The New Cult Canon: Fight Club
By Scott Tobias
September 18th, 2008
(Note: This entry is intended for readers who have seen Fight Club. Others are advised to see it first—and why haven't you already?—and come back later.)
"Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual war, our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off." —Tyler Durden
With that little monologue alone, Fight Club asserts itself—rightly, to my mind—as the quintessential Generation X film. (At least for men, anyway. Women may respond to it, too, much as an anthropologist might study a foreign species, but its raw appeal is strictly for the XY set.) Based on Chuck Palahniuk's short, staccato first novel about the withered state of modern masculinity, Fight Club offers the fantasy of neutered men finding an outlet for their muted frustrations, a way of feeling something, even if that feeling is sadness or pain. And since that outlet is an underground, bare-knuckles fight club—and later, a full-on anarchist movement—the film has been perceived as dangerous in much the same way as a Marilyn Manson record or the latest Grand Theft Auto game rouses the moral alarmists. If you stopped watching after the first hour or so, the film might fairly be dismissed as socially irresponsible, but its attitudes and conclusions are far more complex and ambivalent than its critics give it credit for being.
In fact, look past the ultra-violence and flashy punk aesthetic, and Fight Club would make a fine companion piece to Mike Judge's Office Space, another film that not-so-coincidentally opened to mixed reviews, tanked in theaters, and found an avid cult appreciation on DVD. (I'll cover it here someday, I promise.) Though the anonymous protagonist played by Edward Norton enjoys a slightly more upscale lifestyle than the Everyman played by Ron Livingston in Office Space, they're essentially the same character: a dead-eyed cubicle-dweller who experiences a life-changing revelation, snaps out of his numb funk, gleefully bucks the rules, and eventually ropes others into criminal conspiracy. One is a deadpan office comedy and the other a blood-spattered provocation, but both strike a chord in people fed up with the soul-crushing, 9-to-5 busywork of TPS reports and automobile-recall assessments. When Norton and Livingston suddenly decide to liberate themselves from the straight and narrow, it's a wage slave's dream, as exhilarating as any piece of Hollywood escapism could ever hope to be.
Granted, Fight Club goes to greater extremes than Office Space: A few guys defrauding a faceless company one fraction of penny at a time isn't the same as a terrorist operation laying waste to 10 city skyscrapers that represent the foundation of our credit system. But appropriately, Fight Club seriously questions the limits of anarchy with the same fervor with which it dismantles the trappings of consumer culture. The problem is, this tends to be the part that critics of the film (and some viewers, too) usually miss when they dismiss it as nihilist garbage, just like members of Tyler Durden's "Project Mayhem" choose to ignore their leader when he has a change of heart. It's easy to accept rebellion, because it's what we desire, but harder to examine the consequences, because we don't like the hangover. If Fight Club could be considered "dangerous," the responsibility for that lies more with the willful obliviousness of some viewers than the moral deficiencies of its creators.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let us first consider "The Narrator" (Norton), an average guy who wears a crisp white shirt and tie (but no jacket) to work every day, and comes home to a cookie-cutter condo furnished by IKEA. ("What kind of dining set defines me as a person?" he wonders.) He's seized by some indefinable anxiety and pain that's turned him into an insomniac, but his doctor refuses to prescribe more than valerian root, exercise, and—if he wants to see what real pain looks like—a visit to the support groups at his local church-based community center. Slapping on nametags for made-up personas like Cornelius and Rupert, the narrator slips into meetings for tuberculosis, testicular cancer, and various strains of organ- and brain-deteriorating parasites. The experience is a revelation, because the suffering he witnesses is authentic and personal, and he can pretend that other people's trials are his own. "Every evening I died," he says, "and every evening I was born again, resurrected."
Just when the narrator finally gets the nightly catharsis he needs for sleep, along comes Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a chain-smoking fellow support-group "faker" whose presence prevents him from letting go. The two agree to split up the classes, but Marla seems to have one up on him philosophically: She operates without limits, whether swiping clothes from a Laundromat to sell on the next block, or walking straight into traffic as if she could care less about getting struck down. The narrator can see the freedom in that, and it's no mistake that Tyler Durden appears to him shortly after he makes Marla's acquaintance.
Played by Brad Pitt with a movie star's brash confidence, Tyler is Mr. Hyde to the narrator's Dr. Jekyll, a raging id who detests the deadening effects of consumer culture and seeks to prank it out of existence. He explains that oxygen on planes is intended not as a safety measure, but as a way to make passengers high and euphoric, and thus more willing to accept their terrible fate. And in a great exchange, he also dismantles a favorite Gen-X defense mechanism, humor, when the narrator explains the concept of a "single-serving friend"—those strangers that exist between take-off and landing, then evaporate like a complimentary pat of butter:
Tyler: Oh I get it. It's very clever.
