***/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A
starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf Aday
screenplay by Jim Uhls, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk
directed by David Fincher
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. My on-again/off-again love affair with David Fincher began with a PREMIERE article I read about how much of an asshole he was on the set of Alien3, dumping a few-hundred baby crickets on a pretty surprised, pretty pissed, pretty skivvies-clad Sigourney Weaver. But I didn't really prick up my ears until his urban/ecclesiastical serial killer masterpiece Se7en revealed to me a key to unlocking the Coens' Barton Fink--being, as they were, thematic doppelgängers. Soaked in wet and Hemingway, Fincher declares the world a scam and appoints himself the snake-oil barker shilling from the proscenium on the wagon; Barton Fink, also stained sepia brown, also ostensibly engaged in the pursuit of a serial killer and the excoriation of deadly sins, is the spirit to Se7en's flesh. Even as he flounders at the heartbeat, Fincher finds the headlong of his carnal lather again in his adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, establishing his mission statement as subterranean explorations of masculine aggression and explaining to me my tendency to confuse Fincher's films with those of Michael Mann. Focusing on the testosterone in Fincher's pictures offers partial explanation of the movies in his oeuvre that don't work (and, within those failures, the parts that do). Too, it's explanation of why it is that Fight Club's ending is so jarringly unsatisfying--"You met me at kind of a strange time in my life" the nancy punchline to two-plus hours of quintessential asshole cinema.
Perhaps the dissonance is intentional, but I wonder if Fincher isn't hamstrung by his own genius with the obsessively-posed tableaux, if he isn't in fact so good at how a film looks that he doesn't much care about how a film thinks. And, more, if that separation dooms his best films to be emotionally vacuous, if they'll only ever be fascinating and cold in equal measure--John Doe's endless ledgers filled with tiny lines reborn as the cool, fetishized surfaces of Panic Room. The problem with Fight Club is that after the astonishment of its virtuoso surfaces, it's not invested in itself. I don't believe in the film, because although it's about living a life of authenticity, its cachet is drawn from a willingness to suggest that nothing is authentic. When our nameless hero brings down a city block in an uncomfortable pre-echo of the destruction of the WTC two years later, he does it having vanquished his demons and won the hand of his lady fair--meaning that Fight Club at its end has become a conventional Hollywood romance masquerading as a bit of countercultural programming. It's Rebel Without a Cause for the fins-de-siècles, sharing many of the same strengths, and most of the weaknesses, of Nicholas Ray's ultimately populist classic. It is beautifully, even revolutionarily, shot and boasts of tremendous actors in iconic roles playing out an unusual love triangle in exactly the same homoerotic way. And in the end, all that rebellion washes out as a carefully-controlled, uncontroversial artifact in which the right boy gets together with the right girl and the wrong boy pushes up daisies. But who remembers the last ten minutes (holding hands and whispering sweet nothings) when the first hundred-and-twenty are so deliriously prurient? More cause for concern is that Fincher stretched the pap of Fight Club's denouement to epic-length for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
The problem throughout is that in its pursuit of deflating the hyper-slick, ratchet-edited images fed to us by our consumer wonderland, it feeds us even slicker, even more-tightly edited images. Deconstruction as theory fails because its endpoint is the destruction of its subject; Fight Club is a better commercial for being a Neanderthal dick than an anti-commercial for being a homo-erectus dick. Said dick is Edward Norton's X, the everyman for the consumerist age with an apartment by IKEA and a profession as an insurance adjuster who tries to figure out for his corporate overlords whether the cost of paying out settlements to the aggrieved will outweigh the cost of a safety recall. What a dick. One night on a long flight home, he meets emancipated Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a guy with a kick-ass wardrobe, spiky hair, and a cut body who gives X a place to stay after X's condo gets blown up with homemade explosives. Is it meant to echo Tim McVeigh's attack on the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City? Probably. Pahlaniuk, for as prodigiously talented as he appears, still earns a good portion of his cred, after all, by being a dick and, more specifically, the kind of dick who conflates masculinity with cosmology--which, given that Pahlaniuk is gay, comes off as a little touchy. What troubles is that despite what feels like satirical exaggeration, all the frustration and aggression of the film plays like straight documentary of the male condition, never mind Fight Club's scary prescience in predicting how it is that one extremely masculine society seeks to castrate another by knocking down a couple of phallic totems. Men, in other words, feel exactly the way the picture says they feel, meaning really only that Freud was right all along while drawing a nice line in the process to spiritual cousin Taxi Driver. The difference is that where Taxi Driver sees the fallacy in canonizing Travis Bickle, Fight Club does it without irony.
