Fight Club (1999) dir. David Fincher writ. Jim Uhls (from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk) cine. Jeff Cronenweth edt. Jay Haygood star. Edward Norton (Cornelius/Narrator), Brad Pitt (Tyler Durden), Helen Bonham Carter (Marla Singer), Meat Loaf Aday (Paulson)
the whiner's guide to the universe
Fight Club is one long interior monologue of such self-loathing and masochist self-indulgence that only a late-night caffeine crawler could stick with it to the nihilist overture of its extended, violent ending. Stylistically it's the thinking Gen-X version of The Matrix, or another sociological heir of Sid And Nancy -- interior, moody, a desperate neo-noir shadow-play, the cynicism of a generation of micro-serfs, gas jockeys and waitresses doomed to be consumer servants in a materialist society they neither care about nor understand, and a moral universe they certainly cannot tolerate.
Recently married, perhaps a new parent? Don't watch it. A orphan, a fatherless child, thirty and still single? Light up, lie back and enjoy the ride.
It starts with a kneeling man giving head to a 9 millimeter automatic... well no, it starts with a trippy title/credit montage of the sort of tracking shots that took Douglas Trumbull months to accomplish via his "slit-scanning" technique (i.e. the famous Stargate sequence in 2001) but is a simple software runup for today's graduates of Adobe Photoshop and the rock vid montage school of editing. Interesting, if you don't mind the raw thudding music of the Dust Brothers. This segues into a kneeling man giving head etc... an image that once again reminds you of the American gun sickness but is so systemic to Hollywood film drama that the script writer probably doesn't think of it as a cliche but rather a convention endorsed by a free-thinking free-acting society legitimized by the Second Amendment. And why not? He certainly has plenty of social criticism to vent through the V.O. ramblings of his victim-hero Cornelius (Edward Norton) and his doppleganger mo-mentor Tyler (Brad Pitt).
Make no mistake about it -- Cornelius never spares himself or us from the ugly truth as the ugly truth is to a masochist what a beautiful lie is to a sadist. That Tyler is the sadist in this binary relationship is never in doubt. Like some reincarnated Nazi from a Death Camp, Tyler Durden manufactures soap from the cast-off fat cells of women and sells it back to them at $20 a bar at the cosmetic counters of the high-end department stores. Funny? Ironic? Certainly. It's these moments -- and there are many of them -- that make Fight Club worth enduring.
Essentially Tyler is an anarchist who takes direct action against the corporate and consumer symbolism of the contemporary world. Tyler conceptualizes Fight Club, makes it a franchise, initiates Project Mayhem, organizes an army of MIBs who owe more to The Invaders than they do to Mein Kampf. He's like a terrorist from an art college, armed with attitude, hormones and sexual charisma. He can't draw but he's big on cool games. You might fuck with Tyler but you're never friends with Tyler. In the double-man personality of Cornelius, Tyler is the male persona
Survivalist or executioner -- who is he? To know and discover this is the fate of Cornelius. C. meets T. on a business flight while having a fantasy about a plane crash, discovers that they both share a common cynicism. Cornelius is typical of many generational heroes in the industrial world -- he over-achieves in his mind but under-achieves in reality. Thus he -- a young man who drifts through a variety of self-help groups as a bogus victim -- is an easy mind-rape for the predatory anarchist who sells perfumed soap from a briefcase identical to his.
The idea of the fight club itself is artistically very clever, and its brilliance carries the film through the sludge of its numbing angst and loneliness. Bonding through bare-knuckle fighting is a reinvention of the male identity in a society of manufactured feminists who smoke like men in order to die like men... and what, indeed, is left for a man in a world of Ikea furniture and the motherless/fatherless family? Obsessed with castration to the point of frequenting a testicular-cancer self-help group, Cornelius is typical of the compuvert who is still searching for the father who "moves to a another city every six years and starts a new family". When Tyler asks him who he'd like to fight, he replies, "My father."
The fight scenes in the basement of the grotty local bar are no homosexual delight. Nor are they physical sermons to machismo. They exist like a birthing ritual, and it's this ritual that gives birth to the cult in which men experience pain in order to be reborn. For those who favor the cyclical idea of history, the fight club exists in order to replace an absent war, a Vietnam for the soul. Although it's never stated as such, the men who gather there to fight are the orphans of a test-tube culture, a group of unloved castoffs for whom the cure for pain is more pain itself. You can recognize a sexual mysticism here, even if the politics are post-gender.
Or are they? The character of Marla (Bonham-Carter), the chain-smoking vixen who cruises the self-help meetings of the terminally ill as a voyeur looking for a good screw in all the wrong places, is the mother that Cornelius so clearly misses. Her voyeurism is our voyeurism, the addiction of tabloid politics and an appreciation of the grotesque. People love a circus, love a zoo. Far from the cosmetic counters of Macy's and the anal corridors of the Ikea furniture store, these clinics of desperation exist for people without families or spiritual institutions. Marla is after reality-therapy, and she finds it in form of Cornelius/Tyler, another "tourist" like herself. If pain is what makes these people happen, then pain it must be, because it's not long before she's enjoying punch and shout sex with the maestro of pain himself, Tyler.
Except for their fucking, Marla and Tyler were never in the exact same room. My parents pulled this exact same stunt for years.
Cornelius endures this like an amnesiac who views his actions by remote viewing, excusing his moral culpability in the 3rd person while declaiming it on the lst. When Tyler launches Project Mayhem and sends out his squad of MIBs to attack objects of corporate art (the vandalizing of the golden ball sculpture is very funny), Cornelius is the first to protest although he is compliant in its agenda. Of course, when you're a double-man you can have a double standard.
And so on. The action continues on through its violent montage of psychedelic events/ reality games... and just when you're ready for the second yawn, something is said or something happens to jolt your interest. In this post-God universe of geek-hatred there's always a car crash, a pistol whipping, a bit of thigh or a flash-frame erection to keep it all going.
McVeigh, the Unabomber and Art
There's enough material in this film to have made a masterpiece instead of the aggravating bore it unfortunately becomes. The ending is as hopeless as it is hackneyed. The lisping, low-volume commentary by Edward Norton doesn't help, and neither does the adolescent camp of the director's idea of how this drama should be acted. Perhaps the self-satire is an attempt to make the unpalatable palatable... or perhaps a way of making this angry fantasy appear hip, a form of gallows humor to mess with the altered perceptions of the late-night substance abuse crowd.
Perhaps it's a good thing to have these artistic failings because make no mistake about it, this piece of high romantic nastiness will enjoy a big enough cult of followers as it stands. A shorter, more sincere version might become source code for a new generation of nihilists inspired and fixated by yet another celluloid death mantra. Perhaps we've arrived at that point in our unregulated culture where you need to have a licence to carry a concealed movie like this one.
If McVeigh is a symptom, then this movie is a symptom.
© LR 5/2000
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