Fight Club (Special Edition) Review
Chuck Palahinuk's 1994 debut novel 'Fight Club' wasn't quite the masterpiece some critics claimed it to be, but as a template for a film, it's stunning, with an ambitious structure, a fast-moving, innovative plot and many acidic bon mots . Its narrative gambits - oddly discontinuous dialogue, non-linear plot progressions - can make for difficult reading, but are exactly the kind of devices that - in the hands of a talented and ambitious creative team - make for great cinema.
Accordingly, director David Fincher, screenwriter Jim Uhls and the rest of the 'Fight Club' team have been extremely faithful to the book. I don't think I've ever seen a more loving page-to-screen transfer. Some scenes have been moved around and a few entirely new ones created but at least four-fifths of the book has been transferred intact. More importantly, the cankered heart of Palahniuk's book is there in spades. It's one of those rare occasions when a film outdoes the book, a fact that Palahniuk, to his credit, even acknowledges: "Everybody involved brought so much more to the story, I felt a little ashamed of the book," he writes in the DVD booklet.
The events of 'Fight Club' are seen through the eyes of its unnamed 30-year old narrator, who for reasons of simplicity I'll call Jack. He works as a 'recall co-ordinator' in the Compliance and Liability department of a major U.S car manufacturer. His job involves balancing the potential cost of recalling a faulty model against the possible cost of out-of-court settlements for those maimed or bereaved as a result of its defectiveness. If the former outweighs the latter, corporate arithmetic dictates that nothing is done.
Numbed into insomnia by the unconscienceable banality of his job, Jack eventually finds salvation attending support groups for a variety of illnesses: cancer, brain parasites, tuberculosis. Amongst the ranks of the truly desperate, his own pathetic self-concern submerges and he's able to achieve a simulacrum of emotional vulnerability and - more importantly - sleep. This fragile peace is soon shattered, however, by the arrival of two new acquaintances: the poisonously neurotic Marla Singer, like him a 'tourist' of the therapy groups; and Tyler Durden, a bizarre soap manufacturer who quickly challenges the comfortable materialist assumptions that Jack's life has been made up of.
After his precious flat and all its contents are destroyed in a mysterious explosion, Jack contacts Tyler and the two meet for a beer, during which Tyler gives him a full blast of his anti-consumerist rhetoric. Afterwards, outside in the parking lot, Tyler invites Jack to hit him "... as hard as he can." The two tussle briefly and, battered but liberated by the exchange, become fast friends. Jack moves into Tyler's huge, dilapidated house in the middle of an industrial zone. Their irregular bouts in the parking lot start to attract much interest and soon a regular 'Fight Club' is meeting in the basement every weekend, with a set of seven rules created by Tyler. Freed from the burden of his possessions and liberated by the violent narcotic of Fight Club, things are looking up for Jack. At least until Marla starts getting it on with Tyler, and Tyler decides to turn 'Fight Club' into a terrorist organisation...
'Fight Club' was one of the first overtly violent films to be released in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre in April of 1999. As such, the flak it generated, especially from the more conservative critics, bordered on the hysterical. Leading US film journalists, including Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan and David Denby heaped abuse on the film, calling it "infantile", "witless", "an insult" and "a dog". The UK's own Alexander Walker weighed in with a blistering broadside: "It echoes propaganda that gave license to the brutal activities of the SA and the SS," he frothed, "It is an inadmissible assault on personal decency. And on society itself." Wow! The critics who 'got' 'Fight Club' naturally loved exactly the same things about it that drove other critics crazy, which is rather the point. Here was a film that technically upped the cinematic ante on almost every level, while throwing in anarchist sensibilities, brutal violence and a love story to boot! I discuss some of the antecedents to this kind of response here .
Fincher employs a dazzling array of techniques to tell the story,
combining traditional cinematic conventions (voice overs, breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly) with stunning CGI sequences, subliminal image 'blips' and sneakily transgressive visual effects (film shaking as if its coming out of the gate of the projector, porn images 'spliced' into the film). While this makes the film quite an assault, it never becomes an indiscriminate one. Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (interestingly, son of 'Blade Runner' lensman Jordan Cronenweth) give each scene what it needs, switching from frantically cut-together sequences of images to long, complex takes as the story demands.
