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NewCityNet Scream Of Consciousness

David Fincher's "Fight Club" breaks through the glass ceiling of Hollywood narrative.

By Ray Pride

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  David Fincher isn't talking about "Fight Club."

His intrepid movie is articulate enough, thank you very much. "Fight Club" is the kind of once-a-decade event that inspires hyperbole. It's a ferocious rush of troubling dreams, but it isn't hermetic or cryptic. It is as dense and dark as any slab of arthouse Euro-murk, but as mordantly funny and sassy as any recent comedy that comes to mind. From the propulsive haste of the opening seconds, a voyage that begins literally inside a man's mind, we are pummeled into grateful submission by unrelenting imagination. Novelist Chuck Palahniuk's ream-of-consciousness pop parable seemed unadaptable, its tangy DeLilloesque zing unsuited to a medium of concrete images.

But wow. But POW!

This is a trickster's picture. Brad Pitt is always at his best when he plays a provocateur, intuitive and nonanalytical, working against his pretty face and country-boy charisma. Here, he's Tyler Durden, a sly stranger who changes the life of office-monkey Edward Norton. Norton's character is notably nameless: a man purged of identity, wanting desperately to be tinder to some new spark. Unable to sleep, the Narrator searches for tears, joining support groups for the mortally afflicted, eventually meeting Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), another pain junkie. Everyone's beaten down already. The trailer has given the impression "Fight Club" is a story of the privileged beating up the downcast. It's not. Fincher has rightly called it a comedy, albeit it a composite of "Raging Bull" and "Harold and Maude."

"I don't throw bombs, I make films."
-- Rainer Werner Fassbinder of his terrorist satire, "Third Generation"

With the kaleidoscopic display of technique and attention to detail in "Fight Club," Fincher leaps to the head of the pack of American studio directors. This is devious stuff. This is some kind of pop masterpiece. "Fight Club" is delirium tremendous, packing most every great impulse of 1970s moviemaking into one svelte pomo black comedy package. Marla has a line that suits Fincher's status alongside most other contemporary American filmmakers: "I'm already so fucking gone that all you see is an afterimage."

The Narrator suspects his cubicle life. He covets change. Or at least to be a spectator of something more spectacular. Enter: Tyler Durden. Brad Pitt as superid. Change is at hand -- explosively so. There's perverse subversion at work here with tens of millions of Rupert Murdoch, Arnon Milchan and Taurus Films' money. We get the spectacle of pretty stars with cool careers engaging with material as gasp-inducing, as truth-grasping, as fearfully ferocious as the piercing howl of "difficult" films such as Gaspar N'e's keeningly subjective "I Stand Alone" (a title that would suit this exhilarating ride). This exquisite yowl of focused sensation is a grand augury for American filmmaking. Fincher's three previous features have been but games, simulations toward this narrative. He and his collaborators assert, prod, provoke, thrill and dare think some truly cracked thoughts.

The caffeinated pulse of "Fight Club" beats with cross references, from "Zabriskie Point"'s explosive expressionism to Marla's Judy Garland by way of "The Wizard of Oz," but it comes down to theme: possessions what matters. What resides within your mass of flesh? What does your body feel? What does your heart hold? There's a line from Yeats that goes something like, "All that is personal soon rots unless it is packed in ice or salt." "Fight Club" is ice and salt and fire. This is a film about insomnia that will keep you awake.

Even at a single go, "Fight Club" is an intimate epic, a post-Orwell, post-"Blade Runner" parable of how identities are bought and sold, how we slowly die today. We have raced far beyond, "Plastics, Benjamin. Plastics." "Fight Club" channels interior monologue, the infernal River Styx burning through the runnels of far too many good brains. It's wondrous how many heaping spoonsful of Palahniuk's delirious verbiage have been strip-mined from his novel: "You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa you'll ever need in your life; no matter what else goes wrong, you've got the sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the right bed. The drapes. The rug. This is how you're good to yourself. This is how you fill up your life."

But it's more than the wash of words: "Fight Club" has an ejaculatory splendor. Things explode. Watch closely. See dominoes fall. There is something to be admired about a story that suggests blowing up all the credit card companies and personal data-collators would be a neat start for social change. All that is subliminal melts into madness. This is a stutter-step subjectivity that catalogues and critiques the hic-hic-hiccuping in your head. (My head, too.)

