Post-Modern Castration Paranoia
The 1999 film Fight Club is about..? Well what is Fight Club, here I am sitting on my sofa expecting a 2 hour blood fest of men beating one another within an inch of their life, yet I am served a cold, sardonic pitch upon ‘us’ - the consumer. Years ago, David Fincher served this oddity of a film to the mainstream audiences – ironically our beloved consumers and the impression left was not of the common film; controversy had spread for the films exploitation of filming style, often unconventional narrative structure and most importantly, the films ‘violent’ themes. Perhaps the most self-destructive effect Fight Club caused upon itself was the surprise audiences were given, not because of the films dark undertone, but the lack of violence and predictable plot; audiences were exposed to a film countering their original predictions with an insulting film, criticising the audience for their own admission. Now as time goes by, Fight Club reaches cult status, not necessarily just for its rich subtext, but its kickass approach which makes this film, for the lack of a better word, cool. We’re given a cool experiences which has created what many believe to be a guilty pleasure in filmmaking, garnishing the award for "50 Best Guy Movies of All Time”, perhaps the magazine itself doesn’t realize the misogynistic themes, insulting men’s lack of masculinity of the modern age often because of women and the removal of their endowments. Fight Club’s multiple subplots and themes, ask the viewer to see pass the surface, dealing with consumerism, emasculation and anarchy. So let’s fall into the rabbit hole, which is Fight Club.
We begin with our protagonist, nameless – often referred to as Jack. Jack suffers insomnia from his modern lifestyle. The lifestyle he lives gives him very little reward for his boredom of an office job, requiring he endanger the lives of thousands (maybe millions) of people’s lives. Unhappy with his life in an office and buried in the IKEA catalogues; he searches for medical help, only to be denied help and mocked by a mocking doctor. Searching for a cure, Jack finds liberty in support groups for people with diseases. When he discovers crying at these groups results in his loss of insomnia, he becomes addicted because people “really listen”.
Soon the introduction of a fellow female liar makes him seek other outlets of his suppressed emotions. After meeting a ‘single-serving-friend’ on an airplane – Tyler Durden, a man who is the complete opposite of himself, strong, cynical and outspoken - Jack returns to find his condo has caught fire, as well as all of his possessions. From here, Jack moves in with Tyler, creating a Fight Club, for middle-aged men to express their oppressed masculinity. Soon though, their ‘support group’ spirals out of control into an anarchist group – Project Mayhem. The group then spread anarchy throughout the cities of America, becoming a powerfully organised terrorist group. It is here when Jack confronts Tyler, discovering that Tyler is himself. Tyler was an alter ego created, so Jack could cope with his fears and depression. From here, he attempts to stop Project Mayhem, but only failing, resulting in the destruction of America’s credit companies.
So who is our humble narrator? Edward Norton plays what is only credited as ‘Narrator’. There has been large deliberation on what his actual name is, although some conclusions can be drawn in the novel (1), the film is a lot more complex in our protagonist’s identity. In addition, the mere existence of Tyler is a complex one, for it is questionable how many things occur throughout the film. First of all, the name of the Narrator is a debatable one. Never is the name revealed in the film or book, only speculation can be made upon it. Our protagonist is a living MacGuffin, to clear the air; Jack is not his real name. Jack is a way for the Narrator to describe himself. The only other possible known name is Tyler Durden. At one point it can be confirmed his name is Tyler, when he calls Marla asking her what his name was, she answers Tyler Durden. However, just because she knew him as Tyler does not mean that he had not created this identity by himself, and later grew it into an alter ego. Jack had used many fake names at his support groups, Cornelius for testicular cancer, perhaps Tyler is for Fight Club. In fact, numerous times throughout the film it is specifically said that he is not Tyler, but simply becoming what he had created. Tyler is an improved vision of himself, as he continues he becomes that vision.
