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“This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time” – Tyler Durden
One of the most misunderstood movies of the last 20 years is undoubtedly David Fincher‘s modern cult classic Fight Club. Yes, it’s easy to linger on the violence, an important part of the premise. However, unlike A Clockwork Orange or Natural Born Killers – where the carnage originated with the protagonists – Fight Club does not explore the cause of, or explain violence within the human mind. It just shows it as the result of a mundane existence.
The film represents the everyday person, going through life bombarded with systematic advertising where the promise of a better life is presented through material objects. Almost force-fed OCD with the ‘buy this-you’ll feel this’ motto, the film explores the hollow feeling left when the purchase is made and the desired effect is not reached.
Fight Club is the reaction to this, the frustration that comes with searching for happiness in the modern world. Nowadays we are overcome to buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like – all the while trying to find a meaning to life. If writer Chuck Palahniuk wrote his book now instead of 1996, the novel from which the film is based, then social media no doubt would have been a major factor.
All that aside though, Fight Club is still a slick outing – one as engrossing as it is disturbing. The audience is led by the hand through the late 90’s mindset by the Narrator (Edward Norton). We watch as he struggles to find something to cling to, a meaning to his existence. This includes faking illness or addiction, so he can go to meetings to connect with others.
It’s through these he meets a soulmate in Maria (Helena Bonham Carter), reinforcing his own ideals of hopelessness, but also willingness to try to fit in somewhere. In a way, their meeting is symbolic of how love can be found in the most unexpected places. Maria is the dark to Norton’s light, the self-destructive to the meticulous and almost over-the-top perfectionism he strived for. Their relationship is the Narrator’s introduction to another side of life, a more dangerous and exciting one. Although all of it is a side story to the eventual presence of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).
Fight Club is a movie which holds up life and displays it for what it is, especially with the introduction of the Narrator’s other self, his subconscious made real in Tyler. The latter is society’s anarchic self, the person at times we wish we could be. Tyler does not regret things. He instead acts out everything we fantasise about, possessing the will to kick back in the face of the system.
After four initial brief appearances, and a fifth in the hotel welcome video, Pitt’s character enters Fight Club. From early on the idea that Tyler is a personality of the Narrator is strongly hinted. After his condo explodes, Norton is shown ringing him from a payphone. He doesn’t get through and goes to walk away before Tyler calls back. The camera then zooms in on the screen stating: “No incoming calls accepted”. He couldn’t have rang him!
Even as the pair fight, it’s pointed out that the Narrator could have self-inflicted himself with punches. That violence, and the club borne out of it, is about feeling something. Fight Club depicts how society as we know it has become so full of apathy that even pain, and the infliction of it, is a release from the humdrum monotony of the modern commercialist existence.
As the followers of the Fight Club sessions start to form an army for Tyler and the Narrator to command, the image of soap becomes more prevalent. It’s a cleansing agent – one of which Tyler Durden is a salesman, selling the method of removing stains one wishes. However, it also through some mind-blowing initiative can be turned into explosives: “With enough soap, you could blow up the whole world.”
Tyler’s plan is to destroy a number of credit facilities and banks. The goal is to wipe away the shackles of debt, and cleanse the human condition – separating people from the burdens of life. The Narrator is horrified when he comes to the realisation that this in fact his plan through the manifestation of Tyler.
As the Narrator realises that he and Tyler are the same, trying to kill the latter would seem impossible. Yet, shooting himself in the cheek triggers the switch in the mind to make him vanish. Yet, it’s too late. All Maria and the Narrator can do is watch as Tyler’s plan comes to fruition and buildings collapse with explosions.
20 years on, subjects and ideas within Fight Club are still relevant. In fact, they are even more so thanks to the rise of reality television and targeted advertising via social media. However, there is one final thing to take from Fight Club. In those closing scenes of the movie a set of male genitalia flash on the screen. This, of course, is a reference to earlier within the film where we see that Tyler when he worked as a projectionist would splice obscene material into family films.
Ending with the exact same prank, the audience is led to think – perhaps Tyler Durden is still out there and ready to revolt against the system.