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Artistic Schizophrenia: How Fight Club's Message Is Subverted 41 Kyle Bishop
Artistic Schizophrenia:How Fight Club’s
Message Is Subverted by Its Own Nature
Art is often used to address social issues and offer cultural criticism behind a thin veil of aesthetics. A powerful example of such societal criti-cism is Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 debut novel Fight Club, which is osten-sibly about a man with multiple personality disorder who tries to combathis disillusionment with consumer culture by turning to violence and anar-chy. The protagonist first attempts to fight the capitalist system from bothwithin and without, but in the end he strives to thwart the very socialmovement his actions have created. Additionally, David Fincher’s 1999cinematic adaptation of Palahniuk’s book is even more subversive thanthe novel, showing an apparently successful campaign against “The Man”with the destruction of multiple credit card companies—allegedly wipingthe debt record clean and plunging America into financial chaos. But isFincher’s version of Fight Club really suggesting the revolution of theproletariat, or is it simply using such a model to encourage greater aware-ness of the problems associated with unchecked commercialism? To get at the heart of this question, one must consider the nature of Marxist cultural criticism and modern film theory, as well as gain an under-standing of Fight Club itself. This examination will argue that althoughFincher’s Fight Club strongly criticizes modern consumerism, it suffersfrom the same sense of schizophrenia as its protagonist. While Fight Club’sprojected ideals may call for the abandonment and suppression of mate- rialism and gross consumption, its existence as a Hollywood commoditycomplicates that very message. The unequivocally commercial nature ofthe medium itself makes it virtually impossible for such a “major motionpicture” to present convincing criticism of America’s consumer culture.
Marxist Concerns and Film Theory
Modern culture must deal with conflicts arising between members of different social classes. Industrialization invariably splits a society into alarge class of workers and a smaller group of bourgeois owners, and theelite continue to acquire wealth while exploiting the oppressed masses,who struggle just to survive. Those theorists who follow the teachings ofKarl Marx attempt to identify these class conflicts as they appear in mod-ern society, both literally and symbolically through their representation inart.
In their landmark work The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels define society as a series of opposing class struggles. They emphasize that“the modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudalsociety, has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but establishednew classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in placeof the old ones” (9). Such a view of society as a set of binary oppositesimplies the constant threat of revolution, which may inspire the masses,but generally causes paranoia among the elite. As an essential part ofsociety, these political concerns unavoidably surface in the arts as well.
Literary critic Mike Austin describes the Marxist “theory of reflec- tion” as “the assumption that class conflicts and workers’ struggles are sodeeply imbedded in society’s consciousness that literature cannot help butreflect them” (199). That is, the practical problems associated with a classedsociety run so deep that art invariably addresses those concerns. Thisalmost subconscious reference to the class system can either be positiveor negative, supportive or reactionary. The task of the Marxist critic lies inanalyzing the class tensions present in a work of art to better understandthe symbolic or didactic meaning behind the work.
Artistic Schizophrenia: How Fight Club's Message Is Subverted 43 Popular culture theorist John Storey identifies a critical approach called “Neo-Gramscian hegemony theory,” based on the work of Italiantheorist Antonio Gramsci. Proponents of this theory see “popular cultureas a site of struggle between the forces of resistance of subordinate groupsin society, and the forces of incorporation of dominant groups in society”(13). The oppressed class resists the dominance of the oppressing classthrough aesthetic discourse, and film and pop art are often the locations ofthis intense debate. Cultural struggle becomes polarized into two reduc-tive camps, for “those looking at popular culture from a neo-Gramscianperspective tend to see it as a terrain of ideological struggle between domi-nant and subordinate classes” (13). The practical struggles exhibited byclassed people in the workplace are reduced to their ideological founda-tions, and the aesthetic realm represents a forum for discussion and evenrevolution.
