The Downward Spiral of Fight Club

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Trent Reznor and David Fincher have collaborated on a lot of films, but oddly Fight Club wasn’t one of them.

Gone Girl is now the third David Fincher film in a row that is both based on a book and scored by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Fincher and Reznor first made contact in 1997, when the filmmaker decided to create an elaborate opening credit sequence to his thriller Se7en set to a remix of Reznor’s mid-90s hit “Closer.” From that moment it seemed clear that Fincher and Reznor had some common ground in their unique expressions of art — and since they’ve also collaborated on movies The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and this week’s Gone Girl.

In the dynamic that exists between them now, Reznor’s role is to create music to accompany and support Fincher’s vision. But what if things were the other way around — with Fincher directing a film based on one of Reznor’s albums?

As it turns out, this has already happened… in a way. In 1999, Fincher released Fight Club, based on the Chuck Palahnuik novel of the same name — which was inspired directly by the NIN album “The Downward Spiral.” Palahnuik says that Fight Club was “…written to a soundtrack of The Downward Spiral and Pablo Honey” and while many bits and pieces of the book were taken from the author’s life, the framework of the story and the characters of Jack, Tyler, and Marla are lifted directly from the template of The Downward Spiral.

For those of you unfamiliar with either Fight Club or The Downward Spiral, I’d recommend seeing the movie and at least reading through the lyrics before proceeding. In case you haven’t noticed, we are about to explore new depths of fan theorization, and will reveal spoilers within spoilers until Yo Dawg levels are reached. On top of spoilers, it should come to no surprise to fans of either Fight Club or Nine Inch Nails that many of the videos and lyrics linked here are a long way from safe for work, so be warned.

Still, if we keep our wits about us and proceed carefully one track at a time, there’s a good chance that we’ll make it through in one piece.

Track 1: Mr. Self-Destruct

The film opens with a credit sequence that starts inside the brain of Jack (Edward Norton), and slowly pans out to reveal a gun in Jack’s mouth held by Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who is Jack’s alter ego. Jack quickly rehashes a scene of violence and terrorism about to unfold, which was the work of Durden, and then flashes back (twice) to the proper beginning of the story. The name of the song: “Mr. Self-Destruct” is a title that aptly fits the true nature of Jack and Tyler’s relationship — as well as the core of Tyler’s philosophy.

The album opens with the sound of someone being beaten (sampled from the George Lucas film THX-1138) followed by the words, “I am the voice inside your head (and I control you)” — which is to say both Fight Club and the song start inside the head of the main character. The verse continues with “I am the lover in your bed (and I control you). I am the sex that you deny, (and I control you). I am the hate you try to hide, (and I control you).” The chorus of the song is “I take you where you want to go. I give you all you need to know. I drag you down, I use you up: Mr. Self-Destruct.”

Compare these lines to the scene where Jack realizes that Tyler Durden is a voice inside his head, and Tyler explains his purpose by saying “All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me: I look like you want to look, I fuck like you want to fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly I am free in all the ways that you are not.” Neither the song nor the opening sequence of the film properly start the story, but rather jump in to the middle of the chaos, causing the audience to brace for what is to unfold. The story of The Downward Spiral really begins on track 2.

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Track 2: Piggy

“Piggy” shows the protagonist hurt, uncertain, broken and whispering. Here he is vulnerable, almost pleading, and at the same time, makes up his mind (although unconvincingly) to let go of what he is attached to, what makes him vulnerable. The mantra of “Nothing can stop me now because I don’t care anymore” is repeated softly, as if Reznor is trying to convince himself that he doesn’t care.

How does the story of Jack start out? He is weak, suffering from chronic insomnia, and thoughtlessly living his life according to standards he doesn’t really care about. I can very easily see the song “Piggy” representing his view of his absentee, “franchise”-starting father. In one scene where Jack and Tyler discuss who they would fight, Jack picks his boss, and Tyler picks his dad. His (their?) father abandoned him at an early age, and only gave advice a sentence at a time when his son would hunt him down and ask “Dad, now what?” during various milestones of life.

Compare that to the lyrics “Hey Pig, nothing’s turning out the way I planned. Hey Pig, there’s a lot of things I hoped you could help me understand. What am I supposed to do?”

