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When David Fincher's Fight Club was released 20 years ago, it was a crystal ball that was mistaken for a cultural crisis, much like Do the Right Thing had been a decade earlier and perhaps Joker is now. Film-makers who were trying to identify a violence nesting in the culture were accused of trying to incite it – or at least clumsily juggling lit sticks of dynamite. No less an authority than Roger Ebert opened his review of Fincher's film by calling it "the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since Death Wish", echoing widespread concern that impressionable men would lock into the empowering brutality of Tyler Durden and the army that gathers around him. Viewed from a certain angle, it looked like a recruitment film.
What cannot be predicted, however, is how items like Fight Club will shift during flight. It becomes easier to appreciate the ambiguities of the film when it no longer feels like a clear and present danger. That doesn't necessarily mean that Fincher's point of view isn't confusing or contradictory all these years later, but the culture tends to move quickly from threat to threat, and it's helpful to have enough distance to see the world it's depicting more clearly. Whatever you think about Fight Club in 2019, it's probably not exactly what you thought about it in 1999, if only because so much of what it describes has manifested itself in the real world or been distorted beyond recognition.
Let's begin at the end, as the film does, when a series of detonations leads to the collapse of downtown office buildings. It wouldn't even be two years later that a terrorist cell would bring down the World Trade Center towers, those symbols of American financial might, and the motives of al-Qaida and the film's Project Mayhem are not that dissimilar. Both were attacking the soft center of America as they understood it, except in Fight Club, the idea was to raze the country to the ground and start over, because consumerism had anesthetized it and hollowed out its soul. The final image of two people holding hands as the Pixies' Where is My Mind? blares on the soundtrack could be seen as nihilistic, but it's secretly thrilling to imagine the possibilities of starting over after a hard reboot. (It also helps to know that the explosions are about taking down institutions, not people, more The Weather Underground than Osama bin Laden.)
What Fight Club missed in 1999 – and comes oh-so-close to getting – is how much the rage it identifies is connected to white supremacy. But the world it anticipated is now upon us, with a host of Tyler Durdens marshaling attacks on perceived enemies and twisting the meaning of "snowflake", a term used in Palahniuk's book and popularized in the movie (ie "You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake"), to taunt the vulnerable. What are the Proud Boys if not a roving gang of Project Mayhem thugs? Or the tiki-torch-bearers of Charlottesville. Fight Club saw it coming, with thrilling vividness and wit and technical panache. Just don't shoot the messenger.— Scott Tobias, The Guardian
Mon December 11, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
United States of America, 1999, in English, 139 min, 35mm • official site
Director: David Fincher, Novel: Chuck Palahniuk, Screenplay: Jim Uhls, Cast: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf, Jared Leto