1999 was a good year for cult classics. If you’re an IT guy or even just an office drone, then your bible sprang into being in the form of Office Space. Nearly 20 years after 9 to 5 debuted, Office Space stepped back from the former’s feminist focus to show the rot in corporate America went a lot deeper than sexist bosses. And now the movie is quoted as often as Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride.
But another movie from 1999 that did not do well at the box office became a cult classic. And it went a step deeper into the rot. Never mind corporate America. Society at the end of the 90s really ground author Chuck Palahniuk’s gears. So Edward Norton and Brad Pitt turned his novel, Fight Club, into a movie.
The unnamed narrator, called Jack mainly because he quotes a children’s anatomy book (“I am Jack’s raging bile duct.”), works in a gray purgatory of a corporate job. He flies around the country looking for excuses for his company to not recall automobiles despite the horrific deaths some of the defects cause. The office scenes are shown in washed-out, colorless lighting. The job gives Jack insomnia. One night, he falls asleep on a plane and is disappointed he only dreamed that the plane disintegrated in mid-flight.
But he wakes up to a rather nonchalant character in the next seat who introduces himself as Tyler Durden. “I make and I sell soap.” He informs Jack that the only reason they drop oxygen from the ceiling in case of emergency is to calm the passengers before their fiery deaths. (Incidentally, that theory has long since been debunked, but it’s still very much a Tyler Durden assertion.)
After a fire destroys Jack’s apartment, he moves into a rundown house Tyler has rented. One night, while they’re out at a bar, the two brawl in the parking lot. Two others join in. The first fight club is formed. They soon take it underground and establish a few simple rules, the first of which is, “You do not talk about Fight Club.”
Tyler soon has a girlfriend Jack can’t stand. The feeling is mutual, and Maria, played by the delightfully unstable Helena Bonham Carter (though the character looks sane compared to her turn as Bellatrix LeStrange), loathes Jack. Meanwhile, Tyler is showing Jack a new way of thinking. He harvests fat from lipsuction clinics and renders it into soap so he could sell women “their fat asses back to them.” It’s actually a hit.
But Fight Club grows beyond men getting their yeah yeahs out by beating each other up in closed warehouses and empty cellars. Soon, they’re vandalizing anything and everything that looks fake. Tyler informs Jack that they’re generation, Gen X, has had no struggle – no Great Depression or World War II. And the Cold War is a bad childhood memory at this point. Fight Club soon becomes an almost absurd parody of a fascist movement with Tyler informing followers that they are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.”
It’s easy to draw a parallel between Palahniuk’s fictional fight clubs and the MAGA movement today. Like any gang in the past, it’s made up of people dealing with an uncertain future and a feeling of uselessness in a changing world. Tyler’s method of changing this world is to blow up the headquarters of the three credit monitoring services, setting the debt clock back to zero. Or I should say, Jack’s. Since the spoiler ban on Fight Club ended in 2001, I can talk about Tyler being Jack’s imaginary friend. Unlike Moon Knight, this fragmented personality is at war with itself. Jack is bewildered by Tyler’s behavior, but Tyler says he’s everything Jack wants to be. The realization comes too late. Tyler has already set plans into motion, and Jack’s realization that he and Tyler are the same person won’t stop it. In fact, in a couple of scenes, it actually makes things worse. Ironically, Hannah is the one person he can turn to in the end to make sense of it all. “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”
Fight Club, along with American Beauty, had one notable impact on corporate America: Ever been fired? Notice that there’s always another manager or a lawyer in the room? That’s because Jack beats himself up in his boss’s office, resulting in Fight Club having corporate sponsorship in the form of a year’s salary and endless flight coupons. Add to that the scene in American Beauty where Kevin Spacey (before we knew what a monster he is) blackmails his boss into a similar deal, and now every company in America wants their lawyer present when they fire someone. (Not always. I know one company that used a pandemic to weasel out of giving raises. Hope that guy went bankrupt.)
Fight Club was a very Gen X movie, a reaction to the 90s when the economy boomed, the dotcoms roared, and anything went. In a world of change, some might feel left behind or unsatisfied. Or simply in need of an outlet. Could it be made today?
Probably. But it’d be a much scarier movie.