by Tim Jones 6/25/16
The Unbearable Banality of Modern Living • Fight Club is a scathing critique of the consumerism, materialism and shallowness that is today’s America. That is the overriding theme but there are additional layers to this outstanding movie, including the unintended consequences of what happens when the soul is suppressed, eliminated and replaced by self-identity defined by one’s possessions. It also illustrates the nihilism lurking just beneath the surface of an orderly society built on illusions and slave mentality that will eventually reveal itself in ugly ways.
The three primary characters consist of Jack and the movie’s narrator played by Edward Norton, Tyler Durden played by Brad Pitt and Marla Singer played by Helena Bonham Carter. David Fincher directed Fight Club and released in 1999. Some of the other movies he’s directed include Seven, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl.
Edward Norton is a “recall coordinator” who travels the country determining the cause of car accidents and if they might have been caused by production defects (and if so, the car company would have to recall the models for correcting the problem). It is a boring and repetitive job that causes Norton a great deal of ennui, so much so that at one point he goes to a doctor to find out if his insomnia could kill him.
In one of the earlier scenes, he’s standing at a copy machine where he’s talking to himself, “everything is a copy of a copy of a copy,” inferring that nothing is real anymore and everything in the world has become irretrievably derivative. Shortly thereafter, he’s in his condominium sitting on the toilet leafing through an IKEA furniture catalogue describing how he’s become a slave to things he wants to buy. Brad Pitt’s character echoes this later in the movie saying how “things you own end up owning you.”
Jack (Norton) spends a great deal of time hopping from one support group to another in the hope of finding answers to his self-loathing and dread. Although he doesn’t have any of the problems that the groups address, for example testicular cancer, he goes to them anyway. It is at one of them he comes across Martha Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). He figures out she too doesn’t suffer from any of the maladies of the various support groups they attend and confronts her for treading on his turf. They agree to a kind of schedule where they would attend meetings on different days in order to avoid each other. And so begins a seriously dysfunctional relationship between the two characters where she eventually becomes involved with Pitt’s character. It turns out to play an important part in Norton’s confusion later in the movie as to who exactly is Tyler Durden (Pitt).
But in the beginning, on one particular flight home, Norton happens to be sitting next to Tyler Durden, and they strike up a conversation. It is a conversation that sets the agenda for the rest of the movie. Through a sequence of events shortly following the flight, they become close friends. They go to a bar where following a somewhat philosophical discussion on how shallow and excruciatingly banal life has become, Pitt challenges Norton to slug him shortly after walking out. After a few minutes of resistance and hesitation, Norton takes a swing a Pitt, landing a painful punch to the side of his head.
And so begins their quest for liberation from a soul-killing society by starting a fight club in the basement of the bar. It is so successful in attracting like-minded men who have also had the life squeezed out of them by modern living, Norton and Pitt create additional underground fight clubs around the country. The fight clubs also become a way to retrieve the masculinity that’s been deteriorating for years through societal emasculation. Norton says at one point, “we all felt saved” following a night of bashing each other’s brains out.
The major plot twist in Fight Club is revealed when Pitt’s character Tyler Durden turns out to be Norton’s alter-ego, his idealized self who is rebelling against a system he hates. Towards the end of the movie, the confusion and the clues begin to build until he realizes what is really happening. They are in a hotel room in an unknown city where Norton was desperately trying to find Pitt. Pitt appears out of nowhere and confronts Norton for breaking his pledge not to discuss with anyone his name as Norton had just gotten off the phone with Bonham Carter and had done just that. It is then that Norton understands that he is Tyler Durden, and proceeds to faint, but not before Pitt says to him “I am free in all the ways you are not.”
Tyler at one point wants to teach Jack (Norton) about God and existential pain, literally and figuratively, by holding down his arm and then begins to pour acid on the back of his hand.
Tyler: “This is the greatest moment of your life, and you’re off somewhere missing it. Listen. Your father was your model for God. And if your father bails out, what does that tell you about God?”
You have to consider the possibility that God doesn’t like you. He hates you. This is not the worst thing that could happen. His hate is better than His indifference.
We are God’s middle children, with no special place in history and no special attention. Unless we get God’s attention, we have no hope for damnation or salvation.
The lower you fall, the higher you fly. The further you run, the more God wants you back.
Someday you will die. And until you know that, you’re useless to me.
Norton: “Fuck man, that HURTS.”
It is in their desire to take down the slave society built on getting people to buy stuff, Pitt/Norton begin what they call “Project Mayhem” where they plot to blow up all of the buildings that house the major credit card companies, including TRW, the major credit ratings company at the time. In his realization that not only is he Tyler Durden and Tyler Durden is he, Norton decides he has to stop the coming destruction of Project Mayhem from happening after a crisis of conscience that things have gotten way out of hand and that Project Mayhem is morally wrong.
When Norton first finds out about Project Mayhem, Pitt had just stolen a car and they begin careening down a highway while Norton argues with him wanting to know why he didn’t tell him about the scheme. Pitt won’t have any of it and rather than arguing he decides to put Norton to the ultimate test by letting go of the steering wheel nearly smashing into on oncoming car. Pitt yells at him:
“Hitting bottom isn’t a weekend retreat! It’s not a seminar! Only after you’ve lost everything are you free to do everything. You see, you listen, but you don’t get it! You have to forget everything you know, everything you know!”
The car proceeds to go off the road and as it does you hear Norton saying to himself:
“I am nothing in the world compared to you. I am stupid and weak and all I do is want and need things. I am a little shit job. I am my condo and Swedish furniture. I am SHIT!”
The car flips over while it crashes, the air bags engage and it comes to a halt. As Pitt pulls Norton from the wreckage, he says “You just had a near-life experience.”
One scene that has particular significance takes place about half way through the movie. Pitt and Norton go to a convenience store where they haul the Asian clerk out into the parking lot with a gun pointed at this head. Pitt demands to know where his lives and what his dream is in life. The clerk is obviously distressed, gives him his driver’s license and tells Pitt his dream is to be a veterinarian. Pitt tells him that now that he knows where he lives, he will come back in six months and kill him if he isn’t working towards his dream, the message being that too many people become complacent with mindless jobs rather than doing what they really want to do while their souls are dying in the process.
Fight Club is a meditation on the death of the soul and what happens when it is repressed by the values and demands of modern society. It is also a cautionary tale portraying the alarming consequences of that suppression, such as unrequited rage released in an apocalyptic and grotesque manner. • (465 views)