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Fight Club

Fight Club (1999) is considered a cult classic by those who praise it for its brutal critique of the meaninglessness of modern urban life. It is condemned as “irresponsible” by some critics who claim that it advocates violence. I claim that both of these positions reveal a total lack of insight into what the film is actually saying, and an unwillingness or inability to read the text of the film as a whole.

It seems that all criticism of the film focuses only on the first half. The first half depicts a man living a consumerist lifestyle in an anonymous American city who meets a powerful man who inspires him to make radical changes in his life, primarily through all-male meetings of consensual bloody violence called Fight Clubs. The debate about whether violence is a legitimate response to a suffocating culture of submission is a legitimate one, but not one that will ever be meaningfully discussed in mainstream media. State institutions have a monopoly on violence. End of debate.

The film is stylishly designed, charmingly performed and its philosophy is quotable, the only problem is the second half, in which Fight Club becomes Project Mayhem. The second half appears to be nonsensical but a rather cynical message can be drawn from it.  Whether the destruction of credit card companies to erase personal debt without loss of human life is a legitimate response to capitalism is not a debate the film encourages. These men are not depicted as free-thinking radicals liberated from wage slavery, but as a mindless army blindly following the orders of their deified leader.

Maybe the anarchists, activists and eccentrics are feeling validated by Twentieth Century Fox for offering them entertainment that presses the alienated buttons they have been sullenly nurturing and so resist a critical examination of their beloved product. The revelation that the two main characters are actually the same person is merely dismissed as bad plotting, but is much more self-aware and manipulative.

There is a tiny clue to the true “twist” in the film. There is a comment in the narration that we hear but do not understand, and so forget. This is an effective method of subliminal messaging that is demonstrated in the film by Brad Pitt's character inserting single frames of pornography into children's films. “It's called a change-over. The movie goes on and nobody has any idea.”

Everyone knows that different genres are designed to induce different feelings in an audience; horror movies scare, comedies make you laugh and thrillers thrill. Fight Club starts off as social commentary, designed to make you think, and moves into thriller, designed to cease thought by getting you excited. Most thrillers have completely inane utilitarian plots. I worry about thrillers that have actually raised serious and complex issues.

The hero of the film, who has spouted all this quotable philosophy, is completely insane. It seems the story so far has been an episode of acute dissociative schizophrenia and if you are on the protagonist's side you will stay on his side as he wakes up from this episode, realises that he is Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, and attempts to stop the progress of the destruction he has instigated – blowing up the credit card companies – because it is obviously wrong.

The film successfully negates everything of interest that has been presented, and does it all in the mindless thriller genre, so the cult followers of the film can remain willfully ignorant to how they have been manipulated.

When the protagonist realises that he is unable to stop the destruction of the credit card companies, he decides to kill himself. He shoots himself in the mouth, both killing himself (Brad Pitt) and not killing himself (Edward Norton). He has thus liberated himself from the man who liberated him and so is now free to watch the destruction of the buildings he tried to save.

For the first half of the film we are Edward Norton and our minds and lives are opened up by Brad Pitt. The second half of the film then reveals that Brad Pitt is a lunatic who must be stopped and that actually he is a part of us, he is an aspect of ourselves that we must destroy. We enjoy the destruction vicariously through this film, we buy the DVD and maybe even the t-shirt. Our inner anarchist is stimulated, excited and finally subdued; put back to sleep for another decade of employment, consumption and the thought-provoking philosophy of Hollywood studios.


Vici said...

Chris, In respect of your final paragraph, perhaps Brad Pitt is the part of ourselves that we might usefully identify with, warily aspire to being equal to and in the end stand up to instead of submitting to. Left unchecked, that part of ourselves - Super Duper Ego? - will lead us into alienation and destruction. Edward Norton left it too late to come back to centre without blowing the lot... But I think, even thought it was obviously wrong, we all enjoyed the mixture of horror and release at the final series of explosions. If only it were that simple.

Chris Kirk said...

Yes, looking at it from that perspective really reinforces my thesis that the film truly is anti-anti-establishment, that its purpose is to undermine and discredit dissent and opposition - even a purely emotional opposition - to an urban culture that the film admits is hollow and meaningless.