American Psycho, Fight Club and the art of the Alignment Character

Every story you’ve ever heard existed only so that you could hear it.

Now that is a dense, complicated sentence to unpack (and you might be tempted to stop reading right here), but if you stick with me you’ll discover that this could be one of the coolest ideas that you’ve ever encountered. Understanding this single line of text is the first step towards discussing media in a thoughtful way, so we’re going to be taking a moment to break down exactly what this means and to explain why it’s true.  Then, once we’re comfortable with this concept, we’ll use it to talk about Fight Club and American Psycho, two movies that take on a completely new dimension when you apply this logic and understand how and why they came to exist.

Buckle up. It’s going to be awesome.

The first part of this process is simple; stop thinking that the media you consume is random. We have to start by understanding that the media we interact with every day is actually designed to achieve very specific goals, even if we don’t always think about those goals consciously. Every time your friend updates their status online, they did it for a reason. If you see a new billboard on your street corner, it serves a purpose. Every song you’ve ever heard playing on the radio was playing because someone, somewhere, sometime wanted you to hear that specific song. We need to realise that without you, the person reading the words that I am currently typing, then even this essay might as well not exist. Media only serves a purpose when there is an audience there to consume it and, by changing the way we think about consumption, we can go on to change the media itself.

At this point, you’ve probably arrived at one­ of two conclusions; you’ve already encountered this idea and think that I’m dumb for even mentioning it, or you kind of understand what this means but it’s not something you dedicate much thought to. Luckily for both of you, American Psycho and Fight Club are very conscious of the relationship between art and audience and take great pains to teach us how to recognise it. These are both movies that encourage their audiences to question the implicit rules of filmmaking and asks us to consider not only what it is we’re seeing but also why we’re seeing it.

This might sound like complicated idea, but it’s a simple one to explain. Underneath this paragraph is a scene from Fight Club, in which The Narrator (Edward Norton) sees an advertisement for Gucci and explains that he pities men who are “packed into gyms” by unrealistic body standards, whilst also choosing which celebrities he wants to fight.

Pretty simple scene, right? But let’s step back and take another look; here we have the main character in a Hollywood film, a commercial enterprise that grossed over one hundred million dollars, talking about how commercial enterprises damage our self-image while being portrayed by Edward Norton, a famous actor, who’s talking about how much he wants to punch actors in the face. This doesn’t really make sense. Why would Hollywood’s media make a film about how terrible the media is? Clearly there’s something deeper going on.

This is because, much like Tyler Durden himself, Fight Club is attempting to set us free from conventional wisdom by exposing the underlying rules that dictate how our culture works in the real world. The contradiction that we’ve pointed out reflects the discrepancy between the audience and art, between the self and the screen. This cognitive dissonance is the real purpose of Fight Club; that’s why the first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club – it’s clearly self-contradictory nonsense, but a passive audience can be relied upon to accept it anyway. But even though we might know that the characters aren’t real people and that the sets are fake and the banks weren’t really destroyed, if a film can help us develop the tools we need to engage with it critically then it can begin to step outside itself and have an impact on the real world, fundamentally altering the way that we understand culture as a whole. On its own Fight Club is just a movie, stylish lights and sounds that are played in a certain order and that signify nothing. It’s only through understanding it and by deciding what Fight Club means to you that it can start to become real.

The story only existed so that you could hear it.

If you were to scroll all the way back to the top, right to the beginning of this essay, you’d see that I mentioned ‘The Alignment Character’ in the title. We’re about to start looking at what this is and how it impacts the way we watch films, but first we have to understand that when I say ‘Alignment Character’ I mean something very specific. Basically, every piece of media shares the same two problems; how to create an emotional connection with an audience and how to explain the rules of that media’s particular universe.

The alignment character is a shortcut to fixing both of these problems. Take the first Harry Potter movie, for example; Harry is the character that the audience is supposed to connect with, so when we see him get excited because he’s learning about all the cool shit in the magical world, we get excited as we follow along. When The Matrix came to theatres it blew audience’s minds in the same way that discovering the Matrix blew up Neo’s entire reality. When it comes to movies, our level of understanding almost always correlates with how strongly aligned we are to the characters.  

But the alignment character doesn’t always have to be the protagonist. Mad Max: Fury Road might be the perfect example of this, since Max himself is only the alignment character even though it’s his name in the title. He’s essential to teaching the audience about the apocalyptic hellscape that he inhabits, but the more the audience’s understanding grows the more the narrative shifts focus to the goals and actions of Furiosa, the film’s actual protagonist.

So whenever we’re looking for alignment, we can begin by understanding that most narratives will either feature one perspective, where the protagonist is the alignment character, or the protagonist and the alignment character are two people with two separate perspectives and the audience will only ‘see’ through the character we’re aligned with.

