Americaís Consumer Club
††††††††††† The narrator in the film Fight Club is questioned about his devastated condo and declares, "That condo was my life, okay? I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, that was me!" This attitude of defining self-identity through a consumer culture has become institutionalized in the American society. The film Fight Club addresses the excessive consumerism as a sign of emotional emptiness and as a form of self-distinction. While the title suggests that it is just another cliché action movie, it is not so shallow or narrowly focused. It instead provides the viewer with a provocative view on American society and it raises valid questions about the values embraced by that society. As the film American Beauty dubbed, "...look closer."
††††††††††† The film begins with a nameless narrator (Edward Norton), a corporate pencil-pusher who suffers from insomnia. A doctor tells Norton to quit complaining and stop by a support group for prostate cancer victims. He begins to attend this and other support groups, which helps Norton regain his ability to sleep and act as an outlet to release his emotions through crying. However, when Marla Singer (Helen Bonhem-Carter), another "faker," begins attending his support groups purely for the entertainment value, Norton once again cannot sleep. This is the least of his cares because when he comes back from a business trip he finds that his condo has exploded. Fortunately, on his flight home he had met the charismatic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who sells soap and has a very unconventional view of life. Tyler offers his "dilapidated house in a toxic waste part of town" to the narrator and he takes a room on the third floor. Tyler then begins to preach anti-consumer views to the narrator, named Jack in the credits. Together, they end up creating the underground fight club that becomes wildly popular with blue-collar workers. Shirt-less men beat each other into bloody messes every Saturday night in the basement of a bar. As the movie progresses, this underground club becomes more of a renegade resistance group that causes mayhem to corporate America. While Tyler is leading his cult to more mischief and mayhem, Jack thinks it has gotten out of hand. Fight club has spread across the country and Tylerís next mission is to blow up all the major credit companies to erase everyoneís credit thus leveling the "economic playing field." Jack, in an attempt to stop him, chases Tyler around the country but it always appears that he has just missed Tyler. Jack slowly comes to the conclusion that he himself and Tyler are the same person. While Jack thought he was sleeping, in reality his schizophrenic other half was working Tylerís jobs, making soap and trying to blow Americas materialistic views to pieces. Jack is able to destroy his alter ego by over coming Tylerís influence and shooting himself through the cheek; however, he is not able to stop Tylerís explosions. The last scene shows the buildings collapsing while Jack and Marla are kissing.
††††††††††† Fight Club challenges the typical American consumer identity by creating two contradicting characters. Jack starts out as a consumer defining his life by possessions, while Tyler lives his life on his own terms. One of the better examples of Jackís consumer self-identity is when the camera pans across what looks like a page from furniture catalogue. The prices and descriptions pop up next to each item in a sterile looking condo. However, as the prices continue to appear, Jack walks across the view of the camera to his empty refrigerator. This scene makes Jack into a part of the magazine and depicts his life as very monotonous. He does not seem to be enjoying his existence in the magazine condo as he begins to eat mustard with a knife straight out of the jar. The movie portraits Jackís life as boring, emotionless, and without friends or family. To fill these voids, Jack buys things.
One part of how people define themselves is through relationships with family and friends. Jack does not have these so he leaves possessions to define himself. He tell us, "I would flip though catalogues and wonder, ĎWhat kind of dining set defines me as a person?í" However, this is before Jackís personality splits to form Tyler. Tyler embodies all the characteristics that are opposite of Jack and has none of the weakness. One of Tylerís unconventional views that opposes Jackís values is when he says, "You are not your bank account. You are not the clothes you wear. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your bowel cancer. You are not your grande latte. You are not the car you drive. You are not your fucking khakis." Tyler supports his view by living in a ramshackle house, taking unwanted jobs for the entertainment value (like splicing a pornographic scene, that appears for an eighth of a second, into a family film), and wearing clothes that reflect his personality. Tyler also argues that, "Things you own, end up owning you." As Jack stated to the investigator, his condo was his life. He lived for that condo because it gave him identity. Jack represents the stereotypical American and though his character, the viewer can relate to and then question his/her own consumer identity. While the degree of consumer self-identity will range from person to person, most everyone has some sort of one. Tyler represents an escape from that self-identity as he questions many of the consumer values Americans hold dear. Big houses with big yards, and expensive cars in the driveway are part of an ideology that is based on this consumer identity. While it is easier to go with this mainstream American view of identity, Fight Club says those Americans lead a shallow and limited existence.
††††††††††† While Fight Club does spend a great deal of time challenging consumerism, it also supports it. Once Tylerís followers decide to reject the consumer identity, they become part of his urban terrorism cult. Ironically, the cult now sells them their identity instead of corporate America. Members have not gained any autonomous self-identity and now are a menace to established institutions. The characters in the film take their anti-consumer views and begin to infringe upon others right to choose. At this point in the film Jack appears to be the perfect medium between having an excessive consumer identity and being psychotic. Another instance where the film challenges consumerism while supporting it at the same time is when Jack looks at a Gucci ad and says in a voice over, "I feel sorry for the men that waste their time in fitness clubs to try and look like what Calvin Kline or Tommy Hilfiger think they should look like." He then turns and asks Tyler, "Is that how a man should look?" Tyler laughs and responds with, "Self-improvement is masturbation. Self-destruction is the answer." The contradicting cultural belief is that while Tyler shrugs off men being sold self-image by Gucci, Tyler looks like the model. He is everything Jack wants to be, including looking like that Gucci model. The other problem is that when the viewers sees Tyler, he/she knows that the actor, Brad Pitt, is a contradiction of Tylerís statement. Pitt is on the cover of magazines such as Vanity Fair, People and others, which use his perfect abs to sell product in the pages between his article. Had the film wanted to stay focused with the "build your own self-identity" message, it would not have used the winner of the "Peopleís Sexiest Man Alive" contest.
††††††††††† So should we all give up all our material possessions and join an urban terrorism cult? Of course not. Nor am I suggesting that either Tyler or Jack are role models that should be emulated. However, it does seem that some Americans care more about their riches defining their identity than life defining it. Tylerís message opens the door to a variety of questions surrounding what defines you as a person. Is it defined by your Nike shirt and VW Jetta? Or is it your personality, relationships, and experiences? Do you find someone attractive purely for his or her looks and Porsche? Or do you love someone because theyíre kind, have a great smile, and are insanely funny? Through the media and advertisement we are fed the consumer identity. Fight Club just shows another way of looking at self-identity that is aside from the mainstream.