Related article: “Fight Club,” a hopeful biography
I am Jack’s cult phenomenon
“Only after disaster can we be resurrected.” – Tyler Durden
It started in 1996 with Chuck Palahniuk’s grim, gritty, and amazingly cool novel of the same name. (The first sentence is one of the most hooking things I’ve ever read: “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, and after that Tyler’s pushing a gun into my mouth and telling me the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”) But, for the most part, the cult probably started in 1999, when director David Fincher, Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter teamed up to produce one of the most bizarre and amazing films in history.
“Fight Club” is a train wreck of a movie: Every second of it grabs you with an in-your-face feeling so disturbing that, try as you might, you can’t bring yourself to look away. When you see Marla (Carter), smoke coiling out of her mouth like some kind of toxic fume, you find yourself transfixed. As the never-named Narrator (Norton) cycles deeper and deeper down a spiral of oblivion and, ultimately, destruction, you know that this isn’t going to end well, but you’re caught like a deer in the headlights. And from the instant Tyler Durden (Pitt) says his very first lines, you’re stuck in a shame spiral of knowing that everything Tyler says and does is horribly, repulsively wrong, but you’re still cheering him on all the way.
Such is the magic of “Fight Club.” You find yourself laughing at its brilliant dialogue, sardonic narration and occasional slapstick humor, but, as Tyler says in the middle of what had been a perfectly polite conversation, “You have a kind of sick desperation in your laugh.” “Fight Club” is the only film I’ve seen that makes you feel guilty for loving it – and makes you love it even more for the guilt trip it sends you on.
Like every great movie, “Fight Club” has had its share of critics giving it such negative reviews that you can’t help but think, Did they just see the same film I did? I think some of Roger Ebert’s exact words were “fascist” and “macho porn.” Capalert.com, a website that evaluates movies on their moral values, gave the film a 31 out of 100 score and noted “81 uses of the most foul of foul words.” The film may have been a financial flop in its theatrical release ($37 million profit, $60 million budget), but it has seized a hold of a growing underground audience, shaping its own cult the same way Tyler shapes Project Mayhem.
“Is Tyler my bad dream? Or am I Tyler’s?” – The Narrator
To a certain section of the population (and I am proud to be one of them), “Fight Club” is more than just the crackerjack entertainment it looks like. It is the most blazing satire since “Slaughterhouse Five,” a perfect burn on American consumer culture and the “counter-culture” movement. Tyler Durden, the film’s Messiah/Antichrist of a main character, is one of the most memorable and fascinating revolutionaries, since, well, any movie. And to an even more obsessive group of fans, Tyler’s word is gospel. As the Narrator says: “In Tyler we trusted.” Tyler is Guevara. Tyler is Elvis. Tyler is a saint. Tyler is God.
Which is stupid.
“Fight Club” doesn’t idolize Tyler any more than it says we should all shave our heads and blow stuff up. As the story spirals more and more out of control, we see Tyler as more and more of a madman, to the point at which he is willing to castrate the Narrator, allow Bob to die and kidnap Marla, not to mention the whole weird murder-suicide thing that we see from the very beginning.
Tyler is willing to, in essence, put a bullet in his own brain in order to fulfill the dreams of Project Mayhem. What many of the movie’s fans fail to realize is that “Fight Club” is two satires rolled into one. Most obviously, it is a blazing and brilliant Vonnegut-style satire on the excesses of American consumer culture: From the liposuction soap to the Narrator’s mocking nickname of “Ikea Boy,” nothing can survive unscathed the withering gaze of Chuck and Dave.
But, on a reverse note, “Fight Club” is a savage burn on the counter-culture movement. Project Mayhem is revealed to be as tightly regimented and under control as the society its members want to overthrow. They have turned away from their old lives but are just as trapped by their new obsessions. They have become even more mindless, even more slaves to routine, than they were before. Although Tyler says he wants to free them, all Project Mayhem really does is break down each spacemonkey’s individuality, making them bigger fools and more mindless drones than they were before.
“Fight Club” points out the fact that the only way to overthrow society is to instill a new one in its place and that the spacemonkeys are simply destroying themselves to fulfill the Narrator’s urge to be wild and crazy. It is a film that makes you laugh as much at its “heroes” (in the loosest sense of the word) as it does at the “villains” – the villains being society itself.
“I felt like destroying something beautiful.” – The Narrator
In its own way, “Fight Club” does for cinema what Project Mayhem tries to do to society: break it down completely and build up something new.
