Fight Club.

Am I allowed to talk about Fight Clubicon?

This one has been sitting in the Netflix queue – which we don’t use enough anyway – for years, but I knew my wife would never watch it with me, and having seen it I have to say even if she’d consented she wouldn’t have stuck it out. Even I found some of the fight scenes tough to take, although I don’t see how you could make the film without it. The film is based on the book of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk.

As with The Big Lebowski, I’m assuming most of you have seen this before I did. The basic plot, for those of you who haven’t (and I’ll warn you I am going to largely spoil the ending below): Ed Norton’s unnamed narrator is a 1990s version of Camus’ Stranger, a white collar worker who exists to work and consume but has no emotional attachment to anything and suffers from insomnia. On a business trip, he meets the charismatic soap-maker Tyler Durden, and the two form an underground “fight club” that becomes a national movement for the disaffected, eventually morphing into an anarchistic terrorist group called Project Mayhem.

The inevitable first question will be whether I liked the movie; I did, and I didn’t. I think it tackled big themes, although I’m not sure how well it did in addressing them. Most of the film was riveting, but sometimes it was simultaneously revolting. Although the narrator has an everyman quality, the film never fully gets at the causes of his alienation from society – that alienation is a symptom, but of what we never begin to learn. It’s anchored by several terrific performances, even in some of the smaller parts. I thought the final scene was cheap. I thought the twist was clever, even if they gave it away earlier in the film.

I keep coming back to the question of what exactly Fight Club means, as I can’t accept this as just some anti-consumerist (did this film coin that term) manifesto that presents nihilism as an equally valid and equally abhorrent alternative. The film also tackles – sometimes literally – the question of reduced masculinity in late 20th century western civilization, from the narrator’s wandering into a support group for testicular cancer sufferers, where he befriends a man named Bob who has grown breasts as a result of his reduced testosterone levels. Through sheer violence and the spilling of blood, are the men in Fight Club suddenly self-actualized through a return to primitive roots?

The fact that Fight Club and particularly Project Mayhem seem more than anything else to attract disenfranchised men – it’s full of service-workers but seems very light on white-collar workers beyond the narrator – made me think perhaps there was an up-with-the-proletariat message, but the latter group’s all-black uniform seemed more Nazi than communist, and whether or not you agree with Marx’s views (I certainly don’t), his philosophy had an end beyond sheer destruction.

Another possibility was that Palahniuk was describing how numb we have become in a world where basic needs are taken for granted but emotional (or, although the subject barely comes up in the film, spiritual) needs are unfulfilled. The characters’ reactions to getting the tar kicked out of them reminded me of porn star Annabel Chong’s comment from the documentary on her, where she mutilates herself and says that she did it just to feel something (she’s later recanted, although the credibility of the later statement has to be questioned, but that’s another story entirely). They get hit, and they smile, because they felt something.

…spoilers below…

I didn’t think the big twist was that surprising. You can see Tyler Durden spliced into at least two early scenes where he flashes in and out for a frame, and it’s not like they didn’t give you a big fat clue about that. (Second clue: The scene where Ed Norton leaves a building (Marla’s) with the words “MYSELF MYSELF MYSELF” in graffiti behind him. Third clue: Tyler lives on Paper Street.) Catching on to that from the start gives the middle of the film a whole new meaning – I wonder what it would be like to watch it without knowing the real relationship between the two main characters. But watching this essentially as a cult that takes the words of a madman with dissociative identity disorder as gospel was fascinating. And it did have me wondering for part of the film if Marla was real. Speaking of which, she’s basically Bellatrix Lestrange with shorter hair, right?

Despite my general dislike of unreliable narrators, though, this conceit worked beautifully until the final showdown between the two personalities. The idea that he developed this alternate personality in response not to the trauma of sexual or physical abuse but to the abuse of everyday life in our society is incredibly clever. (Speaking of which, that “How’s that working out for you?”/”What?”/”Being clever.” exchange had to be my favorite exchange in the movie.)

And I suppose I’d be remiss – or reminded by you of it – if I didn’t link to the surprisingly funny Jane Austen Fight Club.


  1. The adaptation is pretty close to the book, but I’d still recommend reading it. I thought the ending made more sense, and it’s a quick read. Good luck not hearing Edward Norton in your head while reading it, though.

  2. Have you read any Palahniuk? They are all quick reads which you could bust out on a flight. His earlier stuff is my favorite (survivor, choke, and FC). He went through a horror phase and is back to his old tricks again. He was a staple of my college years and I need to go back to see how they (and I) have aged.

  3. Brian in Tolleson

    I love this movie. I also think Chuck P’s novels are funny in an absurd way. Almost as though Camus were writing – but with pizazz.

    I’d think the existential reference was spot on, however as any existential will note, the alienation is rooted differently in each individual. There are multiple levels of alienation, but in the Martin Buber vein – this movie is purely about experiencing the other as a “you” instead of an “it”.

