Fight Club (1999)

Ugh. I’m absolutely fine with reviewing this, but I know I’ll be lost in a swarm of lukewarm thought and a stew of “This movie is so badass!!1” and people quoting the movie like their life depended on it. Like many films, this one has suffered and slogged through not its own shortcomings but that of a rapid fanbase, at least half of which has no idea what they just saw, but finds it “cool,” and those who try too hard to get what they saw and think it’s “smart,” both sides of this group signing internet posts with “I am Jack’s post in this thread” and exchanging “fight club” in its first rule for whatever else they think might be funny (and they are often wrong). Please do not come from this group of people. They are obnoxious and sully the films they love–hell, they even sully the bad films they love, nevermind the good ones. If you aren’t sure what I mean–let’s all have a brief moment of silence for the long ago passing of the freshness of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yes, you know what I mean now, don’t you?

A deliberately nameless man (so as to encompass all of the nameless and faceless, who is played by Edward Norton) is suffering from severe insomnia, restless in the life he’s living and its endless rash of consumerism. A doctor suggests insomnia doesn’t matter as it isn’t fatal, sending our narrator to a testicular cancer meeting to experience real grief. In the arms of the tearful Bob (Meat Loaf Aday) and his “bitch tits” (due to the fluctuations in estrogen and testosterone from the removal of his testicles, he has grown breasts), Norton is encouraged to cry, and finds release in this. This night he sleeps perfectly, and so he begins to attend every support group he can find, until Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) begins to appear at multiple groups as well, whose obvious mutual fakery leads him to the inescapable truth of his own lie, ruining his emotional release and thus, once again, his sleep. Adding to his insomnia are constant business trips between time zones, on one of which he meats soap-maker Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who shares the narrator’s distaste for consumerism, but has chosen, unlike him, to reject it outright. He expounds upon his philosophy to the narrator who finds himself nodding more and more in agreement, but is confronted by actual loss when a gas leak causes his apartment to explode and destroy all of his possessions. Tyler suggests that he can stay at his place, but only in exchange for the narrator hitting him as hard as he can, to make them both feel alive. After the ensuing fight draws a crowd, they begin to form fight clubs as psychotherapy for the men of the world, their secret physical conflicts toning down the banal confrontations in normal life to a less stressful level. Soon Tyler wants to take their philosophy to the next level and extend it to all society at once, recruiting members of the fight clubs to help him in random acts of property-damaging but otherwise-victimless mayhem, appropriately naming themselves Project Mayhem. And now the narrator begins to wonder just how far he himself is willing to go for Tyler’s ideals.

The ending of this film has been ruined for many people, including myself. Of course, I’ve seen it before and read the book, so I’m definitely not speaking of myself in that respect, but the first time I saw it I already knew the essence of the ending, what it all “meant” and so on–or, at least what people think it means, who don’t bother to put much thought into it. I’m going to skate around it as best I can for those who have not, as I intend to never consciously be that guy–the one who blathers mindlessly all sorts of big endings assuming people know them like a jackass when they may only know a handful, or a completely separate group from the ones I do. And, for anyone who follows my reviews (and I know no living soul reads all of them to the letter), you may be surprised by a phrase preceding that declaration. Yes, I have, in fact, read the book this is based on. It was, I think, the only book I actually read when assigned in my postmodern literature class. Heck, I probably wrote a paper* and everything. Still, there was some disagreement (in an all-too-literal and ultra-romantic reading by myself that half-ignored the actual text) about the very end of the book between myself and the class, so I think I can’t rightfully claim perfect remembrance of it, especially now. Still, there was one thing that I noticed immediately upon reading the book. The tonal focus of the two is pretty strikingly different: both address the same core issues (consumerism and emasculation in modern American society) but the film focuses on the former and the book, I felt, on the latter.

