New Millenium Classics – Fight Club
I figured I'd unearth an article I wrote about Fight Club from my old blogging days. Consider this one in a twice yearly series on modern classics and standout films.
Fight Club (1999) Directed by David Fincher.
Based on the cult book of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk, it was an edgy and unusual tale that was equally anti-consumerist and sadomasochistic about a male revolution of embracing masculinity and eschewing the corporate world that molds them into worker bees and consumption targets. The film’s final act and opening scene take place in the same situation. Edward Norton has a gun barrel in his mouth, held by Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) asking him for his last words. Norton’s character tells us that this is all happening now because he knows Tyler, and it’s all because of Marla Singer. But we’ll have to learn why and how this came to play later.
We see the narrator now being held in the massive male mammary set of Meatloaf, but we are cut away from there to make sense of the situation.
Norton plays the nameless and somewhat faceless narrator who is post-bachelorhood corporate man who suffers from insomnia seemingly connected to the drabness in his life. The character is an update of a character type, like Jack Lemon in The Apartment; he goes to work and then comes home and watches TV, and slowly builds up contentment about his life and can almost touch the glass ceiling of his career. The only difference between is that the protagonist in Fight Club is not married (or with children for that matter), which gives him a large source of disposable income and one of many “new” males in the world constituting the (d)evolving nature of the modern men, who is no longer pre-cast from birth to be the breadwinner and taught to be the strong silent type, but taught to be tolerant, sensitive, and that we no longer have (or necessarily able) to provide for a family of 1.5 children.
In a visually crafty scene, we see the narrator walking through his home, seeing the end result of hours of phone calls of him walking through his apartment, figuring out what accessories match his life best, which coffee table goes best with his mindset, the chi of the room, and match the numerous accessories he has accumulated. And he has slowly become nothing more than a consumer: “We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow Collection.” This is likely would be where and who he was until he died.
While one senses his contentment in living such a life, the underlying hollowness is palpable to the audience, and this void manifests its discontentment with insomnia for the narrator. Part of him wants to rebel to his cog nature:
Narrator: A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one.
Business woman on plane: Are there a lot of these kinds of accidents?
Narrator: You wouldn't believe.
Business woman on plane: Which car company do you work for?
Narrator: A major one.
but ultimately, his mindset is to stay the course, and when he goes to the hospital for a chemical solution, the doctor denies him any cheap exits. The narrators response is “Can’t you help me, I’m in pain here,” to which the doctor coyly responds “You want to see real pain, visit the guys in the testicular cancer group.” It’s a throw off, and while there is little driving reason why, the narrator decides to go.
Here we are brought back to Bob’s bitch boobs. The narrator allows himself to let go, and cries himself to sleep. His life is normal again, and the implied reason is that he is able to remember that people actually have lives, and that there is more to existence than work. And he becomes addicted to the groups. Going to as many as possible, and becoming warm to the new age healing that allows him to deal with his working existence by escaping in a sea of love and acceptance of people who are dying and in real pain.
That is until: Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) comes along and gets off on the same trip that he does. Seeing someone in the same state of hypochondria manifested depression and escaping the same way makes him lose the escape because it forces him to accept the fact that this isn’t real, he is using this like a drug (a nice stab at the addiction that can spawn from AA style help groups) to liberate his mind from focusing on his reality.
He is once again aimless until he meets Tyler Durden, someone who changes his reality.
Before looking at the effect Durden has on the movie, I must comment on the effect of Pitt in this role. If this role went to an actor like, but not, Pitt, say Keanu, Will Smith, Brendan Fraser (in action mode), or going further back, say Paul Newman, the movie would fail. The only other substitute I can think of would be George Clooney, which is in a 2006 mindset (possibly because they worked so well together in Oceans 11 as extensions of a similar character) and because he is at an iconic level most men would kill to be Clooney (some would want to get rid of his political stance).
But in 1999, Clooney wasn’t at the same level as Pitt was, and why the movie worked at the time is Pitt represents a level of male that is the pinnacle of desirable. Pitt’s looks are enough to make a woman swoon, his body is toned but not too macho, and his hair is simple, and it’s not an ordeal or at a level of follicle perfection like Elvis. Pitt’s looks seem almost effortlessly perfect; while some would surely ask for more in some departments, Pitt has an aura about him like his physical appearance is easy. I suppose this is why men reject him in romantic fare (Legends of the Fall, Meet Joe Black), yet find him agreeable when he plays interesting characters (Ocean’s 11, 12 Monkeys, Fight Club); when men watch him in the former, it’s a life we would like to attain; when our girls go wobbly kneed over him, it’s because we know he could swoop in at any minute and we’d look the frog. Needless to say, watching him in something like Seven Years in Tibet makes both genders hate the vessel.
