by ROBERT ZIMMER, JR.
"What do you do if you're a guy with a pointless job working for assholes, striving towards a future without much meaning, and you're high on consumer products designed to deaden the pain of being a capitalist slave?
You get some friends together and beat the hell out of each other, that's what.
This in a nutshell is Fight Club. It's an in-your-face, violent, stylish, scorched-earth exposé into the dark side of American material prosperity. It's based on Chuck Palahniuk's acclaimed novel, with a screenplay adapted by first-timer Jim Uhls, and directed by noted visualist David Fincher (of Seven and The Game notoriety). Fincher, who got his start in music videos, is not known for the emotional warmth of his work. Fight Club is no exception. But the irony is that the creative team, led by Fincher, finds a tremendous amount of emotional depth in this speed-addled, apocalyptic nightmare.
The story is told from the point of view of an old-fashioned-style movie narrator. This shuffling, milquetoast Gen-Xer is played with palpable soul-weariness by Edward Norton. You know lots of people like the character. He may even be like you. He's toiling in an empty middle management position. He never intended to sell out, or be a wimp. It just kind of crept up on him.
"We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we'll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won't. And we're just learning that, so don't fuck with us." (Delicious irony that Brad Pitt delivers this line.)
The narrator complains to a doctor that he can't sleep. Presumably, though, his malaise runs deeper than that -- his life consists of flying around the country on behalf of a major car company, to investigate accidents in which the car's equipment has catastrophically failed. He gets to determine whether it will be more "cost-effective" to recall the particular model, or settle the inevitable lawsuit out of court. The grotesque icing on the corporate cake is that there's even a handy-dandy little formula he employs to calculate this equation.
"My boss tells Microsoft how he chose a particular shade of pale cornflower blue for an icon."
The moral calculus is a bit more ugly and complex. Norton's narrator defines his identity by buying IKEA furniture and other trendy Gen-X products the ad biz tells us we need to be complete. (One wonders whether IKEA is gambling on the "there's no such thing as bad publicity" maxim here.) His search for meaning strays into an obsession with self-help groups, suggested by the same doctor, who feels Norton doesn't know the real meaning of suffering: There's the leukemia rap group, brain parasite support group, and even testicular cancer survivors. Norton becomes addicted to the live-wire intimacy and emotion in these places. There's a genuineness to them that he finds absent in daily life. (In one particularly ghoulish scene, a terminal cancer patient stands before her group and begs for sex before she dies.)
It's at the testicular cancer survivor group that he meets the Fat Bastard-esque Bob, played by Meat Loaf. He also encounters pseudo-gothic nihilist Marla, played by Helena Bonham Carter, who is another "faker" that goes to the same groups he does.
"Self-improvement is masturbation."
During the weekdays, Norton logs many hours on generic, interchangeable business trips (where the narrator comments insightfully that everything in that world is single-serving: hotel shampoo, airline food, friendships with the person next to you on the plane). On one fateful flight, he encounters the inimitable Tyler Durden, played by a swaggering, electric Brad Pitt. Tyler dresses like some sort of raw '90s Lizard King anarchist -- and it turns out he's exactly that. More importantly, he's everything our narrator isn't: charismatic, cocky, rebellious, visionary, and fearless. Tyler and our narrator exchange phone numbers, and nobody's life is the same again.
That night, when Norton arrives home at his yuppie high-rise, he discovers a bomb has blown his 15th-floor apartment literally right out into the street. Either because there's nobody he's close to, or because he found Tyler so mesmerizing, Norton calls up Tyler and meets him at a bar. They get wasted, and much talk about millennial capitalist angst ensues. After closing time, in the back parking lot, Fight Club has its humble beginnings -- Tyler goads the narrator into a good-old fashioned mano-a-mano brawl.
"I want you to hit me as hard as you can."
In short order, the narrator has moved into Tyler's huge abandoned house, and entered into a bizarre love triangle of sorts with him and Marla. She, unfortunately, seems a bit of an undeveloped cartoon slut, trapped in a world where women are ancillary objects. One scene, in fact, has the narrator in the bathroom as Tyler soaks in the tub. Narrator: "I can't get married. I'm a 30 year-old boy." Tyler: "Then maybe another woman isn't what we really need." Homoerotic smirk-smirk. Fight Club isn't a sexist film, per se. It's just a film about the unique ways -- not always flattering -- that males react to a numbing of the spirit.
One repressed, frustrated, undead consumer-drone at a time, Fight Club expands (The teasing "First rule of Fight Club is: you don't talk about Fight Club" is tantamount to telling teenagers not to look up the word "fuck" on Internet search engines). In pounding each other to a bloody pulp, the disenfranchised members feel more alive than they can ever remember.
Soon, Fight Club evolves into a national (albeit underground) obsession. People with black eyes, stitches, limps, and scars pop up all over America, silently acknowledging one another in office hallways, restaurants, on the streets. And then, Tyler turns the group energy into something more than an outlet -- it turns aggressively subversive. Tyler marshals an army, which although violent, has its tongue planted firmly in cheek. He and his minions seek to undermine the fabric of corporate America, starting with innocuous pranks. But soon Tyler's goals include a plan to destroy major credit card companies.
"Every planet will take on the corporate identity of whoever rapes it first. Budweiser World. Planet Denny's. The Phillip Morris Galaxy."
It's near Tyler's supposedly greatest anarchist moment, the demolition of several large office buildings, that the Sixth Sense-ish plot twist comes. It shouldn't be that big of a shock, but because of what it represents psychologically, it's quite unsettling. Perhaps Chuck Palahniuk's intention was for all of us to ask: What's really inside me? Do I even know myself? Am I even alive? And if I am, what am I doing with my life, or is it being lived for me?
The last two questions are posed with adrenaline-soaked clarity, in a memorable scene where Tyler drags an Asian convenience store clerk out behind the store, ostensibly to shoot him. Instead, he badgers the poor clerk into distilling things: that he never wanted this job; in fact, he's just making time as a clerk, and he was at one point in school -- he had a passion to become a veterinarian. Tyler opts not to shoot him and leaves him instead with the message: You're the living dead now. Go back to school and make your life mean something, or Ill kick you into the grave for real.
Fight Club is the gun to the head of consumerist America. The pistol's cocked. Say what you will about the explicit nature of the fight scenes, or director Fincher's tendency to trip up his storytelling with his fixation on stylism -- he wants us to stop reading the J. Crew catalogue, turn off "Must See TV," and ask what the hell our lives really mean.
Tyler lets the convenience store clerk go, warning him to refocus
his life or else. When Fight Club lets you go and tomorrow comes, what will you change?
ROBERT ZIMMER, Jr., IS A FILM AND TELEVISION WRITER LIVING IN LOS ANGELES. WHEN HE KICKBOXES, HE SOMETIMES IMAGINES THE FACES OF BOSSES PRESENT AND PAST AS TARGETS.
Send your comments to Coffee Shop Times pop culture critic Robert Zimmer, Jr.
Copyright © 2001 The Coffee Shop Times