Thursday, September 10, 2009


Fight Club is a 1999 movie starring Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonam Carter. This movie ranks right up there with the Matrix... every time I see this movie, I see something new.

The Narrator hates his life. His sense of self is rooted in his condo, his clothes, and his Ikea furniture; he works a job he hates so he can buy shit he doesn't need (to paraphrase Tyler Durden). Jack is miserable, he can't sleep. His insomnia suggests that his life lacks substance. He says, "With insomnia, nothing is real. Everything is far away. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy."

The setting starts out in offices and the narrator’s condo, pictures of sterile, light colors, juxtaposed to the darkness that the narrator is launched into after his condo blows up. So there are two images of the human condition. The first is one of being imprisoned. The cell is not stark, in fact it’s extremely comfortable and filled with all sorts of things that will bring personal fulfillment. Despite the clean and polished look, the colors here are unnaturally bright, stark, and alienating. There is nothing welcoming here.

Events unfold and the Narrator meets Tyler Durden whose ideologies are antithetical to the narrator’s: while Jack represents the material self, Durden represents the spiritual self. When Jack returns home from a business trip and finds out his condo blew up while he was gone, he calls Tyler for a place to stay. While the two chat over a pitcher of beer Durden explains to Jack that the "things you own end up owning you," suggesting that losing all his belongings may have been the best thing that ever happened to Jack. From this point on Durden helps Jack develop his spiritual self. Jack moves into a dingy home where he has nothing: No more Ikea furniture, no C.K. clothes or DKNY shoes. So the second image, the one of freedom, is largely shot in dark colors and at night. This image of freedom is everything that the prison is not; it’s dark, dirty, and squalid. The colors however, are warmer earth tones that eventually get softer as the movie progresses.

The mood is set largely by the narration. His tone and style is cynical and ironic and nonlinear. His thoughts are disjointed and there are flashbacks within flashbacks. He is trying to figure out what happened up until where we first meet him, with a gun in his mouth strapped to a chair. There is a lot of foreshadowing and use of sardonic humor. There is also rage and anger at the world.

Tyler articulates the problem of the film,

" Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damnit, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We are the middle children of history, with no purpose or place. We have no great war, or great depression. The great war is a spiritual war. The great depression is our lives. We were raised by television to believe that we'd be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars—but we won't. And we're learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed-off."

Identity is the prime concern of Fight Club. The Narrator describes his childhood as one where his dad leaves and “sets up franchises” with other moms every six years. The dad tells the Narrator to go to college, get a job, and then “I dunno… get married?” This formula leaves the Narrator in a dead end job without a sense of self. To compensate for this lack of identity, the Narrator spends his time wondering “What dinning set best defines me?” He tries to get his sense of self from how he’s told by advertising; namely to define one’s self through brands and material goods. This path is ultimately unsatisfying as he cannot sleep at night.

The Narrator’s job is interesting to note, because it is a soulless one.
He works for an auto company, “a major one”, and investigates auto accidents caused by a malfunction in the car’s design. What he does is officially called a “recall coordinator which apples the formula of “Take the number of vehicles in the field (A), multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), then multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlement (C). A times B times C equals X... If X is less that the cost of a recall, we don't do one.” He justifies this in his mind by saying “On a long enough timeline everyone’s survival rate drops to zero.” The jokes used by the recall coordinators are trying to make light of the horror that they are confronting.

He then becomes addicted to self-help groups where “Every night I died and was born again. Every evening I was resurrected.” This is until Marla Singer comes in and ruins it by joining his “Remaining Men Together, Men with Testicular Cancer” group. “Her lie reflected my lie” and the Narrator can no longer sleep. Marla is completely different from the narrator. She has no regard, stealing clothes from a laundry and pawning them for money. She crosses the street without looking. Her philosophy of life is described that “she might die at any moment. The tragedy, she said, was that she didn't.” When asked why they are “tourists” in these groups, the Narrator and Marla find common ground:

Narrator: When people think you're dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just...
Marla Singer: Instead of just waiting for their turn to speak?

