[OK here look. I wrote this a month ago and didn't finish it. I'll never finish it but it seems a shame to squander some of this analysis. So here you go: an incompletely post ostensibly about critical interpretation in the abstract, though really it's about how my housemate Kevin is the same kind of geek-schmuck I am and I love him for it, though lately we can't seem to agree much about art. What can you do? But so I didn't finish the post. Sorry.]
Before we go any further I should warn you: this post will contain spoilers galore. I've stuck them 'below the fold'. (I've also assumed that you know what these films are about - there's no excuse for not having seen Fight Club, at least. Please come to my house and we'll watch both movies if that's the case.) At issue, at least initially, is the apparently simple question of whether Fight Club and American Psycho - controversial 1990's novels of men and manhood gone awry made into films - are meant to be comforting. I readily admit that the question itself is a combination of critically malformed (really, no one should concern him- or herself with what the directors intended) and dated (these movies aren't current, though they're contemporary). But from this deliberately blockheaded question, we can get to some more interesting things, I think. And in any case, it's always fun to talk about Fight Club, which I will happily assert is the best film of the 1990's, surpassing even Magnolia in my estimation.
Of course, Roger Ebert disagrees, and his disagreement rests, I think, on a matter of interpretation. Ebert is a sharp critic on the whole, though he's much better writing about classic films than he is on the subject of contemporary movies. Here's some of his October 1999 review of Fight Club:
Whether Durden represents hidden aspects of the male psyche is a question the movie uses as a loophole--but is not able to escape through, because "Fight Club" is not about its ending but about its action.
Of course, "Fight Club" itself does not advocate Durden's philosophy. It is a warning against it, I guess; one critic I like says it makes "a telling point about the bestial nature of man and what can happen when the numbing effects of day-to-day drudgery cause people to go a little crazy." I think it's the numbing effects of movies like this that cause people go to 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. Certainly they'll buy tickets because they can see Pitt and Norton pounding on each other; a lot more people will leave this movie and get in fights than will leave it discussing Tyler Durden's moral philosophy. The images in movies like this argue for themselves, and it takes a lot of narration (or Narration) to argue against them.
The movie is visceral and hard-edged, with levels of irony and commentary above and below the action. If it had all continued in the vein explored in the first act, it might have become a great film. But the second act is pandering and the third is trickery, and whatever [director David] Fincher thinks the message is, that's not what most audience members will get. "Fight Club" is a thrill ride masquerading as philosophy--the kind of ride where some people puke and others can't wait to get on again.
This is smart writing, and generally I agree with Ebert's cynicism toward the audience, but he's wrong.
[You know what? I got you to come visit this post below the fold, at its whaddayacallit 'permalink', and now I'm going to reveal that I've lied: I'm not going to talk about American Psycho. Some other time, perhaps - it's a good book and merits discussion for a number of reasons. Maybe I'll even quote from my lamentable Literary Theory term paper on the subject. But Fight Club is fodder enough.]
Now, I first saw the movie in theatres, presumably as a junior in college. I walked out of the theatre invigorated, having something like the reaction that Ebert predicts. But I also found myself immediately diving into the kinds of discussions he finds unlikely. And as time went on, these discussions polarized (as they tend to) into expositions of particular points of view - up to and including my conversation with my inestimable roommate Kevin a couple of days ago.
Kevin and I, it turns out, radically disagree on the point of Fight Club. We agree that it's a marvel of a film (it's his favourite as well as mine, improbably), but here's the point at which our views diverge: Kevin sees the film as an endorsement of Tyler's 'Project Mayhem' rhetoric ('You are not the clothes you wear,' return to agrarian simplicity, &c.). I see it as a pretty sharp repudiation of Tyler. And we're miles apart on the meaning of the final frames (the curiously beautiful shot of the skyscrapers falling, with 'Jack' and Marla holding hands in the foreground).
Briefly: I think the final scenes, in which Jack argues with Tyler before shooting himself in the face in a symbolic suicide (which has the effect of 'killing' Tyler) and then reuniting with Marla, are the unironic meaning of the film. Of all the characters in the story, Marla's the one who's really hit bottom. In the book (which I read a year or so after first seeing the film), she is revealed to have breast cancer. Jack finds a lump, in other words, in the film, but doesn't tell her. I think it's what endears her to him, perversely: the sight of another human being actually grappling with the stuff of life (i.e. death). I think he genuinely loves her, but Tyler doesn't. This is complicated by the fact that Jack is Tyler, but it's not that complicated - the part of Jack's psyche that is Tyler Durden isn't capable of the kind of constructive living that Jack is. Oddly enough, the 'good bit' of him - loving and empathetic - is locked away somewhere inside his hollow consumerist shell, 'Jack'.