On the other hand, Ed Norton is a perfect everyman, but just a little bit smarter. In his most memorable roles, he seems like he is an everyman who is motivated in one way further. As an actor, he always looks close to the same on a physical and emotional viewing level, but he his characters have a touch of stem cell personality; for every part he gets, the cells copy the inner motives and it shapes his performance. In his role as Larry Flynt’s lawyer, he looks like one of your friends who always succeeded but also carries a sense of fear when he meets people of larger stature. In Primal Fear, he was able to convey a sense of humanity even though the audience suspects he killed a Cardinal. Even in Rounders, he is able to play Worm as someone familiar; he looks like a friend anyone could have, and one forgives him because you get the feeling that, for a while in his growth, he was surrounded by too many bad people.
The duality of the leading characters casting works because Pitt and Norton can play off each other in almost any situation, whether it’s being hetero life partners, people who want to kill each other one moment but will remain friends after the fight, and like Tyler suggests to his counterpart, this is what you want to be. Pitt acts and looks the part; he has a body. Norton brings his sympathetic presence to the movie, and one can look at him relate to his initial struggle. When compared to Tyler, the path of the narrator is cogent because of Norton, he looks suggestible.
And recaps aside, what the movie becomes is an examination of the extreme paths one would have to take to change not just your perception of the world (fight club) and the world itself (project mayhem).
The concepts of fight club, the lye treatment, and (while decidedly more violent) is transfigured Buddhism; not updated or modernized or even simplified for the masses, the concepts are all echoes of Buddhism, just a couple of the main rules of the faith that work with the movie. I don’t presume to say that Fincher, Palahniuk, Norton or Pitt are Buddhist or even intended to make the connection. But the idea that our consumer desires ultimately destroy us and cause more problems is the hallmark of the religion; one leads to Nirvana and Enlightenment, the other to enlightenment through anti-consumerism.
When Fight Club came out it was not a success. It had a very large turnout for males 14-30, but they were the only ones who contributed to the box office. The end gross was 37 million, and with a budget of 65 mil plus the advertising budget, it was a bomb. Or it was a bomb until the DVD receipts started to come in.
The movie set out to be revolutionary; it tried to challenge ideas, raise awareness, and re-invent cinematic techniques. The way it was processed and delivered carried out on this, and until the arrival of the Lord Of the Rings DVD’s, the Fight Club DVD was the most complete piece of what the film, the idea, and the production was all about. Even the packaging was completely new for a mass market DVD, complete with a second disc. Few laserdiscs were this comprehensive, yet Fight Club will likely be remembered as the first of a wave because the others were… laserdiscs.
Aside from the faire found on DVD’s today (behind the scenes, interview transcripts, deleted scenes, multiple commentaries), the set also includes a faux “catalog” of items from the film such as Tyler’s red leather jacket among other things.
For the two years after the DVD came out, the set was (and may still be) the benchmark for the (then) emerging technology. Even if one didn’t posses a complex speaker set up or flat screen TV, this was the first time a DVD became conversionary; it wasn’t just that one could see Fight Club; the package given was enough motivation to buy a $300 player, because it enhanced the experience. This was the first time a studio DVD felt like more than a movie. If it wasn’t a movie that was so intentionally different or of quality, like Criterion Collection’s DVD for The Rock, the effect would be lost and DVD’s may have just been another evolution of home theater, just armed with more bells and whistles for AV nuts. Fight Club was the first movie to deliver something new and in a way that buyers wanted this for every movie afterward.
I can think of few pieces that are both decisively favored / despised, and marked so along almost seemingly age decided lines.
I remember thinking that while it has flaws, Fight Club was a movie for the men of my generation. It spoke to a basic level to many of the people I lived with Freshman and Soph years of college (not just at USC, but around the country). And by basic, I mean immature, undecided, lacking motive for a big scheme, primitive, angry, despotic, and because there isn’t a word for it, a group of people who were “the least beleaguered of any racial group, yet felt like the world was theirs only to lose,” an idea that combines both the princess culture adorned on young women (born post Fem-Lib) and the teachings of shame put to the boys of this generation.
Fight Club came out in the same year as American Beauty, which even if it is flawed on a few levels, still carries the sub-theme of subsumed masculinity, and the need for a liberating, remembrance/ recall of the things that define the Arc-types of masculinity we were raised on and then quickly told that were wrong.
I could get into the completely mangled and seemingly ill-fetched logic of the previous two paragraphs, but it would be a long digression. Whether it’s a true equilibrium of the sexes coming to fruition, or simply a shrinking of a need for a “male” figure in our society of single mothers and baby-mommas, the old role of the male is dwindling into extinction in common society, only reprised in action movie farces or clichés (look up the Chuck Norris Facts) or in dating technique (look up Tom Leykis) to gain upper hand before succumbing to marriage-hood.