The CGI is also used appropriately. Like Robert Zemeckis, Fincher is very adept at integrating effects into the visual narrative, although for greater dramatic impact. The stunning opening of 'Fight Club' is a case in point. The film begins with a now-famous special effects sequence (so expensive it had to be budgeted separately to the rest of the film) that literally takes us into the narrator's brain. Starting from a timorous glow that betrays the origin of a fearful thought in the amygdala, the awesome pull-back ends staring into Norton's terrified face. Fincher continues to drop in short CGI sequences throughout the rest of the film, like hyper-real daydreams ported in directly from Jack's media-saturated imagination.
The hyper-real cleanliness of the CGI sequences contrasts - I think deliberately - with the overall visual texture of the film which is, in a word, icky. It's a film that blends with fiendish glee any number of upsetting images; not just the out and out violence of the fights, but water running over crackling electrical cables, slack bags of human fat splitting open and spilling their glutinous contents and broken teeth being washed grittily down a cracked enamel sink. The whole film seems to be covered with grime, sweat and rust. It's a testament to the genius of Art Director Chris Gorak and Production Designer Alex McDowell that I still feel vaguely itchy when watching it.
But arguably Fincher's most important technical colleague in wreaking full sensory mayhem in 'Fight Club' is Sound Designer Ren Klyce, who's worked with him since 'Se7en' (and who was Oscar-nominated for 'Fight Club'). Klyce's contribution to the atmosphere and intensity of 'Fight Club' is impossible to overstate. For sheer physical impact, the sound effects in the film's many fight scenes are among the most visceral I've ever heard. The wet smack of fist against flesh, the vaguely hollow crunching sound of a skull cracking against concrete, the muted crack of breaking teeth... it's a horribly compelling array of sounds which, combined with Rob Bottin's exemplary make-up, create some of the most convincing cinematic beatings ever filmed.
But Klyce is equally adept at using sound to enhance the drama of a scene, not just represent it with toe-curling accuracy. A key example is Jack's pulping of Angel Face about two-thirds of the way into the film. As the two fighters circle each other, the soundtrack is played at half speed, emitting the weirdly atonal animal moans of human voices slowed down. As they close in on one another, the shouts of the crowd grow louder and more distinct, hitting the normal pitch and volume just as the first blow is struck. After an exchange of stomach-curdlingly realistic punches, heard amidst the full-throated baying of their audience, Jack clubs Angel Face to the ground. As his head collides with an awful thud to the concrete floor, the soundtrack assumes his deadened aural perspective, sucked back to a dull, reverberating roar. As Jack continues to pound his fists into the prone man’s face, the appalled men watching grow quiet, their delayed background roar morphing into an indistinct yawning echo. The only sounds to come at full volume are the horrifically convincing punches, the pop of breaking bone meshed with the soggy impact of knuckles digging into bruised, pulped flesh. Finished, Jack rises and makes his way through the crowd, whose whispers and shuffling feet now tinge the slowly fading penumbra of residual sound.
Beyond the direct sensory assault that 'Fight Club' constitutes, the film also pissed people off because of its tone. It has a lot of fun doing bad things. Like Alex in 'A Clockwork Orange' with his faux-childish burble and milk-plus bars, the space monkeys in 'Fight Club' are emotional teenagers, gawping at female newscasters and giggling over their own exploits on television, then donning face masks for another night dynamiting corporate architecture.
But fascist? Forget it. Philosophically and politically, 'Fight Club' ain't Fascist. It's a Marxist anti-capitalist rant. It's a Nietzschean Supermanifesto. It's a neo-Zen anarcho-pop diatribe (!) but it ain't fascist, as any of the lazy-minded critics would have learned had they bothered to check their dictionaries. While it plays with Fascist imagery, the 'next stage' that Fight Club evolves into, Project Mayhem, is more Three Stooges than Third Reich. Over-enthusiastic guys running around in black hoods committing acts of civic disobedience do not a Nazi party make, and any lingering doubts one might have had about the film-maker's possible nurturing of what Alexander Walker saw fit to call the 'Fuhrer principle' are laid to rest by the 'Robert Paulson' scene, which so effectively ridicules the jackboot brigade's herd mentality as to render any argument on the subject invalid. A bunch of shaven-headed, black-shirted guys obstinately turning their own leader's criticism of their modus operandi into yet another slogan to chant? This isn't glorification of the Nazi ideal, it's a very obvious, deliberate and cutting satire of the same, and it would take a very thick head not to see it as such.
