Thursday, September 18, 2008

“WTF?!” - Fight Club

I couldn’t make it through my initial viewing of 1999’s Fight Club without being sick. The problem wasn’t the considerable violence that drew the scorn of critics, it was something I ate. Somewhere between the formation of Project Mayhem and the death of Robert Paulson, I realized I couldn’t sit in the theater anymore. I bailed, leaving my friends behind. This was sacrilege, walking out on a movie, but the uncomfortable feeling in my stomach wasn’t regret, it was stomach flu.

More than an hour into it, Fight Club had failed to grab me. I had been intrigued at times but never engaged. In most circumstances I would have headed right back to the theater the next day to finish what I had started. But the next day came and I did nothing. A week went by. Then a month. I passed on completing Fight Club right on through the rest of its theatrical run, eventually borrowing it on DVD from a friend who couldn’t stop talking about it.

That friend, Brew, was thrilled about Fight Club. And he wasn’t alone. I was. Among guys our age – early 20s then – Fight Club was something of an instant classic. I’d call it an instant cult classic now, because I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that it ever took deep roots among general audiences, but at the time it was the movie to see and to discuss, at least on my college campus. Based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk and directed with slick grittiness by David Fincher, Fight Club had people debating its philosophies while admiring its aesthetics (including women, who accepted the blood and violence as part of the cost of admission to see a shirtless Brad Pitt if nothing else).

When I eventually watched Fight Club on DVD, I was familiarly equivocal. It looked nice and it talked a big game, and the performances were commanding, but it didn’t speak to me. 1999 was the year of American Beauty, Magnolia and Being John Malkovich. It was the year of The Insider, Boys Don’t Cry and The Sixth Sense. These films felt worth pondering, not necessarily in that order. Fight Club felt as deep as a frat party. And yet its base of ardent fans was, and is, undeniable.

So when I started my “WTF?!” series with The Big Lebowski, I knew which film would be next. And rather than shout my confusion into empty space, I decided to take it to the source. Last week, I watched Fight Club again. So did my buddy Brew. What follows is our ensuing conversation over e-mail.

[Warning: Nothing but major spoilers ahead, plus some graphic imagery from yours truly. Do not read this post if you haven’t seen the movie.]

JB: Last week I watched Fight Club for the first time in about seven years. When recently I decided to give it another chance, to try and dig down and discover the appeal that had eluded me, I was surprised to discover that many critics from the top national papers had slammed Fight Club upon its release. Though I recalled controversy over the film’s violence, that’s certainly not the response I had remembered. We’re both 31, and among guys our age I think it’s fair to say that the movie was an instant classic. If the first two rules of Fight Club (no italics) are “Don’t talk about Fight Club,” the first two rules of Fight Club (with italics) seemed to be “Don’t say a discouraging word about Fight Club.”

Now, I know you’ve recently watched the film for the first time in a few years, and maybe you have a different opinion. But you were a champion of this movie back when it was released and watched it frequently when it came out on DVD. So, as best you can, give me the outline of its appeal to you back in 1999. Was it David Fincher’s style? Was it the film’s themes? Was it the redefining plot twist heading into the final act? What?

Brew: To start, let me reiterate what you mentioned: this film did appeal to me very much upon my initial viewing. Why? I don't know that it was Fincher's style. I did find Seven to be a fascinating experience, and The Game was equally intriguing. Much like Fight Club, both of those movies explore dark themes and they're finely crafted. If I were to watch all three back-to-back without knowing who directed them, I don't know that I'd assume it was the same person. The plot twist you mention is interesting and memorable, but these movies, and Fight Club especially, aren't movies that I think back upon and focus on any plot twist as the defining element the way I would with an M Night Shyamalan thriller.

For me, this movie went beyond style and twist. It hit me in the face. Perhaps that had everything to do with being a male in my early 20s and unsure of where I was going in life. After watching it again recently, I think that's a fair assessment. In my early 20s, I could identify with Edward Norton's character and his lack of interest in the mundane, everyday routine of mindless consumerism and shallow experiences. He was sleepwalking through his days much like I felt I was doing at the time.