Tyler Durden said it best:
‘We're a generation of men raised by women. I'm wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.”
This was as close as mankind ever came to having a response to Oprah. It was a world where we rejected the notion of Duvet covers, corporate greed, and establishing neighborhood fraternities. The fact that we would then beat the crap out of each other is equally intriguing and off-putting.
In the end the hospital bills would have resulted in health care becoming too expensive and leaving the Fight Clubs to the super rich.
After the initial logic and liberation of a Fight Club in the movie, the film goes downhill, as it stops being revolutionary in both movies techniques, suggestions and flow all are ruined by the story’s decent into anarchy.
The films great reveal that Tyler is the narrator (or a figment of his insomnia), and it’s also the point where the film derails logically. The film goes to great lengths to both hide the secret, and reward upon the second viewing (the most clever being the sex scene), but there are a couple leaps of logic that deflate the believability. After the narrator finds out about project mayhem, yet can find little real detail, Tyler takes the narrator and two other “space monkeys” on a car trip in treacherous weather. After asking the narrator about his involvement and asks him if he is ready to die; Tyler crashes the car to test the length of the monkeys and the narrator. One asks why the passengers are not perplexed by one man having a Q&A with an imaginary figure, why Fincher shows the narrator exiting the wrecked car from the passenger side. The latter could be explained as a Red Herring technique, but the former still is implausible.
The impact of the films main twist is thematically sound, and upon scrutiny, it makes sense. But the need for further investigation is telling, because it validates the initial disbelief of the situation more than a film like the Sixth Sense, American Beauty (both 99) or The Usual Suspects. In those three, the second time allows the viewer to catch the pieces of the puzzle, and complete the piece. In Fight Club, fitting the pieces requires a bit of fudging to see the whole.
The shock of the film’s reveal ranks up there with some of the most potent, from Chinatown’s “Sister, daughter,” Godfather II’s “It was you Fredo…” or the climax of The Empire Strikes Back. Perhaps the reason it doesn’t resonate like those films, and maybe why critics initially panned the movie is because the film doesn’t end close to the revelation, it’s merely the end of the third act. What follows - until the film comes full circle with the gun in the narrator’s mouth – feels like the third act to the film that followed the first act, but did not cohere with the second. The film changes genres from a movie about discovery to a mystery movie. Suddenly the protagonist has to figure out everything of the first two acts while the audience has been stripped of a through-line. It’s not that people are unable to accept a plot change; it’s that the move is so jarring not just in the secret, but that the film also moves from an idea of realization and petty crimes (Fight Club) it suggests an absolution of total annihilation of the consumer world as well. Both ideas fit, yet neither are done well enough to bridge the acts. Even the structure it built similar to Buddhism falls apart here, as the faith teaches “If the string is too loose it will not play, (the narrator pre-Tyler) if it is too tight it will break.” The film tries to hard, and for a bit, it breaks, and only partially re-mends.
Lost in all of this is Marla, who also adds to the viewing discontinuity. She has been absent for 20 or more minutes where the Narrator and Tyler forge new identities and expand their arcs, and suddenly she returns. Until the narrator calls her up and realizes who Tyler really is, she is thematically irrelevant.
When the credits roll, the world is just where Project Mayhem wanted it to be, and by extension the narrator has finally succumbed to his subconscious, and it’s at a place where he can finally accept Marla as himself, and not as Tyler.
Fight Club is a film of extremism. The creators did it in a way that in both content and delivery the audience knew it was different. 1999 felt like the first year of a new era of cinema. With movies like American Beauty, The Matrix, The Insider, The Sixth Sense, etc. it felt like a new wave was coming. Unfortunately, 2000 was one of the worst years ever for films, with Almost Famous being the one great film, and Traffic and Requiem for a Dream being the only films that were progressive cinematically (yet both were adapted from other sources). Yet, today Fight Club is the only film that still seems radical, both in its delivery and technique; it’s as fresh and prescient as it’s ever been.
“I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars.
Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need.
We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars.
But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.”
Even after Iraq became the war, it still isn’t our war. It’s one of our fathers, one of a President, and one of a country angry about something and blaming someone else. We can either decide to stay the course or change for the better. The extreme is dangerous above all else, but it may be the only way to make the change needed. Taking the extreme end is one thing and could prove fatal; thinking about new paths would be the first step for what we could achieve.
Originally Published 2006. David is one of the hosts of Digital High the playeraffinity.com podcast, yes, that would be the podcast of the site you are reading.
Bother the author with any your well thought out questions at http://www.formspring.me/RadioFreeDave or follow on twitter @ineverlovedyou3