Mischief. Mayhem. Soap.
I saw Fight Club the weekend it opened in the theatres. In this, the Internet age, it’s difficult to go much longer beyond a film’s opening weekend without stumbling upon a film’s secrets in an online review, or a discussion group, or in a newsgroup posting. After ruining The Phantom Menace by reading the novel a week before the movie opened, I learned to value a lack of advance knowledge. (If I wanted to transfer blame, I could say that George Lucas ruined the movie because Jar-Jar was an atrocity and a well-trained chimpanzee could’ve done a better acting job than Jake Lloyd, but that’s beside the point.)
This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.
I attended the screening by myself. Before the movie started, a group of teenagers came in and sat in the row in front of me. There were three girls and one guy, possibly the boyfriend of the minute for one of the girls, and not a single one of them could have been over the age of fourteen. Not a parent or guardian in sight. Now, I’m not a prude by any means. Most R-rated movies — The Matrix, Evil Dead 2, Barton Fink — I really couldn’t care less if some kid under seventeen sees it. But, Fight Club is different. Fight Club is dangerous. Fight Club walks a fine line between the irresponsible glorification of violence and the telling of an allegorical tale to make a philosophical statement. I know that the filmmakers fully intended the latter. It takes a certain level of emotional and mental maturity to be able to discern the message of this film, and I don’t think these tender kids who were there just because they idolize Edward Norton and Brad Pitt were equipped to deal with the movie. I had a hard time sorting through the movie. There are few movies that have given me an extreme emotional reaction, that have left me reeling, after I’ve walked out of the theatre. Two movies have, that I can think of. The first was Schindler’s List. The second was Fight Club.
We were raised on television to believe that we’d all be millionaires, movie gods, rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re starting to figure that out.
Back in October, after seeing Fight Club on that Sunday afternoon, I sat down and wrote a review of it. The review was my way of sorting through all the thoughts that it put into my head. That was back before I began reviewing for DVD Verdict. I posted the review at my personal website. I’ve since remodeled the site, but I kept the old version up for old time’s sake. I’ve linked at right to my first review, so you can see my initial response to the film.
I am going to warn you up front. This review is NOT written for the person who has not seen Fight Club. I figure that if you’re reading a DVD review, you’ve probably already seen the movie and are considering adding it to your collection. I will endeavor to keep my synopsis of the film as spoiler-free as possible, but I’ll probably give more information than a “virgin viewer” should know.
The protagonist of Fight Club is played by Edward Norton (The People Vs. Larry Flynt, American History X). He’s never named in the movie, so we’ll call him Jack (there’s a reason for that that I won’t go into). Jack works in a dead-end job with an automobile manufacturer. His job is to travel to locations where someone in one of his company’s cars has been involved in an accident. He determines if the accident was caused by a manufacturing problem, and if it would be more economical to recall the vehicles or just deal with the lawsuits. Jack hates his job, but it gives him money to buy the things that identify him — his handmade dishes, his ying-yang coffee table, his nice clothes. His life has no meaning.
Jack suffers from insomnia. He attends numerous support groups, not because he really has any sort of malady but to connect somehow with his emotions. Every night of the week there’s a different group, where he takes a different identity and assumes his role as the silent observer. Sickle-cell anemia, testicular cancer, brain parasites. Cornelius, Travis, Rupert. They’re places where he can open up and make an emotional connection with someone else, no matter how fake that connection may be. The emotional release gives him peace. He can sleep at night.
You are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.
Everything was going fine for Jack until Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter — Mighty Aphrodite, The Wings Of The Dove) walked into his life. Marla is also a “tourist” at the support groups. Her presence unnerves Jack, because she mirrors his insincerity. He can’t sleep again.
On a business flight, Jack meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt — Twelve Monkeys, Seven Years In Tibet). Tyler is everything Jack wishes he could be: confident, good-looking, does what he wants when he wants. He’s a charismatic yet enigmatic presence.
