21st-Century Boys

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

 Fight Club director David Fincher doesn't think his film (opening October 15) is pervy or socially irresponsible. Others, ranging from the absurdly influential London critic Alexander Walker to The New Yorker's David Denby, disagree. In his review, Walker indicted Fox owner Rupert Murdoch. "If he had to blow dust, it might as well be in that direction," says Fincher, speaking on the phone from L.A. just before the pre-release controversy took on a nastier tone than anything in the film itself. "I understand Edward Norton's character [Fight Club's protagonist] so well that I think what he's thinking is what everybody's thinking. It's not like wanting to fuck somebody's leg brace."

The leg brace reference has to do with the comparison floating around between Fight Club and David Cronenberg's Crash in which James Spader lusts for Rosanna Arquette's heavy metal accessory. Fincher says that he doesn't mean to slight Crash; it's just that his film is less specialized.

If Crash seemed like the last movie of the 20th century, then Fight Club could be the vertiginous, libidinous preview of the 21st. Both films share an outrageous sense of humor; they make punch lines of things that are supposed to be no laughing matter. Walker trashed Fight Club for being "anti-capitalist, anti-society, and, indeed, anti-God," which is exactly what it is. Fight Club levels a Swiftian attack on our consumerist, designer- label-worshipping society and the alienation (Fincher calls it "emasculation") of its citizens.

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


Adapted from Chuck

Palahniuk's manic first-person novel (see Palahniuk interview), Fight Club explores the symbiotic relationship between an alienated yuppie (Norton) and the glamorously nihilistic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), whose motto is "Self improvement is masturbation; self destruction might be the answer." Fight Club, in which guys strip off their shirts and shoes and go mano-a-mano, is the strangely liberating manifestation of this philosophy. But when Tyler turns Fight Club into a terrorist network that blows up buildings, the Norton character has to think about how he can separate from a guy who's so much a part of him.

The film seems dangerous because the Fight Club scenes are extremely seductive— the adrenalized rush of head-banging feels like an answer to the mind-body split. But then the worm turns, and the film becomes a critique of the blood-letting it made so erotic. What Fincher said about the people who attacked his similarly controversial Seven— "they slow down when they pass an accident, just like everyone else"— applies here as well.

Fincher read Palahniuk's novel while he was editing his previous feature, The Game. His immediate reaction was, he says, "Awesome. Where do I sign?" To his horror, Fox had already bought the book. Fincher had had a bad time with Fox on his first movie, Alien3. Although the studio never officially took the film away from him, he says that the version that was released was only 25 percent of what he had envisioned. The experience so traumatized him that he claimed at the time to prefer "having colon cancer to making another studio movie." But the success of Seven, which he directed three years later for the mini-major New Line, put Fincher in a better position to call his own shots.

"Because of the horrible Alien3 thing, every time I hear the name Fox, it just makes me shrivel. I lose circulation in my hands and feet and I think I'm going to become a quadruple amputee. But I felt this was something I had to follow through with. So I met with Laura Ziskin [head of Fox 2000]. I said the movie I see isn't Trainspotting. The real act of sedition is not to do the $3 million version, it's to do the big version. And they were like, 'Prove it.' "

Fincher gave copies of the book to Pitt and Norton. He worked with screenwriter Jim Uhls for about eight months after Uhls turned out a first draft that Fincher felt was far too linear and eliminated the inner-voice narration, which was what had attracted him to the novel in the first place: "It was like taking the voice out of Dashiell Hammett." He put together a schedule, storyboards, a budget. "I went back to Fox with this unabridged dictionary­sized package. I said, 'Here's the thing. Sixty million. It's Edward, it's Brad. We're going to start inside Edward's brain and pull out. We're going to blow up a fucking plane. All this shit. You've got 72 hours to tell us if you're interested.' And they said, 'Yeah, let's go.' "

Fincher's starting point was the narrator, whom he dubbed "Ikea boy." Nameless in the novel, he's referred to as Jack in the film. Fincher says he knew Jack's world and his plight because he once was an Ikea boy too— and not just because he learned how to make films by directing Nike commercials and Madonna videos. "At some points in my life, I would say, 'If I could just spend the extra money, I could get that sofa, and then I'd have the sofa thing handled.' I was reading the book and blushing and feeling horrible. How did this guy know what everybody was thinking? It's funny how everybody has this sense of propriety about this material but in slightly different ways. Edward, who was 29 when he read it, sees it as about his generation— not slackers, but numbed and befuddled and with this pent-up rage. Art Linson [one of Fight Club's producers], who started making movies in 1972, says that he felt all these things. And Brad, who you wouldn't expect to identify with this feeling of impotency, said, 'I know this guy.' It was like a call to arms."

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."

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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