David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Notable Festivals: Venice

1999’s FIGHT CLUB was the first David Fincher film I ever saw, and it became a watershed moment for me in that it was absolutely unlike any movie I had ever seen. Granted, I was only in middle school at the time and hadn’t quite discovered the world of film at large beyond what was available in the multiplex. FIGHT CLUB was one of the earliest experiences that turned me on to the idea of a director having a distinct style, a stamp he could punch onto the film that claimed it as his own. My own experience with FIGHT CLUB was easily dwarfed by the larger reaction to the film, which has since become something of an anthem for Generation X—a bottling up of the 90’s zeitgeist that fermented into a potent countercultural brew.

Coming off the modest success of 1997’s THE GAME, director David Fincher was in the process of looking for a follow-up project when he was sent “Fight Club”, a novel by the groundbreaking author (and Portland son) Chuck Palahniuk. A self-avowed non-reader, Fincher nonetheless blazed through the novel, and by the time he had put the book down he knew it was going to be his next project. There was just one problem—the book had been optioned and was in development at Twentieth Century Fox, his sworn enemies. Their incessant meddling and subterfuge during the production of Fincher’s ALIEN 3(1992) made for a miserable shooting experience, ultimately ruined the film, and nearly caused Fincher to swear off feature filmmaking forever. This time, however, he would be ready. He was now a director in high demand, having gained significant clout from the success of SE7EN (1995), and he used said clout to successfully pitch his vision of FIGHT CLUB to Laura Ziskin and the other executives at Fox. The studio had learned the error of its ways and was eager to mend relations with the maverick director, so they allowed him a huge amount of leeway in realizing his vision. Armed with the luxury of not having to bend to the whims of nervous studio executives, Fincher was able to fashion a pitch-black comedy about masculinity in crisis and the battle between modern commercialism and our primal, animalistic natures.

The novel takes place in Wilmington, Delaware (home to the headquarters of several major credit card companies), but Fincher sets his adaptation in an unnamed city, mostly because of legal clearance reasons (which would have been a nightmare considering how much FIGHT CLUB disparages major corporations and institutions). Our protagonist is the unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton), an insomniac office drone obsessed with Swedish furniture and support groups for serious, terminal diseases he doesn’t have. He finds in these support groups an emotional release and a cure for his insomnia, achieving a stasis that props him up while pushing down the nagging feeling that he’s wasting his life away. His world is up-ended by the arrival of the acidic Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a fellow support group freeloader that confounds his perceived progress at all turns. Constant travel because of his job as a recall analyst for a major car manufacturer provides some relief, and it is on one particular flight home that he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), whose effortless cool is unlike anything the Narrator has found in his so-called “single-serving” flight companions. Upon returning home, he finds his apartment has blown up due to mysterious circumstances. With nowhere else to turn, the Narrator calls up Tyler on a whim, who offers him a place at his ramshackle squatter mansion on the industrial fringes of town.

As the two men bond, they discover a cathartic release from an unexpected source: fighting. They channel this release into the founding of an underground brawling organization called Fight Club, where similarly culturally disenfranchised men can get together and unleash their primal side in bareknuckle grappling matches. Soon, the duo’s entire outlook on life and masculinity changes, with the Narrator in particular taking charge of his own destiny and liberating himself from his perceived shackles at work. In Fight Club, they have tapped into something very primal within the male psyche—a psyche subdued in the wake of rampant commercialism, feminism, and political correctness, just itching to be unleashed. Fight Club grows larger than Tyler or The Narrator had ever hoped or expected, with satellite chapters popping up in other cities and the purpose of the secretive club evolving to include acts of domestic terrorism and anarchy. When The Narrator finds himself losing control of the monster that they’ve created, he comes into mortal conflict with Tyler, who has gone off the deep end in his attempts to fundamentally and radically change the world.

Norton brings a droll, dry sense of humor to his performance as the Narrator, a medicated and sedate man who must “wake up”. In what is one of his most memorable roles, Norton ably projects the perverse, profoundly morbid thoughts of his character with sardonic wit and a sickly physicality. This frail, scrawny physicality is all the more remarkable considering Norton had just come off the production of Tony Kaye’s AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998), where made him bulk up with a considerable amount of muscle. In his second collaboration with Fincher after their successful team-up in SE7EN, Brad Pitt also turns in a career highlight performance as Tyler Durden, a soap salesman and anarchist with a weaponized masculinity and radical, seductive worldview that he is fully committed to living out. His character’s name and persona have entered our pop culture lexicon as the personification of the unleashed, masculine id and the grungy, counter-commercial mentalities that defined the 1990’s.