Jack returns home after the flight to find that his condo and all of his things — his pride and joy, the very definition of who he is — have been destroyed in a freak explosion. On a whim, he calls Tyler. The two meet at a bar and begin talking about what is really important. Outside the bar, they get into a fight — not because they’re upset but because “you can’t know yourself unless you’ve been in a fight.” A few guys see them fighting. Next week, a group gathers as Jack and Tyler fight again. They join in. Soon, the fight club is born.
Our fathers were our models for God. If they bailed, what does that tell you about God? You have to be prepared for the possibility that God does not like you.
The fight club meets in the basement of a dive bar. Tyler lays down the rules. The first rule of fight club is: you do not talk about fight club. The second rule of fight club is: you do not talk about fight club. The rules diversify from there. Men duke it out with each other, bloodying each other up, until one taps out. They hug. Primal aggressive tendencies are exercised. It’s a means of release, of connecting with themselves. The soul is purged. It’s a transcendent experience.
In violation of the first (and second) rule of fight club, the members tell others. Soon, other chapters of Fight Club spring up. Tyler becomes dissatisfied with men beating the crap out of other men. He has to “take it up a notch.” Tyler begins giving out “homework assignments.” At first, the assignments are innocuous enough: start a fight with a total stranger and lose, smash conspicuous-consumption vehicles, erase the videotapes in the local Blockbuster. (Note to self: buy industrial strength magnet. Erase VHS tapes in franchise rental outlets. Viva la DVD!) When that’s not enough, he gives birth to Project Mayhem. He gathers an army of followers around himself, men who would do anything in the name of Tyler Durden. He brainwashes them. They become his “space monkeys.” Their activities ramp up, going from the mischievous to the downright insidious.
You are not your job. You are not the money in your bank account. You are not the car you drive. You are not how much money is in your wallet. You are not your f***ing khakis.
In the meantime, Tyler begins a relationship with Marla, the woman loathed by Jack. That relationship, coupled with the hordes now following Tyler, makes Jack feel like he is losing touch with Tyler. Finally, Tyler leaves. Alone with himself, Jack at last learns the truth about Tyler Durden and his plans for social change.
And that’s where I stop. To go any further would be downright irresponsible.
Fight Club isn’t just a movie about fighting. If you walk away from it dwelling on the violence, or thinking that in any way the movie makes it look “cool” to blow up buildings or fight for no reason, then you weren’t paying attention, or you aren’t mature enough to understand Fight Club‘s moral. Violence is the answer of madness. Sure, it’s wrong to identify yourself by your car, your clothes, your job. Yes, your possessions can possess you. But…It’s equally wrong to fall into lockstep behind any other leader. Your identity must come from within. That sounds way too much like something you’d hear on “Oprah,” so let me think of a better way to put it. Ultimately, you strip away all the external definitions of what makes you you, and you’re left with the internal definition. That must come from the very core of your being. It’s a journey every person takes when they reach that stage in their life where they are becoming an adult. Often, they take the path their parents or society sets before them. Go to college. Get a job. Get married. Have kids. It’s an external definition. Fight Club is a call to question the path of least resistance, the way of life that anyone or everyone else says you should take. Who are you? What do you want from your life? Decide for yourself, because there are too many people who are willing to say “Wear clothes from Abercrombie and Fitch, because they make you a better man,” or “Join our religion because it’s the right way,” or “We’re gonna burn this whole world down…wanna join us?”
Can you tell that Philosophy was one of my favorite courses in college? I may not be able to express my sentiments in eloquent, scholarly terms, but I wrestle constantly in my head to come to grips with who I am and what I believe. Fight Club gave me more fuel for the fire, as it were. That’s the major reason why I respect it so much as a film.
Self improvement is masturbation. Self destruction is the answer.
