The first time I saw Fight Club my feelings about it were...complicated. I thought the anarchic finale was irresponsible and the twist ending was improbable. Now, after an inconceivable sixteen years worth of retrospect, I can safely say that Fight Club should have won "Best Picture" back in 2000.
That's not to disparage American Beauty, which is an amazing movie in its own right. But I think it scored the Oscar nomination and eventually won, not because it was the better film but because it was made by and for Baby Boomers while Fight Club was targeted at "Generation X". I don't think it's co-incidence that both films came out around the same time, had a lot of the same plot beats and covered similar thematic ground. It was as if two different age groups wanted to go on record to say that the prevailing social paradigm was complete horseshit before everything eventually unraveled during Y2K.
In order for a film to wring a five-star rating out of me, it has to be technically proficient, vaguely relevant to my existence, challenging to watch, original, revelatory and potentially life-altering. No small order, but Fight Club did all of this and more. As a result it's been on my list of Top Ten favorite films of all time since its debut back in 1999.
The movie's IMDb synopsis ("An office employee and a soap salesman build a global organization to help vent male aggression.") sounds like it was written by someone who never saw the film or at least missed the point completely. Even though Fight Club is told from the perspective of two male characters, the film's themes are universal. It's really about recognizing the debt-ridden, advert-soaked existence that corporations want to mire you in and how to break free from this paradigm of modern slavery. It's not enough that you acknowledge this invisible prison, you have to annihilate it, even if it requires a drastic and painful personal metamorphosis.
Ed Norton is our friendly narrator, an office drone who toils away for a morally bankrupt insurance company. His fleeting moments of happiness seem limited to new acquisitions for his extensive Ikea furniture collection. After suffering from chronic insomnia for months and test-driving every standard medical treatment he infiltrates a support group for survivors of testicular cancer. The catharsis that comes from being viscerally and emotionally re-attached to reality again soon has him sleeping like a baby.
Of course, this dysfunctional bliss can't last forever and the spoiler comes in the form of rival poseur Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). Her presence is like a psychic splinter, reminding our protagonist that the unconventional solution to his plight is nothing more than a band-aid applied to a sucking chest wound. In a deux ex machina-style co-incidence, another avenue of salvation immediately presents itself in the form of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a "single-serving friend" that he meets on a flight. The narrator is immediately taken by this chaotically-dressed, self-assured, soap-making anarchist and when his materially-defined existence is completely annihilated, he soon falls completely under Durden's thrall.
It's easy to understand his fascination at first since Tyler's insight into contemporary existence cuts to the quick of our modern malaise. In what sounds like the natural extension of Lester Burnham's anti-pristine sofa rant in American Beauty, Tyler declares: "Fuck off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns, I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let's evolve, let the chips fall where they may."
The establishment of their verboten-to-talk-about titular organization happens not to "vent male aggression" as the myopic blurb above might suggest but to get people back in touch with the base, primitive definition of what it means to be human. Tyler starts taking some drastic steps to ensure the "evolution" of the Clubs and this is where my initial unease with the film began to creep in.
I was fine with Tyler's philosophy but as soon as he began to put his money where his mouth was I wanted to bail on him. When Tyler organizes the Clubs into a bonafide social movement, he starts performing acts of corporate terrorism with the ultimate goal of returning humanity to a more natural state. The lengths that he's willing to go to in order to fulfill this had me squirming uncomfortably in my seat. Clearly, I was still a brainwashed good little serf back then who thought that such actions were genuinely shocking.
Eventually I came to see Tyler Durden as an amalgam of my more challenging friends, one of whom floated his "Thatched Hut" theory a good five years before Chuck Palahniuk's novel was published. This theory maintained that all human beings really need to be happy in life is some sort of menial job, a thatched hut on a beach, friends to keep you company and the ability to get drunk periodically.
At the time I balked at how naive this sounded, since I couldn't reconcile this with my budding Star Wars toy collection or my current generation video game console. As I got older, however, I began to put more credence in Tyler's opinion that "the things you own end up owning you." Then, when you add in many thankless years of work drudgery, discovering the seemingly-limitless depths of corporate greed and realizing how much big business impedes human development, I eventually found myself gravitating towards Tyler's corner. I've even come to the point where the film's shocking denouement seems kinda justified.
Now I could prattle on endlessly about well-acted, directed and written the film is, but Fight Club almost transcends examination on a mere technical level just because it's so much more than the sum of its cinematic parts. This is a film of tremendous influence and importance and one that I've come to recognize as the embodiment of my own personal credo, a credo that has had a major impact on my life.
Much like the tortuous "lye test" that Tyler inflicts on the narrator, it's downright painful to unplug yourself from an existence that views the acquisition of wealth and material goods as the ultimate indicator of success. And I'm speaking from experience here. With the ethos of Fight Club still clanging around in my head I decided to opt out of being an interchangeable cog in a corporate machine back in April of 2010. As of this writing the jury's still out as to whether or not I did the right thing. While my heart, soul and mind have experienced a "Durden-esque" Renaissance my finances remain about as bleak as the headquarters of "Project Mayhem".
So when I say that Fight Club changed my life I ain't just whistlin' Dixie.
The ballsy conviction and monetary plate-spinning required to liberate yourself from modern slavery isn't just taxing, it's arguably impossible. Despite this truism I can't help but ponder how many other people have used the mental nitroglycerin contained within the fabric of this film to reboot their own lives. Like the corner store clerk that Tyler threatens to execute if he doesn't take immediate steps to pursue his life's dream, I really felt as if the film was pointing a gun at my temple, ordering me to initiate some sort of positive change. In fact I have no idea how someone can watch Fight Club and then willingly and blissfully sink back into the doldrums of their domestic captivity.
I also can't help but wonder if I'll ever see another picture so relevant, so true and so worthy of recognition that I'll still be singing it's praises sixteen years after its release.