But, and herein lies one of the contradictions that makes 'Fight Club' so entertaining, while Fincher and co. are happy to put the boot into the bovver-boys and play up their ridiculous antics for laughs, other threads of the film's conceptual DNA are absolutely genuine. It keys in to a very contemporary spirit of frustrated apathy, spiritual inertia and psychic exhaustion. Who the hell hasn't, at one time or another, wanted to tear apart the vacuum-packed veneer of contemporary consumerist society and unleash their rage in an act of brute violence? Who hasn't wanted to throw off the shackles of 9-to-5 worker bee banality and embrace something new and unknown? As Palahniuk makes clear in the 'Middle Children of History' speech which Tyler delivers in one basement scene, our generation of white collar slaves don't have a war to fight or a cause to rally to: "Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need..." Seen in this light, Fight Club's various games are simply giving voice to the energy of rebellious non-conformism that is the perennial cry of the 'next generation', wherever it happens to fall in history.
This - admittedly only from my personal point of view - is the message that Fincher & Co. wanted to express in 'Fight Club'. It's nothing new: reject authority, find integrity, have your own opinion, be yourself. Grow up!
The three central performances in 'Fight Club' are all outstanding, but for different reasons.
The iconic image of 'Fight Club' is Brad Pitt smoking rakishly, trousers slinking over his tanned hips, face smudged into a bloody mask, his gym-toned body exposed to perfection. For a film that ostensibly trashes the contemporary beauty aesthetic (witness Jack sneering at underwear ads, asking Tyler disgustedly "Is that what a man looks like?") it affords its star a lot of room to flex his pecs. But the beauty of 'Fight Club' is that its cultural remit is so broad it can encompass even this vanity on the part of its biggest star. Like the quick smirk that Tyler and Jack exchange on spotting a trendy new VW Bug as their next target on a row of cars they've been judiciously applying baseball bats to, our stylistic consciousness spots Pitt posing in blood and cigarettes and laughs, not just with him but also partly at him.
Pitt, if it needs to be pointed out after 'Troy', can't actually act very well, if at all. The reason that 'Fight Club' works is because Norton can act and, thus grounded, Pitt can do what he does best, which is play a cartoon. Typically dull in serious roles ('Legends of the Fall', 'Troy') the only films where Pitt really comes alive are those where the manic tics or lunatic motivations of the character he's playing allow him to follow his freewheeling, spontaneous instincts ('Twelve Monkeys', 'Snatch'). As Tyler - Jack's repressed Id made explosively manifest - he's perfectly cast, his lack of depth and seat-of-the-pants technique working like a dream.
While Pitt gets to do cinematic cartwheels, Norton gets to do the donkey work: making the audience actually believe in the central character while not making him boring. OK, he also gets the lion's share of screen-time, but that only makes his acting achievement all the more remarkable: as Fincher orchestrates the whole careening mass of 'Fight Club' into a perfect sequence of sound and image, Norton has to hold still enough to get you to invest in Jack's experience; the emancipation of a dead-eyed everyman whose inner world is a grisly fantasy of breaking bones, animalistic sex and soft furnishings. He is the film's center of gravity (and its Raging Bile Duct), somehow reflecting the agonised contortions of the film's plot in a believable, even natural way .
It helps that he looks the part. With his whippet's shoulders and sullen expression, Norton is perfect as 'Fight Club's frustrated, white collar protagonist, He's a turn of the century dweeb, the Holden Caulfield of the age. He's also, as anyone who has seen 'American History X' or even 'Primal Fear' knows, an excellent actor, whose intelligence, maturity and judgment come across in everything he does. As the film reaches its apoplectic final third, for instance, Norton jacks up his performance to an appropriately mad canter, somewhere between a crazed 'Sleeper'-period Woody Allen and Harpo Marx. It's a well-judged gear change that indicates how in touch with the material he is, capable of becoming Harold Lloyd, Alan Arkin or Dustin Hoffman as and when the scene demands it.
