Fight Club Feature

I wanted to look briefly at 'Fight Club' in the context of some other ground-breaking, anti-establishment films, all of which have come to be regarded as classics. In doing this, I wanted to subject the film to an extra layer of analysis, beyond that which I attempted in the DVD review, as I think the film warrants it.

Had he been born 20 years earlier, the 'Jack' character of 'Fight Club' could have been Travis Bickle and 'Taxi Driver', with its unremitting grime, breathily confessional voice-over and bloody conclusive shoot-out was clearly a touchstone for the film-makers (it's no coincidence that the false names under which Jack frequents the various self-help and therapy groups were, at Norton's suggestion, partly those of De Niro characters of the 70s).

'Fight Club', however, has personal problems that 'Taxi Driver' can only dream about. Jack has all Travis' alienation and compressed rage (and his insomnia), but with the added burden of having grown up within an all encompassing media cocoon to reflect and amplify his self-loathing. Both men are lonely, directionless and instinctively appalled at the corruption and lack of real values they see around them, while simultaneously indulging in it (Travis guiltily frequents porn flicks, while Jack sits on the toilet, thumbing through furnishing catalogues). While Scorsese and Schraeder's anti-hero does go loopy with a choice selection of hand guns, he lacks the intelligence, education and narcissism to really go off the deep end like Jack does, and start his own terrorist organsiation.

For a different comparison, go back another generation to the star of 'The Graduate', a movie Norton himself refers to several times in the commentary as an antecedent to 'Fight Club' and clearly similar in its ambitious thematic hat-trick of love story, social satire and literary adaptation. Mike Nichol's film shares with Fincher's a sense of exhaustion at the world's hypocrisies, of disgust at the remorseless materialism peddled like ideological crack by adults ("Plastics!") and a technically accomplished and, for its time, extremely daring visual sensibility (think of Simon's songs segueing into one another as Hoffman wanders, in a seamless cross-fade, from the hotel room where he's been with Mrs Robinson to his childhood bedroom).

But Benjamin Braddock's rite of passage is bloodless, downbeat and - but for the climactic church scene - represented largely through intimate, one-on-one exchanges. Ben, like Jack, is mired in inertia, surrounded by material wealth but without even the benefit of a boring job to give him structure. His 'Fight Club' is Mrs Robinson, and his sense of frustration lies not just in post-adolescent rootlessness but in the knowledge that by continuing his affair with her, he's buying into the adult mass of lies and pretense that he professes to despise. Like Jack, he's saved by the girl, or rather, by his willingness to fight for her.

To find a film that shares 'Fight Club's deepest issues, one has to go all the way back to Nicholas Ray's 1955 classic 'Rebel Without a Cause'. It looks pretty tame now but caused a furor at the time, with its scraps and suicidal 'chickie' runs, and the film-makers were held to be responsible for teenage rebellion, the collapse of society, the cold war, increasing rates of tooth decay and whatever else conservative newspaper columnists of the time could think up.

As well as being, like 'Fight Club' a controversial film that very much reflected the spirit of its time, 'Rebel' also had as its main theme absentee fathers or, perhaps more accurately, fathers who, if they weren't physically absent, certainly weren't present as role models. James Dean's character Jim has a father who's physically present, but cowed by his nagging wife. The key scene comes when Jim watches in horror as his father, frilly apron on over his neat suit, goes down on his knees to clean up a mess he has spilled, terrified that his wife will discover it first. The expression of anguish, disappointment and betrayal on Dean's face says it all; the man he wants to look up to and be guided by is an ineffectual, hen-pecked wimp. It's this frustrated rage that drives him to fight.

Natalie Wood's character Judy has a father who is intimidated by her emerging sexuality, without the emotional depth to realise the tremendous insecurity she's experiencing at age 16, teetering on the brink of womanhood and excited by its power and promise, but still wanting the reassurance of her daddy. Unable to find within himself enough sensitivity to realise her predicament, he responds by slapping her, driving her out of the house and fuelling her resentment and anger. Her future as a self-destructively needy young woman, able to trade sex for a degree of emotional security, seems assured. It's easy to see Judy as being a teenage Marla.

The only person whose parents are entirely absent is Plato, the melancholy Sal Mineo character, who wanders friendless around his huge mansion like the sad prince in a fairly tale. Plato's parents send him hefty maintenance cheques but no evidence of love, not even a letter. A wealth of material goods can't fill the gaping sensation of being unwanted, and the hatred he feels as a result will drive him to his death. Like Jack, Plato wants a father figure he can look up to and respect but, rather than summoning him up from the depths of his own tortured psyche, he finds him whole, complete and real in the figure of Jim. His idolisation of Jim parallels Jack's idolisation of Tyler.

The emotional climax of the film occurs with Plato being shot to death. The tragedy makes adults of Jim and Judy and seals their love for one another. Similarly, with the death of Tyler, Jack achieves a degree of emotional maturity sufficient for him to embark on a relationship with Marla.