One of the most dominant forms of popular culture today is obvi- ously film, which has been used since its invention as an acceptable me-dium for expressing political concerns and personal agendas. PlaywrightBertolt Brecht identified this potential of staged drama, claiming “there isno play and no theatrical performance which does not in some way affectthe dispositions and conceptions of the audience. Art is never withoutconsequences” (151). Since cinema is also arguably a “theatrical perfor-mance,” such a view clearly applies to film as well, where a receptive,attentive audience must unavoidably absorb something of the movie’s ide-ology into their own thinking. Although they may not directly accept theposition endorsed by the work of art, it encourages them to take a standone way or another.
Even the most lighthearted film makes value judgments. As film his- torian Louis Giannetti points out, “the tradition of classical cinema avoidsthe extremes of didacticism and pure abstraction, but even light entertain-ment movies are steeped in value judgments” (428). Giannetti emphasizesthe indirect nature by which cinema can make its arguments. Because hisperception of “classical cinema” tends to be popular, narrative cinema—which generally avoids the more overt political messages of propaganda films and documentaries to secure the greatest measure of commercialsuccess—Giannetti clearly believes that even “light entertainment” canexpress ideological viewpoints.
Art has always had a concealed didactic ability. Giannetti writes, “Since ancient times, critics have discussed art as having a double func-tion: to teach and to provide pleasure” (428). Morality tales and fablescould entertain an audience while simultaneously teaching an importantprecept. Parables concealed higher intellectual messages in simple storiesthat were easy to understand and remember. For a more modern audi-ence, cinema is perhaps the best example of contrived allegory, entertain-ing on the surface while simultaneously offering an instructive subtext. Whenconsidering a Marxist or anti-commercial message, few films better por-tray the binary conflict of a classed society than Fincher’s Fight Club, afilm rife with the dichotomies and contradictions of capitalism.
Tyler Durden and the War on Consumerism
Like Palahniuk’s novel, the film version of Fight Club tells the story of a middle-class office worker who cracks under the pressure of living adissatisfying—if opulently comfortable—lifestyle. The unnamed narratorof the tale (usually referred to simply as “Jack”) wallows in his atrophic,white-collar job and nests in his trendy, IKEA-furnished apartment. Hetravels all the time, cataloging accidents and fatalities as a recall coordina-tor for a major car company—in a very literal way, Jack’s luxurious lifestyleis made possible by the tragic losses of others. Ironically, Jack is the ulti-mate oppressing bourgeois, for the proletariat must literally suffer deathfor him to keep his job and status. Jack’s general frustration (and possibleguilt) eventually fractures his personality, and Tyler Durden is born—thefreethinking anarchist Jack could never consciously allow himself to be-come. Fight Club therefore chronicles Jack’s ill-fated attempts to recon-cile the two divergent sides of his personality.
When asked to comment on the origins of the novel for the DVD release, Palahniuk said it was “just a matter of looking for the themes, the Artistic Schizophrenia: How Fight Club's Message Is Subverted 45 topics that brought people together in excited conversation. . . . The re-sentment of lifestyle standards imposed by advertising [was a theme Iheard a lot]” (“How to Start a Fight”). This resentment is manifested alle-gorically in Tyler Durden. Whereas Jack loves his possessions, like allgood capitalists, Tyler forswears materialism completely. Jack lives in anupscale apartment; Tyler squats in an abandoned building. If Jack is therepresentation of the modern bourgeoisie, then Tyler is the new prole-tariat: carefree, anti-establishment, and ascetic. Although Fight Club islargely about disassociation, violence, and gender identity (the subjects ofmost recent criticism), the movie also uses the binary oppositions be-tween Jack and Tyler as a scathing critique of conspicuous consumptionand rampant consumerism.
In an important cultural critique of Fight Club and 2000’s Memento, University of Haifa professor Bennett Kravitz analyzes the contradictionsand conflicts present in Fincher’s film. Kravitz discusses the complex re-lationship between capitalism and capital by unpacking the theories laidout by Deleuze Gilles and Felix Guattari in their 2000 book Anti-Oedi-pus. According to Kravitz, capitalism is represented as “the body withoutorgans” and capital as “desire production” (32). Like a fungus or otherplant, capitalism spreads relentlessly and tirelessly, but with no real plea-sure—just as Jack consumes and purchases without satisfaction. In con-trast, Tyler is the raging animal; he doesn’t care about anything other thandesire—passion and production without possession. These two seem-ingly contradictory impulses form a symbiotic relationship, for “[t]he bodyis made whole again by desire, which is the same phenomenon that occurswith capital and social relations” (Kravitz 32).
