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How Fight Club explores psychology and mental illness

Dr Elizabeth Nelson of the Pacifica Graduate Institute in California explains how film can teach psychological concepts.

By Joe Donnelly

(This article contains Fight Club spoilers).

The first rule of stiff-upper lip Britain is you do not talk about mental health.

The second rule of… well, you get the picture.

When film director David Fincher reimagined Fight Club three years after the 1996 novel of the same name I was blown away. It was short, sharp and savage, as exciting as it was unnerving. That said, I’m not sure I entirely understood it first time around. The anarchy, the violence, the titular fight clubs-cum-self-help groups, even the dysfunctional relationships, were easy enough understood at 14 years old. Yet I’m not sure I grasped Tyler Durden – protagonist or concept – very well at all.

“We just lost cabin pressure,” says monotone narrator Edward Norton, his inflection placid and unwavering, consistent with his input throughout the film. “Why do people think that I’m you?” his tone shifts to first-person panic opposite the ever-composed Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt.

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“I think you know,” offers Durden, his riposte fittingly cool against the unnamed narrator’s increasingly alarmed state.

“No I don’t!”

“Yes you do. Why would anyone possibly confuse you with me?”

“… Because we’re the same person.”

Pitt was Norton’s alter-ego, or, rather, how he wished to be perceived, all along. “I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck,” proclaims Durden to the narrator, now, apparently, also Durden. On a superficial level it was easy to understand, but it wouldn’t be until years later and after many reruns, not to mention growing up in between times, that I really appreciated Fight Club for what it was above and beyond a box office hit: a unique, stark, groundbreaking portrayal of mental health, delivered to the masses as if under the remit of Project Mayhem itself.

At 14, I’d never seen anything like it, consciously or otherwise. I ejected the VHS cassette and with my friends thereafter discussed multiple personality disorder, or schizophrenia as we vaguely and incorrectly understood it to be. Crude it most probably was, but suddenly our conversation had shifted from the standard topics of football and video games and schoolyard misadventure; Fight Club had initiated a discourse between unassuming adolescent males that would otherwise never have taken place. As it turns out, the movie might have spoken to us on a level we could never have realised at the time.

Dr Elizabeth Nelson is the chair of the Depth Psychotherapy PhD programme at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in California, and uses film to teach psychological concepts. Born from the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, psychotherapy gained wide recognition in the early 20th century as it explored notions of unconscious processes – the idea of the unconscious and how the unconscious influences human behaviour, thinking, emotion, and motivation.

“Depth psychology as a discipline has been interdisciplinary since its beginning,” explains Nelson. “Since the emphasis is on the complexity of human life – individual lives as well as the lives of communities or nations, or systems – there’s a great deal that other disciplines can offer in terms of helping us understand these things. We freely borrow from the arts, from anthropology, from many forms of science including biology, neurobiology, and nonlinear dynamics, for example.”

She continues: “Both Freud and Jung, as some of the key-thinkers in this field, had a lot of respect for the arts in the way that artists and writers – and of course later filmmakers – could portray the complexity and subtlety of human experience. In some respects artists were in a better position to depict that depth of psychological truth than even some psychologists: some of the major writing was about art, or artists and writers, and their contributions to the field.”

[See also: It’s time to admit that Pulp Fiction is a bad film]

At Pacifica, Nelson lectures one course which focuses on “images of the monstrous” – the idea of examining archetypal monster figures as construed by society over generations. Aptly beginning with Frankenstein, the course explores the evolution of Mary Shelley’s infamous novel and how although the story’s characters have largely remained the same with each passing iteration, the monsters themselves have been depicted quite differently each time. Each film is viewed through the lens of the respective director’s creative vision of a story, of a major work of literature. It is through this Nelson aims to show how our understanding of what a monster actually is evolves with time.

“The fundamental premise of the course is that each era gets the monsters it needs,” says Nelson. “There’s a profound relationship between how we depict monsters in our fiction and what we need to seek in ourselves. Our monsters are actually a psychological mirror that we hold up to society and culture, and our political and economic systems. They tell us, they inform us about what Jung would call ‘the shadow aspects’ of our psychology – the things we reject.”

Fight Club, in many respects, is a direct reflection of this theory. Tyler Durden becomes overwhelmed by his alter-self to the point where he rebukes the character entirely. In essence, Durden’s inner counterpart becomes monstrous. By utilizing depth psychology in this way, Fight Club provides a rather flagrant illustration of mental health. It’s a depiction which may not help to dismantle associated stigma, but it’s an explicit one nonetheless.

Besides this, the Pacifica website links ten “must see” films which have varying Jungian themes, as chosen by Nelson’s peers. Other studies have noted Silence of the Lambs and A Clockwork Orange as pertinent examples of movies that convey antisocial personality disorder.

“[These films] reveal the depths of complex human experience,” says Nelson. “They show the things that aren’t part of the surface narrative of something. In other words, things are often more complicated than they appear. I’m thinking now of the logline of the film American Beauty. It shows this pristine suburban life, but the logline on the film poster was ‘Look Closer’. You could say that if there was going to be a bumper sticker for psychology, ‘look closer’ might be a good candidate.”

The overarching aim of Nelson’s course is to prevent psychological theories from falling out of contemporary for being too dry, or difficult to comprehend. Modern media such as games or film help liven the discussion around a discipline over a century old. It’s no secret that western society, not least the UK, struggles with conversation in and around mental health issues. At 14, my friends and I inadvertently broke the first and second rules of stiff-upper lip Britain, and if movies continue to push the boundaries of our comprehension – again, consciously or otherwise – this can only be a good thing. Pixar’s latest animated flick Inside Out ventures into themes of mental health and has been widely praised for doing so.

Naturally, the majority of us won’t ever formally study these theories, but Nelson notes an invaluable lesson to bear in mind for future cinema viewing:

“A film text is just another vehicle for a close analysis of human behaviour and group behaviour, the things that go into shaping that behaviour and thinking.”

For support and advice with living with mental illness, contact Rethink Mental Illness:

Phone: 0300 5000 927 (Mon-Fri, 10am-2pm)


[See also: The meaning of Taxi Driver]

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