From the earliest days of the studio system, Hollywood has acted as a mirror that simultaneously reflects and upholds the dominant ideology and values of society as a whole. The depiction of the “hero” in the classical Hollywood narrative is best exemplified by genre pictures such as the Western or War movie. In films such as Stagecoach (1939) and Twelve O’Clock High (1949), the hero was tested by antagonistic external forces and faced with insurmountable odds, but through strength of character and superior ingenuity, he ultimately emerged triumphant. Character motivation was dictated by clearly illustrated plot points, governed by cause-and-effect logic. The audience was rewarded with closure, and left the cinema temporarily unburdened by their own personal. On the matter of why genre pictures are appealing to audiences, Leo Braudy has observed that “genre conventions are a vocabulary by which films try to deal with issues that are continually pressing to their audiences” (Braudy, 180). Mainstream cinema seeks to preserve the equilibrium of society during difficult times. This form of narrative was dominant throughout Hollywood’s Golden Age, continued throughout both World Wars, the Great Depression, and, with few exceptions, exemplified the representation of the “hero” until the end of the 1950’s. However, a climate of mistrust in government brought about by the War in Vietnam, and the pessimistic worldview resulting from the Cold War years, brought about a perception of these heroic ideals as anachronistic. The 1960’s heralded a new narrative approach to the hero.
The two decades that followed the decline of Hollywood’s classical era saw the hero reinvented to better represent the uncertainty of the world outside the auditorium. The assassination of both John and Robert Kennedy, protests against the War in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal and the subsequent downfall of the Nixon administration all contributed to undermining the delicate status quo between the American Government and the society under its control. The widespread skepticism that greeted the findings of the Warren Commission saw the beginning of a public distrust in the benevolence of Government. The filmmakers of this generation began using the medium of film to reflect the climate of uncertainty in the cornerstones of society hitherto upheld as reassuring foundations of security.
Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), the protagonist of Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), represents the futility of the common man standing in opposition to the State. The nonpartisan political manipulation implemented by the Parallax Corporation provides the audience with no comforting answers or closure – it merely invites an uncomfortable speculation on who wields the power and who controls the controllers. The cinéma vérité style of the presidential assassination sequence which opens The Parallax View plays on the real-world anxieties of its contemporary audience. Parallels can be drawn between the fictional and real-world assassinations, the Frady/Harvey Oswald as patsy element, and insinuations of a government defined by moral turpitude. This theme is driven home throughout the film in a series of visual metaphors, which manifest from the opening shot of the Seattle Space Needle obscured by a Native American totem pole (Fig. 1), and continue throughout. The composition of scenes, including the slow tracking shots of the anonymous inquest committee which bookend the film (Fig. 2), alongside the scenes in Frady’s dimly-lit bedsit, ensures that the majority of the frame is obscured in total darkness, whilst revealing a minute portion of visual information. This deliberate cinematographic choice has the dual effect of focussing the viewer’s attention on a precise portion of the frame, while also alluding to the fraction of narrative information available to Frady, and by extension, the viewer. The unseen narrative is mirrored in the occluded visual.
Fig. 1 – A Parallax View
Fig. 2 – The Parallax inquest committee
In a conscious break with classical narrative, Frady represents what Elsaesser calls “the unmotivated hero.” Tension arises from the protagonist’s lack of motives and the motif of the journey, “that is, the recourse… to a motivation, ready-made, highly conventionalised and brought to the film from outside, and… the lack of corresponding motivation on the inside, on the part of the protagonist’s inner drive or palpable conflict” (Elsaesser, 280). This tension and lack of motivation can be seen in Frady’s reaction to his ex-wife’s plea for help. His response is unconventional, exhibiting a blasé lack of concern for her plight. Rather than demonstrate the inventive ingenuity of the archetypal hero of the political thriller, Frady demonstrates that he lacks the skills necessary to outwit his opponents and expose the conspiracy. His belief in the protection provided by an assumed identity is naïve in the extreme, particularly when considered alongside the modus operandi of the clandestine corporation that he is attempting to infiltrate. The small-town Sheriff working for Parallax was aware of Frady’s identity from the outset, yet rather than change tactics, Frady chooses to reuse the same techniques which have already failed. From this point in the narrative until the inevitable climax, Frady becomes a pawn in the larger manipulations of the Parallax Corporation. He allows himself to be manipulated and used as a patsy for the clean-up of Parallax’s loose ends.
