I’m in a central London cinema watching Fight Club: on the screen, Brad Pitt has forced a Korean shopkeeper to kneel in a puddle and is holding a gun to the man’s head. Pitt tells the man he is going to die, then asks him what he most wanted to be in life, and the answer comes back in pitiful blubbery sobs: a vet. Pitt gives the man his wallet back and tells him that in six months he’ll be back to check if he’s taking steps to realise his veterinary dream. The man runs off howling, and all around me the audience start to laugh – throughout the cinema, I hear scattered applause.

Fight Club is in places a very funny film, and is in places quite a troubling one. It’s troubling because you’re never quite sure how much anyone involved is buying into its modish modern-life-is-rubbish premise, and because it wants in a way to have its cake of soap and eat it. Fight Club is two films in one – Film A is about the awfulness of materialist consumer society and its emasculatory effects, and Film B is about the awfulness of fascism. At some point the Ed Norton character, a frustrated office worker, realises that the Brad Pitt character, a charismatic prophet of liberation-through-violence called Tyler Durden, has completely flipped, and at this point Fight Club switches from Film A to Film B. But while for me that plot point was the Korean storekeeper thing, for you it might have been a lot later, when Pitt starts actually recruiting black-shirted goons or when said goons start talking in hushed tones about “Project Mayhem”. The two films infect one another, which is problematic because in Film A you’re pretty obviously meant to be on Brad Pitt’s ‘side’, and in Film B you’re not. But they’re the same film.

(I’m fairly sure this is all intentional on director David Fincher’s part, of course, because a little bit into Film B, Fight Club goes off the deep end totally and becomes a silly but hugely entertaining thriller, Film C, which foregrounds these questions of identity and where sympathies lie in absurd if gripping style. To say more about Film C would spoil Fight Club from a cool-film point of view, which is the best reason to go and see it anyway, so I won’t.)

Fight Club is satire with delusions of grandeur and delusions of accuracy. As a film about how inhuman consumer-capitalism and the live-to-work lifestyle is, it falls oddly flat. I’m sure David Fincher’s worked in an office, and I’m sure his poet’s soul chafed against its drabness, but even so Fight Club‘s work scenes leave the same sort of nasty taste in the mouth as Radiohead’s railings about “Gucci little piggies”, that mean taste of condescension mixed with self-righteousness. Even something as humble and ubiquitous as Dilbert is more accurate in capturing the cocktail of absurdity, lack of perspective, cynicism and cameraderie that characterises day-to-day corporate life than Fight Club‘s glib diatribes against materialist dronedom. I’ve never actually come across anybody like Ed Norton’s character, anybody who genuinely does define his life by what he owns, but I’ve come across a fair few people like Tyler Durden.

Durden, the Arthur Cravan-goes-MTV central character of Fight Club, is fascinating precisely because he’s so familiar. His insights spring from Hemingway and Laurence, the maleness-is-action ideologues of the early century; his methods are hand-me-down Situationism; his look is pure 90s alternative – goatee and tattoos spliced with retro pimp chic. And all of it is more or less bogus.

The idea that men who beat the shit out of each other are more alive for it – and if anything’s the main idea in Fight Club, this is the one – fell down a bit for me personally because I’ve been badly beaten up and felt, unsurprisingly, really really bad about it. But that was an unprovoked surprise attack, and the fights in Fight Club are more like bouts, pre-arranged and strictly codified. Fighting in the film is basically no different from any other extreme sport – snowboarding with more blood, which is one reason why the leap from fisticuffs to fascism requires a certain amount of faith on the part of the viewer: it’s hard to imagine forging an elite cadre of golden fanatical youth out of, say, white-water rafters. All the business about being more alive after this sort of extremity puts us on familiar ground, the standard sports marketing tactic of equating adrenalin with enlightenment. A terribly 90s enlightenment, of course, combining the pleasant notion that the experiences vouchsafed to you are not for the common man with the assurance that you don’t actually have to do any work for them, you just have to take part.

There’s something very sporting, almost naive, about the fights in Fight Club. Only once, when Ed Norton pounds a lithe blonde boy’s face to pulp, is there any hint of personal tension or rancour in the combat. Everybody stops when asked to and shakes each other’s hands afterwards, and nobody seems to resent their defeats. The combat-ideology of Fight Club is more Victorian Public School than men’s movement, in fact: a sound thrashing administered by Queensberry Rules, and no hard feelings afterwards, chaps. Oh, and anyone who doesn’t fight is a beastly coward. Since this is the kind of thinking that wiped out most of the British officer class in the Great War, perhaps the whole leader-follower dynamic of Film B isn’t so off-base after all.

(Incidentally, Fight Club couldn’t have been made in Britain: the whole live-for-the-weekend culture it posits actually happened here from 1988 onwards, and while we’re still working through the social after effects, a turn to the far right has not so far been among them. But the various scenes where Norton exchanges conspiratorial half-glimpses with his secret weekend companions mark this out as a clubbing film as much as a fighting one.)

