From Fight Club to Parasite: Twenty Years of Late Capitalist Critique
In November of 2019 The New Yorker published Peter C. Baker’s “The Men Who Still Love ‘Fight Club.’” The article drew a loose connection between the 1999 film and the rise of the (often misogynistic) “seduction community” in the mid aughts, and a looser one still to the incel subculture that has since formed in the dark recesses of the internet. Rather than laying blame on director David Fincher’s storytelling, Baker’s argument focuses on the more fundamentally flawed reframings of the iconic film that its fanbase has forwarded on discussion boards and in the manosphere more generally. Many of those participating in online debates about the film, Baker noted, tended to overlook the role that Tyler Durden actually played in the narrative, seeing only an aspirational masculine ideal in a Brad Pitt-shaped vessel. Given the film’s emphasis on cathartic “mayhem” it is likely true (and not surprising) that more disaffected young, white middle-class men than not would place the film at the top of their favorites. Anyone tempted to write off the cult-like status of the film as targeting the same male-aggrievement market as Jordan Peterson would, however, have to ignore the film’s (and the novel’s) more universal message on the dehumanizing effects of late-twentieth-century Neoliberalism, with its precarious and monotonous labor and its promise of fulfillment through materialism.
Fight Club was released in late 1999, ten years after Francis Fukuyama officially declared “the end of history.” With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the seemingly unmitigated ascendency of Western culture, Fukuyama theorized that mankind’s ideological evolution was on the verge of reaching its logical conclusion. By the end of the next decade—even before the events of September 11, 2001 would prove his optimistic take to be hopelessly naïve—some cultural skeptics began to express that the virtues of Western laissez-faire capitalism propagandized by Ronald Reagan and institutionalized by Bill Clinton were not living up to their utopian promise. Fincher’s Fight Club, based on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel, emphasizes the monotony of the corporate 9 to 5, with its endless repetition, and spiritual meaninglessness. Everything about the film visually attests to the mind-numbing blandness of this existence. The narrator (Edward Norton) sits in a cubicle surrounded by an endless pattern of grey binders and slatted blinds, a virtual sea of beige and manila. Every man in the office wears identical white button-down shirts and khakis and holds a Starbucks-brand latte. His life is a Dilbert comic come to life. The protagonist finds a way to end his six months of insomnia and bring some semblance of meaning into his life—by taking part in an underground “Fight Club” of like-minded working-stiffs who had become numb to the emptiness of their lives.
The film was a product of its time. Much like Radiohead’s album OK Computer (released in 1997) or the films Office Space, The Matrix, and American Beauty (all 1999), Fight Club tapped into the late capitalist malaise of the period, and the sense of deep dissatisfaction underlying the idea that many—even solidly middle class people—were simply going through the motions in a life that revolved around work. These films resonated with large cult audiences for the way that they dealt with the existential crisis modern adulthood: the sensation of being trapped, and a search for an escape from the excessive consumerism that had emptied modern life of meaning. Despite relative financial stability for the middle class in the late 1990s, a monotonous lifestyle based on acquiring material goods as proof of one’s economic or social success was beginning to ring hollow.
At the heart of Fight Club’s enduring appeal is the way that it excavates the experience of powerlessness; this has made the film resonate with a wide-ranging public, most famously (and ironically) those who continue to wield societal privilege. As novelist Chuck Palahniuk has stated, the characters in his novels tend to be guided by feelings of marginalization, a theme more likely derived from the author’s experience living as a closeted gay man well into his 30s. When speaking of the rage embodied in Fight Club, Palahniuk claims that he aimed it at a more inclusive audience than the subculture that has developed around the cult novel and film: largely white, young, (especially “beta”) middleclass men, a description also fitting of the dwellers of 4chan and the perpetrators of mass shootings. Fight Club has given them the quotable lines and references for a community identity, while visualizing freedom from the rigid American social pecking order made up of winners and losers. For many of these community members who feel jilted in their expectation that they should inherit their rightfully promised seat of cultural and political power, Fight Club channeled the rage that they had directed at the lies peddled by television scripts and advertising.