An uninterrupted five minute brainwashing montage sequence (presented from Frady’s perspective) places the viewer in the position of active participant, and speaks to an unsettling anxiety of state control. It is impossible to misinterpret the heavy symbolism of this denouement. The representation of Frady caught in the infrastructure above a convention hall decked out with red, white and blue tables (Fig. 3), is a visual analogy of the web of conspiracy in which he is trapped. The Parallax Corporation is above the jurisdiction of the Government, and despite early allusions to his ingenuity and guile, Frady is an insignificant pawn in a greater scheme. In a break with conventional narrative codes, the Parallax conspiracy is not exposed, the hero is murdered, and closure for the audience is withheld.
Fig. 3 – Frady’s web of conspiracy
Throughout the Reaganite 1980s, movies aimed at the male audience can be exemplified by the vacuous, lump-headed Schwarzenegger/ Stallone, spectacle-over-sensibility action genre. However, the bad taste left by artless man-tripe such as Death Wish II (Winner, 1982), Conan the Barbarian (Milius, 1982) and Rambo (Cosmatos, 1985) and a swell of collective guilt brought about by feminism’s third wave resulted in a generation of males suffering from a crisis of identity by the beginning of the 1990s . The modern man was now expected to share his feelings, cry with ease, and to moisturise daily. Men were left unsure of their role in society, and masculinity was seen as an ugly aspiration. In an effort to recalibrate, the masculine pendulum had over-corrected, and it is to this crisis in masculinity that David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) addresses itself.
The hero of Fight Club, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), is a charismatic, intelligent, well-educated sociopath. He is a terrorist who perceives himself as a saviour rather than a criminal. He is the embodiment of masculine perfection manifested by the psyche of Jack (Edward Norton), the main protagonist. In spite of attaining the accoutrements of a successful lifestyle and fulfilling the goals expected in white, middle class society, Jack is troubled with an undefinable sense of ennui. This pre-midlife crisis manifests as acute insomnia which, in turn, leads to a psychic break. This allows Tyler to manifest as a separate entity of power, influence and agency. In Freudian terms, Tyler represents the inaccessible part of Jack’s unconscious. He is the unchecked id to Jack’s ego, given free reign and ungoverned by the super-ego. Indeed, through the unlawful dogma he embraces, Tyler desires to destroy the super-ego, in the form of banks, financial institutions and other cornerstones of society. The two entities coexist until Jack attempts to exert control on Tyler’s unchecked ego.
Fig. 4 – Tyler Durden: An unattainable level of masculine perfection
Fig. 5 – In contrast, Jack is clumsy and epicene
“Laura Mulvey had argued in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975) that the role of the male hero for the male spectator is that of an ideal ego, through whose gaze the spectator is that of an ideal ego, through whose gaze the spectator gains symbolic possession of the female body placed as the central spectacle in the fiction” (Neale, 153). Tyler is undoubtedly the central spectacle and ideal ego of Fight Club. His sexual codification is most blatant when compared to the representation of the clumsy, epicene Jack (Figs 4 & 5). In a moment of unintentional yet blatant irony, Tyler derides a male underwear advert for representing an unrealistic ideal of masculinity, while he himself embodies an unattainable level of masculine perfection, dressed from head-to-toe in designer clothing. If Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) is coded with any form of “to-be-looked-at-ness,” it is a form of morbid fascination, not a sexual one. Tyler is codified as the pinnacle of physical perfection, while Marla is used to exemplify the emasculating displacement of the male by the female in patriarchal society (Fig. 6). Jack’s perceived shame of his need of emasculating self-help is demonstrated by his adoption of the anonymity provided by an assumed name. “Travis,” one of the many alter egos used, is undoubtedly a nod to another cinematic anti-hero who undergoes a physical and mental metamorphosis to confront his paranoid, insomnia-induced issues with society. However, this balance of masculine power is redressed once the rules used to enforce structure on Tyler’s new society are established. The primary and secondary tenets of Fight Club’s unspoken acceptance are undoubtedly a rebuttal of the feminine culture of “let’s talk about it” therapy and self-help.
