Saturday, January 3, 2009

Movies: Fight Club

Some movies barely warrant one watching. Some movies require two or three, before you can completely understand them. Most movies with a gimmick are great the first time, but totally boring once you know the twist. Fight Club, though, is a movie with an easily digested gimmick that, somehow, never gets old. I just watched it for the sixth or seventh time, and found it as exhilarating as the first. The gimmick, of course, is that Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden is the same person—the surprise alter-ego—of the insomniac Ed Norton (whose character’s name isn’t revealed explicitly to the audience until it’s revealed to him, though clever audiences might get an early inkling).

What makes Fight Club so spectacular is less the gimmick (though Ed Norton is really so amazing that his shock is our shock, each and every time, even when we know what’s coming) than the motivating philosophy: divorced from our base instincts, we are sick, miserable, and frankly shameful; functioning merely at our base instincts, we are dangerous. Either way, we are followers, gullible herd animals looking for a leader, and desperate for stimulation. Our consumerist society is ugly, but anarchy is no better.

Durden’s Fight Club evolves into the anarchist army Project Mayhem, a kind of antics-oriented terror organization whose ultimate project is to explode the office buildings of all major credit card companies and the credit bureaus in order to reset everyone’s debt record back to zero (for the sake of the film’s grander philosophical considerations, don’t waste time quibbling about how feasible this scheme is). When Norton’s Tyler realizes that his Pitt ego has been planning this, he knows that his initial impulse against socialization—starting a brawl with himself in a roadhouse parking lot, leaving his designer condo and cable television for an abandoned house with barely-working power, and balling the strangely appealing but appallingly depressed Marla Singer/Helena Bonham Carter—however healthy and necessary it was, went overboard, but it’s incidentally too late. The film has a rather dark happy ending; holding hands, Norton’s Tyler (head dripping from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that killed Pitt’s Tyler) and Marla watch the buildings all around them explode. Strangely, we feel warm inside, knowing that everything is going to be okay, whatever that means (it’s to Palahniuk and Fincher’s credit that they don’t consider showing us).

Even if Norton’s Tyler is ultimately the sound, rational voice, once liberated, Pitt’s Tyler is the one with the actual take-home message of this film, the dark but surprisingly valid reminder that you are not a special snowflake, that you (that is, we) are the all-singing, all-dancing manure heap, that God not only doesn’t care about us, but might not even like us. Does it sound a little silly? A bit teenaged-angsty? In our decade’s pan-spiritual, new-aged, positive-intentioned society, I find it rather honest and refreshing. Right before the movie’s climax, before Norton’s Tyler realizes what exactly is going on, Pitt-as-Tyler is driving a car through a rainstorm. He takes his hands off the wheel and increases the gas, illustrating his instruction to Norton-as-Tyler to “let go.” He asks the people in the car what they want to achieve before they die; how they would feel about their lives if they died at that moment. Norton-as-Tyler, who has yet to let go, cannot answer the questions. The car crashes, runs off the road, flips over. They all emerge unscathed. Pitt-as-Tyler whoops with glee to have added another raw experience to his life. Norton-as-Tyler remains unconvinced. But is it silly, teenaged-angsty, to live your life with zest, as if any moment could be your last? Pitt-as-Tyler promotes recklessness in a way that I can’t condone, but his ultimate message—you’re not your job, you’re not your car, you’re not your clothes; “the things you own end up owning you,”—is not only valid, but completely liberating. Let the fuck go and live your life a little closer to your physical edge, and if you forget how, watch the movie again.

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