When I first saw Fight Club (1999 dir. David Fincher), I had just returned from a workshop in Oregon entitled "Men: Born to Kill?" The program was a four-day workshop for about thirty men in which we learned to hold hands and "discharge." It was the first time since infancy I had been given a forum in which to touch other men and cry together with no discomfort or judgement. In the privacy of this idyllic setting, we discussed the ways in which we use women for touch and to hold us emotionally because we are too afraid to use other men for this purpose.
As a filmmaker and a man, I had been told Fight Club was one of those movies I would like. I tend not to enjoy violent films, but with the new energy from the workshop I thought I would give it a chance. I was not sure how I felt about the movie then and I'm not sure now, but I felt.
Directed by David Fincher, written for the screen by Jim Uhls, and based on a novel by Chuck Plahniuk, Fight Club was released to Americans recovering from the Columbine school shootings in the fall of 1999. From the beginning, the film examines consciousness itself. We hear a gun cock and watch the sound as an electrical impulse inside the psychoneurotic center of the protagonist's brain. "The electricity that's running through it is like photo-electrical stimuli . . . These are fear-based impulses. We're changing scale the whole time so we're starting at the size of a dendrite and we pull through the frontal lobe." Our narrator, Jack, is a product of American problems of meaning. America may promise freedom, especially to the white man, but Jack's life is anything but free. He lives in indentured servitude to his corporate copying office job and his IKEA catalogues. He is on a spiritual (1) train straight to nowhere. But when he sees a doctor for a diagnosis of his spiritual death, the doctor assures him, "No, you can't die from insomnia . . . You want to see pain?" mocks the doctor. "Swing by Meyer High on a Tuesday night and see the guys with testicular cancer. Now that's pain!"
The testicular cancer support group gives Jack the kind of emotional attention he needs. Here people "really listen" and he can cry and feel for the first time. The testicular cancer group inspires him to join support groups for lymphoma, tuberculosis, blood parasites, brain parasites, organic brain dementia, and ascending bowel cancer. He becomes a support group addict with a different group each day of the week-all for a condition he does not have. Accustomed to regarding people as packages, he meets a perfect "single-serving friend" who sits next to him on a business flight. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) is everything the narrator wishes he could be. Tyler is a walking, talking, cultural commentator. He is cynical, strong, and forthright. This chance encounter with Tyler Durden leads our narrator to his drastic change of "life-style." When the narrator's IKEA-furnished house burns down, he moves in with Tyler Durden. Together, they start Fight Club, a new kind of support group for men that encourages them to sock and punch and tear at each other in order to feel saved. The fights are primal, brutal, and bloody. This is an honorable group with its own codes and ethics. But Fight Club aggression spins out of control into Project Mayhem. When the narrator finally confronts Tyler about the project, he comes to the realization that he is Tyler Durden. The narrator confronts the inner psychological split by placing a gun in his own mouth. He shoots himself to kill off his alter-ego, but it is too late. Project Mayhem ends where it began, at "ground zero," with bombs exploding and corporate skyscrapers crumbling.
Cultural and Archetypal Myth
Fight Club comments profoundly on America's problems of meaning (e.g. indentured servitude to capitalism in a land of freedom, violence in a land of justice, consumer Darwinism in a land of community, meaning in a post-modern reality that understands all meaning as a relative cultural construct, etc.). In sociological terms, Jack, a white male, could represent the hierarchical leadership of the American patriarchy. "I was the warm little center that the life of this world crowded around." America seems to love him, but he feels hurt and betrayed by his culture and the dulled-down consumerist dreams he has inherited.
to Fincher, "We're designed to be hunters and we're in a society
of shopping. There's nothing to kill anymore, there's nothing to fight,
nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that societal emasculation
this everyman is created." (2) Where does Jack go to discuss
his problems? What community exists to support him emotionally and spiritually?
Jack's masculinity has been reduced to undifferentiated tears. But from these tears, he finds "strength." Despite the temporary relief he feels from his catharsis, Jack quickly returns to his initial dilemma:
If Jack is not allowed to express his creativity as a "movie god" or "rock star," he can create his own god in the theater of his mind that will grant him permission to feel in a more lasting way.
Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), a disciple of Sigmund Freud, believed that his mentor had neglected the soul and religion in his understanding of human psychology. For this reason, Jung left Freud and spent years of research in religious iconography and mythical stories. His findings suggest that archetypal stories exist cross-culturally and that each individual psyche has the potential for two opposing personalities: ego and shadow. Ego controls the psyche, but when ego is disrupted (through Tyler's cutting frames into the film) or weakened through sleep loss or an emotional void (in Jack's case), the shadow creeps in to take control. The ego is constructed around societal norms and the desire for behavior which "fits into society." However, Post-Modernity challenges these social norms as simply one narrative or structure which is no better than any other structured narrative. The destruction of Jack's ego also parallels the destruction of American hegemony.
Tyler Durden, Jack's alter-ego creation, forces Jack to create binary oppositions (love/fear, ego/shadow, etc.) which perhaps necessitate post-modern "queering" for any resolution.
It is this "balanced, complete energetic principle of the masculine" which Jack strives to be. Without Tyler, Jack is a spineless, volumeless, emotionless, placid, and flaccid half-man. Jack's creation of Tyler Durden allows him to reclaim his masculinity amidst a culture of post-feminist, cathartic, "self"-help groups.
Eugene Monick, a contemporary of Jung, wrote a recent book entitled Phallos: Sacred Image of the Masculine, in which he explains a concept of Phallos which Jung neglected in his research and writings. According to Monick, masculine identity in the American patriarchy is often taken for granted as dominant; therefore it is neglected. Monick suggests that in a post-feminist America, masculine identity may have become a larger enigma for men than feminine identity for women. He also explains that in his own practice of analysis more men are coming to therapy to correct a psychological situation in which they "feel something is missing." Men often find themselves in a quandary about their violent and sexual urges and tend either to act on them and feel guilty, or to suppress them and remain unfulfilled. Nothing has been written on the archetypal basis of masculinity since Erich Neumann's Origins and History of Consciousness in 1995. (5) Monick explains:
With his addiction to self-help groups, Jack attends a leukemia group and experiences a guided meditation. When he is told to meet his power animal in one meditation, he finds a penguin in a snowy cave who speaks like a child-a poignant image of Jack's lonely and docile masculinity. In an article entitled "What Men Really Want," Robert Bly captures this over-emphasized docility:
In a culture that's been robbed of its masculine principle, Jack finds himself only accepting his masculinity through tears and the estrogen-enriched breasts of another man who completes him.
Crying for Jack seems to be one way to address his masculinity and disappointment with a spiritless life. In contemporary America, it seems that an increasing number of men are turning to tears as a way of emoting. Bly discusses this catharsis-obsessed American males.
Monick suggests that the fierceness excluded from the masculine crying model comes with the re-integration of the shadow. Monick devotes the sixth chapter of his book to the shadow of phallus called chthonic phallus:
Though Freud and Jung saw the mother as the primary relationship for any child, Monick suggests that for a man, religion helps fill the void neglected by his father. "Psychoanalytic theory, whether Freudian or Jungian, gives singular primacy to the mother as the basis of life. This is an error." (10)
The argument could be made that Freud, Jung, and Monick all cater to perhaps outdated gender roles that have no place in a post-modern scholarship where all gender roles are merely conditioned identities to maintain social control. Judith Butler, among others, argues that to speak of gender in any way is to speak of mere conceptual binaries that have been mistakenly mapped onto the human body. Perhaps I am stuck in an outdated paradigm that does not take into account the plurality of roles a human can play for a child and the plurality of circumstances in which a child can be raised, but this writer still finds psychological gender theories interesting if not useful.
Monick claims an individuating spirit cannot become complete until it incorporates the shadowed Other-the darker side of masculinity.
Monick suggests that in the ideal nuclear family, the individuating spirit can grow under the guidance of a mother and a father. But like most American families, Jack's family was anything but ideal:
With households across the country either consisting of or dominated by women, young men seem to have trouble finding guidance on the integration of the darker sides of masculinity. Monick claims mothers cannot teach their sons about chthonic phallus.
With the lack of a male role-model, all that is left for the American boy without a father is the consumer "product." When there is no other solution, Jack turns to a "modern versatile domestic solution" to fill the void:
Jack wants out of his dead end corporate job and his IKEA furnished "life-style." Jack, who does not have enough courage of his own, creates a shadow that has enough nerve to break free and enough audacity to become his own true individual. Jack creates Tyler Durden as a mentoring father figure who will help him integrate his shadow in relationship with sex and violence and bring Jack closer to the Other.
Increasingly American boys are raised by their mothers with a lack of any strong male role-model in their life. Tyler becomes such a role-model for Jack who paradoxically holds all of Jack's rage and all of his love simultaneously. The fighting itself becomes an act of love through which they can relate to one another. However, Tyler Durden, like Iron John, is only a temporary experience.