Fig. 6 – The emasculating displacement of the male by the female in patriarchal society
Fight Club is a film which wears its “knowingness” on its sleeve, and the overall mise-en-scène is pitched perfectly at its target demographic. Fincher employs the meta-theatrical device of showing the celluloid frame and sprocket holes slipping loose from the projector gate as a visual signifier of psychological rupture. Tyler is shown subversively splicing single frames of film into family-oriented movies, imperceptible to the audience. His introduction is foreshadowed in a series of similarly spliced diegetic frames, which play on the viewer’s anxieties of subliminal suggestion and covert advertising in keeping with the anti-consumerist theme. The third act volta that Robin Wood describes as “the abrupt rejection… of a more-or-less coherent narrative with carefully defined characters, [and a] collapse into “anything goes” pseudo-avant-gardism” (Wood, 338), is an attractive narrative device which appeals to the urbane viewer familiar with the work of Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan.
Fight Club’s many ideological inconsistencies and reductive of notions of masculinity are comprehensively dissected by Henry A. Giroux. The film ignores the “broader material relations of power and strategies of domination and exploitation [of] neoliberal capitalism, [while attempting to rebel] against a consumerist culture that dissolves the bonds of male sociality and puts into place an enervating notion of male identity and agency” (Giroux, 259). The masculine ideal put forward reinforces the notions of “white heterosexuality within a dominant logic of stylized brutality and male bonding… predicated on the need to denigrate and wage war against all that is feminine” (260). While on the one hand appearing to subscribe to a liberal agenda, the film also reinforces the depressingly reductive masculine identity inherent in the 80’s action genre. Tyler chooses to define his new world order by engaging with the basest of male instincts. The path to enlightenment is accessed through beating another man senseless. His ideology is irresponsibly anti-feminist, and therefore, reductive in its aim of re-establishing a male identity for the modern age. There is no place for the female in this new society, and when Tyler proclaims that “we’re a generation of men raised by women” he says it as though this is a bad thing. This utopian community is solely populated by the most privileged members of our society – the white, middle class, heterosexual male – and his cod-philosophical “changing your life is your choice” posturing ignores any impediments of economic, gender, or ethnic background.
The Hollywood hero has ever been a reflection of his audience. Where the 1970s were a decade of change and social upheaval that radicalised a generation, Fight Club is an artistic statement directed at a generation raised on MTV – a generation with nothing to rebel against. For this generation, war was an abstract concept; a vague, indefinable conflict fought on a land thousands of miles away, in countries that most could not locate on a map. The post-Cold War babies had no generation-defining global cataclysm to help define them. They had grown up in a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, and had never experienced genuine hardship. They were not Generation X, but Generation why bother? The hero is defined by the opponent, but a generation without struggle is resigned to seek weak opposition.
Braudy, Leo. The World in a Frame: What We See in Films. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Elsaesser, Thomas. “The Pathos of Failure: American Films in the 1970s: Notes on the Unmotivated Hero.” The Last Great American Picture Show. Ed. Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath & Noel King. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004. 279-92. Print.
Giroux, Henry A. “Brutalized Bodies and Emasculated Politics: Fight Club, Consumerism and Masculine Violence.” Breaking into the Movies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002. 258-88. Print.
Horton, Andrew. “Political Assassination and Cinema: Alan J. Pakula’s the Parallax View.” Persistence of Vision Summer.3/4 (1986): 61-70. Print.
Neale, Steve. “The Western.” The Cinema Book. Ed. Cook, Pam. 2nd ed. London: BFI, 1999. pp.147-54. Print.
Wood, Robin. “Hollywood Today: Is an Oppositional Cinema Possible?” Hollywood from Vietnam to Regan… And Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 333-49. Print.
Fight Club. Dir. Fincher, David. Fox 2000 Pictures, 1999.
The Parallax View. Dir. Pakula, Alan J. Paramount Pictures, 1974.