“I am free in all the ways that you are not. People do it every day: they talk to themselves; they see themselves, as they'd like to be. Nevertheless, they don't have the courage you have, to just run with it. Naturally, you're still wrestling with it a bit, so sometimes, you're still you. Other times, you imagine yourself watching me. Little by little, you're just letting yourself become...Tyler Durden."
Such examples illustrate the slow transformation into another identity. The transformation itself is a long process taking “Jack” over a year to complete. Jack does not suffer insomnia contrary to his belief, but narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is the constant fatigue he suffers from his ‘insomnia’. However, Jack never has insomnia, instead he spends his nights as Tyler – working night jobs at the Pressman Hotel and as a projectionist, and most importantly making soap. All of ‘Tyler’s activities’ takes place while Jack is supposedly not asleep. “What about narcolepsy? I nod off, I wake up in strange places, I have no idea how I got there.” It is shortly after this when Tyler Durden begins to become an image, slowly integrating into Jack’s mind with short flashes leading up to their meeting. (4)
Tyler’s lack of existence is obvious throughout the film (although these clues are not obvious until multiple viewings). There is a clever use of Pitt’s character throughout, some examples are:
One: When Jack and Tyler both go onto the bus, Jack only pays a fare for himself. As well as that, when a man walks past, bumping both Jack and Tyler, the man only apologises to Jack.
Two: Often Tyler will speak for Jack, and Jack will repeat himself, without the third party noticing Tyler. During the hospital scene, Tyler tells Jack exactly what to say, and Jack repeats himself. Furthermore, while at the Paper St. Residence Marla and Jack speak, but Jack is disrupted by the sounds of construction in the basement, which Marla cannot hear. Again, in this scene he is told what to say to the third party – Marla.
Three: Jack attempts to call Tyler with no answer. Although, Tyler shortly calls him at the same pay phone he just tried to contact him. Tyler says he never answers his phone and he used ’69 to call him back. However, later the Paper St. Residence is revealed to have only rotary phones, which would not be capable of redialling, therefore, Jack had imagined the entire phone call. Later when Jack and Tyler finish drinking at the bar and go home, Jack asks where his car is, Tyler then replies, “What car?” It is then questionable how Tyler managed to get to a bar from such an isolated area – Paper St.
Four: When Tyler finishes having sex with Marla, he opens the door to Jack who was ‘passing by’ and talks with him. Once Jack leaves Marla asks who he was talking to, since there was only two people in the house, this meant Tyler must have been talking to himself, or Jack was talking to himself.
Five: When Tyler (who is driving) purposely crashes the car, while recovering Tyler pulls Jack out of the driver’s seat, implying Jack had been driving the whole time.
According to David 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."
Feminism is not a detrimental on society (although the film may say otherwise). Feminism in the latest decades has been highly successful in ‘Western Societies’ (I have a personal dislike for this phrase). It has lead to the equilibrium of sexes. Since feminism, many other minorities and groups of social change have arisen, debatably shaping the world into a better place. However, Fight Club’s message is not necessarily that all this is a bad revolution, but it is being done to the point of reversing the problem, this time suppressing men; or alternatively, Fight Club mat very well show that equilibrium is an impossible feet. Of course at the present woman are not as powerful as men in previous ancient societies, but the beginning of this process is leaving men more damaged than ever before. The emasculation of men in society is not only taking the previous tasks that were once theirs, but also taking away the primal instinct of superiority. (2)
It can be easily seen that males are made to be a superior sex. Males generally are physically superior and evidentially more inventive – although it’s debatable whether women were given the opportunity to make inventive and creative contributions to our societies. Perhaps the most powerful theme throughout Fight Club is not the irregularity of men assimilating to an equal level with women, but whether it’s possible. In almost all (if not all) societies of past and present have seen men superior. The ‘hunter-gather’ lifestyle saw men the most important and physically powerful sex. What Fight Club asks is whether it is possible to ever fully lose this instinct of ‘hunter-gather’, whether it is possible for men to ever truly become equal – or if woman will abuse their latest increase in power. If men were one day capable of removing the shackles of primal instinct, at what cost would it be? Will assimilation conclude in ultimate depression and self-loathing?
