"Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything. Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart." – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club.
When we think about homelessness on screen, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp comes to mind, and so do modern classics like the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory and the Gus Van Sant masterpiece My Own Private Idaho. But this week I wanted to revisit a classic movie from the end of the last century – it’s a masterful black comedy, a brutal action film and a scorching satire that aims for the dark heart of consumer culture. But, here’s the thing: Fight Club is also a movie about homelessness.
David Fincher’s 1999 film is based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk. Fight Club was Palahniuk’s breakthrough novel; before the book and the film won the author his audience, he worked as a journalist and a truck mechanic, and he was also a volunteer at a homeless shelter. In a 2005 interview with The Guardian, Palahniuk stated that serving homeless populations taught him how homeless people live, and helped him to confront his own fears about poverty. And Fight Club isn’t Palahniuk’s only book in which he touches on homelessness: in his 2005 novel, Haunted, Palahniuk introduces Lady Baglady in a chapter entitled “Slumming.” The wealthy character and her husband pretend to be homeless as a cure for boredom, but their charade backfires and ends up costing the lives of several others in the homeless community that had welcomed them.
Fight Club is narrated by an unnamed traveling automobile recall accessor played by Ed Norton. The character suffers from insomnia, but finds relief from his condition by attending various support groups under false pretenses. Norton’s character meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a business trip, and when he returns home to find his apartment has literally blown to bits, he rings Durden out of desperation. A disaster like a flood, fire or tornado is a very common cause of temporary homelessness – we’re seeing lots of this right now in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. When this kind of sudden homelessness is exacerbated by chemical dependency, mental illness or a lack of affordable housing alternatives, it’s a situation that can quickly devolve into chronic homelessness. Norton’s character seems relatively well off, but his pretending to have testicular cancer in order to receive empathy from total strangers only underlines his lacking of a social safety net of friends and family when disaster strikes. And – spoiler alert – he’s also suffering from a split personality disorder. These factors combine to find Norton moving into an abandoned house with Durden. Their creation of a fist fighting cult is fiction, but the circumstances of their situation are all too real for our homeless neighbors in Nashville and around the country.
The big dilapidated house where the pair are squatting in the film is one of Fight Club’s main characters: its remote location in an industrial district makes it a realistic setting for paramilitary cult to develop, and the ramshackle condition of its hear-through walls plays an important role in the development of the relationship between Norton and Pitt’s characters. The house’s greasy, grimy environs are the complete antithesis of the squeaky-chic consumerism the movie’s themes skewer. And even though Norton continues to go to his job for a time, the abandoned house represents his complete untethering from core costs assumed by consumer culture: mortgage/rent, utility bills, property taxes. The house is even given a voice of a kind in the form of a box full of articles found in the basement. The entries are seemingly written from the points of view of the various bodily organs of a previous tenant: “I am Jack’s colon.” The letters act like the voice of a ghost that knows more about the house than its current inhabitants, and – spoiler alert – Jack knows a lot more than most viewers will initially realize.
Fight Club is one of the most subversive films ever produced by mainstream Hollywood. Its themes of cultural alienation in the midst of consumer excess reverberate even stronger during these times of growing economic disparity. And its examining of what might come of young males with no wars to fight or bridges to build or meaning to make from corporate culture is one worth revisiting in the age of Trump. The film is also an examination of the circumstances that create homeless communities made up of our many neighbors who live one fire, one illness, one eviction or one layoff from scraping for survival on the streets.
Fight Club is streaming on Amazon Video. The DVD can be borrowed from Nashville Public Library.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.