David Fincher: Fight Club (1999) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
23Dec/110

David Fincher: Fight Club (1999)

Andrew COMMENTARYAndrew:  Fight Club is a unique waste of time.  I don't say this as a fan of the book, Chuck Palahniuk is a writer of immaturity and a visceral grasp of human anatomy whose books have failed to maintain a consistent tone during his career.  None of his stories would make particularly interesting movies and in this case it is an intriguing failure.

To be fair, both this film and the book suffer from a dramatic schism of critical acceptance.  Palahniuk has struggled throughout his entire career as a peddler of immature thrills (I definitely fall in this camp) and David Fincher a director more interested in the cerebral / visual than the emotional (a notion I completely disagree with).  Their fusion has produced the most-remembered piece in Palahniuk's career because of this adaptation and a film which has plagued Fincher's career since it was released.

Fincher is still in full command of the visual form here, and launches the film into yet another dizzying title sequence (why do so few directors start their films as sure of themselves as Fincher does?)  He maintains his genius throughout the film, allowing bits of non-diagetic bits of the narrators (Edward Norton) thought processes to leak into the visuals, resulting in such great moments as the Ikea spread of his apartment or the frames of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) which pop in anytime the narrator's frustrations spark up.  Just about everything is perfect on the visual and technical side of the film, but technical proficiency does not a good film make.

Let's get this out of the way, Fight Club the book is the work of someone peddling in a dangerous and idiotic sense of male masculinity.  Since the film does nothing to change this and, instead, only alters choice bits of the narrative it is guilty of the same crimes.  Then, by rewriting the books ending to give the protagonists exactly what they were after (the complete collapse of the credit system) vindicates their actions inappropriately.

Leaving aside the "Corporate capitalism is baaaaaaad" Gen-X shallowness of the main narrative let's look at the arc of the narrator.  He is possessed by a second personality, sure, but the film watches his transition from a mostly gender-neutral identity to a raging male id able to lead the country into a new age.  He does this by beating himself up in a parking lot and telling other men the best way to reclaim their masculinity is by fighting each other.  Ah-ha.  So the secret to being a man is beating up other men and blowing up buildings.  For a second I thought that we were watching a supposed work of intelligence instead of the rantings of an emotionally insecure Freshman screenwriter.

What makes this plain is the way the film more directly juxtaposes this with the support groups the narrator attends.  Here we witness the full emasculation of the traditional male, where they're all encouraged to hug and kiss right down to their spirit animals.  True, for someone who is completely blank in the face of modern materialism it provides that false emotional catharsis, but for the rest of the group trying to cope with some genuine emotional issues it's morally questionable for the narrative to assume that all the men he encounters are able to overcome their problems by hitting each other.  Yes, there are simplistic jabs at the supposed superficiality and uselessness of these groups (such as when the narrator meets his animal guide) but Fight Club takes place in no emotional reality I know of.

This is a disturbingly sexist film on a few different levels.  Men aren't allowed to be in touch with their feminine sides lest they lose themselves, and women are absolutely not allowed to participate.  The only peripheral character who comes close is Marla (Helena Bonham Carter, making an impressive mountain out of the molehill simplicity of her character) and she is yet another female tool of the plot.  She, much like Tracy in Seven, exists primarily to get fucked and then be placed in peril.  Marla has no agency and is used precisely as a tool of the narrative to show how the narrator's sexist tendencies are growing until his final triumph of blowing up buildings and dominating the only female who pays any attention to him.

There are a few other issues with the film I'd like to address, but I think it's time to get your thoughts Ryan.

Ryan:  I have never seen the movie as sexist at all. Chuck Palahniuk, who I think is very hit and miss, is not rallying against women or even men in touch with their feminine side. What Fight Club is making fun of is the generation of men-child that are ruled by their id. We are in a time where the most popular Sesame Street Character is Elmo who is just a red furry manifestation of the id and Fight Club is showing what happens when you let your id run the show.

This type of man-child is all about instant gratification and taking the easiest way out. They will follow anyone who tells them that their shitty life isn't their fault and tells them it is simple and easy to make their life better. They are stuck in dead-end jobs not for any fault of their own but because of Madison Avenue. They aren't married because their mom's didn't teach them to be a man. The people that follow Tyler Durden are nothing more than sheep looking for that new cult to belong to. Just like the people who follow the churches who spew hate against people from other walks of life or the join The Tea Party (yes I went there), the members of Fight Club are dumb, easily manipulated pissed off simpletons looking for the easy answer to difficult questions.

All the people in the film are idiotic yes-men except for Marla Singer, who is such an interesting character. Singer, played beautifully by Helena Bonham Carter attracts both sides of Tyler Durden and is the lynchpin on which the whole story is based. She is another messed up soul that holds a mirror up to the Narrator and he doesn't like it like what it shows. He is a "faker" and Singer is the one that calls bullshit on all his extra-cirruclar activity. Yet, he is still attracted to her for this reason and because she understands him better than anyone else. His split personality, the one who wants instant gratification, is also attracted to her on a physical level and for the reason it is dangerous and exciting because she is the one that one wildcard who can ruin Fight Club/Project Mayhem. Tyler Durden knows this and warns the narrator not to talk about him to her.

Durden never warns the narrator about talking about their relationship to any of their army though. That is because he can (and does) control all of the army by having them memorize slogans and repeat them verbatim while not letting them have any independent thought. This army does this all to eagerly so when the Narrator starts asking questions, the only answers he gets from his flock is the pre-canned mantras that tell him nothing. It is only through Singer that he learns the truth that the (the narrator) is Tyler Durden because she is the only one smart and strong enough not to fall under his sway.