In the book, I was a little more interested in the emasculation reason, because the former is what has been so heavily ridden by the group I introduced this review by discussing. This ceaseless quotation of lines referring to how one is not what they own and so on by people who clearly own things and take great stock in that ownership has always been irritating, and is symptomatic of this seeming obsession with certain unrealistic ideologies. Some people seem to have this strange idea that one day we should just quit consumerism/capitalism/commercialism cold turkey, feel the movie espouses this belief and fail to think about the consequences. This movie is a reflection of those consequences, though. Tyler tells the film’s narrator that he is the kind of man the narrator wishes he was, but by now the narrator is doubting Tyler’s methods and motives, so this claim is thrown into doubt. Yet on and on rolls the obsession with the “awesomeness” of Tyler Durden, the recitation of his axioms and the worship of his mentality, completely missing the idea that his mentality is not a good, realistic or healthy thing. It is an extreme form and a dangerous one. This is not a film designed to convey the Tyler Durden Way of Life™, nor is it, by contrast, an attempt to suggest that there is everything to live for in the way of life he opposes. It puts forth his ideas as a spark, but attempts to stamp them out somewhat before the flames take hold too strongly and burn everything to the ground, but unfortunately too many seem to miss the latter half. The coals and embers are definitely intended, but a raging fire is not.

Beyond the philosophy of the film, there is David Fincher. This isn’t to say Fincher is divorced from the film conceptually or disinterested in the concept, but rather to say that a lot of what makes it so special (what causes that base appeal to the more mindless elements of the masses) comes from Fincher’s artistry. Fincher is a craftsman (to harken back, however vaguely and rather contradictorily to Andrew Sarris’ division of directors after the “auteur theory”) and a technician, obsessed with getting every minute detail of his films into place. He is the god of the world of his films, and he digs his fingers into every crack and pulls the sides separated by it inward and pushes them outward so that that crack is exactly the right measure. Fight Club is immaculate on this front: a fractured narrative seems rarely fractured, catapulted from the fear center of Edward Norton’s brain at the beginning of the film toward its inexorable end. There is never a feeling of loose ends (even if there are some), nor of dragging pace. Everything is placed and filmed in just the right way for the tone and–here comes the contradiction of Fincher as a “technician”–meaning of the film. It’s gritty and dirty but has the fluidity it needs to maintain momentum with absolute consistency. It’s meticulously designed and put together, but never feels forced–which is only another sign of Fincher’s control. The Dust Brothers’ electronic score matches perfectly with our mental expectations of the way things are filmed and vice versa, marrying sound and image the way a music video should be (and as a fan of the format, I see no insult in that).

Norton and Pitt are very talented and always capable, but don’t always put the whole of themselves into their work–here, they most certainly do. The narrator’s climb from schlub to nonchalant street-brawler is completely believable and does not once ring false, while Tyler’s energy and conviction harken back to Jeffrey Goines in 12 Monkeys, a madman who knows more than his psychopathy belies, but this time, in Tyler, there’s a far greater element of control. Carter holds her own against them, too, as cold and detached as a stranger in her first appearances, smoking stone-faced behind dark sunglasses and later emotionally open, frustrated at the dichotomy of her treatment at the hands of the two roommates. Meat Loaf once again throws a great fist into the face of his hecklers, bringing a soft tone and high pitch to his early performance and a puppy-like eagerness to please to his later fight club and Project Mayhem appearances.

Is this movie as good as the fools I’ve so rampantly criticized say? No. Nothing is. No film is or should be the centre of anyone’s entire life (of course, they do normally fade in the eyes of those folk, despite their firm espousal that this is the finest film ever made–until their next best film ever made). Perhaps for the time of filming it should be a focal point or even a centre for cast and crew, but even that is dubious. But the crime is that that cloud of hype and nonsense obscures an excellent film. Don’t watch it for quotable lines or to pump your fist, clothed in Nike wristband, at all the calls for the downfall of consumerism, watch it to see a masterful director and a more greyed discussion of changes wrought in our society to contrast with its origins. It’s very good at these things, and not to be missed.

*Let me see…ah, well, apparently not–though I was reminded that I did, in fact, read Ender’s Game as well, but then I had already read that.

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