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My verdict on Fight Club is already in: it is an inadmissible assault on personal decency. And on society itself. At its Venice Film Festival world premiere in September, it caused well-justified outrage as a movie phenomenon well in line with the current tentative but threatening revival of Nazism. In particular, it alarmed my Jewish film critic friends.
They saw its story - correctly, I think - as a paradigm of the Hitler state. Even though it is set in contemporary America, it's not simply about young guys beating the hell out of each other with bare fists in secret fight clubs. Its story may be insane and septic, but it uncritically enshrines principles that once underpinned the politics of fascism, and ultimately sent millions of Jews to the death camps.
It echoes propaganda that gave licence to the brutal activities of the SA and the SS. It resurrects the Fuhrer principle. It promotes pain and suffering as the virtues of the strongest. It tramples every democratic decency underfoot. Like Hitler, its characters elevate the halbstarken, the "middle children of history", the underclass of outsiders who feel alienated and unvalued, and form them into disciplined cells, giving them a purpose in life which is to inflict panic and anarchy on the community.
Such a disreputable rebranding of Nazi goods is directed by David Fincher for 20th Century-Fox. Fincher made the cleverest and sickest of recent film noirs with Seven, a movie that cynically avoided depicting violence by dwelling almost entirely on autopsies and posthumous images of its dead and decomposing victims of violence.
Fight Club is an even more toxic experience. It's set in some big but unnamed American city where Edward Norton is a self-loathing nerd employed to see if auto crashes justify recalling the cars his bosses make, or simply settling out of court - whichever is the smaller cost to the company.
At first the film looks as if it's shaping up to be a laconic commentary on the distorted values of US consumerism. I'd have settled for that. But its material gets grosser and alienating. Norton, an insomniac wanderer, gate-crashes pathetic "support groups" for those with diseases like testicular and bowel cancer, TB and Aids, working off his own angsts on the realities of the terminally ill. Then he meets Brad Pitt.
Pitt is an active sociopath, an articulate apprentice of random malice. Like Guy Grand, the prankster-hero of Terry Southern's anarchic novel The Magic Christian, he is a public enemy: sometimes he works as a waiter, peeing in the soup, farting on the puddings; sometimes as a movie projectionist, splicing erect penises subliminally into family films.
But once he and Norton form a homo-erotic alliance, cohabiting in a grungy house built (but barely) on a waste dump, the two owners of the same psychopathy set up a secret league of fight clubs where the maladjusted and the macho slug it out nightly to get in touch with their diminished manhood by demonstrating how much pain they can endure.
Some apologists for Fight Club say that's what - and that's all - it's about: men proving they're men again. Even if this were true, which it's not, it's a malicious film-maker who sees masculinity served by pulping each other into bloody insensibility with bare knuckles. A year or two ago, David Cronenberg's Crash suggested that people could top up their sexual libido by crashing their cars into each other on the public highways. Fight Club promotes a perversion that's a potentially more dangerous franchise.
This one requires only the weaponry we all possess (given the will) of bare fists and the less costly allure of secret illegality and doing harm only to the body-work of a human being, not an expensive automobile. Even with the cuts made in it by our film censors, it's an irresponsible attraction to promote in a community like ours, already over-stretched just to maintain the semblance of public safety.
Norton is soon going to the office with bleeding gums, black eyes, bruised cheeks, damaged hearing and bloodstained clothes, and spitting out (along with loose teeth) such bits of acquired wisdom as: "You can swallow a pint of blood before getting sick." The fights themselves disgust and deafen eye and ear. They are grotesquely explicit and pornographically amplified. They exceed the limits of all screen violence I've seen in recent years. They are the apotheosis of the way in which today's moronic American super-stars pump up their ego muscles in public to exhibit themselves as Hollywood supremacists scornful of all values save those of their own box-office.
The movie gradually makes its analogy with Nazi Germany even more overt. Pitt and Norton raid liposuction waste dumpsters at night, retrieving "the richest cream fat in the world", that's been siphoned out of the obese, and rendering it into red soap tablets they then flog to exclusive boutiques. It's unbelievable any film would dare use, even as such a sick gag, a sequence reminiscent of that chapter of the Holocaust in which Nazi thoroughness rendered the Jews down into similar, no doubt less pricy soap bars. But Fight Club has no reticence, no memory, no shame.
Ultimately, the club membership expands into a nationwide secret army of proto-Nazis who embark on what's grandly called Project Mayhem. They pick fights with innocent passers-by, graffiti-spray buildings, befoul fountains, rob stores, sabotage public works, set off bombs - do all, in short, that Hitler's Brown Shirts did to destabilise the frightened society of their own time. One of Pitt's acolytes, played by Meat Loaf as a hormonal freak with pecs like women's breasts, is shot dead: he becomes an instant martyr-hero whose name is chanted in the same sort of solidarity mantra as Horst Wessel's when that young SA man became the first saint of the Nazi movement with an anthem to memorialise him.
It defies belief that such a film could have been conceived, shot and distributed by a film company whose ultimate boss, Rupert Murdoch, is an arch-exponent of the very capitalist system that Fight Club scorns. You sit there aghast at the amorality and opportunism of the film business. Not for the first time, I admit. But this time its impact is far more inflammatory. Even the metaphysical twist at the end - which I am asked not to disclose, and which is so confusing that to describe it would be a waste of time - cannot convert a film that is a summons to anarchy into an anodyne screen fantasy.
In any well-adjusted society, its stars would feel a backlash of public indignation well beyond the box-office. Edward Norton is one of America's most gifted actors; Brad Pitt one of its most personable. Both, curiously, played Nazis in two earlier films, American History X and Seven Years in Tibet. For their future good, they should explore the world beyond Mein Kampf. As for Britain's own Helena Bonham Carter, playing a sleazy, white-faced slut, on drugs, suicidal, servicing the flesh and fantasies of both men, she shows the extent that actresses are willing to go in order to trash their screen images and enjoy notoriety without responsibility. It is not a pretty sight.