Updated: Be sure to read the comments to this post where I clarify the claims I am making.
I’ve already written about a couple of movies that seduce us into a kind of self-deception. Rashomon tempts us into reading its ending optimistically, thereby confirming its pessimistic thesis that we often lie to ourselves. (You can read my analysis here.) And The Matrix tempts us into ignoring its Marxist political implications, thereby confirming its thesis that our society is in the thrall of a capitalist ideology. (You can read that argument here.)
Now I want to give a brief argument that Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) does a similar thing: it tempts us into idolizing Tyler Durden as a pumped-up man’s man, while simultaneously undercutting traditional masculinity with a pervasive homoerotic subtext. I won’t bother to detail the gay imagery and symbolism in the film here. Just take my word for it. (One essay which gives a good catalog of the homoerotic references is Robert Alan Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus, “Hiding Homoeroticism in Plain View” in Critical Studies in Media Communication, March 2002.)
For now I’m more interested in self-deception. The most interesting scene along these lines is the one where Tyler looks directly into the camera and says, “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.” On the surface he is giving a kind of anti-advertisement meant to counter the consumerist messages of the media. But note that the film literally breaks down at this point – the sides of the image warp and we see the sprocket holes.
Here is the scene:
This cinematic device can be read as a simple homage to Bergman’s Persona, a film, like Fight Club, about two people with an ambiguous relationship and which also includes a similar scene where the film breaks down. Here is that scene:
But the Bergman reference doesn’t entirely make sense. Persona is about the nature of art and the human capacity for communication and other concepts which make sense of Bergman’s self-reflexivity. But why is David Fincher revealing the cinematic basis of his film? Why does the film break down at exactly this point in Fight Club? I propose that our attention is being drawn to the fact that we are watching a movie — a product of the mass media — at exactly the moment when Tyler is attempting to undermine the influence of the media. Fincher is deconstructing himself. There is another example of this technique when Tyler is getting on a bus and sees a Gucci ad of a naked man and wonders “Is that what a man looks like?” The irony is that Tyler is played by Brad Pitt who has the exact same body as the model in the ad!
Fincher wants us to see that although Tyler is the unnamed narrator’s image of an ideal man, that image is something socially constructed by the media. The things Tyler says sound a lot like people such as John Eldredge in his book Wild at Heart (e.g., “God designed men to be dangerous” but our culture teaches us instead “to be a nice guy”). And it is easy to get caught up in Tyler’s speeches. But the film subverts itself, pointing out that the message that a “real man” is a macho brute like Mel Gibson (Eldredge argues that Jesus was more like Braveheart‘s William Wallace than Mother Theresa!) is just another one of the social constructions presented by the mass media.
But we don’t notice these acts of self-deconstruction, because we don’t want to. In order to realize that the film doesn’t think Tyler’s brand of machismo is the self-evidently true masculine ideal, you’d have to be able to admit that Fight Club is actually a gay film.