Note: This essay was originally accompanied with four crucial images, and will make a lot more sense if you can see them. If you're interested, email me and I can mail you a photocopy.

Narrator: Nobody knows that they saw it, but they did.
Tyler: A nice, big cock.
A “subliminalstimulus is defined as one is of whose duration is such that allows it to convey its meaning without being consciously attended to by its audience. While there is no clearly delineated threshold above which a stimulus can be consciously noticed, experiments have shown that it is possible to generate a stimulus long enough for a subject to respond to, but not long enough for him or her to be aware of perceiving. James Vicary coined the term “subliminal messaging” as the result of an experiment he conducted in 1957. He placed a tachistoscope in the projection booth of a movie theater in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, flashing images one third of a millisecond in duration instructing viewers, “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Hungry? Eat Popcorn”, and found that sales of Coca-Cola rose 18.1%, and sales of popcorn, 57.8%. And in a 1996 experiment by Anthony Greenwald, Sean C. Draine, and Richard L. Abrams, subjects viewed emotionally loaded “primer” words at durations of 17, 33, or 50 milliseconds each. They then viewed a meaningless target word, for which the researchers asked them to provide positive, negative, or neutral associations. The experiment found a correlation between the primer words and the association provoked, even though the subjects usually didn’t remember viewing the target words at all.

One frame of a film, as it runs in a movie theater, is 42 milliseconds long (some adjustments in frame length are made for transfer onto video and DVD). According to the Greenwald experiment, at the duration of 50 milliseconds, stimuli could be consciously perceived by some but not all viewers, therefore, the one- and two- frame long images inserted non-diegetically into Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) are just at the margin of conscious perception. However, as the term is used non-scientifically, there are “subliminal” images in the film, that is, images that are very brief. In fact the film’s credits credit Gray Matter FX for the “Subliminal Tylers”. Inserted into the film are four images of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), at one frame in duration each, and one pornographic image, at two frames in duration. These contribute to Tyler’s character exposition as a powerful and rebellious figure, and have ramifications into the film’s anti-work message and revolutionary tone.

In Deborah Thomas’s essay “How Hollywood deals with the Deviant Male”, she notes that the traditional film noir male protagonist is host to conflicting domestic and anti-social impulses. In a post World War Two scenario, the protagonist was literally or figuratively a returning soldier, nostalgic for his “buddies” and their shared adventures, but also seeking the stability of home and family. While it takes place over a generation later, in Fight Club the protagonist is literally divided into two personalities, one industrious and conformist, and one iconoclastic. To paraphrase, Tyler Durden dresses like the Narrator (Edward Norton) wants to dress, fucks like the Narrator wants to fuck, and is free in all the ways that the Narrator is not. Violent and promiscuous, he personifies elements of the Narrator’s character not acceptable to society. Subliminal images of Tyler appear four times in Fight Club, all before the Narrator meets Tyler for the first time. In fact, if the Narrator “is” Tyler when he is sleeping, and is not able to sleep until he starts going to support groups, then Tyler’s first three appearances occur before he is even an active personality. This indicates his latency within the Narrator, a comment on the depth of the Narrator’s dissatisfaction with his life. Each subliminal shot of Tyler has a duration just on the cusp of conscious perception, the same way that at the film’s beginning he is just on the cusp of becoming a full fledged alternate personality. And each image of Tyler is shot from the Narrator’s point of view, indicating Tyler’s visibility to the Narrator’s mind’s eye and presence in his imagination.

Tyler’s subliminal appearances contribute to his power, in that they give the appearance that he can migrate freely and at will through out the timeline of the film, transcending even its narrative structure. He can also transcend the film’s emotional cues, as when he appears mocking sympathetic figures, standing behind the Doctor that the Narrator consults, looking as if he was about to kick him, or suavely standing with his arm around the “Remaining Men Together” group leader. Additionally, because the subliminal images are physically or digitally cut out of other sources, Tyler is filmed using different stylistic techniques than those applying to his immediate visual environment, as if he were too good for his surroundings, the Narrator’s pathetic world. For example, Tyler first subliminally appears at the Narrator’s office (Image #1). Among the many sources of light infusing this shot, one is directed “into” the page, lighting Ricky the office boy’s back. If Tyler were filmed in conjunction with the rest of the shot, his chest would be brightly lit as well, but instead it is in shadow. He is lit from the sides instead of from the front. In his second appearance (Image #2), at the hospital, he is brightly key lit from the front and to the left. In the rest of the shot, the lighting is softer, so that this brighter light draws attention to Tyler in the same way that a spotlight does to an actor on a stage. Because the doctor is standing in front of Tyler, he would be blocking more of the light that reaches Tyler’s face, if Tyler were in fact an actual component of the shot at the time of its initial filming. Instead, the light that reaches Tyler comes from an untraceable source unrelated to the rest of the light in the shot. When Tyler appears a third time, it is at the “Remaining Men Together” support group (Image #3). Here too he is lit more brightly than the person he is standing next to is. Also, his body proportions seem skewed, with his head small relative to his body. This is because he is shot from a slightly low angle, causing his upper body and head to “recede” from the camera. In contrast, his surroundings are shot straight on. And in Tyler’s last subliminal appearance (Image #4), outside of the First Methodist Church, his surroundings are shot in an extremely deep focus, so that the Narrator in the foreground is out of focus, and Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) receding in the background (she is not visible in the above frame because Tyler is in front of her) is in focus. Tyler lies in the midground, and so should be in intermediate focus, as is the woman in shadow at the frame’s left. Instead, though, the image of him is sharp and defined. In all of the above examples, the contrast of styles between the image of Tyler and the shot that it is set in serves to remove Tyler from his surroundings. In this way, his appearances prove that he is present, that is, that the Narrator is imagining an alter ego free of societal constraints, and yet, that he is too good for the tame environments of office, hospital, and church.