Beyond that, to be blunt, the movie was badass. But I wouldn't say that the violence and the call to action were really the defining attraction. Instead it was the search for self-awareness and for passion in something you believed in. I think Norton's character points it out quite well when he states that Fight Club “isn’t about winning or losing,” and the same could be said of the movie.

JB: You’ve touched on two of the film’s key themes, which frequently overlap but aren’t actually the same: The first is the need to feel something, anything. Norton’s character at the beginning of the film is battling more than just the general malaise of the everyday routine. He’s locked in a serious depression. For me, the strongest part of the picture is its first 30 minutes or so, when he’s attending all those support group meetings and finding raw feelings inside himself that he doesn’t understand but needs to explore.

But this theme overflows into the second key theme, which is more problematic, about the reacquisition of manhood. Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden observes that men of his generation haven’t had a Great War or Great Depression, the implication being that this peacetime ideal of accumulating wealth and status is empty and naturally unmanly. He implies that men have this primal itch that must be scratched. Hence Fight Club is born as a test of manhood, both actual and metaphorical. If you don’t look too deeply into some of the contradictions of Fight Club’s and later Project Mayhem’s philosophies (we’ll get to those later), yes, it is “badass.” And I can see how many young men would be drawn to it, the same way they’re drawn to NFL games, with the drunk fans frequently forgetting that whether their favorite team wins or loses really is no reflection on their personal worth. But having said that, I must admit that I’m surprised to hear that you were drawn to it, considering that you’re one of the least violent people I know.

So I guess my question – and I realize I’m asking you to turn back the clock – is this: Did Fight Club provide for you the kind of inexplicable yet fulfilling catharsis that Norton’s character feels going to all those support groups? In other words, did it give you some sense of inner peace to see a character struggling with the same feelings of dissatisfaction that you were experiencing? And/or was the pure physical brutality and bloodlust a key ingredient? Which is to say: Did this movie make being a man feel macho again?

Brew: The first 30 minutes are definitely crucial to exposing Norton's character’s depressive state and his need for the alter-ego, Tyler Durden. I am curious, though, why you're sold on those initial scenes and Norton's character’s need to probe into those feelings that "he doesn't understand but needs to explore," yet you're not as intrigued by his process of discovery. To me, that's the most arousing part. That's where Norton’s character becomes more than an anonymous voyeur hiding out in the back row of support groups. True, his method of self-discovery may be repugnant to many, but it's fascinating nonetheless.

I would generally consider myself a non-violent person, but I think Tyler's fundamental question is justified: "How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?" Since I earlier referred to the movie as "badass," this might seem like a contradiction, but I wasn't a fan of the excessive violence. In fact, I always look away during the scene in which Jared Leto's character is beaten unconscious. So how can I still be drawn to the film? I don't think being in a fight has to be synonymous with physical violence. I certainly wasn't looking to run out and punch my neighbor when the movie ended. I wasn't inspired to become violent. I think each person can identify in their own way, but a fight could be any struggle that you have to surmount.

You asked if this movie made "being a man feel macho again"? Interesting. It would be tough to argue that it didn't. I mean everything about Tyler Durden is so cool, right down to the name. And who wouldn't aspire to be a Brad Pitt-type man? But for me, personally, it was more about that "Spiritual War" that Tyler refers to. I was more inspired by the theme of personal growth than violence and destruction, and becoming a macho man. However, we only have to look back upon the history of the 20th Century to see countless examples of disassociated youth identifying with a charismatic leader and the violent results that ensued.

JB: That’s a fantastic point, and I think it has a lot to do with early reactions to the film. If Roger Ebert has a major fault as a critic, it’s that films that offend his moral sensibilities are almost certain to get panned (unless the film is Birth Of A Nation or directed by one of his pets, like Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantino). One of the closing observations of his Fight Club review is: “Whatever Fincher thinks the message is, that’s not what most audience members will get.”

