And then there is Tyler Durden. There is probably a PhD to be had in “Fight Club” studies and I admit to being an admirer of the 1999 film starring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton. It’s a groundbreaking film on many levels and introduced the works of the author Chuck Palahniuk to a wider audience. The story is about a youngish cube worker who meets an exotic man around his age, and they start an underground fighting culture that allows for a release of their pent-up frustration. Eventually, their pent up rages bursts upon the world.
I saw this movie on opening weekend in the fall of 1999 after hearing the LA Times movie critic, Kenneth Turan, trash the film on the local NPR station. That review is not available online as far as I can tell, but his LA Times review is still up and he clearly hated the film, saying the “witless mishmash of whiny, infantile philosophizing and bone-crunching violence is the increasing realization that it actually thinks it’s saying something of significance.”
In the NPR review I heard on the radio, he referred to it as a ‘fascist film’ and said everyone should avoid it. Even then, I knew that anything the left calls fascist is probably something I’m going to like, and so I called a friend from my office at Columbia TriStar Home Video and told him “We are going to see Fight Club tonight” which we did.
I should note that at the time, I was still living in Los Angeles, and very unhappy in my life. I placed far too much weight on romantic relationships back in those days, and had virtually no experience in fighting, at least no successful experience. I had a job others coveted, but it was humiliating in many ways, and so I felt, as the protagonist in the film felt, powerless at work and emasculated at home.
‘Fight Club’ articulated my painful personal experience. I loved the movie from the first frame, and still enjoy it. The movie appeals to me because I absolutely felt that the protagonist with no name was living a life he hated as much as I disliked mine, and that his alter ego, Tyler Durdun, had tapped into something essential. Turan may think the movie has a lot ‘infantile philosophizing,’ but I heard quite clearly what Durden was saying and it wasn’t infantile at all. In one of the best scenes from all of 90s cinema, Tyler Durdun spoke to the bloody men in their basement fighting club about how their lives were empty and meaningless, saying “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.”
Many millions of men feel this way about their lives, jobs, and relationships which explains the continued appeal of the film and Tyler Durden. At some point, they must make choices about how they are going to live, and they must, as I did, tame Tyler Durden, or they will, like in the movie, spin off into a nihilistic and harmful life, as has happened to many more millions of men. When you meet Tyler Durden, you have to fight.
The movie can be divided into two parts; the first, where the lead becomes so miserable that he manifests the manly alter ego of Tyler Durden, and the second, where he gives in to the worst aspects of the Tyler Durden impulse and becomes violently antisocial. In the first part of the film, we discover that the protagonist is having a conversation with himself, and the second half is when he is overtaken by Durden and the men of the fight club break out of the basement and unleash chaos on the wider culture.
Both the protagonist and Durden interact with a woman, Marla Singer, but the relationship is both emotionally volatile and empty. She is as damaged as he is, which would explain many of my tormented relationships from earlier periods in my life. Fortunately, there were no kids involved because neither the protagonist or Singer is capable of healthy emotional and romantic relationships. As Tyler says, “We’re a generation raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really what we need.” Some part of these men knows they are not good romantic partners, and will gravitate to women with the same emotional issues.
I’ve never liked the back half of the film because, in my own way, I found Tyler Durden within me and coopted him. I mourned what happened to me and addressed my Great Depression. It took decades of changing to reach a state of peace, but I was able to do it without driving my rage and chaos outward. The nameless protagonist in the film doesn’t get a handle on Tyler Durden, and here we see how the fate of many men erupts from the underground and internal fighting to a violent outburst directed at a woman, or a school, or a coworker, or the government, or as is most often the case, against himself. Suicide is self-murder. What these men have to say is not “whiny, infantile philosophizing,’ as smug, weak Kenneth Turan claimed nearly 25 years ago. It’s a movie with resonance because it touches deeply and effectively on something real, something men of many cultures around the world feel. It’s not ‘fascist’ which has become a meaningless sniffing phrase some men direct at anything they don’t like. It’s a fantastic movie that has stood the test of time and will for generations.
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