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Fight Club

United States, 15 October 1999, Raymond Santos Estrella

When David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel Fight Club was first released back in 1999, I instantly loved it. There was the multi-level plot, the amazing cinematography, the excellent post-production editing, the subliminal split-second appearances of Tyler Durden where you’d least expect him, all of which begged for a for a home media release. The terse, sharp, anti-everything ideology (if you could even call it that) of the film didn’t seem to match up with its rebel yin-yang leads with revolutionary leanings better than any single actor ever could, and a director so in tune with the source material that it seems to be flowing directly out of his own Id. It’s so great to see this adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s perturbing novel finally get the critical respect it so richly deserved (and yet missed) the first time around. In truth, the controversial nature of Fight Club’s material—which many saw as a celebration of mindless violence and individual brutality—saw it as one of that decade’s most divisive efforts. Only in hindsight did it become the black-eyed, Mona Lisa.

Warning! The following summary contains spoilers.

Story

Indeed, a few short years later, it is now viewed as a milestone, a benchmark in the careers of everyone involved. For Fincher, the story of a man discovering the beauty—and the inherent danger—in embracing your inner maleness became a commentary on an entire sub-generation of dejected men. Thanks to Palahnuik’s brilliant deconstruction of the bottomed-out baby boom, complete with IKEA “nesting” instincts and designer mustard mandates spoke volumes back when Clinton was canvassing the White House, and now, two regime changes later, it seems even more prescient. Fight Club has always been about taking back your life from a wasteful, consumerist-driven lifestyle where the things you consume eventually consume you. In a world where bad decisions—not war—caused many of the great lending houses to crash and burn, Tyler Durden’s chemically-induced, nitroglycerin-powered chaotic new world order doesn’t seem so outlandish. In fact, it seems downright reasonable.

And who would have thought it? After so many viewings, you realize that Marla Singer is the sanest, most honest person in the entire piece. Even through all her hypochondria and emotional rollercoasterism, she puts the cracked combination of Tyler Durden and “Cornelius/Rupert/Everyman” in its place. Revisiting David Fincher’s fascinating post-modern masterwork Fight Club on Blu-ray for its 10th anniversary reveals a wealth of these kinds of previously undiscovered gems. What about Chloe, the dying woman so desperate for a last-act roll in the hay that she advertises her various pleasure devices during her support group? There’s Raymond (nice!) K. Hessel, the freaked out liquor store clerk who becomes Tyler’s first (of supposedly many) “human sacrifices” and, Lou, the faux Mafioso who gets a ‘mouthful’ of Fight Club’s foul purpose. And of course, there’s Robert Paulson, the big softy with “bitch tits” who ends up representing the most powerful of Project Mayhem’s many ubiquitous symbols.

The main story remains as strong as ever—a young, unnamed liabilities analyst (Edward Norton) for a major auto manufacturer has trouble sleeping. He represents all the excesses of late capitalism as he finds solace in perusing interior decorating catalogs, and seeks comfort in his micro-manageable lifestyle. In an attempt to ease his insomnia, he starts attending support groups and realizes that getting lost in other people’s problems helps him cope better with his own. There he meets Bob (Meatloaf), a hormonally imbalanced, former wrestler who urges him to just hug it out and cry. The experience is cathartic and our hero’s insomnia is cured.

Of course, another treatment “tourist” named Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) shows up, and throws our hero off his game. He tries to negotiate with her, but she’s more desperate than he is. During a lengthy business trip, our lead gets fortuitously seated next to designer soap maker Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a flight. They strike up an awkward friendship that foreshadows the main plot points of the rest of the movie.

After an explosion destroys his apartment one night, he calls Durden and they promptly talk over beer. Durden’s anti-consumerist views and borderline anarchic ideals evoke a curiosity in the narrator that instantly binds the two. After a spur of the moment fight between them gives a brutal catharsis the duo eventually live together in a run-down house on the edge of town. From there, they begin something called ‘Fight Club’—a weekly meeting where men can get together and blow off their frustrations and fears and rage against a homogenous society in a flurry of fists to the faces and solar plexus.

When Marla begins a sexual relationship with Durden (“I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school”), things become even more complicated. The narrator starts to feel like the proverbial third-wheel, increasingly alienated once again.

Before long, Tyler decides to take the recreational release to new levels. He recruits an army of sorts, and soon, the newly named “Project Mayhem”, an anarchic organization of disillusioned citizens, is tackling corporate greed, franchised phoniness, and the continued dehumanization of the entire race via less than legal means. When our unnamed player complains, Tyler grows more distant. After a particular tense exchange, they part company. But Project Mayhem is now going international. It is up to our guide to discover Tyler’s motives, his true identity, and how an aggressive type of non-erotic male bonding turned into a terrorist organization.

