Sunday, May 21, 2017
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
I know that this 1999 film directed by David Fincher, based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel, can alienate the female population with its emphasis on the male role in modern American society, and the depiction of brutality associated with boxing. But, although gory, there are actually not that many fight sequences in the movie. The editing and cinematography provide a sense of motion to a film that is actually quite wordy. The story deals with existential issues, and the theme explored in recent posts on this blog (A Face in the Crowd, Bigger Than Life) about how the plight of the individual can clash with the needs of society.
The story begins at the end and then plays catch-up. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) has secured the Narrator (Edward Norton), who I will call Jack (he uses the Reader’s Digest health title series to describe himself, such as “I am Jack’s Colon”), to a chair at the top of a city building, and threatens Jack with a gun, as an earth-shattering event is about to take place. The opening titles display over a depiction of the neurological impulses traveling between Jack’s brain and his mouth, where Tyler has placed the gun. Jack’s mental processes are thus emphasized from the start. He says that he has had insomnia for six months, which makes him feel like he has become “a copy of a copy” of himself, and, like subsequent paper reproductions, his self-image has become faded, his identity not as distinguishable. Added to the lack of sleep is the fact that he travels for his job, and wakes up in strange places, in various time zones. All of these factors contribute to mental disorientation, and the need to psychologically compensate to function. Jack poses the question that if you wake up at different times in different places, can you wake up as a different person? The movie is laying down the foundation for psychological fracturing, and the emergence of a dissociative personality disorder. Jack starts to address himself in the second person, and this substitution of “you” for “I” shows how he is beginning to construct another part of himself as a separate entity. The style of the film reflects the free association of the mind, as Jack then provides the audience, not exactly sequentially, with the back story.
Jack works for a prominent automobile company to determine if recalls are worth initiating following catastrophic accidents. If a recall will cost the company too much money, it will not be initiated. Palahniuk said that one of the themes he wanted to explore was how people have reduced their degree of connecting with others on a personal level. In the movie, the insensitive comments by accident investigators talking about how a victim’s body fat melted onto the polyester of the car seat, producing “modern art,” mirrors the lack of emotional involvement in a consumer-driven world. In a commercialized society, the things one owns are more important than other people, or even personal safety. So, Jack’s condo becomes his “life,” and Fincher provides us with a view of Jack’s home as if displayed in an IKEA catalog. He wonders “What kind of dining set defines me as a person.” In existential terms, this is the state where an individual denies freedom by identifying with external definitions. That is, I am not a multi-faceted person, but I’m an accountant, or, even worse, in this case, a grouping of furniture. Jack echoes the loneliness of modern existence by describing the “single-serving” meals and condiments on plane rides. The film often provides lists to detail its point. Jack talks of: single serving sugar; single serving cream; single pat of butter; “the microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit.” The people he meets on the flights are “single-serving” friends, who one meets for a short time and then disposes of them, like the food portions.
Because of his disconnected, sleep-deprived state, Jack asks his doctor for sleeping pills. When the physician doesn’t want to encourage an addiction, Jack says he is in pain. The doctor says if Jack wants to see real pain, he should go to a testicular cancer support group. It is here that the movie offers up a complexity of symbolism. Jack goes to the group and meets Robert “Bob” Paulsen (the rock star Meat Loaf). Bob was a body builder, and took steroids. Because of his subsequent testicular cancer, he has gone from an image of extreme masculinity to one of an emasculated male. His transformation is even more pronounced, because he has developed huge breasts due to treatment. So, he has in a sense been feminized. On one level, Bob can represent how modern American society has castrated, and transgendered males into women. Later Tyler echoes this argument when he says, “We’re a generation of men raised by women,” and he wonders if the seeking of another woman as a partner is “really the answer we need.” Tyler sees his generation’s boys as being without male role models, with fathers who have either physically or spiritually abandoned them. But, in this group, men, by getting in touch with their feminine side, are able to show genuine emotion, hugging other men, and crying. As Jack says, in this group, pretending to be inflicted with testicular cancer, there is no pressure for him to pursue the “pleasure principle.” Here, Jack “loses all hope,” and he doesn’t have to live up to any expectations for the future, which gives him a sense of freedom. In a way, by hugging Bob, his face mashed up against the man’s large breasts, he is able to draw emotional nourishment, and that night, he says that babies don’t sleep as well as he did.
But, instead of using the one experience to change his life, Jack, instead, goes to numerous groups, pretending to have each one’s afflictions, and admits that he is an addict, unable to be emotionally independent without his fixes. In these groups, Jack feels that during the day, when he is actually disease free, his inauthentic life is a sort of death, but when in the groups, identifying with the dying, he feels resurrected, in touch with real emotions and other people, stripped of any need to put on social façades. In one group, the leader teaches meditation techniques, where one envisions entering a cave, escaping from the reality of the pain and suffering of the illness. Jack sees his “power animal” in the cave as being a penguin who tells him to “slide.” This utterance does not make sense at this point, but later, we see that it is the Tyler part of Jack saying to let all things that truly don’t matter slide away, including expectations and superficial material needs. For Tyler, this meditation is harmful, because escape from disease and dying is being in denial of the human condition.
