Fight Club [DVD]
Screenplay : Jim Uhls (based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Edward Norton (Narrator), Brad Pitt (Tyler Durden), Helena Bonham Carter (Marla Singer), Meat Loaf (Robert Paulson), Jared Leto (Angel Face), Zach Grenier (Boss), Eion Bailey (Ricky)
If were not based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, I would have assumed that David Fincher's "Fight Club" was a nightmarish extension of feminist author Susan Faldui's recent book, "Stiffed." In "Stiffed," Faludi argues that the working man has been betrayed by American culture. Living in a postmodern word of increasing automation that no longer idealizes the codes of manhood that characterized their fathers' generation, today's men are left adrift and feeling disillusioned and angry. And, as Faludi points out, too many of them are lashing out violently in an effort to regain some kind of control in their lives.
"Fight Club" is about just that: how a group of men use violence to overcome their feelings of alienation at the end of the 20th century. In "Stiffed," Faludi notes that much of this violence turns into spousal abuse; in "Fight Club," the violence is not gender-specific. It is universal, and it is terrifying in its unstoppable expansion. If there is one argument that comes out clearly in "Fight Club," it is the notion the violence knows no bounds. What starts out as a secret club of men beating each to bloody pulps in a basement, slowly (and logically) morphs into a terrorist organization that brings about a literal apocalypse at the end of the film.
Of course, with the recent debate swirling about media violence, it was inevitable that "Fight Club" would run into major resistance. Is it fascist? Does it argue that violence is a legitimate means of dealing with social ills and personal frustration? Is it a misogynistic, anti-consumerist rant against American culture that cries for the destruction of the capitalistic superstructure?
Of course it is, but only because some people will read those ideas into it. At the same time, others will see it as a warning sign, an allegorical means of arguing against violence as a natural extension of male aggression. The movie's naturalist imperative that men are animals in a cruel environment and they will eventually react in violent ways is both a call to arms and a waving peace sign. "Fight Club" is a blank slate just waiting for all kinds of hyperbolic interpretations, and they are already flying from all sides.
My contention is that "Fight Club" is a warning sign, a fin de siecle nightmare of what is waiting at the end of the road on which we are currently travelling. Like Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," much of it unfolds in a chronic dream-state. Fincher's cool, calculated visual style works marvels with Jeff Cronenweth's eerie, bruised cinematography. Like "Seven" (1995), another of Fincher's unnerving looks at society gone mad, "Fight Club" gets under your skin with its brooding tone and general relentlessness. It's a dark cloud always threatening to break into a major storm.
"Fight Club" introduces us to the unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton), a man who is so bored with his white-collar job and his mail-order high-rise condo (he looks at Ikea catalogs and wonders what dinner set defines him as person), that he has sunk into a state of perpetual insomnia. Unable to sleep but never truly awake, he finds alleviation only in sitting through 12-step programs and crying on the shoulders of those who are even worse off than he is.
On a plane, the Narrator meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a grungy agitator who awakens the Narrator's inner nihilist. When his condo mysteriously explodes (an almost literal enactment of Marx's call to dispense with worldly possessions), the Narrator takes up residence with Tyler in the dirty squalor of a dilapidated house in an deserted industrial park. Together, they start a group called Fight Club, in which disillusioned men beat each other up in the hopes of awakening something inside. In a world of no feeling, Tyler argues for the necessity of pain. Bare-chested and bare-knuckled, businessmen, busboys, and bikers duke it out on the equal playing field of a dimly lit basement, and every drop of blood spilled and bone cracked is a wake-up call.
Unfortunately, as the movie argues, it cannot simply end there. Fight Club is not an answer in and of itself; instead, it is a first step toward something larger and much more dangerous. Violence cannot be contained in a basement; it is addictive, and it breaks out. Soon, Tyler is running a paramilitary cult, with the members of Fight Club begging to be initiated into terrorist activities. The Narrator recognizes the downward spiral, but of course, by this point it is too late. Violence is a living, breathing entity in "Fight Club," and it cannot be stopped until it reaches its logical conclusion.
Because of this, "Fight Club" is an infinitely disturbing movie. Fincher has described it as a black comedy, but I know he knows better. This is movie that sears the nerves, that immediately draws a line in the dirt and demands that you stand on one side or the other. It is troubling in its ambiguity, but at the same time, this is the point from which the film draws its power.
Some critics have argued that most audiences will not catch the film's philosophical musings, and will instead relish the violence and attempt to repeat it. But, that's the key--violence is attractive, and Fincher knows it. Watching Norton pound one of his competitors (Jared Leto) into a bloody, toothless mess is both revolting and exhilarating. How many members of the audience have someone in mind to whom they would love to do that?
Fincher is tapping into a primal instinct that is becoming more and more pronounced as the years go by. It's almost as if the film is arguing that we are moving past civilization and into a more naturalistic mode of existence. The more society becomes automated and consumer-oriented, the more need we have to reach into ourselves and pull out the original animal that we have been repressing. It's the classic Freduian notion of the return of the repressed taken to the nth degree.
