Saturday, March 21, 2015
Putting the "list" in "miserablist"! (or, the films of David Fincher ranked, no. 4)
Spoiler alert: I am Jack's review of a widely-seen zeitgeist hit now approaching sixteen years old
The crisis in our civilization is recognized, and it is answered with pointless violence, political terrorism, and a totalitarian personality cult led by a delusional psychotic who could not be any more obviously mentally unwell. Well, OK smarty-pants. Do you have any better ideas?
The first thing to point out about Fight Club—something that, seriously, isn't pointed out enough—is that it has a brain damagingly goofy twist ending. In case you've somehow never seen the GREATEST FILM OF OUR LIFETIME, or whatever, I'll give you one last chance to bail, but assuming that you have (as seems the likelier case), consider this: Fight Club is a movie about how an intoxicated man found beating the shit out of himself was anointed by his witnesses as the inspired prophet of our age, whose words branded their souls like the fiery commands of God Himself. I encourage all of you to try this, and—if they'll let you use the Internet—tell me how it works out.
Fight Club's is the kind of nonsense that would sink any lesser movie. It helps that by the time the bomb is dropped, Fight Club has told you a dozen times that our narrator, traditionally called "Jack," and his best bud/nemesis, Tyler Durden, are one and the same man. But the real reason it works is David Fincher, and his command over the hyperreality of what remains his most culturally important movie. (No one writes treatises on Benjamin Button. One hopes.)
I have no desire to write a treatise of my own on Fight Club. Many have done so already, spilling far more ten-cent words than I ever could upon the subject. Their work can be perused by those with more patience for cataloging phallic/vaginal imagery. (I do, however, remain amused by the Calvin and Hobbes interpretation.) In sum, Fight Club can, at once, be read as masculinist, as feminist, as anarchist, and as Marxist (which is my preferred interpretation—why, look at Tyler's state just wither away in that final scene!). Of course, taken on a purely literal level, Fight Club is only one scene with a Jesuit away from a movie about demonic possession. Jack's been taken over by the Dick Monster.
What can't be denied is that Fight Club smashed its way into the new millennium with a power beyond its ambivalent ideological prescriptions. It asks the right questions, even if Tyler himself is, at best, a very problematic answer. These questions have become more pointed in the intervening years—what good is the rigid social hierarchy we've inherited when it seems to exist solely to destroy people's sense of self? what good is a "growing" economy when all it does make us serfs? what good are "masculine" values in a domesticated world, other than just another arbitrary status marker in the primate society we've called "civilization"? what good is the plan we were given, if we followed it to the letter and we're still not happy? These are the questions that plague our sleepless nights today as insistently as they did Jack's back in 1999.
And honestly, it's no surprise that the satire was sometimes lost. There are attractive aspects to Jack and Tyler's Fight Clubs, after all—even to Project Mayhem itself. This is no accident: Fight Club wouldn't function without being tempting. In regards the Fight Clubs, they're a place where men can express their anger about the world, physically and directly and in an emotionally safe arena, that has no rigid hierarchy, few immutable status markers, and no connection to the wider world of women and sexual competition. The only problem is Marla Singer, who keeps ruining Jack's blood-lubed masturbatory fantasy. (Naturally, homosexuality exists in Fight Club only as innuendo.) To be sure, I'm only saying that I comprehend the appeal of the Fight Clubs far more than I presently share it—it is, at bottom, about hiding from the world rather than participating in it. But do the math: I first saw Fight Club when I was 18. I won't pretend I was so mature that its surfaces failed to be more exciting than its substance. (Nostalgia colors my opinion of the film even now—luckily, the sentiment isn't too misplaced.)
In regards Project Mayhem, I'm even less judgmental if you "didn't get it." The film evinces its own contempt for its warped Hero's Journey clearly, but it's not absolutely necessary to pay attention to it. Fight Club suggests, tongue firmly in cheek, that we dedicate ourselves to a violent overthrow of the system, and Tyler's anarchist "ideology" is largely too blank (and what isn't blank is largely too dumb) to inspire anyone directly. If all you want out of Project Mayhem is just another intoxicating power fantasy of taking on the world at the head of a disciplined, committed, and (above all) anonymous army, it's there to be enjoyed. It has about as much relation to the realities of revolution as Red Squadron's anti-social activity does in Star Wars, but Fight Club can be credited with this: it blew up capitalism's Death Star long before it was cool. And the rousing finale of the film is even more satisfying as wish-fulfillment today than it was then.
(Interestingly, for all the complaints about Fight Club's violence and nihilism, literally only a single non-imaginary person dies in the picture—his name was Robert Paulson, and he was killed by cops, 2015's very favorite people. Tyler's coup de coeur against international finance is a scrupulously bloodless one, more than you would expect from a terrorist whose utopian plan is a return to the Neolithic, with the ensuing massive dieback I assume he realizes this would cause.)
There are more specific aspects of Fight Club that have aged just terribly. Jack is sad, because he has a fulltime job; society is sick, because it need not struggle for material goods; men have become soft, because of our purchasing power. Viewing Fight Club in 2015 can be bitterly hilarious. For example, it is all but impossible today not to laugh at Tyler's line, "our Great Depression is our lives." In fairness, Tyler—1990s down to the bone, and spokesman for everything eye-rolling about Generation X—couldn't have known our Great Depression would be, in fact, the Second Great Depression.
There are other moments when Fight Club is just kind of a mess even without the hindsight of the Future. Marla Singer is exactly this—a non-character that only has life in comparison to the other non-characters (Fight Club is pretty purely a two-hander), and because Helena Bonham Carter gives such a vivid performance that it's easy not to notice that Marla's as ridiculous as Tyler, with a lot less narrative excuse.