Jack starts to see a woman at, of all things, the testicular support group, so he knows she, like himself, is a fake. Her name is Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). She is brash and trashy, and her presence undermines him because she reminds him of his fakery, which doesn’t allow him to immerse himself in the genuine suffering going on. Jack is unable to sleep again. She is a fitting woman for Jack and Tyler because she is trying to reach, as Tyler says, “rock bottom.” Jack says “Marla’s philosophy of life is that she might die at any moment. The tragedy, she said, was that she didn’t.” She doesn’t own much, taking other people’s clothes out of laundromat dryers. She stays at a dump of a hotel. She walks out into streets as if she doesn’t care if she is hit by a car. But, they share a bond by going to these groups. As Jack says, “When people think you’re dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just …” and Marla finishes his thought by saying, “instead of just waiting for their turn to speak.” Even though Jack doesn’t want to share time with Marla, and considers her an intrusion, they find a connection, actual communication with these dying people. It is quite comic the way they decide to divide up the groups, the different kinds of cancers and blood parasites, as if they are setting up a car pool.
With his sleep cycle again interrupted, Jack isn’t even sure when he is awake or sleeping as he travels from one city to another for his job. He has fantasies that his meaningless non-group existence will end in a mid-air plane crash. At this low point, significantly, Tyler pops up in the seat next to Jack on an airplane. Tyler sees through pretense, not allowing for the denial of the harshness of life. He points out that the placards showing what to do in case of a plane emergency show illustrations of placated, anesthetized people who are high on the oxygen from the masks. He doesn’t even allow Jack the complacency of his cleverness about “single-serving” friends, and questions his superficial conversation when asking Tyler’s occupation.
When Jack loses his luggage at the airport, it’s as if he is ridding himself of life’s psychological baggage. It is significant that he returns to find that his condo has had a gas leak explosion, and now he has shed himself of all his material ties to his object-dependent existence. It is interesting that Jack describes his condo building as a huge filing cabinet. This Kafka metaphor shows how people are reduced to identical pieces of paper, filed away in the drawer-like rooms. Tyler gave him his phone number and Jack calls him. Tyler says he can live at his place, which serves as a good example for the purging of commercial living. It is a dilapidated dump, in an almost abandoned area of the city, reflecting Jack’s alienation. Jack has to go through object withdrawal, but realizes after a month there, he no longer misses watching television.
As they have some beers, Jack is going through the pangs of transition from being a consumer to shedding materialism, Tyler tells him there is no need to be perfect, or complete. One should evolve by letting “the chips fall where they may.” It is then, outside, that Tyler tells Jack to hit him as hard as he can. Tyler says that he’s never been in a fight, just like Jack, and that they shouldn’t die without having sustained some scars. This is how their fight clubs are born. It doesn’t matter who wins a fight, it is the experience of feeling pain that makes you feel real. It’s sort of like that line from the Goo Goo Dolls’ song, “Yeah you bleed just to know you’re alive.” Jack says that the volume of everyday meaningless existence is turned down – he can’t even hear the words of his boss – because the intensity of fighting drowns out the hum-drum existence elsewhere. Tyler sets up rules as more and more people show up for the fights, which seems to contradict the first and second rules, which say you do not talk about fight club. Tyler annunciates their manifesto. This young male generation has “no purpose or place. No Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual one. Our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television that we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” This disillusionment with the fake advertisement for their lives is what fuels their revolt. Tyler preaches that the things one owns begin to own the purchaser. This worshiping of things is just another form of enslavement.
Tyler makes soap, which uses fat. He gets his fat from liposuction clinics. He and Jack break into these places to steal the disgusting, gooey substance. By making soap from “fat” women’s lard, he is making an anti-commercialism statement by selling women consumers their own affluent waste. It’s sort of his version of divine justice. (But, like other elements of the film, there is a bit of a misogynist feel here.) Conversely, the men who show up at fight club are like “cookie dough,” but eventually appear “carved out of wood.” They go from living off the fat of the land to being almost like a work of primitive art. Tyler shows his subversion of the American escapism into self-amusement by taking jobs at a local movie theater and inserting pornographic images into children’s films. As a waiter, he deposits bodily fluids into food at an upscale restaurant. He’s sort of a modern-day Jonathan Swift, reminding others of their baser natures so they can’t deny the lowliness of their true nature.
