Fight Club and the Age of Extremism

My fist viewing of the movie Fight Club was in high school in the basement of my best friend’s family home.  By this point, the movie had already gained a hefty deal of notoriety and reverence from the teenage/college boy set.  It was, after all, a movie about skinny guys beating the bejeezus out of each other.  How could this not appeal to the repressed Bible Belt majority of white, young America?

Like most young viewers of the movie, my (and my friend’s) immediate take away from the movie was the fighting.  Fight Clubs are awesome!

The movie ended and we went into his backyard to fight.  Except, we were both tiny little pussies who didn’t know how to throw a punch, so instead we just mimicked action scenes from the Matrix for awhile until his brother spotted us and effectively ended that.

I still don’t know how to throw a punch.  I haven’t spoken to that friend in years, so I can’t speak for him, but I must assume he’s spent the years since learning how to fight.  What else would he have spent that time doing?

Note:  I am writing about Fight Club the movie in this post, completely ignoring the book.  There are two reasons for that.

1:  I’m interested in the themes and social commentary of the movie.  If the movie can be considered a faithful adaption of the book’s core themes, then it’s irrelevant if I talk about the book.  If the movie did not adequately translate the book, then it still wouldn’t matter, because I’m focused on the ideas present in the film.

2.  I’ve never read the book.  So, yeah, there’s that.

Where Is My Mind?

Fight Club is a great movie.  It succeeds as both an artistic expression and a powerful work of satire.  It is not a prophetic movie, though.  In fact, if anything, it’s the anti-prophetic movie.  It is the product of the year it was made, 1999, and as a film it has basically no interest in peeking any further ahead.  You’ll notice that there isn’t even one mention of the internet in the movie.  There are computers and a couple utterances about email, but the world wide web, which was already by that time a massive force (albeit minor by our current frame of reference), plays no role in the plot.  How many movies (set in the present) made in the last decade can you say that about?

This is an interesting omission for a couple of reasons, though perhaps most ironic is that a decade later, David Fincher, the director, would create perhaps the seminal internet age movie, The Social Network.

The other reason the lack of internet is important is that the ultimate plan of Project Mayhem (Spoilers; but seriously, if you haven’t seen the film, you’re watching the wrong movies) doesn’t actually make sense in a world of interconnected information.  Destroying all of those skyscrapers would certainly bring about massive chaos, but it would hardly set everyone ‘back to zero’ as the narrator explains.  Information in the internet age isn’t contained in one building.  Granted, 1999 was a lot less of a connected world than we live in here in 2011, but I have to imagine even then, destroying a physical landmark could not have obliterated raw data.

Two years after Fight Club was released, we saw the Twin Towers in New York crumble much like they did in the final scene of the movie.  We lost thousands of lives and our sense of security in the September 11th attacks, but the information contained within those buildings was not lost (at least, not in any catastrophic sense).

Negative Creep

At one point, Tyler Durden, the brash and beautiful id of the movie, explains, “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.”

Earlier, the narrator calls himself a “30-year-old boy.”

The argument is that this generation of men is purposeless and emasculated, overflowing with pent-up aggression and fury but with no place to vent it.  Having been raised by disinterested fathers or simply having had no father figures resulted in a generation of men with no greater ambition than to consume IKEA products and watch sitcoms.

And, yeah, at the end of the 90s, this probably seemed as prescient a social commentary as could be made.  (The other great film from that year, The Matrix, carries a similar critique of society, implying that we were on a path to absolute complacency, dominated by our machines.)

But then, we were attacked.

The last decade undermined two of Tyler’s main claims:  We have been to war, and we have forged through a depression (call it a recession, fine).  If Tyler’s central assertion was that men had no great struggle to give them purpose, that is no longer the case.

In a decade that created celebrities of Kurt Cobain and (to a much lesser extent) Elliott Smith, it’s no surprise that social commentators would latch onto the idea that men of the generation were a defeated, aimless sort.  That decade was bookended by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 terrorists attacks, but in the middle, the great news events were men acting badly:  The OJ Simpson trial and Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades to name the defining moments of the decade.  Even the biggest terrorist attack of the decade was spearheaded by a loony white man.

No wonder Tyler Durden thought of his generation as a tribe of lost men.

 So, has this decade of turmoil and external threats righted the course for us man-boys?

Look Inside America

I remember for a few years after the movie released, real life Fight Clubs popped up all over.  Every few months, some 20/20-esque news program would report on it with a tone of concern and bemusement.  It seems the man-boys needed a violent release.

Every few years, some violent or stupid (or both) trend hits the population and the news organizations, always a few steps behind, comes around to report on this bizarre, and likely dangerous, fad.  I mean, planking?  What the fuck?