This symbiotic dichotomy is readily apparent in Fight Club. Jack has spent his whole life gathering material possessions—the things peopleare told they should desire and accumulate—and lives in a “condo on thefifteenth floor of a filing cabinet for widows and young professionals”(Fincher). While waiting on hold for the phone operator to process hislatest purchase, Jack muses on what could be termed “catalog culture”: Like so many others I had become a slave to the IKEA-nestinginstinct. If I saw something clever like a little coffee table in the shape of a yin-yang, I had to have it. The Klips personal officeunit, the Hovetrekke home exer-bike, or the Johanneshov sofawith the Strinne green stripe pattern—even the Rislamp wirelamps of environmentally friendly unbleached paper. I’d flipthrough catalogs and wonder what kind of dining set defines meas a person. I had it all, even the glass dishes with tiny bubblesand imperfections, proof that they were crafted by the honest,simple, hard-working, indigenous peoples of . . . wherever.
We used to read pornography; now it’s the Hoarshack collec-tion. (Fincher) The parallel between consumerism and masturbation is clear. Rather than filling a personal void with sexual satisfaction, the modern yuppieturns to the latest and trendiest of catalogs. Shopping has replaced sexualstimulation as the preferred form of self-gratification.
While he is away on one of his morbid business trips, Jack’s sterile apartment blows up—supposedly the result of arsonist subterfuge. Hearrives on the scene and mournfully surveys the remains of his once-com-fortable life, noting the disemboweled carcass of his refrigerator with em-barrassment: “A house full of condiments and no food” (Fincher). His chicfurniture and kitschy accoutrements are little more than set dressing—allflavor and no nutritional value. Jack is forced to call someone for help;through their destruction, Jack’s possessions have failed to provide thesuccor he needs. For reasons unknown to him at the time, he dials thenumber of Tyler Durden, a mysterious soap salesman he had met on hismost recent business trip.
Tyler is cheerful and accommodating, and the two meet at a local bar to share a few pitchers of beer. In the resulting discussion, Tyler ques-tions the mourning Jack and begins to clarify the key points of his ownascetic manifesto: TYLER. Do you know what a duvet is?JACK. A comforter.
TYLER. It’s a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like youand I know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, inthe hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?JACK. I don’t know . . . consumers? Artistic Schizophrenia: How Fight Club's Message Is Subverted 47 TYLER. Right! We are consumers. We are byproducts of a lifestyleobsession. Murder, crime, poverty—these things don’t concernme. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra,Olestra. . . . I say never be complete. I say stop being perfect. Isay let’s evolve and let the chips fall where they may. . . . (Fincher) Although Jack bemoans the loss of his property, the Tyler side of his personality revels in what he considers to be liberation and freedom. Tylerends his philosophizing with the comment, “The things you own end upowning you” (Fincher). Consumers ultimately become chained to theirown possessions—caring more about them than their personal relation-ships.
Jack moves in with Tyler, and the change of scenery couldn’t be more dramatic. Jack explains his living conditions in the heart of an indus-trial district: I don’t know how Tyler found that house, but he said he’d beenthere for a year. It looked like it was waiting to be torn down.
Most of the windows were boarded up. There was no lock on thefront door from when the police or whoever kicked it in. Stairswere ready to collapse. I didn’t know if he owned it or if he wassquatting. . . . What a shithole. Nothing worked. Turning on onelight meant another light in the house went out. . Every time itrained we had to kill the power.
By the end of the first month, I didn’t miss TV. (Fincher) The unexpected turn at the end of this voice-over monolog empha- sizes Jack’s transformation: he comes to find his new accommodationsquite satisfactory—having already lost his precious possessions, he doesn’thave to worry about losing anything else. Besides, he now has somethingother than conspicuous consumption to focus on: Fight Club. Jack andTyler organize an underground boxing society where dissatisfied youngmen test their strength on a visceral, primitive level. Fight Club simplifieseverything; it doesn’t matter who you are, what you own, or how muchmoney you make—everyone is equal in the circle of the fight. Members ofFight Club worry more about their next opponent than they do about theirclothes (most of which are covered with blood anyway).
