Thursday, September 4, 2014

David Fincher Retrospective: Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club
Director:  David Fincher
Starring:  Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf, Jared Leto, Zach Grenier
Rated:  R

It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything.
                        ~Tyler Durden

How do you pick just one damn quote from this movie?  Back when I did the "Favorite Films Of My Lifetime" series, I included Fight Club on there, but mentioned that I wasn't too hot on it anymore and that it sort of "JUST" made the list.  A big turn off for me with Fight Club was how many people took this film the wrong way and got the wrong idea(s) from the film.  A complete misunderstanding.  Much of it was that "bro" population who took this as a cool movie about dudes getting together and fighting in bar basements.  Its like they didn't watch the second half of the film. I had also realized it'd been forever since I had seen Fight Club, so I popped it in soon after writing that piece.  Yeah, my problem was more that I hadn't watched Fight Club in many many years, because I was instantly sucked back in and now here I am excited to have watched it again months later.
Fight Club is the perfect capper to what Fincher had started with Seven and The Game.  He has fully realized his craft and style here and is able to execute in a masterstroke a piece of cinema that is everlasting and one that will force you to revisit.  Of all the films he's made, this is the one that perfectly channels his music video past and infuses it into a film.  The film feels and looks like its in the next town over from the world of Seven, but has all the mental stimulation brought upon by The Game.  Fincher has also carefully and expertly pieced this film together, making sure that if someone goes back through the movie, that it all actually worked.  And this movie absolutely BEGS and demands that once you finish it, that you start over and see it again.  I didn't see the film until VHS (yes, if you're keeping score, I have yet to get to one of these that I first saw in the theater), but when I rented it the first time I think I watched it like 3 times in 2 days, I was that enamored with it.
David Fincher's perfect film was sort of a culmination of the angsty 90s point of view.  He returned to the studio that wronged him and vowed never to work with again, to craft a story very much rooted in a lot of the same kind of thoughts and ideals that you got from the grunge and alternative music from the era.  The film was speaking to me and my generation and the one before mine.  Our outlook and all was being documented right here in this film.  What Ed Norton appears as in the beginning of the film is what my generation sort of feared becoming.  We all wanted to stray from the path not follow it.  Fight Club drew the picture right away as "I don't want to be that".  Growing up, you actually do sort of become that, but the point is to make it your own, be yourself with whatever it is not just a sheep.  There's a healthy in-between of where the Narrator is in life at the beginning and the extreme preaching Tyler Durden in the film.  The film is showing you two extreme ends of the spectrum, the wreckless extreme "fuck it all, destroy everything" path and the "I'm told this is what I'm supposed to do, so I try and try and try to do it, but I'm still not feeling this happiness".  You shouldn't be either, but you should think for yourself.  Possibly the best and most important thing that comes out of Tyler's mouth that I got from the film, and I'm just as guilty of as anyone, is "The things you own, end up owning you".  As soon as you hear that line, you can immediately think of many things in your life that fulfill this creepy prophetic statement.  Me?  I turn my head and look right at my Blu-ray and DVD collections :)
Fight Club is one of the best paced movies I think I've ever seen.  Clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, the film doesn't feel much longer than an hour twenty.  It moves.  The film is led by dialogue and montages.  Brad Pitt doesn't show up (aside from blink and you miss him frames) til about 20 minutes into the film.  And from then on its a fast paced rush of adrenaline from the fight clubs, to the start of Project Mayhem, to the end game.  It doesn't matter how many times I've seen this movie it always feels like it blows by so quickly.  Another aspect that helps the film is that there are a TON of easter eggs, be it plot stuff or funny jokes, littered throughout the scenes in the movie that have you looking for and finding new stuff with each viewing.  You also can piece together different thoughts on what the film means.  Find more cool things you didn't notice to support the films big act II turning point reveal.  For a movie with as dark and violent a subject matter, its dazzled with some great humor to make it a fun movie to revisit as well.  Every moment, every scene and every line of this movie have been thought out with such a precision that it makes rewatching such a joy.  This is a film that could've been just a sort of "Okay got it" when you've seen it one time.  But, this film is so much more than just its clever twist at the end.  Its something I wish more people would see in a film that came out the same year, The Sixth Sense, but that one gets constantly labeled with "its just the twist, that's all".  