The last scene of the film illuminates Jack's final encounter with Tyler. With a gun to Jack's head, Tyler begins the last scene where the film began.
Jack is at a loss for words, but realizes he no longer craves the destruction Tyler wants. "I don't want this!" But it is too late. Vans loaded with "blasting gelatin" are set to detonate and destroy urban phallic skyscrapers in a matter of minutes. Jack realizes the only way to stop his alter-ego gone awry is to point the gun at himself. Tyler dies when Jack shoots himself in the mouth, but Jack remains a spirit to bear witness to "ground zero." (13) The last image of the film is framed as a vista from within a glass skyscraper. Jack and his lover, Marla Singer, hold hands at the "theater of mass destruction." Two tall towers crumble to the ground. Premiered years before September eleventh, the film serves as chilling prophecy even more profound and ripe with cultura l and historical mythic elements than even this author had expected.
Fight Club as Sacred
But how can a film with such a dark and violent conclusion be classified as sacred? The French anthropologist, René Girard, suggests that sacred violence is an inherent component of any well functioning society throughout history. Girard classifies violence into pure and impure violence. Impure violence is uncontained and lawless and warrants retaliation from the victim's fellowship. Such violence is ultimately destructive to the community because its results are interminable. However, pure violence is contained through a lawful sacrifice in which the victim and his fellowship understand the death as sacred. Such a sacrifice satisfies the cultural need for violence while maintaining order and purpose. Fight Club becomes such a structure wherein violence is contained within a particular communal order. It is worth noting that all participants in Fight Club are white males, kings of American hegemony, who have no scapegoat for their problems but themselves and the corporations. The sacrificial victim becomes a scapegoat by which to purge the society of its anger and hatred. The scapegoat allows the community to project all of its anger onto the victim, thereby eliminating its anger at itself. By sacrificing the scapegoat the community relinquishes itself from its anger. Girard suggest that the scapegoat is both fatherless and randomly chosen so that he will not be avenged after his death. The ideal scapegoat is a king or hero who has achieved success in the community, but is destroyed by destiny. "God giveth and God taketh. The best of scapegoats is thus a dethroned idol, a broken idol marginalized from the society he once ruled. And this is exactly what the action hero is." (14) Tyler Durden is such an action hero-fatherless as Jack is his only creator, and a model of the ultimate American idol, popular icon and movie star Brad Pitt himself. While Tyler Durden becomes a scapegoat for Jack, corporate buildings become a scapegoat for Tyler as the "Demolitions Committee" of "Project Mayhem." The demolition of Brad Pitt and about seven skyscrapers leaves the viewer with a sense of peace leaving the theater. (15) Fight Club, the film, and Fight Club, the cult within the film, becomes the reclamation of American sacred violence.
I would argue Fight Club is avante garde sublime art. However, categorizing the film in artistic terms negates the highest measurement of sacredness in America: box-office success. As with most American endeavors that afford some power, the projected image does not come for free. Film is the most costly and time-consuming art form. (16) Production on such a grand and costly scale will both comment on culture and affect culture profoundly. If money is not sacred in America, what is? The American dollar dictates American values, and by that measure, Fight Club is irrevocably sacred.
Formative Myth and Its Medium
But what is the impact of this violent myth on the community? The space of the movie theater is a sacred ritual arena that few scholars have analyzed as such. Martin discusses the lack of scholarly work linking film and religion:
The viewer experiences a cognitive shift when he steps into the movie theater. Fight Club as a cultural artifact has the ability to affect individual and collective consciousness. But how do we measure this effect? In oral traditions, the communication of sacred stories is confined to a specific time and place. However, with a text, cultural effects can be analyzed through critical literary faculties that human consciousness has developed over hundreds of years. The impact of the classic text on its culture is also easily discussed from the privileged temporal position of having a distance of many years with which to measure cultural change. However, discussing the impact of a contemporary film on its community is a much more daunting task for which scholars have only the most archaic tools.
