People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden.
Okay, that’s not true. But people are always surprised when I tell them that Fight Club is my favorite movie. Perhaps it’s because I’m female. And a feminist. Actually, it’s probably because I’m a bit of a pacifist. Those that are baffled by the seeming incongruity of my personality and my devotion to this movie misunderstand a basic fact: Fight Club isn’t about fighting. Not in the superficial, literal sense anyway. At least not entirely. It’s like a Russian doll. Or an onion. Or a Tootsie Pop. It is what it appears to be at first glance, but it’s also so much more.
Fight Club is based on the 1997 Chuck Palahniuk book of the same name. The film version follows the book fairly faithfully until the ending. Viewers are led through the film by the Narrator (Edward Norton), a character that most of us in Fight Club fandom refer to as Jack. Jack’s life is an example of what 90s society set forth as being squarely on the road to success for a white, male, middle-class, Generation Xer. Jack wears a button-up shirt and tie to a job he doesn’t really like at a big company he basically disdains. His condo is filled with Ikea furniture and all the trappings of 30-something financial stability – matching dishes, an exercise bike, a trendy yin-yang coffee table.
Jack’s also an insomniac who attends support groups for a variety of medical conditions he doesn’t really have. He finds the sympathetic communities comforting and the nightly exercise of anonymously crying his face off to be cathartic. It helps him sleep. At least until Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) crashes the party. She’s a faker, too. A tourist who’s in it for free coffee and entertainment value. He hates her. Yet he’s totally into her. They have a complicated relationship.
On a business trip, Jack meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and his life dramatically changes. Tyler is free in all the ways Jack is not. He owns his own company, sets his own schedule, wears fantastic clothes and lives the carpe diemiest life of anyone Jack has ever met. Before long, the two are besties. Jack moves into the ramshackle health code violation that is Tyler’s house and the two start Fight Club – an underground, bare-knuckle fighting group that meets in the concrete basement of a dive bar. Despite a mandate of secrecy (“The first rule of Fight Club…”), the idea becomes insanely popular with young men like Jack and Tyler and fight clubs spread throughout the city and beyond. Tyler Durden becomes the charismatic leader of an assemblage that follows his philosophy of living in the moment and waking up the world. The film follows Tyler and Jack’s complex relationship through the evolution of Fight Club from a hobby to a movement.
When the film came out in 1999 it received wildly varying critical reviews. Rolling Stone loved it. Four stars and gushing praise for all involved: “Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and director David Fincher hit career peaks in a groundbreaking film.” “Norton catches lightning in a revelatory performance that keeps delivering miracles of character nuance. He may be the best actor of his generation.” “Fight Club pulls you in, challenges your prejudices, rocks your world and leaves you laughing in the face of an abyss. It’s… an uncompromising American classic.”
Roger Ebert, on the other hand, was not a fan. Awarding it a mere 2 out of 4 stars, he said Fight Club was “frankly and cheerfully fascist.” While he liked the first act well enough, he felt that in act two, “the movie stops being smart and savage and witty, and turns to some of the most brutal, unremitting, nonstop violence ever filmed.” In whole, he believed that Fight Club is “a thrill ride masquerading as philosophy – the kind of ride where some people puke and others can’t wait to get on again.”
Perhaps it was an age thing. A brilliant reviewer, Roger Ebert was from my dad’s generation. He was nearly 60 when the film came out. The Rolling Stone reviewer, whatever his age, was writing for Gen Xers – folks in their 30s and younger at the time. Me. Unlike Ebert’s generation, people who grew up without televisions in every house flickering non-stop images of everything from wars on the news to Roadrunner cartoons, we’d been raised on with straight-up horrorshow ultraviolence. What did that study say? Kids see 100,000 televised acts of violence before finishing elementary school? For better or worse, R movies didn’t strike us as hard as they did him.
For me, the violence was incidental. Where Ebert found the movie fascist, I found it downright Buddhist. The fighting was just an exercise to help bring the members into mindfulness, into an awareness of their existence in the present moment. Like how one might shake a person to get them to wake up. “This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time” isn’t a call to Nihilism, it’s a statement of fact meant to inspire. Fight Club is about getting on with living while you’ve got the opportunity. It’s about letting go of the things that don’t matter – your couch, your matching dishes, your unfulfilling job, your khakis. It’s about destroying our dependence on consumerism and competition and comfort and focusing on the things that really make us alive. It’s about acknowledging that we are all individual parts of a greater whole.
I’m not in the habit of watching movies multiple times, but I’ve seen Fight Club more times than I can remember. I’ve shown it to my teenage kids. I love Fight Club. The writing is smart and incisive, the dialog quick and funny. The acting is, as Rolling Stone noted, top-notch. It’s modern and action-packed, twisty and subtle… it’s got layers. Russian dolls. Tootsie Pops. It’s also a good reminder to live my life – to actually live my life, not merely exist inside the confines of what society expects of me.
Plus, Brad Pitt is really hot.