I don't see Marla as just a sex object to be dominated in the end. Yes, she is kidnapped at one point but why was she at that time? She had already told the narrator the big secret so the damage was done, what difference did it make at that point? The reason Durden still wants her gone is she is a threat to his 'me me me' lifestyle. She is a person the narrator, although he can't admit it, cares for very deeply and this will get in the way of their playtime. How is the narrator dominating her in the end when he holds her hand to watch the buildings tumble? I see it as they are going into this new world as equals, with all of their crazy cards now on the table.

Now that I have given my thoughts on your criticisms, I just want to remark that I think this is the most visually interesting film that has ever been made. I know what I just said but I will say it again. Fight Club is the most visually interesting movie that has ever been made. The movie never stops moving and the performances, awesome Dust Brothers score, the dialogue and well used special effects all create a perfect storm of fury that is impossible to turn away from the screen.

You said in the beginning that the story was visceral and it gets a very strong reaction out of you and I think the creators would be very proud of this. Sure it might not be a positive reaction but it was a very passionate reaction all the same and that is what they wanted. Fight Club is a movie that grabs you by the shirt and slaps you around a bit. It isn't subtle, it doesn't slow down and it isn't a film that has many people on the fence about. So after my long-winded thoughts, Andrew, what other issues do you have?

Andrew COMMENTARYAndrew:  We've both aired our grievances and defenses on a thematic front and while I think the celebratory nature and relative cypher-ness of Marla as a character doesn't support your defense, you make some good points.  Still, I wish that we had more scenes about who Marla instead instead of how she responds to narrator / Tyler and the ending throws any real potential for criticism of Project Mayhem in the toilet.  This is where the book is superior, putting the narrator into the loony bin and with the bombs failing to go off instead of watching him get remain free, successfully bringing down the credit system, with the girl by his side.  Change the setting ever so slightly and you've got the end of a Schwarzenegger film.

My remaining issues have a lot to do with Edward Norton's performance.  We, as a nation, need to get over the idea that Edward Norton is a consistently good actor.  I think the majority of us were taken in by his performance in American History X (convincing as a racist, a bit less so when he's trying to redeem himself) and he's absolutely superb in 25th Hour (his one truly great performance).  He's not bad in Fight Club, but he's just not enough of an everyman to pull off the kind of transitions of sanity which are required of him.  The moments where he's required to tap into the darkness of Tyler Durden are affecting, particularly his "stalk hall to hall" speech at work.

The issue is I'm consistently aware of his acting throughout Fight Club.  He works well in the extremes, but when he's required to be somewhat normal (since he is the average man rebelling against corporate capitalism and all) it feels horribly inauthentic.  Granted, it's not nearly as bad as his attempt at being a tooth-gnashing villain in The Italian Job or finding absolutely nothing of interest for his Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk.  He's our generation's Marlon Brando, capable of greatness, but just as often coasting on his "talent" because he's above the material.

That doesn't happen in Fight Club, but the writing's on the wall.  Helena Bonham Carter and Brad Pitt do most of the heavy lifting and pull it off superbly, but it feels like Norton is playing to an audience of one at times.  The remaining technical aspects and especially soundtrack are also great, but Fight Club is always going to be a failure for me at the most basic storytelling level.

Before I sign off, and because I mentioned this earlier but don't want it to get missed, why the hell don't other directors make their credits a 10th as interesting as Fincher's?

Ryan:  Wait until you get a look at the credits for Dragon Tattoo, they are the most "Fincher" part of the film.  He does do awesome work with the title screen on most of his films and it is the great short form video director coming out of him.  What is also great with the credits are that they help tell the story or set the mood of the film.  From john Doe in his notebook in Se7en to the feeling of tension in Panic Room, the credits aren't just there to show off, they serve a purpose.

I agree with you about Edward Norton and that he has been coasting for awhile on his talent.  I liked Norton and the movie Incredible Hulk more than you but most of his films lately have been a bore.  With that said, I think his performance in Fight Club is just about perfect.  The narrator is a man on the edge of sanity and Norton plays his desperation exquisitely.  Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter had the more showy roles but Norton had the hardest job with balancing the mood swings.  The monologue that Norton has about breathing smoke and wanting to destroy something beautiful is one of my all-time favorite scenes.  I think he is equally convincing as the man who doesn't give a shit and as the man on the other side of a nervous breakdown.

Yet my favorite performance of the film is by Brad Pitt.  Fincher brings out the best in him and in Fight Club he gives a powerful performance.  If you look at how much screen time Pitt actually has, you will be surprised at how much less it is than you think.  Pitt is so good in this film that he commands you to pay attention when he is onscreen and when he is not your thoughts are still on him.  This was my favorite performance of his until this year in Moneyball when he showed he could be great in showy roles and even better in subdued performances.

Finally, I wish you could see this movie through my eyes.  I am not being sarcastic or trying to be a dick, I truly believe that.  I am jealous you can watch directors like P. T. Anderson (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) and have more of an emotional response to the film.  I appreciate what certain directors can do but just can't mesh with it on an emotional level.  That is one problem I don't have with Fight Club.  I love the film.  I love the style.  I love the tone and the performances.

1999 was one of the strongest years in the history of film and I believe Fight Club is the best film of that year.  If i could give you my movie soul for a day and let you watch this film again I would because to let you experience this film like I do would be the best gift I could give.

Feeling a bit maternal, Andrew and Ryan stop off in the Panic Room for a bit of relaxation next Monday.

Posted by Andrew

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