Here I go again; breaking the first two rules of Fight Club!
Fight Club opens with a pounding, fast-paced, Dust Brothers-scored, computer-generated ride through the protagonist’s brain. It sets off at a terrific pace and rarely lets up.
So much of this film feels, if not experimental, then at least bold, daring, challenging and thought-provoking, in terms of its visuals, its structure and its themes.
Utilizing a circular narrative structure, the voiceover is used to guide the viewer through the story. The postmodern and sardonic drawl of Norton’s voiceover demonstrates his awareness of being in a film, even stopping the progress of the story and skipping to an earlier scene to ‘back up a little’.
I love Fight Club’s visuals because they are dazzling. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and director David Fincher pull off a dark and dirty film shot with bold visual ideas that look like they cost the earth. The pioneering and stunning use of photogrammetry combines live action with computer-generated imagery in several amazing sequences such as the camera pulling out of the bin full of rubbish and the camera whizzing down a building, into the building’s car park, into a van filled with explosives and then whizzing through the streets to another building’s explosive-filled car park all in a matter of seconds.
The film is full of incredible visual effects from the plane crash to the self-inflicted shooting of the protagonist. But it is the experimental elements that are the most eye-catching and memorable. Subliminal frames of Tyler Durden being spliced in to the early scenes of the film, the flash of a single frame of porn at the end, the visible sprocket holes as Tyler addresses the camera and almost seems to be leaping from the film itself all combine in making Fight Club a film that violently breaks free of Hollywood’s restrictive visual conventions.
Accusations of style over substance are unfounded as the film is full of ideas and many of its visual flourishes serve the story and develop the ideas of the film in interesting and creative ways. It may not have answers, but it is filled with food for thought.
Released in 1999, after a delay due to the recent Columbine High School massacre, Fight Club divided critical opinion. Presciently referencing the massacre in its scene where Norton threatens his boss with a similar rampage, the film is also an eerie premonition of 9/11 with its final scene of the destruction of capitalist towers of power (by a group of indoctrinated young men) and repeated references to ‘Ground Zero’.
Like another 1999 film ‘The Sixth Sense’, much was said about Fight Club’s rug-pulling twist. It’s a shame as this is such a small reason to discuss the film. However it does make for fulfilling repeat viewings of the film spent spotting its liberal peppering of hints throughout. The narrative does not fit easily into a genre, lacking conformity with any rigid set of conventions. Some call it a thriller; some have called it a dark romantic comedy. Either way it is bleak but hilarious, exciting and strangely romantic and definitely not predictable, leaping from scene to scene with pace, wit and unexpected escalations of the action.
I love the script because it is littered with dark as dirt, blackest of black humour. Occasionally uncomfortable and insensitive with its cast of cancer sufferers, it still makes you snigger. And who wouldn’t laugh at a little girl crying at the sight of a single frame of porn spliced into a harmless family film?
But of course the film would be nothing without its central trio of brilliant characters and the talented cast’s performances. Norton plays troubled, depressed insomniac with a childlike quality but the film belongs to Pitt and Bonham Carter. Pitt plays hunky and alluring, charismatic and crazy while Bonham Carter is cast against type as dingy, dirty femme fatale Marla.
Marla looks as though she has walked in off the set of a film noir, smoking, dressed in black and ruining the life of our protagonist. She seems fearless, in control, independent and contrasts with Jack’s reserved, uptight personality. Marla punctuates the film; like an annoyance she disappears and keeps reappearing in Jack’s life. She is the one who comes across as a sympathetic victim on repeat watches. It is a gutsy and funny performance.
Meanwhile Tyler may come off as an initially enthralling and exciting character but on repeat viewings, comes across more as a bully and a hypocrite; he manipulates and pressures people to conform to his expectations. He is a modern day preacher but his word is anti-God, anti-capitalist and anti-society. He ridicules the unnecessary consumption of modern life but then smokes a cigarette (no doubt made by a huge multi-national corporation and in no way necessary to his survival). However he comes across as charismatic and intelligent, filled with little nuggets of information like why they give oxygen on planes and how to make napalm. Nevertheless for all his speeches on freeing yourself, Tyler turns into a drill instructor and for all his anti-authoritarian mischief, Tyler ends up a Fuhrer figure, manipulating the masses into becoming thoughtless pawns.
But really it’s the films themes, ideas and messages that are why I love Fight Club. Getting to the bottom of what this film is really about is tricky and pointless. It has no answers and has no message. It is nihilistic and bleak but very funny. It deals with corporate life and the corporate world but has product placement in many scenes. It touches on corporate practices with its brief explanation of formulas and protection of profits over consumer safety. It deals with consumerism, capitalism and the emasculation of modern men.
Some have called it a fascist film for its suggestion that violence is good for men and the world. Spill blood and you will feel alive it seems to say at some points. Follow and obey your leader unquestioningly to attain enlightenment. But the film does not fully endorse this. Yes bleeding and fighting do come across as self-help remedies that hugging and sharing will never get close to. But compassion is also shown as Jack realizes the error of his ways.
Some have called the film misogynistic but Marla is the most interesting and sane character in the film. Tyler may show contempt for women and there may be some strong homoerotic undertones, but the resolution delivers a reconciliation of man and woman that could easily be seen as conservative.
Fight Club also deals with religion and the Space Monkeys of Project Mayhem become parodies of cult members. The early stages of Fight Club are often compared to religious gatherings with ‘shouting in tongues’ and the aftermath of feeling ‘saved’.
The film is neither right-wing nor left-wing; it walks a tightrope of extremes. Ending with one of the most memorable and breathtaking shots of modern cinema accompanied by the haunting music of the Pixies, it is a film that I love and I can watch again and again and again.