Jack gives up his materialistic ways and finds fulfillment and satisfac- tion in the energy of the fight. Unfortunately, the matter of his apartmentfire is still of interest to others, namely the police officer investigating theapparent arson. As Jack tries to discuss the matter with the detective onthe phone, the Tyler side of his personality shouts revolutionary mantras inhis ear, like “The liberator who destroyed my property has realigned myperceptions!” and “We reject the basic assumptions of civilization, espe-cially the importance of material possessions!” (Fincher). Jack gets un-derstandably flustered at both Tyler’s droning and the detective’s suspi-cions, ultimately moaning, “I loved every stick of furniture in that place.
That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was me!” (Fincher).
Jack struggles to hold on to reason; perhaps he begins to suspect the truth(that it was he himself who destroyed his own apartment), but on thesurface he still has some longing attachment to his possessions. The “cultof consumerism” has deep-rooted teachings that are hard to forget.
Tyler’s ascetic philosophy eventually breaks out of Jack’s subcon- scious and becomes its own movement; he decides to bring Fight Clubout of the basement and onto the streets. Just before Tyler takes things tothe level of urban terrorism, he addresses the assembled crowd: I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve everlived. . . . An entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaveswith white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes,working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. . . .
We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’dall 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.
(Fincher) Tyler gives the members of Fight Club “homework assignments” intended to break down the status quo and punish those who enjoy toomuch material comfort. Members of Fight Club destroy TV antennas andsatellite dishes with bats, blow up computer retail stores, and shatter carheadlights—but on luxury cars only.
Tyler has created an army of anti-capitalists, and all too late Jack recognizes what is happening. He realizes Tyler is in fact himself, and Jackbegins to fathom the true scope of Fight Club—which Tyler has since Artistic Schizophrenia: How Fight Club's Message Is Subverted 49 renamed Project Mayhem. In a frantic attempt to prevent a full-scale ter-rorist attack, Jack tries to confess his deeds to the police, explaining thescheduled destruction of a number of credit card companies. When thedetectives ask him why Project Mayhem would want to blow up suchbuildings, Jack replies, “If you erase the debt record then we all go backto zero. It’ll create total chaos” (Fincher). Tyler’s ultimate goal is to re-duce everything to a more primitive time, a time before money, credit, anddebt. Project Mayhem’s true purpose is the utter destruction of the Ameri-can economic system.
Jack tries to prevent the coordinated demolition from taking place, but Tyler resurfaces and physically beats Jack into submission. He wakesto find himself on the top floor of an empty office building, the panoramaof credit card corporate headquarters clearly visible. Tyler tells Jack, “Outthese windows we will view the collapse of financial history—one stepcloser to economic equilibrium” (Fincher). In a last desperate attempt tofoil his self-reflective nemesis, Jack shoots himself in the mouth, blowingout his cheek (and the back of Tyler’s head). Jack’s assassination attemptappears to succeed, for Tyler disappears. However, Jack then gives or-ders to the awaiting members of Project Mayhem—to meet him down-stairs after the demolition has taken place, not to call it all off. The twohalves of his personality are apparently reconciled, but Jack seems tohave embraced Tyler’s plans and philosophy. In the end Tyler clearly winsthe psychological struggle, for Jack calmly watches the spectacular demo-lition of the credit card company skyscrapers, a faint smile on his lips.
This resolution to the story is fundamentally different from the one Palahniuk envisioned. In the novel, Tyler only wants to blow up the Parker-Morris Building (described as the world’s tallest)—but his real goal is todestroy the neighboring natural history museum with all the falling debris(14). At the same time he wants to martyr himself (and Jack) by remaininginside the doomed building. However, Tyler fails to mix the paraffin-basedexplosives properly (Jack knows paraffin never works, but he has some-how kept that knowledge from Tyler), and the buildings are spared (205).
