Fight Club (1999)

Very few films meant to appeal to Generation X actually registered.  Many, like Reality Bites, tended to pander to the demographic.  It touched on things we liked, and archetypes of the generation, without really saying anything.  To find a film that even comes close to evoking the confusion and frustration of being "society's middle children" and the dawning realization that everything we had been taught, even when it came to revolutionary thought, was was false, we have to look at Fight Club.

When Fight Club came out in 1999, it was David Fincher's fourth film.  Previously a music video director, he had helmed the disaster that was Alien 3, but followed it up with the disturbing suspense film Se7en and the sort of bait-and-switch action film The Game.  It should come as no surprise that Fight Club has some elements of the latter two, but is largely faithful to its source novel written by Chuck Palahniuk.

Our Narrator (Edward Norton) works as a recall specialist for a major car company.  He has geared his entire life to fulfilling his spiritual needs through the items that he has been told will allow him to do so.  He has no real personal connections, spending most of this time traveling from place to place to view car accidents and make decision on whether or not it is worth the trouble of a recall. He believes he is fulfilled in every way, but begins to suffer from insomnia.  When he consults his physician, he is told that insomnia is nothing, and if he wants to see real suffering he should visit support groups for people with real diseases.

He does so, sitting in with a men's support group for those who have had testicular cancer.  He reaches his own catharsis with Bob (Meat Loaf), a man who has lost both his testicles and has grown breasts due complications of hormone therapy.  His ability to cry with another person allows him to briefly overcome his insomnia, and the Narrator begins to visit other support groups to feed his need for connection, eventually becoming addicted.

His situation is interrupted when he notices another attendee named Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter).  The Narrator immediately becomes hostile toward her, as her presence results in a return of his insomnia, something even the agreement to divide up times going to the group sessions doesn't help.

On the way back from one of his assignments the Narrator runs into a soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a flight back to his home city.  The Narrator is received coolly by Durden, but he is forced to call Durden for help when he returns home to find that his condominium has exploded and he no longer has a place to live. He meets Durden at a bar and eventually gets around to asking if he can crash with him, but Durden has one caveat: the Narrator must hit him as hard as he can.  The resulting fist fight between the two is a turning point in the Narrator's life, as he suddenly feels alive while fighting.

The two start repeating the fights, and soon others are wanting to join in.  The group evolves to the point where the bartender of Lou's Bar, where Durden and the Narrator first got together, starts allowing the basement to be used for the underground fights.  Under Durden's influence it turns into a club for men to get out their frustrations once a week while still maintaining the societal distance that is required to make it through their daily lives.

The Narrator starts experiencing a period of happiness during his time with Tyler until Marla comes back into his life.  She calls him, claiming to have taken an entire bottle of Xanax in a suicide attempt.  While he contemptuously ignores her, Durden walks in and hears her on the other line and gets her from her apartment.  The two quickly become an item much to the Narrator's disgust, as he ends up listening to their loud lovemaking sessions on a regular basis and once again blames Marla for interfering in his life.  Things are complicated even more due to the fact that Durden forbids him from even discussing Tyler with Marla.

Durden eventually breaks it off with Marla, but his obsession begins to focus more on the fact that fight clubs are starting to emerge around the country.  The Narrator runs into Bob, who has been going to a mid-week chapter of the club.  Realizing the potential in what is happening, the Narrator orchestrates a situation in which he leaves his company but retains his pay, while Durden starts recruiting members of the clubs into Project Mayhem, much to the Narrator's consternation as he was not consulted.  The members of the Project start engaging in pranks that are increasingly dangerous, resulting in Bob's death and the Narrator realizing the cult of personality that Durden has created.

Tyler makes a sudden departure, leading the Narrator to begin following his trail around the country, only to discover the truth behind Tyler, the clubs and Project Mayhem.  The ultimate goal is to destroy the buildings housing America's financial institutions, erasing the debt record and freeing the population from debt and wage slavery, and the Narrator finds himself thwarted by both the authorities and Durden as he tries to prevent this outcome.

Although there is a large cast, the film revolves mainly around the Narrator and Durden.  Edward Norton did this film shortly after American History X, and the difference in the characters can't be more marked.  Often he seems to fade into the background and be little more than a puppet for Durden, while other times his anger comes bubbling up to the surface in unsuspected ways.  Brad Pitt puts in a performance that is on par with the one he did in 12 Monkeys.  Durden, though free-spirited, is always dangerous, and despite his overwhelming personification of masculinity is just as much on the outside as the Narrator and the other men who join the fight clubs.