But this logic doesn’t hold up against either of the movies we’re talking about today. In Fight Club we learn that Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and The Narrator (Edward Norton) are actually the same person, since The Narrator is suffering from a form of psychosis that leads him to become Tyler Durden whenever he ‘goes to sleep’. In American Psycho, we’re shown that Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a violent serial killer who believes that he doesn’t ‘really’ exist; speaking directly to the audience in his opening monologue, he concludes that

“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.”

To me, this proves that both films are more complicated than the one perspective/two perspective structure that we just outlined. We still need to dig a little deeper.

Fight Club seems simple enough; there are two characters, Tyler and The Narrator, who have two very different personalities. But as we continue watching, we learn that Tyler and The Narrator share the same physical body. We start wondering whether we can trust The Narrator’s perspective which, since we’re aligned with him, means that we have to start questioning our own point of view. In this sense, we now understand that Fight Club exists separately to most narratives, since two perspectives are sharing a single character* and the audience can see elements of both. This unique perspective means that Fight Club now exists outside the boundaries of the mainstream. 

Now here’s the really cool part.

Because Tyler Durden exists separately to The Narrator despite sharing one body, Fight Club does not fit into the ‘normal’ perspective that audiences expect when they watch a film.

Because Fight Club doesn’t fit into this model, it goes against the implicit rules of mainstream film while still sharing space as a mainstream film, proving that the rules do not have any power by themselves.

‘Rules’ are just made-up words. You can liberate yourself.

You don’t talk about Fight Club.

But that’s only half of the story. Fight Club might teach us how the alignment character works, but it’s American Psycho that shows us why an alignment character is necessary in the first place.

Let’s be real for a second; the ending of American Psycho might just be the single most frustrating moment in cinematic history. The audience is shocked by the revelation that Patrick Bateman, who just spent an entire movie murdering people with axes and chainsaws, never actually killed anyone. The violence we witnessed? That was just another one of Bateman’s psychotic episodes. None of it really happened.

Eugh.

But if the murders didn’t happen and there aren’t any consequences, then what’s the point? Why watch the violence at all?

Here’s how I see it.

We watch the violence because, ultimately, we chose the violence. If Fight Club teaches us that rules only exist to restrict us, then the truth exposed by American Psycho is that without those rules, audiences want to watch images of horrific brutality. It’s exciting, it’s attractive and it’s something that movie studios have been exploiting for so long now that we’d almost feel cheated without it. The plot is no longer important. It’s the violence that keeps us watching.

And that’s exactly why American Psycho exists. As a film, it intentionally uses the most indulgent, obscenely violent spectacles imaginable to comment on our culture’s obsession with violence in films, the same way that Fight Club invents stupid rules because rules are stupid. It’s only after this deception is revealed that the audience realises they’ve been tricked that they truly start to fall into line. Just like Patrick Bateman, the ending of American Psycho leaves us all feeling frustrated and hollow.

So then why didn’t we stop watching?

Well, there are two possibilities when we’re talking about alignment. The easy answer is that American Psycho never had an alignment character. Patrick Bateman might seem like one, but at the conclusion we finally understand that the audience would not have seen any of the events that unfolded if the story wasn’t told from Bateman’s perspective. When Bateman says ‘I simply am not there’, this is him letting us know that we’ll never really understand him, there is no alignment, so we’re free to just sit back and enjoy the carnage.

This is all of us, image source

But I still think there’s a better answer. Instead, let’s start off by assuming that the audience is already aligned with Patrick, the same way we’re aligned with any other character in any other film. Since we already know that Patrick can’t feel guilt, we’re allowed to witness the violence he enacts for our benefit without transferring any feelings of guilt to ourselves. If the alignment character sees other human beings as pieces of meat, then so do we. This means that our alignment with Patrick is actually too strong, since our biggest takeaways are a thirst for violence and a complete lack of human empathy.

I feel like this explains everything pretty neatly. It also means that the audience’s frustration isn’t really anger at being tricked, but is actually the awful, creeping realisation that we’re perfectly okay watching innocent people die horribly, literally begging for their lives, as long as some yuppie prick on TV allows us to.

So, on to our conclusions.

At the beginning of this essay, I explained to you that the media can’t exist without our willing participation. Understanding this fact makes us powerful, because we get to decide how successful any piece one of media is. But it also makes us complicit.

The sad truth is that people love Fight Club and American Psycho for exactly the wrong reasons. These are not dumb movies, even if they seem that way at first. They twist their alignment character’s perspective in such a way that we’re forced to look at ourselves through the screen and ask how responsible we are. They show us that violent media is simply the result of the audience’s appetite for violence and offer us a chance to break this cycle. Both films step outside of themselves to reveal how we propagate the very worst parts of ourselves.

But we don’t care.

We will continue to choose violence, the same way that we’ve always chosen violence. We can talk about reflection and self-awareness all we want, but students will continue to hang posters of Fight Club on their walls because Tyler Durden looks awesome, even if he is the bad guy. These movies might offer us the chance to break the cycle, but they can’t make us choose correctly. And at night, when we’re alone in a dark room illuminated only by our TVs, we’re more than happy to watch a man press a gun to someone else head as we whisper

This is cool.

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