The other reasons I respect it are of a more technical nature. Fight Club is one of the rare instances where the whole is equal to the sum of its parts — piece it out into its components, and each one is meritorious in its own right. It is based upon a book of the same title, written by Chuck Palahniuk. He wrote it while working as a diesel truck mechanic, cobbling it together from events and friends from his own life. I haven’t read the book in its entirety, but I have read enough to see the brilliance of Palahniuk’s unique style and delivery. I also read enough to see that the movie follows almost verbatim. I cheated and read the last chapter. The ending was subtly changed. The book was adapted to the screen by freshman screenwriter Jim Uhls (with some uncredited help from Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote David Fincher’s Se7en). David Fincher directed the film. I hope you are familiar with his films, for he is one of the great directors of our time. Fincher’s start in filmmaking came working at Industrial Light And Magic; you can see his name in credits of Return Of The Jedi and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. He was one of the founders of Propaganda Films, the avant-garde studio that was also the home of crazy-cool director Spike Jonze. Like Jonze, Fincher worked for years as a commercial and music video director. He’s directed music videos for some of the world’s most famous artists — Michael Jackson (not me — the freak), Madonna (he directed her greatest videos, “Express Yourself” and “Vogue”), The Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith. His feature film debut was the much-maligned Alien3. Many people dismiss it as the worst of the series, but personally it’s my favorite (well, maybe second-favorite; James Cameron’s Aliens was pretty damn cool). His big break was Se7en, the disturbing tale of a serial killer preaching a sermon to the world by killing in the fashion of the Seven Deadly Sins. Fincher’s movies are dark, not just in tone and subject matter, but in filming style. It’s minimalism, showing only what is absolutely necessary to the story and to gain an understanding of the characters. Finally, there’s the actors. Without discussing the merits of each person individually, the three lead actors become their characters in a frighteningly accurate way. The supporting actors, such as Meat Loaf (Crazy In Alabama) and Jared Leto (Urban Legend) are equally effective. It is an ensemble effort of the highest order.
You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.
Fox kicked out the jambs for their DVD release of Fight Club. I can’t decide if it’s bigger and better than their release of The Abyss. It may not have the sheer volume of features, but it is definitely cooler. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1, in an anamorphic transfer. Fincher shot the movie in a very dark manner. Often, there’s very little on the screen amidst the murkiness. This is the way the film was intended to be seen. Perhaps Fox should have included a disclaimer at the start of the movie like Warner Brothers did with Three Kings. That said, the video is nothing short of perfect, given the material. It’s impossible to comment on color fidelity and such, because the film naturally looks unnatural. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is equally impressive. It is one of the most aggressive tracks I’ve yet to hear — in the nature of the film, it is very in-your-face. The Dust Brothers soundtrack is very energizing, and you will feel every hit and crunch of the fights. There’s a reason Fight Club‘s sole Academy Award nomination was for Sound Effects Editing. My only quibble is that the dialogue can sound unnatural and bass-heavy at times.
With a gun in your mouth, you speak only in vowels.
It will take you a long time to work your way through the extensive extras. Four commentary tracks cover every aspect of the making of Fight Club. I didn’t quite have the time (yet) to work my way through all four tracks, so I picked the two most intriguing tracks. First, there is a track with David Fincher, Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter. Bonham Carter’s comments were recorded separately and edited in at opportune points. Fincher, Norton, and Pitt have quite a rapport with each other. They laugh and joke frequently, but are also quite serious about the project. Norton has the most to say, and it is quite obvious that he went deep into Jack’s head to play the part. The second track I watched was with author Chuck Palahniuk and screenwriter Jim Uhls. Here, Palahniuk does most of the talking, citing his influences for many of the lines and scenes in the story. At certain points, he asks Uhls why he made certain changes or why he kept certain scenes intact. Whereas the Fincher/Norton/Pitt/Carter track is always lively, there are points where Palahniuk and Uhls are silent, as if they are admiring the words they have crafted together. The commentaries I did not view were a separate track with Fincher by himself, and one with members of the visual effects team.