By putting 'Fight Club' in the very august company above, I'm working on the premise that it's easier to see the flaws in an apparently perfect object if you put it under some very bright lights. 'Fight Club' is certainly a contemporary masterpiece. In a decade not notable for its Hollywood masterpieces, 'Fight Club' joins a list of outstanding studio films in the 1990s that includes Fincher's own 'Seven', that film's thematic ancestor 'The Silence of the Lambs', 'The Matrix', 'The Usual Suspects' and perhaps half a dozen more. Whether it's an all-time classic that will hold up in the same way that the films above have, in 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, is another matter. Personally, I have my doubts. Why?

The key issue for me is that the film's obsession with portraying - however brilliantly - the inner workings of Jack's narcissistic self-dialogue comes at the expense of his realisation as a fully rounded human character. The movie's not about Jack's relationship with Marla, it's about his relationship with himself. Marla is just the jaundiced moon that he unconsciously navigates by. The fact he doesn't have to relate to her - or anyone else - in a real way throughout the course of the story is exactly what reduces the integrity of the film by a degree.

This lack of depth is cumulative, and becomes most apparent at 'Fight Club's climax. The movie ends in a hurry and the resolution between Jack and Marla is forced rather than cultivated (she's even delivered, kicking and screaming, by Jack's own droogs). After a brief and spirited exchange, the two settle down to watch the fireworks - the destruction by explosives of the towering skyscrapers owned by the world's largest credit card companies. It's a pretty trite resolution, but thanks largely to Bonham-Carter's vulnerability, the scene just about works the first time around. Seen repeatedly however, it becomes the weakest in the film. The closing, apocalyptically romantic image of girl and boy hand in hand watching the destruction of half a dozen skyscrapers while the Pixies thunder away is undeniably brilliant (only more so because of the porn penis hacked into it), but it's tossed in too quickly, an MTV-friendly snapshot to keep the kids happy and bring things to a close. It's arguably the only moment in the film when Fincher's background as a music video director becomes a problem.

It's not for nothing that the ending of 'The Graduate' has gone down in movie history as one of the most resonant ever achieved. One moment Ben and Elaine are giggling at the back of the bus, euphoric from their flight from the church, the next Hoffman, stony-faced, brings the reality of their future lives together crashing in. Its ambiguity casts everything that has gone before into deeper focus and sends the audience spinning out of the cinema without the reassurance of a happy ending, simultaneously chastened and ennobled.

Similarly, 'Taxi Driver' yanks the carpet out from under the viewer in its final minute. After dropping off Betsy and exchanging a few mumbled parting words, Travis suddenly spots something to the side and frowns, the camera closing in on his alarmed face, to Bernard Herman's freaky backwards chimes. The viewer, expecting another bloodbath after the gruesome slaughter of pimps and scumbags that they've just endured, recoils, but Scorsese immediately changes gears yet again; the camera slides off De Niro's face into smeary, rain-washed streets, a montage of city lights and traffic, and the soundtrack eases into the soft, lushly romantic saxophone theme. It's as if Scorsese is saying, 'Nothing has been resolved, nothing has changed, the city goes on but the danger and the evil are still out there waiting to pounce at any moment.'

'Rebel Without a Cause' ends on a note of genuine tragedy, with the death of Sal Mineo's character Plato. After he's achieved an undreamed-of level of friendship and intimacy with Jim and Judy, Plato is shot on the steps of the planetarium by police, who mistakenly believe the gun in his hand is loaded. While Jim wins his father's respect and the love of Judy, the tenor of the film's close is overwhelmingly one of loss - lost youth, lost innocence and lost life. As the end title appears, as if to add grim affirmation, a mute, mysterious figure approaches the steps of the planetarium, carrying a briefcase, like some otherworldly collector of souls. The fact that the man was actually Ray in an unbilled cameo only adds to the sense of disquiet.

Seen in this, admittedly peerless light, 'Fight Club' ends a bit too neatly, a bit too easily. The final images - however apocalyptic - are like the soothing music that comes on at the end of a rollercoaster ride, to let the audience know that they've returned to earth and everything is really alright. It is, ultimately, conventional, and it's this lapse into conventionality, into the expected, that I think demonstrates why there's a hairsbreadth gap between 'Fight Club' and the perennial classics it draws from.

The artificiality of the ending would have jarred, had the characters been three-dimensional human beings that one had come to care for during the course of the film. This is not the case. Because the stakes haven't been raised emotionally there is no basis for Fincher to provide a truly resonant ending. It is, in the final, extremely critical analysis, no more than convenient, and this very convenience makes clear the threads of insincerity that have been running through the film as a whole. One is shocked, entertained, provoked but never deeply touched.

Last updated: 12/06/2018 08:03:28

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