Photo: ‘Fight Club’/20th Century Fox
“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no great war. No great depression. Our great war’s a spiritual one…our great depression…our lives.” – Tyler Durden
While the content of this film may have been misinterpreted and up for debate in various communities of thinkers and viewers, it’s safe to say that any piece of art will have varying impacts on the perceiver. Aside from its blazing acclaim, it has also received criticism from communities mostly due to some of its group followings in what is known as the ‘manosphere’ –a group of entitled men applauding its supplementary violent nature. Many of these groups failed to see it as the satirical, anti-capitalist pendant that it was. As a self-proclaimed feminist who has seen it over ten times, I can say I still deem it as one of the best films of its time. If you somehow haven’t seen it yet and want to be surprised, prepare for some spoilers!
Based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk, the film was directed by David Fincher and adapted by him and Jim Uhls. Starring and narrated by Edward Norton as the urban middle-class archetype loner suffering from insomnia, and the infamous “Tyler Durden” anarchist leader played by a remarkable Brad Pitt (I still consider this to be one of his best roles). Also starring the misanthropic Helena Bonham Carter with an unforgettably mesmerizing performance. The three of them really did this darkly poetic societal commentary all the justice it deserved, in conjunction with the editing, impeccable score, visual effects, and cinematography.
The story follows Edward Norton, who seems to have his life well managed and would be considered (by societal standards) to be navigating relatively well in the rat-race with his fancy condo and all his ornate merchandise. A true projection of the American dream with his well-paying job and his comfortable place of living (his condo looks like it was copy and pasted from a curated catalog of “clever” self-expression). He seemed to have followed the steps suggested to live a happy American life-style. After failed attempts to receive treatment for his insomnia from medical professionals, he seeks out an unconventional outlet for self-remedy–frequenting meetups for people who are suffering from various threatening illnesses and are on their way out. He is able to anonymously cry with strangers, which finally grants him a good night’s sleep.
All seems to be well again until he meets the reckless Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) who–of her own viscosity of emptiness–is also exploiting the meetings, and punctures his spurious sanctuary. His life takes another spin when he meets an eccentric Tyler Durden, and is drawn in by his “no-bullshit” self-assured demeanor.
When his condo mysteriously blows up, he calls him and they bond over a friendly fistfight outside of the bar. He ends up staying with Tyler in his dilapidated house, whether he had purchased it or was squatting he didn’t know–and neither would surprise him. He ends up adapting to the drastic shift in conditions, from his squeaky clean apartment to a filthy, barely functional home on the outskirts of town. They continue to fight, relishing in the release of tension and the expulsion of adrenaline until it ultimately expands and other “soul-searching” men join them– deeming its name “Fight Club”.
Eventually evolving into “Project Mayhem”, a cult group of anarchist drones dedicated to the service of making a mockery of the capitalist establishment and performing various acts of vandalism all over the country.
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Nihilism, Anarchy, & Enlightenment – ‘Fight Club’
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything, that we’re free to do anything.” -Tyler Durden
When I first heard Tyler say this, I felt like I was getting pancaked by the world’s most punk semi-truck (do punks drive semis? Ironically maybe). Although the film’s anti-corporate, anti-capitalist propaganda is pervasive, it leans heavily on philosophical premises to justify these affronts.
To provide some context, Tyler says this as he holds down a pain-shriveled Edward Norton while the flesh on his hand bubbles like a volcano from a Tyler-induced chemical burn. He is doing everything in his power to distract himself from the intense suffering–trying to get away and run it underwater, desperately trying to block out the pain by entering his psychic “happy place” using meditation techniques, etc.– but Tyler continues to literally smack him back into reality so that he completely surrenders and is present with the indescribably painful sensation. “This is your pain. This is your burning hand. It’s right here. Look at it.” He says he needs him to know, not fear, that one day he will die.
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“The things you own end up owning you.”
It’s a bit dramatic but despite its radical violence, the underlying implications of the exercise are not incompatible with many eastern spiritual practices. To wake up to your life, embrace all that is, sit with your pain instead of avoiding it, finding peace with death, etc. To “just let go” as Tyler demands intimidatingly. There is something spine-chillingly prolific and almost satisfying about having endured the worst you can possibly endure. It’s the prelude of liberation, and often in self-proclaimed “enlightened” ones, this kind of rock bottom was the prerequisite to their emancipation from ego. In a way, I think this symbol of Tyler Durden was enlightened.
“Listen up maggots! You are not special! You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake! You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else! We are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world! We are all part of the same compost keep.”
Even the angsty anarchist operations proliferated by Durden’s “army” of maggot men were emphasizing– in a twisted way– man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Highlighting the unthinking multitude (or corporate ant hive mind), as a commentary for compromising their freedom–obliviously living each day by someone else’s law– under some false pretense of artificial unanimity. Ironically they are doing just that with Project Mayhem, but the thing worth noting here is their acknowledgment of it, they have elected to consciously see themselves as society has been unconsciously seeing them for years. For those who subscribe to that vision of that world, it is ultimately gratifying to see it hammered out and exposed, unearthing the repressed disdain for a mass minded system that often fails to address the deeper needs of its people. Fight Club may be one of the best outlets for that kind of deeply felt tension. As far as the violence goes–on a primal level, when we feel attacked our system usually responds with “Fight or Flight.” This film is an articulation of that fight response, a reaction to the invisible monster of a silently life-threatening machine–the system.
“But only the man who is himself enlightened, who is not afraid of shadows, and who commands at the same time a well-disciplined and numerous army as guarantor of public peace–only he can say what [the sovereign of] a free state cannot dare to say: “Argue as much as you like, and about what you like, but obey!” -Immanuel Kant on Enlightenment
Even without the notorious twist at the end where we discover Edward Norton is–in fact– Tyler Durden, the film exceptionally encapsulates the illusion of self in the primordial world. Tyler Durden is everything Edward Norton desired to be– free, confident, tough, independent, fearless. How often do we imagine ourselves as we are not, but as we aspire to be? How often do we project false images of ourselves, or walk around having no idea who we are, or where we’ve been? How many of us meander around in a half-sleep state, doing what we’re told will bring us closer to happiness?
In a sense, we are all living out our lives as someone we don’t realize we are. We are products of who we are told we should be and shackled in our own subjective perception as we are simultaneously defined by those around us. How many times has someone noted a behavior or pattern you weren’t aware of? How many stories have you exaggerated in the unconscious attempt to paint the narrative the way you want it to be seen? Identity and ego is quite the slippery slope once you take the dive to self reflect on these things. It can send some straight into a nihilist narnia. The questions are worth asking though, and even though Fight Club doesn’t give us the answer, it begs the questions–providing a cathartic conduit for the collective unconscious state.
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Melissa McGrath is a writer for Hollywood Insider, offering rich and engaging content for reviews and features. Melissa feels at home with Hollywood Insider’s lively team who share an equal passion for the art of cinema. Having sought out compelling stories her whole life, she is eager to examine and share her observations with others interested in thought-provoking material. She believes in changing the world through meaningful dialogue and hopes to provide helpful insight with her work. She values open discussions concerning morality, culture, personal development, and holds a soft spot for cathartic humor. Through the art of storytelling, journalism, and cinema, Melissa seeks to help build a strong community of free-thinkers and cultivate a deeper understanding of the human experience.