Tyler is the door the Narrator is ready to walk through. Tyler Durden shows him the way to experience, not to be satisfied any longer by consuming reflected experience. To rediscover the fear of death is only a start. It goes wider, deeper, than Hemingway-style macho. Of the talent involved -- Fincher, screenwriter Jim Uhls, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, the actors, and particularly, Palahniuk, none fear the inchoate notion, the accidental or incidental subtext, an instigating whim passing itself off as a cool notion. The city is not Los Angeles or Littleton, Colorado. Bad things happen to good people in the night-town of "Fight Club," the grain and grime of which looks like a light-drained "American Graffiti." Think "Blade Runner"'s world with furnishings by Ikea. (There's a marvelous moment where the narrator seems to be lost in dirty pictures, but an Ikea centerfold is his bathroom jack-porn.) Tack on the feculent stink of sweat and shabby buildings and fear of death -- a flopsweat no performer should suffer -- and you have some of the hyper-adrenalized force on screen. It is not claustrophobic. It is euphoric and naughty and speaks sneaky truths. (Or suggests that madness may be a sane man's answer to our daily grind.)

I felt like putting a bullet between the eyes of every panda that wouldn't screw to save its species... I felt like breathing smoke.
-- The Narrator

Yet the madness is no worse than a simulated womb-life of image consumption passing for contemplation. The culture has a phrase -- "Stop beating yourself up." "Fight Club" says, No, start beating yourself up. Be upset. Angry up your blood. Take your heartbeat back. The fisticuffs aren't even the primary surge of the picture.

The drift is a hyperlinked, hyperjangly descendant of Paddy Chayefsky's rants for his visionary Howard Beale in 1976's "Network," who railed, "I don't have to tell you things are bad... We know the air's unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit and watch our TVs... We sit in the house, and slowly the world we live in gets smaller, and all we ask is please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my hairdryer and my steel-belted radials, and I won't say anything, just leave us alone." But David Fincher is not Sidney Lumet. This is not stately, classical theater-derived cinema. "Fight Club" is a metaphor for the madness of the real world, in breathless sound and vision. (And let us pause to salute the scattered jangle and head-hum of the Dust Brothers' fine score: It is as diverse and unpredictable as weather.)

You haven't seen this movie before. Out of hundreds and hundreds of narratives you've surely witnessed, Fincher's knack is to take a tricksy, literary book that seems singularly unsuited for adaptation and make it something sensuous that is also severely, simply cinematic. Audiences are going to get it. Unlike the bulk of journos and critics, ticket-buyers are not paid to misconstrue. To creatively filter messages to their own needs and satisfaction, yes, but not to invent a text that does not match the one Fincher, et al, have put to screen.

Palahniuk calls "Fight Club" his "cult failure" of a first novel, and claims to have composed much of it while working as a diesel engine mechanic. He would lie flat on his back on the creeper, slide under a truck, steal privacy and scribble. "I have all these notebooks with torques and engine specs for five pages," he says, laughing. "Then notes on how to get the timing cover back on the transmission plate, then there's the first draft of 'Fight Club.'"

Palahniuk was given unusual access: Fincher showed him things. "I came down and David was always showing me dailies, going, 'Come to the trailer and see dailies. Don't tell anybody I showed you this.' There'd be dailies with Brad doing scenes fully nude, sitting on a toilet. Saying these lines. I'm like, 'Omigod, it's Brad sitting on a toilet doing this scene completely buck-ass naked.' I was thinking, 'Jeez, this is going to be in the movie?' Which it's not."

Beyond the star-rush, he sees "Fight Club" as a home movie. "It was based on friends. It was based on 'Jeff.' Jeff is Tyler. Monica is Marla. Everybody is somebody. They're going to love it. I made like a high school yearbook of those years that we goofed and now it's a film an they're going to be watching famous people on million-dollar sets made from their ghetto houses and trashy apartments in this almost-documentary of their lives! I lived through that. It was a documenting of all the issues my friends were talking about five years ago. I think if enough of my peers are talking about something, it has to go into a book. Whether or not it's a valid thing, it's something that's on people's minds."

Nowadays, most movies with any nerve have been protected by powerful men or women, such as producer Scott Rudin with the "South Park" movie or "Fight Club"'s executive producer Arnon Milchan, who got "Brazil," "Once Upon a Time in America" and "Heat" to the screen. Palahniuk takes it farther. "I'm not sure who told me this, David or one of the producers, they said Fox never wanted to make this movie, but the story was so good, they said, Fox was terrified that someone else would make it. So Fox made it sort of out of terror of not making it. In a way, the strength of the story carried it but it was something that nobody really wanted to make it in the first place."

Palahniuk takes it farther back, to when the book was a scary manuscript. In 1995, a literary scout named Raymond Bongiovanni championed Palahniuk, "then he died of AIDS right after that. He called me once, he wanted to see who was this Charles Manson person. And then the next thing, in his obituary in Variety, in the last paragraph was that his last wish was 'the gritty Chuck Palahniuk novel 'Fight Club' become a movie.' Then my agent called, 'Hey I just came from Raymond's funeral. You got mentioned eight times in the eulogy! You can't get better press than that!' Raymond gave it a good start."

"You met me at a very strange time in my life," the Narrator says. "Fight Club" comes at a very strange time in the life of American filmmaking. We don't deserve movies better than this. Buy this film.


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