Fight Club (1999)

2011 #16a
David Fincher | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 18 / R

Fight ClubI used to have a friend who loved all kinds of action movies and rap movies and other kinds of violence-obsessed forms of entertainment. He once tried to watch Fight Club, in the wake of the praise poured upon it and no doubt interested in the visceral thrill of the fighting element, but got bored about halfway through and turned it off. He was not impressed. Please note that halfway through is certainly after the titular club, and all its associated antics, begins.

I start with this story because I’m now going to pick on Roger Ebert’s 1999 review of Fight Club. I don’t know if his opinion has changed in the intervening decade — a decade which has seen Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahnuik’s novel quickly canonised as a generation-defining modern classic — but we’ll take his review as an example of all the critical ones (the reasonably critical ones, anyway — unreasonable critics are impossible to argue against after all), because he’s respected and because I can’t be bothered to trawl through too much more of the big pile of reviews Rotten Tomatoes offers up. But more so, actually, because I’d be here forever batting away criticism after criticism if I did.

Incidentally, the film has there an 81% approval rating. This is perhaps negated by the fact it includes more recent reviews — some are of the Blu-ray, for instance — but a debate about whether it should be an archive of original-release critical opinions or of all-time critical opinions is for somewhere else. My point is, critics who dislike Fight Club are in the minority (29 ‘rotten’ reviews vs 122 ‘fresh’ ones), so it might just be a little cruel to go picking on them all. Though rubbish like “Fight Club undermines any seriousness it might have harboured with an avalanche of smirky cynicism designed to flatter the hipper-than-thou fantasies of adolescent moviegoers,” doesn’t so much need rebuttal as offering of some literature to the reviewer. Plus it comes from a Christian magazine/website so it’d be a bit like picking on a kid with learning disabilities.

So, Ebert.Ebert

Of course, Fight Club itself does not advocate Durden’s philosophy. It is a warning against it, I guess

At least he starts here. To miss that would be… well, I’ll return to that point later. On the other hand, he’s surely using it to preemptively cut-off criticism of his criticism — Ebert is adept at predicting ways people might defend a movie and telling them they were wrong in advance, as we have seen.

Although sophisticates will be able to rationalize the movie as an argument against the behavior it shows, my guess is that audience will like the behavior but not the argument. Certainly they’ll buy tickets because they can see Pitt and Norton pounding on each other; a lot more people will leave this movie and get in fights than will leave it discussing Tyler Durden’s moral philosophy.

…whatever Fincher thinks the message is, that’s not what most audience members will get.

This is the primary reason I’ve chosen Ebert’s review to pick on, and it was this paragraph that led to my opening one. My guess is, the kind of person liable to buy in to Tyler’s moral philosophy and engage in similar fights will get bored by the movie and go watch something that’s more straight-up action (or just go get in a fight, of course). To say that only “sophisticates” will be able to comprehend the points the film is actually making does a disservice to most viewers. Now, I’m not going to be one of the first to jump to the defence of the great unwashed — when programmes like The X Factor rule our TV schedules it’s quite clear their cultural taste is highly questionable — but I don’t think you have to be exceptionally gifted to get what Fight Club’s driving at. Tyler DurdenPerhaps I’m coming at it from too privileged a background? I don’t know. But I still don’t believe people would be so easily led as Ebert implies; and those that might be probably got bored and switched off.

Maybe at the time it was a genuine fear that Fight Club would inspire violence (a different review compares the potential effect to A Clockwork Orange’s over here), but history has proven it near groundless. In over a decade since its release, there have been no more than a handful of incidents one might directly and solely attribute to Fight Club’s influence.

And just maybe, it was already covering the thoughts of a generation — rather than being the spark that set them off, it was reflecting back a mentality that already existed and saying, “look, don’t go this far with that thought”. It’s not groundless to think that: Palahniuk interviewed young white-collar workers while writing the novel and widely found opinions which he worked into the novel, about the influence of a lack of father figures and the resentment of the lifestyles advertising promoted. All of this is carried over into the film.

In many ways, it’s like Fincher’s movie The Game… That film was also about a testing process in which a man drowning in capitalism (Michael Douglas) has the rug of his life pulled out from under him and has to learn to fight for survival. I admired The Game much more than Fight Club because it was really about its theme

Hm.

For better or worse, I think Fight Club is far more tied into its themes than The Game is. Fincher’s earlier film, as I discussed yesterday, is a well-made and entertaining thriller, and it does have a similar thematic basis to Fight Club — Douglas’ character is effectively stripped of his lifestyle to show how hollow it isDiscussion and what he’s lacking as a human being. That just underscores the action, however; it adds something to the film, certainly, but there’s nothing there to lead viewers to “leave the movie… discussing [its] moral philosophy”. Fight Club, on the other hand, is more forward about its thematic points. Both the Narrator and Tyler spout philosophical tidbits at various points, and their differing reactions to the path they take considers this too. It still works as a story — it isn’t just facilitating an essay on the subjects of free will and consumerism — but it’s more present, and presents more to consider, and perhaps discuss, than The Game does.

Later, the movie takes still another turn. A lot of recent films seem unsatisfied unless they can add final scenes that redefine the reality of everything that has gone before; call it the Keyser Soze syndrome.

…the third [act] is trickery

Ah, the twist.

