MOTW: What Went Right: The Rise of "Fight Club"

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A ticking-time-bomb insomniac and a slippery soap salesman channel primal male aggression into a shocking new form of therapy. Their concept catches on, with underground "fight clubs" forming in every town, until it starts an out-of-control spiral toward oblivion.
Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
August 26th, 2013

MOTW: What Went Right: The Rise of "Fight Club"

In considering what makes "Fight Club" one of the best films of the 1990s, it's worth noting that nothing about its initial reception marked it as such. Indeed, the consensus among the critics at the time was that "Fight Club" was a horrifying mistake that would probably hurt the careers of everyone involved. After all, the movie had explosions, but not of the approved type—indeed, not one police car was ramped into a single helicopter in the customary Hollywood tradition. The consensus among audiences was even bleaker. Fox budgeted the film at $63 million but only managed to recover about $37 million at the box office. Losing a studio almost $30 million is not the way to advance one's career, and it seemed as though "Fight Club" was on its way to richly deserved obscurity.

A funny thing happened after the disastrous theatrical release, however; "Fight Club" came out on DVD, putting it in the hands of millions of people who had skipped the movie in the theater, presumably as a result of a catastrophically bad marketing campaign that painted the film as, by turns, a quirky romcom and a bang-bang shoot-'em-up action flick that wasn't going to place any demands on its viewers. These two audiences came to the theater, sat down with their popcorn, and walked right out to demand a refund from the theater management. With release to home video, however, viewers were invited to approach the film on their own terms.

In a twist of fate that perhaps restores one's faith in the intelligence of the moviegoing public, fans fell in love with the movie. It was too late to save it in the theaters, which is where Hollywood studios still look to make the lion's share of their profits, but the "Fight Club" story touched something deep inside its new fans. Ironically, fans had much the same reaction to "Fight Club" the movie as the movie's characters had to the Fight Club itself: a loyal willingness to join up and promote their new idol. Over the years, as later movies did what they could to look more and more like "Fight Club," the picture began creeping onto the lists of the decade's best films. What had been a corner-pocket release attended by wholly inappropriate publicity soon became almost a mainstream cultural phenomenon. At its peak, the new appreciation of "Fight Club" reached the level of a cultural litmus test; liking "Fight Club" came to be seen in some circles as a mark of enlightenment, as a sign that the fan really got it.

It goes without saying that this kind of upside-down reaction to a film—initial rejection, followed by grudging acceptance, followed by enthusiastic embrace and wholesale reevaluation—isn't the sort of thing that happens when a movie is subpar or mediocre. "Fight Club" has genuinely touched the lives of its fans. It's worth asking why.

Stacking up "Fight Club" against the decade's other great films, a pattern starts to emerge. "Goodfellas," "Pulp Fiction," "Reservoir Dogs," and "Fargo" all make reviewers' lists of top films on a regular basis. What they all have in common with "Fight Club" is that they tell compelling stories in unconventional ways. The compelling story behind "Fargo," for example, is that of the lonely desperation of "respectable" middle-class people in America's heartland. It's also about the cruelty of the successful (think of Jerry's father-in-law) and what that says about the upside-down nature of good and evil in society. It's a message that resonates with ordinary people—literally all of whom know somebody like Bill Lumbergh from "Office Space," another classic of the decade.

These films also take an unflinching look at one of America's most compelling taboos: casual violence. In none of these movies is the violent criminal romanticized. In each and every one, the really violent characters are shown unflinchingly as violent and cruel (think of every character Joe Pesci has ever played). This more realistic portrayal appeals to people. Imagine if Tyler Durden really existed. Imagine if he was in charge. The willingness of films like "Fight Club" to shun traditional narratives of good and evil in favor of more realistic dialogue and pacing makes viewers feel that they've finally found a film that will take a chance on talking to them as grownups.

That, it turns out, is what was lacking in the other—financially more successful, but less adored—films of the decade. It was a simple case of respect for the audience that took "Fight Club" from the B list and put it in the cultural firmament.

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