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Fight Club: Is This What We're Coming To?

Many commentators have suggested that since September 11, everything has changed. I don't know about that, but I do know that the terrorists attacks give this movie entirely new meaning, and a deeply disturbing one at that. More on that later, but first lets take a closer look at this powerful film.

This is a play with three acts. Or maybe it's three different movies spliced end to end. In the opening scenes, Fight Club appears to be a satirical comedy. Through the eyes of our nameless narrator (Edward Norton) we get an insider's view of what it's like for a young, white, urban male working in the heartless world of corporate capitalism.  The narrator doesn't have a name, but he does have an Ikea catalogue, and in one memorable scene early on, the camera pans his empty apartment as he furnishes it piece by piece straight out of the Gen-X furniture store of choice. (In the Columbia University neighborhood where I live, Ikea has a shuttle bus running from the main entrance of the campus to its outlet in New Jersey.  At the end of each day during freshman week busloads of students stream back to their dorms where they set up their living quarters just like the Edward Norton character in this movie.)

In the movie's opening scenes, we learn that the narrator is working as an investigator for one of the big auto companies. It's his job to determine whether a fatal accident suggests a flaw in an automobile's design. He routinely translates the charred bodies of accident victims into a formula which measures their lives against the dollar cost of recall and repair. Just how many lives will a particular flaw in the auto's design consume before the company takes steps to correct its error?  It's little wonder, Fincher seems to be saying, that a young man who performs this sort of cynical calculus eventually rises up to take down the system that places him in such a dehumanizing role.

Part one, satirical comedy; part two, action movie.

This begins when the narrator teams up with another young man, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) to organize the "fight club" in which scores of young men spend their weekends, not jogging in the park or bar hopping, but brutally beating each other up.  Apparently the searing pain involved in being battered to a pulp snaps these young men out of a stupor of boredom, and awakens a sense of being, for the first time, truly alive.

During this film's run in the theaters some commentators compared the fight club gatherings to fascist youth gangs in Hitler's Germany; others drew parallels between the cheering crowds of these slug fests and an ecstatic congregation at a pentecostal church.  It's a tribute to the skill of David Fincher's direction and Jeff Cronenwith's cinematography that both these comparisons work.

In the action movie, Fincher takes us inexorably toward more and more brutal forms of violence, until the members of the fight club begin to vent their anger against the outside world. Gradually their "club" becomes a cross between a cult group and a terrorist cell. And as they become better organized under Durden's leadership, their ambitions soar. No longer satisfied with random acts of violence, they dream of striking out against the behemoths of corporate capitalism, planting bombs, so that the high rise office towers that dominate the skyline of a major city come tumbling down. In fact, during the course of making Fight Club Fincher consulted architects to insure that the destruction of the towers would be totally credible. Viewing recent news clips of the World Trade Center's collapse makes it utterly clear just how realistic Fincher's computer generated images were. 

Part one, satirical comedy; part two, action movie; part three, psychological thriller.

In this part the narrator tries to come to grips with the destructive forces within his own psyche, from which the anger and the violence have flowed. It's this part of the movie that is the most disturbing. Yet even as the Fight Club cell prepares to execute its greatest act of violence ever, the contesting forces in the narrator's consciousness collide with each other with ever increasing intensity. In this part, Fincher takes us into a fantasy world, in which the line between nightmare and reality is increasingly blurred.  

Since September 11, many people have wondered, "Why would anyone hate us so, that they would plan and carry out the destruction of the World Trade Center with such massive loss of life." This film offers a disturbing answer. One need not travel to far away Afghanistan to find out why. The source of such hatred can be found much closer to home. Look within the hearts and minds of young Americans like those who committed the earlier terrorist attacks at Columbine High. Follow David Fincher into the hearts and minds of America's own alienated youth. The war on terrorism's most dangerous front line lies within.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.