After Jack shoots himself, he considers Tyler dead and once again has full control of his own psyche (206). Fight Club continues to exist, but Jackremains his own man (although understandably hospitalized by the gun-shot to the face).
By significantly changing Palahniuk’s ending, Fincher’s film presents a more complete and successful manifestation of anti-consumer politics.
Palahniuk’s Tyler Durden is more interested in general anarchy and chaos,desiring a violent reclamation of the world: “We wanted to blast the worldfree of history” (124). Fincher’s Tyler Durden is all about inciting the massesto revolt against consumerism and the established economic system, real-izing “the collapse of financial history” (Fincher). Palahniuk’s Tyler wantsto destroy museums; Fincher’s Tyler wants to erase the debt record. Al-though both works are irrevocably tied to the capitalist system, Fincher’sis more overtly duplicitous. His version of Tyler Durden takes a muchmore aggressive stance against the very system to which the film belongs.
This apparent contradiction establishes the crucial problem of the movieversion of Fight Club.
The Split Personality of Fight Club
Unlike members of the academic intelligentsia, a Hollywood direc- tor is thoroughly dependent on the capitalist system to measure success.
University professors and pop culture theorists operate as members ofthe bourgeois elite, but their efforts and criticisms are not contingent onfinancial success; instead, they function in a world of specialized publica-tions (written for a similarly bourgeois readership) and the attainment oftenure. The film studio, on the other hand, must keep the bottom line apriority, for one failed movie at the box office can literally result in the endof a career (see Hal Warren, for example). Furthermore, academic criticsnormally are not directly attempting social change; their role is to interpretand evaluate the cultural products of others, those who specifically striveto make a broad impact on contemporary society. Fight Club makesclaims about modern society as a whole, whereas a study such as this one Artistic Schizophrenia: How Fight Club's Message Is Subverted 51 merely assesses how effectively the film accomplishes (or fails to accom-plish) its goal.
In Kravitz’s recent analysis of the schizophrenic nature of Fight Club, he discusses some of the fundamental contradictions within the film itself,which warrant attention before looking at the fractured relationship be-tween the film and its message. Tyler creates Fight Club to break downclass barriers and to combat capitalist enterprises (like Starbuck’s Cof-fee) with Project Mayhem’s “homework” assignments. However, FightClub ends up having an organized structure and an almost militaristic hier-archy: that which was designed to resist the dominant culture “becomespart of the institution” (39). Furthermore, once Fight Club spreads acrossthe nation, it develops into a network—a chain franchise not unlike BurgerKing (Kravitz 43-44). In effect, Tyler’s messianic mission is ultimatelythwarted because “the desire to reassert male authority leads to a totali-tarian organization developed by Jack and Tyler that is just as dangerousto the individual spirit as is the society they so despise” (Kravitz 44-45).
Members of Fight Club simply become cogs in a new machine.
Kravitz’s observations underscore the schizophrenic problems be- tween Tyler Durden and his counterculture movement, but that message isalso contradicted by its connection to the motion picture industry. One ofthe central messages of Fincher’s Fight Club is clearly a warning againstexcessive and unchecked commercialism; but as an undeniably market-able product itself, can the film’s message be taken seriously? On the onehand, film critics and theorists continue to make detailed arguments thatsupport the view of film as an important tool to promote ideologies and toaffect social change. For instance, in his discussion of film perception, filmtheorist Dudley Andrew claims that “cinema mediates reality” (Conceptsin Film Theory 21). In other words, although films can sometimes por-tray serious problems in a lighthearted manner, they still fulfill their role asmediator, re-presenting reality for aesthetic study by the mass audience.
The Hollywood film is primarily a mode of entertainment; neverthe- less, Sergei Eisenstein presents the claim that “true art must necessarily bean insurgent force destined to manifest, at the level of perception and imagination, the antinomies of a society not in tune with man and nature.
