(United States, 1999, 139 minutes, color, 35mm)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
Fight Club is no club. It is a cult. It is men beating each other to blood-sodden pulps for nothing more than the existential thrill of it. Circling, dodging, feinting, and then striking for the face and the gut of their opponents, the Fight Clubbers seek a new, vital life by chancing their own death. The bloody imprint of their own crushed face on a concrete floor is their self-portrait.
The film’s unnamed narrator is played by Edward Norton, who goes through life as an imperfect chameleon, never fully comfortable either in the skin of a junior salary man, or an apprentice brownshirt in Fight Club. At first addicted to one kind of pain (the narrator serially joins support groups for diseases he’s never had), he soon becomes addicted to the explosive rituals of Fight Club. As he exchanges vicarious pain for the real thing, he begins to find the authenticity his life as a corporate drone had never allowed him. Norton’s face and manner is designed for this role. His is a bland and boyish visage, and he becomes a waxen, walking-around portrait of Dorian Gray, absorbing the joyous spirit of cruelty of Fight Club without much comment. Norton plays the narrator’s life as a cog in the corporate machine as jittery and false, his life as a Fight Clubber manic and deadly.
The narrator stands in awe of his mentor, the incredible Tyler Durden, vibrating to Tyler’s manic energy like a tuning fork. Tyler is the happy-go-lucky punch-out artist, nighttime robber of liposuction clinic detritus, and impresario of Fight Club. His home is a Black Museum of every twisted nightmare of the aboveground society the narrator has just left, an Addams mansion of sex, violence, and crime. Here is misanthropy so rich and fully-dimensioned that it is a kind of poetry. Here, self-destruction is self-help. Tyler invites the impressionable narrator to be the Goering to his Hitler, to enrich themselves as Fight Club goes franchise. Then, a sidewalk Himmler appears, and the narrator starts to wonder if there’ll be a night of the long knives in the Fight Club HQ.
Critics were bitterly divided over Fight Club during its theatrical run, in a repeat of some of the themes that chopped up the critics’ community when Bonnie and Clyde opened 35 years before. Many found it the film a paean to a bloody-minded narcissism, cheesy exploitation masked as analysis. But others found the film’s wallowing in brutality an Absurdist way of cauterizing the psychic wounds American society has inflicted on itself through media glorification of violence. Critic James Berardinelli has rightly pointed out that kids were shooting each other in schools and postal clerks gunning each down long before Fight Club hit the screens. An even more intriguing possibility presents itself than the either/or terms of the critic’s debate, however: does Fight Club simultaneously enthrone fascism while pulling it apart limb from limb? "Only after disaster can we be resurrected," goes a line from Chuck Palanhiuk’s novel on which the film is based, and this film is an unrelieved human disaster from the opening titles to the copyright notice. Is the disaster the narrator’s life as a nameless suit in a corporate office, from which Fight Club delivers him? Or is the disaster Fight Club itself, from which the movie delivers us, bruised but wiser?
Palahniuk’s Fight Club is an intensely epigrammatic novel; its trademark sayings have entered the vocabulary of white male college students everywhere, like a perverted Poor Richard’s Almanac. David Fincher’s film, however, seeks something different than the shotgunning of antithetical mottoes about the death of society that made Palahniuk’s book so rousing. For Fincher, as in his other major films, The Game, Se7ven, and Panic Room, the spaces and characters of evil are as fascinating as the theory of evil. In Edward Norton’s narrator and Brad Pitt’s cyclonic Tyler Durden, he’s found characters who make Palahniuk’s language take strange and mesmerizing human form. Likewise the astonishing visuals of the film, which realize the darkest imaginings of the novel. (Some of the film’s baroque mise-en-scene is hereditary; the film’s director of photography is Jeff Cronenweth, the son of Jordan Cronenweth, the cinematographer who gave another generation its own cinematic dystopia in Bladerunner.)
Thirty years ago, Stanley Kubrick built a cinematic annex to Anthony Burgess’s linguistic tour-de-force novel A Clockwork Orange, and here, Fincher succeeds in making Chuck Palahniuk’s argumentative essay-novel into, at once, a social critique and an instructional video.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
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