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Review by Christopher Perrin
Note To Readers: This review contains a frank investigation of a perverse film, and necessarily must describe some of the perverse ideas of the film. Given the lasting import and influence of the film, the editor commends it to readers who are old enough to have seen the film. Younger readers who have not seen the film will not likely benefit from proceeding.
Fight Club was a film too religious for secular critics to interpret rightly, and too ascetic for many Christian critics to unpack. While the generation of men who saw the film in a theater has, over the years, come to view it as passé, I’ll count myself as one of scores who said, as the credits rolled, “I have never seen anything like that before.” Before the pink soap became a calling card of disaffection, emblazoned on posters sold at every college bazaar to dress the iconostasis of dorm room walls (and, later on, eight dollar t-shirts sold at Target), Fight Club was an overwhelming experience at the movies which played upon ineffable fears and desires.
In the years following the film’s release, the Fight Club dialectic functioned as an ersatz masters program in philosophy (much like, in the mid-90s, everyone who saw Pulp Fiction twice with their eyes open spoke like they’d been to film school). The film was endlessly referenced and often appealed to for in-class presentations and essays on philosophy or film or philosophy in film. The film venerated anger and hate, misanthropy and misogyny, and it did so in a cultural environment increasingly bent on forging good feelings and happy thoughts with prescription pharmaceuticals if they could not be acquired naturally. Unlike The Talented Mr. Ripley, released the same year, Fight Club was happy in its self-loathing. Unlike American Beauty, also released the same year, the stupidity and vanity of life was not accepted in the end. Unlike Being John Malkovich (it was quite the year for film), the moroseness of the film did not terminate in a trap, but rather, in glory. While the recognizable end of a millennium had only happened once before 1999, I think it safe to say now the event has a habit of drawing out our cynicism and pessimism far more than our hope.
What still makes David Fincher’s Fight Club different from the softly nihilistic works of Christopher Nolan, not to mention the aimless irony of anything “alternative” in the 90s, is that Fincher’s work is truly anti-commercialistic and austerely anti-materialist. What passed for anti-commercialism two decades ago (and right up to today) is really micro-commercialism and a desire for bespoke goods of a higher quality. A materialism centered on boutique goods, as opposed to “Save money, live better,” is materialism nonetheless. Fight Club, on the other hand, is critical of corporate gods like Starbucks, but also of the desire to buy coffee made by “the honest, simple, hard-working, indigenous people of… wherever,” as Ed Norton’s narrator puts it. The anti-materialist bent of the film was married to a religious program and the spiritual yearnings of the flesh, which is perhaps a good place to begin addressing the film in particular.
The nameless narrator (whom I will simply refer to as Edward Norton) has a job fleecing the public for automotive corporations. He performs amoralistic calculations which determine whether a recall of faulty, deadly vehicles will be profitable for the companies which manufacture them. His conscience is dulled by this work to such an extent that he cannot sleep and he wants to die, though something within his soul recognizes that he is not living as he ought. He wants rest and claims he suffers without it, asking a doctor to prescribe a drug that will knock him out. Norton wants to dress a psychic problem through physical means. The doctor he sees recognizes the true nature of his suffering and advises that he go talk to men who have testicular cancer, perhaps suspecting this will make Norton grateful for his life and awaken some long-slumbering ability to empathize. When Norton goes to the testicular cancer support group, he encounters men embroiled in physical and emotional tragedy, and yet, nothing is awakened in him. He passes himself off as a fellow sufferer to gain their sympathy while offering nothing in return. He is vampiric, and devouring the blood of others’ genuine loss induces a comatose satisfaction which gently lays him in the arms of Hypnos.
The fly in the ointment is Marla (whose name is a contraction of Marlene, itself a contraction of Mary and Magdalene), whose similar desire for blood puts her in the same support groups whom Norton had previously been feeding upon. She reminds Norton of his perversity, which he had previously covered over in a deluge of false tears and feigned lacrimosa. Sleepless again, Norton encounters Tyler Durden, a purveyor of soap whom Norton comes to depend on after his apartment burns down. Durden senses Norton’s need for emotional release but offers him something more visceral. “I want you to hit me as hard as you can,” Durden tells Norton after the two spend an evening drinking. A fight breaks out, though neither character is angry. In the afterglow, the two sit beside one another smoking and chatting quietly, amicably.
Durden lives in a ramshackle house loaded with books and inundated with water. The two take to fighting regularly, and like miracle-working hermits in the desert, they soon attract a following.
Durden becomes the abbot of a nihilistic monastery and Norton is his greatest disciple. Durden’s rule is more succinct than Benedict’s, and his theology is variously Edwardsian (“You have to consider the fact that God does not like you…”), Nietzschean (“Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?”), pseudo-Puritanical (“First you've gotta know - not fear, know - that someday you're gonna die”), although Durden’s most compelling doctrines are apophatic. “You are 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… khakis.” He has not traded capitalism for environmentalism. He has not traded Wal-Mart for “Buy local.” His disciples crave nothingness. Once catechized, Norton remarks, “I felt like putting a bullet between the eyes of every panda that wouldn't screw to save its species. I wanted to open the dump valves on oil tankers and smother all those French beaches I'd never see. I wanted to breathe smoke.” After spending months in cancer support groups and victim support groups, Durden and Norton fund a violence support group. Not a group of people who support victims of violence, but a group which simply supports violence. Without the hope of a merciful god who might reward a life of renunciation, the anti-materialist bent of the monks is transformed into a simple lust for violence. Physical things cannot be transcended, so they must be destroyed.