The French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, suggests that a significant cognitive distinction exists between the experience of reading a text and the experience of viewing an image. The linearity of the textual narrative empowers its consumer in a way that the image does not. The literary text is only reconstructed through the critical faculties of its reader. Thus, the textual consumer is empowered with ultimate control over his or her interpretation. However, the viewer of the image is instantaneously seduced into an uncontrollable holistic experience. The image dominates its viewer, requires a fundamental passivity, and denies the viewer the freedom of interpretation. Levinas has an abhorrence of images. He critiques the artist whose compulsion for expressing truth supercedes the responsibility of the consequences of such an expression. The question remains: does the artist influence the culture or does the culture merely influence the artist? When people remarked that Gertrude Stein did not look like Picasso's portrait, Picasso replied, "She will." In a similar way, when Fight Club was first released in 1999, many critics were upset by its violence voicing the concern that the film itself creates a violence that does not exist within the culture. However, five years later, the last image of two buildings crumbling confirms the film's prophetic power as young American men come together to fight a new scapegoat--Islamic fundamentalists.
arts bring us to a safe place where we can experience extreme emotion.
Film belongs in both the critical worlds of text and image. The rapid projection of twenty-four 35mm photographs every second is reconstructed only in the viewer's memory using both narrative critical faculties and image domination. There becomes a temporal quality to the image that allows the mind to re-create a holistic experience. And sound only complicates this ultimately inarticulatable experience.
Film can seduce and indoctrinate the viewer urging him or her to confront his or her own emotion. Also, film can have a stronger emotional draw than even theater (assuming the audience chooses to accept the film as a reality) by permitting the viewer to suspend critical judgment. The safety of the movie setting allows the viewer to make himself more vulnerable and be affected in emotionally deeper ways. Consumers move from a "normal" sphere to a sphere in which they allow alternative realities to be presented. In this act, the consumer suspends his or her control of how reality "should" operate. Artaud, the French poet, essayist, playwright, and actor conceptualized cinema as "literally a stimulant or narcotic, acting directly and materially on the mind." (18) Artaud's film work combats the medium, attempting to "tear the image from representation and position it in proximity within the viewer's perception/interpretative sensorium." (19) In his work, Artaud interrupts the narrative itself so the audience can become conscious of its existence. He theorized that "raw cinema" would come from eliminating film's narrative qualities and therefore relying solely on the indoctrination of the image. Fight Club moves in this direction.
That the film has its viewers blindly accept a new value structure which undermines and subverts most "normal" values of right and wrong, is a stunning testament to film's ability to create a separate reality within the confines of the theater space.
The film's ability to persuade its viewer to accept a moral relativity has some frightening implications:
The film which exists apart from conventional reality can provide an extasy-an ex stasis allowing the viewer to be taken outside of the domain of normal consciousness and into a reality that is probably most similar to the passive experience of the unconscious dream mixed with conscious memory. The film exists within the inner life of Jack:
From such statements about the inner body of Jack stem further meditations by Jack about his own inner life: "I am Jack's smirking revenge." "I am Jack's cold sweat." "I am Jack's broken heart."
What may be unique about Fight Club is its self-consciousness about its own medium. The breakdown of Jack's ego is manifest through the breakdown of cinematic form itself. Fight Club itself is a radical meditation on film form and language.
Tyler appears to Jack about six times before the audience becomes conscious of the encounter. This is accomplished through a technique that may be truly unique by which Tyler is introduced to single frames in the film. Ironically, Tyler works as a projectionist who cuts in singular frames of pornography into family films. In the last scene of the film a single frame of a naked penis is cut into the film just before the crumbling buildings fade to black. The splice acts as a formal reminder of our journey with "chthonic phallos."
Fight Club also examines the temporal quality of film itself creating a unique stream-of-consciousness experience. Computer concepts like RAM (random access memory) seem to influence Fincher's understanding of time.
In addition to temporality, Fincher manipulates the medium itself dirtying the film through specific processing. "When we processed it, we stretched the contrast to make it kind of ugly, a little bit of underexposure, a little bit of re-silvering, and using new high-contrast print stocks and stepping all over it so it has a dirty patina." (23) The processing of the film is apparently similar to Fincher's last film, Seven (1995). "The blacks become incredibly rich and kind of dirty. We did it on Seven a little, just to make the prints nice. But it's really in this more for making it ugly." The deconstruction of the film chemistry itself and Fincher's homage to his own formal past indicates the layers of complexity that contribute to the experience of the film. Gavin Smith positions Fight Club and its form in relation to other contemporary cinema:
The speed with which film is produced makes a conscious inter-textual dialogue difficult--or at least undermines the ability of the critic to place himself within a contemporary dialogue about film form.
A performance is only ritualized by its repetition, and only cult viewers naturally watch a movie multiple times. Thus, Fight Club as a film can only become ritualized by its small but growing cult watching public.
