Fight Club

By Thomas Kelly
web posted November 8, 1999

Hollywood correctly says that it's unfair to blame the dream factory for society's violence. But is it right to blame the financial community and Detroit? Apparently so, since that appears to be the message of "Fight Club," the newest anti-capitalist screed to come out of Hollywood.

In the face of all the heat tinsel town is taking, the film comes off as a cowardly effort to manipulate public perceptions. This is in keeping with the lack of character displayed by the picture's protagonist, played by Edward Norton. At once self-flagellating, self-aggrandizing, whining and hyper-aggressive, it becomes apparent early in the second reel that there is nowhere to go with this walking-crawling mess of contradictions than to the kind of role that won Norton so much deserved recognition in “Primal Fear” -- the creation of two distinct personalities.

Determinism as only Hollywood could conceive it is found in "Fight Club." Instead of the more palatable, though no more proven, scapegoat of childhood brutality as the creator of sadistic multiple personalities, we are asked to swallow an even larger lump and make an even longer jump. Corporate America is responsible for squeezing Norton's alter ego into manifestation from the goo of his miasmic psyche.

Events such as the Columbine massacre are, according to this film, caused by the financial community and Detroit, greedy, soulless entities that pander to public desire and create legions of automata-like consumers. But the industry that is always quick to aim and fire the bullet of determinism, a leitmotif in every serious auteur's work, is apparently not accountable for violence. Neither is it the responsibility of individual consumers who purchase guns, cars -- and movie tickets -- in an effort to escape the emptiness and pressure of modern life.

Along with their tub of popcorn, viewers of Fight Club get recipes for explosives and pedantic rationalizations for anti-social behavior and mass destruction. But it is Detroit, with its never perfect cars, that is said to be the root of the problem, not Hollywood or the individuals who blow up buildings and pull triggers. The only gun Norton uses is on himself. Unfortunately, he is a lousy shot and he fires it too late to stop the heartwarming -- to the anti-capitalistic mentality -- multiple explosions in the nation's financial centers.

The most significant symbol contained in this film is this gun the protagonist aims at his own head, though that significance is certainly not by intent. It underscores the fact that for all its anti-industrial rhetoric, movie making is also an industry, a great one, an almost uniquely and prominently American one in its origins and its virtuosity, like automobile manufacturing or investment banking.

But the last industries are required to pay a great deal more homage to reality if they are to succeed. Only Hollywood has the luxury of prospering by ignoring it. It's too bad this giant of industry has taken this opportunity to shoot itself in the head with the bullet of megalomaniacal hypocrisy. It appears, the epithets excessive and greedy can only be applied to automobile manufacturers, whose product Hollywood wrecks and explodes in gratuitous droves, or to financial enterprises, like those who provide capital on the scale that filmmakers require.

Neither can the words be applied to the emasculated blue-collar workers so terribly exploited, again according to this film, by employers and banks, but never by filmmakers. This is the type of standard which says controls imposed on movie making are censorship, but controls placed on manufacturers and banks are just good common sense.

Could the cause of it all really be Norton's inadequacies and resentment for what he perceives as exterior forces controlling his life? Heaven forbid! Determinism rules the cinematic universe and every intellectual with a camera knows free will is an illusion of the masses, as he yells "action" and proceeds to create illusions for the same masses for which he holds such contempt.

Responsibility for violence is in the insidious forces of the corporate world, not in the mind of criminal perpetrators or those who fuel their fantasies. But isn't a producer also a corporate denizen? Directors and actors, of course, are not accountable, since they are artistes' and members of profession that is much older, if not the oldest of all.

Inconsistent with Norton's commerce bashing is his cottage industry of selling expensive bars of soap to department stores. Made from the refuse of liposuction clinics, he proclaims the poetic justice of “…selling the fat butts of America's women back to them at twenty dollars a bar.” This is a bit confusing. Aren't women with rear-ends, fat or otherwise, also exploited consumers? Isn't selling them the skin off their backs at an exorbitant rate also capitalistic profiteering and perhaps less than straightforward?

But cinematic artists cannot be troubled with anything as rigid as standards, double or otherwise. They tend to get in the way of creative expression and economic realities.

There is one behavior of this films' anti-hero that Hollywood could benefit from emulating. He punches himself in the face a lot. If the studios are going to throw haymakers at other industries -- -those without similar propaganda powers to defend themselves -- -shouldn't they also take a few on the chin? After all, haven't the elite thrown a few accusations of pandering and consumer baiting at the nation's filmmakers? Can automakers claim the power to shape anything but a desire for their product? Certainly not without employing individuals with the same talents as those who made "Fight Club."

It will be interesting to see just how many acts of violence are justified by the views expressed in this film. Does Hollywood cause this violence? No, but it does propagate misperceptions and distortions in the name of entertainment. In this case, it is all about the wickedness of the corporate world. And that message, in the long run, can be just as destructive as a loaded gun or a can of kerosene in the hands of an angry mediocrity.

Thomas Kelly writes on movies from Encinitas, California.

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