Or, when Jack sneers at a Calvin Klein ad, "Is that what a real man looks like?"—literally thirty seconds before a young Brad Pitt with immaculately unkempt hair takes off his shirt, displaying an even more impossibly sculpted physique. This is either incredibly off-message—or kind of brilliant, given that Tyler is a projection of Jack's mind, and thus exactly how Tyler describes himself, "look[ing] like you wanna look, fuck[ing] like you wanna fuck," and so forth.
You can't discuss Fight Club without discussing that casting. Just as 1999 was the perfect moment for this story to be filmed, 1999 was the perfect moment to find the perfect actor for the role of Tyler. I say this with all the respect due to Ed Norton, and to Norton's star power, such as it is. Indeed, as Jack, he's almost too good: if Norton could ever have been Tyler Durden, Fincher gives us too little with Norton as Tyler to see it. This must be intentional—it might've been a pretty serious mistake to ask the audience to immediately compare the two. Given Norton's smug, prickly, even unpleasant screen presence, identifying Norton as Tyler would be hard already, and especially when Norton has been playing to the worst of Jack the entire film, swinging from passive-aggressive twerp to out-of-control hyperviolent crybaby as each scene demanded. Even in a movie as heightened as Fight Club, what actor could have taken Jack as written, and then embodied the charisma of Tyler Durden?
That's why it's to Fight Club's great advantage that Tyler is played instead by Pitt, beginning after several years of being a prettyboy to actually develop the talent and the judgment that would make him one of the most vibrant performers of his generation. He'd previously had missteps in managing his career. He'd have some more—every few years, Pitt would fall into the trap of believing himself a great actor. Eventually, he actually became one, evidently out of sheer perseverance. This transformation had not occured prior to Meet Joe Black, his previous, terrible film, and, no, it didn't happen here. But Fight Club doesn't need Pitt, the Actor, anyway. It deploys Pitt, the Persona: the hot hotness just too damn good-looking to be perceived as acutely mentally ill, possessed of all the chummy, dictatorial authority of that best friend you know is cooler than you—and, obviously, nothing could be more ideal for Tyler. The result is Pitt's iconic role and, though I cannot speak with encyclopedic certainty, I'm terribly comfortable calling it the best performance in a career not sparse with good ones.
Consider: almost every last one of Tyler Durden's lines are immature expressions of a spurious philosophy, twisting self-help language into revolutionary jargon. (And the remainder of his lines are meta-jokes, e.g. "You are now firing a gun at your imaginary friend near 400 gallons of nitroglycerine!") Yet there is not a single word Brad Pitt says in this movie that isn't compelling. More than on any other point, Fight Club is damningly precise in its dissection of how much more personality matters in human affairs than ideas ever have. It is discomforting indeed, imagining Russell Crowe bellowing his way through Fight Club instead.
But more than even that towering performance, Fight Club is its tone. That's where the filmmaking comes in. Jim Uhls' script is already a triumphant adaptation, in that—unlike the book—you can actually look at it without tossing it across the room. The movie's cinematic achievement is making this script sing. The only reason I can't say "Fight Club is the most stylishly grotesque thing Fincher ever did" is because, you know, he's David Fincher.
It was his first collaboration with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, and he films the sweat and blood with a verve approaching the reverent, reflecting Jack's initial seduction—and the whole film is so dirty you can practically smell the pheromones wafting off the thing. It doesn't hurt, either, that champion production designer Alex McDowell prepares sets, particularly the Paper Street house, that look biologically hazardous for the actors to have even set foot on, let alone worked on for hours under Fincher's perfectionist direction. Fight Club's design is so strong that the really amazing part is that it's not even McDowell's best work. (Let's not forget costume designer Michael Kaplan, either, who employs his time machine to raid the coolest, gayest dumpsters of many eras to realize Tyler's mesmerizing wearable collage.)
Fincher brings it all together. However nasty and unhinged, Fight Club is his most overtly comedic effort. He wants you to understand the message, but Fincher has more fun wallowing in his movie's filth than any decent-hearted filmmaker could have. It shares with his best work the glorification of the fucked-up. Fincher's joy wouldn't be this patent for another fifteen years, and he would never attempt to recapture the same formalistic mania of Fight Club. It must break the fourth wall half a dozen times. It is comprised, going on about twenty percent, of bizarre visual tangents. Its editing scheme represents the jagged discontinuity of insomnia and nightmares alike, without ever coming close to being too awful about it. Its final action sequence involves the nearly-supernatural horror of Jack's impotence before Tyler, presented as a pastiche of kung fu cliches. And it very nearly literally ends on a shot of a cock, presumably only half-hard because a tumescence appropriate to Jack's weird victory would have entailed an automatic NC-17. I cannot in good conscience say that it is a completely unique film—it is far too identifiable with the 1990s indie crime-and-comedy movement to call it singular. But Fight Club would have to be on the very shortest list of that decade's most memorable movies, even if taste may prevent you from ever calling it one of its best. Take my girlfriend: she hates this fucking movie and hadn't seen it in ten years, yet could still quote half the script. Maybe it's no special snowflake, but Fight Club is something other than your ordinary film.
David Fincher's miserable list, by year:
Alien 3 (1992)
The Game (1997)
Fight Club (1999)
Panic Room (2002)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Social Network (2010)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Gone Girl (2014)
David Fincher's miserable list, by rank:
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
9. Alien 3 (1992)
8. Panic Room (2002)
7. The Game (1997)
6. The Social Network (2010)
5. Zodiac (2007)
4. Fight Club (1999)
3. Seven (1995)
2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
1. Gone Girl (2014)