Art, therefore, can still change behavior by changing perception, but itdoes so indirectly, as a natural byproduct of simply being itself” (Andrew,The Major Film Theories 74). According to Eisenstein, the ideologicalmessage conveyed through the pleasure of the film experience can subtlychange the opinions and even the actions of the audience, if only at asubconscious level. Eisenstein also has the support of French theorist AndreBazin, who identifies cinema as “a unique and valuable tool for knowl-edge, perception, and, ultimately, action” (Andrew, Theories 171). As atool, film’s definitive intent must be to transcend entertainment to becomethe motivation for real social action.
In contrast, Marxist theorists, particularly those of the Frankfurt School, have been openly critical of the value of popular art. In “TheWork of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” of 1935, WalterBenjamin criticizes the mass production of film and music recordings; andTheodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer worry in “The Culture Industry:Enlightenment as Mass Deception” that commercialized art results in apassive audience. They all do, however, assign a measure of value topopular art. Whereas some early theorists had “worried that popular cul-ture represented a threat to cultural and social authority, the FrankfurtSchool argues that it actually produces the opposite effect; it maintainssocial authority” (Storey 101). Rather than being a vehicle for radicalchange in thought and action, popular culture in fact works to keep themasses placated and passive, content with society the way it is.
Perhaps the harshest critics of popular entertainment have been Adorno and Horkheimer, who use blunt language to condemn the premisethat popular entertainment is real art: “Movies and radio need no longerpretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into anideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce” (121).
Their main criticism centers on the necessity of popular culture to be de-pendent upon the capitalist economy. Since multi-million dollar Hollywoodfilms must embrace capitalism to succeed—through marketing, product Artistic Schizophrenia: How Fight Club's Message Is Subverted 53 placement and tie-ins, and a ticket-buying fan base—any subversive orrevolutionary messages are rendered basically mute.
Cahiers du Cinéma critics Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni emphasize that film “is a particular product, manufactured within a givensystem of economic relations” (753). They go on to claim that “all filmsare commodities and therefore objects of trade, even those whose dis-course is explicitly political” (755). No matter what the message behind awork of art, it cannot distance itself from the embrace of capitalist ideol-ogy. Horkheimer and Adorno re-christen popular entertainment as “theculture industry,” which “remains the entertainment business [emphasisadded]” (136). Therefore, Fight Club ultimately cannot make a seriouscritique of American consumer culture because “as a result of being amaterial product of the system, it is also an ideological product of thesystem, which . . . means capitalism. . . . [e]very film is political, inas-much as it is determined by the ideology which produces it” (Comolli &Narboni 754). The commercial Hollywood system—capitalism—pro-duced Fight Club, which must unavoidably embrace that same system.
The only possible way for a mainstream cinematic message to truly escape the bonds of the capitalistic system would be via free exhibitionand distribution. A low-budget, independent, or digital film could conceiv-ably be shown at community film festivals, shared through e-mail, or postedon web sites like MySpace or Ifilm, thus circumventing the commodificationof art. At the very least, movies could be screened at a discounted rate—much like the $20-a-seat tickets offered at performances of Rent on Broad-way during the 1990s (McDonnell 30)—and DVDs could be made morecheaply available to consumers. However, none of these alternatives couldever result in a profit for the producing studio; those involved in the film’screation would either have to donate their time and talents, or the entireundertaking would have to be funded by a magnanimous philanthropist.
At any rate, such a hypothetical film production system is a far cry fromthe existing Hollywood model.
As a mainstream, commercial Hollywood commodity, Fight Club’s message simply cannot carry any substantial weight as a critique of capi- talism, and the philosophies of Tyler Durden certainly can’t be taken liter-ally—at best the film is a satire or example of ironic criticism. For onething, the movie is hardly an independent film or an art-house “thoughtpiece”—its theatrical release grossed just over $37 million domesticallyand $71 million internationally (“Business Data”). In addition, the film it-self is rife with contradiction: superstar Brad Pitt plays Tyler Durden (thevery embodiment of the “movie god” against whom Tyler rails) and mem-bers of Project Mayhem are shown magnetically erasing VHS tapes inlocal video rental stores—which represent the very product Fight Clubis eventually to become. Such facts and scenes only further diminish thepolitical message of Fight Club, turning Palahiuk’s thought-provokingtext into just another commercial product.
