The Perversion of Spiritual and Emotional Fulfillment in "Fight Club"
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Consumerism
- 3 Art Direction
- 4 Colour
- 5 Light
- 6 Shape Language
- 7 Compositional Techniques
- 8 Conclusion
- 9 References:
- 10 Books
Semiotics is the study of symbols and signs a communication system which relies on a visual metaphor to communicate information in the most culturally universal instinctual way. Explored in film first by Peter Wollen in his book “Signs and their Meanings” Peter put forward symbols as integral communication devices to help progress story and meaning.
Fight Club was originally a book written by Chuck Palahniuk in 1996 and later adapted into a screenplay by Jim Uhls. It is a grim story which outlines the gross levels of consumerism in our society as well as the dangers of cults, the story revolves around a man, “the Narrator”, whom rejects his reality by creating a personality which is able to reject and rebel against the lifestyle which he feels is corrupting the way we live our lives.
This essay will focus on how Fight club portrays the perversion of spiritual and emotional fulfillment in the modern age through the grotesque consumerism and the degradation of the American dream and how damaging it can be too the emotional and spiritual health of a person. These topics will be discussed mostly through the semiotics of the art direction of Fight club and how both David Fincher and Alex McDowell’s design choices added to both the experience of the film as well as to the meaning behind, emphasizing key story moments and how said design choices communicated the underlying themes and motifs of the original story, to ultimately signify the perversion of the American dream through excessive consumerism and how acquisition of material goods and wealth has taken priority over living a meaningful life.
One of the main themes of Fight Club is Consumerism, and how it corrupts our dreams and aspirations. For the Narrator the taint consumes his whole life, he gives us a description of how it affects him in the beginning of the film, things like insomnia which make everyday tasks feel like “a copy of a copy” (the Narrator, 00:04:07), this is followed by a scene of an empty apartment being filled with expensive things, it is at this point that the Narrator claims “Like so many others, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct.” (the Narrator, 00:04:48). This is an important distinction in the consumer culture as it “draws attention to society’s infatuation and obsession with materialism.” (Nikolai Christofferson).
The acquiring of materialistic goods in the beginning of the film is likened to obtaining the American dream, the Narrator spends his spends his time and money on inconsequential things to fill up his apartment in the hopes of achieving some sort of happiness and or enlightenment. “I was close to being complete” (the Narrator, 00:29:37) the Narrator reveals to Tyler Durden when all of his accumulated wealth has crumbled to ash, this is and indexical signifier of how much control over our lives we give to the items we want, that there is almost a pathological need for them.
There is also a clear visual metaphor where the idea of the American dream literally rots away for the Narrator as he goes from clean ordered apartment to a rotting house and finally the absolute destruction of buildings at the end of the film, this escalates in tandem with the Narrator’s relationship and subsequent merging with Tyler in the end. The decaying and ultimate destruction of the buildings also grown in scale throughout the film signify the Narrator’s state of mind and mental health as the film progresses, as he starts to slowly spiral into the insanity of Tyler Durden whom gives him the freedom to break away from his old ways until finally at the end of the film with the ‘ultimate’ destruction the Narrator will have gained a level of enlightenment that he had lacked throughout the film.
The sickly nature of consumerism is also told through Tyler Durden’s Soap Business, by taking a consumable product ei a soap bar and explain the process of how it comes from human fat from a liposuction clinic. David finches is alluding to both the lack of care in which we as a society get our products from (just so long as we are still able to acquire said products) and the amount of waste that is left over from the gluttonous process. While the example in the film may be an exaggeration the message still stands, as it shows the complete willful ignorance of society and the lack of motivation to change their living situation.
