Celebrating the non-legacy of “Fight Club”

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fight-club-2In August 2001, the world seemed to be settling down to be a pleasant, boring place. America had won the Cold War, and Russia was a democracy. The economy was fundamentally sound, and most Westerners were not questioning civilization’s survival. Only in such a pre-9/11 bubble could one treat the movie “Fight Club” (1999) as more than entertainment. Now that “Fight Club 2” is pending rollout as a comic-book series starting May 28, Americans should be thankful the franchise’s impact upon society is minimal.

“Fight Club” was “The Catcher in the Rye” for Generation X: The story of a well-to-do, alienated young man rebelling against a phony existence. Taking cues from “A Clockwork Orange”, the anonymous protagonist, a 30-year-old desk jockey, sought distraction through increasingly extreme violence and gang activity. Complaining he was addicted to effeminate consumerism and the “IKEA nesting instinct,” he established illegal, bare-knuckle “fight clubs” to reclaim masculinity, and then recruited converts into “Project Mayhem,” a covert, nationwide campaign to destroy corporate capitalism.

To its credit, “Fight Club” was visually impressive, and director David Fincher (“The Social Network”, “Se7en”) improved upon Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel. Fight scenes were realistic, and the movie had a few stunning monologues, the greatest of which was delivered by Brad Pitt:

We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

He raised a legitimate existential dilemma: How does one find meaning if large-scale struggle disappears? Furthermore, what if childhood dreams fail and consumerism is an addiction?

fight-club-brad-pittPitt’s character and movie’s villain, Tyler Durden, proposed if adulthood is not an extension of childhood, do what angry children do: Smash things. Taking on the air of bin Laden, Durden recruited black-clad young men into “Project Mayhem,” and first encouraged mischief such as provoking strangers into fights and splicing single frames of pornography into family films. Growing bolder, he threatened an interfering police chief with partial dismemberment, and eventually revealed the master plan: Sink the entire capitalist economy by bombing headquarters of credit card companies. Unnervingly, Durden called the central bombing site “ground zero.”

Angry young men dressing up in black, obeying a demagogue, blowing up skyscrapers at the nerve center of capitalism, hoping to create something pure from rubble—this situation lost any illusion of romance the day it happened and foreign hostiles did it for us. In a world in which ISIS uses the Internet to propagate videos of beheadings, the last thing America needs is self-weakening. “Self-destruction” and “hitting bottom” are not acts of reinvention. They are invitations for others to finish the job for you.

Some will argue that Palahniuk and Fincher were holding a mirror to the zeitgeist and did not intend for anyone to take “Fight Club” literally. Granted, the great irony of “Fight Club” is it ended up being marketed by the same system it purported to tear down. The movie was, almost overnight, turned into sound bites for ease of consumption.

Nevertheless, truly hardcore fans of “Fight Club”, the ones who treat it as a guide to life, are Lost Boys for whom Durden is a Peter Pan. They substitute thrill for purpose. They haven’t accepted that finding meaning and creating wealth are adult challenges no one can solve on their behalf. I also suspect most have not learned the awesome responsibility of being parents. When one is responsible for a child’s life, then paying bills and keeping a job—even a thankless one—take on new meaning.

Ethan Hein, a music professor and a 2015 top writer for Quora.com, wrote that he now is a happily married father, but “when ‘Fight Club’ came out, I was 24, confused, depressed, lonely and mourning my recently deceased, largely absent father.” He continued that “Fight Club” was “like ‘Chicken Soup for the Disaffected Young White Male Soul.’” In an interview, Hein wrote:

Instead of seeming profound and bold, they [nihilistic works such as “Fight Club”] now just look toxic and ugly … Generation X seems to have reacted to our baby boomer parents by becoming more family-oriented, old-fashioned, valuing loyalty over personal happiness a bit more. I’m working really hard to make sure my son doesn’t grow up to be as pissed off as I was.

Hein is representative. According to “The Generation X Report,” published by the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, the adjectives best describing Generation X are “active, balanced, and happy.” The study asked 4,000 members to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, and 80 percent rate themselves as 7 or higher. Two-thirds are married and 71 percent have children. Eighty percent said giving their children a better opportunity than they had is a top priority. The “middle children of history” found purpose by being parents.

Hein still rejects consumerism, but he now believes citizens can change the culture of consumption with peaceful activism and consensus building. However, he said that while he believes rioting is always tragic, sometimes it can draw attention to genuine social ills such as police abuse in Baltimore. He wrote, “Frustrations embodied in ‘Fight Club’ are vague, abstract, and partially imaginary. The anger and frustration of black Americans is a response to centuries of oppression, ongoing systemic racism, police brutality … very legitimate grievances.”

The Baltimore riots, Ferguson, ISIS, the Iraq War, the Great Recession and 9/11. These hard lessons and more ensure that most Americans will see “Fight Club 2” for exactly what it is: Nihilistic entertainment catering to the disaffected and comfortable. As for the rest of us, the adult responsibilities of holding jobs, building an equitable society and sustaining civilization continue. They will ever be our Great War, our purpose, and our place in history.

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