Let us triangulate. David Fincher's Fight Club is not a brainless mosh pit. Nor is it a transgressive masterpiece. As provocations go, this malevolently gleeful satire (closely adapted from Chuck Palahniuk's confrontational first novel) is extremely funny, surprisingly well- acted, and boldly designed at least until its steel-and-chrome soufflé falls apart.
Sometimes a skyscraper is only a skyscraper and a gun only a gun, but not here. Set amid the repressive trappings of ubiquitous phallocracy, Fight Club means to be one sustained psychosexual ejaculation. Edward Norton, who plays the nameless protagonist-narrator, is introduced sucking on a revolver. The rest of the movie flashes back to detail just why and how this conformist have-not learned to stoke his testosterone levels and free his inner lad by playing body-slam with the primal horde. Meanwhile, Fincher flaunts his own mastery with a series of sleekly impossible, which is to say digitally contrived, camera moves.
Fight Club unfolds in the deadpan, five-minutes-into-the-future environment invented by J.G. Ballard. Ballardian, too, is the narrator's job as a corporate "recall coordinator" an occupation that sends him flying all over the country studying car wrecks and imagining midair collisions. Living inside an Ikea catalog above the same generic city Fincher devised for Seven, this nerdy insomniac spends his evenings cruising support groups. His favorite, naturally, is the one for men with testicular cancer, where he develops a moist rapport with a hormonally whacked ex-wrestler (Meat Loaf) and a more ambivalent relationship with another "tourist," this one female.
A kohl-eyed, chain-smoking goth rag doll living in a hovel with a dildo on the dresser, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter, elaborating on her theatrical smolder in Wings of the Dove) is virtually the movie's only woman. Fight Club is boys' night out with a vengeance; the narrator's life really changes when he finds himself in a plane seat next to Tyler Durden, a vision of wildness played by Brad Pitt in red leather jacket, plaid shirt, checked pants, and orange shades. Pitt, as demonstrated in 12 Monkeys, can be a highly charismatic maniac. After the narrator's condo explodes, he moves in with his volatile new ego-ideal, the two pals shacking up in a dank, decrepit Victorian that seems the natural efflorescence of the city's toxic waste dump.
Although Tyler's quaint job as a projectionist has bearing on the movie we are watching, the Norton character is even more captivated by his roommate's reckless taste for bare-knuckled violence. Soon the two are making a spectacle of themselves, staging nocturnal fistfights in the parking lot outside their neighborhood bar. With its gurgling savoir faire and voluptuously decayed mise-en-scène, Fight Club could be Brazil with bloody Chiclets. The narrator flails shirtless by night and shows up proudly battered at work the next morning. Then Marla takes up with Tyler. "She invaded my support groups, now she invaded my home," Norton's character whines. (In a clue to the narrator's fissured mind-set, this morning-after complaint provokes Tyler to wonder if he's back living with his parents.)
For all its sadomasochistic celebration of aggro fun and cosmetic bruises, Fight Club's gross-outs are mainly metaphysical. The narrator and Tyler steal fat from a liposuction clinic to make cosmetic soap. ("We were selling rich women their fat asses back to them.") Inevitably, Tyler's heavy-metal existentialism begins to attract followers. Soon, he's not only freaking out the local wiseguys with the bizarre Ramrod Club he's running down in their basement but pulling more extravagantly antisocial pranks smashing cars, blowing up show windows, terrorizing 7-Eleven clerks.
Ultimately, Fight Club feels compelled to dramatize the lemminglike franchising of Tyler's avant-garde vision and, turning into a fashion-based critique of fascism, begins marching in lockstep toward oblivion. A plot twist anticipated by last winter's generally ignored independent Six Ways to Sunday notwithstanding, the last hour is gruelingly redundant although the swank nihilism of the final, special-effects apocalypse is a climax worth waiting for. So, is this social metaphor or case history? Though Fight Club has been compared to David Cronenberg's Crash, it's more touchy-feely and less poignant in its posturing. There's no search for transcendence here.
Fight Club makes much of its tormented male characters' sense of abandonment: "We're a generation of men raised by women. . . . We are God's unwanted children." Unable to fight their fathers, they slug each other. In the movie's key scene, the narrator confronts his boss and proceeds to punch himself into a bloody pulp. As this self-administered beating suggests, Fight Club makes even the Nietz-schean will-to-power a joke. Here's a question for daytime TV: Is it possible to play Oedipus in a world without Dad?
David Riker's The City is a movie no one will ever accuse of irresponsibility. Six years in the making, developed in community workshops, cast largely with nonactors who are photographed for maximum aesthetic gravitas in astonishingly crisp black and white, Riker's updated, episodic How the Other Half Lives represents New York as a city of lost and exploited Latino immigrants. (Virtually all the dialogue is in Spanish. This is one U.S. indie without a part for Parker Posey.)
The City (opening at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens as well as the Quad) is heroically somber and unfashionably social-realist. Riker alternates tragic, ennobling compositions with recurring shots of his bereft, discarded protagonists living in abandoned cars, scavenging old bricks for pennies as they are dwarfed by an unfeeling environment. However loaded, these images can be heartbreaking in their eloquence. Still, Riker doesn't completely trust their power. His mini-narratives each predicated on an instance of innocence betrayed invariably call attention to their own contrivances, even as the obtrusive dirge of Tony Adzinikolov's score pushes them to the verge of neorealist bathos.
Despite (and ultimately because of) its heavy-handedness, The City is an old-fashioned monument to immigrant courage, and as such, it succeeds in making the invisible evident. The sweatshop where much of the final episode is set is a location more horrific than any of the various rubble-strewn lots. Riker links his four stories with scenes in a Queens photo studio where immigrants come for ID pictures or portraits to send home. Nothing in The City is more haunting than the rapt close-ups of these stoical faces.
North by Northwest, installed at Film Forum for a two-week run, is Alfred Hitchcock's ultimate wrong-man comedy. An empty Brooks Brothers suit (played with splendid insouciance by Cary Grant) is pushed further into the void when he inadvertently assumes the identity of a nonexistent secret agent. Thus cast in a role he cannot understand, the Grant character is a superb textual effect whose fantastic misadventures include the most bravura piece of editing in the Hitchcock oeuvre the nearly silent rendezvous with himself in the horrifying vacuum of a midwestern cornfield.
Released late-summer 1959, this saga of a stranger in a strange land was still playing when Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to tour the U.S. (His trip included several of the movie's locations.) Hitch was right on time and anticipated James Bond by several years in treating the Cold War as a form of Pop Art. Indeed, more matter-of-factly outrageous than the makers of Fight Club, Hitchcock drafted our sacred Mount Rushmore as the stage upon which his hero might resolve his Oedipal scenario.
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