Friday, November 11, 2005

Film: Fight Club :(

“Fight Club” was bound to be very popular and cult film. Because it pets macho, I suppose every male has at least a little bit of it left in him; Because it has a cool pose; Because it’s morbid; And because it shoots in many targets and if a viewer doesn’t step back and look at the big picture of it, he might think that it aimed in his target in the first place.

First time I saw it, I was confused. All pieces weren’t in it’s place, film changed direction too suddenly and I thought that the director was making some steps back to please the producer and audience that wants twist endings. Each time I saw it again, I liked it less and less, because I realized that the entire film is a big, guideless mess. Because director cheats in many places and because people fall to those cheats. Because it’s a film that fakes having content while it’s, basically, all about visual slickness. But I’m rushing now.

David Fincher is basically a director glorified for films of particular visual style; Style is actually what granted him his first feature gig as the director of the third “Alien” film, and promoted him from the director of Madonna videos to a directing star. But I guess it wouldn’t be fair to dig through someone’s old dirty laundry. Anyway, this approach fit well into a trendy new Hollywood formalism, where directors are appreciated for their style, for visual pyrotechnics, for form; Think about it - most of current Hollywood directing stars – filmmakers that everyone knows about even if they aren’t interested in remembering a director of the film they liked – are authors of films that are a real firework on visual side, while the content is often in supporting role (think: David Fincher, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez); On the other hand, very few directors stars use reduced or conventional visual approach and put emphasis on content (think: Kevin Smith).

This new formalism tents to mistake form with content, or more precisely, to believe that if you pay enough attention to form, it will be able to replace the content. Now, whether you’re going to accept that “Se7en” is a film about the series of gruesomely slickly executed murders, or you’re still going to believe that the fact that they were based on seven mortal sins has some great symbolism and significance to the author, measures how much you’re going to accept delusions of this formalism.

All that I’m saying to explain Fincher as an author. He made five films so far, all of which can be considered good films if you accept that they’re good eye-pleasers and that the answer to the question “What the artist wanted to say” is, in this case, “Nothing in particular”. Probably the film I liked the most was his third, “The Game”, because near the end it really managed to shake up my sense of reality and really made me reconsider how much everything I saw so far was true. Twist endings are supposed to do that, I think. However, most of films today use them simply in vain hope that they’ll surprise viewer a bit, make him go “Well, I didn’t see that coming”. Ironically, since every such film has obligatory twist ending, audience expects it, so the twist ending by it’s nature can’t surprise a viewer anymore.

Back to “Fight Club”. As we all know, it starts with Narrator (played by Edward Norton) who is awfully pressured by living in consumerism society. I suppose everyone can identify a bit with that sensation of being locked in a circle of earning money and spending it on unnecessary things, while nothing of it really brings joy. Some more characters are introduced, including Marla - played by Helena Bonham Carter who with this film made transition from roles like the one in “The room with the view” to lunatic ones (see her in “Novocain”) where certain Victorian dignity gives a peculiar edge.

But here’s the first mistake Fincher makes: Narrator works in a car factory, in crash testing area. By his words, management is largely ignorant of the bad results of crash tests, leading to unsafe cars being put out and raising number of tragic accidents. That serves partly to set that cliché relation big company – little worker, as seen in every satire made in last century, but also to underline Narrator’s feeling of uselessness. But why does he have to underline it when he already presented it very clearly? Wasn’t it enough to just give him a stupid job, did that job have to be for a big, evil company? Frankly, and with no offence, Fincher thinks that his audience is stupid, that he has to underline everything that is important, to shove everything into viewer’s face until he’s certain the viewer has seen it; His narrative style isn’t urging audience to think: the film is thinking for audience and delivering them conclusions it had made; Smart or subversive films don’t try to think instead of audience – that’s what propaganda does. But people often don’t want to think during the film – they just want to be entertained for two hours – so a film that “kindly” thinks so they don’t have to, suits them.

Fincher consistently does this all during the film, and I will get back on it once again, later.

