Friday, 13 January 2012

On Teaching Fight Club to Students Inclined to Love It (This be yet another one of them posts.) Fight Club, like its latter-day counterpart Inception, is the sum total of its wasted talent. Unlike Christopher Nolan, for whom Inception represented his personal white whale chased, captured, and carved, Fincher can't be held accountable for the many weaknesses of Fight Club. That can be blamed on his source material: the singular novel Chuck Palahniuk's been writing for the better part of the past two decades—Fight Club is merely an early incarnation. Read in isolation, it's possible to believe than any one of Palahniuk's books contains the potential to be more than it is—that its strengths, few though they are, may augur the arrival of a more sophisticated writer. Unfortunately, Palahniuk's development as an author could never eclipse the logic behind shampoo: He lathers. He rinses. He repeats. So if I seem particularly annoyed with any isolated moment in Fight Club, know that I'm not merely annoyed with that particular moment, but with its many kin. All of which is merely a long preface to a fairly simple argument: David Fincher's film far outstrips its source material. He accomplishes this not by altering fundamental elements of the plot, but by filming those elements in a way that undercuts, for example, explosive statements or implications of masculinity. For example, when charged to locate and lose a fight with a stranger, Fincher presents the scene comically: He uses a long shot to emphasize how unnecessary this altercation is. That priest can turn his other cheek and exist the mise-en-scène without being goaded by the mechanic and his hose a second time. The priest isn't, to paraphrase the narrator, doing just about anything he can to avoid a fight. He's walking away. It's not until the mechanic steals and waters his Bible that the priest becomes disturbed enough to muster a shove. The ensuing "fight" consists of the priest slapping the mechanic twice before running away. Moreover, the goofy non-diegetic sound playing throughout this sequence undercuts the bravery of all involved. The priest doesn't embrace his masculinity when he confronts the mechanic, nor is the mechanic's masculinity challenged by the priest's feeble attempt to confront him. Compare the Keystone Kops routine above with Palahniuk's description of the same in the novel: By this time next week, each guy on the Assault Committee has to pick a fight where he won't come out a hero. And not in fight club. This is harder than it sounds. A man on the street will do anything not to fight. The idea is to take some Joe on the street who's never been in a fight and recruit him. Let him experience winning for the first time in his life. Get him to explode. Give him permission to beat the crap out of you. You can take it. If you win, you screwed up. "What we have to do, people," Tyler told the committee, "is remind these guys what kind of power they still have." Fincher took what had,...
I'm a woman? Caitlin Flanagan seems to think so: The second reason Metcalf was left flat by this line of reasoning is that he isn’t a woman, and to really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female. Admittedly, I don’t find Didion’s discussions of jasmine and packing lists to be the strongest features of her work. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have to be a woman to do so. Flanagan should know better than to argue from a gender essentialist position so intellectually vapid it can be refuted by the existence of stereotypical gay males. She clearly doesn’t. Her failure to recognize that she’s diminishing Didion by praising her thus leads her to statements like: Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves. Calling the woman who wrote “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” a “girl” does her disservice. Calling her a narcissist and suggesting that any females who read her are similarly narcissistic does them a disservice. That Flanagan does this in an attempt to praise Didion renders it all the more appalling because, in the end, Flanagan doesn’t believe that Didion’s actually a writer: I can tell you this for certain: anything you have ever read by Didion about the shyness that plagued her in her youth, and about her inarticulateness in those days, in the face of even the most banal questions, was not a writer’s exaggeration of a minor character trait for literary effect. The contemporary diagnosis for the young woman at our dinner table would be profound—crippling—social-anxiety disorder. Didion emoted her prose onto the page. She didn’t perform an excruciating self-analysis in the service of a journalistic ethos, she was shy so she wrote shyly. The dinner party Flanagan recounts in the article happened after the publication ofSlouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection whose titular essay is renowned for its shy lyric: We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vaccum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that society’s atomization could be reveresed …. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words. Except there’s nothing shy about...

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