“It was right in everyone’s face, Tyler and I just made it visible. It was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, Tyler and I just gave it a name.”
That incredibly prescient line from the multi-faceted Fight Club (1999) succinctly captures an embryonic cultural revolt which had already been gestating for years by the time Brad Pitt and Edward Norton took to the screen. The brilliance of Jim Uhls’ far-sighted scripting lies in the way it captures an underlying idea which was not fully formed at the turn of the millennium. Whether wittingly or otherwise, his dramatisation of a fictional revolt against every aspect of our pearl clutching cultural norms gave us a glimpse over the horizon and into the 21st century. Indeed, the fundamental cultural questions Fight Club explores are still far from settled, although we now at least have some idea of what the future might look like.
If Fight Club had simply been a movie about a bunch of guys being blokeish and hiding from society’s disapproving gaze, then it still would’ve been pretty entertaining. However, what elevates this film to a near mythical and certainly memetic category is how the fighting is merely one expression of a far deeper, over-arching and more profound existential rebellion. Throughout the movie, that insurgency grows into a philosophy or creed of sorts as the instigators of Project Mayhem take revenge on a society which sees the servicing of consumer debt as sufficient reason for a man’s existence.
The heart of Fight Club’s message is the nameless narrator’s subconscious creation of Tyler Durden, his streetwise and unsettlingly insightful alter ego. The fact that the narrator’s mind must conjure Durden into being as a vehicle to ask questions is indicative of deep unhappiness and pathological denial as he goes about the business of helping a wealthy corporation avoid the consequences if its decisions. It’s no accident that Durden’s sole purpose in this world is to undermine the sanitised yet exploitative corporatist order which has become the wellspring of the narrator’s misery.
This is Fight Club’s true stroke of genius. Durden is more than a mere refutation of shallow corporate excess; he shows us that there really are other ways of thinking, living and simply existing in the world. It’s Durden’s amusing yet profound challenge to established norms surrounding identity, masculinity, relationships, money, property and even soap that is the the true value of this often insightful and always amusing movie. Uhls’ witty scripting spots and sketches out the shadows of the coming populist revolt, where many truths once thought to be self-evident are finally being scrutinised, and found to be deeply suspect.
But Fight Club is about more than just sticking it to the establishment; it strikes deeper, at the very idea of our modern identities as expressed via our consumption choices. Tyler describes the men of Project Mayhem as the middle children of history, disillusioned with unrealistic expectations and instead seeking something real and authentic.
More and more when I look at the news, I wonder if there’s a little bit of Tyler in all of us, and he’s finally finding his voice after a lifetime of silence.
“After Fight Club, we all started seeing things differently.”