Track 3: Heresy

“Heresy” is a scathing denouncement of God and religion: an aggressive stance in contrast with the previously shown weakness of the host mind. It represents the thrill of delving into subversive behavior and defying the expectations of a polite public. The verses accuse God of various atrocities in the world, and the chorus screams, “God is dead, and no one cares. If there is a hell, I’ll see you there.”

This might cause some among you to say, “Aha! This song has nothing to do with Fight Club, therefore the theory is absolute rubbish!” And while I would applaud you for your bold choice of using the word “rubbish” in a sentence, I would remind you of Tyler’s words during the chemical burn scene: “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does it tell you about God? You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability He hates you. This is not the worst thing that can happen…We don’t need Him! Fuck damnation, man! Fuck redemption! We are the unwanted children of God? So be it!”

Removing God from the throne was a necessary step in Tyler’s quest for Jack to hit bottom.

That being said, the song also fits quite well in the timeline of the film. After visiting his doctor for sleeping pills and complaining of narcolepsy, Jack begins to attend support group meetings every night of the week — by pretending to have a variety of diseases he did not have he is defying the self-regulating behavior that is ingrained in all members of a God-fearing society. It is at this point that Tyler begins to emerge when Jack supposedly sleeps, buying the house on Paper Street, making soap, learning about napalm, and working his many night jobs.

Track 4: March of the Pigs

“March of the Pigs” operates on multiple levels: in one way it represents a core aspect of the personality of Tyler Durden. There is an aggressiveness, a defiance, and yet a self-sacrificing quality to the onslaught of noise and chaos interspersed with soothing synths and pianos in this song.

This song also represents the arrival of Marla Singer in Jack’s life. Jack hated Marla, but underneath the hate was a fascination — she did, after all, appear as his power animal on the night he decided to confront her. The song contains lots of lyrics which relate quite well to the invasion of Marla on Jack’s twisted hobby of emotional vampirism in support groups, including “I want a little bit, I want a piece of it, I think he’s losing it, I want to watch it come down. Don’t like the look of it, don’t like the taste of it, don’t like the smell of it, I want to watch it come down.”

Finally, the arrival of Marla makes it so that Jack can no longer sleep. The old methods stop working. Once again he is set apart from the pigs, who by the end of the song “can all sleep soundly.”

Track 5: Closer

So what triggers the release of Tyler Durden? In the film, directly before the montage of airports that leads to Tyler’s initial introduction to Jack is a scene where Marla Singer has just exchanged numbers with Jack and asks for his name. The film cuts away before he can respond, but we can infer that he introduced himself as Tyler Durden. Until that point, Tyler had remained completely separate from Jack, but after “meeting” Tyler, Jack loses his apartment and moves in to Tyler’s house.

Tyler first emerged thanks to Jack’s inability to deal with his attraction to Marla, and Tyler represented the type of guy Jack imagined Marla would date… which brings us to one of Reznor’s most popular songs, “Closer.” This song represents Jack’s feelings towards Marla, as manifested through Tyler. Although the fighting, the male bonding and the formulation of Project Mayhem are crucial to the story of Fight Club, it can’t be denied that there is also a really fucked up love story being told. Remember, after all, that the film ends with Marla and Jack holding hands (while downtown crashes and burns before them).

The first verse of “Closer” represents the virginal mindset of “I-can’t-believe-this-is-really-happening.” The chorus boasts a lustful confidence that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the song (which is why Tyler took over in the bedroom). The line “help me get away from myself” also takes on a new meaning when compared to the love triangle in Fight Club.

Track 6: Ruiner

This song (in the storyline of TDS) represents both resentment and admiration of the power of the other self, the made up self. In Reznor’s story, that self is his public persona: his rock star image, which is not the same as the synth-pop loving, musical prodigy computer geek that he knew himself as. In Fight Club, the ruiner is Tyler Durden. He blew up Jack’s apartment as a means to ensure that the journey to hit bottom would continue. He taught a philosophy of personal dismantlement, and found a surprising number of people willing to listen.

The pre-chorus starts with “The ruiner has got a lot to prove. He’s got nothing to lose and now he made you believe. The ruiner is your only friend, and he’s the living end to the cattle he deceives.” The song is depicted by the rise of the cult of Tyler.

The chorus represents Jack’s suppressed jealousy over Tyler and Marla. It is an overtly sexual metaphor for the rise of a leader (or dominant personality), and the struggle to keep up: “How’d you get so big? How’d you get so strong? How’d it get so hard? How’d it get so long?”