Other than her brief tenure as an identikit yenta in Woody Allen's 'Mighty Aphrodite', I can't imagine what prompted Fincher to see in Helena Bonham-Carter the potential for becoming Jack's object of passion. But it's a brilliant bit of casting that sees the chubby and proper lady of 'Room With a View' and 'The Wings of a Dove' become the perfect "... thin, thin buttermilk sallow" Marla Singer of the book.
Bonham-Carter's achievement is to unrepentantly preserve Marla's self-destructive negativity and emotional weakness, while at the same time making her somehow appealing, an emotional vampire with an undeniable degree of warmth. A big part of this is her ability to project - amidst the attempted suicides and sexual escapades - Marla's hopeless romanticism. It's clear she realizes she's in love with Jack a lot sooner than he realizes he's in love with her (or even realizes he's sleeping with her). Gutsy, sluttish, vengeful or paranoid, Bonham-Carter as Marla nails every scene she's in, bringing a much needed layer of emotional authenticity to the macho hijinx that constitutes so much of the film. It's the same kind of acting tour de force that Judy Davis pulled off as William Burroughs' smacky muse in 'The Naked Lunch'.
Damn near flawless. Fincher's extremely dark palette is served faithfully by an anamorphic 2:40:1 presentation. True, pure blacks. Great detail. Superb.
Stunning. Makes your speakers bleed. Surrounds worked out extensively throughout. Just awesome.
On the first disk, the special features are limited to a terrific commentary track, recorded with Fincher, Norton, Pitt and Bonham-Carter. The latter seems to have been recorded separately. Consequently, the commentary is made up of three smart, matey American blokes sharing reams of stories, off-taste recollections and snide in- jokes and copiously taking the piss out of themselves and each other, with Bonham-Carter's plummy tones weighing in occasionally with wry observations and dry asides.
Actually one of the things that comes across from this odd (but very well cut-together) Belsize-Park-to-Beverley-Hills commentary cast is the uniformity of purpose shared by the four. A dark humour pervades throughout and it's clear how much fun they had working together. Aside from the entertainment value of listening to people who clearly enjoy each other's company there's a colossal amount of information imparted, ranging from the cost of special effects sequences, the apoplectic reaction of some sections of the press to the film and the fact that Norton and Pitt both think Fincher shoots too dark. Glad I'm not the only one, then.
The second disk offers a treasure trove of supplements and is divided into five sections: Cast & Crew, Behind the Scenes, Publicity Material, Art Gallery and Deleted and Alternate Scenes.
Cast and Crew: Unlike most of the 'Cast & Crew' sections that you find on DVDs, this one at least tries to direct some attention to people involved in the film's creation other than just the director and leads, even if the information provided is only a few pages of text. As well as Fincher & Co, supports Leto and Meatloaf, screenwriter Uhls, author Palahniuk, producer Art Linson, editor James Haygood and a bunch of others.
Behind the Scenes: here you've got three sections; Production, Visual Effects and On Location, with commentaries by a quartet of visual and special effects supervisors: Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Haug, Special Effects Coordinator Cliff Wenger, Visual Effects Supervisor for Digital Domain Kevin Mack and Digital Animation Supervisor/Producer "Doc" Bailey.
Production: this is divided into six segments: Alternate Main Titles, Airport, Jack's Condo, Paper Street House, Projection Booth and Corporate Art Ball. In each segment, one can select different angles and different audio tracks, and navigate between same while the segment is playing.
- Airport covers filming of the scene where Jack arrives at the airport immediately after meeting Tyler. Angle 1 provides a view of the location scouting as led by Fincher. Angle 2 is principle photography of Jack's grilling by a dildo-obsessed airport assistant. A third choice shows both simultaneously. The audio tracks offer sound for both angles respectively, with a third giving a David Fincher commentary.
- Alternate Main Titles, as its name suggests, gives you four possible views of the stunning title sequence. Angle 1 is identical to the final version except without those pesky credits. Angle 2 is an incomplete preview version with rudimentary text. Angles 3 and 4 offer partially completed versions with two different fonts for the credits, Strangelove and Small Science respectively. Audio provides a choice of two themes. A storyboard 'Brain Ride-Map' rounds out this section.
