'Fight Club': A Shock to the System

You may have heard some things about this new movie "Fight Club," like how it contains a great deal of gory, stomach-turning violence. True enough, but don't be misled. Brutality isn't the sole distasteful element in this deeply distasteful film.

There's nothing uplifting, nothing positive about this movie. It's simply an exercise in the glorification of nihilism.

Edward Norton plays a thirtyish fellow who works for a major car manufacturer that consciously, calculatedly, puts profit ahead of customer safety. Outside the office, he spends his time finding new and better ways to furnish his condominium. Emotionally and intellectually, he's adrift, vaguely troubled.

Then he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who's as charismatic as the devil and nearly as wicked. Durden, a soap entrepreneur who makes his wares using human fat retrieved from liposuction-clinic dumpsters, also works - for kicks, apparently - as a theater projectionist who inserts almost imperceptible pornographic images into children's movies, and as a waiter who excretes into the food of unsuspecting diners.

Most importantly, Durden is the driving force behind Fight Club, in which Norton's character and a growing number of those like him, numbed by their tedious jobs and an acquisitive, materialistic culture, gather in the basement of a dumpy bar, pair off, and bare-knuckle punch each other bloody in order to feel...something.

After a while, though, slugfests aren't enough for Durden, who turns out to be not only a first-rate sociopath but also an ideological terrorist, taking on the socioeconomic structure that produces men who find relief only in violence. His followers and he start small (e.g., vandalizing cars) and end by blowing up the high-rise headquarters of the largest credit-card companies.

Maybe the makers of "Fight Club" are trying to teach us that we shouldn't let our possessions become central to our lives. But the movie's suggestions that corporate capitalism is so pervasively powerful that a consumerist mindset may be virtually inevitable - and, therefore, that terrorism against the system is justified - are unbelievably irresponsible.

"Fight Club" doesn't imply that a Durdenista triumph would result in utopia. Its general vision of life is hardly less bleak than its particular take on consumer society. Conventional organized religion is explicitly dismissed; in fact, the members of the Fight Club bestow unquestioning devotion upon only their godlike Durden.

A scene edited from the final version of the movie best illustrates its ugly nihilism. Durden has just had sex with a woman when she says to him, "I want you to make me pregnant. I want to have your abortion." The studio, Fox, prevailed upon director David Fincher to remove the line. The more acceptable substitute? "That was the best f-- I've had since grade school."

In a way, I wish the abortion line had stayed in. As appalling as it is, it crystallizes, in a manner that cannot be ignored, the destructive, insulting, self-centered worldview of the film - and everyone associated with it.

Predictably, some critics are praising this garbage precisely for that worldview. Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote that Pitt "struts through the film with...a visceral sense of purpose. He's right at home in a movie that warns against worshiping false idols."

Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post was about as muddleheaded as Maslin: "In some respects, ['Fight Club' is] a hymn of praise to anarchy and chaos. To this impulse, it says: way cool. And this, of course, is why all sane people over the age of 50 will loathe and fear it. They should...The movie is indefensible, which is what is so cool about it. It's a screed against all that's holy and noble in man, a yelp from the black hole. It's a sharp stick in the eye."

Comments from certain "Fight Club" movers and shakers demonstrate how deliberate was their intent to offend. Apropos of post-Columbine sensitivity to media violence, Art Linson, one of the film's producers, proclaimed to Entertainment Weekly, "I don't really care what Bill 'S--head' Bennett thinks about this movie." To the same magazine, Fincher mused, "There's something about getting hit in the face that gives you an adrenalized version of life that's very profound. It's like nothing else you experience in life."

These people producing this kind of poison, and the artistic community praising it, are sick. And it says something about the cultural health of America that in its first weekend "Fight Club" was the most popular film out there, raking in over eleven million bucks.