The obsessive consumerist lifestyle is visualized throughout the film using recognizable brand names and logos which are littered throughout the movie often cluttering the backgrounds of specific shots. According to Tim Pelan from Cinetropolis, David Fincher claims that there is a Starbucks coffee cup in every scene this of course is one of the biggest signifiers of consumerism throughout the film as Starbucks is such an iconic brand. David Fincher also uses “visual and auditory elements that imitate advertising tactics.” (Nikolai Christofferson) such as fast cuts and an almost catalogue like approach to explaining how certain goals are achieved in the film, for example the explosion sequence in the narrator’s apartment, or the description of project mayhems plans, and definitely for the Ikea scene in the Narrator’s Apartment. It is important to note that along with material gain in Fight Club the narrator is also looking for truthful validation from other people, which is portrayed by him going to all sorts of different support groups and faking that he has all sorts of chronic or terminal disabilities. It is at these support groups where he can get the full attention of another human being whom does not have any ulterior motives. This in itself is a criticism of the selfishness of the American dream and the consumer lifestyle, the selfishness and narcissism is what eventually spirals the Narrator to into a very literal and visual destruction.
From all the visual cues we can assume that the target audience for fight club is for the younger masculine viewer, as the film boasts testosterone fueled fights with a dark and gritty aesthetic. We can break down the meaning behind the aesthetics into 4 main groups; Colour, Lighting, Shape Language and Compositional Techniques.
“But instead of merely focusing on the internal and external forces affecting the characters, Fincher makes it a point to utilize the environment’s color palette in expressing conflict as well. For Fincher, everything in the shot is an extension of the characters and should reflect their dilemmas.” (Matt Vasiliauska)
Fight Club sports a mostly subdued colour scheme made up of dull greys, blacks, whites and some neutral greens. Browns and blues all of which when combined give a certain sickly or unhealthy feeling to the film. This supports the obviously ‘unwell’ Narrator who has to attend various support groups by faking problems to feel validated as well as the less than obvious split personality reveal at the end. Key moments and characters that act as catalysts of the film are emphasized with bright overly saturated warm colours usually varying shades of reds and oranges, these moments are both alluring to the Narrator as they are dangerous, the danger symbol, which will be further expanded upon later in this essay, is what gives the Narrator a choice in his life which he does not feel has been pre-decided for him by larger corporations.
“color itself has that inherent emotional property. It means that
It can elicit that physical and emotional response from the audience.” (Patti Bellatoni, page 26)
The colour scheme of or surrounding the characters also help to communicate specify characteristics and personality traits. The colours that surround the Narrator are always dull neutral colours, most often whites, greys, and browns and even when reds occur on him in they are subdued sickly reds unlike the bright vibrant colours of Tyler Durden whom is the opposite force of everything in the narrator’s life. In the case of Tyler his colours are so bright and vibrant with the purpose of looking like he doesn’t belong in the world as he is literally a figment of the narrator’s imagination and rejects the world in which the narrator lives. Another reason for Tyler to have these colours, is that he is a catalyst for all the turning points in the film which reveal to the narrator how controlled his life really through the material goods that he has brought.
“David Fincher movies want to get at the heart of what makes reality tick. How human and environmental forces compliment and antagonize one another.” (Vasiliauskas)
The majority of the film takes place in the dark, which of course adds to the grim mood of the film but it also helps to communicate a secrecy of what is going on in the Narrator’s mind “The lighting shows the audience that film is a story of a man fighting his inner demons and problems including his own expectations of himself” (Xhaed123) the dark lighting makes some of the visual information unclear both to us the audience but also to the narrator. In Contrast to the dark lighting the only scenes that are not shot during a night scene nor a dimly light room all highlight the docility and complacency in reality.
They also use lighting to show the mental state of the Narrator and Tyler Durden swapping mainly between heavy contrasted high key-lighting and very even low-key lighting to communicate which of the narrators personalities is most in control at any given time.
“The stark contrast between the lighting depending on whose personality is in control is obvious throughout the film. Blood, fighting, dirt, sweat, masculinity and the dark low-key lighting represent Tyler, whilst Jack is represented through consumerism, clean white oxford’s, neat and tidy spaces, and the bright high-key lighting.” (Lea Studebaker)
The semiotics of the lighting is important towards the two characters because it helps us differentiate the two as well as their role in the film at any given moment.