Helena Bonham Carter counters the overbearing masculinity of Fincher’s vision while oddly complementing it as Marla Singer, the very definition of a hot mess. Marla is a cold, cynical woman dressed up in black, Goth affectations. Her aggressive feminine presence is an appropriate counterbalance to Tyler Durden’s roaring machismo, as well as serves to highlight the film’s homoerotic undertones. Meat Loaf, a popular musician in his own right, plays Bob—a huge, blubbering mess with “bitch tits” and a cuddly demeanor, while Jared Leto bleaches his hair to the point of anonymity in his role as a prominent acolyte of Durden’s (and thorn in the side of The Narrator).

To achieve FIGHT CLUB’s oppressively grungy look, Fincher enlists the eye of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, the son of legendary DP Jordan Cronenweth (who had previously worked with Fincher on ALIEN 3). The younger Cronenweth would go on to lens several of Fincher’s later works due to the strength of their first collaboration on FIGHT CLUB. The film is shot on Super 35mm and presented in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, but it wasn’t shot anamorphic—it was instead shot with spherical lenses in order to help convey the gritty tone Fincher intended. Indeed, FIGHT CLUB is easily Fincher’s grungiest work to date—the image is coated in a thick layer of grime and sludge that’s representative of the toxic philosophies espoused by its antihero subjects. The foundation of FIGHT CLUB’s distinct look is built with Fincher’s aesthetic signature: high contrast lighting (with lots of practical lights incorporated into the framing), and a cold, sickly green/teal color tint. Fincher and Cronenweth further expanded on this by employing a combination of contrast-stretching, underexposing, and re-silvering during the printing process in order to achieve a dirty, decaying look.

The production of FIGHT CLUB also generated some of the earliest public reports of Fincher’s proclivity for shooting obscene numbers of takes—a technique also employed by Fincher’s cinematic forebear, Stanley Kubrick. Both men employed the technique as a way to exert control over their actors’ performances and wear them down to a place of naturalistic “non-acting”. While this earns the ire of many a performer, it also earn as much respect for a director willing to sit through the tedium of dozens upon dozens of takes in order to really mold a performance in the editing room.

In a career full of visually dynamic films, FIGHT CLUB is easily the most volatile and kinetic of them all. Fincher employs a number of visual tricks to help convey a sense of surrealist reality: speed-ramping, playing with the scale of objects (i.e, presenting the contents of a garbage can as if we were flying through the Grand Canyon), and Norton’s Narrator breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly (a technique he’d later use to infamous effect in Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDSseries). Production designer Alex McDowell supplements Fincher’s grimy vision with imaginative, dungeon-like sets in which to house this unleashed sense of masculinity, all while countering the sterile, color-less environments of the Narrator’s office and apartment. Interestingly enough, the Narrator’s apartment is based almost exactly off of Fincher’s first apartment in (soul-suckingly bland) Westwood, an apartment he claims that he had always wanted to blow up. THE GAME’s James Haygood returns to sew all these elements together into a breathtaking edit with manic pacing and psychotic energy, creating something of an apex of the particular sort of music-video-style editing that emerged in 90’s feature films.

FIGHT CLUB might just be the farthest thing (commercially-speaking) from a conventional Hollywood film, so it stands to reason that a conventional Hollywood score would be ill-fitting at best, and disastrously incompatible at worst. This mean that Howard Shore, who had scored Fincher’s previous two features, had to go. Really, ANY conventional film composer had to go in favor of something entirely new. In his selection of electronic trip-hop duo The Dust Brothers, Fincher received a groundbreaking score, comprised almost entirely of drum loops and “found” sounds. I have almost every note from that score memorized—I used to listen to the soundtrack CD almost every day during high school as I did my homework. And then, of course, there’s The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”: a rock song that will live in infamy because of its inclusion inFIGHT CLUB’s face-melting finale. Sound and picture are now inextricably linked in our collective consciousness— I defy you to find someone whose perception of that particular song has not been forever colored by the image of skyscrapers imploding on themselves and toppling to the ground. The music of FIGHT CLUB is further heightened by the contributions of Fincher’s regular sound designer Ren Klyce, who was awarded with an Oscar nomination for his work on the film.

A main reason that Fincher responded so strongly to his initial reading of Palahniuk’s novel is that it possessed several themes that Fincher was fascinated by and liked to explore in his films. On a philosophical level, the story contains strong ties to nihilism with Tyler Durden’s enthusiastic rejection and destruction of institutions and value systems, and the subsequent de-humanization that stems from Fight Club’s evolved mission objective (which extrapolates nihilistic virtues to their extreme). The novel’s overarching screed against commercialism also appealed to Fincher, who gleefully recognized the inherent irony in a director of commercials making a film about consumerism as the ultimate evil. Fincher plays up this irony throughout the film by including lots of blatant product placement (there’s apparently a Starbucks cup present in every single scene). This countercultural cry against commercialism and corporate appeasement is inherently punk, which is yet another aesthetic that Fincher has made potent use of throughout his career.