The characters acknowledge at a few points that they are, indeed, in a film. The Narrator’s sarcastic voice-over, rewinding and fast-forwarding through his story. The way the film appears to come loose on the reel, such as in the “all-singing, all-dancing crap of the universe” speech. The characters’ acknowledgement of the “cigarette burns.” After the Narrator has flashed back through the past two years, only to return to “this is about where we left off,” Tyler’s self-conscious response, “Oh. Flashback humor.” And of course, the penis flash.
“Fight Club” embraces everything that cinema can do but has been to afraid to: about two hours’ worth of flashbacks, schizophrenic jump cuts, subliminal flashes, brief flashes of totally unrelated material (such as the Narrator’s meditation during the “Chemical Burn” sequence) and brutal, nauseating violence.
Perhaps it’s the fights that stand out the most. In this era of John Woo and the Wachowskis, the fight scenes in “Fight Club” have an almost narcotic effect. Free from slow motion or camera trickery, they have a documentary feel as there is nothing but the visceral, realistic thuds of flesh hitting each other. Practically music-free, and thankfully bereft of Schwarzenegger-esque one-liners, the movie’s fight scenes make you feel like you’re in the club itself, and you wince with every punch thrown. By the time Angel Face is beaten into a bloody pulp, you’re locked into your chair, sickened and horrified, rather than gleefully enjoying this fight the way most movies would encourage you to.
Shot almost entirely in shades of green, brown, red, and gray, “Fight Club” creates an oppressive feel with its cinematography. From the opening credits when the camera rises out of the fear center of the brain to the moment when the film comes off the reel in the end, the movie never stops trying to be new and different. The camera work nicely mimics Palahniuk’s prose, constantly moving with elaborate pull-away shots, rotations, skewed angles, and an almost amphetamine sense that the story is constantly rushing forward. Even the most normal of conversations, such as Tyler discussing how to make soap or the heartfelt confessions at “Remaining Men Together,” are lent a comical, bizarre, virtually hallucinatory feeling by the jittery camera work and color scheme. You can practically see Tyler pointing at the latest blockbuster and asking, “Is that what a real movie’s supposed to look like?” Every trick that David Fincher practiced in “Se7en” is honed to perfection here.
Even the film’s techno-punk soundtrack by The Dust Brothers stands out. Instead of assembling a generic punk-rock soundtrack (although I’m sure I’m not the only one who would have loved to hear The Sex Pistols’ “Problems” associated with Tyler), Fincher opted for a different route. Alternating between songs such as the hilariously peppy “Space Monkeys” and the much darker, more atmospheric pieces such as “Finding the Bomb,” the soundtrack has the same devil-may-care feel as the rest of the movie: It loves itself for what it is, meshes with all the other details perfectly and doesn’t care if it’s pretty or not.
“Fight Club” dares you to speak against it and lays itself bare: It is a film unrestrained by typical movie techniques. “Fight Club” is the antithesis of the way Hollywood movies are supposed to look: brutal, raw, jumpy and with an edge-of-your-seat discomfort throughout.
“Fight Club was the beginning. Now it’s moved out of the basement, and it’s called Project Mayhem.” – Tyler Durden
For the last time, “Fight Club” was not based on any real fight clubs anywhere. You have no idea how angry Chuck Palahniuk will get if you ask him this. But still …
If I, walking down the street, happen to quote the film to a friend, chances are good that someone passing by will let me know that I’m not supposed to talk about Fight Club. A package of Avery address labels has a sample photo on the front: “Tyler Durden, 420 Paper Street, Wilmington, DE 19886.”
Waiters have always spoiled food and will always spoil food. Not as some part of an obsessive movie fandom, but for the same reasons Tyler did: to get back at the rich, to get away with something naughty.
Men will always fight each other, whether they are champion heavyweights or nobodies spilling their blood in some sawdust arena. The sound of fists on flesh is as much a part of human life as the sound of a heart beating, and “Fight Club” recognizes that.
“Fight Club” is going to stay around for many, many years. In a way, it’s the “Raging Bull” of our time. Despite negative reviews from many critics and a criminal Oscar reception, “Fight Club” is not going to be forgotten.
And so I leave you with this little Durden-ism, a fitting conclusion to my article on this phenomenon and the reaction of every “Fight Club” fan upon seeing the film, not to mention the many more who will see it in the years to come:
“Goddamn! We just had a near-life experience!” – Tyler Durden
Jasper Moore is an amateur writer and poet from Wilmington, N.C. The biggest influences on his work are Chuck Palahniuk and Neil Gaiman. He enjoys almost all kinds of music, is an incurable film buff, and reads fancy, intellectual comics such as Sandman, although he doesn’t use the term “graphic novels.” He finds writing about himself in the third person extremely disconcerting. Thanks to Jesse for support, discussion, and proofreading this article. You’re gorgeous, darling.