Revolting against the cubicle day-to-day in much the same way Neo did in that same year's The Matrix, X and Tyler start the titular men's club for emasculated, humiliated, milquetoast everymen seeking a better support group than those offered at the local church/community centre/Y, one wherein instead of sharing their feelings, they beat the holy hell out of each other in another prescient prediction of the rise of MMA in the last decade. Soon, Tyler escalates a few basement brawls into a well-drilled terrorist army incited into various acts of fraternity-hazing-inspired mischief before deciding to raze the financial sector in some ill-thought-out attempt to erase the national debt record. Government bailout gone grassroots, let's say--the accumulation of debt in the pursuit of material goods as another example of loss of manhood in the modern world. Materialism positioned as the misdirection of an otherwise healthy will-to-power. The Natalie Wood to X/Tyler's James Dean/Sal Mineo is Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), chain-smoking and spooky and ultimately just fuel for X's sexual jealousy before catalyzing into the prize he wins for exorcising Tyler as social irritant. Far from misused or underutilized, however, Marla is a pretty good reduction of the role of women in most men's lives as Madonna to whore and, should he escape the Oedipal thicket in one piece, back again. I guess the problem I have with Fight Club is that it's more coming-of-age story than barbaric yawp. I don't like X growing up, because X represents to me a state of flux rather than a pilgrim of actualization. It's a strange equivocation, considering the character arc for Pitt's green detective in Se7en; I wonder what fuelled the film's deviation from the book, given that its ending (with X institutionalized) seems closer to Fincher's sensibility.
What lingers of Fight Club, though, isn't the realization that it's actually a pretty conservative piece, but that for so long it invites its audience to feel as witty and superior as its exceptional cast spewing its exceptional snark. Norton shines here in the period between his late douchebaggery and his early promise, delivering a mordant voiceover with just the right amount of cocksure, almost literary, omniscience. Pitt excels, too, as the male fantasy of brute masculine "you want to finish her off?" perfection. For all its faults, Fight Club's tone--so close to Alexander Payne's Election, released six months prior--is an exact approximation of informed resistance. If its railing at coffee chains and designer soap has the ring of affronted naivety, its tone predicts (in a film frighteningly clairvoyant in so many ways) the popularity of shows like "The Daily Show" and publications like THE ONION. It offers the jaded, the well-read, the over-educated, and the out-numbered the exact pH of sardonic acidity that proves corrosive to popular punditry. It assaults the Oprah-inspired cult of self-help, the centralization of media that squeezes out dissent, the denial of aggression that has only forced aggression into the lunatic fringe. Indeed, the tone is so smart that its eventual betrayal of itself with something like a happy ending makes Fight Club exactly the sort of lie it's spent its runtime debunking.
It advocates violent revolt, sure, but in so doing it overvalues individual sacrifice, meaning that the death of sadsack revolutionary Bob (Meat Loaf Aday) is a moment of confused pap. This in a film that sees--in an interesting mutation of the "he ain't pretty now" sequence from another Scorsese (Raging Bull)--a scene of extreme same-sexual-jealousy-provoked violence carried off with nothing like sentiment nor, afterwards, womanly recrimination. It speaks rhapsodic about freeing people from the banal routine of their day-to-day by instituting a routine as rigorously enforced as any professional paramilitary regiment's. And it decries and devalues sentiment, yet ends with lovers reunited, holding hands before something akin to a glorious dawn. Society is thus restored, though not, as it is in both Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Bunch, through the intervention of the authorities (who try, in one great moment, to castrate X on an interrogation-room table), but by the intervention of the rebel in question, who literally lobotomizes the part of his brain that considers stepping outside the status quo.
Until then, Fight Club is pretty awesome. It's gorgeous, technically proficient enough that it's hardly aged a day in eleven years, and paced and performed with such unflagging heat that it passes like a hot, sweat-reeked breeze. It cooks like few movies cook--particularly over the course of its incomparable first hour--and repeat viewings don't do much to diminish its effectiveness. At least until it lobotomizes the part of its brain that considers stepping outside the status quo.
