Fightin’ Words

Fight Club

The dumbest reviews of David Fincher’s Fight Club condemned the movie’s amorality or philosophy. Those that hailed it as profound, original, and daring ran a close second. That didn’t leave many to compete for third.

The movie, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, works primarily because it’s a good yarn told with energy, style, and technical prowess. Although its subject matter is charged and divisive, Fight Club is not nearly as radical as its supporters or detractors think. It is, at heart, fairly mainstream in its message.

If Fight Club is to be praised on thematic grounds, it’s for the skill with which it integrates some fairly trite philosophical questions and their glib answers: What does our consumer culture do to human beings? (It kills them spiritually.) What is the essence of a man? (To fight.) How does one balance the cultural requirement to conform with the need to be oneself? (One cannot.) How can a healthy individual reconcile moral and cultural codes with burning urges? (One cannot.)

The characters’ solutions to these questions — blowing up credit-card companies, forming clubs to voluntarily get pummeled — are radical (in the sense of being extreme) but infantile. They’re the same answers that kids in a sandbox arrive at.

Fight Club’s motifs are hardly groundbreaking, either. Portrayals of the literally divided self easily pre-date film (see The Picture of Dorian Gray, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” or the very appropriate Poe short story “William Wilson”). The pillorying of modern consumer culture and the disaffection it causes goes back at least as far as The Graduate and has notable examples in Fight Club contemporaries American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, and Happiness.

And while I’m being negative, let’s not forget that Fincher has yet to advance on a dank, dark visual style that began with Blade Runner more than 15 years before Fight Club came to be.

Where Fight Club is most interesting is in the subtle way it undercuts its surface messages about consumerism and conformity. This manifests itself in the relationship between the nameless narrator (Edward Norton) and the subversive but illusory Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who at one point refers to himself as the “imaginary friend.” (Incidentally, Dil has a penis, and Kevin Spacey is both Keyser Soze and John Doe.)

The narrative trick at work is to create two separate characters while planting enough clues that the audience isn’t cheated. The movie does this brilliantly. The audience and presumably Norton’s narrator first glimpse Tyler in three separate insertions, in which Pitt is edited into the action for a split second. Then Pitt and Norton pass in an airport before finally meeting properly on an airplane. There are also verbal and visual clues throughout their relationship, the most effective being the confused reactions of Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) to Tyler’s incessant sexual attention and the narrator’s coolness.

But the skill in portraying the narrator’s dual nature obscures some interesting issues of psychology. The narrator is a troubled, status-conscious, friendless, sexless bureaucrat. Tyler is a subversive freak who makes his expensive soap with human fat, pisses in restaurant soup before giving it to patrons, fucks violently and constantly, and believes that all consumer goods are weights holding people back. The only way they connect is through Fight Club, the tightly controlled bare-knuckle support group they founded together.

This single point of connection — which is destroyed when Tyler turns Fight Club into a private anti-capitalist army — means that there is a huge gulf between the narrator’s public or conscious self (Norton) and private or subconscious incarnation (Pitt). The film suggests that because the narrator’s culture-formed self and deep-seated desires share only one interest, the urge to fight is inherent in all men.

The division between Norton’s and Pitt’s characters is apparently a tension that exists only in the film’s narrator. The men who join Fight Club (and its later version, Operation Mayhem) are not shown to be in any way complex or divided. Through the end of the movie, Fight Club and Operation Mayhem members are all just bureaucratic cogs who recite the rules of their organizations as they would respond to their bosses at work; they haven’t changed a bit and represent variations on Norton’s accident investigator. They are still dead, and they are still replaceable, nameless parts of a machine.

The text clearly has allegiance to Tyler — he has a name, after all, in contrast to Norton’s character — and is obvious in its frowning on conformity. Tyler is the anti-hero, a spark that stirs life in others.

But in the end, Tyler loses the battle for the narrator’s soul, suggesting that his level of individualism and his rejection of social mores are unsustainable in the long run. The implication is that the narrator needs to find some balance between himself and Tyler.

In other words, the movements spawned in Fight Club might awaken people who are spiritually and intellectually dead, but toward unhealthy ends and without addressing their root unhappiness. The underlying message is that some radical change is necessary to fundamentally alter our comatose, material culture, but change in itself isn’t necessarily a good thing. And as lessons go, that’s pretty damned mainstream.

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