In honor of the upcoming Gone Girl, I’m reviewing each film in David Fincher’s staggering career.
No other film is like David Fincher’s revolutionary, mad, incendiary Fight Club. It was a tectonic shift in film aesthetics and moral value, a The Graduate for the millennials, constantly attacking the status quo. It’s hard to leave Fight Club without rethinking what controls you and why, and how loud of a voice you are in your own head. It’s too bad it’s only as mature as an adolescent’s wet dream.
Fight Club stormed theaters with a loaded deck, betraying viewer expectations with a daring and abrasive story and tone that left them scrambling what to think. The studio marketed the Brad Pitt and Edward Norton film like a boxing movie for the Fast and Furious crowd. Needless to say, audiences were not pleased. What they got was a rampantly homo-erotic fascist fantasy, one obsessed with destroying consumerism like Alexander Supertramp but with a van full of dynamite, peering down a rabbit hole of social anarchy. Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s book of the same name, Fight Club is a story about how an underground fight ring slowly mutated into a terrorist cell. This is not a spoiler, since an elaborate tracking shot that impossibly glides in and out of buildings shows explosives wired to blow at least one massive skyscraper. The opening, like a lot of the film, is narrated dryly by Edward Norton. He tells us everything—the controlled demolition, the revolution, him and Tyler—all has something to do, like The Graduate, with a girl. Her name is Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter).
The narrator’s miserable, pathetic existence is an ironic FU to the American Dream. He has everything, but his life is desolate. He has a successful high paying corporate job that allows him to live a reasonably lavish lifestyle, complete with a sofa with a string green stripe pattern. But in bit Marxist-Buddhist philosophy also shown in The Matrix and American Beauty, the narrator’s stuff does not make him happy. In fact, he’s miserable. He suffers from insomnia: he’s “never really asleep, but never really awake.” His ability to feel, to be alive, has been neutered. He’s achieved the American Dream, but it’s left him impotent in his ability to live. In an effort to feel something, anything, he pretends to have diseases like prostrate cancer and shows up to self help groups. He becomes addicted to crying at them. Not long after, thanks to übermensch Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), he finds catharsis in fighting. Tyler has a body sculpted like the Greek gods. He’s incredibly stylish but totally at ease, and he’s everything the narrator, and most men (so the film naively accuses), want to be. He also thinks he’s a prophet for nihilistic mayhem; so he, along with the narrator, start a fight club. It soon becomes Project Mayhem, a terrorist cell.
Fight Club begins with a bravura opening shot almost impossible to conceive before 1999. We begin on the racetrack of cranial nerves inside someone’s head, zooming through with rhythmic velocity. The camera begins to pan—still in an unbroken shot—out of a mouth, then the along the barrel of a gun, and finally, the sights, until we’re greeted with the image of a very beaten Edward Norton. Fight Club is jam packed with shots like these, giving Fincher’s violent art movie a kinetic visual energy that, even in 2014, is staggering. The camera is a character of its own, liberated and playful, twisting our attention sometimes where it doesn’t want to go. Tyler comments “even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart” and the same philosophy echoes in every frame. The buildings are filthy, the streets are repellent, and the stylized lighting makes everything look like a stained dream.
Fincher knows what he has to do to provoke what he wants out of the audience. With Se7en, he tricked the audience into thinking they saw brutal murders when really they didn’t. In Fight Club, we become accomplices in the callous havoc caused by Project Mayhem. We’re forced to bask in watching a beautiful but young Jared Leto get his face mashed in; it’s never less than completely glaringly obvious why Fight Club would always offend. There’s also the casual fatalism running rampant throughout, with lines like “life insurance pays double if you die on business trips.” My mother wouldn’t be more offended.
