fincher’s stylish visuals and Norton’s slightly disconnected interior monologue voiceovers. At least, they seem disconnected the first time through, and then on the second viewing it’s crystal clear that he’s telegraphing the twist. Without the context of the final act, it all seems dreamlike and deliberately disorienting; with the context in mind, it’s obvious, like hearing a riddle you already know the answer to.
Plus (and this doesn’t really constitute a spoiler) if you pay close attention, there’s a moment in the first act where a “cigarette burn” appears in the frame, well before Norton introduces the subject and Brad Pitt explains what they are. You might not even notice it the first time you watch Fight Club (after all, you’re not necessarily supposed to notice them) or you might notice it and forget about it, or only see it subconsciously. Then on second viewing you can’t help but notice it, and wonder about how you processed it (or failed to) the first time, which brings to mind all kinds of subtext Fincher is providing about how what we’re watching is an artificially constructed narrative, and also about conscious and subconscious perception, and media in general, and so on and so on. Which is pretty cool.
The arguments against Fight Club as a worthwhile piece of art are understandable and somewhat valid, and I don’t know that I can counter them. It may be superficially slick but ultimately soulless. Fincher makes it all look amazing and Norton and Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter all act the hell out of their parts and each cover an impressive amount of emotional terrain from hilarious to terrifying. But to the extent that the movie advocates anything, it’s brutally bleak, and if it’s not trying to glorify and advance an arguably dangerous and self-destructive worldview, then it’s a satire that wallows in what it’s looking down on. Fight Club is unquestionably a guy’s movie (although my wife enjoyed it when I inflicted it on her while we were dating) and can fairly easily be ridiculed as a howl of pain and a cry for help coming from the heart of a segment of society that has no basis to complain and no rightful expectation for sympathy: privileged white males at the turn of the 21st century. Yeah, that’s a tough criticism to dodge, unless I fall back on one of my trusty old standards, that movies have value as time capsules, and just look at what life was like in America two years before 9/11, look how easy we had it, that anyone would even think to complain that modern urban life didn’t involve sufficient challenges to produce sufficiently manly men. That happened, and Fight Club was born out of that, absurd and infantile as it all may seem now.
But, all of the above notwithstanding, I unashamedly love Fight Club. It’s a well-oiled entertainment machine that totally works for me. There have been other film assignments for the 1001 Movies Blog Club which I had already seen, but this is the first time I felt both sufficiently familiar with the flick (despite not having seen it in a while at this point) and sufficiently opinionated about it to weigh in. And now of course I’m really craving yet another repeat viewing.