I’m torn about that statement, because I think he’s right while also being wrong. He’s right in the sense that I suspect that many young males probably didn’t see through the contradictions of Tyler Durden’s philosophies and probably didn’t see the physical fighting as symbolic of anything beyond what it was. But that doesn’t mean that the fights aren’t symbolic, as you noted. And if the film had been about people having promiscuous sex, and if in response the religious right ignored the symbolic and/or cautionary elements and objected that the film would inspire kids to fornicate like rabbits, Ebert would have called their complaints hogwash, and he would have been right. So there’s some hypocrisy there.

But to use another bit of Ebert’s review, he called Fight Club “macho porn,” and I think that’s about right. And maybe that’s where the fear or danger is. If you suspect that men will respond to the glorified violence with an almost sexual arousal, perhaps you don’t trust those men to think with their heads instead of their dicks. Maybe the complaint becomes: With the blood rushing away from the brain, can men be expected to reflect on Fight Club’s deeper themes any more than they would reflect upon the plot virtues of a Jenna Jameson picture? I’m not saying I agree with this argument, but I think that’s the root of the objection. Fight Club is a cautionary tale, yes, but it isn’t overt about it, and considering the ways it romanticizes violence (and it does), maybe it needed to be.

Having said that, let me explain why I think the first act of the film works while the rest falls apart: I am drawn to Norton’s character’s self-discovery. And if Tyler Durden were more than just an element of his tortured soul, I could have bought into Fight Club (probably not Project Mayhem, but at least Fight Club). The scene where Norton’s character and Pitt’s first slug one another outside the bar is assuredly macho porn. (When Durden says, “I want you to hit me as hard as you can,” he might as well be saying, “I want you to ejaculate all over my face.”) However, I identified with that scene as a continuation of that self-discovery. The support groups were great, but they didn’t quite do it. Norton’s character is stunned to discover that, wow, slugging someone and getting slugged shatters the malaise with a sledgehammer. He’s drawn not to the fight but to the feeling. It works.

Here’s the problem: When later it is revealed that Norton’s character and Pitt’s character are one and the same, the poetry of that initial scene is ruined. Because what really happened? What really happened is that Norton’s character slugged himself in the face. Is that testing yourself? Really? Is that engaging in a spiritual war? I don’t think so. And I hate to nitpick, but it also calls into question how Fight Club evolved into a duel sport. Remember: when those guys run over to watch two guys brawling behind the bar, eventually joining in, what they are really running over to watch is one guy pummeling himself. Can you imagine seeing that and wanting to join the movement? It doesn’t make sense.

Brew: Ebert makes an interesting case, but I find him to be over-the-top in his condemnation of the violence, which he refers to as “the most brutal, unremitting, nonstop violence ever filmed.” Really? Was it that extreme? I know the concern is the target audience and how they might react, but I don’t recall chaos breaking out when the movie was released. To echo your point, one of my contentions is the conscious decision to single out this movie while giving a free pass to something that has at least a comparable level of violence: Pulp Fiction or Natural Born Killers, for example, both of which he gave four stars. I think the thing you have to consider and that’s easy to overlook is that Tyler Durden doesn’t represent the sole voice of the movie. The movie’s message isn’t exclusively tied to his philosophizing.

That said, you referred to this movie as “macho porn”? Don’t you think that’s being a little harsh? Are you saying that solely because you see the violence as sleazy? Because when you throw out a word like porn – despite Jack Horner’s objections, by the way – you’re basically saying this is beneath serious consideration. It’s a freak show! Let me go a step further and ask you if you feel a director has a moral obligation to take into account the viewer’s intelligence level and propensity for violence before they release a film? Certain topics are taboo, but other than the obvious, does that responsibility exist in this day and age? And, if so, who’s to judge?

I think you have to ask if those scenes with Norton and Pitt are meant to be taken literally, and I mean that aside from the obvious: Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden doesn't exist. I'm not suggesting that I have an answer for you or that you don't get it, but we don't really know how much of this movie is playing out in Norton's character’s mind. If you specifically examine the scene that you mentioned where they have their first fight, then, yes, it's pretty difficult to argue how that could make any sense. And I can see how that would taint your view of the movie. I have questions of my own: Who is actually driving the limo when it crashes? And how does a self-inflicted gunshot wound rid Norton’s character of Tyler's presence?