Anyway, on a plane, Narrator meets Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt – a good role but I don’t really remember Pitt actually being good except for in roles similar to this) who is dangerous, violent person, conspiracy theorist, obviously lunatic, all in all a cool guy (for a film – you wouldn’t think he’s cool had you met him in live). So yadda yadda, we all know how it goes already, Narrator and Tyler start a Fight Club where people burdened by the same problems Narrator had in the beginning, can relieve excessive stress by beating each other up. At first, it is hinted that Narrator and Tyler enjoy being beaten up as much as beating up, but later that idea gets lost somewhere at the point faces of losers in fights aren’t even recognizable anymore.

I’ll make something that seems necessary at this point and try to get through in the logic of this: how exactly does beating up (or being beaten up) help with that problem? By one line of thought, Fincher may suggest that violence is the essential need of a man and that the modern world, in which the man is discouraged from the violence, is simply not a natural state. By the other line of thought, perhaps people are trying to break the circle of modern life by temporary regressing to earlier evolutionary state of humanity. That’s all I got. Plausible...

...However, I have a feeling that most of fans never really considered this. For many, a simple connection was made: a man solves his problems with fight. But the problem is this time not something as trivial as the bad guy coming into town; The suggestion that the male will solve all his problems with beating up (just like “Baywatch” lifeguard will solve a problem by saving someone who’s drowning) is a part of macho iconography, but to me it comes even as insulting for the male gender. I’ve read a lengthy article where the scene in which Narrator beats himself up in front of his boss to intimidate him was glorified as one of the most effective scenes in recent film history, and I couldn’t help thinking “But man, that scene is totally stupid!” And seriously, do you believe that something like that would work? Was that scene convincing at all? If you can believe in that scene, I guess the rest of the film is not a problem.

Anyway. Tyler is now out of control and he becomes an organizer of the entire underground terrorist front that wants to destroy the society as it is so that they could build from the scratch. Which is where Fincher makes another mistake: he can’t find the right tone, he can’t decide how to look at Tyler’s efforts. He wants to make him extreme and over the top, yet he wants to point at how he’s essentially right. On the other hand, he wants to fence from Tyler’s guerilla approach, but can’t do it completely because the character has the affection of the target audience. Changes in tone are often, confusing and inappropriate. Then, in the last part of the film, Fincher seems to decide to make his life easier and turn everything into a routine thriller, forgetting everything that he’s done so far.

Which is, I think, the worst fault of this film. It was the thing that confused me the most: the film played as a satire, and then turned up with a standard card from the sleeve of thrillers, a twist ending.

I mentioned twist endings a bit earlier. I said how this device is so overused that it can’t be an element of surprise anymore, which is not a surprise since it has been used ever since Edgar Allan Poe conceived a genre of detective story. Some analytic detective story fans have come to the result that the only ending that still has never been used is the one where the killer is the reader. However, in past few decades, filmmakers came up with a new kind of twist ending: the one where the entire genre of a film is a surprise. That is, at some late point, the film changes its genre and becomes, for instance, a gory thriller from a seemingly naive family drama. On top of my head, “From dusk till down” and “Event Horizon” used this device. ”Fight club” uses it too. So with all good will, it’s nothing we haven’t seen.

But this kind of ending has shattering consequences for the film as it is till that point: the whole credibility of previous satirical charge (no matter how irritatingly exaggerated) is destroyed. From a savage messiah, Tyler is turned into a standard film villain, no more threatening than campy James Bond villains. Everything that’s been said until that point starts sounding like lies – not lies by characters but lies by a director, who shows himself as a simple cheater. He cheats us by talking about things that he knows we’ll identify with just to get us in the film, while he actually doesn’t care about any of those things.

Why? Why pull such stunt and ruin laboured efforts of the previous hour?

