Fight Club (1999)

Director: David Fincher

Producer: Ross Grayson Bell, Cean Chaffin, Art Linson (Fox 2000, Regency, Taurus)

Writer: Chuck Palahniuk (novel), Jim Uhls (screenplay)

Photography: Jeff Cronenweth

Music: Dust Brothers

Cast: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf, Zach Grenier, Richmond Arquette, David Andrews, George Maguire, Eugenie Bondurant, Christina Cabot, Sydney Colston, Rachel Singer

“The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club!”

Yet to this day, Fight Club is all moviegoers want to talk about. The testosterone-filled fist fights. David Fincher’s unconventional storytelling methods. Brad Pitt’s badass performance. And, most of all, that shocker of a twist that no one saw coming.

Though some critics called the twist forced and implausible, there’s no denying its click with mainstream audiences. Fight Club developed an instant cult following, voted to a whopping 8.8 on IMDB and placing as high as #8 on Empire magazine’s reader-voted poll, above such critically acclaimed classics as Casablanca (1942) and Citizen Kane (1941).

But if the film is going to get heaped with such high praise, fans should at least learn to appreciate it for the right reasons. Those viewers who adore the film for its masculine brutality and mimick it as such are missing the entire point, that the material is really an indictment, a mockery, of such behavior.

Based on the 1996 book by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club centers around a nameless insomniac (Edward Norton), who dazes through his long days at the office. In his spare time, he attends support groups for various diseases, simply to experience the comfort of the group setting (“Every evening I died, and every evening I was born again, resurrected”).

At one of the meetings, our narrator meets a fellow fraud, the gothic, suicidal Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter, leading up to dark roles in Harry Potter and Sweeney Todd), who he initially resents for stealing his peace, but with whom he later becomes romantically involved. His life carries on in this way until one night his apartment bursts into flames, at which point he dials up the mysterious Tyler Durden (Pitt, back with Fincher after Se7en), a man he once met on an airplane and who now invites him to move in together in an abandoned, dilapidated building.

It’s here that Tyler changes the narrator’s life, bringing out his wild side and teaching him the numbing effects of fighting: “After fighting, everything else in your life got the volume turned down. You could deal with anything.” Soon, the fights evolve into an underground phenomenon labeled “Fight Club,” an organization of no-holds-barred brawls in a barroom basement, open to anyone willing to join and feeding an already-existing urge amongst the urban community (“It was right in everyone’s face; Tyler and I just made it visible. It was on the tip of everyone’s tongue; Tyler and I just gave it a name”).

While partially an outlet for measuring machismo — standing shirtless and shoeless while beating eachother senseless against cold basement floors — the group also serves as the roots of an underground anarchist movement, functioning upon the idea of what could be accomplished if the least of society, the trashmen, the waiters, the telephone operators, the service drivers, all banded together in uprising.

As Tyler builds a series of cross-country franchises to carry out his soap-based, anti-establishment vision, the film works toward a climatic terrorist plot, labeled “Project Mayhem,” to blow up the headquarters of the nation’s biggest credit card companies, thus wiping out all credit records and leveling the playing field of the American monetary system. As the towers fall in the film’s final image, they eerily offer a pre-9/11 warning.

Such anti-establishment themes seemed to be raging in 1999, as Norton’s office-bored insomniac echoed shades of Kevin Spacey in American Beauty and Ron Livingston in Office Space. Still, Fincher leaves us with plenty of burning questions as to his ultimate goal: Is it a commentary on gang formation, terrorist movements and the allure of cults? Is it a condemnation of groupthink, as examined through a bit part by Meat Loaf (“His name is Robert Paulson”)? Are the collapsing buildings one final comment on a failing masculinity (“We’re a generation of men raised by women”)? Are the fights merely a way to feel alive in a materialistic work cycle (“This kid from work, Ricky, couldn’t remember whether you ordered pens with blue ink or black. But Ricky was a god for 10 minutes when he trounced the matridee of a local food court”)? Or, is the film a complete mockery of masculine ideals, contrived by Palahniuk, himself a gay man?

Fincher’s interpretation may be a collection of these, maybe all of these, maybe more, maybe less, chewed on after repeat viewings. First-time viewers no doubt want to focus on the insane plot twist, lauded for its Sixth Sense-era surprise that fans will endlessly dissect. Despite an overwhelmingly fresh critical reception (80% on Rotten Tomatoes), critics still often leave Fight Club off best-lists, calling its trickery unwaranted, unearned and lacking cohesion after deep scrutiny. Its revelation is no doubt mindblowing, but it may require a bit too much shaky stretching to explain its plausibility, namely because the film shows so much, unlike Psycho (1960), which kept its twist hidden off-screen until the end. In other words, viewers have to stretch the film to fit its twist, not the other way around.

It does, however, allow Fincher to try some sneaky directorial touches, like flashing a subliminal human image that hints at the twist, similar to Tyler’s own subliminal splicing of pornographic images at his movie projectionist night job, a trick Fincher himself plays on viewers just before the end credits. Fight Club may actually be credited as the film that taught viewers about the blips (or “cigarette burns”) that appear in the upper corner of a movie theater screen, signaling to projectionists when to switch the reels.

This, of course, is not the only way Fincher affected the movie-going culture, employing a directorial approach that became the most stylistically daring since Pulp Fiction (1994). Note the gritty realism of the fight sequences, aided by Oscar-nominated sound effects and snappy voice-overs: “You can swallow a pint of blood before you get sick.” Note the use of the narrator’s visualizations, Fincher cutting to an imaginary plane crash or a thearapuetic cave dwelling. And note Fincher’s pan across the narrator’s apartment, watching various furniture pieces appear with their corresponding price and description text overlaying the screen.

Perhaps most impressive, check out Fincher’s reinvention of movements through space, digitally moving his “camera” through physical objects and placing it in unsuspecting spaces long before Vince Gilligan in Breaking Bad. We watch the camera weaving through the neurons of a brain during the opening credits; starting in the bottom of a trashcan and pulling out past some Krispy Kreams; moving in to a close-up of a stove and swirling around one of the burners; or moving down the side of a building, through a city street, through several layers of underground parking decks and focusing on a van with a bullethole in the windshield, before moving through that bullethole to reveal a ticking explosive.

As such, Fight Club may have marked the obliteration point of all former auteuristic approaches to filmmaking, as Fincher laughs at the need to make actual camera movements to convey meaning, instead digitally allowing the camera to penetrate where it formerly could not go. This idea will surely trouble cinema purists as an easy way out, as it is much more difficult and requires much more planning and artistic execution to deliver real-life compositions. Others, though, will say if you have the technology, use it. I say we should learn to appreciate both for what they are. Traditionalists should recognize this new form as a savvy, edgy new possibility. But every bit as much, newcomers should take the time to study the actual techniques and the ingenuity required of classic filmmakers. Until then, there may very well remain a divided response to this generational touchstone, best summed up by Roger Ebert’s assessment that “Fight Club is a thrill ride masquerading as philosophy — the kind of ride where some people puke and others can’t wait to get on again.” (A)


A: Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, October 15, 1999 

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