As most likely everyone knows by now, it gets quite interesting with the mind-trip climax, which I won’t spoil for the sake of those that haven’t seen the film. Even with the twist in mind, revisiting Fight Club any numerous times is always a riveting experience because there are things seen on your second, third, fourth viewing that reveal all kinds of nuances in the editing (such as the Durden inserts indicating how the narrator’s long-running neurosis) and double-meanings to certain lines.

Jim Uhls’s screenplay is a worthy mixture of well-paced cinema and true-to-work dedication that Palahniuk himself praised. The filmmakers get away with as much as they can in terms of staying true to the messages, and the sharp and relentless direction by Fincher enriches the storytelling in ways that only film can do.

Blu-ray Extras

Fight Club is still today a definitive film, a statement as strong as any rock anthem and twice as packed with power chords. It reels from flights of vivid imagination and keens with art so impressive that few can fathom its brilliance at one sitting. The fabulous 1080p transfer and DTS-HD Master Audio highlights the supreme cinematography of XXX and the remarkable use of sound in the film. The packaging uses a graffiti aesthetic a la Banksy to illustrate the film’s subversive content. It’s tastefully done, and the artwork suits the film just right. The stenciled subtitle of the release hanging underneath the title stating, “You Are Not Special”, is a humorous mockery of the endless “special” editions that studios churn out to widen profits. This superb re-assessment of the film won’t elicit the same accusations, because it rightfully heightens appreciation for it.

Fincher’s audio commentary track tells us how the movie was a compact experience—scripted, storyboarded, cast, and presented without any major studio input or interference. Even when they balked at some of Palahnuik’s more maverick ideas, Fincher fought for the essence, if not the actual scene or line of dialogue. Sometimes, the reinvention made things much, much darker (Marla’s classic “grade school/abortion” lines). At other instances, the film version of Fight Club fleshed out the author’s ideas, giving realism and authenticity to what could be viewed as the fictional version of The Anarchist’s Cookbook.

But as the wealth of bonus features argue, Fight Club endures because its about the shared experience—between cast and crew, characters and audience, philosophy and individual ethos. It’s about emasculation and the inability to overcome the same. Fincher surprises us when he explains how uncomfortable the MPAA got with any questions of sex (especially Tyler’s “rubber glove” bit with Marla) but then passed on most of the violence. Instead, Britain made him trim material from the infamous Angel Face (Jared Leto) beat down, arguing it was too horrific (we see both versions, and other deleted scenes here as well).

Conclusion

As the actors share anecdotes and discuss motivation, we begin to understand how forward-thinking this movie really was. While Fight Club argued for a dethroned patriarchy to rise up and reestablish their place on the social food chain, it also illustrated the indirect rise in geek empowerment. Of course, the men in the movie pounded each other into submission using physical force and stamina. The nerds beat them to prominence with a motherboard and a highway full of information.

Watching Fight Club in high definition is truly like seeing it again for the first time, and the film’s gritty, vitriolic, and polemic efforts still resonate deeply in today’s social landscape. Indeed, in today’s gloomy, Bieber-obsessed media-cracy, a planet where information overload takes the place of rationality or true thought, Fight Club is more of a distant voice than a shouting street preacher. It still resonates in ways Palahnuik and Fincher can only imagine and truly helped redefine a demo in peril. But now, even in a fully fleshed out home video primer, it remains a lesson to be studied and learned, a series of lunatic lectures you either buy into, or berate as being out of touch and troubling. At its core, it can seem like sinew and sweat, testosterone and ’roid rage rebellion. But inside of each one of these little boys lost is someone who has seen the systematic re-sensitizing of the father figure turn the powerful into the pathetic. As Tyler Durden says during one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, “If our father is our basis for God, and our fathers abandoned us, then what does that tell you about God?” In Fincher’s effective masterpiece, the answer is on every single frame. It’s up to you to find it.

A longer, more comprehensive review of Fight Club’s themes and subplots are discussed in my review of the novel by Chuck Palahniuk. While Fincher and Co. makes a supreme effort to bring all the nihilistic, anarchist, anti-consumerist tones of the book to the fore, one can only do so much with the medium of cinema. This is not to say that either version of the story is superior. Rather, they both make up two sides of a single, powerful narrative that is best experienced together.

Trailer

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