Let me ask you one final question before we move on: I'm curious to know if you actually enjoyed the movie up until the end and it was only in retrospect, when you knew you'd been deceived and put the pieces together, that the film failed you? You stated that you could have bought into Fight Club if its foundation was concrete. To be more specific, I want to know if everything we've discussed as far as the content was still acceptable up until the point where you knew that the plot just didn't add up in a homogeneous, conventional format.

JB: I’m glad you asked. I can’t say that the movie lost me toward the end, because it never really had me. I was mostly engaged in the first act, by the quest of Norton’s character to feel. And that carried me through the inception of Fight Club, which is an extension of that quest. But the film lost me soon after that with the transition into Project Mayhem, which extends the men-discovering-manliness theme of Fight Club but not so much the theme of Norton’s character discovering himself. As of that point, Fight Club becomes a different film, and from the very beginning Project Mayhem didn’t ring true for me. Tyler Durden is constantly talking about breaking free of societal expectations, about rediscovering your true self. He doesn’t use those words. He talks about not being a “consumer,” about blocking out the lies of television and marketing campaigns. But what does Project Mayhem do? It takes the “strongest and smartest men who ever lived,” who were “squandering” their lives pumping gas or as white collar “slaves,” and it turns them into drones. Instead of bowing to the marketing machine and materialism, these guys bow to Tyler and anarchy. And, yes, they appear to be releasing some pent up frustrations, but I’m not sure I can get myself to believe that they’re truly happy.

Now, defenders of Fight Club say that such contradictions are at the heart of why the film is a cautionary tale. Tyler’s method doesn’t work, they note. He has to be killed in the end. Etcetera. But does the film actually condemn Tyler? I’m not so sure. Instead, Edward Norton’s character merely regains control of himself. The film ends with Norton’s line to Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla: “You met me at a very strange time in my life.” As he says the words, skyscrapers implode and tumble around him. Is this destruction all in his head, or is it real? Assuming it’s real, what’s the message? Is it that every now and then men have to rage against the machine to remember who they are?

My point is that Fight Club seems to celebrate Tyler’s influence even in the moments it condemns it. Considering myself a thoughtful and relatively intelligent moviegoer, I see Fight Club as a contradiction (those previously mentioned split-personality plot holes are actually irrelevant to this feeling). The film makes me think, in the sense that it makes me try to figure out what the fuck it’s trying to tell me. But Fight Club offered me no epiphanies and, beyond the first act, I didn’t identify with it (which isn’t to say that I don’t understand how someone could). Frankly, in each of my three viewings I’ve found it to be boring, because I think it’s empty at its core. I think Fight Club is selling an image as much as the IKEA catalogs that it condemns.

Do filmmakers have a “moral obligation to take into account a viewer’s intelligence level”? Well, we could ramble about that topic for days. In short, I don’t think filmmakers have a moral obligation to do anything. To reference another genre, I have no idea why people want to see the so-called “torture porn” flicks like Saw and Hostel, but I have no objection to the films being made. Not every movie needs to be deep. Not every movie needs to be true. Not every movie needs to uplift us and bring us together. And, this is key, not every movie needs to be overt with either its plot points or philosophies. Over the years, movies have so repeatedly dumbed down their content – beating us over the head with the obvious – that they have created dumb moviegoers, the kind of people who can’t pick up on the more-than-subtle clues to determine the fate of Carla Jean in No Country For Old Men because they don’t actually see Anton Chigurh put a shotgun to her head.

However: If Fight Club’s primary intent is to serve as a cautionary tale, then it seems to me that it needs to be consistent and clear in its messaging. Otherwise it’s like a politician showing up at a campaign rally without a public address system: you’ve got an audience, but only a small portion is likely to hear you, and the rest will come away only half-informed. That Fight Club at times seems so at odds with itself suggests to me that its primary intent isn’t to be a cautionary tale or a biting satire. So is it pure absurdist comedy? I didn’t laugh enough. Is it suspense? I didn’t feel the tension. Is it a love story? I enjoy the hell out of Helena Bonham Carter, like I always do, but Marla’s relationship with Norton’s character serves to illustrate his state of mind. It’s not the heart of the film.

