“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is 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. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off” – Brad Pitt, Fight Club (1999)
Fight Club is a movie most people know well, even if they have never seen it. Based on the 1996 Chuck Palahniuk novel of the same title, its gritty characters, iconic lines, and overwhelmingly brooding atmosphere have made it an American cult favorite for over twenty years. For the first film post of By Night’s first Cult Films Month, I wanted to begin with a quintessential cult film that demonstrates many characteristics of what makes a film a cult classic.
Before we officially begin, let’s go over the rules:
- Rule #1: You do not talk about Fight Club
- Rule #2: You do not talk about Fight Club.
- Rule #3: Someone yells “stop,” goes limp, taps out: the fight is over
- Rule #4: Only two guys to a fight
- Rule #5: One fight at a time
- Rule #6: No shirt, no shoes
- Rule #7: Fights will go on as long as they have to
- Rule #8: If it’s your first night, you have to fight
We first meet The Narrator (Edward Norton) in a scene from the end of the movie. In his mouth is a gun, held by Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). The Narrator (who remains nameless throughout the movie) then takes us back to the period of his life that led him to that moment. He is a white-collar worker for a major automobile corporation, and he lives alone in a condominium filled with expensive furniture and other objects he purchases from catalogues. He suffers from insomnia in addition to an overwhelming sense of being stuck and inadequate in his cookie-cutter life. When he seeks help from a doctor, he is denied medication to help him sleep. When he persists, the doctor advises him to go to a terminal illness support group to see what real pain looks like. The Narrator takes his advice for lack of a better option. His first night, he discovers an unexpected therapy: crying. Once he begins letting go and crying with the people he meets at the support groups, he is able to sleep again. He soon begins attending several support groups throughout the week, all the while hoping no one will catch him faking the illnesses.
His newfound addiction goes smoothly until he encounters a new complication in his life: Marla Singer. Marla is a quiet but abrasive presence who does not welcome anyone into her life, but The Narrator immediately takes notice of her and resents her. She attends every meeting he frequents, and she never speaks to anyone. It is quickly obvious that his problem with Marla is her use of those spaces of suffering for her own selfish needs, which is exactly what he is doing. He confronts her. They compromise by splitting up the meetings throughout the week so they will not get caught and will also not have to see each other.
The Narrator goes on a sudden business trip. Without his new routine, he falls into a loop of inconsistent time and experiences. On one flight, he meets Tyler Durden, sole proprietor, manufacturer, and salesman of the Paper Street Soap Company. Tyler is free and confident in every way The Narrator is not. His dark revelations on the parts of life people are taught to think of as acceptable instantly affect The Narrator. Tyler gives him his business card and walks away when the plane lands. When The Narrator returns to his condo, he finds an explosion has destroyed it and everything inside. He reaches out to Tyler as he figures out his next step.
Their relationship quickly grows, and The Narrator even moves into Tyler’s dilapidated house with him. As Tyler and The Narrator get to know each other, the latter finds himself adapting to Tyler’s philosophies and seeing the world in a different way. The night of the explosion, Tyler introduces The Narrator to the meditative and therapeutic benefits of fist fighting. They begin fighting each other in public spaces at night, which draws the attention of more young men. Soon, more and more participants join them in parking lots at night just to fight with each other. After realizing the deeper impact of this excursion on their lives, Tyler spearheads a new revolution located in the basement of a bar: Fight Club. This new form of therapy takes The Narrator out of his formerly established routine, but Marla still finds her way back into his life and under the influence of Tyler Durden. As The Narrator begins to feel that his life is headed somewhere more free and meaningful, Fight Club arises to move his life and the lives of those around him into deeper turmoil.
What pulled me in most about Fight Club when I first watched it years ago is its dedication to counterculture. Tyler denounces everything promoted and upheld in various ways throughout our lives: consumerism, self-improvement, following a set path, etc. As solidified in his creation of Project Mayhem, a publicly active extension of Fight Club composed of its members, Tyler wants to (literally) dismantle power structures so the problem of inequality is actually solved. Of course, I could write for many more pages about what this film says about masculinity (but, trust me, it’s been discussed before).
Instead of getting into that, I want to talk about…soap. After living together for a short time, Tyler shows The Narrator where he gets the secret ingredient for his soap. The Paper Street Soap Co. products are made from human fat that Tyler steals from the biohazard disposal of a liposuction clinic. As Tyler explains, he takes the fat of rich women and sells it back to them in overpriced bars of soap. The soap has an additional symbolism in this story; Tyler explains how the components of homemade soap can be used to create dynamite. As odd (but appropriate) as it sounds, everything Tyler stands for in this story comes back to his soap.
Rewatching this movie reintroduced me to many cinematic choices I had forgotten about, such as the blips of Tyler spliced into the frame throughout the scenes preceding his introduction (which also ties into one of Tyler’s night jobs as a reel operator). I won’t spoil the ending, but if you know, you see the significance of these types of moves. David Fincher is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, and Fight Club is one of his darkest and most artfully enriching works. The cinematography, pacing, music, and narrative choices work with the complex story and characters to create an unforgettable viewing experience. The satire embodied in this film is entirely a post of its own, which I would gladly examine in the future. Like many great films, Fight Club leaves you thinking long after it ends.
In addition to its continued recognition by film lovers, Fight Club brought about a real-life trend of secret fight clubs springing up around the world. Many new fight clubs still appear around the globe today. In a later edition of the novel, Chuck Palahniuk wrote an afterword sharing all of the “clubs” and parodies that he knew of at the time that had been inspired by Fight Club. Most would argue that this is not a positive impact on popular culture (or humanity). Regardless, these phenomena show just how impactful stories and films can be. Its continued presence in the minds of film lovers and resurgence in popular culture make Fight Club an ultimate cult classic that will continue to live on.
Until next time,