“If the stark contrast in lighting was not utilized, the dramatic difference between Tyler and Jack’s personalities would not have been as evident” (Studebaker, 2019)
“People may not always notice what figures and shapes surround them still they have a great impact on our consciousness and behavior.” (Alina Arhipova)
Shape language plays an important role in this movie as the order vs chaos theme is used continually to further the consumerist and cult danger motifs through the story. This is done by contrasting the clean, clinical organized scenes of the Narrator workplace and the various support groups that he attends to the disorganized chaos of the basements in which the club fights as well as the cult cells in which he stays after his own house as be reduced to ash. This can be broken down a step further by contrasting the hard edged geometric shapes and the softer organics ones. The hard edged shapes are the prevailing shapes throughout the film all a metaphor for the lack of feeling and emotion these shapes signify order, structure peacefulness in a video by Claudio Graciolli he explains that these shapes could also be seen to embody conformity and even docility, in Fight Club they are often used in places where the Narrator feels trapped and hemmed in. This is contrasted by the use of softer organic shapes generally signify more caring and less dangerous emotions. The Narrator looks for acceptance in characters and environments with these shapes in the movie no matter how universally un-appealing they are, a perfect example of this is the scene where he has to hug a chronically obese sweaty man, which is something that is seen as unhealthy and even repulsive yet it brings the Narrator comfort as it is in direct opposition to the uncaring hardness in the rest of his life and it allows him to drop his emotional defenses and release his pent up emotions.
When the big sweaty man, Bob is soon replaced by the writhing mass of fight club members whom whose smooth flowing organic shape reads quite a bit differently, it becomes something primal and it becomes the extreme opposite of the sterile world which he is trying to escape. The narrator swaps a comfortable lie for the truth in an attempt to gain some closure in his own life.
Figure A, (Fight Club, 1999, 00:04:31)
If we take figure A as an example, in the top frame we have the Narrator visually literally boxed in by hard geometric shapes and leading line with his boss in the foreground blocking his only exit out. This is symbolic of how the narrator feels impotent in his current life with no means of escape. All the lines lead to his eyes which are cast up in a subservient manner to the giant foreground figure. The colours are sterile which add to the narrator’s impotence. The set dressing has no personalization which shows a complete lack of interest in his work as well as adding to his docile subservient demeanor. In this scene we can again the Starbucks coffee which is a reoccurring prop throughout the film.
Figure B (Fight Club, 1999, 00:45:25)
In figure B we have a wide angle shot of a fight scene within the actual fight club. Here the combatant are framed within a writhing mass of people making them the clear focal point of what is going on within this scene. There is a strong triangular composition from by the spreading of the light and the leading lines are less literal and rely more on the line of sight from the spectators of the club. The dim lighting with harsh rim light really adds to the testosterone fueled aggression of this scene and helps indicated the regression of the people here by showing them in a primal light. The colour scheme of this shot is again typical of the fight club colour styling using sickly darker colours to emphasize the grunginess of the scenario, there are some spot colours that are in the shot like the bright whites and the orange-red of Tyler’s pants which serve as focal point, guiding the viewer’s eye back to the main fight in the center of the shot, the colours also serve to show the mental state of the room mainly being an unhealthy one as the colours are all sickly greys, blues and greens while you also have the aggressive orange red spot colours too.
In conclusion, it is the overwhelming disillusioned world that breaks the narrator in the end, he tries to change the American dream by breaking down the hold of the material gain dogma that larger corporations have imposed on modern society. Through the muted, sickly colours, the harsh lighting schemes and the claustrophobic scenes, David Fincher and Alex McDowell have created a compelling visual destruction of the main character through both his environment and his script. While it could be argued that in the end he is reborn from the ashes of the destruction around him and that he has merged with his ulterior personality it is far more believable and compelling that the damage done was lasting and possible even irreversible, while the narrator was able to reject the consumerist lifestyle the same is not true for the rest of the world in the film, and the crimes that he had committed would leave emotional and spiritual scaring. In the end the Narrator was not able to fully cleanse himself nor the world of the consumerist American Dream.
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Contents 1 Introduction 2 Consumerism 3 Art Direction 4 Colour 5 Light 6 Shape Language 7 Compositional Techniques 8 Conclusion 9 References: 10 Books Introduction Semiotics is the study of […]