Fight Club (1999)
Dir.: David Fincher
Cast: Edward Norton; Brad Pitt; Helena Bonham Carter
David Fincher’s, Fight Club (1999), is arguably one of the most discussed films in modern cinema. With many intricate thematic levels and powerful performances it amalgamates into a fantastic mixture of beautiful carnage. Edward Norton playing a middle-American in a dead-end job is juxtaposed with Hollywood heart throb and free spirit Brad Pitt who enters Norton’s world which has been disillusioned by the American Dream and bound by the capitalistic machine that controls his life. I’m going to delve deeper into Fight Club and analyse what message Fincher’s film is ultimately portraying.
Jack/The Narrator is played by the brilliant Edward Norton (for the sake of this article I will refer to him as Jack). A year after American History X (1998), where he played a revolutionary white supremacist and gained around 30 pounds in weight, he is back playing a typical office worker stuck in the middle class of society unable to progress or loosen the strings of the consumerist world he lives in. Suffering from insomnia and the repetitive daily grind , Jack is obsessed with his consumerist wants and needs. Filling his room with IKEA furniture and drinking Starbuck’s coffee he is the epitome of consumer culture being fooled by the corporations that rely on the public to, ‘work[ing] jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need’, as Brad Pitt so eloquently phrases it. This is where Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden, comes in. The free-spirit, that is Tyler, represents everything Jack wants to be. Not phased by the consumer lifestyle, Tyler is liberated by all the things Jack finds himself so accustomed to. Or once again, in Tyler’s rhetoric, ‘I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I’m free in all the ways that you are not’.
Tyler’s nihilistic influence results in Jack finding himself becoming independent and free of these constraints he was attached to before and the establishment of the Fight Club’s enable him to feel liberated. Satisfying this primal urge allows him to break free of the consumerist lifestyle that dictates what is and what is not acceptable in society. Tyler has allowed him to disconnect from his pre-occupied life and it questioned Jack’s livelihood, was he was satisfied being a product of the corporations? Consumerism in Fight Club is all about a loss of individuality and ultimately breaking away from this lifestyle we are all supposedly meant to abide by.
However, many critics argue that Fight Club is extremely contradictive when it comes to its consumerist message. How can you have an A-list Hollywood star like Brad Pitt arguing against consumerism when he is the physical embodiment of what they are selling to society? Pitt is the product of consumerism. David O’Heir stated: “…there’s something more than a little ludicrous about sitting in a theater while Brad Pitt preaches at you about the emptiness of materialism.” It is certainly sinister when Jack and Tyler catch a bus and ultimately degrade everything materialism stands for and ridiculing a Gucci advert with a guy wearing only pants and Jack asks Tyler, ‘Is that what a man looks like?, which in response Tyler chuckles and states ‘Self improvement is masturbation’.
We know that Pitt himself has featured in similar marketing campaigns so this is so unbelievably ironic it is laughable. Despite this, I believe there is a purpose to doing this. ‘Pitt is a perfect Tyler’ (Jesse Kalvado – The Fiction of Self Destruction) as he offers comic irony that allows the audience to understand that this is a satirical stab at such marketing campaigns. Pitt’s employment offers a wonderful dichotomy between consumerism and individuality. Jack represents the potentialities of the consumerist lifestyle and it’s anarchic result as he becomes Tyler to carry out Project Mayhem. Fight Club highlights the emasculation of man as he has become the ‘by-products of a lifestyle obsession’ and the result is Jack, a representation of a modern day American man in society. Project Mayhem leads to the destruction of these corporations and from there leads the attack on capitalism.
Capitalism is a prominent theme in Fight Club. It systematically attacks the corporations and social infrastructure Jack is living, through Tyler and his non-conformist nihilistic ideologies. With civil rights movements and the uprise of LEDC’s (lower economically developed countries), the 90’s-00’s was very much a time of transition and confusion in America with many of the professionals, such as Jack, falling through the cracks and being overlooked by the American government and the idealistic American Dream. Feeling like they have authority the middle class workers, like Jack, are still owned by their bosses and there is a venomous anger towards the society that failed them which is a direct effect of capitalistic movements. This view is explicitly expressed by Tyler:
“We’re the middle children of the history man, 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 been all raised by 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.”
There was a repressed rage in America ‘as well as frustration over the collapse of the American Dream’ (John McCullough). Fight Club is progressive as it leads to a violent reaction to the system. The Fight Club’s that are setup are not glamourising violence, there are no winners or losers. Fincher does not glorify the violence through the art-house aesthetics but it’s pure and ‘real’. Borrowing techniques from social realism, the pain seems all too real and the dark red blood is vivid, almost Tarantino-Esq as it splatters on the cold concrete floor. This realism makes the pain seem legitimate just as it is for these hard working American men stuck in their role that has been assigned to them. These issues are not unique either, Fight Club’s popularity highlights that these problems do exist and despite the personal story of Jack it is scattered with references to the broader society, it is a serious comment on the lifestyle Jack lives.
Henry Giroux, a film critic who adamantly rejects Fight Club as a film that positively highlights the issues it tackles, suggests it does not support its arguments against capitalism in a comprehensible manner: ‘Representations of violence, masculinity, and gender in Fight Club seem all too willing to mirror the pathology of individual and institutional violence that informs American landscape’ – he argues that Project Mayhem degrades any argument it attempts to make through Tyler’s hierarchy. Tyler preaches that to become liberated by consumerism and capitalism you must become individual. Yet when the ‘Space Monkeys’ join Project Mayhem they lose their hair and name, similar to that of being institutionalised or recruited to the army. Once again this is seemingly contradictive by Fincher.
However, I argue that when Jack realises what is becoming of Project Mayhem he begins to question Tyler’s ideologies. These men have been brainwashed just as Jack was in the beginning of the film in his autonomous state. With their repetitive phrase ‘You do not talk about Project Mayhem’ and ‘In Tyler we trust’, Jack becomes sick of Tyler and his army to the point where he knows it has become too much. When Jack finally reacts to Tyler’s destructiveness and shoots himself, thus killing Tyler, he rejects any ideology that was presented to be nihilistic. Palahnuik, the novelist, uses Jack’s rejection of Tyler to portray this disestablishment in Project Mayhem and with no leader the terrorist organisation will not continue. Jack has conquered the nihilistic demons inside of him and repressed Tyler’s ideologies altogether.
This film is highly suggestive on many levels and these issues have been widely discussed and sometimes dismissed, but I feel it would be almost impossible to overlook there purpose when analysing Fight Club. The major corporations in this world hold so much power in a monopolistic society the manipulative effects are evident throughout daily life and this film truly highlights the dangerous effects consumerism can have. A film that focuses on social, political and economics issues will always face ridicule as Fight Club has but exploring the deeper meaning has given me a closer insight into the effects of cinema and the discussion that can be created by this powerful medium.
This is the first part in a two part Fight Club anaylsis, the next section will be on Feminism and Nihilism, which will hopefully be up in the coming weeks.