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Fight Club (David Fincher) 1999

Let me start this review with a quote:

“It's tempting to describe David Fincher's stunning, mordantly funny, formally dazzling new movie Fight Club as the first film of the next century and leave it at that. It certainly suggests a possible future direction for mass-appeal cinema that could lead it out of the Nineties cul-de-sac of bloated, corrupt mediocrity and bankrupt formulas. Indeed, its vertiginous opening credits shot - a camera move hurtling backwards from the deepest recesses of its main character's brain, out through his mouth and down the barrel of the gun that is inserted into it - could almost be a metaphor for the cinema viewer's predicament.” Gavin Smith – Film Comment

    Perhaps we are on the cusp of a cinematic revolution… I would certainly like to think so… Still, somehow, I doubt it. I don’t think cinema has ever been an exceptionally fixed medium. The so-called grammar of film is still quite intact, even as the vocabulary shifts. I would certainly enjoy a future made of films as well done as this one, but somehow, I doubt it will be the case. When standard Hollywood fare such as Charlie’s Angels and Bring it On are also called “films of the next century” by the same magazine, we know there’s still no general conception of what such a term means.     

    Certainly there’s a hope that each great film, and Fight Club certainly is a great film, that comes along will become the new status quo in Hollywood, prompting a rash of creativity and innovation. Unfortunately, it was precisely the forward thinking that allowed Fight Club to be made that prompted Bill Mechanic’s firing at Fox.

The question, of course, is where does this leave the viewer? No large budget studio film since Fight Club has had the same amount of audacity. This is certainly unfortunate. We have been settling for pabulum from the studios. Smith’s suggestion that the credits sequence of Fight Club suggests our film going experience couldn’t possibly apply to the majority of studio output. Most films don’t even penetrate our craniums, much less our brain’s deepest recesses. (Still, more than a few times, I’ve felt as if I were assaulted by with a pistol by cinema.)


Another quote:

“"Fight Club" is the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since "Death Wish," a celebration of violence in which the heroes write themselves a license to drink, smoke, screw and beat one another up.” Roger Ebert – Chicago Sun-Times

Dave Finchner’s Fight Club is also an unfairly maligned film.

I don't feel that the fascism of the film is the central point. We get a palpable sense that anarchy, while possibly fun, is wrong. I think the Norton character's true maturation is the basic narrative thread. There's a whole hour of running time before Project Mayhem enters the film...

The ending, changed from the novel, really reinforces the argument that the film's focused on Norton's character. The acceptance of the adult relationship with Marla and the corresponding responsibilities that come with such a commitment are the film's catharsis. The explosion of the credit bureau at the end of the film signifies his paradigm shift. He's throwing away his old (primal) baggage. He’s throwing away the urges that caused the creation of the Fight Club to begin with.  

    The basic narrative looks to me something like this:

    At the start of the film Norton's trying to live up to the ideal set by society on its own terms. He finds he can't, and has to put his more primal yearnings to rest before he can. Once he is able to eradicate his childish need to destroy and upset the status quo, he's able to accept his adult responsibilities.

So, basically, what the film is saying is that these impulses do exist and they are a stumbling block since we aren't socially allowed to express them, but they are not the ultimate evolution of the human experience either. The realization and conquering of them is basically a second adolescence. The film's ultimate message? "Grow up." This is hardly a hubristic celebration of excess. The excess is hyperbole. Obviously, this can be lost on some viewers. To question whether the ends justify the means is a bit beside the point. The film is preaching to a desensitized lot of young adults. Excess is the only sure way Fincher can make sure the point is clear… and, besides, this is a Hollywood blockbuster. Excess is a generic requirement.


One last quote:

“They become more and more outlandishly cartoony until they paint themselves into a corner from which there is, dramatically speaking, no escape once Pitt fatefully points out that with enough soap you can blow up just about anything. Too bad, because "Fight Club" begins with that invigoratingly nervy and imaginative buzz. But its chic indictment of empty materialist values fizzles, especially when it replaces them with nothing more than the classical fascist values of male bonding through physical struggle (and highly defined abs) and the worship of dynamism and energy for their own sakes.” – Jay Carr – Boston Globe

Carr seems to miss the film’s ultimate point. The film doesn’t accept either the materialism of the status quo or the anarchy of Project Mayhem. In the last minutes of the film, the narrator reconciles with Marla. He accepts her. We have to assume he has left his issues behind him.

The film is smart enough to make the nihilism of Project Mayhem look attractive. It needs to convince us that such a movement could occur. It needs to convince us that the narrator could enjoy its allure. Fischer is an extremely proficient technician. In Fight Club, Fincher manages to push digitally enhanced filmmaking farther than any filmmaker before or since. He uses it, not to create spectacle, but to give his camera an unprecedented amount of movement. CGI shots are used more frequently in the film as the world’s most impressive dolly. Within this spectacle, it’s easy to lose sight of the main narrative. Many of the films’ detractors didn’t understand that there’s as much a rejection of anarchy as Ikea.

Still, I certainly appreciate Fight Club’s millennial tension. There’s a literalization of the fears that if the narrator doesn’t find himself, the world will be thrown into chaos. This is fairly humorous concept, and fits well with the one of the film’s stronger satiric barbs… It skewers the notion that the self matters.

Early on, we see the narrator defining himself through his possessions. After he blows up these possessions, he subsequently comes to define himself through his primal impulses instead. Fincher allows us to have a bit of giddy fun as we follow the antics of Fight Club, but never really proposes the lifestyle shown is a legitimate, or even realistic, one. When we see Fight Club morph into Project Mayhem, it’s made explicit that there is still no acceptable solution to the narrator’s main problem. Within the faction, all members are nameless. When he wants to stop Project Mayhem, he finds that no matter what course of action he takes, Tyler has already ensured the plan will move ahead. He becomes dispensable even to the movement that he has co-founded.

The depreciation of self is the issue here. We find, at the end of the film, that Fight Club didn’t spring about because primal needs were being repressed. Rather, the entire endeavor seems to be a combination of misguided peer pressure and general dissatisfaction with the lives these men had built for themselves. The narrator tells himself that he is useless because his father, and God, have abandoned him. His issues stem from his need to live up to an impossibly high ideal. It’s only when he challenges the personification of that ideal that he is able to accept himself. The film, despite being a product of mass media, is telling the audience to reject the needs of mass media. Fincher’s ability to subvert expectation by delivering such an ultimately positive message is the film’s greatest achievement.

* * * * Masterpiece

September, 2001

Jeremy Heilman