At first glance, David Fincher’s two explorations of masculinity in crisis, bookending the noughties – Fight Club (1999) and The Social Network (2010) – look similar in the way a Facebook poke might resemble a full-on punch in the teeth. But there are connections. As his most concerted examination of dysfunctional bromance, the films stand alongside his best work, Seven (1995), The Game (1997) and Zodiac (2007), in probing the darker reaches of masculine loneliness. Of course, Alien 3 and Panic Room both feature feisty female protagonists, but they were missteps: the first being a fraught studio-conflict-riven debut and the latter a self-consciously big B-movie. You might think I’m forgetting The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and you’d be right.
The First Rule of Fightbook Is You Have to Talk about Fightbook.
Fincher is a director who needs writers, working best when he has someone else’s powerful voice to put his images to. Seven was scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker and Zodiac featured Robert Graysmith (the writer of the book on which the film is based) as a major character. With The Social Network, the fame and prominence of its writer makes it easy to see this as an Aaron Sorkin production rather than a David Fincher film; and the Academy, for what it’s worth, duly did. Sorkin’s forte, as displayed in his TV work and most especially The West Wing, is quick-fire talk, and that’s what we get in The Social Network: a young man and a young woman talking; young men talking; young men talking together; young men talking to old men; young men’s lawyers talking and then young men talking again; then a woman says something. Add to this the fact that the nub of the drama is litigation, young men talking about what young men said and what they meant when they said it. It’s fast and witty, but there are also the acerbic silences. Mark Zuckersomething (played by Jesse Eisenberg) has the pout of a man whose best one-liners are zinging around the private theatre of his brain. For all the talk, no one actually seems to have a real conversation.
The Second Rule of Fightbook Is You Have to Talk about Fightbook.
Despite the film’s savage satirising of the talking cure and group therapy sessions, Fight Club is nothing if not a talking cure. Like The Social Network, this film is most definitely a talkie, breaking its own first and second rule again and again. Chuck Palahniuk’s first person prose is almost seamlessly cut and pasted into Edward Norton’s voice-over narration. But it’s not just that. The voice is a controlling element of the film, not only explaining what is happening or what the character is thinking, but directing the action. When Norton walks through his apartment, his words make furniture magically appear. His voice can freeze-frame the film. Telephone calls (from call-boxes and landlines, so 1999) are prominent plot moments. The voice is languid, persuasive, funny, deceitful, but in control even as it complains of helplessness and impotence. The second voice is Tyler Durden’s politically ambiguous radicalism. In fact, it isn’t so much ambiguous as wilfully contradictory: authoritarian anti-authoritarianism, fascistically organised anarchism, self-effacing narcissism. Ultimately, the film, especially on a second viewing, is about a man complaining that men (now) talk too much. And complaining. Following the novel more closely, a better ending might have located the whole story inside a group therapy session for ex-Fight Club men, trying to deal with their Tyler withdrawal.
The Third Rule of Fightbook: Only One Girl at a Time, Fellas.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to say that there are no girls in these films. But there tends to be only one significant other, and she is only there to starkly point out a rejection of, or by, the female world. Marla in Fight Club is a taunting, threatening presence who needs to be eliminated. More Tyler than Tyler himself (who anyway is only ever really half Tyler), Marla’s suicidal nihilism needs to be sidelined if the attempt to find a core masculine identity is to be taken seriously. The rejection of the female – ‘we were a generation brought up by our mothers, I’m thinking if another woman in our lives is really the solution’ – allows also for a freer homoerotic fantasy. But this kind of no-girls-allowed masculinity is really a heterosexual homosexuality, full of backslapping and angry repression. Whereas Fight Club wears its man-worries on its bare (but not particularly hairy) chest, The Social Network maintains an adolescent attitude to women, at once fearing them, despising them after the anticipated rejection and then vengefully commodifying them. Girls with names, there are few and but one of note. Like Marla, Erica Albright is the man-child’s worst nightmare, an intelligent, articulate woman who can see through pretence. Just as Fight Club is a retreat from Marla, so Facebook is a rejection of a girl like Erica Albright and initially an act of publicly delivered vengeance. Every other girl in the film is a trophy to be ostentatiously flung in Erica Albright’s face, girls with bigger tits and less lip. The question-mark endings of both films present similarly ironic and uncertain truces rather than genuine resolution.
The Fourth Rule of Fightbook: If This Is Your First Night at Fightbook, You DON’T Have to Fight.
The most obvious difference between the two films is the level of violence. The fighting of Fight Club has been variously described as metaphorical and whatnot, and yet it is there, a visceral, anti-intellectual attempt at life, at connecting. This late 90s wish for violence, for a self-defining and character-building war, is no longer sustainable post-9/11, in the phosphorous light of Fallujah and the Helmand Province. All the boys who really wanted to find themselves in the zing of battle are in The Hurt Locker (Bigalow, 2008) or Restrepo (Hetherington and Junger, 2010). The Social Network verbally spars where Fight Club smashes your face in, both in its content and in its stylistic vigour. And yet the total absence of violence in The Social Network leaves an outline where violence ought to be. Sean Parker’s flinch is a defining moment in the battle between him and Eduardo: ‘I like standing next to you, Sean,’ Eduardo says. ‘It makes me look tough.’ Fight Club‘s psychotic anguish about ‘being men together’ is more violently played out and the images of movie star masculinity (Brad Pitt and Jared Leto) are at least available, but the loneliness of the central characters of both films, their inability to connect, or even look at each other while talking is there throughout. [SPOILER] The ‘suicide’ at the end of Fight Club ought to be real (the statistics for suicide among young white men in the US make for grim reading), but both films reach out for a possibly hopeful resolution.
If only it wasn’t for that last cock, getting in the way of everything.