Project Mayhem honors Nazi iconography that was certainly familiar to Edward Norton after his stunning turn in American History X. Although The Narrator doesn’t shave his hair off, the members of Project Mayhem do. They wear completely black militaristic uniforms, delivering organized chaos around downtown L.A. like they’re kids starring in Battle of Algiers. The first hour of Fight Club, arguably the more loved half, is an action-comedy hybrid constantly poking fun at huge issues with a pointed sardonic wit. Part of Fight Club’s appeal is how it melds multiple issues into a single punch line, like a line about a father leaving his family every ten years to start an entirely new one. The joke? He should start franchises. A single joke takes the threads of capitalism in America, contemporary family life, and the tremendous narcissism of people today and ties them into a hilarious knot. Few films are funny in the way Fight Club is funny, which is why when the film’s latter half becomes increasingly focused on the warped and childlike antics of Project Mayhem; it just becomes a less fun movie.
Big Spoilers for Fight Club and Vertigo: Do Not Read if You Have Not Seen These Films There’s a symmetry between Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Fight Club. Scottie, just like The Narrator, is obsessed (and in love) with someone that doesn’t exist. The seductive phantom, Madelyn, represents everything Scottie (feels) he needs to live, to grow, and to evolve. It’s just the same in Fight Club, and Tyler Durden is The Narrator’s homoerotic femme fatale. The funniest aspect of the whole film is that since Tyler is a fiction of The Narrator’s subconscious, and since he’s imagined having a quasi-gay relationship with The Narrator, the entire film can be interpreted as a twisted take on the male gaze: The Narrator sexualizes himself, to himself, in order to cope with reality. That is funny. /End Spoilers
The final hour reboots Fight Club from a perceptive action/comedy into a philosophizing sermon, increasingly pleased with its own cynical and “super deep” observations. It shouldn’t be. Throughout Fight Club we hear Tyler’s ideas and values with lines like “only after losing everything are you free to do anything,” and “You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” Quotations like these are ironic- In Se7en Brad Pitt’s insulted the serial killer by calling him nothing more than a “t-shirt.” The same can be said of Tyler’s stream of consciousness bullshit. They are not practical to everyday life, but remain persuasive to the young or the moronic. The more victimized you feel by the rigidity of your life, the more Fight Club will resonate. It’s a gospel of anarchy and self-actualization, with charismatic figures singing (crazy) solutions to your apathy and failures. You don’t want what you own to end up owning you? Destroy everything you own. Live in a disgusting decrepid home without possessions. That’s freedom. Don’t like a guy? Punch him in the face. Still don’t? Get punched in the face. Show you can take it. Regress to primal male. Hit bottom. These are catchy psueso-intellectual phrases, but Tyler Durden’s ramblings have the insight of teenager. As such, Project Mayhem are frat kids who inhaled Sartre and Nietzche like it was a hit of heroin, treating epistemological failure like a new high. The more seriously Fight Club treats its ideas, the more we see them fall apart.
I know what you’re going to say: that Fight Club satirizes Tyler’s anarchic ramblings as much as the futility of corporate culture. You’d be right—it does. But that is exactly the reason Fight Club collapses on itself. Fight Club’s final lesson isn’t just that The Narrator behaved poorly. We’re told being both a voluntary victim of consumer culture and/or a crazed terrorist are—gasp—both bad life choices. Fight Club reduces its philosophizing, some of which really does hit home, to a series of trailer punch lines; they’re quotations fit for t-shirts and facebook statuses, observational humor with a nihilistic punch. These lines give the illusion of having a lot to say without saying anything at all (“you are not a unique snowflake”), and since the film’s final stretch shows the ultimate place these ideas can go—anarchy—it means the preaching we’ve heard for two hours was largely discredited.
This is a another huge issue with the film: Fight Club only arouses simple, immediate emotions. We point and laugh at Project Mayhem’s antics the way we laugh when a bully makes fun of an easy target. Watching Fight Club, we’re amused, sometimes shocked, and always really entertained, but Fincher’s thematic knife can’t cut deep. Tyler’s an adolescent character, with adolescent emotions, leaving Fight Club as a film with the emotional depth of a 15 year old. Having this many ideas in the same place is a pleasure, but they struggle to get past puberty. A madly entertaining film, but a lesser Fincher.
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