After the Theater
When an individual steps into a church, how much do they expect of their experience to follow them out? Great art changes our experience of reality and challenges us to take that experience home with us. Is this great art?
The film effectively holds up a mirror to the male viewer and suggests that the real story begins at "ground zero" in "three minutes" as the film fades out, the end credits begin, and the audience exits the theater. Most of us are confused when we leave a movie theater and enjoy reveling in the passivity of the experience. However, the film maintains a moral ambiguity which challenges the viewer to "say a few words to mark the occasion." One informant says of his experience, "It didn't let me be a white, middle-class American male, ages 18-24, the most powerful person in the world, and remain comfortable in my seat." (24) During an interview at Yale University, Edward Norton confirmed this reaction as intentional:
But what words can Americans say to "mark the occasion?" Howard Hampton expresses his anger towards an American public that received the film with no noticeable "kamikaze act[s] of homage":
Unfortunately, in the wake of September 11th terrorist attacks, Fight Club's moral aloofness has become less clear. A more courageous cultural critic might argue that the film encouraged Americans to create an alter-ego (Islamic Fundamentalists) which could ignite a new kind of Fight Club-war. However, I would not be so courageous.
While the collective effects of the film remain ephemeral, the individual responses are easier to attain. For example, Alexander Walker of the London Evening Standard is quoted as attacking Fight Club as "an inadmissible assault on personal decency and on society itself." (27) Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times (1999, pg. 1) suggests that, "What's most troubling about this witless mishmash of whiny, infantile philosophizing and bone-crunching violence is the increasing realization that it actually thinks it's saying something of significance. That is a scary notion indeed." Edward Norton challenges dismissing Fight Club because of its violence or moral ambiguity.
After interviewing a dozen American male college students, I feel confident that I have attained some sense of the emotional response it may have warranted from its intended audience (American males age 18-24). Though the sample size was relatively small, the informants included a cross-section of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Though the specifics varied, all males interviewed felt something. One informant was "anesthetized":
Jack, the character, has a similar experience to the informants when he finishes his fight.
The screening of Fight Club itself can become the classic salvation experience for its audience by which an icon (in this case the screen or television) serves as a scapegoat which asks to become an object onto which the viewer can manifest his own darkness. The salvation experience in the Greco-Roman tradition of the Cults of Metamorphosis operates through the re-integration of the self with something lost. The self is saved through sacred violence from a self-alienation it is suffering. The same process governs the Christian cross, an object that materializes and owns human sin. The weight of the human experience is somehow saved, enlightened, or made more peaceful by the presence of a sullied sacred icon. One informant describes the film as such an icon:
Fight Club, the movie, exists to solve the very problems of meaning it poses. It holds a mirror up to young white males and says, "This is who you are." And the very act of holding up that mirror allows the film to own a dark part of the culture which cannot be experienced within the culture.
Fight Club frames America lacking a public venue to integrate the emotional component of white male identity. When there is a communal or cultural void, history suggests that violence can complete that lack. Fight Club exposes the void and offers three solutions: crying, violence, and movies. Fight Club asks the question, what do you want to do with the Jacks of our country--those unwanted children of America who were raised on cultural action hero myths and yearn to live those stories? We can send them to support groups to mourn the impossibility of living this dream, send them to war to partake in the battle, or send them to experience the "Fight Club" of American cinema.
Since the initial conception and transcription of my argument, I have been given reason to revisit a concern of many critics addressed in an article by Gary Crowdus: "They felt scenes served only as a mindless glamorization of brutality, a morally irresponsible portrayal, which they feared might encourage impressionable young male viewers to set up their own real-life Fight Clubs in order to beat each other senseless." (34)
Since my interest in Fight Club has blossomed, I have been informed on numerous occasions of accounts of real life Fight Clubs formed in honor of the film. In one Ivy League college, fraternity brothers gather weekly in the name of their "Fight Club." On at least one occasion they were seen engaged in a ritual taken directly from the film - pouring lye on each other and burning holes in their brothers' skin. Another informant confesses:
college student in Mexico informs me that she engages regularly in "fight
club" with her brothers after having watched the film in which they
bruise each other for the fun of it.
further problematize my claim that Fight Club the film does in
fact solve the problems it poses-or at least that it does so neatly and
non-violently without consequences. Herein lies the moral ambiguity of
both my argument and the film that I submit to the reader and future scholars
for further reflection.
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