Marla becomes the basis of Tyler Durden. For all intensive purposes, when introduced to Tyler, he appears to be another character in the story. As the narrative progresses, we learn that the Narrator and Tyler are actually the same person. This is evidence of how fractured the Narrator’s identity is. Tyler is free in all the ways the Narrator wishes he could be. This feedback loop created by the Narrator is similar to what he is rejecting in the culture. The conversation at the bar between the Narrator and Tyler shows how different they are:

Tyler Durden: Do you know what a duvet is?
Narrator: It's a comforter...
Tyler Durden: It's a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?
Narrator: ...Consumers?
Tyler Durden: Right! We're consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.
Narrator: Martha Stewart.
Tyler Durden: Fuck Martha Stewart. Martha's polishing the brass on the Titanic. It's all going down, man. So fuck off with your sofa units and Strinne green stripe patterns. Of course, I could be wrong…

Tyler rejects “the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions.” He states that “You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.” He seeks to destroy the idea of “self” and replace it with a more communal model. The old capitalistic model is father and his company is using is sucking the meaning out of life. The self must be destroyed in Tyler’s mind and one must truly let go of all they think they know and think they want out of life. Even going so far as to intentionally get into a car crash. This serves to teach empathy to the Narrator, as that was the first time he has been in a crash. He studied them for a living but now he knows what being in one is like.

Tyler starts off using the system to gain money. He sells soap to department stores for large profits—the ironic thing is that the fat he uses in the soap is stolen from liposuction clinics. In a sense, he is “selling rich women their own fat asses back to them.” This evolves into a bigger vision. “In the world I see - you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”

Though making the soap and forming Fight Clubs around the nation, Tyler takes it to the next level and creates Project Mayhem. The sole goal of Project Mayhem is to blow up credit card companies and set the record back to zero. It is a biblical jubilee year.


Chris said...

Niiiiiiiice observations Luke. Enjoyed the read. I especially like the attention you gave to the colors and lighting...details I never considered when watching this.

Hey, when you have time (like that's gonna happen starting this week) take a hard look at the lye-burning scene and share the love. That scene is a loaded gun.

nomadheart said...

I'm with Chris in that I never paid attention to the colors and lighting either! GREAT observation. I totally see the dualistic nature of the characters.
It's interesting to see Brad's character spiral out of control at the beginning when he meets Tyler, & becomes vulnerable to something that he cannot control, but eventually buys into it, as it were.
Haven't seen this movie in a few years, so will have to get the chance to watch it again & look out for some of the comments you posted!!!!!

Luke said...

Chris: the lye burning scene is a fav. of mine... i'll post about that on Tuesday or namely "What Fight Club says about God."

Nomad: thanks for the visit! rewatch the movie and post what you find! i'm sure you'll pick up something i missed!

Anglican Gurl said...

WOW! Outstanding review. I never understood this movie until now. My husband is crazy about it and watches it at least once a month.

Thanks for the indepth review! Do you mind doing American Beauty or Big Fish? Or how about a Christian movie like Fireproof?

RJ said...

great review, luke, thanks for posting: your insights are very helpful - especially to those who are perplexed by the violence in this movie. do you know the blackwell guide to theology and popular culture? great resource..
keep on my man!

Luke said...

hey RJ!

i always wondered why i like this movie so much. i'm not really a violent person (tending to build bridges than burn them) and i'm not all that into "manly" stuff.. i cook and clean and such at home. the violence though i think is really shocking as to get the guys out of their "safe" existence. much like St. Anthony of the Desert, renouncing material things and fighting constantly with demons. many of the astetic monks were very violent. but it's a conduit into something more.

still shocking but it doesn't glorify it as much as hollywood normally does.

i'll have to check out the blackwell guide, thanks for the suggestion! RAWK!

RJ said...

Luke I am with you that the violence is a way of both awakening the true spirit of something long dormant in these men, and, part of their ultimate problem for when they awaken to the manipulation and half-life they have been leading... they don't have an alternative to replace it. Like Bertolt Brecht said in a poem: forgive us for we became what we hated. Keep on rockin, man. Thanks