Every time I watch Fight Club, I become a little more convinced that it’s the most important movie of the modern era. The reasons for this are as varied as those for being rejected from Project Mayhem - too fat, too old, too… blonde. David Fincher’s innovative directing is a primary one (the repeated single-cell image flashes of Tyler before he’s even introduced as a character are a stroke of particular resonance) the performances of the stellar cast lending astonishing weight to characters quite unlike any in the history of film is another and indeed the fact that Hollywood actually made this counter-cultural denouncement of all that it stands for suggests that, despite the current trend of pointless remakes and endless sequels, there is still hope for the film industry; whosoever approved a film in which the main concept is the total and utter destruction of almost every aspect of capitalist society clearly has a pair of balls so astonishingly massive that you could admire them from space. But possibly the main reason is the sheer brilliance of the dialogue.
There are many classic lines in the film; the first two rules of fight club being an obvious example, with “I felt like destroying something beautiful” and “You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you” being rarer gems. But the crowning glory is the subject of this article.
It arrives about halfway through the film, just after Edward Norton’s unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden board a bus. The two notice a Calvin Klein underwear advert that amuses them; “Is that what a man looks like?” asks Norton’s character. Durden sniggers and replies, “Self-improvement is masturbation. Now, self-destruction…”
This short sentence cuts to the core of what the film is trying to tell you in a clear and concise manner. The idea that self-improvement, the model of aspirational behaviour in Western society since Kurt Goldstein’s theory of self-actualisation was published in 1934, and the point of life itself to many, is nothing more than a base and pointless act of self-gratification was completely unprecedented and highly controversial; the unvoiced suggestion that the real answer lies in its polar opposite even more so. But it is a central theme throughout the film and is echoed in the suggestions that the things you own end up owning you, that only after disaster can we be resurrected and that it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.
The way it appears in the movie is a more confident, declarative version of the line, removing any question from Durden’s belief in the message.
Most of the dialogue in the film is faithfully lifted from the Chuck Palahniuk novel on which the film is based, but this line is one of the few lines that was changed. It originally appears in the form, “Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer. Maybe self-destruction is the answer.” The way it appears in the movie is a more confident, declarative version of the line, removing any question from Durden’s belief in the message. It is also clearly a more explicit and risqué version and this is indicative of the movie’s slight deviation from the plot of the book as well, in which Tyler fails to achieve his ultimate goal. The sight of buildings crumbling to the strain of The Pixies ‘Where Is My Mind?’ is a far more joyous affair.
Not everyone shared this view on the film’s release though. In fact, it was critically panned by many of the critics that reviewed it. Roger Ebert gave it a rating of 2/5 and described it as “cheerfully fascist”, the LA Times as “a witless mishmash of whiny, infantile philosophising” and the New Yorker as “a laborious and foolish waste of time.” Many of the younger critics saw it in a much more favourable light though and the film currently sits at #13 in the IMBD Top 250 Films with an average rating of 8.8. In its brave and uncompromising manner, Fight Club captured the imagination of a generation and nothing explains the manner in which it did so better than this;
“Self-improvement is masturbation. Now, self-destruction…”
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