It would be pure denial to say Fight Club is not a misogynistic film. The film screams of fear for the future of the male sex, predominantly at the latest ill attempt to reach equilibrium among the sexes – feminism. The fear manages to effectively mask any other theme of the film, by using hidden subtext, or obvious signs. Jack’s condo and ‘IKEA lifestyle’ is the essential emasculation of our protagonist, quibbling over the fine details which would only gain attention of women in the pre-60’s.
"Like everyone else, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct. If I saw something like clever coffee table in the shape of a yin and yang, I had to have it. I would flip through catalogues and wonder, "What kind of dining set defines me as a person?" We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow Collection. I had it all. Even the glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections, proof they were crafted by the honest, simple, hard-working indigenous peoples of wherever."
Our nameless protagonist (referred as his own third-person description of him - Jack) is not the quintessential heroic, rustic man known to a previous lifestyle. In the eye’s of Tyler Durden, Jack is whinging little man, engrossed in the superficial world of consumerism and emasculation. Self-described Jack falls into the ‘nesting instinct’, miserable in the conventions of modern society’s plan – equality. Jack is the model citizen, living to empty his wallet and die, "On a long enough timeline, the survival
rate for everyone drops to zero." At times Jack is shown wanting to be a women. Ever so sarcastically, we are given the obvious hints, "I want bowel cancer!"
rate for everyone drops to zero." At times Jack is shown wanting to be a women. Ever so sarcastically, we are given the obvious hints, "I want bowel cancer!"
The crippling disease is demonstrated in Jack’s zombie-like state of self-loathing lethargy. Jack’s miserable attitude is caused mainly by his work, often requiring him to rest on a lovely airplane seat. Physically Jack deteriorates with his inactive lifestyle, and the crippling insomnia. As an insomniac, he searches for the miniscule excitement that is his impulse spending, rewarded with almost no sleep. With no excitement or rest, Jack’s life becomes a slow debilitating death, not only physically, but also to his morale’s. Despite all his problems, he is not a wreck of a person, but a perfect person, "I am Jack's complete lack of surprise". Jack’s lack of existence leaves him as a boring person. Perhaps one of the many reasons for this film’s unpopularity too many is their narrator is a soulless bore spewing words of self-pity. Jack is non-existent to the point of having no name, credited only as ‘Narrator’. It is for these reasons why Jack has Tyler, to support himself and bring out his own primal instinct of masculinity and impulse. For another alternative, Jack escaped his miserable state in various support groups. During the support groups, he was able to release his built up sadness and cry. Although his reliance on these support groups was a gapping weakness, it freed him mentally.
Of course, Jack’s temporary enlightenment is put to an end, and you guessed it by a woman. As soon as Jack begun to escape his entrapment of consumerism and gain some of his primal manhood, a woman goes for a kick in the balls and throws him back into the even more pathetic state he originated. In this early stage of the film, there are two major allegories,
|Our macho primeval.|
Two: Marla Singer, our one and only real female character. "If I did have a tumour, I would name it Marla. Marla, the little scratch on the roof of your mouth that would heal if only you would stop tonguing it, but you can't." Marla’s entrance into the support groups (and introduction to the film) results in the ultimate hatred of our humbly broken narrator. Marla is represented as a pest, infecting Jack’s Zen with her mutual lies and constant smoking. Marla lives in poverty dresses darkly and is portrayed as an antagonist. Although she is no out spoken feminist (the enemy), she is the essentially the final straw of Jack’s sanity (or insanity?) leading to the creation of Tyler Durden.