Track 7: The Becoming

So far we have covered the summary, origin, development, unleashing, and rise of the other self. Until now there has been a distinction between the weaker self and the stronger fantasy-self. “The Becoming” represents a turning point in the storyline as the two personalities merge. From Reznor’s perspective this is the point that the feeling self, which has tagged along in admiration until now, is strapped in to a machine which allows the other self to take over. However, the lyrics really speak for themselves better than any summary could.

For those of you who’d rather not watch the video, the song begins with: “I beat my machine. It’s a part of me, it is inside of me. I’m stuck in this dream, it’s changing me. I am becoming. The me that you know, he had some second thoughts. He’s covered with scabs, he is broken and sore. The me that you know he doesn’t come around much. That part of me isn’t here anymore. All pain disappears. It’s the nature of my circuitry. Drowns out all I hear, no escape from this, my new consciousness. The me that you know, he used to have feelings but the blood has stopped pumping and he is left to decay. The me that you know is now made up of wires and even when I’m right with you, I’m so far away.”

This process is depicted during the rise of Fight Club in Jack’s life: he starts showing up to work disheveled, he’s covered in bruises and dried blood, he stares down coworkers. From an outside perspective, Jack is losing his grip on reality, but from his perspective he is gaining strength and enlightenment, letting go, becoming someone significant.

The stronger Tyler becomes, the closer Jack gets to losing himself entirely.

Track 8: I Do Not Want This

“I Do Not Want This” is the point of the story that the protagonist recognizes he’s taken the wrong path — but finds it impossible to escape. The song begins with “I’m losing ground. Well you know how this world can beat you down. I’m made of clay. I fear I’m the only one who thinks this way.” Later he softly repeats the phrase “I do not want this” followed by a furious chorus of “Don’t you tell me how I feel, you don’t know just how I feel!” This is one of the most juvenile sounding lyrics in the album (second only to “Big Man With a Gun”).

In the film, this song represents the friction developing between Tyler and Jack: with Marla being a semi-constant part of the household, with Fight Club branching out, with Tyler becoming the center of attention as Jack fades into the background. This tension grows with the initiation of homework assignments, the formation of Project Mayhem, and Jack’s sense of being left out of the chain of command.

In a way, the first “homework assignment” (to pick a fight with a stranger and lose) is a good example of the message of the song. Imagine the priest who got sprayed as the protagonist, responding at first with “I do not want this” then exploding into the raw fury of violence that is expressed in the “don’t you tell me how I feel” portion of the chorus.

The intent of that homework assignment was to push the buttons of strangers and provoke a response, to make people snap and discover what they have been hiding within themselves.

Track 9: Big Man With a Gun

Trent Reznor has said this song was written as his response to the gratuitous violence of gangster rap at the time (if I had to explain those lyrics, I would go with the parody angle too). In the story arc, this represents the full unleashing of Mr. Self Destruct — and the point of no return. The protagonist has dethroned God, has become the ruiner, and this is how he demonstrates his power.

The opening lyrics of the song are, “I am a big man, yes I am, and I’ve got a big gun” and the rest of the song is too crude for quoting, but represents the power trip that comes from both violent and sexual domination. In the film Tyler and Jack have different experiences that relate to this song.

Tyler holds up a convenience store clerk at gunpoint as another homework assignment. The gun is unloaded, and Tyler’s goal is to inspire the young man to get his life in gear. It’s all bark and no bite. Jack, on the other hand, beats the ever-loving-shit out of Jared Leto. He goes completely nuts in a fight, and walks all over the rules of Fight Club, leaving the poor pretty boy with a face that looks like mashed potatoes. That moment ties in much more to the message of the song than Tyler’s encounter.

Track 10: A Warm Place

Immediately after that scene is the argument that leads to Jack letting go of his need to control things and Tyler letting go of the wheel of the car they’re in. Jack worked for a car company as a safety recall coordinator (a crash analyst). He had always wondered what it would be like to get in a major wreck. This dark fascination embodies the quest to hit bottom, and the slowed motion effects suggest that Jack experienced a perfect moment of enlightenment in the few seconds of chaos that followed his choice to finally let go.

