November 22, 2009

Fight Club - 10th Anniversary: One of my all time favorite films, being re-released... here's a review

On the occasion of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s fifth repackaging of Fight Club, let us all take a moment to appreciate corporate irony. “The things you own end up owning you,” says Tyler Durden, Fight Club’s anti-materialist anti-hero. But now you too can own Fight Club in a brand-new, 10th Anniversary Blu-ray edition! Oddly enough, it's worth owning: David Fincher’s brilliant adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s cult novels remains one of the seminal films of the 1990s.

A lightning rod, Fincher's film briefly tapped the zeitgeist (in a series of op-ed articles over a #1 box-office weekend), then just as suddenly tanked, failing to turn a profit from domestic receipts. But when the film hit DVD, it steadily built its reputation as an unappreciated masterwork of cinema at the turn of the millennium. Now an evergreen cult movie in midnight screenings and home video reissues, Fight Club remains a signifier of Fincher’s influential visual style (painted in shadows and sickly green) and a postmodern “violence chic” that, intentionally or not, rubs off of Fincher’s work (including Se7en). Arguably all that was distinctive and influential in ’90s cinema can be located in Fincher’s sleek, meticulous visual design and Quentin Tarantino’s restless, culture-savvy verbiage. Both filmmakers spawned bratty cinematic offspring (Brett Ratner, anyone? Joe Carnahan and his craptastic Smokin’ Aces?). Like the hero of Fight Club, the now-middle-aged Fincher is still deciding the man he wants to be, but this film proved he has the potential to be his generation’s Kubrick if he can be patient enough to find and nuture the right material.

Just as in Palahniuk's 1996 novel, the film follows an unnamed protagonist, a modern Everyman plagued by a spirit-deadening existence of hermetically sealed apartment living and meaningless labor in corporate cubicle culture (like "space monkeys," the men of Fight Club "do the little job [they're] trained to do"). Wittily played by Edward Norton, this bitter insomniac seeks personal uplift from support group meetings for people with potentially fatal diseases; the faker meets his match when he encounters a woman named Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), absurdly present in his weekly testicular cancer support group. With his protagonist, Palahniuk reflected the existential "masculinity crisis" later codified by Susan Faludi in her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male. Tired of his powerlessness and being judged against what Faludi called "ornamental culture," Norton’s sad-sack functionary feels his oats by following a new role model into a funhouse version of Robert Bly’s men’s movement—one that is at once appealing, comical and sinister.

This archetypal male leader-by-example is Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), and the movement is Fight Club. As played by Pitt, Tyler Durden is a bitingly funny caricature of 20th Century masculine cool. He's everything a young man wants to be, or at least thinks he wants to be: free, uninhibited, sexy, revolutionary, counter-cultural, and—above all, behind the driver's wheel. Similarly, young men of Generations X and Y see in Fight Club itself a rare, authentic representation of themselves: not as slackers but as disappointed drones. Masses of children of divorce or deadbeat dads (what Tyler pegs as “a generation of men raised by women”) gravitate for guidance to the fantasies of media, embodied by Pitt’s buff, gleefully violent, quick-witted, take-charge sex god (the opposite of emasculated follower "Big Bob," well played by Meatloaf).

As for the underground Fight Club, men find an existence that upends their mind-numbing "working for the Man"—with each Zen-like knock to the head, they feel pain, but also feel alive and present, engaged and challenged to discover who they truly are. They're also giving an outlet to their bottled anger against a family they didn't choose: an unholy trinity of Dad, "God," and Big Brother. Feeling displaced in post-feminist culture, the lost boys of Fight Club bond, but also—like William Golding’s lads in Lord of the Flies—roughhouse their way into fascism, as Fight Club escalates into a lockstep anarchist terrorist group called Project Mayhem. The center will not hold as the taste of power corrupts and as brotherhood curdles into mob mentality, exercising instead of exorcising counter-cultural rage.

Some thoughtless critics took Fight Club too literally and too selectively, reading it as some sort of endorsement of Tyler's plan to destroy the towers of corporate culture from the ground level (never mind the tragicomic stupidity and waste of human life Norton's character decries in Project Mayhem). In the end, the hero learns he must be his own man and own his own pain instead of chasing the dream of power and control. He must, as Tyler once counseled him, "hit bottom" before he can rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes to forge real relationships and imperfectly but honorably make his way through society. Ten years on, Fight Club remains just as darkly funny, epic, and psychically wrenching as ever. It's the perfect movie, I love it in every way.

139 min. Director: David Fincher. Cast: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Michael Lee Loaf, Zach Grenier, Richmond Arquette, Jared Leto.

1 comment:

rakeback said...

The chemistry between Brad Pitt and Edward Norton was really strong, and the surprise ending was as shocking as The Sixth Sense. This movie is a classic!