Narrator: Thank you.
Tyler: How's that working out for you?
Tyler: Being clever.
When Tyler and the narrator meet again, the latter's life has literally gone out the window, due to an explosion that's jettisoned the charred remains of his yin-yang coffee table and other carefully selected "Fürni" from an upper floor of his high-rise condo. Tyler gives him a room in a bombed-out rathole on the edges of an industrial neighborhood, but more importantly, he invites the narrator to hit him as hard as he can.
From there, the two give birth to "Fight Club," a group that starts as a once-a-week after-hours slugfest in a bar basement, a place for workaday types to unleash their pent-up aggression and feel like men again. In spite of the first two rules of Fight Club—both are "You do not talk about Fight Club"—membership multiples exponentially in cities across the country, and Tyler expands its scope via "Project Mayhem," a complex, militaristic operation that carries out his brand of anarchic mischief. Some early missions are playful, like demagnetizing tapes in a video store or planting alarming safety cards on airplanes. But the grand design is that of a terrorist organization, with independent cells concocting explosives out of household items and conspiring to attack the system at its core.
At this point, many people take leave of Fight Club, which admittedly never regains the excitement of the first third, when it taps so strongly into the purposeless, emasculating lives of Gen-X pencil-pushers. That yearning to feel anything, much less find meaning in the world, is what Palahniuk and director David Fincher are attempting to make palpable. For his part, Fincher captures the zeitgeist so effectively at the beginning that some might not accept the film's second-half shift into out-and-out anarchy. It's one thing to identify with an average guy who unleashes his repressed anger through once-a-week fisticuffs; it's another to make the cognitive leap into homegrown terrorism. I think Fincher handles the transition as well as he can, but much like the narrator, viewers are forced to confront the reality that the "fight club" concept is getting away from them. It was Tyler's plan all along to destroy the foundations of consumerism, not just find a forum for coping with it.
The word "nihilist" gets tossed around often in reference to Fight Club—and to describe Palahniuk's work in general—but it's really about its limitations. Sure, Palahniuk and Fincher have little but contempt for our gelded society, and they'd no doubt endorse bits of homespun Durdenisms like "the things you own end up owning you." But once Tyler creates "Project Mayhem" independently—in a manner of speaking—from the narrator, that's where he and the filmmakers part ways. Splicing single frames of pornography into family films, as Tyler does, is good for a subversive laugh, but once he becomes a messianic figure and trains men to contribute mindlessly to a terrorist cause, the cure starts to look worse than the disease. (Of course, it's impossible to imagine the film being made after 9/11, no matter Fincher's level of responsibility. It's also impossible to consider the film outside of that context, since the destruction of the World Trade Center—a symbol of American enterprise—so closely mirrors Durden's mission. The only difference is that Durden takes steps to ensure that nobody is in the buildings when they're detonated, which is more Weather Underground than al-Qaeda.)
Fight Club builds to the big revelation that Tyler and the narrator are, in fact, two sides of the same person, a metaphysical twist that Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls take great pains to execute. It's the kind of gimmicky conceit to which I usually object in movies, one so outrageous that it feels like a cheat. (See also: a certain extreme French horror film from 2003, which makes virtually the same revelation seem shockingly stupid.) But on repeat viewings, I've come to appreciate just how often the filmmakers hint at the twist, from the flash-frames of Tyler that are spliced in before his appearance to the many references in the voiceover narration ("everywhere I went, I felt I had already been there," et al.) to the fact that Tyler and Marla (who becomes lovers, to the narrator's horror) never actually appear together at the same time.
If the film has a flaw, it's that Marla amounts to little more than a deux ex machina, existing mostly as a pinball who ricochets between the dueling sides of the narrator's personality. In light of the twist, we can see why Marla acts so mystified by her boyfriend's ever-changing moods. ("You fuck me, you snub me. You love me, you have me. You show me a sensitive side, then you turn into a total asshole.") I don't think we'd buy the metaphysical leap without Marla bridging the gap. But make no mistake: Fight Club is by men, for men, and about men, and Marla serves a purpose without becoming a force unto herself.
Still, is it wrong to feel a rush in the final sequence, as Marla and the narrator clasp hands while buildings collapse to the tune of the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" It takes me back to the very first New Cult Canon entry, Donnie Darko, which also gave viewers a seductive invitation to the apocalypse, as a corrupt world yields to a new one while the songs of Echo & The Bunnymen, Tears For Fears, and Duran Duran ring in the background. Both films speak to the cult impulse to lay waste to conventional architecture and see the world from a fresh angle. To that end, at least, Tyler Durden would approve.