Postmodernism and Violence

Since its 1999 release, Fight Club has solidified its place among American pop culture iconography. Understanding why so many people have embraced such a violent and disturbing film requires a discussion of how violence functions within a postmodern paradigm. Within the "extraordinary preeminence of violence in the extreme alienation of late twentieth-century America" there has been "an acceptance of violent imagery and narrative in postmodernity" (Grant 10). Humor is often used as a means of accepting violent imagery. In Fight Club, the narrator's confrontations with his boss typically elicit laughter from the audience due to the sheer absurdity of the protagonist's actions and the viewer's own discomfort at viewing such a horrific display of self-destruction.

Confrontation with Boss

The ability to laugh at violence provides a type of "anesthesia to undermine any moral revulsion we might feel about violence" (Corliss 76). Furthermore, the scenes at the narrator's office are shot in a flat style that lacks depth. The effect is similar to what Fredric Jameson terms "the waning of affect" (CLLC 16). Thus the flat cinematographic style along with the sarcastic tone of the voiceover in Fight Club emphasizes both the lack of morality in the characters and the sheer unexceptional and unremarkable nature of the violence.

I Shot Marvin in the Face!

Fight Club is just one of many recent films that treats violence in an ironically humorous manner. A quintessential example of the banal treatment of violence occurs in the 1994 cult favorite Pulp Fiction in the scene where two hitmen, Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), accidently shoot their backseat passenger, Marvin. The conversation that ensues is concerned with how to clean up the backseat of the car. Violence and murder become events that produce a comic affect as Vincent and Jules are characterized as two regular guys who just happen to make their living as hitmen.

Violence begins to assume an innocuous demeanor because "in the postmodern procession of simulacra, traditional images of violence have lost their affective power, and consequently have been replaced by a more neutral style" (Grant 24). According to the three-volume set Violence in America, "American cinema has arrived at the postmodern point where it is fully aware of its history regarding such contentious issues as representations of violence and at the same time are able to mock the treatment of violence in these films, and other media, while employing their very same techniques" (Gottesman 524). It is precisely because of the banal treatment of violence that we as viewers can react to the violence in the same way it is presented--without remark and without exception.

The Contemporary Moment

The cultural context surrounding the release of Fight Club was anything but "unexceptional." Released in October of 1999, Fight Club entered the American cultural circuit during a year when violence had become a heavily discussed topic. The film's release was delayed because of the spring shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. The prevalence of violence in the 1990's has been a subject of fascination for cultural critics like Nicolaus Mills who asserts that "In the 1990's meanness is not just a political response we make periodically in our weaker moments. Meanness today is a state of mind, the product of a culture of spite and cruelty that has had an enormous impact on us" (Triumph 2). Mills continues, "Central to the new meanness, as well as distinguishing it from the confident Reaganism of the 1980's, is our feeling that we are no longer a coherent nation bound together by our past" (19). With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 "our enemies are no longer clearly defined by the Cold War," and "the result has been an opportunity, seemingly boundless in its possibilities, for turning inward" (19). What Fight Club seems to suggest is that as men specifically turn their gaze on themselves what they find is potentially so disturbing that in extreme cases the result is self-destruction. The "new savagery" as Mills refers to it "is not simply the reflection of an underclass frustrated by hard times. It is also part of a middle-class culture that in recent years has seemed more and more at home with violence" (45). Joseph Natoli expands this argument in Speeding to the Millenium by contending "We are violent because violence is at the heart of our notions of competing, winning, progressing" although now "our violence is no longer part and parcel of our frontier spirit but a cancer on it" (156).

