If any of you had already watched David Fincher’s Fight Club, this critique’s for you. If not, then I suggest you do. And then you read Chuck Palahniuk’s book too. If you’ve done that, exert some effort in thinking of what all of that means to you. You’ve done that? Wonderful. All right, let’s begin.
At first glance, Fight Club is exactly what it says on the tin: A movie about a bunch of guys punching each others’ brains out plus Brad Pitt. This premise had been so closely associated with the movie itself that people had started establishing their own fight clubs the moment they realized that they could. It’s easy to come to such a conclusion, really: You’re a twenty-something male in contemporary corporate Americana, almost everything that makes you a man now frowned upon, with no choice but to express yourself in ‘cleaned up’ and ‘modern’ outlets such as so-called ‘sports bars’ and other such places. All that male energy is pent up inside you, boiling to the point that you lose sight of what makes you a man anymore, but nobody lets you get it all out. So what do you do? The only thing that men were born to do: Fight, and prove at that some point on this planet you were once alive.
But is that what Fight Club really has to it? No, of course not. Fight Club is a lot of things besides from the testosterone-induced slugfest people think of it as. It is not just Brad Pitt and his chiseled abs, or Edward Norton and his perpetually hopeless frown. Its true meaning is beyond the obvious themes of men’s liberation and rebellion against the state, so instead we should focus on the inner motivations behind these themes—the motivations of the people behind making these ideas work. Let us discuss these motivations using three factors: the cause, the effect, and the irony.
The Cause: The Hopelessness of the American Dream
It may not be obvious at the first time you’ll watch Fight Club, but looking closely you would see that the movie is set in an indefinite time frame, probably in the late 90s. There is a heavy emphasis on the kind of atmosphere that pervaded America during that time: the corporate ‘cubicle culture’ that reeks of impartiality and looking out for the top spot, all while using euphemisms and effeminized terminologies that are accepted as the norm. A consumerist ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ attitude is also heavily present in the film, as one of its most obvious messages is that the possession of material things does not a complete person maketh. Finally, we will notice that there is a heavy preference for using ‘soft language’ and lack of frankness between the characters, both as measures to hide their own faults and as a way to solve their own problems without doing much effort, but they inevitably fail. Let us discuss these factors closer, with clarity.
‘Jack’, as Edward Norton’s character is unofficially called, is a burned-out recall coordinator for a major car company. He is surrounded by the daily crush of corporate life: deadlines, pressure and never-ending expectations from an impartial boss. Jack’s job entails looking at car accidents mainly caused by factory defects and malfunctions, and deciding whether or not to settle matters out-of-court with the bereaved or to initiate a recall, with cost-effectiveness the topmost consideration. The way his superiors interact with each other is all composed of clean, corporate language and subtle hints of vanity, while his working environment has almost no sense of community whatsoever. Nobody talks to each other, with the most being a tired, ‘Good morning’ or a small nod. American corporate culture is often quite alien to us Filipinos on the account that our own corporate culture is much more lenient and laid-back (at least in some circles). But even so, we can see its effects on Jack: in his thirties, he already looks decrepit and barely has any friends. His only source of emotional satisfaction is to visit support groups and pretend he’s sick. That says something.
Some time into the movie, we are shown that Jack has quite the lavish lifestyle: Condo in a posh high-rise, all the items you’ve ever wanted out of an IKEA catalogue… The man’s job pays well. But is he happy with all of these things? I’ve already described Jack, and you would’ve already seen him yourself; does that look like a happy man? A lot of characters in the film are crazy with consumerist culture: Bob loves his Krispy Kreme donuts, Jack’s boss has quite the swank office, and we see numerous references to corporate consumerist pillars like Starbucks, Microsoft and Apple. Did anybody notice the part where Jack talks about IKEA and all of these items appear in his room, along with the price tags and descriptions that would look great in the latest issue of Furni? Its Jack trying to find satisfaction with his life by spending it all on pre-determined choices laid out before him. That’s basic consumerism for you. But Jack isn’t happy with this. What does he do to be happy again…?