At least that's what the final images suggest: Jack wipes out Tyler and 'gets the girl'. But let's be a little more, um, 'realistic'. This is a pretty straight-up Freudian tale in many ways, and you don't just kill off your id. You might say that Jack blasts a hole in his cheek that 'Tyler' - a dissociated part of himself - might get back inside, where he belongs. Maybe the ideal relationship in the film gives Jack the guidance he wants, Marla the nurturing she wants, and Tyler the disconnection he wants: a menage a trois inside Jack's brain. As he himself says (I'm paraphrasing), Tyler wanted Marla, Marla wanted Jack, and Jack wanted Tyler.
So insofar as Fight Club is a love story or personal-redemption story, the final scene is a pretty straightforward (though admittedly very fucking odd) resolution.
Then the skyscrapers blow up.
In my reading of the film, this is the blackest comedy in the whole thing. On the one hand, a kind of gigantic 'Oops!' And when Jack reassures Marla that everything will be just fine, in a strange way I believe him. Destroying the credit records (whether such a plan actually works or not - in the film I guess you have to assume it does) doesn't actually change things the way Tyler said it would. (The astounding final chapter of the book, in which Jack sits in 'heaven' - actually a mental hospital - while Project Mayhem workers minister to his every need and prepare for his return, is not used in the film. More on that later, but suffice it to say that it complicates the final scene of the film in ways I'd rather just deal with separately. You can only use so many parentheses and doublings-back.) It functions like the bomb in Doctor Strangelove - a cartoon catastrophe, but somehow things will all just work out.
For him, the final moment does represent a victory of a kind, but not for IKEA Boy. Tyler wins. The film vindicates him, sees his ultimate victory as a Good in the context of the narrative, and gives him most of the good lines and most of the moral victories to boot. There's nowhere for Jack to go at the end, and shooting himself in the face doesn't exactly change his mind. (I claim that his mind is already well changed at that point, for comparison.) The vision of people planting crops amid the ruins of shattered cities is a positive one for Kevin, and as he sees it, for the filmmakers. (Bear in mind, Kevin's read the book too.) Fight Club itself might be limited in scope and efficacy - a means to Project Mayhem's end, a kind of recruiting device for putting people in touch with the part of them that wants liberation without actually delivering it - but Project Mayhem isn't actually hurting people, it's freeing them.
Mere nihilism, the blogger cries! And his erstwhile filmgoing companion says: What, didn't we watch the same movie? It's not making fun of Tyler, it's making fun of the Space Monkeys, who're basically spineless followers.
The blogger cocks his head, saying, Yes, I know. The 'his name is Robert Paulsen' scene makes that abundantly clear. But Tyler doesn't actually want to make anything. All he knows how to do is destroy, just as all Jack knows how to do is build up this house of cards around himself.
Nonsense, (fictional-)Kevin responds. Tyler's rhetoric is presented in monologues directed essentially at the audience - he acts as the de facto voice of the film at these points.
But but but, sputters Yours Truly. At no point does he actually amount to anything more than graffiti and property damage. Literally and metaphorically, he's like Adbusters.
Skyscrapers, whispers mock-Kevin.
So but then - our narrator is resorting to DFW-like prose at this point - we're to understand the pummeling of Golden Boy and the death of Bob and the kidnapping of Marla as means to a noble end? I begin to see why you call this the most subversive Hollywood film of its time, but we've not even talked about Marla, about possibly the most subversive love story of its time...
I'm tempted to credit Kevin's interpretation of the film (and in fairness to him, whether he reads this or not, this is only my extrapolation of our conversation), if only because it's more unsettling, less conventional. So the real question is, why is it at all important to me? How is my pleasure in watching 'unsettling' art different from that of more reassuring work?
The thing is, I don't agree with Tyler Durden at all. Not in his positive claims, anyhow. Certainly the critique of consumer culture in Fight Club is pretty much on the money, but that's the easy part. What Durden does in the first stages of Project Mayhem is essentially a 'culture jamming' response to media saturation and homogeneity. But the 'human sacrifices' and skyscraper-blowing-up parts are something else entirely, and beyond those, he articulates only a fantasy land. To Kevin, it's important that the film also articulate that viewpoint (he told me would like the film I 'saw' a great deal less than his own understanding of Fight Club). To me, it's important that the film undercut this goofball outlook. We both bring vested interests to the table, critically speaking.
And if I had anything like staying power, this post would go on and on until its end. As it is, I'd rather just kick it out the door and return to it someday if the mood strikes. It's not as if I can't count the people who'll read it on my fingers and toes! So, incomplete and incoherent, THERE YOU GO.