Tyler emphasizes that “It’s only after we lose everything that we’re free to do anything.” That liberation can only occur once we realize that we are dying moment by moment. Tyler won’t even let people take solace in the lives of their pets, because we see that one of his follower’s cars has a sticker which reads “Recycle Your Pets,” reminding us in a dark way that everything dies. The feeling that death is imminent frees one of any worry about consequences. Tyler has a gun and pulls a convenience store clerk named Raymond (Joon Kim) outside, forcing him to kneel down, and points the gun at him. He tells the man that he is going to die. He sees in his wallet that he went to school, and gets Raymond to admit he wanted to be a veterinarian. Tyler takes his driver’s license and says unless he starts working toward that goal, he knows where Raymond lives, and he will kill him. The gun is not actually loaded. After Raymond goes running off, Tyler says that tomorrow, Raymond’s breakfast will taste better than anything they have ever eaten, and he will be on his way to a heightened life, alert to the fact that death can strike him down at any time. Tyler does not see any purpose to turning to the promises of a future reward from a God who has abandoned them. He says we should not seek spiritual redemption or worry about damnation. Tyler at one point inflicts a chemical burn on Jack’s hand to make him realize life’s immediate painful presence. Tyler says that self-improvement is “masturbation.” He advocates “self-destruction,” by which he means breaking ourselves down to basic building blocks, stripping everything down to our essential selves. You don’t do “self-improvement” on a bad foundation. Another time, Tyler is driving a car and persuades Jack to let the wheel go, letting everything truly “slide.” Tyler asks the other men in the car what do they wish they could have done if they weren’t about to die. They know immediately: one wishes he could build a house; the other would have painted a self-portrait. If you don’t look for future fulfillment that may never come, then you must concentrate on the here and now. For Tyler, carpe diem is not enough – it should be carpe each moment.
This attitude, of course, can be destructive not only to the self and others who agree with it, but what happens when it is forced on others? That enforcement of the individual’s will onto the population at large occurs when Tyler turns the fight clubs into his personal war, which he calls “Project Mayhem.” He recruits an army of combatants that freely relinquish their freedom and individuality for what Tyler calls “the greater good.” But, as Jack says, their new motto is “In Tyler we trust,” the leader now becoming the replacement for God. They all submit to the chemical burn on the hand, and chant Bob’s name together in robotic unison after the police kill him following a mission. The real problem occurs when Tyler commands his men to set a building fire, destroy gentrified coffee shop, wreck cars, befoul public fountains, contaminate restaurant food, etc. After Bob’s death, Tyler’s attitude is that you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. In order for revolutions to succeed, however, the majority of the population has to be behind you; otherwise, it is just terrorism.
There are many clues along the way that indicate that Tyler is not a real person, but instead is a projection of that part of Jack’s personality that wants to revolt against the status quo. When he first sees Tyler on the plane, Jack notes they have the same type of briefcase. When he tells off his boss, Jack says, “Tyler’s words coming out of my mouth.” Another time he says, “Sometimes Tyler spoke for me.” When he extorts his boss out of money, office equipment, and most importantly, travel vouchers, he beats himself up, putting the blame on his superior. But, as he is hitting himself, he says that it reminded him of the first time he and Tyler fought. Tyler’s residence is on “Paper Street,” implying that his existence is akin to a phony business entity, established only “on paper.” There are many other hints. But, in a way, all of the men joining the fight clubs are living out different versions of themselves, being domesticated during the day, and battling as wild beasts in combat at night. Jack’s alter ego tries to prevent him from finding out about his imaginary friend. But, Marla is a problem, because she tries to make that human connection, reaching out to Jack during a “cry for help” suicide attempt. Jack thinks she becomes involved with Tyler, so he keeps dismissing her after sexual bouts that he thinks involve Tyler. His dissociative behavior is obvious to her, as she calls him “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Jackass,” (a nice play on the fake name “Jack”). She, therefore, is a threat to “Project Mayhem” in Tyler’s eyes, and tells Jack not to ever mention him to Marla.
Jack wakes up one day to find Tyler missing. His men are building bombs. He finds Tyler’s air ticket stubs, and travels to the places listed on them. He says it is like déjà vu, because, as Tyler, he has already been to the destinations. He says that going after Tyler was like “following an invisible man,” which is an accurate description because Tyler doesn’t really exist separately. Jack seems to be on the verge of self-understanding when he says, “Is Tyler my bad dream? Or am I Tyler’s?” He finally gets someone to break the rule that one does not talk about Project Mayhem. The man calls Jack Mr. Durden. Jack calls Marla who also calls him Tyler. (Why no one said anything to him about how he was talking to himself before, or why he didn’t hear anybody call him Tyler, seems impossible. But, maybe Jack just shifted between personalities before, and now he was ready for the truth). Tyler appears in Jack’s hotel room, and admits to all of it being a self-delusion, and that Jack blew up his own condo to free himself from his enslavement to things. He tells Jack that he wanted to change his life, and Tyler allowed him to be free in all the ways that Jack was not.
Jack comes to realize that bombs have been placed in buildings at night, when they are empty, all over the world, concentrating on places that house debt records. The idea is to destroy all evidence of indebtedness, lifting the crushing burden of consumerism (does this story sound familiar, Mr. Robot fans?) After Tyler beats Jack in a fight (on security cameras we see Jack just hitting himself), we return to the first scene, where Tyler has Jack bound. But, Jack knows he can be in control now, mentally transfers the gun into his own hand, and shoots himself in the mouth. This trauma translates to Tyler’s head being blown apart. Men from Tyler’s army bring Marla to Jack, who dismisses them. The two hold hands, as buildings are leveled.
Are Jack and Tyler now integrated into one personality? Will the socially conscious Jack be able to temper the self-obsessed drives of that part of his self that is Tyler? Even more importantly, when is the freedom of the individual a threat to society, and vice versa?
The next film is To Have and Have Not.