Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Sparring Match

Pitt and Norton are on bruise control

By Peter Keough

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  On the surface, David Fincher is the master of puerile profundity, of superficial weightiness, of dank grotesquerie signifying nothing. But I think there's more to his four-movie oeuvre than just an MTV punk with a Nietzsche reader showing off. Like his previous film, The Game, Fight Club is not so much a product of the exploitative, hitmaking process of the Hollywood film industry as it is a reflection of that process. It's trashy, sensationalistic, amoral, pretentious, and bound to rouse the outrage of those who believe that movies corrupt society and cause violent behavior. Which may be the point: Fight Club is a mirror distorting the faces of those most eager to condemn it.

Or maybe it's no more than a slick, overstylized adaptation of a sophomoric first novel. The slender volume by Chuck Palahniuk reads like a workshop effort by a writer overly impressed with Bret Easton Ellis; it's shallow, hip nihilism with a few good lines. Most of those lines have made it into the screenplay, where they're recited in the voiceover intoned by the film's unnamed narrator and hero (Edward Norton, attempting a second, less pumped-up take on American History X). "That old saying," he says at the beginning, a gun shoved into his mouth, "that you kill the one you love, it works both ways." That's especially true in a movie that revels in and reviles the culture of sado-masochistic narcissism that is Fight Club's target and audience.

Norton is a Generation X Everyman, a corporate drone engaged in a job even more soul-destroying than that of Kevin Spacey in American Beauty -- he investigates accidents for an auto company and decides whether the defect responsible warrants a product recall. His reward is a designer-catalogue-furnished apartment and insomnia; the latter he tries to cure by attending self-help meetings for victims of incurable diseases. At a testicular-cancer group he encounters Bob (Meat Loaf Aday), who presses him to his enormous breasts and gets him to weep. There he also meets Marla (Helena Bonham Carter, looking more used than she did in Frankenstein), a chain-smoking, death-seeking revenant whom Norton denounces as a "tourist." Her presence at the meetings, a reminder of his own phoniness, destroys whatever peace they provide him.

If Marla is Fight Club's version of American beauty, what the hero is really looking for is the American beast. He finds it in Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt in a less cross-eyed version of his 12 Monkeys character). A prankster dilettante, Durden works part-time as a movie projectionist, where he inserts pornographic frames into G-rated movies (it would probably be more subversive if he did the opposite), and as a caterer, where his vandalism is even less wholesome (let's just say that this movie will make you less likely to order the lobster bisque). In his spare time he makes soap out of fat purloined from liposuction clinics, a clever satirical idea that provides one truly disgusting scene but otherwise goes nowhere.

In short order, Norton's apartment blows up mysteriously, he and Tyler engage in a bonding fistfight outside a bar, and he moves into Tyler's squalid house/soap factory (ample opportunities for Fincher to indulge in the dripping dankness obsessed over in Seven). And by chance Tyler and Marla meet and become lovers, evoking Norton's latent homoerotic fury. But she proves just a nagging aside to the two boys' ongoing pugilistic relationship, and over a montaged period of time the pair draw other disenfranchised losers into their after-hours bare-knuckle bouts, organizing it into "Fight Club," a grassroots movement transforming anti-establishment rage into self-flagellation and cuts and bruises to impress the people at the office the next day. Inevitably "Fight Club" branches out into the escalating terrorism of "Project Mayhem," Tyler's scheme to overthrow the civilized world as we know it.

Mostly, though, "Fight Club" is an opportunity for Norton's unreliable narrator and passive/aggressive voyeur to indulge his own antisocial dark side, along with those who pay $8 to see films like this or any other big-screen vicarious thrill ride of bad behavior. And like those same movie patrons, when the going gets too rough, when the funny sabotage degenerates into genuine mayhem, Norton's alter ego Tyler becomes a scapegoat of his own taboo desires. At that point Fight Club, perhaps unintentionally, becomes a critique of on-screen violence even as it capitalizes on it.

In the meantime, Fincher indulges himself in the spectacle of pretty faces and torsos beaten to a pulp (one colleague has called the film Raging Bullshit), or in attention-getting arty shots, like the way the camera zooms through the step-by-step process of a devastating explosion, and hip self-reflexivity, like the distractingly frequent direct addresses to the camera. Although Fight Club spars with issues of alienation, repression, self-destruction, the future of civilization, and the nature of the cinema, they're glancing blows -- it's all just shadow boxing.


