I watched Fight Club the other night for the first time in over a decade, out of curiosity if it would still seem as important as it did when I first watched the charismatic Tyler Durden come on screen and announce the rule that you do not talk about Fight Club. Fourteen years later, I realize two messages from the movie helped shape my life: Figure out how to feel alive. Be something; don’t buy something.
It’s funny, if you google the words “Fight Club generation,” you’ll get a handful of stories about mixed martial arts and its explosion in popularity. For a film that didn’t make much of a bang at the box office when it came out, Fight Club gave us a lot to consider: the evolving (devolving?) idea of masculinity in our society (“we’re a generation of men raised by women”), the glamorization of violence, mortality (“this is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time”), consumerism, nihilism, and lots of other big ideas.
I memorized one of Tyler Durden’s lines immediately, very likely repeating it an annoying amount of times to friends: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don’t need.” A few months later, I (barely) graduated college with a marketing degree.
Watching the film 14 years later, I realize I never started my own fight club, I managed to get comfortable with my position on the masculinity/femininity spectrum, I’m a little more averse to onscreen violence, and then Edward Norton’s anonymous narrator character walks through his carefully-curated bachelor apartment and says, “I’d flip through catalogs and wonder, ‘What kind of dining set defines me as a person?'” And I realize I spent most of those 14 years resisting buying a lot of stuff.
I think Tyler Durden was the first anti-marketing, anti-consumerism voice I’d ever heard, and he taught me to not be a sucker, to step back and look at what we’re all chasing, and ask, “Is this for me?”
And there was the fighting, the bizarre phenomenon of grown men finding meaning in beating the crap out of each other: I want you to hit me as hard as you can. Real-life fight clubs sprang up across the U.S. after the movie came out, but that wasn’t what most of us took away from the movie. The fights were a sleeping generation waking up, feeling something visceral for a few minutes, popping out of their weeks of walking around numb, and long hours staring unblinking at glowing screens.
I went outside, into the mountains, and felt cold I couldn’t mitigate by turning up a thermostat on a wall, rain I couldn’t hide from under a roof, pain as lactic acid burned my legs and I gasped for air scrambling up boulders at 12,000 feet, and scared the shit out of myself dozens of times climbing exposed rock routes. Holy shit, I’m actually alive, I discovered.
Fight Club (the movie, not the book) turned 14 on October 15th. It’s not a significant anniversary, unless you were in college when it came out—in that case, right around now, you’re at the traditional “midlife crisis” mark. You’ve grown up, maybe “sold out” a little bit, and the young idealist in you has probably sacrificed a few things.
I quit smoking, quit drinking, quit doing lots of stupid things, haven’t been punched in the face since 2000, figured out how to earn an OK living, have several types of insurance, and … have ads on my blog. But I think, among all the literature I read in college while smoking Camels on the front stoop, Tyler Durden’s was one of the clearest voices, and it helped me develop a pretty good bullshit-o-meter when considering the things companies try to sell us and we try to sell ourselves. It was the perfect time in my life—just before entering the workforce—to have someone tell me to question the paper chase. A few years later, I got into the outdoors, and I felt alive. And I read Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing, and heard a very similar ethos—if you don’t need it, don’t buy it.
After I watched the movie again a couple of weeks ago, I found an interview with Edward Norton, published shortly after Fight Club came out. He told the interviewer that Fight Club was the first book he’d read that captured how he felt about his generation, that the world of advertising had created despair and paralysis, and that “we’ve been reduced to a generation of spectators.”
That’s from a 14-year-old interview about a 14-year-old movie. Is it still relevant? A friend of mine just watched the movie again in the last month as well, and pointed out that besides a couple of antique-looking computer monitors shown in the film, Fight Club hadn’t aged at all. That movie could have been made this year, my friend said.