As I said, at first I thought that Fincher backed up by the request of the producer who requested a twist ending. Then I considered the thought that Fincher was aiming at people who asked for satire in most of the film, and provided a twist ending just for those who wouldn’t think they got what they paid for. I also had a thought that this kind of an easy escape from the confusion he made by not being able to determine his standpoint in the entire story. Someone once claimed that the entire film is actually supposed to be a psychological thriller and that the middle part is an elaborate lead-on, but I don’t bite on that. Most of the film isn’t centered on any of characters, it’s not happening primarily in the heads, most of the film is looking at society and trying to dissect it. Last frames of the film, buildings being brought down to realize Tyler’s plan, Narrator’s suggestion of the new beginning, claim that Fincher’s concern is society for the most part; He added those scenes as if to make sure that someone won’t mistake his film for a psychological piece. The bottom line, the last third of the film can be considered a psychological thriller, but that leaves us with the same problem.

At the end, my conclusion was that Fincher simply thought that this kind of ending is cool, so he wrote it in. Perhaps he did consider how this ending is affecting the rest of the story, but he didn’t care. Because, as I said several times, he doesn’t care about it; He doesn’t care about the content; It’s there to provide him opportunity for his trademark firework. Therefore, he didn’t think that it’s a big deal, doing something that would ruin the most of the film and make it a complete mess.

Earlier I said how Fincher sticks things into your face; He explains too much, his narration is too intrusive, it’s like a guy shoving his face into yours so he’d make sure that you pay attention to him while he’s talking. The scene where this came as particularly grating is the one where Narrator finally finds out a truth about Tyler. Yes, yes, Tyler is Narrator’s alter-ego, the person Narrator imagined all the time, while people call him Tyler Durden. Once this was said, Fincher should’ve left it to viewer to recalls of the film he just saw and fit the pieces together; He should’ve left audience enjoy in seeing the past events under the new light; What about lazier part of the audience, you say. Well, lazy part of the audience is confident into a director that he’ll put all pieces together, so it’s all the same to them. Anyway, what Fincher does instead is a streak of flashbacks shown in new light (with Narrator in a role of leader), explaining everything to bits and pieces, thus denying audience that last chance to use their own brain. I chuckled when one friend of mine said: “Why did he have to go and explain it all over? I understood it all at once. What kind of person doesn’t understand it?”

As if to show that one effective scene is more important to him than the consistency, Fincher returns the last scene to the satire and shows the society shattering with hope to be rebuilt again. Nice scene, sure, it can make you carried away if you manage to forget the rest of the film.

In conclusion, the thing I hate the most about “Fight club” is the hypocrisy. It is a visual film but it doesn’t play like one. Instead, it plays as a message film, pretending to care about issues that trouble us, just to show its real face once it tangles up so much that it can’t give a honest resolution. It gets its audience among people who want strictly visual films, among those who want a message film but get fooled into believing that “Fight club” is such film, and among modern macho men who still want to believe that all problems can be resolved with fists.

But when you make a film, it has to play as unity. It has to be coherent and consistent all through. You can’t shoot parts of it as if they are separate films, put them together and expect people to like it for some of its parts. You have to have an idea of what kind of film you are trying to make. Fincher didn’t have it when he was making “Fight club”.


At 2:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A great entry (as always), but I'd like to point out that "Fight Club" is actually based on a book of the same name. It has the same twist ending, so it's not entirely the director's fault: he would have had to work with what he was given.

Still, I agree, the "twist" was really poorly executed, it was like the director assumed you were too dumb to figure it out. And the sad thing is that some people (whom I talked to) STILL didn't get it.

At 4:49 AM, Blogger Srdjan said...

Thanks for the nice comments :)
I did make that mestake when I pictured Fincher writing a script even though he wasn't it's scriptwriter (and indeed, film is based by the book). Of course, if he didn't like the ending as it is, he'd probably have it changed; usually director has no problems with making writer rewrite the script or doing it themselves - unless there's a pressure from producer to, for instance, keep the happy ending or give more screen time to a particular actor. Though, even with this ending, I think that there was a way to make the ending more consistent with the rest of the film, only it would require subtlety which is not really Fincher's stronger point.


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