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Is popular cinema trying to communicate with us?

Part One - Fight Club, the anti-anti-establishment film

Is popular cinema trying to communicate with us? Or is it just entertainment? What does Hollywood have to say? Have the lunatics taken over the asylum? Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters had too much fun, they unleashed LSD on America, bascially invented rave culture and provoked cultural transformation wherever their famous Further bus would take them. (This is all wittily captured in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.)

The soul is innocent and immortal it should not die ungodly in an armed madhouse,” said Allen Ginsberg in his 1955 howl against the encroaching walls of the asylum. The San Francisco Police, and then Customs, tried to have his poem banned in 1957, declaring it “obscene”. Ten years later in the same city, after Kesey's crew ushered in the “summer of love” in 1967, it was too much. The Authorities laid down a new law they made up against the neuro-chemical exploration of the human mind.

In 1975 Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, was finally made into a film. Jack Nicholson plays McMurphy, the Average American Hero who ends up in prison because he likes to “fight and fuck too much”. He gets himself transferred into a mental hospital because he thinks it will be easier than the work farm. He enters a locked ward for white men with black attendants mopping the floor, sexless nurses tightly bound in their white smocks like nuns' habits, presided over by the white male elite in their distant offices. In the ward with the “mentally ill” white men is a huge Native American man who everyone assumes is deaf and dumb and not worth speaking to.
The dynamics of the ward are soon clear. Nurse Ratched is the blank-faced humourless dominatrix nun who cannot be crossed. She has her routine, her drugs and her calming music to make sure no man shows any inappropriate signs of life. When McMurphy reacts to this fascist scene the way any hot-blooded American male would, Nurse Ratched is forced to play her authority: the electroshock and lobotomy she has at her disposal for troublemakers.

Strength is rewarded with punishment. Confidence is shameful. If you fight you only give them permission to crush you. Strength is only appropriate for escaping at the right moment, no half measures, do or die. The Indian who appears to be deaf and dumb has been holding his strength in check. He picks his moment and he throws the heavy marble basin through the window and escapes for Canada. He has always had the strength, while the rest of them need the asylum, they depend on it, they depend on their weakness.

In 1975 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave its top five awards to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. These days, it seems they give their top awards to films that reinforce America in her greatness, 2013's Argo being the perfect example. Hollywood tells America who they are and Hollywood keeps the myth of “America the Great” in the minds of the whole world. Hollywood speaks America into existence. It is as if America is just an image projected onto a screen, and if you place your hand in the light the image disappears.

Hollywood has an endless array of comedies and romances in which the cultural norms, heterosexual monogamy above all else, are never questioned. There is also an endless supply of military violence-porn; war, horror, thriller, crime and action. All with the fundamental dichotomy of good guys/bad guys, criminals/police, terrorists/superheroes, communists/Americans. Those who resent authority, those who question the culture into which they were born, those who feel a vague discomfort at the paradigmatic universe America gives them, are taken into consideration. Fight Club is their masterpiece. It is the democracy of entertainment.

Fight Club has gained a reputation as a cult classic over the 15 years since its release and a narrow spectrum of cinephiles consider it one of the greatest films ever made, currently number ten on IMDb's top 250 films, as voted by users of the website.

The film appears, in its first act and in its publicity, to offer a social commentary on modern urban life and consumerism. I suppose this is rare in American media and entertainment for those who watch television and attend the multiplexes and would never consider watching a “foreign” film. Who would notice subtleties, who would notice quietly contrary commentaries when since birth we have been bombarded with a ceaseless and ever-increasing exposure to simulated stimulation. Perhaps Fight Club is a revelation for a generation of men who feel weak, inconsequential slaves to advertising and the nesting instinct.

Brad Pitt plays Tyler Durden, the ripped self-assured guru of the film, spouting philosophy without self-consciousness or self-reflection. “You are not your job. You are not how much you have in the bank.” When the two main characters first meet, Brad Pitt pities Edward Norton for being “clever”. He then blows up his apartment, full of all his carefully chosen furniture, and thus liberates him from consumerism.

It seems to me that the success of this film, its persistent cult appeal, lies in this rejection of consumerism and the cynical and nihilistic attitude that goes with it.

The city is bleak and desolate, as are the lives of its inhabitants. There are no opportunities, there is no hope, there is no wider environmental or cultural context. For the audience of this film, trapped inescapably in the cities, the jobs, the lives they inhabit, this critique must seem like a god-send, an acknowledgement from the media-entertainment god, so central to their lives, that their feelings are legitimate. That the film offers no alternative is significant. It is imperative in this nihilistic context to not present an object of hope, not a happy ending. “Losing all hope was freedom.” The film takes us to this point successfully, but no further.

Compare a Swedish film made four years later, Lilya 4-Ever, set in an equally desolate and hopeless city, “somewhere in what used to be the Soviet Union”. It is about a 16-year-old girl abandoned by her mother, forced into a squalid flat and finding herself with no support, no hope and no options but prostitution.

