“Fight Club” in the Age of Great Resignation, by Dante A. Ciampaglia


A strange headline from Vice recently crossed my feeds: “Cult classic ‘Fight Club’ gets a very different ending in China.” Thanks to Tencent Video, Fight Club, director David Fincher’s blistering adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, has finally arrived in China! Only took 22 years. The thing is, it also came with a new finale.

If it’s been a while, a quick reminder: The Narrator (Edward Norton) and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) start an underground fight club, attracting men like them who feel disaffected and rejected by an increasingly capitalist consumer culture. more inhuman and degraded. . The club grows, spawns national franchises, and leads Tyler to think bigger and bolder. Fight Club becomes Project Mayhem, a series of increasingly destructive acts culminating in a plot to destroy America’s credit card companies. “If you erase the debt file, we all go back to zero,” the narrator told police as he tried to stop the plan. “You will create total chaos.”

Fight Club ends with the narrator and his girlfriend Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) watching the bombs topple one skyscraper after another. It’s an indelible image and a fitting conclusion to Fincher’s grungy, puckish middle finger to conventional studio cinema. (It was released by 20th Century Fox, now owned by Disney. I wonder if it’s quarantined in the Mouse Vault.) But what Chinese viewers got was completely different. After the narrator shoots himself in the mouth (long story), the film fades to a title card: “Thanks to the clue provided by Tyler, the police quickly figured out the whole plan and arrested all the criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding. After the trial, Tyler was sent to an insane asylum to receive psychological treatment. He was released from hospital in 2012.

Besides being cinematic vandalism, this coaxing, authoritative corporate censorship spits in the face of what Fight Club is all about: a primal anti-authority, anti-conformity underclass cry that kills the sacred cows of American culture. The end of Tencent (which Vice says was put together by the ‘copyright owner’) deflates the film to a whimper, ensuring that law and order retain their rightful place as dominant cultural hegemons. from China.

When Fight Club came out in October 1999, it touched me in a deep and lasting way. I was fresh out of high school, frustrated with everything and feeling completely out of step and disconnected from our consumer economy. He might be too smart and rely too heavily on the kind of straightforward philosophical posturing that seemed everywhere at the time, from internet chat rooms to WTO protesters. But I loved the movie then and I still love it. I hadn’t seen it in years, but when I read the Vice story, I returned to Fight Club – partly out of solidarity, but also because I felt it would resonate especially in this era of pandemic and Great Resignation. And, boy, is it ever.

As well as being a terrific year for cinema, 1999 produced a bumper crop of “work sucks” films, from best picture winner American Beauty (lester Burnham, a suburban dad in midlife crisis, naples his career by blackmailing his boss) to The Matrix (pre-Neo Thomas Anderson is a corporate nobody on a characterless box farm), and Office Space (90 minutes of low-level tech workers plotting a way out of their jobs no way out with the literal slogan “Work Sucks”). Also in this group is Fight Club, the Narrator’s unease with a hazard-analysis routine for an uncompassionate automaker, who reports to a middle manager who does nothing and fills his apartment – in a building that he describes as a ‘filing cabinet for widows and young professionals’ – with scraps from the latest Ikea catalogue. The plot blows up his apartment, causing him to live with Tyler; the destruction of all his material possessions putting him on a path, like Lester, to extricating himself from the company, albeit in a more hilariously bizarre (and bloody) way.

What sets Fight Club apart from its peers, makes it a cult classic, and makes it even more resonant today, is its deeper incitement to the cultural undercurrents that drove the Narrator’s disaffection. The world of Fight Club is populated by overeducated workers languishing away in meaningless, underskilled jobs for dwindling pay and vanishing respect. Welcome to America, right?. But the film goes beyond the trope in an explicit critique of the crude fetishistic inequality of terminally ill capitalism and the punishment of the working class. White collar, blue collar, collarless – we are all batteries fueling wealth generation for an increasingly exclusive elite class. Our role is to work and consume, to consume and work. Keep putting in the hours to earn the paycheck to become “Ikea’s nesting instinct slave” and don’t think too much about what you’re doing, why, or what it amounts to. You have a yin-yang coffee table! What else do you need?