With FIGHT CLUB, Fincher also finds ample opportunity to indulge in his own personal fascinations. His background at ILM and subsequent familiarity with visual effects results in an approach that relies heavily on cutting-edge FX. This can be seen in the strangest sex sequence in cinematic history, which borrows the “bullet-time” photography technique from THE MATRIX (1999) to turn Pitt and Carter into enormous copulating monuments that blend and morph into one single mass of biology. The idea of stitching numerous still photographs to convey movement (where the traditional use of a motion picture camera would have been impractical or impossible) also allows Fincher to rocket through time and space, such as in the scene where we scream from the top of a skyscraper down to find a van packed with explosives in the basement garage.

Architecture also plays in important role, with Durden’s decrepit (yet organic) house on Paper Street resembling the grand old Victorian houses in LA’s Angelino Heights juxtaposed against the faceless, monolithic city skyscrapers that are destroyed in the film’s climax. Here, as in his earlier features, Fincher tends to frame his subjects from a low angle looking up—this is done as a way to establish the realism of his sets and locations while imbuing the subjects themselves with an exaggerated sense of power and authority.

FIGHT CLUB also contains Fincher’s most well-known opening credits sequence: a dizzying roller-coaster ride through the Narrator’s brain.  Beginning with the firing of impulses in the fear center, the camera pulls back at breakneck speed, with our scale changing organically until we emerge from a pore on Norton’s sweat-slicked forehead and slide down the polished nickel of the gun barrel lodged in his mouth.  It’s an incredibly arresting way to start a film, and prepares us for the wild ride ahead.

Finally, FIGHT CLUB allows Fincher to really play with the boundaries of his frame and reveal the inherent artifice of the film’s making. This conceit is best illustrated in two scenes. The first is the “cigarette burns” projection-room scene where the Narrator reveals Tyler’s fondness for splicing single frames of hardcore pornography into children’s films by explaining the projection process to the audience in layman’s terms. This scene is present in the novel, but Fincher’s approach of it is further informed by his own experience working as a movie projectionist at the age of 16, where he had a co-worker who collected random snippets of a given film’s most lurid moments into a secret envelope. The second scene in question is Tyler’s infamous “you are not your fucking khakis” monologue to camera, whereby his intensity causes the film he is recorded onto to literally wobble and expose the film strip’s sprocket holes. The effect is that of the film literally disintegrating before our eyes—the story has gone off the rails and now we’re helpless to do anything but just go along for the ride.

Fincher’s terrible experience with the studio on ALIEN 3 directly contributed to FIGHT CLUB being as groundbreaking and shocking as it was. When studio executives (most notably Laura Ziskin) inevitably bristled at the sight of Fincher’s bold, uncompromising vision in all its glory, their attempts to tone it down were blown up in their faces by a director who had already been burned by their tactics once before and was one step ahead of their game. A great example of this is Ziskin asking Fincher to change a controversial line (Marla Singer telling Tyler Durden that she wants to have his abortion), which Fincher responded to by agreeing to change the line under the condition that it couldn’t be changed any further after that. Ziskin quickly agreed, because how could anything be worse than that? Imagine her outrage, then, when Fincher came back with Marla’s line changed to “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school” and she couldn’t do anything to change it back. Once Fincher knew how to play his meddlesome executives to his benefit, he became truly unstoppable.

FIGHT CLUB made its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and its worldwide theatrical run was met with polarized reviews and box office disappointment. Quite simply, audiences were not ready for Fincher’s abrasive vision. However, it was one of the first films to benefit from the DVD home video format, where it spread like wildfire amongst eager young cinephiles until it became a bona fide cult hit. It probably couldn’t have been any other way— FIGHT CLUB was made to re-watch over and over again, to pore over all the little details and easter eggs that Fincher and company peppered throughout to clue us into the true nature of Tyler Durden’s existence. FIGHT CLUB’s release also had real-world implications in the formation of actual underground fight clubs all across the country. In mining the dramatic potential of a fictional masculinity crisis, FIGHT CLUB tapped into a very real one that was fueled by a noxious brew of feminism, political correct-ness, the new millennium, metrosexuality and frat-boy culture (a subgroup that glorified the carnage and violence while ironically failing to recognize the film’s very palpable homoerotic undertones and thus assuming them into their own lifestyle). Fifteen years removed from FIGHT CLUB’s release, the film stands as the apex of the cynical pop culture mentality of the 1990’s, as well as a defining thesis statement for a cutting-edge filmmaker with razor-sharp relevancy

FIGHT CLUB is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox

Credits:
Produced by: Ross Grayson Bell, Cean Chaffin, Art Linson
Written by: Jim Ohls
Director of Photography: Jeff Cronenweth
Production Designer: Alex McDowell
Editor: James Haygood
Sound Design: Ren Klyce
Music by: The Dust Brothers