Fighting Fincher?

LOS ANGELES -- You'd never guess from his voluble, animated conversation that David Fincher is the press-shy, gloom-and-doom director of such bleak films as Alien3, Seven, and The Game. His latest, Fight Club, is a similarly dark -- if laceratingly funny -- tale of disenfranchised, desensitized young men who unite under the principle that (to paraphrase Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy) there's nothing so life-affirming as having the shit beaten out of you.

Fincher pulls no punches in discussing film violence. "Everybody's got to take it seriously. There's no way you can say that our medium doesn't have a great influence on a huge number of people. But if you said, 'If you erased the memory of Taxi Driver in order to not have John Hinckley, would that be an even trade?', I would say no. The world is a better place with a movie like Taxi Driver. There are a lot of stupid movies. There are also a lot of stupid politicians and stupid magazines and stupid TV shows. I don't know how you say, 'Which politician is too stupid to have a job?' or 'Which movie is too stupid to be made?' or 'Which presentation of violence is too stupid?' "

Still, a skittish Twentieth Century Fox delayed Fight Club's release to put more distance between it and April's shootings at Columbine High School. To which Fincher responds, "It would be nice if you could limit all the information people get to only the things that are healthy and help them through whatever dark times they're in. But the fact is, we don't know what that is. We can't say Doom made Columbine, or Leonardo DiCaprio in a black trenchcoat made Columbine. People have to start taking responsibility for their own actions."

In Fight Club (which is based on Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel), provocateur Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and his disciple (Edward Norton) start their bare-knuckle brawling club as a travesty of self-help groups, in order to address a perceived need for men alienated from their natural drives by a culture of consumerism and celebrity to reclaim their masculinity. It's a crisis also addressed in the current film American Beauty and in the new book Stiffed, by feminist Susan Faludi. Says Fincher, "I'm happy to have this movie rolled into that argument. I don't see men as victims. I do think that society runs some interesting risks. Boys and men have to make a transition from hunters to gatherers. We don't need any gazelle pelts, thank you. It has changed. Change with it. Get over it."

Asked whether his amphetamine-fueled anarchist manifesto is an expression of millennial angst, Fincher counters, "I think that's a bunch of shit. Millennial angst is just so much nonsense. Three months from now, there'll still be coming-of-age stories. This story has a lot more in common with The Graduate than it does with The Matrix. More so than ever, kids have a certain kind of sophistication at a much earlier age and a certain kind of retardation to a much later age. There's an emotional place, an understanding of who you are and who you want to become, that comes later and later. Call it slackerdom or whatever you want.

"At the same time, there's also this incredible sexual and political bullshit detector and sophistication that happens earlier and earlier. So this void is growing larger. I don't think it has anything to do with the millennium. It has to do with how easily attainable information is, and how sophisticated television and movies and radio are, and how all these kids are getting these ideas, and how they're not getting an emotional foundation for how to receive this stuff, to process it as bullshit or important."

If information overload has castrated and numbed Fight Club's Gen X characters, it's also Fincher's strategy (in the form of subliminal images, a fragmented narrative, and a major plot twist) for inoculating his Gen X audience. Fincher isn't worried that his technical trickery will be too mind-blowing for viewers to absorb. "You pay eight bucks and you go, and you wait in line, and you have to find parking, and all of that. You deserve to get a pretty dense experience. If there are a bunch of little things that can help me illustrate my point and support my idea, why not do them? It never concerned me that the movie would be so dense it would go over the heads of people. It's my responsibility to make the world as complete as possible and the experience as complete as possible."

Fincher's actors certainly applaud his command of the medium. "I think Fincher's picking up where Kubrick left off," says Pitt. Norton elaborates, "He is the comprehensive modern filmmaker. He has a complete command of all the tools available to a filmmaker now." "He has a great rapport with the actors," says Meat Loaf, who plays a Fight Club member named Bob. "His shotmaking ability is extraordinary. His eye is absolutely incredible."

Bob is one of the film's stranger special effects: post-surgery hormone therapy has given him what he calls "bitch tits." The actor/rocker, who is much trimmer than his name and reputation suggest, reassures moviegoers that he wore a 38-pound prosthetic. "I was padded from my knees all the way to my elbows. It's all flaxseed. If we had been doing Hitchcock's The Birds, I would have been dead." -- Gary Susman


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