THE ORIGINAL DVD EXTRAS
For the second feature-length commentary, Fincher joins actors Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter (whose separately-recorded observations have been awkwardly spliced in). Pitt doesn't say much during the second half of the film; he and Fincher often casually defer to Norton, who cultivates his image as the intellectual's actor with astute evaluations of Fight Club's negative press. Carter has solid, if obvious, things to say about her portrayal of Marla.
The third track is devoted to Chuck Palahniuk and adaptor Jim Uhls. Palahniuk (pronounced Paul-a-nick) is more forthcoming than Uhls, and I enjoyed learning about the germination of Fight Club the novel more than I did about Uhls's interpretation, if only because Uhls doesn't make a big enough deal of the process. It's rare that an author is happy with the filmed version of his/her text, let alone a screenwriter, and in that regard, I found their give-and-take fascinating. It's also quite something to hear both of them, at various intervals, explain character motivation to one another.
Track four finds DP Jeff Cronenweth, production designer Alex McDowell, F/X men Kevin Haug and "Doc" Bailey, and costume designer Michael Kaplan elaborating on their respective input. As Haug and Bailey are also subjects in the visual effects documentaries, I would've preferred to hear from make-up supervisor Rob Bottin (an endlessly amusing orator, as anyone who owns the Se7en LaserDisc will tell you) instead.
Jack's remaining options breakdown thusly:
Behind the Scenes
Delted & Alternate Scenes
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Fight Club on Blu-ray makes a case as the definitive format for the film at home in a fabbo 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that preserves Fincher's dingy green and brown palette with a pleasing theatricality. Black levels, especially important in a film set almost entirely at night or in somebody's basement, are richly inky, and the grain, sought out and key to the decision to shoot in Super35, dances crisply within the image. The telecine operators seek perfection not as revisionists but as preservationists of an authentically crunchy film. The sleeves-fluttering 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is absolutely, gobsmackingly astonishing in its clarity, depth, detail, and expansiveness. The mid-air collision sequence, in particular, scared the living shit out of me despite my expecting it. Almost more impressive is the attention paid to those strictly "dialogue" sequences, where even traffic passing in the far distance is dynamically rendered. The audio's arguably the best part of an excellent A/V presentation and reference material for me going forward.
Four commentary tracks decorate the film, all of them ported over from the exceptional two-disc DVD release produced by David Prior. Fincher flies solo on the first and offers up a scholarly, meticulously-detailed, and technologically-minded dissertation on the film. If one were to put a finger on the occasional coldness of Fincher's work, you'd find clarification of that here. Fincher knows exactly how to shoot a movie, whatever his empathy for the subject. What's interesting is that so often his films feel one way (Panic Room, The Game) while resolving, narratively, another. Small wonder that music video and commercial direction, with its truncated/mute exposition, may still be Fincher's bread and butter.
Most of this disc's supplementary content is in fact recycled, in standard-def, from the "paper bag" DVD. (See sidebar, repurposed from a now-retired review by Bill Chambers.) The exceptions include the nifty "Insomniac Mode: I Am Jack's Search Index," which allows one to jump to bookmarks in the film and featurettes sorted into irreverent categories or, and this is the best part, to parse topics discussed in any of the yak-tracks as the picture unfolds. "A Hit in the Ear: Ren Klyce and Sound Design" is a kind of cool interactive feature in which four scenes from the film are presented for your re-mixing pleasure. Essentially a matter of adjusting volume across a six-speaker field, it's short on education but harmless fun. Lastly, "Flogging Fight Club" (10 mins., HD) is a tiresome, self-indulgent thing shot on-stage and behind-the-scenes at SpikeTV's 2009 Guy's Choice awards ceremony. As Mel Gibson rides on stage in full Viking regalia (preview of his upcoming insanity?), bewildering a curiously bookish Fincher, it's fair dinkum to grit your teeth and move along. The velcroed slipcover on the keepcase is strewn with anti-inspirational messages quoted from the film but lacks the tongue-in-cheek quality of Fight Club's vintage marketing. Originally published: November 29, 2010.