Prior to Fight Club's release, ultimate fighting clubs had been thriving in various American cities. Introduced in 1993 by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the format was similar to the basement brawling of Fight Club. Ultimate Fighting Championship"Two fighters were placed in an octagonal right enclosed by a six-foot-high, chain link fence" (Gottesman 347). Because of the waning interest in professional boxing due to the corruption that pervaded the sport in the 1990's, American audiences were ripe for a new form of entertainment. As noted in Violence in America, Volume 3, "The second UFC tournament was broadcast live to more than 120,000 homes across America, and the cable subscription rates for UFC events quadrupled in the first year" (Gottesman 348). Ultimate fighting was marketed as "the bloodiest, most barbaric show in history" (qtd. in Gottesman 348). By 1995 politicians like Republican Senator John McCain (Arizona) sent a letter to the governor of each of the 50 states urging a ban on "a brutal and repugnant blood sport" (qtd. in Gottesman 349). As a result the UFC added regulations, gloves, judges, and rounds to its format. There is even a website devoted to the ultimate fighting which is touted as the "real fight club." Ultimate fighter Chad Lebrun explains the visceral appeal of "no rules" fighting, "There's no better feeling in the world to know you just got in there with another man and you won. You were the better man that day." Ultimate fighting is touted as being "as real as it gets," a sentiment similar to what Tyler expresses in his question "How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?

Professional wrestling, on the other hand, is characterized as entertainment, and consequently less authentic than bare-knuckled fighting. In Sharon Mazer's book Professional Wrestling she writes, "Its display of violence is less a contest than a ritualized encounter between opponents, replayed repeatedly over time for an exceptionally engaged audience," (3) commenting accurately on what occurs in Fight Club. Similar to the apocalyptic sentiment in Fight Club "the state of professional wrestling today thus provides clues as to what living at the end of history means. It suggests how a large segment of American society is trying to cope with the emotional letdown that followed upon the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy" (Cantor 17). Just as the men in Fight Club attempt to reclaim their masculinity through violence, "the contemporary wrestler exemplifies the thoroughly postmodern idea that human identity is purely a construction, a matter of choice, not nature" (Cantor 20).

Wrestlemania
A scene from Wrestlemania

The "authenticiy" of the fighting in Fight Club leads the men to believe that they can transcend their ordinariness through their ability to endure a violent beating. While professional wrestling embodies a "cooperative rather than competitive exchanges of apparent power between men" (Mazer 4), in Fight Club the power exchange is purely competitive. Despite the differences, the appeal of a movie like Fight Club makes sense in a culture that is attracted to the theatrics of professional wrestling which is a postmodern pastiche of ritualized fighting.

CULTURAL RESPONSE

The audience is asked to suspend their disbelief, yet they knowFight Club is not real. The appeal of the film is in the apparent normalcy of its protagonist and his frustration with the banality of his existence. The viewer can potentially experience "a recognition of the self in the image on the screen, a narcissistic identification, and the identification of the self with the various positions that are involved in fictional narration…identification is therefore multiple and fractured, a sense of seeing the constituent parts of the spectator's own psyche paraded before her or him" (Ellis 43). It is the very conventionality of the characters that makes Fight Club such a powerful movie because what it suggests is that there is a population of men out there who are ticking time bombs, thoroughly frustrated with their current conditions. As Harry Knowles writes for Ain't-It-Cool-News "If you leave this movie afraid that this could happen here, GOOD. YOU SHOULD BE AFRAID. That is the whole point. To scare you. To make you not want to be a space monkey. Another mindless, thoughtless follower. Another brick in the wall. A goosestepper. A fool." But can Fight Club be seen as a remedy for the disenfranchisement of the white male? Susan Faludi seems to think so. In the October 25, 1999 issue of Newsweek Faludi claimed that Fight Club "is a surprising message about how to be a man today" because "for men who are offered fewer and fewer meaningful occupations, beating each other up may seem like one thing guys can still do well." Coincidently, Faludi's book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, was published in 1999 prior to Fight Club's release, a fact that did not go unnoticed by movie reviewers. Richard Schickel's review for Newsweek correlates the male angst of the film with Faludi's book: "Fight Club can't be ignored. It is working American Beauty-Susan Faludi territory, that illiberal, impious, inarticulate fringe that threatens the smug American center with an anger that cannot explain itself, can act out its frustrations only in inexplicable violence."