The way the fights are shown uncovers a little more of the movie’s flimsiness. I’m not the first to point out that the scene where Brad Pitt, who’s spent half the movie flexing his sweatily muscular bod, mocks a beefcake-centric ad for Calvin Klein underpants rings a bit hollow. But it’s compounded by the fact that even though the ‘rules’ of Fight Club command that shirts and shoes be removed before a fight, none of the fat guys strip off (least of all Meat Loaf with his much-discussed ‘bitch tits’). Flab, unlike Brad’s nasty beard, isn’t ‘edge’ enough for the music-video aesthetics of the film.
Tyler Durden, before he turns into a cult leader, is a mischief-maker. It’s in this capacity – as joker, bullshit-detector, enabler, the only free man in an unfree world – that we cheer him on as Film A runs its course. The mischief he makes, aside from the Korean-shopkeeper live-your-dreams vigilanteism already described, is mostly a string of vicious little variations on the old Situationist idea of detournement, the appropriation and alteration of existing cultural material to expose its underlying banality. So Durden works nights in a cinema, splicing frames from porno films into Disney cartoons. Radical and cool, no? But here’s a question: why doesn’t Tyler also splice Disney frames into pornos? There has always been a problem with this kind of cultural pranksterism, in that the tendency is to just question the assumptions your audience already disagrees with. It’s desperately rare to find anyone going any further into illuminating how their audience’s and their own discourse is subject to the same alienation and predictability. But that wouldn’t be half as fun, of course.

The most unrealistic thing about Fight Club isn’t the shenanigans of its closing forty minutes, it’s the idea that the Fight Club network would be a scary underground threat in the first place. The Situationists Fincher and company are feeding off weren’t stupid people – their starting principle was always that there could be nothing outside the system, or at the very least that the moment you defined activity as being outside, the system would adapt in that instant to absorb it. The idea that Fight Club would avoid ending up style supplement material within half a year of the first fist landing on the first jaw is a cosier pretence than anything Norton’s character subscribes to in his Ikea’d-up existence.

So why does the film pretend in this way? Why does it try so hard to be important? Why do the audience cheer when Brad Pitt makes a Korean shopkeeper cry? In that scene Pitt is seen as heroic because by force of will he’s turning his victim back into an individual. Never mind that a vet is as much a part of consumer society as a shopkeeper is: the man Brad drags out from behind his counter is pitiable for the same reason Ed Norton’s boss is, because he is reducible to cypherdom, because he is part of a ‘mass’, unenlightened and – the greatest sin – un-individual.

In 1992 the Oxford don John Carey published his polemical The Intellectuals And The Masses, which fiercely argued the existence of a turn-of-the-century trend among literary intellectuals to first construct the ‘masses’ as a group, and then to demonise them, belittle their tastes and wistfully fantasize their extermination. Carey’s book is more than half infuriating, because his attack on intellectual snobbery turns out to be a cover for his own smugly middlebrow tastes, and because of his over-reach in linking intellectual disdain with the racial theories of Nazism, an, uh, mass movement led by some of the fiercest anti-intellectuals of the century.

But even if his evidence is slyly selective, Carey’s book is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining, and the main thought it provoked in me is how urgently we need a sequel, The Individuals And The Masses, detailing the adaptation and take-up of mass-inferiority theories by our present alternative culture, the culture Fight Club is feeding off. The subtext of Fight Club, of The Matrix, of 90% of all indie music criticism and underground film writing, is this: there are individuals and there is the mass. The lives of the masses are unworthy of artistic consideration, other than as easy fodder for comparison or mockery. Their tastes are homogenous and wretched. Their emotional lives are stunted and banal. And so on: you can see it in the caricature corporations of Fight Club, in every bad rock lyric which takes a pop at ‘the herd’, in the headlong rush of advertisers and brand managers to claim the 20something demographic, in the revulsion and fear that fans and artists alike have of large-scale success. As I’ve argued before, it’s a dislikeable trend from a political point of view because it leads to a situation where the individual freedom to smoke pot animates far more people than, say, global climate or trade issues. And it’s a dangerous trend from an aesthetic point of view because it’s unsympathetic and inhumane and leads to cosy, reactionary and bad art.

Is Fight Club bad art? Not really – it’s the kind of confused, energising movie you’re glad gets made. Ed Norton’s performance is superb, and the unceasing visual hipness lands squarely on the right side of indulgence. It’s just the chords it’s striking feel a bit off key, and a superficially thought-provoking film ends up less like bare-knuckle boxing and more like wrestling: the fighters are stereotypes, the outcome rigged.

ENDNOTE: Arthur Cravan was a poet, painter and boxer who has been linked to the Dada movement. I thought of him while writing this piece because in 1916 he challenged Jack Johnson, the Heavyweight Champion of the World, to a fight, turned up blind drunk and lost within one round. At the end of another match he surprised the crowd by breaking into a long speech about Oscar Wilde. He disappeared in 1918.