Support groups, right. You’ll also notice that most of the people in Fight Club are all crazy about support groups and ‘clean’ language. Almost nobody is frank with each other, and everybody is afraid of expressing what they really feel. If somebody does, he or she is instantly locked out of the loop. Let’s take Chloe—‘Meryl Streep’s Skeleton’—as an example. She’s so lonely and sexually depressed by her disease that she outright asks somebody to sleep with her during a support group session. Look at everybody’s reactions afterwards; they’re priceless. After his house blows up, Jack calls Tyler to have a few beers. It’s obvious that Jack just wants to ask Tyler if he could give him a place to crash (because Jack has nobody else), but Tyler had to call him out on it first before he could be honest with it. The support groups in general are all looking to comfort each other, but they can’t help but just wallow in their own self-pity most of the time. Nobody can be honest with each other because they can’t even be honest with their selves.
It’s an emotionally hard time to live in Fight Club’s America, with jobs that suck, buying things you don’t need, looking for comfort in people you don’t really like and what have you. One needs an outlet in order to be free from such chaos. No wonder Jack has an existentialist break so strong that his psyche splits into two. Which brings us to our next segment…
The effect: A search for Freedom… and its price
Now we all know that Fight Club is about a club of guys fighting each other. But is that all that it means? We’ve established that Jack has a cause to find happiness, but what will help him find that happiness? Did it really have to be making a fight club? What if Tyler Durden was a professional painter instead of an arsonist? Could Jack have ended up making Paint Club instead? A group of professional painters engaging in paint-offs to the death? The logic of what I am saying so far is that it wouldn’t have been important whether or not Jack created Fight Club or Paint Club, Write Club or Sex Club; what matters is the purpose behind Jack’s making of Fight Club. He was finding meaning, contentment, happiness in his burned-out life. So in that, Fight Club should be regarded not as it is, but rather as the universal symbol of somebody’s method of expression. You write? You play music? You do sports? Congrats, you just made your own Fight Club. Everybody is just looking for a way to express themselves in the world and make their marks; for Jack, Fight Club was his mark.
But, what if one were to be so engaged in making his or her mark that one forgets everything else that matters in life—family, friends, work, and other bridges that are bound to be burned if one took looking for a purpose too seriously? That’s where Project Mayhem comes in.
You see, folks, Project Mayhem should also be seen as a symbol of the opposite side of the coin that is Purpose, for if Fight Club is ‘Searching’, Project Mayhem is ‘Destruction’. Destruction of the self, of the connections that we have tied with other people, of the principles and ideas we had so cherished in our hearts. It’s basically the symbolic message of the Tagalog proverb, ‘Lahat ng sobra ay nakakasama’. I confess, it is quite easy to forget oneself and to just throw your whole being into a hobby—whatever it is. It is your own way of proving that you are alive in the world, your way of feeling that you are important. But such things taken without regulation will force you to let go of other aspects in your life that I’ve already mentioned. You’ll burn bridges, sacrifice connections. And many authors, painters, musicians and other artists have sacrificed connections to their loved ones ‘in the name of art’…
Is that good?
Frankly, I’ll leave that up to you. Whatever floats your boat, boss. Your boat, your life. Still, this is what I think Fight Club’s stand is on finding a purpose in life: Don’t lose hope and let yourself get eaten by the System like Jack and his Fight Club, but don’t end up being a nihilistic, pseudo-hipster terrorist like Tyler and Project Mayhem. But how about the underlying motives behind all of this? Surprisingly, Fight Club has a third layer behind its existential and anti-authority undertones. It’s something that you might like to hear.
The Irony: It was always about ME
Did anybody take a moment to notice all of the stuff Tyler spouts throughout the movie? “You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.” “You are not special.” “You are the all-singing, all dancing crap of the world…” so on, so forth. Anybody? Hello? Anybody there…?
