Back in 1999 I wrote three separate pieces about the film adaptation of Fight Club. Here is the first:
Hold on. I’ve got some pondering to do. The cause of this pondering is the new movie Fight Club, which I saw because I’m drawn to bitter and murky films like it.
This means that this is another not-quite-review by yours truly, kind of like what happened with the movie version of South Park, because I knew while watching Fight Club that I’d need another viewing to even hope to wrap my mind around what’s going on in Fight Club – a film that has left audience members scared, angered, disgusted, exhilarated, and even convulsed with laughter.
What is it not? It’s not a date film. It’s not a “time to get together, try to love one another” film, except maybe in the most oblique and un-obvious way. It’s not a shiny-happy film. It’s not pretty.
But I’ve long believed that when a movie or another work of creativity gets as polarized and wildly varying reactions as this, there is probably something worthwhile going on in it. The movie in question also is both brutal and, I thought, brutally funny.
And I’ll give my thoughts on it. Soon. Hopefully next week. I want first to see The Game (1997), another film by Fight Club director David Fincher, so I can do a compare-and-contrast. I’m familiar with Fincher’s debut film Alien3 (1992) and the disturbing and intense Se7en (1995); by the way, this movies makes Se7en almost look warm and gentle.
I also may tie my thoughts on Fight Club in with an interesting film of late called American Beauty, which shares more in common with Fight Club the more I think about it.
But I can say I’m glad about this film for two particular reasons. First, Fight Club is based (quite faithfully, I’ve heard) on a novel written by Portland’s Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk once lived in the Tri-Cities [Wash.] – for a time he worked as the projectionist at the Columbia Center 3 theaters, and movie projecting is a job I did back in college – and this is another case of someone from the Northwest making good on a national scale. That’s worth discussing (said Chris, the big Gus Van Sant fan).
And second, I have to admire Fincher for being someone who twice has shot a movie in L.A. (Se7en and Fight Club) and made L.A. not look like L.A. That’s a feat.
Two weeks later, I reviewed it a little more properly:
Oh, could I go on about this film. It’s Fight Club, which recently swung through town, and it’s packed with nuggets of interest I could write about. As I said in my initial not-quite-a-review two weeks ago, I found it to be hilarious and entertaining in an intentionally brutal way.
I can handle brutal films like this by keeping them in perspective: why are they so brutal? A film like Con Air (1997) is brutal because something like 90 percent of all the characters are either villains or unlikable; think of Colm Meaney’s character. Only in the movies are there that many villains in a single place. Con Air, of course, is not a film about humans; it’s a film about movie characters spouting overwritten and ridiculous tough-guy dialogue (“To me you’re somewhere between a cockroach and the white stuff that forms in the corners of your mouth when you’re really thirsty”). It was an exercise in brutal wit with actors playing walking cartoons – and I thought it worked. I’m a sucker for Jerry Bruckheimer action flicks.
So what exactly is going on in Fight Club? I’ll talk about a small part of the movie to try and give my own explanation.
Edward Norton – of Primal Fear, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, American History X and other edgy, in-your-face films – plays a man who wants the world as he knows it to end. On an airplane, he visualizes being in a mid-air collision. He watches this vision of a plane getting torn apart with complete detachment. He doesn’t care about the world.
It’s then that Norton’s character meets Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt. Norton’s character identifies with this man, and agrees with all of Durden’s pronouncements about what’s wrong with the world. Durden also does all of the subversive things he would never let himself do: urinating in entrées at high-class banquets, splicing single frames of nudity into children’s cartoons, fighting for absolutely no reason other than to fight and to encourage more fighting. Norton’s character joins Durden to subvert society, creating the underground aggression movement known as Fight Club, until we reach a minor apocalypse at the end.
Like Se7en (1995), which also was directed by David Fincher, Fight Club is a sheer mood piece; one of Fincher’s great and growing skills is to create an overpowering atmosphere.
Interestingly, like the other end-of-days/Brad Pitt film Twelve Monkeys (1995), directed by Terry Gilliam, the world of Fight Club has an already-dated feel to it. But while Gilliam found his own kind of beauty in the ragged inner cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia – remember the image of young ghetto kids playing in a garbage-strewn lot? – here Fincher takes Los Angeles and makes it ugly in a stylized, AnyCity way. This vision is a constant reminder that Norton’s character, through which we’re seeing this city, his narrow enough vision that nothing of beauty or gentleness will enter this picture and disturb his worldview.