Flash forward to 2019, now 2020, the age of the gig economy, the sense of ennui permeating both Palahniuk’s book and in Fincher’s film adaptation seems almost quaint. Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite—the surprise (and deserving) winner of this year’s Best Picture Oscar—has been hailed by critics as one of the best films of the past decade. One of the reasons for this is the film’s laser precise social satire made for an audience more likely to identify with a family of down-on-their-luck con artists than for their well-to-do, yet unknowing victims. Our protagonists, the Kim family are casualties of their country’s modern-day “Hell Korea” economy, are resourceful, remarkably so. As a team of smooth-talking scammers, they weasel their way into the home of the well-to-do Parks, a single-income family with an international businessman father and a mother with too much time and money on her hands. Sweet but gullible, Mrs. Park also plays the stereotype of the sheltered trophy wife, preoccupied with scheduling her children with endless tutoring enrichment activities. One by one, fake diplomas in hand, each member of the Kim family finds their way into working in the Park home, by their cunning and deceit.
By design, Parasite intends for us to root for the criminals. The Kims, after all, have been driven into a life of grift out of necessity. They struggle to make ends meet in their basement-level home below the floodplain, which they have tried to maintain by patching together a variety of jobs such as assembling pizza-boxes or working as last-minute designated drivers. The deftness with which the Kims play their employers brings to mind the kind of stop-at-nothing hustle that typifies the late, late capitalist ethos that has manifested since the 2008 financial crisis. We have seen the evolutionary by-product of admiring the unearthly success and ruthless business practices of uber-financial-powers (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg) in the recent trifecta of swindlers: Billy McFarland (Fyre Festival), Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos), and German “heiress” Anna Delvey (a.k.a. Anna Sorokin). The Kim family’s ambition are by contrast much more earth-bound; they are simply seeking to survive Korea’s cruel job market.
“It’s so metaphorical,” says the Kim family’s college-aged son Ki-woo several times throughout the film, first to describe a “scholar’s stone” that would serve as the family’s good luck talisman. They are words that could certainly describe the film itself, and the depths to which Bong Joon-ho plumbed the common misery suffered by the victims of large-scale wealth inequality, living in the ashes of the last decade’s financial wreckage and the plunder of middle-class existence. For the first half of the film, the Kims’ determination leads them into internal working-class warfare with the staff members of the Park household, with an eye to take their jobs. The trajectory of their target, which shifts from the equally economically-exploited rivals that they hope to oust toward the condescending patron class employing them—mirrors that of the many populist and class-based struggles that have arisen in the past few years. The Kims are the avatar for the financially-squeezed underclass; their counterparts, the Parks embody the oblivious one percent, blind to the living conditions of the large staff that helps maintain their lifestyle. Despite the Kim family’s blatant dishonesty, Joon-ho has portrayed them as savvy hustlers, scraping by on the basis of their scrappy desperation. Like the millennial generation (as observed in recent think pieces), their behavior can be explained as a learned adaptation to the unpredictable, competitive economic conditions of the twenty-first century, and serves as a template for enduring life rather than living it.
Just like Fight Club twenty years before it, Parasite is universal in the way that it addresses the second- and third-tier social effects of global capitalism. A number of disturbing trends have developed in the twenty years that have intervened, helping to bring the mundane condition of middle-class monotony and lack of fulfillment into perspective. The sense of powerlessness suggested in Fincher’s Fight Club has since gone into hyperdrive, particularly after the financial crisis of 2008, the subsequent bailout, and the populist movements that would trail behind ten years after. Joon-ho’s dystopian vision has given us a two-decade follow-up, a more complete, full-circle, and global vision of the winners and losers, and the survivors of Neoliberalism who have learned to evolve with it.