- Jack's Condo, offers an analysis of Jack's return to his destroyed apartment. Angle 1 is Fincher scouting the location with his team. Angle 2 shows principle photography of the scene. Angle 3 is both. The audio options offer sound for the first two angles, the third is Fincher's commentary, describing how Jack's flat is an exact replica of the one he lived in when he first moved to Los Angeles. Storyboard complete the segment.
- Paper Street House shows us the genesis and resolution of Tyler and Jack's HQ for Project Mayhem. Angle 1 shows planning and design of the house using models, through location scouting and then its building, decoration and furnishing. Angle 2 offers principle photography of scenes in and around the house. Angle 3 is both. Only two audio options, one each for the two angles. Plus there's storyboards.
- Projection Booth covers one of my favourite scenes, where we learn of Tyler's other career as a porn-slicing projectionist. Angle 1 shows Fincher running his team through his plans for the sequence. Angle 2 is principle photography of same. Again, no commentary from Fincher here, just two audio options. Again, storyboards.
- Corporate Art Ball is the most interesting of the Production mini-segments as it shows how both physical effects and CGI were used to solve problems arising from the sequence when the space monkeys destroy a piece of corporate art. Angle 1 is a combined location scout and principle photography piece. Angle 2 shows a combination of pre-visualisations, raw footage and digital effects. The first audio track gives us sound from the location scout and principle photography, the second is commentary from Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Haug and Special Effects co-ordinator Cliff Wenger. Also storyboards to enjoy.
Visual Effects: this is arguably the most interesting extra on the disk, an in-depth look at the nine key CGI sequences in the film and how they were achieved; Main Title, Furni Catalog, Ice Cave/Power Animal, Photogrammetry, Mid-Air Collision, Sex Sequence, Car Crash, Gun Shot and High Rise Collapse.
- Main Title offers two choices of audio to reveal the secrets of the film's stunning beginning, narrated by Kevin Haug or Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Mack respectively. The degree of authenticity undertaken by the film-makers is pretty stunning, although Fincher's intention of making the sequence "...like a night drive, dark, wet scary and visceral, not a place you'd want to be," seems to have won out. Plus another appearance of the popular 'Brain Ride-Map'.
- Furni Catalog has commentary by Kevin Haug, describing one of the movie's most talked-about scenes; Norton's virtual walk through a furnishing catalogue come to life. The difficulty of the brief sequence is make clear. Plus storyboards.
- Ice Cave/Power Animal features principle photography of the sequence where Jack discovers his meditation cave, followed by a blow-by-blow on the CGI creation of his power animal: a penguin that Fincher originally wanted to be photorealistic but then changed to looking "... a bit Mary Poppins." There's storyboards too.
- Photogrammetry is not a word I was familiar with, but Kevin Haug's commmentary reveals it to be a CGI technique that allows for high-speed photo-realistic camera movement down the side of, around and through buildings, as evinced at the film's beginning and also in the 'galaxy of trash' pull-back.
- Mid-Air Collision is another favourite sequence of many and is covered by two audio tracks, the first with Kevin Haug, the second by Kevin Mack. The segment shows the origination of the scene from initial discussion with Fincher and basic planning to the finished sequence. Kevin Mack is the guy you see in the vibrating seat wearing glasses at the very end of the shot! No storyboards!
- Sex Sequence, another favourite, features a commentary by Kevin Haug explaining the creation of this disturbing yet erotic segment. 15 still cameras circling Pitt, Bonham-Carter and two body doubles recorded the basic information, which was enhanced with CG. As Bonham-Carter makes clear in the commentary, those breasts aren't hers. Some fairly disappointing storyboards.
- Car Crash was a special effects, non-CG effort, so the two audio tracks are divided between principal photography and Cliff Wenger's distinctive tones describing the difficulty in having a car hit another car and stick to it while it slides down an embankment, which was what Fincher wanted. Excellent storyboards this time.
- Gun Shot is one of the most fascinating segments on the entire disk. The visual metaphor for Tyler and Jack's extraordinary divorce, Norton's ballooning cheeks as he blows his own head off were created by Rob Bottin shooting 180 pounds psi of air pressure from a nozzle directly into his open mouth. Kevin Haug's commentary reveals that the original idea was to do it all to a model head, but Fincher wanted real pain. The end result was a composite of Norton's actual head and CG. Watch for the flying bullet!