Pitt and Norton are both excellent in their roles. Norton was an especially inspired choice because, more than any other actor I can think of, he has the ability to project both complete weakness and utter strength. Just look at his first major role as an accused murderer in "Primal Fear" (1996): in one instant he could turn from a whimpering, dim-witted alter boy to a rampaging maniac.
Pitt has by now perfected the art of being repulsively dirty and entrancing charismatic at the same time (see his performance in "Kalifornia" , still his best role to date). Pitt is the movie's anchor because he makes Tyler Durden into the kind of person who others would follow; when we see his house filled with young men dressed in black with shaved heads ready to destroy buildings for him, we don't doubt it for a second.
And, as the movie's lone female, Helena Bonham Carter does wonders as Marla Singer, a depressed hanger-on who becomes involved in Tyler and the Narrator's lives, and severely complicates the film's all-male dynamic.
Fincher brings all this together in a film that is, much like Tyler Durden himself, at once repulsive and oddly attractive. From a sharp (if somewhat overlong) screenplay by Jim Uhls, Fincher ties all the discordant threads together into a harrowing experience. The movie doesn't have a clean narrative, and much of it is filled with jagged flashbacks, sarcastic narration, creepy fantasy sequences, and mind-bending computer animation.
Fincher pours on the stylistic flourishes, and instead of drowning the film, they simply give it a feeling of excess, much like what the characters are feeling. If the film falters, it is in a major plot revelation near the end that completely alters what has happened for the first two hours. Instead of adding another layer of meaning, this plot trickery feels tacked on and unnecessary, especially since the film would arguably work just as well if not better without it. Still, even with this stumbling block, "Fight Club" is an unforgettable experience that will likely (and unforunately) become more and more prophetic as time goes on.
"Fight Club" is available in a nicely packaged two-disc special edition that is especially notable for being the first to include THX OptiMode test signals to help the viewers calibrate the audio and video on their home theater systems.
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; Dolby 2.0 Surround
Languages: English, French
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Four screen-specific audio commentaries; theatrical trailers; TV spots; public service announcements; video background on production, visual effects, and location shooting; seven deleted scenes/outtakes; conceptual art and storyboards; still gallery with lobby cards; advertising materials; press kit; transcript of Edward Norton interview; Dust Brothers music video; cast & crew biographies; THX OptiMode test signals; 20-page booklet
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Video: The THX-certified anamorphic transfer of "Fight Club" is spectacular. The entire film is exceptionally dark, with heavy black shadows and underlit scenes in basements and alleys (you may feel the urge to crank up the brightness control on your monitor--don't, this is how the film is supposed to look). However, dark as the picture is, detail level is always high, and even blackest parts of the screen are sharp. The film's look also includes a great deal of contrast, but there is no distortion or pixelation to be found. The colors are rich and deeply saturated without bleeding, and flesh tones are natural.
Audio: The Dolby 5.1 surround is one of the best I have heard in terms of aggressive use of the surround channels; this is a film that truly envelops the viewer in a three-dimensional sound environment. For a good example, check out the pounding effectiveness of the plane crash fantasy sequence--you can feel the plane's fuselage being ripped apart from the left side of the room to the right. The soundtrack has great directionality and makes ample use of off-screen sounds, such as voices and footsteps. The LFE channel is also put to good use, as there are numerous scenes that are given intense atmosphere through a deep, steady rumbling.
Extras: Combined with the "Alien Legacy" box set and "The Abyss: Special Edition," this "Fight Club" DVD marks Fox Home Video's ambitious bid to be the front-runner in terms of who produces the best special edition DVDs. Nicely packaged in a slick tri-fold case inside a slip jacket and containing a 20-page booklet that combines quotes of praise with quotes of damnation (Kenneth Turan's derisive review from "The Los Angeles Times" is quoted extensively), this DVD is a complete package. It contains four (count 'em, four) separate screen-specific audio commentaries: the first is with director David Fincher; on the second, Fincher is joined by actors Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter; the third is with novelist Chuck Palahniuk and screenwriter Jim Uhls; and the fourth is with production designer Alex McDowell, director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, costume designer Michael Kaplan, FX supervisor Kevin Haug, and animator Doc Bailey. As you can see, each commentary is geared toward a specific aspect of the film, and after listening to all four you will feel like you were involved in making the film yourself. Other worthwhile extras include short but thorough video segments on the visual effects and production design, as well as an extensive collection of conceptual art and storyboards. The video segments utilize the multi-angle button to allow you to see different stages of the process, and many of them have multiple audio commentaries. The usual theatrical trailers (including one that was never used) and TV spots are included, along with a couple of humorous "public service announcements" by Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. Another amusing extra is the original press kit, which takes the satirical form of a mail-order catalog. However, one of the most talked-about extras is the aforementioned THX OptiMode test signals. This is the first time a DVD has contained test signals to help calibrate the home viewing equipment (both audio and video). While it is not as extensive as stand-alone calibration discs, it is a nice addition and a positive sign that studios (at least Fox) understand how seriously many viewers take their home-viewing experience.
©1999,2000 James Kendrick