Within the context of Fight Club’s plot, Tyler is an anti-consumerism crusader, and he associates consumerism with the compulsion to work- “jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”. As such, his first subliminal appearance at the Narrator’s office offers a critical commentary on that setting. While in his other subliminal appearances, as well as in the film in general, Tyler appears typically assured and arrogant, here he appears confused (Image #1), as if unsure how he got into this strange working-and-buying situation. He later expresses this cognitive dissonance, asking the Narrator, “Why do guys like you and I know what a duvet is? Is this essential to out survival, in the hunter gatherer sense of the word?” He is practically imprisoned within the Narrator’s office world, an impression visually reinforced by the strong pattern of tiles and fluorescent light on the ceiling, a grid representing prison cell bars, or more generally, any overpowering framework. Ironically, though, the film uses the technique of subliminal messaging, first and most classically applied to advertising, to expose its viewers to images of Tyler and the anti-work, anti-consumerist manifesto he represents.

However, Tyler does eventually and not too subtly break out of this framework. One way in which he hacks the mainframe, as it were, is by splicing single frames of pornography into family films, much the way in which he himself is spliced into the film. Remarkably, The Walt Disney Corporation has been the subject of similar accusations, for the word “SEX” in a cloud of dust in The Lion King (1994), for a phallic palace column on the promotional poster for The Little Mermaid (1989), and most incontrovertibly, for an image of what is clearly a topless woman, appearing in two, non consecutive frames, in the window behind Bernard and Bianca in The Rescuers (1977). Disney has claimed that the image is due to post-production tampering, apparently by some low level, renegade film handler. Tyler, a renegade film projector operator with tremendous power over the fictional audience’s perceptions, apparently has a real world precedent. And at the end of Fight Club, the same pornographic image that Tyler has spliced into a family film is spliced into this film. Not only that, but it is edited in a deliberately sloppy manner, so that the image is visible as an unfocused blur of color for two frames, then is in focus for two more frames, and then is out of focus for another single frame. This technique gives the overall impression of a barely successful, certainly detectable, guerrilla edit. However, if Tyler edits pornography into family films, and pornography is edited into this film, then is this film a family film? In fact, any film is a family film, in that any film, even one as incendiary as Fight Club, subjects an audience to a passive viewing experience. In the scene in which Tyler actually splices pornography into a family film, there is a shot in which the camera pans right over the audience, observing everybody’s face tranquilly bathed in diegetic lighting, ostensibly from the movie screen. That is, until Tyler’s contribution, the pornographic image, appears and disturbs the confortable viewers. Similarly, the ending sequence of Fight Club is tranquil, in its own way. The Narrator reassuringly tells Marla that he is “really OK”, and the pair joins hands and watch the near orderly pyrotechnics of building after building exploding. And then, the ensuing pornographic image, a choppilly edited in jolt to the senses, disrupts this cinematographically beautiful tableau.

In the DVD version of the film, an onscreen text message appears before the main menu comes up. It is visually reconstructed to resemble a typical pre-film “FBI Warning” in regards to the text color and font, but it in fact has an altogether different message:
If you are reading this then this warning is for you. Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second off your life. Don't you have other things to do? Is your life so empty that you honestly can't think of a better way to spend these moments? Or are you so impressed with authority that you give respect and credence to all those who claim it? Do you read everything you're supposed to read? Do you think everything you're supposed to think? Buy what you're told you should want? Get out of your apartment. Meet a member of the opposite sex. Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation. Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you're alive. If you don't claim your humanity you will become a statistic. You have been warned........
~Tyler Durden
Tyler berates any audience members who are reading the warning, and yet the warning appears on a screen and is a component of the film. As such, he is essentially urging audience member to do something more meaningful than watching the film itself, to turn it off. This message, not subliminal, but still sneaky, opens Fight Club with an exhortation to go out and “prove you’re alive”. Tyler’s repeated subliminal appearances throughout the film’s exposition establish his power over the narrative and visual frameworks that apply to every other character in the film, and serve as a disapproving commentary on the conformist situations into which he interjects himself. And the subliminal pornographic image at the film’s end reinforces the message that nothing can remain undisrupted.

Works cited
  • Fincher, David. Fight Club, Fox 2000 Pictures, 1999.
  • Thomas, Deborah, “How Hollywood Deals with the Deviant Male”.

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