Despite what Ebert implies, Fight Club’s twist works. It makes sense. “Sense” in the sense that the characters are mentally ill and we’ve been let into their experience — quite literally, an unreliable Narrator — but that fits. Clues are littered throughout. You can argue they’re not fundamental to the story — most are lines or asides that hint at it — but I don’t think it’s a nonsensical turn of events. In fact, one could argue that it contains perhaps the film’s biggest point: beneath the veneer of consumer-focused office-working modern life, every man has a Tyler Durden who wants to put society to rights. The question becomes, should he be let out; He likes himself reallyFight Club explores what might happen if he were, but leaves it up to the viewer to decide if it turned out for the best (while strongly erring, despite what Ebert suggests, to the side of “no”).

The twist also calls to mind The Game again. Whereas knowing the end result of that film’s twist (or twists, really) can scupper it after only another viewing or two, Fight Club doesn’t suffer in the slightest from the revelation that… well, y’know (and if you don’t, that’s why I’ve not said it). You can watch it again and pick up the clues and see how it works — and, as I said, it does — but you can also still enjoy the film, its story and its ideas without the need for the twist to remain a surprise. A bit like Se7en, I suppose.

Another point that interests me here is the audience’s reaction to a filmmaker who uses twists. As we’ve seen, Fincher produced three films in a row that had considerable twist endings; two of them often number in lists of the best movie twists ever. So how is it that he didn’t gain a particular reputation for twist endings, whereas M. Night Shyamalan gained one after… well, one film. I’m not complaining about this — the constant need to provide a shocking last-minute rug-pull has gone on to scupper Shyamalan’s career — but the difference of reaction/public perception is intriguing. I’m sure there are reasons — the sheer size of The Sixth Sense’s twist relative to those in Fincher’s films (it’s only Fight Club’s, his third such film, that changes everything we’ve seen in the same way); the way Shyamalan appeared to court the reputation; and so on.

As a means of dealing with his pain, [the Narrator] seeks out 12-step meetings, where he can hug those less fortunate than himself and find catharsis in their suffering. It is not without irony that the first meeting he attends is for post-surgical victims of testicular cancer, since the whole movie is about guys afraid of losing their cojones.

That, however, is some reasonable analysis. I liked this.

Bob's boobsTo round off this defence of Fight Club, let’s call up the BBFC (this is the point I said I’d return to). You may remember they cut four seconds of violence from the film (reinstated in 2007. Incidentally, the MPAA had no problem whatsoever with the violence but questioned some of the sex, such as Tyler being seen wearing a rubber glove. American values regarding sex/violence on film and TV are seriously questionable.) In 1999, when asked to ban the film for glamourising and encouraging the kind of behaviour it contains, the BBFC refused, and in no uncertain terms:

The film as a whole is — quite clearly — critical and sharply parodic of the amateur fascism which in part it portrays. Its central theme of male machismo (and the anti-social behaviour that flows from it) is emphatically rejected by the central character in the concluding reels.

Maybe it’s just me, but such a definitive statement — underlined by the relatively informal addition of “quite clearly” — from an authoritative body, one that is (theoretically) objective about a film’s quality in lieu of deciding which age groups its content is suitable for, feels unusual to me; and, by extension, worth taking into consideration. Not as the be-all-and-end-all of the debate, of course, but if the BBFC are prepared to dismiss such criticism of the film with a “quite clearly” — a “if you missed it, you’re dim” kind of phrase — then you have to think it’s pretty obvious.

A couple of stray points before I go:

Tyler...If you’ve not read it, know that the film keeps a lot of Palahnuik’s novel. The narration often takes it verbatim. With the exception of the ending — changed, for the better — it’s a remarkably faithful adaptation.

Fincher’s films often look great, but Fight Club is surely the most visually inventive. A list of exciting spectacles could be endless, but for some: the title sequence, pulling back from the fear centre of the brain, through the brain, and down the barrel of a gun in extreme close-up; the IKEA catalogue condo shot; big sweeping flybys of tiny things — the contents of a trash can, kitchen appliances, bomb wiring; the meditation cave bits; flash frames of Tyler; the “let me tell you a bit about Tyler Durden” sequence, with the fourth-wall-obliterating to-camera narration and the interaction between ‘flashback’ & narrator; the crazy mutating sex scene… To top it off, the ‘regular’ cinematography is grounded in Fincher’s trademark darkness, as if every shot was conceived as just black and he added only what light was necessary.

And a pet peeve: Look at the end credits. See how Ed Norton’s character is credited as Jack? Oh, that’s right — he isn’t. He doesn’t have a name. The film makes a point of drawing our attention to this point: early on, Marla asks him his name; there is no answer. And that’s because his name isI am not Jack's anything (shh, whisper it) (…oh yes, I’m keeping this spoiler-free). There are counter arguments to that being his real name (his colleagues never call him it, only those who met him… after), but that’s beside the point. Stop calling him Jack. (I believe I read somewhere that, on the relevant DVD commentary, Ed Norton says he calls the character Jack. Not good enough reasoning for me.)

That’ll do, then.

At one point consensus seemed to have it that Fight Club was easily Fincher’s best movie, a generation-defining statement, “the first great film of the 21st Century” despite being released in 1999 (I can never remember who originated that quote). I don’t know if times have changed that as a widespread opinion, particularly with the acclaim The Social Network has received. That’s been called a generation-defining movie too, actually — two in as many decades; nice work. But I digress; such talk is for a few days’ time.

I’ve always preferred Se7en myself. I still do. But Fight Club is nonetheless an exceptional film.

5 out of 5

I watched Fight Club as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.