“A whole generation pumping gas, waiting tables, white-collar slaves,” Tyler says at one point. “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of the story, man, with no purpose or place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual war; our Great Depression is our life.

Even then, that last bit was maudlin. But it resonated with some viewers because it spoke a truth that not everyone seemed to want or be able to acknowledge. Clinton’s late ’90s, with its superheated free-trade economy generating fabulous fortunes while slashing American industries and middle-class life, seemed like the perfect time for a conversation about who was left behind and At what price. Unfortunately, it was smuggled into a movie about guys fighting before blowing up buildings, so it was lost on many moviegoers and critics. Looking at it now, however, it seems more relevant. Consumerism is worse. Inequality is worse. Corporate power is worse. Before the pandemic, most people’s wages stagnated or declined. And people in underprivileged jobs – those celebrated as “essential” and rewarded with poverty wages, no benefits and unreliable hours – are arguably more undervalued and invisible than they used to be. in 1999.

At one point in Fight Club, a police commissioner swears to crack down on the underground group that commits the stunts, pranks, and crimes of Project Mayhem. Attending a banquet held by Tyler and his pals, posing as waiters, he is trapped in a bathroom, restrained, and threatened with castration if he doesn’t call off his pursuit. “The people you’re looking for are the people you depend on,” Tyler tells him. “We cook your meals. We transport your waste. We connect your calls. We drive your ambulances. We watch you while you sleep.

Marginalized workers driven by a rage to lose nothing are the force behind Fight Club’s fictional Project Mayhem. It’s an underground force in the movie, just as it was in real life two decades ago. But not anymore. It has become mainstream in 2020 and 2021 – how could it not be? “Essential workers” were forced to risk their lives, not just so other people could maintain some semblance of their way of life (the wealthy, yes, but also those who could work from home), but to protect the ‘economy. Frontline healthcare workers have created their own PPE. Retail workers acted as bouncers keeping the unmasked out of grocery stores. Delivery drivers, transit workers, line cooks, meatpacking workers, anyone in the service industry – all on the economic front lines, all in immediate danger of infection and death . If they didn’t get sick, it’s because they knew people who got sick. They saw friends and family die. And when the wave peaked? They were let go by angrier customers, more callous managers and reduced paychecks as danger bumps were removed. American capitalism has said the silent part out loud – which was covered in 1999 –: you only matter as a tool for someone else’s prosperity.

It’s hard to imagine going through this and not deciding enough is enough. “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything,” Tyler says. It’s a message his bandmates embrace — and one that feels central to our ongoing and long-delayed moment of great resignation.

Fight Club will never be for everyone. Good. Part of what makes it so powerful is its complete rejection of the maximum appeal of newsgroups. It was a rough watch in 1999, its intimately brutal fight scenes bordering on body horror; his harsh and intransigent language; and we’re never meant to sympathize with the Narrator or Tyler, nor are we meant to celebrate their cult or his increasingly antisocial terrorism. All of this remains true today – perhaps even more so after 9/11. But its deep anarchy and existential angst take on a new urgency. Society got worse, not better, especially for the character types at the center of the film, making Fight Club more relevant, not less — in ways that are both disconcerting and rousing.

It’s hard not to see the blind devotion, grievances and increasingly destructive farcical violence of Tyler’s Space Monkeys in the perpetrators of the fascist January 6 insurrection. (We see a file in Project Mayhem’s war room titled “Disinformation.”) Likewise, it’s impossible to ignore that the agency and self-esteem that Tyler instills in fight club members has come through. in workers finally saying “Enough!” to a system that devalues ​​them, their families and their friends.

This central contradiction – between self-destructive violence and righteous self-realization – is what makes Fight Club so empowering and alive. This tension only intensifies as America becomes both more and more aristocratic and nihilistic. It gives the film, already brilliant, a kind of morbid timelessness. And that makes visualization necessary — the real version, not Tencent’s monstrosity — especially in this time of existential upheaval driven by Covid-19, nature’s own Project Mayhem.


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