But Fight Club existed in a pre-Youtube, Facebook-saturated era, so when people emulated it, there was still a sense of separate, secret entities forming (when in truth it was nothing more than franchised rebellion).  Now, if you do anything at all, a video of it is online with 24 hours.  The first two rules of Fight Club wouldn’t mean shit today.

I don’t believe that the tumultuous aughts did anything to quell these stupidly violent (or violently stupid) urges in the male population.  It just gave them a place to focus it.  We hated the A-rabs and anyone who wasn’t a Patriot™.  Pent up aggression had an outlet.

We’re still at war, and there is still a threat of terrorism, but we as a general population feel fairly far removed from it, and so we’re back to looking for other outlets for aggression.

Cue the nutjobs shooting senators or flying planes into IRS buildings.

Those kinds of wackos will always exist.  They get the headlines and lead to a bunch of talking heads sitting around dissecting what it means for society, all the while ignoring the seething outrage in the non-homicidal, non-suicidal segment of our population.  What is the Tea Party if not a political Fight Club?

But Fight Club’s satiric point is that within all of us (at least men; it’s fairly silent on women) is a homicidal, suicidal nutjob. 

“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”  Indeed.  Early in the movie, that’s a sort of inspirational message, as the narrator is freed from his possessions and his desire to be ‘normal.’  We, the audience, root for his new-found sense of freedom.  By the end, though, we see just how dangerous that mindset is, we understand that anti-socialism as a lifestyle is less Robin Hood and more Osama bin Laden.

That’s the great joke of the movie:  We cheer on these men throwing off the shackles of societal-norms and conformity, only to watch them become the ultimate conformists, members of a cult that mindlessly follows orders without question while chanting meaningless phrases.

Fitter Happier

This is the crux of great art.  It can present seemingly contradictory messages.  Here is a movie that advocates, I would argue, an absolutely profound and essential anti-consumerism message that warns, in perhaps my favorite quote from this highly quotable movie, “The things you own end up owning you.”  It’s a maxim to live by, and if the person who said it didn’t turn out to be a domestic terrorist, Fight Club would be the It’s A Wonderful Life of our generation.

This movie isn’t that simplistic, though.  Anyone who gets to the end of the movie and appreciates the turnaround the movie has taken might be tempted to then throw out every life lesson that the narrator has learned from Tyler.  But that’s a mistake.

True wisdom exists outside of packaging.  The Golden Rule has existed in dozens of forms from dozens of cultures, so even if you are naïve enough to believe that Jesus originated the idea, you will still be able to agree with a Buddhist who says, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful,” even as you think to yourself, “How sad this nice fellow is going to hell.”

At the core of Tyler’s actions is actually a very commendable philosophy.  We should not allow ourselves to be slaves to our possessions, we should not let our jobs define us.  We, ultimately, decide the purpose of our lives.

Unfortunately, like all philosophies, taken to an extreme, it becomes dangerous.  Instead of remaining an inward focused form of enlightenment, it becomes an outward focused weapon of destruction.  Like anyone who gains a receptive, unquestioning audience, Tyler became an uncontainable zealot.

So, I guess I was wrong.  Fight Club is prophetic.  It predicted the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle of self-assured blowhards.

I’m all for moderation but sometimes it seems moderation itself can be a kind of extreme.

We live in an age of extremism.  I don’t mean Jihadists, I mean Fox News vs. MSNBC.  All that pent up aggression has gone mainstream in a belligerent volley of vitriol and Hitler-labeling.  In the past, when a news anchor like Edward R. Murrow got worked up over a subject, it meant something because normally he was so evenhanded and calm (and calming).

But when Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann get hysterical, we think, “Oh, it’s Tuesday.”  I’m enough of a liberal to say I like Olbermann as a source of entertainment, but not as a source of news.  I think it’s the job of our social commentators to know when to let their outrage fly, but right now, we live in an age where Tyler Durden runs the news.  Some of what they’re saying may be wise words of warning, but it’s all getting lost in the yelling.

Moderation is the extreme these days.  Evenhanded, neutral news reporting is a rarity (Fair and Balanced my ass).  But that’s exactly what we need.  Anger, as an emotion, should not be the norm. 

Hell, while these people are all crying wolf, we probably have a bear on our asses (Stephen Colbert was right!).

Maybe it’s a step in the right direction that both Beck and Olbermann have lost their permanent homes on major cable outlets and are having to take their rage to the fringes.

But, I still have my concerns.  The problem is that a truly captive audience often doesn’t realize when hysterical, fear-based rhetoric turns into hysterical, hate-based commands.  That’s when a philosophy becomes a weapon.

It’s called a changeover.  The movie goes on, and nobody in the audience has any idea.

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