So that brings me back to the “macho porn” label. I think it applies first and foremost because Fight Club is literally about rediscovering manhood. Tyler makes “hunter-gatherer” references and John Wayne Bobbitt allusions, threatens to castrate people who stand in his way and organizes a club where guys roll around shirtless (it’s even one of the rules) and beat one another up. It’s self-discovery through self-destruction rather than self-improvement, Tyler makes clear. It’s all about being a tough guy, a Man in that most primal, sexual sense. Tyler rants as if he wants to get Norton’s character to think, but in reality thought gets in the way of Tyler’s objectives. Heck, thought is what leads to Tyler’s demise. Yet it’s as if Norton’s character must fuck the world and release his pent up aggression before he can have that moment of post-orgasmic mental clarity. Fight Club, like porn, is about male domination and visceral animalism. Hence “macho porn.” If that’s reductive, so be it. Underneath the acting (Norton, Pitt and Bonham Carter are terrific) and the pop culture wittiness, I think that’s all Fight Club is.

And so here is my question for you: When the buildings fall and Norton’s character has that last moment with Marla and offers that curious closing line (“You met me at a very strange time in my life”), what did you feel when you first saw the movie, as best you can remember? And, having watched it recently, what are your feelings now? Does Fight Club still work for you as it did then? Is it more? Is it less?

Brew: I tend to lose interest when Project Mayhem is launched, but only because the focus shifts away from Tyler and more toward Norton’s character. And I do agree that it has an impact on Norton’s character’s development. But isn’t Norton’s character’s quest to track down Tyler a continuation of his self-discovery and the duality of his character? Isn’t he learning more about himself and who he really is right up until we hit the changeover, and then continuing on even after that? I also see a transition inspired by Project Mayhem away from that manliness theme that you refer to. It’s only when the project begins that the “drones,” as you call them, finally have an outlet other than brawling in a basement. They’re starting to get organized.

Tyler could be defined as a socialist in the sense that he‘s trying to redefine the class structure and unite the proletariat, but I don’t think he’s calling for total anarchy, I think he’s leading organized revolution. He’s trying to affect change with the tools at hand. Remember that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist first and a communist second. What does this have to do with Fight Club? Who’s to say what could have happened if the film had a fourth act? If you recall the scene where Tyler holds up the convenience store, his goal is to shock and awe the guy into moving forward with his life and to accomplish his goals (albeit at gunpoint), but that shows he is a proponent of self-accomplishment and future achievement.

Tyler is killed in the end because he’s no longer needed. When those buildings blow up, the revolution has begun. That’s assuming that it’s actually taking place. Maybe Norton’s character’s transformation is complete. His Jekyll & Hyde battle has run its course. He needed Tyler to orchestrate his plan and serve as the catalyst for Project Mayhem because he wasn’t capable of getting to that point on his own. Sometimes we have to do things that are dictated by circumstance that under most conditions we normally wouldn’t be able to accomplish. Or maybe I’m just making shit up?

Funny. I simply cannot stand Marla. Every time she’s on screen, I find that I’m waiting for the next scene. But to answer your question, I don’t know what Fight Club is supposed to be. And for that matter, I don’t know what Donnie Darko is supposed to be either. I’m sure if you’re smart enough, you can argue for it to be whatever you’d like it to be. But, in my opinion, that’s what’s compelling about it. It makes you think. Is that worth it if you’re never going to be able to add it all up in the end? I’m not sure. I guess that depends on the individual.

I remember my initial reaction to the final scene very well. I asked the person next to me, “Who the fuck sings that song?” Maybe that's telling. Honestly, I didn't know what had just happened and what it all meant. I focused more on the parts that I liked and didn't try to comprehend the movie as a whole. Since then, I've seen it countless times and I've read the book. The book is more confusing to me than the movie.

