Skip to main content

On a long enough timeline, the survival of everyone drops to zero.

Fight Club
(1999)

(SPOILERS) Still David Fincher’s peak picture, mostly by dint of Fight Club being the only one you can point to and convincingly argue that that the source material is up there with his visual and technical versatility. If Seven is a satisfying little serial-killer-with-a-twist story vastly improved by his involvement (just imagine it directed by Joel Schumacher… or watch 8mm), Fight Club invites him to utilise every trick in the book to tell the story of not-Tyler Durden, whom we encounter at a very peculiar time in his life.

Indeed, much of what Fincher has ended up making since has seemed like a regression into standard Hollywood fare, albeit simultaneously dragged down into his pit of darkness and elevated by his technical prowess (Panic Room, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl), with only Zodiac – and perhaps, in some respects The Social Network – really showing what he’s capable of when he has a really strong script. He exerts a phenomenally assured hold on Fight Club, with propulsive, mesmerising results on every level – narration, performance, cutting, soundtrack – that fuel the dense, layered plotting, combined with the rare twist that not only rewards multiple revisits but demands them. Both because there’s so much visual information and because the entire proceedings ask to be reconsidered from the point of view to the oblivious and initially unsympathetic Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). It’s a contrast to typical twist fare where the reveal leaves one with little to pick over subsequently (The Sixth Sense, of the same year, is a prime example).

Much of the Fight Club’s afterlife has been mired in discussions relating to those who have taken its content over literally, as a paean to narcissistic masculinity and accompanying fascistic tendencies, and the appeal of the very attitude it rebukes, hence the appearance actual fight clubs. Edward Norton observed on the commentary that nihilism can seem like a sexy idea when one is young, and the film is a jet-black telling of that maturing process.

In tandem with this retrospective reproach, there’s an attitude that came right from the start among over-sensitive reviewers, obviously immune to the weaknesses of the symptomatic masses, something we’ve also seen recently with Joker: that the picture is culpable for allowing those ideas to appear attractive, that Fincher and co have a responsibility to present their point of view in as transparent a manner as possible. Hence the idea that the director presented Fight Club far too seductively for it to be considered satire.

The consequence is that voices traditionally disposed towards claiming art isn’t responsible for society’s ills could be found taking a different tack when the art didn’t fit with their narrow definitions of social responsibility. Fincher actively encouraged putting the cat among the pigeons, and expressly avoided leading his audience by the nose: “I remember going to work to make something we knew people were going to take issue with. It was a fun act of sedition”.

Fincher took the position that you should be enamoured of Durden. That’s the point; that doesn’t mean he thinks you as a viewer will be on board with underground fight clubs or (necessarily) a credit reset, or even take issue with rampant materialism, but you’ll recognise the attractiveness of the presentation and messaging. Tyler’s extreme philosophy requires an alluring kernel – bringing down a system dictating our soulless, hamster-on-a-wheel lives is an appealing idea in the abstract, and the film notably parts with the book in not having Tyler kill people intentionally, a significant difference if your intent is to ensnare your audience. But Tyler’s also consciously portrayed as ridiculous, an over-inflated alpha id figure. He needs to be, because this is a (intentionally) ridiculous film. Fight Club’s a comedy played with the straightest face (the only way dour Fincher could play it). That may seem to be stating the obvious – because how could you not notice – but it seems it does need stating, to both sides of the fence that don’t get how pervasive that is. In due course, the giddy lunacy reaches the only point it can reach, of Jack blowing his own head off and then watching calmly, his alter abated, as Project Mayhem “succeeds”.

It’s also in keeping with Fight Club’s twistedness that Tyler does, ultimately, have a positive effect; he succeeds in making Jack a “wholer”, more empathic person. The Jack who cared only about his Ikea now cares for another (Marla), and began caring about the time Meatloaf was shot in the head; previously, he voiced cynical, jaundiced detachment about the “big moosey” he met in one of his survivor support groups (the only place where Jack’s empty soul could find sustenance).

It has been suggested that Fight Club’s third act slacks off somewhat, finally pinned down by the more linear activities of Project Mayhem after the dense whirl/assault of satire and nihilistic venom – basically after the big reveal – but if that’s the case, it is only relatively so. We’re asked to invest in the film emotionally about the same time Jack starts caring, which is as it should be. And as for taking the buildings’ detonation as an endorsement of the basic cause, well, I see it as rather a wink (if it is even taking place at all).

Brad Pitt gets all the attention, which is entirely the point, but Fight Club may represent the finest hours of both Norton and Bonham Carter. The latter fully seized an entirely atypical part and ran with it, but didn’t so much capitalise on the kudos subsequently as marry Tim Burton and become his goth muse. For a while there, Norton got mistaken for a leading man (Red Dragon, The Incredible Hulk) when he was too idiosyncratic (and reportedly temperamental) a fit. For me, it’s his narration, and the tone he imbues the film, that really makes it what it is; in its way, Jack’s voice as mellifluous as the Dust Brothers score.

Fincher seems unlikely to make anything as impactive on the zeitgeist again – see also Danny Boyle – having firmly settled into his familiar, well-trodden serial killer pastures, even getting the opportunity to go for broke with them on Netflix. You kind of wish he had something else besides on his mind, but at least he’s doing what he knows he does well. There’s a virtuosity to his visuals in Fight Club that still entirely impresses – for me at least, the liberal use of CGI hasn’t dated it all, because it’s so well and often ironically – which you can’t often say of CGI – used.

The picture’s twist and thematic element (a movement to eliminate debt) were of course more recently remixed by Mr Robot, which ultimately failed to make a good on either idea (it didn’t help that it wasn’t nearly as sick, twisted or funny). Well, I say that. I gave up after Season Two, so maybe it did come right in the end. But it goes to show Fight Club’s shelf-life. Norton compared its impact to The Graduate, but its controversial qualities ally it more closely with something like A Clockwork Orange, which continues to resurface as a subject for debate. As Fincher commented recently in an interview with Empire, “If Chuck [Palahniuk] had been angry and not questioning, if he had a thesis that he was ready to expound upon about how unfair shit is, had he truly been the proto-fascist that people misinterpret – the guy who coined the term “snowflake” – I don’t know that we would still be talking about it”. Fight Club’s not a movie you need to feel guilty about loving, or even one where you should feel the need to explain why you love it. You are not your fucking favourite movies.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983)
(SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bonds in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball, but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again, despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…