Fight Club and more
Terence Stamp, Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzmán, Peter Fonda, Barry Newman, Nicky Katt
(Artisan Entertainment; US theatrical: 8 Oct 1999; 1999)
Situated in between Out of Sight (1998) and the Oscar-winning couplet of Erin Brockovich and Traffic, both from 2000, The Limey is an easily overlooked line on Steven Soderbergh’s IMDB page. Despite its appearance as a minor work, or maybe because of it, The Limey’s artistic significance to the director’s filmography is easy to establish.
The movie follows an aging English hood, Wilson (Terence Stamp), as he travels to and through Los Angeles, seeking answers about the death of his daughter, Jenny (Melissa George). At the center of this search is a fellow relic of the 60s, music promoter Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), whose general smarminess easily turns Wilson’s desire for information into one for revenge. The narrative is that simple and spare, but the way that the story is edited complicates its interpretation.
From the very beginning, time and space, sound and image, are frequently out of sync and linear alignment in The Limey. Voices from one scene are heard over shots of another. The action flashes forward and back, both within the time-frame of the present and to the past via clips of Stamp taken from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967). By film’s end, an argument can be made that what we’ve seen is a collection of fractured memories or even an elaborate fantasy dreamed by Wilson on some long plane ride to somewhere.
These formal qualities are easy to contextualize within Soderbergh’s body of work. There are similar, though less jarring and persistent, experiments with time and space in Out of Sight. More generally, “reality” is an important thematic in many of the director’s films, from both before and after The Limey, including Kafka (1991) and Full Frontal (2002). In a separate vein, Traffic extends the earlier work’s interest in the novel use of sound. Today, The Limey is easily read as a foray into 1960s cool, presaging the Ocean’s franchise, particularly the New Wave-y Ocean’s Twelve (2004).
The movie’s playfulness with time and space not only marks it in relation to Soderbergh’s own works, but to other films from 1999 as well. Among the additional titles from that year that make puzzles of the real are The Matrix, Being John Malkovich and The Sixth Sense, but I think that Run Lola Run, with its multiple variations and outcomes, liberal use of flashbacks, and fundamentally simple story, is the closest kin to The Limey.
While unlikely to top many people’s lists of Steven Soderbergh’s best, The Limey, with its limited popular appeal and unconventional handling of a conventional narrative, is the kind of film destined to be “rediscovered” many times over by film geeks and students on the lookout for gems in the oeuvres of noted American directors. Shaun Huston
Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Zach Grenier, Jared Leto, Meat Loaf
(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 15 Oct 1999)
“You have to realize that someday you will die. Until you know that you are useless.”
Stereotypically, the ‘90s man was a trapped-in-a-PC-box version of his ‘60s counterpart. On the surface, it was about “sensitivity”, but underneath was a suppressed pack of lies, hiding behind a face that choked on diversity and synergy. Fear of death, such as consumes the narrator of Fight Club, manifests itself in the proliferation of material goods and vacuous non-friendships. As whitewashed media became increasingly influential on how Americans chose to see themselves, Chuck Palahniuk’s polemic of the new elite read like a bible for the meat-eating, sex-starved, selfish and un-PC Id of pre-millennial male consciousness.
As a movie directed by David Fincher, it became a touchstone for thrill-seeking boys and thrill-starved men everywhere, an unlikely zeitgeist for the very culture it attempted to expose. That Palahniuk’s book tours have since been filled with fan feedback about real-life fight clubs suggests that the stylized film adaptation glamorizes what it satirizes. That, and that Palahniuk had an eerily astute understanding of office drones with shelled cavemen personalities everywhere.
The premise of Fight Club is simple: the nameless narrator (Edward Norton), a cynical man lost in the middle of the corporate ladder, has his reality literally blown up, ending up with new friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Together, Durden and the narrator live in a Hobbesian state of nature, squatting in a filthy, run-down house cut off both physically (it’s in the middle of nowhere) and informatively (no internet, no TV, no phone) from society. It is from these primal beginnings that a fight club emerges, wherein the narrator, Durden, and a host of other damaged men smack the snot out of one another in an attempt to shed their feminine sides and unleash the inner alpha male. In the character of Bob Paulson (Meat Loaf), the emasculation is more than just metaphorical – battling cancer, he’s lost his testes and grown a set of what the narrator eloquently describes as “bitch tits.”
Ironically, the narrator begins his quest for emotional fulfillment in a more traditionally feminine way – he talks and hugs. Addicted to a number of support groups (all for diseases he does not have), the narrator manages to quell his nagging malaise by crying in Bob’s decidedly unmanly bosom. It takes the presence of Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a bold (and therefore hated) female character, to send the narrator running for the comfort of fighting.
Where the film differs drastically from the book is that it all ends up looking unbelievably cool. Pitt’s Durden is every teenage boy’s fantasy – the baddest motherfucker in the room, ripped, nonchalantly making bad decisions about his health (fighting and smoking), and yet still able to tame as seemingly Sapphic a beast as Marla. Palahniuk’s anti-heroes possess this outsider chic on the page, but sleekly filmed in dank, foreboding environments, and overlaid with the Dust Brothers’ incredible tech-noir soundtrack, Fight Club the movie slaps cyberpunk cool on this anarcho-primitivist parable. Collecting the social extremes and cultural middle fingers of the source text, Fincher made an incredibly stylized action flick with some disturbing psychological subtexts. From the beginning, when the credits role over a tour of the narrator’s brain, Fight Club is a slick production, garnished with subliminal images, saturated colors, and rotating camera angles that suggest thrill-ride more than satire or drama. To Fincher’s credit, he never loses the point of Palahniuk’s work, but it comes out in subtle ways, buried beneath the action.
Pitt makes for an interesting Durden, a mainstream heartthrob playing the leader of a reactionary cult of generally less-than-photogenic men. Often seen without his shirt, Pitt’s intimacy with the Norton establishes a homoerotic subtext to their relationship, not to mention fight club in general. As the narrator describes, with a passionate flair, the sound of flesh hitting the ground, there’s a sensual overtone, as though fight club was a BDSM club without the sex. The subtle queerness makes the popularity of the film with hypermasculine teenagers all the more amusing – behind the alpha male, Palahniuk and Fincher quietly reveal suppressed homosexual tendencies, hand in hand with the misogyny of a self-hating gay man.
Superficial misogyny aside, the coolness-factor becomes potentially seriously problematic once Durden takes the reigns of fight club and turns it into the fascist Project Mayhem. While fight club, by its very structure, proved egalitarian (if faceless), Project Mayhem is a top-down operation, in which the stakes are higher, and Durden is the undisputed dictator. The price of admission is a broken spirit, ready for indoctrination. Initially repulsed by Project Mayhem, the narrator soon begins to fear it, as Bob’s death during a botched commercial sabotage exercise forces him to reckon with the lethal and fascist end-game of his and Durden’s anarchic – and relatively innocent – beginnings. Here, again, it’s hard to deny that Pitt’s Durden is an even greater badass when he’s commanding an army.
Like a cinematic Frank Zappa, Fincher subverts and satirizes action movies by making a great one himself, peppered with subtle critiques and visual confusion. Fight Club oozes testosterone, and through the adolescent fantasy of its story, managed to be seen and cherished by the people to whom it made it directed its most damning criticisms. Unfortunately, Fincher’s suave masking of critical themes has resulted in a subculture which, ironically, lionizes the film for its portrayal of men. David Abravanel