21st-Century Boys

David Fincher stages a theater of war in ‘Fight Club’

Casting Pitt as the charismatic Tyler Durden, the embodiment of pure id with a little Nietzsche thrown in, was a no-brainer. "The narrator idolizes Tyler, he wants to become him. And if I were to choose to become someone else, it would be Brad Pitt." Casting the Ikea boy was more complicated. "It's not Matt Damon, it's not Ben Affleck. It has to be someone who wears that self-doubt and yearning for the right way as Edward did in The People vs. Larry Flynt."

That Norton's presence echoes Dustin Hoffman's in The Graduate also seems to be a factor. "Brad, Ed, and I were talking and we realized that one of the reasons we'd gotten into movies was Katharine Ross. If you could work in a business where you could meet Katharine Ross that would be the ultimate. So this movie owes something to The Graduate in many ways."

Fight Club is a doppelgänger movie with a strong homoerotic undercurrent. It's not just there in the intimacy between the Norton and Pitt characters, but also in the Fight Club sequences, shot in a wet-dream half-light that turns the men's bodies opalescent as they pound each other into the cement. And, of course, it's there in Pitt's presence, which seems more feminine the more it's butched up. Fincher doesn't pull back from the homoeroticism, maybe because he seems not to be conscious that it exists. "I think it's beyond sexuality," he says. "The way the narrator looks up to Tyler and wants to please him and get all of his attention doesn't seem to me to have anything to do with sex."

Pure id with a little Nietzsche thrown in: Pitt in the vertiginous, libidinous Fight Club
photo: Photofest
Pure id with a little Nietzsche thrown in: Pitt in the vertiginous, libidinous Fight Club

Opening with a shot that twists through the protagonist's brain to end on a gun stuck in his mouth, Fight Club is a psychodrama for cyberpunks. The disorienting special effects, the muffled whispery sound of the voice-over, the way the narrative backs up, leaps ahead, turns corners in a flash— all these elements make it difficult to keep a comfortable distance from the film. "We didn't set out to leave the audience in the dust but we wanted to move at a clip," Fincher says. "We wanted to be random access."

Fincher can also do the Hollywood thing and make the film sound like a straightforward journey, although he can't help laughing at his own doublespeak. "The narrator was captivated and seduced by the manifestations of very perverse and extreme concepts of masculinity to the point that he was involved in some pretty severe destruction of public property. But he comes to a place where he realizes that although there are parts of what Tyler is selling that are important and right, there are other parts that are based on ideas of domination and power that are unhealthy, and that, as an empathetic, not totally guilt-free human, he can't live with."

In the wake of Littleton, Fox became so nervous about Fight Club that they pushed its release back four months and tried to pass it off with bland, silly posters as a goofy Brad Pitt comedy. "We always had that Alfred E. Neuman 'What me worry? I read Mad' concept about Tyler Durden," says Fincher. "But I do think the promotional materials are a little light. And although the book was written five years ago, I think the movie's about Littleton in more ways than anyone would care to address. Do I think that people who are frustrated and disenfranchised should blow up buildings? No. Do I care if people who are consenting adults have this Fight Club? I have no problem with that. I'm no sadomasochist, but it seems more responsible than bottling up all this rage about how unfulfilling their lives are. I think the movie is moral and it's responsible. But the scariest thing about Littleton is that two 18-year-olds would say, 'Okay, I'm going in and I'm not coming out,' that they would give up their lives to make a statement, that they would die because of such trivial frustrations. And no one wants to look at that."

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