While a cynical computer hacker was learning about the true nature of reality in The Matrix and a depressed psychologist attempted to help a tormented boy who claimed to be able to communicate with spirits in The Sixth Sense, a true masterpiece of cinematic gold was being released. The year was 1999 and the film was Fight Club. Never have I watched a movie and found it absolutely necessary to watch it again, from beginning to end, in its entirety! The direction is marvelous, the acting: superb! But the underlying message‐depicting a revulsion toward our commercialistic culture and a less-than-subtle anti-capitalist theme‐is an artistic commentary on society that cannot, and should not, be ignored!
This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.
The Narrator, who is never officially named in the film (a fact that is in no way unrelated to the underlying message criticizing advertising and lifestyle obsession), is an insomniac desperately seeking a cure to his waking nightmare of a sleepless existence. He finds solace in attending support groups of which he has no disease. By allowing himself to let go and weep with the poor souls that are actually suffering from the various afflictions of each meeting he attends, he achieves the essential respite he so urgently needs. Unfortunately, along the way he becomes aware of another “tourist” attending his meetings and this intrusion into his innovative therapy disrupts his emotional release, thus destroying his ability to sleep and returning him to the horror of his previous insomnia. Soon after, the Narrator meets an eccentric soap-salesman with a unique outlook on life and, due to some very unusual events, the odd-couple cohabitate and start a new form of therapy: hand-to-hand combat where everyone wins by learning what is truly important in life.
The things you own end up owning you.
Edward Norton exemplifies a fantastic portrayal of the Narrator (loosely identified as Jack), the epitome of the typical misguided American consumer, in this fantastic film which is about anything but fighting. The director, David Fincher, envisioned the violence in Fight Club as a mere metaphor for the ominous struggle between a young generation and the misplaced values depicted by advertising. Marla Singer, the interloper that disrupts the poor insomniac’s creative therapy, is stunningly represented by Helena Bonham Carter and represents the Narrator’s guilt, regret and fear. Cast as Tyler Durden, Brad Pitt embodies the spectacular antithesis of the Narrator, who quickly becomes our protagonist’s new and improved therapy partner as they form Fight Club: a support group for individuals suffering from modern civilization and commercialism in a detached society.
Her lie reflected my lie…
If I had a tumor I’d name it Marla.
Although expertly adapted for the big screen from an ingeniously brilliant novel and portrayed on film by a cast of immaculate artists, the editing of each scene, shot and sequence predominantly developed Fight Club into a masterwork of cinematography! For example, the scene in which the Narrator ultimately describes Marla as his nemesis is set in a support group meeting with the camera panning behind the main character, projecting the illusion that the audience is in a row behind him attending the same meeting. This illusion connects us, as the viewers, with the Narrator‐we are there with him, in the same room, in the same situation; however, with a flick of a lighter, we are made aware of the intruder. The Narrator turns to see who he already knew was there: Marla, the little scratch on the roof of his mouth that would heal if only he could stop tonguing it, but he can’t. The camera zooms in slowly on the antagonist as she sits smugly in her black garb, black sunglasses, cigarette smoke pouring slowly and seductively from her dark lips in stark contrast to her deathly pale skin. Marla is the Narrator’s infection but she is also his desire‐his cure. At this point in the film, however, she is merely an intrusion into his lie; the lie that was allowing him to sleep. As the Narrator turns we can clearly see the sleepless, drained countenance of a victim immersed in insomnia. After describing Marla as his reason for sleeplessness, a close-up of his face in the foreground with her remaining appropriately blurry but recognizable in the background, casually smoking her cigarette, emphasizes the cancerous leaching Marla inflicts upon the hapless Narrator. The lighter is shot close-up, with only a thumb in the clip, but it’s blatantly obvious who holds the obtrusive paraphernalia, even before the next sequence of shots depicting a black hat covering the face of a woman with a cigarette between her lips. Sound effects play a major role as well. The lighter strike is louder than it should be, indicating the emphasis being placed on its presence in this scene. The Narrator cannot focus on the meeting, the speaker fades away, and even his own thoughts are interrupted and focus on Marla. The final look on the Narrator’s face, a deliberate close-up, epitomizes his helplessness to overcome this intrusion into his endeavor at self-therapy; he is defeated and helpless and, in blunt dissimilarity, Marla is a strong, defiant symbol of unapologetic imposition.
How much can you know about yourself
if you’ve never been in a fight?
Another example of intense use of camera angles, scene selection and sound effects can be clearly appreciated in the fight choreography in the basement of Lou’s Bar. The views alter from first person to a view of both fighters; dolly tracking is used to sweep around as the fighters circle each other. Both fighters, whoever they may be at the time, are shot front-and-center in hard light while the bodies and faces of their spectators are dark and faded into the background, giving the fighters center stage and indicating that they are the stars, they are the heroes. The sound effects are, once again, key elements in illustrating the focus of these scenes. In an adrenalin pumped moment of fight or flight, surrounding noises fade away or even disappear; the crowd that surrounds the fighters lessens while the impact of each blow increases. As the action unfolds and more violent connections are made, the onlookers are all but silent though you can see they are cheering or groaning at what they are seeing but the victor is unaware of their approval or horror; he is intensely engrossed in the beating he is delivering. When he finally breaks out of his trance the sounds return and the fight is over, leaving everyone in a state of surrealism.
When you wake up in a different place at a different time, can you wake up as a different person?
To reduce Fight Club to a simple story of street fighting, bar-room brawling or a shallow exercise in violence would do an incredible injustice to the gifted and talented writer, Chuck Palahniuk, and every shrewd viewer since that has had the insight and vision to see past the superficial surface of the film’s exterior into any of the many underlying layers of social commentary that this exquisitely outrageous film provides into our advertising riddled, commercialistic existence. A beautiful example of how our lives have been saturated in possessions and how true spirituality has been cast aside as an unneeded bi-product of a useless past would be the perfectly appropriate explanation scene in which the Narrator describes his apartment and belongings and essentially describes his pathetic reason for living: price tags appear along with descriptions of his materialistic items as if he was walking through a sales catalogue. He works a job he hates to buy things he doesn’t need; he has no purpose or place in history. Tyler Durdon explains in more detail in his subsequent speech:
We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
You met me at a very strange time in my life.
The absolute genius of the opening scene sets the tenor for the entire movie and comes full circle by the end of the film: as the opening credits roll, the camera view tracks outward, from the center of the mind; it takes us on a journey from the fear center of the protagonist’s brain through various cerebral scenes and exits a skin pore, elegantly ending between the sights of a Smith and Wesson inserted awkwardly into his petrified mouth. This final shot is repeated near the conclusion of the film, as most of the story is an explanation as to how he ended up in this predicament, but by the time we’ve voyaged with our champion to this point in time our entire perspective has changed and, indeed, so has his. The theme song, Where Is My Mind by Pixies, is undeniably flawless and expresses the sensations of the Narrator as he seemingly losses his grasp on reality. As the final scene illustrates the end result of this unconventional excursion, the audience is not spoon-fed any solutions‐no simple, easy answers are conveniently provided; however, the Narrator has certainly learned something special about himself, society and how he might fit into the big picture. If the viewer is exceptionally lucky, perhaps so have they.
© Daniel E. Barndt ~2012