The film is as relentlessly bleak as Fight Club and as stylistically effective, but while Fight Club tries to maintain its cool detachment throughout, Lilya 4-Ever takes the risk of offering a hope beyond philosophy and beyond organisation. As Lilya's life deteriorates, the film zeroes in on a tiny hope. An outcast 11-year-old boy who lives nearby becomes the only friend in Lilya's world and together they dream of another world. When they each die they become angels with white wings. Their fantasy world is both pathetic and intensely moving. The film makes no secret of the fact that their Heaven is totally culturally-bound. There is a framed picture of angels that Lilya carefully packs and unpacks throughout the film, and when they finally achieve their transcendence after death, Heaven is a rooftop and they look out over the apartment blocks and cars, the dew and cold wind, and say, “Now the whole world is yours.” They play basketball on this rooftop in eternity and there is no one to puncture their basketball or rape them. It is pathetic, but it is beautiful and sad.

There is no spiritual transcendence in Fight Club. It starts off utterly meaningless and only reveals more meaninglessness from there. The answer is fighting. Women become irrelevant. “We're a generation raised by women. I wonder if another woman is the answer we really need.” The men get together in dark basements to fight, specifically to punch and smash each others' faces and heads until blood comes out. This is grotesquely intimate and it is liberating. It gives these otherwise weak men the confidence to bring aggression into their submissive lives. This is a controversial concept, and considering most commentary on the film focusses only on the first half, this is what people talk about.

The Fight Club is a support group for men, primates trapped in an industrial world. It is homosocial and it is consensual. “How much do you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?” It is self-expression and it is rejection of women. It distinguishes being a man, bloody fighting, with being the type of man that women want them to be, docile, domesticated. “Self-improvement is masturbation. Now self-destruction...” That you are insignificant is a given. That you learn to accept it is the journey of the film. Destroy yourself because you are already shit.

While Lilya 4-Ever shows where the protagonist has made poor choices with catastrophic consequences, Fight Club presents an inevitability to the trajectory of the plot and the deterioration of the character.

The film tries to have it every way at the same time. It begins as a social commentary, becomes a love story between Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, and then concludes as a thriller. The film negates itself spectacularly on every level. Consensual violence is the solution to consumerism but apparently the inevitable consequence of liberation and enlightenment is civil disobedience as destruction of property. The initial anti-consumerism theme so central to the film's cult status is subsequently forgotten.

The central love-affair of Pitt and Norton, with the homoerotic fighting, is undermined by the “twist” that the two characters are actually the same person. While this is a surprise the first time you see the film, it mostly fits in subsequent viewings. The only problem is that it negates the central relationship of the film. Presumably it would be too uncomfortable for such an audience to accept this homoerotic love story without the twist, and without the presence of Helena Bonham Carter's character, who Pitt is fucking and therefore Norton is also fucking. The relationship is explicitly functional and affectionless, mostly an annoying distraction for the characters, but a necessary assertion of essential heterosexuality.

The men, liberated from wage-slavery and advertising, emerge into an environment in which, “Sooner or later, we all became what Tyler wanted us to be.” They divorce themselves from all self-will and self-expression by repeating Tyler's rules in unison and executing his commands without reflection. Tyler Durden, guru of liberation, moulds these liberated men into an army of conformity and nihilism for the purpose of destruction of property.

There is one tiny clue to the real twist of the film. The real twist is not that Pitt and Norton are the same person but that the film shifts into thriller and proceeds to feverishly negate everything that came before. The clue is in the narration: “It's called a change-over. The movie goes on and nobody has any idea.” By this time you are involved, you have been sutured, and the thriller tone takes over and excites you all the way to the end, so you don't have to think about what's going on.

Norton realises that he is Tyler Durden and that he is responsible for this army of mindless destroyers. Based on the anti-consumerism theme there is a questionable validity to therefore destroying credit card companies to erase debt without causing loss of human life. It is, however, negated by the protagonist trying desperately to stop the progress of what he's already started. That he is basically as insane as it is possible to be somehow justifies his contradictory behaviour and allows the audience the necessity of rooting for him throughout the climax, trying to stop the explosions.

In an ultimate act of compounded negation the protagonist shoots himself in the mouth, both killing himself (Pitt) and not killing himself (Norton). He is reunited with his heterosexual lover, as if he had not been dismissive of her throughout the whole film, and together, holding hands, they observe the destruction of the credit card buildings, which he failed to stop, as a moment of beauty.

Fight Club represents the admirable tactic of American consumerism to provide a special flavour for every fringe group, leading to the phenomenon of a market for “Destroy Capitalism” t-shirts. Those who question the validity of their culture, yet are trapped inside it, will be attracted to this film, buy the DVD and watch the DVD extras. It first criticises society, then it establishes a false dichotomy that remains the basic assumption of the film; between consumerism and violence. In case it accidentally offers a truly transformative philosophy it proceeds to negate and undermine everything it has offered. In order to love this film, it seems fans have ignored the second half of it. There are reports of Fight Clubs being established around America as a result of the film, but not of anti-corporate guerilla operations or people becoming entirely deranged and destroying everything they touch.

Is cinema truly a potentially transformative art form? Does advertising really work? Is Fight Club, as some apologists for civilisation claim, “irresponsible”? It appears to be a sophisticated tool for diffusing subversive thought. It is difficult to ascertain how much of this is intentional.

It is not irrelevant that the film was commissioned and funded by Twentieth Century Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, and so remains fundamentally a corporate artefact.

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