To conclude, Fight Club’s message is not of hatred towards the female sex, but fear for the ‘Westernised’ males. Through capitalism and social revolutions, attempting totally equality has changed the primal role of a male. Our film suggests that this is perhaps impossible to ever achieve in a healthy manner. The broken Jack manifests his emotions until he reaches insanity – or potential enlightenment – forcing himself to create what he wishes he could be. This idol he creates himself is a force of inspirations, resurrections and jealousy, which extends to not only Jack, but also huge groups of men wanting to break free of their modern lifestyle, "Our generation has had no Great Depression, no Great War. Our war is spiritual. Our depression is our lives." Fight Club is ultimately, what Tyler Durden is fighting for, the freedom of men, destructions of corporations and business, and the revival of the ‘hunter-gather’ customs.
CONSUMERISM, ANARCHY AND SOAP:
According to Austrian neurologist, Sigmund Freud, the human psyche contains three main driving forces for our actions and desires. (5) Although rather complex, in short these three are what drives us to carry out what we desire - the Id, Ego and Superego. In Freud’s theory, we are all born with an id. The id is responsible for our basic desires, essential for infancy. Freud believes the id is responsible for our pleasure. To summarise, the id will want what is required at the specific moment, caring for no variables of the certain situation. When an infant is thirsty, the id wants water, thereby resulting in the newborn crying, regardless of whether water can be provided or the situation is appropriate for crying. The id can be describe as selfish as it cares not for anything else then satisfying its current desire. Therefore, the baby wanting water will cry until water is provided, the newborn doesn’t care for time, or if its parents are preoccupied or unable to satisfy the newborn, it will still demand water despite impracticality.
Freud believes that as a child further develops (age of 3) the ego will develop. The ego, theoretically takes into account the practicality of the id’s desire. The ego understands and analyses variables. The ego ultimately satisfies the id’s desires while taking into account other desires and the fallout its own.
At the age of five, it is said we develop the final drive, the superego. The superego develops as societal customs and restraints influence the child. The superego is the moralistic aspect of a person, taking into account normative of society. On whole, the id is responsible for our most primitive desires, taking in no consideration of potential hazards or impracticability. The ego controls the id with reason, and associates the superego, surpassing just logic to cultural preferences. The id is the aggressive and sexual desires, controlled only by modern civilisation’s customs, Freud stated:
"Men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him."
Jack’s creation of Tyler and ‘change’ into him is explainable by the extreme differences in the superego. Jack had been raised in beliefs positive to consumerism. As the Freud theory surfaced, it was used by business to exploit the id’s desire, replacing id’s original desires (aggression and sexual) with the product being sold. Jack’s altered id was responsible for his desire to fill his void will products, “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?” With the id effectively buried under the control of advertisers, his environment easily influences the superego. Jack’s superego, or ideology leads him to believe his current life of depression and boredom is the typical ladder to stardom and wealth. The path he takes is what he is raised to attempt, fuelling consumerism. Tyler is the polar opposite to Jack; Tyler’s superego is the same as his id’s desires. Tyler’s superego is as primitive as the id, being our desires without the account of potential hazard or fallout. Therefore, Tyler’s ideology is pure to his ancestors design in thought, like in Freud’s statement; Tyler’s desires are violent and sexual. However, Tyler himself does not directly circum to primitive thinking without thought; Tyler develops a divine plan to do what he believes is correct and essential for the survival of civilisation, which is to restore our original ids – by returning to the dark ages. Of course, Jack’s superego and suppressed id does not agree with Tyler’s pure ideology, resulting in the creation of an alter ego – ego being the balance between the id and superego, with the conflicting beliefs and loss of balance, another ego must be created to support the psychological stress.
Fight Club’s intention was for the viewer to realise the change of nature and ‘controlled’ ids in our post-modern society. After the turn of World War Two, the “middle children of history” were bombarded with latest societal trend:
“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's 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. And we're very, very pissed off.”