Well, there’s this one line that really struck me: “You are not your job.” Not that it really spoke to me, but that it made me realize how full of it Tyler was. You are not your job, sure. Let’s accept that. But has anybody wondered why on the news when somebody dies, it’s always, ‘Artista, nagpakamatay,’ ’29-anyos na sapatero, ginahasa,’ ‘Dalawang magnanakaw, kalaboso,’ and all that jazz? Have you wondered why is it that there are just some people who can’t seem to respect you no matter what you do, just because you’re plain useless to them? To the second question, it’s because you can’t give them what they want—be it money, friendship, love, whatever; you just didn’t give it to them. How is that related to the first question? Technically, you just failed at your ‘Job’ of providing what person needed. Let me take a chunk from a wonderful article written by David Wong on Cracked.com and let you see what I mean:
“But, well, actually, you totally are (your job). Granted, your “job” and your means of employment might not be the same thing, but in both cases you are nothing more than the sum total of your useful skills. For instance, being a good mother is a job that requires a skill. It’s something a person can do that is useful to other members of society. But make no mistake: Your “job”—the useful thing you do for other people—is all you are.”
I suggest you try reading the whole article. Anyway, back to Tyler. You’ll also see on the same article that Tyler said, “You’re not your job,” while at the same time he was on the road to become an owner of a transcontinental soap enterprise, plus being a leader of a national sociopolitical movement. People followed him because of this. In David Wong’s words: “He was totally his job.”
Now why did I go into a harangue about jobs? Well, it’s because of Fight Club’s irony. Underneath all the veneers of goodwill, altruism and heroics that Jack and Tyler both cover themselves in at times, in the end Tyler and Jack are just the same person, masturbating his own ego. Or egos, rather.
Let’s take this for an example: Jack and Tyler ride a bus. Jack sees a Tommy Hilfiger advert, tells Tyler, “Is that what a man looks like?” Sure, we have the message of ‘Don’t let other people dictate who you are supposed to be’, in there, but consider this: Jack’s talking to Tyler Durden, who in turn is Brad Pitt, who, in order to prepare for his role as Tyler Durden, burned hours upon end in the gym in order to have a body exactly just like the advert Jack’s making fun of. Now, considering that Tyler is Jack, and that Tyler said at the end that he is everything that Jack wanted to be (“I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck… I am free in all the ways that you are not.”), is Jack just lying to himself? Is his whole crusade against consumerism, mainstream culture and corporate America just a façade for his real desire: to be the man on top in all of those areas combined?
Yep, folks, the reason why we do what we do, write stories, play the guitar, and take photographs with huge SLRs is because we’re selfish and egotistical deep down inside. “Creatures,” as the master public speaker Dale Carnegie said, “bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.” I am guilty of it, you are guilty of it, we all are guilty of it. If there was a death sentence for self-satisfaction, the global population would have to drop to zero. And this is normal. Yeah, totally. Why? What was the underlying message of every single thing you’ve been taught from cradle to right now about self-preservation? I bet it was something along the lines of, “Think of yourself first before everything else.” Your own psyche needs some survivin’ too, so it follows that logic as well. Jack followed that logic, and look at what he did before the movie ends: He spends a fourth of the movie trying to stop Tyler from blowing up all the credit card companies, but lets it all go down anyway. Technically, being Tyler, he wanted it to happen. Jack was just being the “I have to stop him because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do and it makes me feel better,” guy.
Want more evidence? Okay, how about this: Fight Club’s been known for its homosexual undertones (it helps that the writer Chuck Palahniuk is a confessed homosexual too), and it’s all good, really. There are some parts that talk about men’s liberation and how men are free to love who they really want to love, and I’m all up for it despite my own preferences. But for the sake of argument, let’s just look at Jack having a thing for Tyler in the middle of the movie. It’s obvious that he has the hots for Mr. Durden, and even gets into a jealous rage and destroys the Blonde Dude’s beautiful face during a fight just because Tyler gave him a pat on the head the night before. But, putting the homosexuality aside, it’s actually quite an allegory to how Jack regards himself. Since Tyler is Jack, and Jack loves Tyler, Jack must love himself quite a lot. So much that he’s willing to lie to himself about his own feelings about everything, in order to put himself above everybody else and above self-reproach.
So what does Fight Club really mean? Well, it’s a lot of things. But one of them is definitely this: let’s accept the fact that we’re all selfish and love ourselves first before everything else. Besides, we’re all great at that now anyway.
“We are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world…”
(images sourced from original movie file, snapshots from VLC Media Player)