As an actor, I sort of feel like when you put Brad Pitt in a movie you're casting him because you want Brad Pitt in the movie.  He's sort of like a John Cusack (one of my all time favorite actors).  John Cusack is always pretty much John Cusack in a movie.  But you love John Cusack, so you're welcoming this energy that is a sure thing every time.  Brad Pitt is pretty much the same way.  And having watched Seven and Fight Club not too far apart from one another, this became a bit more obvious.  There are a lot of line deliveries and mannerisms from Tyler Durden that give you flashbacks to Detective Mills in Seven.  However, Pitt is much stronger here as Durden, more confident in himself and making the role feel like it was written with him in mind even as the author was starting the book.  He takes control as he should, has a blast with the part, but never ever tries to go above and beyond the movie.  Durden is incredibly iconic.  You could dress in one of his many outfits in the film and people would know exactly who you're trying to resemble.  And all his clothes came from the thrift store, but look stylish and fancy as shit.  Pitt also gets about damn near every quotable line in the film and delivers them with such a conviction and passion that even though this is Brad Pitt doing his thing, its taken to another level where he is the full embodiment of this Tyler Durden character.  Its the character that took the Brad Pitt archetype and mastered it.
Our Narrator could not have been played by anyone other than Ed Norton.  I just can't see it working as well with Matt Damon or Sean Penn (who they were after for the part early on).  This is a dynamite and defining role for Norton as well.  He very much fulfills this "everyman" type of role.  Norton also carries with him a voice that deciphers the narration perfectly.  It could have been filler or a drag, but Norton is able to make it one of the most interesting aspects of the film.  This is the character that pulls of a pretty massive arc that unfolds throughout the film through not just him but two characters.  Prior to Fight Club, we'd seen Norton pull off multiple personalities with expertise in the film that landed him on the map, Primal Fear.  Here he "kinda" does it again.  When the big reveal happens Norton in place of Pitt just absolutely works and makes sense no questions asked.  And its also great as he pulls off this character with such expert work that it even enhances the embodiment of what Tyler Durden represents.  Its everything he isn't or is afraid to be and also the type of man he truly thinks would be the perfect match for Marla Singer whom he's suppressed an attraction to.
Speaking of Marla Singer, I love this character and I love Helena Bonham Carter in this role.  In some twisted odd fashion, this may be one of the more "normal" roles she has in her catalog as she's spent over the last decade playing over the top characters in Tim Burton films and the Harry Potter series.  A lot of critics have talked about what a bore she is or how she amounts to nothing.  And I can't agree with that at all.  There are 3 pieces to this puzzle and I honestly think she surely is one of them.  It comes in her relationship with the narrator which happens to be two people who are oddly alike and share a similar fetish and issue.  Its almost because of Marla that our Narrator hits the extremes that he does with Project Mayhem and whatnot.  He feels threatened by her for doing the same kind of devious "tourist" things he's just as guilty of.  He thought he was alone and the star of the show and here she comes to take it all from him.  It makes him want to outshine her to show he's the best and it also slightly gives him a strong bias against women in general as Durden mentions "We're a generation of men raised by women.  I'm wondering if another woman is really the answer we need."  Marla is a person with heavy problems, but by the end she is flat out shocked and may have turned a corner in life she never thought possible once she sees the true colors of the Narrator.  In the film's final moments, you can see in her face that "Wow, I guess I'm not that fucked up after all.  There really is worse than me."  She's a person that kinda has said "fuck it" with the world and doesn't care, but is extremely self indulgent, but by the end, it feels as if she has foregone herself and seen that maybe she isn't the most unique or important piece of the pie.  When people talk about her not being much of this movie, I can't help but scratch my head here as she is very much a key to most of this film and an important part of the turnaround.  Plus, Marla Singer is almost as iconic as Tyler Durden in the film.