I have to be honest and admit that my perception of Fight Club has changed after a recent viewing. It certainly didn't strike the same chord in me that it did nearly 10 years ago. As I've mentioned, I was drawn toward that voyage of self-discovery Norton’s character attempts to take. But, now, the reasoning to go down that path just doesn't appeal to me as much. I certainly don't feel that same need to reinvent my life. That's not to say that I've reached a complete state of contentment, but I don't admire the recklessness anymore.

JB: To answer your previous question, with all due respect, I think you’re making shit up. We agree on why Tyler is killed in the end: Norton’s character doesn’t need him anymore. Tyler dies because Norton’s character wins and takes control of himself. Thus, Tyler loses. All of that makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is what Tyler’s revolution has to do with Norton’s character’s self-discovery. That hold-up? In reality that’s Norton’s character who is holding a gun to the guy’s head. So let’s recap: Norton’s character is learning to feel, learning to embrace and then battle his alter-ego and starting a revolution in which he’s a “proponent of self-accomplishment and future achievement.” It’s a little much for me, and I’m sure I’m leaving something out.

Sure, you could read this film a number of ways. But does that make it intricate or just convoluted? Does that mean it’s about a lot of things or nothing at all? Project Mayhem isn’t a move away from macho pursuits. It’s a move away from brawling toward outright terrorism. I’d argue that Tyler may not really care about all the things he claims to. I think it’s one giant ego trip. Tyler even says it: “Self-improvement is masturbation.” And, well, by the time Norton’s character has finished pleasuring himself, he may feel fulfilled, but I sure didn’t.

I must say, however, that I found the film more interesting upon my latest viewing than on my previous ones. It’s a fascinating time capsule of pre-9/11 America, when men were indeed without a big war in which to prove themselves (if that was their calling), when presidential blow jobs could be considered the nation’s biggest problem, when, in essence, men had the room to bitch about such trivial things. Make Fight Club today and the violence that sparked controversy would be entirely overlooked. It’s the endorsement (at whatever level) of terrorism and the falling buildings that would generate outrage.

Proponents of the film like to compare Fight Club to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. That works for me: Like Fight Club, A Clockwork Orange is a finely acted piece in which the sum is less than the value of its parts. Both films are visceral, thought-provoking and potentially dangerous to audiences who accept them at face value. I’m drawn to aspects of both films, but I can leave them as a whole. I’ve tried to “get” Fight Club, tried to feel its appeal. But I can’t. And after three viewings, maybe the most damning thing I can say about it is that I don’t care. I’m not even outraged. I’m indifferent.

Those are my final thoughts. What are yours?

Brew: You know, I've found it hard to advocate for this film with someone who dislikes it, because, as is evident from my last post, I don't always know exactly what I'm arguing for. To suggest that I did would be to imply that I fully understand it, and I don't. All I can say is that for me the film inspires with its message that there is more out there than the continuous uniformity of everyday routine. That’s what I identified with when I first saw it, and I think it still holds true. To identify with something at a certain point in your life, for whatever reason, isn't necessarily a bad thing, even if years later one’s perspectives change. In my opinion, even if I don't see Fight Club the same way I did in my early 20s, that doesn't undercut the film's worth. But having said that, I’ll now obey the first rule of Fight Club.

JB: Ah, yes. “Do not talk about Fight Club.” A fitting motto for a film that becomes less the more one looks into it. Thanks, Brew.

Cooler readers, what say you?

1 comment:

Thaís said...

I read the whole thing and I have to say I'm so relieved to have found someone who has the same opinion about this movie as I do. You expressed my thoughts exactly on this movie, Jason.
I don't know what else to say, since you already said it all.
But thank you very much for posting this. I googled "fight club contradictions" to see if I could find someone with a similar opinion to mine, and found someone with the exact same one.

I will definitely read other posts from your blog, for I have now become a fan.

Sorry if there are any mistakes, I understand english much better than I can express myself in it, for I'm from Brazil.