Weeks pass and the Fight Club evolves. Novices come to Durden and wait in silence for days at the entrance to his church. When their austerity grants them admittance, they wear only black. They garden. Like anchorite monks, they reject the city; unlike anchorites, they attempt to destroy the city. They eat little. Like prophets or stylites, their work is largely performance art. They burn smiling faces into the side of apartment complexes. They demagnetize videos at Blockbuster. Unlike prophets or stylites, their goal is not to reveal the tenuous nature of society but to bring about the collapse of society. Like monks who build their own coffins, entrance into Project Mayhem is attended by the requirement of five hundred dollars for “personal burial” expenses. As a cult of death, members of Fight Club gain a name in dying, not in being baptized into new life. At the same time, their own practice viciously borrows from the Christian notion that our true person is hidden in life but revealed when we shuffle off this mortal coil into the immortal life of Jesus.
The ascetic quality of Fight Club and Project Mayhem raises the question of celibacy, which is, in our time, the most immediate and noteworthy aspect of the monastic life. And yet, apparently, the sexual proclivities of Abbot Tyler’s followers are never discussed. Or are they?
I bring up this issue because it is central to the film and central to our age, when homosexuality and theosis have nearly been conflated. While the interpretation of the film I intend to offer is decidedly off-color, I suspect that, as Christians begin to question how exactly the role of homosexuality in American culture has been deified in recent generations, the seductive power of films like Fight Club stands to be reviewed.
The whole of the Fight Club narrative is bookended by scenes at the highest reaches of a skyscraper, the opening wherein Tyler has a gun placed in Norton’s mouth and the latter wherein the gun goes off. While the film is rife with unexplained images, the strangest by far occurs when the gun goes off, a bloody hole explodes out the back of Norton’s head, and yet, he does not die.
The club itself, in which men beat one another nearly to death for a thrill, brings together physical release and brutal violence. Rejected by women (or else rejecting women), men turn to one another for sensual gratification of a kind more immediate and more overwhelming than sex. While the denouement of a sexual experience is sometimes referred to as “a little death,” perhaps betokening the complete physical surrender of the body to something beyond (the mysterious union of two persons), the poetry of that death is spurned by the club for something far more tangible, more immediate, more materialistic.
Nowhere in the Fight Club charter is it stated that only men are allowed entrance, and yet, the point of attending Fight Club is equal parts destroying and being destroyed. While a typical man might be capable of beating a typical woman to a pulp, the reverse is not true. None of the complaints Durden makes about modern society are particular to men. “We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact.” Nothing gender specific in that tirade, you’ll notice. Women have received similar promises from television advertisements, and yet there are no women in the club. The Fight Club is not homosexual by definition, although not by accident either. “We're a generation of men raised by women. I'm wondering if another woman is really the answer we need,” says Tyler, while bathing beside Norton. Is it too blue, at this point, to observe that the film’s most lasting icon is a bar of pink soap?
While rejecting the poetic in the first act, the film descends into obvious metaphor in the end. Norton’s vampiric heroism returns in the closing moments, when an erect phallus is briefly superimposed on the image of a city going down in flames. The still foreground of the shot against the falling skyline in the background briefly creates an illusion of ascension, and thus the violence is not only sexualized but deified at the same time. The world must be destroyed one sexual encounter at a time.
Norton’s failure to find gratitude when given the opportunity at the cancer club informs his confusion over the ascetic life. The desire to transcend the things of this life is only human, but it is fundamentally human because it is the greatest act of thanksgiving. The film draws viewers in through a forthright and honest rejection of corporatism, capitalism, commercialism, products, commodities, youth and vain beauty. All these rejections are given the trappings of religiosity through image and innuendo, logos and pathos. And yet Norton’s fasting is the fast of demons, as the old adage goes, because demons do not eat, but neither do they pray. They do not pray because they do not give thanks.
In St. Francis of Assisi, Chesterton writes:
It is the highest and holiest of the paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be for ever paying it. He will be for ever giving back what he cannot give back, and cannot be expected to give back. He will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks. Men who think they are too modern to understand this are in fact too mean to understand it; we are most of us too mean to practice it. We are not generous enough to be ascetics; one might almost say not genial enough to be ascetics. A man must have magnanimity of surrender, of which he commonly only catches a glimpse in first love, like a glimpse of our lost Eden.
Norton rejects all that cannot be kept forever, though not in hope of receiving what cannot be lost. Asceticism is the drama of hope, though, and while the film compels viewers with the sharp edge of true dissatisfaction, it is a dissatisfaction endlessly eating itself into a smaller and smaller remainder. A “successful” telos of Fight Club is inconceivable…. eventually you run out of people to beat up, or else they run out of you.