Marla Singer is more of a tangential character, at least to the Narrator, but she still makes Marla believably damaged.  She functions as the female mirror of the Narrator, only he refuses to recognize it, instead projecting his anger at himself onto her.  The only other character that stands out is Bob, as Meat Loaf portrays him as a (literally) emasculated man who regains his purpose in the world.  Despite him being a big name now, Jared Leto only has a small part as a blonde member of Project Mayhem nicknamed Angel Face, who serves largely as another point of jealousy between the Narrator and Durden.

The movie itself has an unfair reputation still as a "guy movie" featuring shirtless men beating themselves up in some desperate attempt to regain masculinity.  That is because this had one of the worst marketing campaigns ever, as the studio had no idea what do with it, and didn't like Fincher's ideas on how to push it.  Instead they emphasized the fights, which are about as important to Fight Club as the actual Hunger Games are in the scheme of that series.

So, here is the part where I have to warn you there will be spoilers, even if those spoilers are old enough to vote.

The ending to the movie is a bit different than the ending to the book, and Chuck Palahniuk has stated that David Fincher improved upon the book itself.  In the book Durden intends to go out like a martyr, while here he intends to see things through to the next steps.  It's a pretty good assumption that, even if you have never seen the movie, you know that Tyler Durden is a projection of the Narrator's inner desires, and that he is suffering from a combination of schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder and depression.  Durden is an hallucination throughout, and the Narrator comes to realize this as things come to fruition.

There are theories that Marla is an hallucination as well, but that is doubtful, as she just seems confused by the Narrator (whom she knows as Tyler Durden, as do the rest of the members of Fight Club and Project Mayhem) and his erratic behavior toward her.  She is not aware, even toward the end, that she is really dealing with two different people.  His late realizations of affection toward her only confuse her more.  Her reactions are quite human and natural for someone dealing with such a situation.

I still have yet to read the book itself, but it sounds as if Project Mayhem may be real within the novel, but often felt unreal to me in the movie.  One of the situations that arises from true schizophrenia, aside from the Hollywood version, is the idea that there are vasts conspiracies that involve you at the center.  In this case, the manic idea that the entire financial system could be brought down by destroying a few buildings, and the idea that even emptying the buildings of personnel would somehow result in no casualties when they come down, is one of the biggest clues to the Narrator's mindset in the movie itself.

David Fincher himself has done a good job of letting fan theories run without contradicting or confirming any of them.  I think that is one thing that makes this movie still so interesting is that you have to watch it for clues.  Tyler is definitely not real, but is Bob real past the therapy group?  Does he really die?  Is Project Mayhem even a thing?  Are the exploding towers all in his mind, is Marla really with him to watch, or is this all the last few thoughts flashing through the mind of a schizophrenic man dying of a gunshot wound in an empty office building?

Unfortunately, too many people tend to interpret Tyler's rants too literally.  The Narrator himself, as unreliable as he is, rejects the revolutionary dialectic spewed by his alter-ego.  For the most part Generation X was brought up by the same people who brought up the Millenials, since Baby Boomers have continued having kids.  Those very Boomers, who have wrung their hands in frustration for two generations of their children now, were the hippies of the 1960s, and are credited with one of the biggest counterculture movements of the 20th century.  A movement that, as they started to grow older and want what their parents had, they were more than happy to abandon.

In the 1990s it became more and more apparent that we weren't going to get a comfortable home, a clear career path or a gold watch at retirement - something we were still supposed to strive for, even though every rung in the corporate ladder had been kicked out above us.  It was a sad fact I discovered when I decided it was time to grow up and get a real job with AT&T, which itself was dying because of its unwillingness to change.

So, we were sold both the idea of revolution, and the idea of a comfortable life if we kept our heads down and did what we were told.  Neither was real.  Fight Club, both the book and movie, came from this frustration.  The Millenials, to their credit, have found a way to begin to flourish, as they no longer have our unrealistic expectations.  Unfortunately, they are still willing to swallow Tyler Durden's rants hook, line and sinker, although the point is that they are just as pointless as anything else.  To Fincher's credit, and Jim Uhls in his script adaptation, this is in no way ambiguous.

If there are flaws in the movie it is that one has to make a number of logical leaps if one is to either take what is happening on face value or eventually accept that most of what happens is not real.  It is hard to imagine that seeing a man beating himself up in a parking lot would suddenly catch on and develop into a domestic resistance movement.  Even if most of what happens is not real, at least some of what happens has to have a basis in truth, no matter how filtered by the Narrator's mental instability.

On the whole, however, Fight Club works as a satire of the pre-911 United States and the clash of ideals that were happening as the Baby Boomers' first wave of children began to rise above their entry level positions and start to realize that the life promised them was just not going to be there.  In the way the fights do in the movie, it provides a bit of a release.  Just don't go trying to live by any of Tyler Durden's rules, as they are not a golden road to happiness, either.

Fight Club (1999)
Time: 139 minutes
Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf
Director: David Fincher


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