[17 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Who would have thought it? 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 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.
Far beyond Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, who play the rebel yell yin yang of a split personality with revolutionary leanings better than any single actor ever could, and a director so in tune with the material that it seems to be flowing directly out of his own Id, it’s great to see this adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s perturbing novel get the afterthought critical respect it so richly deserved (and yet missed) the first time. Yes, Messageboard Nation loves to rewrite the history books on all their favorite films, and to read their various rants on the subject, you’d swear this was 1999’s most heavily praised and commercially successful film. 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 the decade’s most divisive efforts. Only in hindsight did it become the black-eyed Mona Lisa.
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 young man discovering the beauty - and the inherent danger - in embracing your inner maleness become 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 the corporate schism, about beating the system up before it beats you down. Now, in a world where bad decisions, not bombs, caused many of the most prestigious lending houses to crash and burn, Tyler Durden’s chemically-induced chaos doesn’t seem so outlandish. In fact, it seems downright reasonable.
The main story remains as strong as ever - a young liabilities analyst (Norton) for a major auto manufacturer has trouble sleeping. Seeking solace from local self-help groups, he realizes that getting lost in other people’s problems helps him cope better with his own. Then 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 meets up with designer soap maker Tyler Durden (Pitt). They strike up an awkward friendship that finds the duo eventually living 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 in a flurry of fists to the faces and solar plexus.
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” 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.
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. To hear Fincher tell it (his commentary is one of several spellbinding additions to the Blu-ray release, along with a fabulous 1080p transfer and audio update), 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 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). 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.
Indeed, in today’s gloomy, Palin obsessed media-cracy, a planet where information overload takes the place of rationality or true thought, Fight Club is more of a distant voice that 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.