One of the craziest things about Fight Club that I don't think a lot of that "bro culture" picked up on is that this film goes well beyond the simple premise of guys fighting on Saturday nights in the basement of a pub.  That is such a small detail of this film, yet jerk-offs starting Fight Clubs in their hometowns only seemed to get that part out of the film.  For me, I see it as the crazy ideals Tyler Durden has, trying to come to fruition start as something maybe unique and in a sense of irony winds up becoming everything they were against.  The men in fight club are the sheep he talks about blindly following orders, his orders.  And what comes about it is nothing but violence and disorder.  Sure, their plan is to wipe out credit card debt and people having a fresh start, but will it though?  Won't they have backups in other cities and states?  And if it does, people may be free of it for the time being but a majority will wind up right back where they were before.  With any group so large it become a sort of community and with a community will come all the objects, ideas and way of life similar to the ways we just have now.  Tyler Durden talks a lot of talk, and its stuff that is very interesting and appealing to youth to hear about things, but in the end, what he wants covers the same grounds as what he's bashing, he just wants to lead it all.  He wants the control.  The film shows the dangers of all this 90s idealism come to a horrifying fruition.  That it sounds cool, but would it really be that "cool" when it all came crashing down in the end?
I don't know how to transition to this part, but I wanted to make mention of the score from the Dust Brothers for the film.  This techno group put together its own sense of style and movement that really brings another level of life to the film.  From its opening strike, this score has your attention, complete with the groovy animated brain opening sequence that winds up traveling to the reveal of Norton with the gun in his mouth.  During the fight sequences, the score take a rather dark and creepy tone to it.  As not to celebrate the fights, but to highlight the horrors and disgusting beatings that these men are subjecting one another to.  To close it off we probably get one of the biggest highlights of the band The Pixies career.  Its the perfect end song and band to choose to display it.  As I have mentioned several times, this movie falls a lot in the 90s alternative and grunge music ideology going on through most of the decade.  Maybe they're well known nowadays, but they're still sort of obscure to many, but The Pixies are the band often cited as the ones that inspired the entire decade of 90s alternative rock and grunge.  From Nirvana to the Smashing Pumpkins, they were all sort of influenced by the album Surfer Rosa and were wanted to replicate what The Pixies did in their own sounds.  For this movie to transition to the credits with the buildings crashing down to the sounds of the music that brought forth a generation just feels like a rather huge moment that maybe many people weren't so privy to when watching.
As commonplace and household a name as everything Fight Club is in today's atmosphere, it was looked upon as a failure upon its release in 1999.  It made just over half its budget domestically and wasn't that well received from critics.  However, those that did see it gave it some positive word of mouth and once it hit DVD (and VHS was still around) it had one of the fastest and biggest turnarounds to become a cult classic as I had ever seen.  The release also came in a 2 disc special edition with custom packaging from Fincher himself that landed the film a lot of home video awards.  As I was entering college in 2000, Fight Club seemed to have been everywhere.  People were no longer just quoting Fight Club's first rule.  "His name was Robert Paulson" was just as popular.  Being on campus at those little garbage "decorate your dorm with all these generic posters and paraphernalia" tents there were Fight Club posters, t-shirts, dart boards whatever.  This film really picked up steam fast.  I find it really hard to call it a cult film anymore really, as its pretty widely popular and accepted.  People just kinda didn't get to the theater for it.  I guess its a rather large cult in comparison to most akin to the Big Lebowski following.  And as I mentioned before it hit culture in the wrong ways as dumbass meatheads were beating each other up in their own little clubs, and a few angsty assholes were trying to blow up things.  
There is so much here that I haven't touched on too.  This article didn't say a thing about Jared Leto and his pummeling.  We didn't really talk about bitch tits or the initiation to Project Mayhem or the Narrator's workplace.  Fight Club has a TON of ground to cover.  Its a really deep film, full of passages, secrets ideas and reveals.  Its both straightforward enough for a casual movie goer, yet ambiguous, layered and open to interpretation for the artier crowd that it really satisfies both audiences.  I could watch this film again tonight and possibly write an entirely different article for it tomorrow.  Its that type of film.  This is why you can go back to it and not be bored or feel the need for it to speed up.  For a film that the studio was unhappy with, and audiences didn't really show up for at the theater, it sure became one of the most important films of the decade and one that would leave a bit of a last impression going into the next.  In a year considered one of the best in the history of film (at least in the more modern era), Fight Club stands tall above and among some of the very best that year had to offer.  To correct myself from earlier this year, "Fight Club is a no-brainer and was one of the EASIEST decisions to put on this list".

NEXT TIME:  After a scheduling conflict kept her from starring in The Game, Jodi Foster and David Fincher finally join forces.

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