That’s the first disc. On the second disc, we delve very deep into the making of Fight Club. The main menu is divided into five sections: Crew, Work, Missing, Advertising, and Art. The Crew section gives extensive biographies of eighteen members of the cast and crew. The Work section covers the behind the scenes work on the film. It is subdivided into Production, Visual Effects, and On Location. The Production subsection contains video segments detailing the making of particular scenes. Most of the segments contain two angles, which can be viewed separately or in split-screen, and each angle has its own audio track. The Visual Effects subsection shows before-and-after footage on the making of certain computer graphics-intensive scenes. Many of the segments have more than one audio track or the original storyboards. The On Location subsection is a five-minute reel of miscellaneous behind-the-scenes footage. It’s worth the price of admission to see the costume designer fitting Meat Loaf into the “fat suit” he wears.
In the Missing section, we are treated to seven deleted scenes, or alternate takes for scenes that did make final cut. Two of the scenes include alternate angle footage showing the shooting of the scenes. The scenes are also presented with their included counterparts for comparative purposes.
The Advertising section contains more publicity material than you could ever imagine exists for one film. There are three theatrical trailers, including one that was never used and had to be completed specially for the DVD. There’s seventeen television spots, including three in Spanish (strangely, the dialogue is subtitled rather than dubbed, but the narrator speaks in Spanish). There’s two Public Service Announcements that are both very, very funny. There’s a music video of some of the Dust Brothers’ score. There’s five Internet spots, which I never saw online, but then I never visited the official site. They’re about the same length as a television commercial, only edgier. There’s a promotional gallery of stills, poster art, and the press kit. Oh, and a transcript of a chat session with Edward Norton.
And lastly, the Art section. It contains sections labeled Storyboards (containing the entire script in storyboard form; it’s over 200 pages long), Visual Effects Stills (several scenes in their pre-computer graphics stages), Paper Street House (a slideshow of Jack and Tyler’s dilapidated house being built from the ground up), Costumes And Makeup (production sketches of the costume design), Brain Ride Map (very cool paintings used to design the ride through Jack’s brain that plays underneath the opening titles), and Pre-Production Paintings.
1999 was a good year for film. Too good a year, I’d say. There were too many films that will become classics to count: American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, and Being John Malkovich most definitely, and probably many others that for space reasons I don’t want to list. Sadly, I don’t think Fight Club will be remembered in that category, because it’s not mainstream enough. I think it will be remembered as a cult film, one with a small but fervent following, such as A Clockwork Orange. For its time, it was also a very disturbing film that challenged the social status quo. They’re both films that you must be mentally and emotionally prepared to watch, for they pack considerable impact.
It’s a shame that Fight Club was not recognized for its excellence. It lost in its one technical category at the Oscars. The Online Film Critics Society nominated it for five awards, none of which it won. It even lost at the MTV Movie Awards to the film that bested it at the Oscars: The Matrix.
Fight Club is not a movie for everyone. It is brutal, and brutally honest. It should not be viewed lightly. The DVD is a marvel and should be among the collection of any DVD collector who is also serious about film.
After the rash of shootings perpetrated by teenagers (Kip Kinkel’s rampage in May 1998 at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon; the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado), violent films came under media scrutiny. Fight Club was certainly no exception. Many people were quick to blame the films themselves for causing violence; I would contend that blame should lay on parents and guardians for not discussing such films with their children.
After my experience seeing Fight Club with unaccompanied teens in the audience, I wrote to my local newspaper commenting on the event. The day after the letter was published, the theatre had signs up saying no one under 17 would be admitted to Fight Club, and identification would be required for all R-rated films. See, you can make a difference.
On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.
I’ve included links to two reviews of Fight Club written by Harry Knowles, the webmaster of Ain’t It Cool News. Voracious hunter of movie knowledge that I am, I’m a regular reader of the site (as apocryphal or wildly inaccurate as it may be). Harry wrote the best analysis of Fight Club I’ve seen. In fact, he’s quoted several times in the booklet that comes with the DVD.
The cast and filmmakers responsible for Fight Club receive the court’s highest commendation. Fox is rewarded for their spectacular packaging and production of the DVD.