- High Rise Collapse provides the end of the Visual Effects segments, as well as the film's climactic image. Kevin Haug and Digital Animation Supervisor "Doc" Bailey describe how they went about simulating the destruction of the skyscrapers, a combination of translights, models and CG.
On Location: no commentaries or alternate angles here, this is a bunch of behind the scenes shots showing how various sequences in the film were put together, from selecting the right kind of gun for Jack to put in his mouth, to creating a bag for the human fat that would tear open correctly and Brad Pitt's fight training. Much fun.
Publicity Material is divided into six sections: Trailers, PSAs, Music Video, Internet Spots, Promotional Gallery and a text-only Edward Norton interview.
- Trailers gives us the U.S Theatrical Teaser and the excellent 2.20 U.S Theatrical Trailer. Also The 8 Rules of Fight Club, a teaser trailer unused in the theatrical marketing campaign and finished exclusively for the DVD under the supervision of Fincher and sound designer Ren Klyce.
- PSAs are Public Service Announcements and there's two of them, one from Jack, one from Tyler, both prefaced as 'A PUBLIC SERVICE MESSAGE FROM 20th CENTURY FOX'. Both feature Norton and Pitt delivering ostensibly sensible pre-movie announcements regarding behaviour during the screening of the film.
- Music Video is, as it suggests pretty much all of the film edited down to three minutes and set to the Dust Brothers' pounding score with Pitt as Tyler Durden delivering a sermon of punchy epithets. Brilliant.
- Internet Spots are five; I Know You, Deliver Me, Change Your Life, Football and Mona Lisa/Rel. All are snappily edited 30-second bite-size chunks of the movie, intercut with Norton addressing the viewer directly in Tyler-speak.
- Promotional Gallery is a series of still images divided into three sections; Lobby Cards/Advertising, Press Kit and Stills. I hadn't realized that Fight Club's marketing department had aped 'Godzilla' with an ad reading 'His penis is longer than this building'. The EPK has a brilliantly faked catalogue of Fight Club 'must-have' items such as the 'Hard Core Tank', a 100% cotton singlet featuring "... a wonderful menagerie of adult film actors." A great set of stills completes the gallery.
- The Edward Norton interview is a transcript of an interview Norton gave in October 1999 at his alma mater, Yale University. Since it makes the point explicitly that the interview was recorded for a later radio broadcast, it's a real shame that we didn't get the audio of the interview on the DVD, as Norton is an intelligent and engaging speaker, judging from the text.
Art Gallery is another repository of still images associated with the film, divided into six segments; Storyboards, Visual Effects Stills, Paper Street House, Costumes & Makeup, Pre-Production Paintings and the Brain Ride-Map.
Deleted and Alternate Scenes isn't quite the treasure trove of missing gems one might have hoped for. Chloe and Rupert is a brief scene cut for pacing reasons where the amorous Chloe tries to chat up Jack. Tyler quits smoking/Jack quits work are two scenes which originally bookended Jack's self-destruction in his boss's office; they were removed when that scene was moved. Copier abuse offers the original, slower version of the scene where Jack's boss finds the Fight Club rules in the copier, and the final version. Tyler's goodbye seems identical to the post-car crash scene where Tyler leaves a bed-ridden Jack, except without the atmospheric fades. Marla's pillow talk features the original line of Bonham-Carter's dialogue that even the permissive folk at Fox 2000 found too much: "I want to have your abortion." Interestingly, when they heard Fincher's replacement: "I haven't been fucked like that since grade school," they begged for the original to be reinstated. Walter features an earlier version of the scene where the Microsoft account exec agrees to do the icon in cornflower blue.
'Fight Club' is a brilliant, pitch-black satirical comedy, a serious critique of end of the millennium Western materialist values and a concerted attempt by a gang of young film-makers to push the cinematic medium to its furthest limits. It's a masterpiece, a slacker's 'Catch-22', so packed with stunning visuals, great performances and acerbic wit that even half a dozen viewings won't exhaust its riches. Like 'The Abyss' and Criterion's 3-disk 'Brazil', this Special Edition represented something of a benchmark in utilisation and exploitation of the DVD format for its time. It's essential.
8 out of 10
9 out of 10
9 out of 10
9 out of 10