More Than Meets the “Lye”

More Than Meets the “Lye”

By Sana Aljilani


In the fall of 1999, I turned six. A couple of weeks into first grade, I started seeing commercials for a film named “Fight Club.” I saw posters as well. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton posed with a bar of pink soap. I deduced that the film is about two men who bathe together, and I decided that I should make personal hygiene a priority as well.

As the years went on, I learned more about the film. It is about two men who start a fight club that has rules. They also make soap from lye and fat. People in high school told me how much they loved the movie, but at that point, I still had not seen it.

One Saturday night my freshman year of college, I was lounging around in my dorm room alone, roommates out partying, while I recovered from a terrible cold. I deemed myself unable to study for midterms and decided to watch a movie instead. As I was thinking about which film to watch, my eyes fell onto my roommate’s desk, where I saw a sealed package of soap. Then, the idea came to me: I should finally watch “Fight Club!” Roughly two-and-a-half hours later, as the credits rolled, I thought to myself, “Wow, this film sucked.” I could not see why everyone liked it. The ending? The Narrator (Edward Norton) and Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) hold hands and watch buildings collapse while “Where Is My Mind?” plays? Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) lives inside the Narrator’s body? I was confused and unsatisfied.

I wondered if anyone disliked the movie as much as I did. Around the same time I saw the film, I had an intense crush on one of my hall mates, who happened to be a self-proclaimed cinephile. One evening, as we were waiting to go eat dinner with our other hall mates, I asked him what he thought of “Fight Club.” He quipped, “I need to like the film because I’m a white male.” I found his response quite odd, so I brushed it off. I did not think twice about his opinion. Eventually, the burning flame of passion I had once held for my hall mate extinguished, and I had long forgotten what he thought of “Fight Club.”

Earlier this year, I took a lower-division sociology class, which caused somewhat of a social awakening for me. Concepts such as WASP culture and white privilege began to shape my ideologies and beliefs. I was reflecting on what I had learned from the class about a month ago when suddenly, everything seemed to mesh together. I started thinking about what my crush had said. He felt obligated to like the movie because of his race and gender. Of course, “Fight Club” was pretty much a movie about a white male who wants to create chaos and anarchy. In this sense, the movie is also very similar to two other films that came out around the same time: “American Psycho” (2000) and “Office Space” (1999). The former is the tale of an investment banker with an unquenchable thirst for blood, while the latter is about a programmer who is unhappy with his job and decides to stick it to his boss. All three films share many similarities and differences.

1. Race and gender of lead characters. The Narrator of “Fight Club,” Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) of “American Psycho,” and Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) of “Office Space” are all white males. The Narrator and Patrick look WASP-y and refined. Peter seems more like your average all-American guy. Nevertheless, all three are the white-collar yuppie type.

2. Workplace woes. For each man, his job causes him considerable tension. The Narrator punches himself while conversing with his boss. On a Friday, Peter tries to avoid his boss Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) so he will not be asked to come into work on the following Saturday. At a business meeting, Patrick experiences embarrassment brought on by the superiority of fellow associate Paul Allen’s (Jared Leto) business card. This pushes Patrick to murder Paul. Talk about a hostile work environment.

3. Male vanity and materialism. The Narrator enjoys designer threads, and his apartment looks like an IKEA catalog. He is devastated when he loses everything in a fire. Peter, however, does not seem to be too interested in clothes or décor. He simply follows the employee dress code (at least at the beginning of the movie) and does not care for lavish furniture. Patrick, arguably the most materialistic of the three, wears Valentino suits and Oliver Peoples glasses, and owns furniture from The Sharper Image. He is also very concerned with his cosmetic appearance. When a prostitute kicks him in the face, he yells “Not the fucking face!” With his salary, he could probably afford reconstructive surgery. No biggie.

4. Lack of punishment. This is most apparent with Patrick. He kills Paul and confesses this to his lawyer Harold (Stephen Bogaert) via an answering machine message. The next day, as the film ends, Patrick runs into Harold at a restaurant and restates that he is a killer. Harold does not believe him and claims to have had lunch with Paul a couple of days ago. This ending causes many viewers to question whether or not Patrick really did commit the crime in question, or if the murder was just a fantasy. Conversely, I interpreted this scene as having a social message. Patrick does kill Paul, but because he is a white male, he is able to escape punishment. Harold is delusional enough to think Paul is really alive, so Patrick is never rebuked for any of his crimes. Perhaps this is his punishment, to never be reprimanded for his crimes.

In “Office Space,” Peter and his co-workers Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael (David Herman) work for the fictional company Initech. To get even with the company and Bill, the friends infect the company’s accounting system with a virus so that small increments of money are diverted into a bank account the three friends have access to. However, an error causes largely conspicuous amounts to be dumped into the account. Peter confesses to the crime in a letter and slips it under the door into Bill’s office at night. As luck would have it, Peter’s co-worker, the mumbling and miffed Milton (Stephen Root) burns Initech to the ground before Bill can read the letter. Peter ends up working in construction with his neighbor, Lawrence (Diedrich Bader), and seems content with life. He evades punishment, though that probably had nothing to do with his race or gender.

The final scene of “Fight Club does not really foreshadow the future of the Narrator. It is implied that he and Marla will be spending a lot of time together, so that could be chalked up as a win for him.

All three films have gone on to amass a large cult following. Cinephiles have their own reasons for liking each movie. Some may like “Fight Club” for its alpha male vibe. Others may enjoy “American Psycho” for its “yuppie-gone-nuts” storyline. “Office Space” may be appreciated by certain people because it is a film about programmers. Movies can be a source of entertainment and a source of enlightenment. I may not have fancied the ending of “Fight Club,” but I enjoyed finding deeper meaning in the film, along with “Office Space” and “American Psycho.” Any film is open to interpretation by its viewers. After all, there is more than meets the “lye.”