“A Warm Place” represents the eye of the hurricane. In the film, Jack is depicted as sitting on the passenger side, with Tyler driving before the car crash, but in the aftermath, Jack emerges from the driver’s side. This is both foreshadowing, and symbolic of Jack letting go of his need for Tyler. This is one of the last scenes with Tyler before he is revealed as Jack’s second personality.

Track 11: Eraser

“Eraser” is all about build-up. The first three and a half minutes are instrumental, and the lyrics are depicted in Fight Club by the disappearance of Tyler and Jack’s inability to deal with yet another abandonment. It causes him to hunt Tyler down which eventually leads him to the truth. The build-up is represented by Jack’s exposure to the new and improved Project Mayhem, which escalates to the death of Bob.

The lyrics are “Need you, dream you, find you, taste you, use you, scar you, fuck you, break you. Lose me, hate me, smash me, erase me, kill me.” At first, Jack sees himself as the victim of another abandonment, but it could be that the lyrical switch from “you” to “me” represents the revelation that they are the same person, and the truth that he is responsible for much more damage than he had allowed himself to see before.

Track 12: Reptile

“Reptile” is represented by the moment of realization that Jack has concerning Marla. The first verse depicts Jack’s official view of Marla: “She spreads herself wide open to let the insects in, she leaves a trail of honey to show me where she’s been. She has the blood of reptiles just underneath her skin. Seeds from a thousand others drip down from within.”

But as Jack comes to terms with the fact that he’s been Marla’s lover all along, his attempts to explain himself lead to the strangely endearing chorus, “Oh, my beautiful liar, oh, my precious whore. My disease, my infection. I am so impure.” The diner scene where Jack tries to explain himself to Marla best represents the message of “Reptile.”

The line “I am so impure” represents Jack’s dawning understanding that he is crazy. He responds first by approaching Marla and then trying to turn himself over to the police. This act of redemption propels him towards the final fight against Tyler. He realizes that he can’t fight Tyler, he can’t control Tyler… the only thing he can do is kill Tyler.

Track 13: The Downward Spiral

“The Downward Spiral” is a song about suicide by gun. The lyrics start with “He couldn’t believe how easy it was: he put the gun to his face. Bang! So much blood for such a tiny little hole. Problems do have solutions, you know. A lifetime of fucking things up fixed with one determined flash.”

It is possibly the most depressing song of all time.

The solution that the protagonist of “The Downward Spiral” finds in this song also happens to be point-by-point the climax of the film, when Jack realizes that the only way to stop Tyler for good was to shoot himself in the head.

Track 14: Hurt

Finally, we come to “Hurt,” which summarizes what has happened throughout the album. The lyrics also reflect the main plot points and twists of Fight Club, most notably in the phrase, “I hurt myself today to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.”

Jack’s journey was a process of creating an entirely believable separate self that he could tag along behind and emulate. He hurt himself in the first fight with Tyler, and the reason he did it was to see if he still could feel. In the same fashion the first line of the pre-chorus says, “What have I become? My sweetest friend.” Jack literally was his own best friend.

Furthermore, the chorus of “You could have it all: my empire of dirt. I will let you down, I will make you hurt.” Is represented in the reunion of Jack and Marla at the end of the film. Project Mayhem was the “empire of dirt” that the hero had built, only to then leave behind in an effort to save himself (if possible).

Bonus Track: Only

It seems unlikely that Reznor and Fincher are unaware of the connections between Fight Club and The Downward Spiral — but they’ve kept the first two rules of fight club, more or less, and haven’t talked about it. However, the connection is strongly hinted at in the only Nine Inch Nails video directed by David Fincher: 2005’s “Only.” This song was most likely Reznor’s nod to his influence in Fight Club, which he decided to immortalize by collaborating with Fincher and creating a music video that seems to be set in Jack’s office.

There’s one other strong reference in the NIN catalogue: the single “Copy of a.” The opening lyrics to that song are “I am just a copy of a copy of a copy.” Not only are these lyrics very similar to a line from the first ten minutes of Fight Club, they also depict a song that is a copy of the movie, which was a copy of the book, which was a copy of The Downward Spiral.

This is the first article by Kevin Mooseles, who loves movies, t.v. shows, and music; as well as violating the first two rules of fight club. Kevin hopes that Chuck Palahnuik writes the graphic novel sequel to “Fight Club” (due out next summer) while listening to “Hesitation Marks” on repeat, because that would be fitting.


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