Yet Kravitz claims that Fincher’s film is quite openly artificial and ironic. In a parallel between the film and its story, Fincher inserts flash-cutimages of Tyler Durden/Brad Pitt during certain reels of the film in exactlythe same way Tyler inserts images of pornography into otherwise family-friendly movies. By playing on this theme of subliminal messages, “[t]heinserted images remind us that Fight Club is a cultural artifact, a productof mainstream Hollywood, and will not significantly alter the society fromwhich it comes. Everything is artificial in this portrayal of late capitalism,even the film itself” (Kravitz 40). However, even if this were Fincher’strue intent—to tip his hand, as it were, to the viewing public—it is unlikelythe average moviegoer—especially one only interested in seeing Brad Pittwith his shirt off—would read the subtext over and above the text. Theanti-consumer propaganda spouted over and over by Tyler, in conjunc-tion with the destruction of the buildings at the end, must overpower anysuch subtle clues in editing.
Of course, the goal of Fincher’s movie was probably never the uni- versal adoption of Tyler Durden’s ascetic philosophy, but because FightClub’s central conflicts are essentially binary in nature, it’s natural to readthe film in terms of extreme contrasts. Either Jack is right, and there’snothing wrong with rampant consumerism, or Tyler is right, and the prole-tariat should rise up, abandon their possessions, and combat the fran- Artistic Schizophrenia: How Fight Club's Message Is Subverted 55 chises of capitalism. However, since Tyler’s extremism is contradicted bythe essential nature of the Hollywood blockbuster, the film cannot be takenseriously as a manifesto of revolution. Instead, and much more likely, thefilm accomplishes simply getting the average film viewer to reconsider hisor her own lifestyle. The Brad Pitt movie can attract an audience thatwould possibly be put off or intimidated by Palahniuk’s novel, since themovie overall broadcasts a message of moderation (rejecting the Jack/Tyler conflict) rather than anarchy. Although viewers are unlikely to join anunderground society or bomb the local Starbuck’s, they might make fewerfrivolous purchases or adopt a recycling program, and if that does hap-pen, the film can in some ways be considered a success.
Ultimately, however, the Hollywood film industry belongs to the cult of capitalism because popular cinema exists primarily to make money.
Although mainstream movies may make grand statements regarding so-
cial reform, they can rarely be taken sincerely without appearing philo-
sophically insincere. In the words of Herbert Marcuse, “art cannot abol-
ish the social division of labor which makes for its esoteric character, but
neither can art ‘popularize’ itself without weakening its emancipatory im-
pact” (556). Fincher’s version of Fight Club suffers from the same split-
personality disorder affecting its protagonist. By showing Tyler as victor,
the film clearly wants to embrace his anti-commercial philosophies on
some level; but to reach a receptive public, the message must become the
very thing it criticizes. The tale of Fight Club changes on an ideological
level when adapted from a novel to a Hollywood movie. Although it is not
without value—as aesthetic art object, cathartic release, or pure escapist
entertainment—such a cinematic representation of society cannot signifi-
cantly change the ideas or behavior of the viewing audience.
Kyle Bishop
Southern Utah University

Works Cited
Andrew, J. Dudley. Concepts in Film Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
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Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Trans. Harry Zahn. The Critical Tradition. 3rd ed. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston:Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 1233-1249.
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Fincher, David, dir. Fight Club. Perf. Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter. 20th Century Fox, 1999. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2000.
Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies. 10th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans.
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“How to Start a Fight.” Fight Club DVD insert. 20th Century Fox Home Entertain- Kravitz, Bennett. “The Culture of Disease and the Dis-Ease of Culture: Re-Membering the Body in Fight Club and Memento.” Studies in Popular Culture 26.3 (2004):29-48.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Authorized English translation. Ed. Frederick Engels. New York: International Publishers, 1998.
Marcuse, Herbert. The Aesthetic Dimension. Boston: Beacon, 1978. Rpt. in Art and Its Significance. 3rd ed. Ed. Stephen David Ross. Albany: State U of New York P,1994. 548-557.
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Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Owl Books, 1996.
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