Monday, March 14, 2011

Fight Club (1999)

by Laura “We guard you while you sleep; do not fuck with us” Roberts

Fight Club is the ultimate revenge flick, the most indulgent of all the hateful and spiteful impulses mankind has to offer (I say "mankind" quite deliberately, as you will predominantly see men behaving badly in this particular film, although the main female character is only marginally better, when push comes to shove). When we say "Let's Fight Everybody!", this film takes the commandment quite literally. At one point Tyler Durden asks our unnamed hero, "Who would you fight, if you could fight anybody?" He is looking for a specific answer ("Gandhi" or "Abraham Lincoln"), but he's also kind of hoping Jack will say "Everybody," because that's what he's really after. The impulse to destroy, for destruction's sake.

And yet who is the real enemy here? Your shitty boss and his grande latté enema? The woman you'd love to fuck, if only you weren't so afraid of her? The nefarious "Man" and his societal rules and regulations that keep you in check?

Yes, those are all great targets for revenge, but ultimately Fight Club is a tale of self-mutilation and vengeance upon oneself. Whether it's for having believed the lies you've been fed, or because you simply loathe yourself for being totally spineless in the face of vast human rights abuses, the outcome is the same: we are a nation at war with ourselves.

Feelings of inadequacy in the film are never quite judged outright. The unnamed main character (who is frequently called "Jack," thanks to his stumbling upon a series of articles where "Jack's raging bile duct" is personified) is full of self-loathing, thanks to his job as an auditor for a major automobile corporation. His responsibility is to work the equation that decides whether or not a recall will be instituted, where human lives are perpetually secondary to the company's bottom line. No wonder he can't sleep at night, feels he deserves to die, and even goes so far as to **SPOILER!** invent an alter-ego who is better than this in every possible way, from simply being smarter to performing substantially better in bed.

Tyler Durden is a figment of Jack's overactive imagination--a revenge fantasy come to life. He gets back at the rich by selling their own asses back to them, in the form of upscale soaps made from human fat stolen from a nearby liposuction facility. He takes revenge upon his boss by blackmailing the company to fund an anarchistic wing of his boxing club. He destroys a prettier, more confident version of himself by beating him to a bloody pulp one night at Fight Club. And Marla, the scab that might heal if only he could quit tonguing it? Well, he takes his revenge on her in any number of sadomasochistic ways, both within and outside the confines of the bedroom.

Vengeance is not always swift and terrible, in Fight Club. While the film's name implies the several bloody fistfights that occur throughout, many times the plot involves rather clever methods of exacting a slow and painful form of justice upon those who have wronged our narrator. Soap sales are booming, but this irony isn't enough for Tyler Durden, who feels the debt record must be set back to zero in order to truly bring humanity to a place of enlightenment and equality. How will this be accomplished? Naturally, through violence: bomb the fuck out of the credit card companies until their hard copies are destroyed and chaos is achieved. Anarchy rules, those in power are toppled, and who is left to grab the reins?

Not poor ineffectual Jack, that's for sure.

When your imaginary friend begins to take over your life, you've got a real problem. Sure, he may be everything you're not, but he's also psychotic whereas you are, for the most part, a dutiful, law-abiding citizen who believes in truth, justice, and the American way. Hence the war against oneself. Literally, here. Gunshot to the face ought to clear that up, though. (Or should it?)

To me, the revelations of Fight Club are most interesting when viewed as a part of a commentary on Zen Buddhism. Sticking feathers up your butt may not make you a chicken, but when your out-of-control ego is suddenly checked by the wisdom attained by climbing up your teacher's ladder and kicking it down, you may be onto something. Jack achieves a form of enlightenment by listening to the teachings of Tyler Durden, someone he views as better than himself, and whom he has fashioned to speak for him in times of crisis. Ultimately, however, Jack recognizes that Tyler, despite having some great ideas and charismatic leadership potential, is a sociopath. He cuts him off at the pass, preventing further damage while also being responsible for a variety of mischief and mayhem. If he ever gets out of jail, perhaps he'll have a shot at wooing Marla--the motivating factor behind all of his antics. If not, perhaps he'll evade the electric chair thanks to the hundreds of fools he's indoctrinated with his space-monkey philosophy.

A house divided against itself cannot stand, a wise person once said. Equally, a human being so conflicted cannot realize his true potential. Fight Club is a brilliant film about some very tormented souls, sad products of the Western world and its desires to have more at any cost. Ultimately, I believe it has a great deal to say about the values we hold dear, summarized best in the line "She's polishing brass on the Titanic; it's all going down." I find myself quoting this film more and more as the days and years go by, watching America flush itself down the toilet bit by bit. Can I say I'm surprised? Hardly. We are a nation of people who believe that low prices and high profits bring happiness, the types who think that "completion" is the goal, that we have that sofa thing covered, come what may.

"I say never be complete, never be content. Evolve, and let the chips fall where they may," Tyler says in his most compelling line of the film. In Tyler we trust, if only for a moment.