The infamous pink soap, like many other aspects of the film, is a symbol itself. Throughout Fight Club, pink soap is often just ‘around’. The soap proves that not a single frame was wasted in this film, but everything shown has some level of subtext. The soap happens to be one of the most important motifs. When asked what he does for a living, Tyler identifies himself as a soap manufacturer, ignoring his other jobs as a projectionist and waiter at the prestigious Pressman Hotel. Soaps significance plays a crucial role, as Tyler states soap is, “the foundation of civilization”. First, soap is used for the productions of nitro-glycerine, resulting in the explosives used for Tyler’s ultimate plan; with this comes to explosives used to destroy Jack’s apartment, which symbolises the beginning of Jack’s new life, “the first soap was made from the ashes of heroes”. Therefore, soap as Tyler describes is the root and foundation of society, and especially in this case, the actions leading to Jack’s anarchist regime: purification, cleanliness and enlightenment. Furthermore, soap is also a drive for their plans. In order to make soap, the two (one) must steal fat from a liposuction clinic; thus, kick starting the chain of vandalism and anarchy. The ‘soap’ is made into either explosives; or the fat created into soap for “selling rich women their own fat asses”. Beyond the sense of purifying the negative effects of post-modern society, in the department store its shown as higher class. Tyler and Jack selling women their ‘own fat asses’ shows a contempt for the higher class, placing Jack in a lower level. Therefore, soap is seen as form of purification and drive for Project Mayhem and differences in people by financial classes.
OUR FINAL MESSAGE:
Upon our final scene, we are given a message. “3 minutes. This is it. Here we are at the beginning. Ground zero. Would you like to say a few words to mark the occasion?” (soon followed by the humorous remark, ‘flashback humour’.) It is this part of the movie, where it asks something of the viewer. The ‘ground zero’ remark brings up the thought of a beginning, asking men to understand the message and take action. Whether Fight Club intended for direct copycats on the film’s Project mayhem, or just for awareness to their consumerist lifestyle, we are asked to take some action.
Fight Club’s overruling message has unfortunately been heard upon deaf ears. Its status as a Cult Film insists that only a select group truly understand what the film attempted to voice. It’s unfortunate that many have accepted Fight Club’s oddity as entertainment. Entertainment value of the film is quite powerful; although too many let the title itself discourage, many assume it’s a simple film about violence. And to be fair, Fight Club without its deep subtext is a whole bunch of seemingly random, far-fetched events, and this is how many see the film. Howard Hampton comments:
“. . . Fight Club generated no noticeably baleful side effects whatsoever. Are left-wing critics and right-wing politicians the only ones left who believe in the potency of "transgression"? What is the world coming to when a movie featuring charismatic performers revealing in anti-social behaviour and a host of semi-subliminal advertisements for the joys of chaos can't incite a single unbalanced loner to commit a kamikaze act of homage?”
Overall, Fight Club beckons many questions and ideology without ever fully creating awareness beyond a selective group. Fight Club takes on many challenging issues, expressing the fear post-modern society will have upon men. Although the film may not be anti-feminist, it does question whether it will be possible for men to ever adjust as society expects them. Through Capitalism, Consumerism and equilibrium we are denying our id’s desires to be met. Is it possible to deny our primeval drives and essentially evolve, or will our modernisation result in the deterioration of our sanity due to abnormal stress? Fight Club’s answer to this problem is to return to a simpler time, a time where primeval instinct ruled supreme. This may be our only options to retain not only our species sanity and survival, but the preservation of our future.
(1)At the time of writing this article I had not read Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, this writing is solely directed to the film; otherwise it may become a comparison. Therefore, any conclusions drawn are from the film only, even though it may contradict information in the novel.
(2)Any beliefs throughout the film may not be of my own thoughts and beliefs, although I will be writing what the film believes creating a biased style, I may at times put in my own opinions.
(3)Jack is not the real name of the protagonist; it is just a fake name replacing ‘Narrator’ (as it is credited). This originates from use of the phrase by the character himself, which he found in old medical books, “I am Jack’s cold sweat”.
(4) [Pictures of Tyler Durden]
(5) [Picture of Sigmund Freud’s chart]