::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Ode to "Fight Club"

A Chaotic Ramble about the 1999 Film

All you really need to know about the movie “Fight Club” (1999) is that the nameless narrator, played by Edward Norton, has a penguin as his “power” animal.

That’s when you understand that you’re in uncharted territory.

“Fight Club” (1999) nears movie making perfection until the last 15 minutes when it veers off course and smashes into a brick wall of chaos. For all intents and purposes the last 15 minutes is a parody of the beginning and middle – a Keystone Kops version that features Norton scrambling around in his boxer shorts like some deranged circus clown.

It’s ludicrous.

But until that breaking point – the turning point happens when Meat Loaf is shot and the members of Project Mayhem begin to chant “His name is Robert Paulson” – the movie is a gritty, subversive portrayal of a disenchanted yuppie’s descent into madness. Or it might be about the cultural castration of the modern male. Or it could be about the seductive attraction of fascism in a valueless society. Or perhaps it’s a satire about our advertising-driven and consumer-mad culture.

Then again it might not be about anything.

“I love this idea that you can have fascism without offering any direction or solution. Isn't the point of fascism to say, 'This is the way we should be going'? But this movie couldn't be further from offering any kind of solution,” Director David Fincher told Empire magazine.

I like to believe it’s about all of the above – but in a skimming the surface kind of way. “Fight Club” is the shallow end of the pool, but in a good way. It’s all wry observation and ironic snipe – offering its audience a black, tangled comedy, but nothing in the way of a philosophy or an answer.

That’s why “Fight Club” gives audiences some of the best throwaway lines of the last two decades:

  • “We're consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.”
  • “It's just, when you buy furniture, you tell yourself, that's it. That's the last sofa I'm gonna need. Whatever else happens, I've got that sofa problem handled.”
  • “I had it all. Even the glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections, proof they were crafted by the honest, simple, hard-working indigenous peoples of... wherever.”

“Fight Club” is the rare movie that becomes better after multiple viewings. The reason is that once the surprise ending is revealed – that Norton and Brad Pitt are actually the same person – you can watch the movie over and over again searching for the telltale clues of the madness Norton is experiencing. It’s a dizzying experience (especially if you watch it on DVD). Flincher carefully constructs the narrative to drop subtle clues to Norton’s condition:

  • The movie opens with an animated sequence through brain synapses and the narrator saying: “People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden.” They’re asking him because he is Tyler.
  • When describing the bombs rigged to blow up the financial center in downtown New York, the narrator says: “I know this because Tyler know this.” They share the same brain.
  • In the DVD, we begin to see flickers of Tyler Durden – just flashes of Pitt decked out in red leather jacket and sunglasses, wearing a wicked grin. It’s the narrator’s mind beginning to form his delusion.
  • The first time Tyler becomes a “real” person is in an airport sequence when the narrator passes him on one of the people movers. Tyler is wearing a white suit and a bright yellow shirt. Such an innocent scene – yet mind blowing at the same time.
  • In the scene in his boss’s office, when the narrator beats himself up, he thinks: “For some reason, I thought of my first fight with Tyler.” In fact, his first fight with “Tyler” was his first fight with himself.

Strangely enough, the center of "Fight Club" is Helena Bonham Carter as Marla Singer. On the surface the movie is about the relationship between Norton and Pitt, but it's Carter's character that is the catalyst for the action. One can argue that Marla Singer is the model that Tyler Durden is created from.

The similarities are striking.

Both Marla and Tyler live on the outskirts of society. They are counter-culture and have rebelled against the mainstream. The first time the narrator meets Marla, she steals clothes from a Laundromat and sells them at second-hand store. The first time Tyler materializes into a “physical form” at the airport, he steals a sports car.

Marla is Tyler – or at least the masculine version of her.

There’s no doubt that “Fight Club” struck a nerve and has become a bona fide cult hit. And for the first hour and 48 minutes the movie cuts to the bone with its wit, humor and scathing social commentary. It’s that last 15 minutes though that comes close to nearly blowing the whole spectacle up: kind of like Tyler Durden himself.

Read "Fantastically Bad Cinema: Cocktail"

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