Marketing the Film

Several television and internet clips appeared in the months leading up to Fight Club's October 1999 release. In the first television clip Fight Club is advertised as a heart-racing thrill ride. The voiceover describes the narrator as "tired of his job, sick of his stuff, looking for something new. But he wasn't ready for what he found." In a similar tone, the second television advertisement portrayed the film as a movie about "friendship, pain, pleasure, and chaos." Standing in stark contrast to the aforementioned clips is the third advertisement in which Fight Club appears to be a dark, romantic comedy. Unlike the pulsating techno music used in the first television clips, the playful music used in this advertisement contributes the portrayal of the film as light-hearted. The three television spots differ greatly from a couple of Internet clips that appeared. In these clips Edward Norton speaks directly to the camera and espouses the apocalyptic attitude promoted by Tyler Durden. In the first clip the narrator says, "I know you. You're a young guy...too young to have fought in any wars and if your parents weren't divorced then your father probably was never at home." In the second internet spot the narrator advocates a Nietchzean philosophy and asks, "If you could be God's worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose? Unless we get God's attention we have no hope of damnation or redemption." These clips seem to cut more deeply to the heart of the matter in Fight Club as they tout the Tyler Durden philosophy of destruction as a means to reclaim lost history. Other promotional pieces reinforced the film's blatant testosterone driven theme by demonizing femininity, urging film goers to "wash your feminine side clean off."

In the first weekend Fight Club opened in 1999 it grossed $11 million in ticket sales placing it number one at the box office for the weekend of October 15-17. Sixty percent of the audience was male and 58% of the audience was under the age of 25 (http://www.boxofficeguru.com/). Domestically, the film only earned $37 million compared its overseas earnings of $71 million (http://www.worldwideboxoffice.com/index.cgi). Considering that it cost 20th Century Fox $65 million to make the film, the box office performance of Fight Club was disappointing, much to the delight of critics who proclaimed the film "…a witless mishmash of whiny, infantile philosophizing and bone-crunching violence that actually thinks it's saying something of significance" (http://calendarlive.com/top/1,1419,L-LATimes-Movies-X!ArticleDetail-5276,00.html). Given the fact that 1999 was also the year of the Columbine High School shooting, it is understandable that a film like Fight Club would have its share of conscientious objectors. The film defies the expectations of the audience who are accustomed to seeing violence within a certain context like Saving Private Ryan or Full Metal Jacket. When violence in a film is devoid of any particular historical context the public's reaction tends to be objectional.

All in all Fight Club remains a product that is distinctly attached to its cultural moment. By reworking the myth of regeneration through violence, Fight Club emerges as a contestation of the lengths that men will go to in order to truly feel alive in a society that has dulled their senses. Violence is posited as a solution or redemption, but ultimately violence is not the answer. I believe the film can be read as strongly anti-violent. Violence does not get the protagonist anywhere nor does it earn him anything other than a gunshot wound to the neck that was necessary to destroy his doppelganger. Although the film explores ways in which to reclaim masculinity, the film's ending suggests that masculinity has already been lost in the postmodern quagmire and even primitive and typically masculine-affirming activities like bare-knuckled fighting cannot provide salvation. A film like Fight Club will remain popular precisely because of the outrageousness of its plot. Movie-goers by nature are fascinated with spectacle, especially when that spectacle entails individuals acting outside of the traditional moral code. Anthropologist George Mentore notes this phenomenon: "In the modern desire for individual liberation, our society seems to be macabrely fascinated by the possibility of breaking free from the most sacred of moral codes which bind us" (68). It is our own fascination with these spectacles of violence that contributes to the mythologization of violence in American culture. The John Wayne western is too far in the past to have widespread appeal to the media-crazed youth generation of the late 1990s and into the 21st century. Fight Club then provides an alternative vision for the postmodern generation. Critic David Ansen sums it up best:

[T]his is not a movie that can be easily dismissed--or forgotten. An outrageous mixture of brilliant technique, puerile philosophizing, trenchant satire, and sensory overload, Fight Club is the most incendiary movie to come out of Hollywood in a long time. It's a mess but one worth fighting about. (77)