    The consumer motif is a play as to why so many have never learned how to see another in an “I-you” paradigm. The twist you refer to is the narrator having to experience himself first as a “you” before he can experience others.

    then again…

  4. I seem to recall Ebert hated the film because he thought it endorsed Tyler’s anarchic philosophy, but in fact I think it’s pretty clearly the opposite. While it starts as a satire of modern society leading to the violent outlet of Fight Club, it then flips over into lampooning the extent to which Fight Club (and Project Mayhem in particular) itself becomes a conformist society for overgrown man-children – there’s a resemblance to the joke in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” about every member of the crowd repeating “We are all individuals.” It also reminds me of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – the new boss, Project Mayhem, is ultimately the same as the old boss, society. By finally rejecting Tyler as he had earlier rejected society by following (well, manifesting and embodying) Tyler, the Narrator finally manages to define himself as a distinct person and breaks out of his two different ruts, or at least so I think we are to presume as the credits roll.

  5. Absolutely, Windier. This dichotomy is shown better in the book than the movie, but I think it also gets to how it is so much easier to destroy, i.e. what Tyler does, than to create and/or build.

  6. NicoSamuelson2

    Brad Pitt is great in this film.

    I think the film is better then the film, but I liked the book’s ending better. Fincher makes up for it a bit, though, by closing it out with “Where Is My Mind.”

  7. NicoSamuelson2

    Ahem…better than the *book*… ahem.

  8. NicoSamuelson2

    Also, this film holds up on repeated viewings. Though Keith seemed to catch a lot of things in his first attempt. Plus, Brad Pitt.

    I’ve seen this movie a bunch of times (love Fincher) and I still haven’t figured out what a Meatloaf Aday is. Keith? You are the food expert…

  9. Palahniuk’s prurience, conceit, and vulgarity can overwhelm at times, but he is clever, as well as necessary.

  10. My first time reading a meadowparty post by Keith and all I can think about is how he dumbs down his baseball writing.

  11. How’s that working out for you?


    Being clever

    Good, I guess

  12. Is that how they credited Meatloaf? I’ve seen him as Meatloaf, Meat Loaf, or Marvi Lee Aday, but never as Meatloaf Aday.

    JJ – one of my favorite dish comments ever. Thanks.

  13. Bonus points that this movie gave non-native residents of Wilmington, DE something to point to when telling their hometown friends where they lived.

    (Spoiler: They were just special effects. All the buildings are still intact.)

  14. I think the point wasn’t up with the proletariat. I think the central theme was the rejection of isms (consumerism, the Space monkey fascist nihilism) to get to personal fulfillment. I saw it in the theater in college, which hammered this home, I think, since a college education seems like a battleground for ideological indoctrination sometimes.

  15. Just to be fair, Ebert thought the film would inadvertently endorse anarchic philosophy and the creation of actual fight clubs. He never considered that to be the actual intent of the filmmakers but he (accurately) predicted that a large section of its audience would take the film far too literally. He’s taken a similar position on A Clockwork Orange. In Ebert’s view filmmakers can’t be entirely left off the hook if a large section of the population misinterprets their work in a destructive way regardless of how unsophisticated their reaction to the film is.

    On a personal note, I would be quick to defend Kubrick for A Clockwork Orange but not so quick to defend Fight Club. I think in the case of Fight Club, the audience can hardly be blamed its misinterpretation because the film itself is rather muddled and as Keith says, it’s not really evident that Fight Club deals with its heady theme in an effective manner.

  16. Keith- I know you just saw the film, but are you familiar with the theory that Fight Club’s narrator is actually Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes as an adult?

  17. I personally favor the Ferris Bueller/Fight Club theory more

  18. Keith-

    I echo the sentiments of those who recommend the book. Also, if you want to see Palahniuk take on religion/spirituality, pick up “Survivor”.

    To the movie itself, I was surprised by the ending. Then again, I was 17 when I first watched the movie, so I probably lacked much of the context necessary to figure it out (even “Paper Street” was something I knew nothing about until you linked it here). The movie is very different when you think they are distinct characters. I also doubt I am as astute a consumer of media as you (I mean that as a compliment) so even now, I’m sure I miss things that would change how I respond to different pieces.

    The book has some slight differences, which I do think matter, including the ending. I’ve always considered the ending rather ambiguous, at least in terms of how the narrator eliminates his demons both literally and figuratively. The book handles this a bit different. It also gives the implication that the narrator is narrating from an insane asylum or other institution, though this is hard to confirm.

    I’d definitely recommend more of Palahniuk’s works, though many are much darker than “Fight Club”. “Choke”, also made in to a movie that takes a much more humorous take on the novel but remains cleverly dark, is another great one. Eventually, all the books sort of blend together because they follow a very similar character arch, but I find them fun.

    Finally, to your favorite exchange, I echo that, and appreciate the conclusion of that scene where Tyler says, “A question of etiquette… do I give the ass or the crotch?” I love to drop that when squeezing by folks in narrow rows.


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