Fight Club is, of all things, an articulate primal scream, about a man searching for a new way to live but never finding it. Ed Norton’s character – left unnamed for an important reason – is fed up with the world. He’s like Michael Douglas as D-Fens in the disturbing Falling Down (1993), finding fault with everything and being utterly cynical. And Durden is an outlet for articulating what it is about modern society that has soured Norton’s character.
And one time late in Fight Club, during a moment that is almost calm, Durden claims that his vision is to go back to a simpler existence, “camped out on the ruins of a superhighway and cooking meat in the shadow of what was once Rockefeller Center.” An interesting vision, if unlikely…but it is only mentioned once. The goal of the main character is not to do anything to realize that vision; the vision is a momentary rationalization for violence. Durden is trying to bring down society, but it’s not like he has a really workable alternative. His philosophy is confused and dangerous, and he knows it. But Norton’s character doesn’t, not yet.
Later in the film, we learn why we never found out the name of Norton’s character, and that changes…well, what does it change? Yes, it provides an insight into what goes on inside the mind of Norton’s character, but it is used more as a transition in the story than the end-all-be-all of the story (and no, I’m not going to say what the revelation is).
The important thing is that Tyler Durden is finally seen as what he truly is: a walking-talking manifestation of mood. You don’t do your clearest thinking when you’re in a mood.
So of course the movie is as confused and as cynical as it is. That’s why it’s so unrelentingly brutal. That’s why it works.
And I followed that with this:
There’s such a thing as simultaneous creation, where different creative people have similar concerns and express those concerns in similar ways – for instance, similar scenes in different films. Yes, sometimes this happens because someone has copied someone else’s work, but coincidental co-creation happens more often than you’d think. And, of course, the similar scenes will never come out exactly the same, so you can compare-and-contrast and analyze them.
I’ll try to keep this short: Like Fight Club, American Beauty is about a man who radically changes his life, throwing his world into chaos, but chaos that’s at least more interesting than the doldrums they were in before. In Beauty, the man in question is Lester Burnham, a suburbanite less than a year from death. What Lester does leads to his death – indirectly, at least – but in the process he finds an energy that he had forgotten he had, and everyone around him is touched by that energy. This is told in a film that is both more human and more humane than Fight Club; Thora Birch, as Lester’s morose, thoughtful daughter is wonderful, to give just one example.
Think about these two scenes: Both Fight Club and American Beauty feature a scene where the movie’s main character has a confrontation with his boss. The scenes start out almost the same, go in different directions, and then end up very similar again.
In Beauty, Lester flat-out admits his disdain for his job and wants out of it – but not before blackmailing his boss into giving him one heck of a golden parachute for leaving. Norton’s character in Fight Club does basically the same thing, with the same result. How they do it, though, is telling. In Beauty, Lester says he’ll sue his boss – for sexual harassment. His male boss does not see this coming, but Lester shows that he has the power to at least make people think his boss asked for a sex act – and that’s enough power to ruin the boss in the eyes of his other employees. “I quit my job and blackmailed my boss for $60,000,” Lester says cheerfully at dinner that night.
What happens in Fight Club is a little different. Norton’s character hates his job as an insurance investigator and wants out. He tells his boss this, but lists his demands: if his boss keeps him on the payroll, he will not reveal what he knows about cars that should have been recalled because of hazardous design flaws. The boss sees this as the blatant blackmail that it is, and refuses. He calls for security. Norton’s character says “Okay,”…and proceeds to hit himself as hard as he can. He punches himself again, and again, and again, and starts throwing himself into the wall and onto furniture until the pieces of shelves and a glass coffee table mingle on the floor with his own blood. And while he does this, he keeps looking at his boss with an uncomprehending stare and asking, “What are you doing?” When security shows up, they see a bloodied abnd battered employee at the feet of his boss. The implication is clear: the boss just beat his own employee within an inch of his life. How would the boss overcome that image? He can’t. All he can do is give Norton’s character one heck of a deal – money, airline flight vouchers, benefits – to keep all of this quiet.
One uses sex, one uses violence. What symmetry.