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'Fight Club': It 'Just sort of clicked'

The men behind the ballsy 'Fight Club' talk about anti-consumerism, annoying boomerisms and how to make soap out of human fat.

By Michael Sragow


October 19, 1999
Web posted at: 2:22 p.m. EDT (1822 GMT)

(SALON) -- "I think people are taking it way too seriously," said novelist Chuck Palahniuk at a Los Angeles press conference to promote the always dizzying, sometimes ditzy movie of his 1996 cult hit "Fight Club." Four years ago he pulled together this saga of disaffected drones who gather secretly in basements to whop the bejesus out of each other. The antiheroes' "fight club" is a primal men's group: These guys want to escape despair. But Palahniuk was not writing a prescription or a manifesto.

"It's a scenario; it's a what-if?; it's a proposal," Palahniuk insisted. He might have been mischievously signaling that he knew how radical his work really was. For "Fight Club" on film (as in print) is akin to the out-there satirical "proposal" that Jonathan Swift wrote when he suggested that the Irish could overcome their poverty if they sold their babies as food.

Of course, if I were facing a room of tired, testy radio journalists, I would have been tempted to present a full-blown position paper complete with polls and diagrams. There was a tense exhaustion in the air, as if the press didn't want to deal with a 139-minute movie that serves up, with equal panache, perfectly cooked and half-baked ideas.

"Fight Club" tells the story of a representative Gen X-er, billed in the movie as "the narrator" (Edward Norton), who suffers from insomnia, depression and terminal consumerism. (The film contains an uproarious attack on advertising for the IKEA home-furnishings chain.) For a while he derives comfort from enrolling in support meetings for critical diseases. But he finds long-lasting relief only when he teams up with a mysterious new friend, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), to organize a counterculture that's not about peace and love.

In Tyler Durden's fight club, alienated guys get in touch with their inner primates via bare-knuckled scraps that leave them scarred and happy. To Palahniuk, these sessions are like "a Pentecostal Church meeting, or a mosh pit. Some very gestalt expression of rage to the point of exhaustion."

"Chuck is connected to the whole underground world in Portland, and he makes it sound like Los Angeles is Dubuque in comparison," screenwriter Jim Uhls told me later. Maybe that's what gave Palahniuk the confidence to wield such wild tropes as "the rules of fight club" like a comedy hammer. (The first rule about fight club is you don't talk about fight club. The second rule of fight club is you don't talk about fight club.) His combination of verbal gamesmanship and quirky observations took the moviemakers to unexpected and unsettling places. Once Tyler Durden puts fight club on a solid footing, he assembles an army to execute an explosive nihilist/anarchist campaign called "Project Mayhem."

I think the result is often potent: a cautionary parody of unhappy individualists sliding into fascism. (One critic has already dubbed the movie fascist, period.) When Tyler's black-shirted legions fund their activities with luxury soap made from human fat, it's difficult not to think of Nazis. But when I asked Palahniuk if the soap was meant to refer to the concentration camps, the short answer was no.

"The soap thing," he explained, "was based on my friend Alice, she taught me one day how to make soap." Alice regaled him with the myth that soap was invented when water seeped through the burnt pyres of human sacrifices and merged with melted body fat. That evening, when Palahniuk's sister called from Canada, she reported "that the Canadian government was falling farther and farther behind in incinerating liposuction fat" and it was starting to fill up the Alberta prairies. Palahniuk thought he knew what they could do with bags of human fat. He said, "It just sort of clicked."

"Just sort of clicked" -- exactly! Both book and movie are at once hilariously self-aware and flippantly unexamined. For example, Palahniuk and his friends were complaining about emotionally absent fathers, so he put the issue into the novel and made it part of a Gen X anthem. The characters come off incongruously oblivious to everything boomers have discussed on talk shows for 20 years.

"Fight Club" will leave with-it audiences giggling, gasping -- and scratching their heads. But it has set the mainstream press shuddering at the notion of hordes of impressionable youths leaving theaters and threatening law and order.

Next page | Edward Norton: "Fight Club" is a weird "Catcher in the Rye"


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