Friday, February 19, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Fight Club"

"Is that what a man looks like?"

To me, that is the central question of 1999's "Fight Club," a revolutionary movie about revolutionary men in a time of complacence.

Like a thousand cinematic rebels without causes before them, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt play young men uncertain about their place in the world. Lacking fathers, traditional male role models or even identities beyond what consumer culture dictates for them, they define themselves by rejecting the definition that society has placed upon them.

To wit: Study, work hard, play nice, climb the corporate ladder and you'll be rewarded with a home with nice furniture, a decent wardrobe, lots of cool gadgets and a woman to marry so you can replicate your experience for a new generation of men.

Norton plays Cornelius -- though that name may just be an alias -- who works for a major auto company, calculating whether it's more profitable to fix safety problems discovered in their cars, or cheaper to just let people die. Troubled by insomnia, he finds an outlet in attending therapy groups for troubles he does not have: Testicular cancer, infectious diseases, tuberculosis, etc. Only in the emotional outpouring between the afflicted can he find the release that helps him get by.

He's annoyed by the presence of Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a chain-smoking fellow "tourist" who is also faking her way into sessions. Cornelius is a faker, but he needs to believe others' pain is real. They come to an understanding not to expose each other by splitting up their groups.

On a business flight soon after Cornelius meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a inexpressible cool guy who looks how he would like to look, fucks the way he would like to fuck, and does things he only dreams of having the balls for. They become friends and roomies when Cornelius' swank condo is blown up in a case of suspected arson, and he moves into the run-down condemned shanty Tyler calls home.

On a whim after a night of drinking, they each reveal that have never been in a fight. How can they call themselves men if they've never experienced the male ritual of combat with fists? They have a bout that's quite bloody but holds no animus. They're not fighting each other, but their status as boys who need this rite to call themselves men.

I'll stop myself right here to explain that near the end of the film it's unveiled that Cornelius and Tyler are actually the same person, halves of a split personality. It was a big reveal in 1999, but after more than a decade I believe the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired.

The film, directed by David Fincher from Jim Uhls' screenplay (based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk) was groundbreaking in that it was the first mainstream Hollywood film in which the reality of everything we'd seen is ultimately revealed to be false, or at least faulty. It was used so much in subsequent, inferior films like "Vanilla Sky" that it soon become tiresome. But back then, audiences hadn't been so gobsmacked by a turn of the plot since "The Crying Game."

This essay's opening quote comes from a brief, seemingly unimportant moment when Tyler and Cornelius board a city bus. Spying an ad for one of those Calvin Klein/Abercrombie type of outfits, Cornelius nods toward the portrait of a mostly nude boy-man, his body impossibly lean and completely hairless, like one of God's angels rendered in marble and put on a pedestal.

Is that what a man looks like? The irony, of course, is that Brad Pitt epitomizes the new standard of male beauty, a denuded figure that seems stuck in the in-between years of adolescence.

But beyond superficial indications, the question goes deeper. Does a man wear a tie and a white dress shirt and go to an office every day? Does he bring home a nice paycheck and drive an expensive car and have sex with lots of beautiful women? Are these the things that make him a man? In an era where it's no longer necessary for a male to prove his worth by strength and deed, these Madison Avenue cues have become their substitute -- and, Tyler argues, unworthy ones.

Tyler starts a movement built around underground fight clubs. There are some professional types like Cornelius, but for the most part their recruits are the disaffected and the downwardly mobile: Waiters, mechanics, bartenders -- the people in service jobs who keep things running to ensure the comfort of the comfortable, and who are looked down upon for their efforts.

The famous first two rules of Fight Club are that you do not talk about Fight Club, but of course people do and they spread all over the country. The combat is not about winning and losing, but the rush of fighting another man, just to say you are capable of doing so. The primal reasons for doing so in a modern society may have vanished, but these wayward souls want to -- literally -- get medieval on each other.

The film's chassis gets looser and looser in the second half, the suspension becomes balky and the steering grows uncertain. The movie (unlike our two anti-heroes) never drives right off the road, but it careens through the breakdown lane at times.

Tyler expands the fight clubs into something called Project Mayhem, with random acts of vandalism against corporate symbols evolving into outright terrorism. The final image, of skyscrapers of industry collapsing upon themselves in a manner shockingly similar to the World Trade Center towers, feels blasphemous now.

At this point in the story, the Tyler/Cornelius split has been revealed, so the audience isn't really sure how much of what we're seeing is real and how much the duo's collective, fermented imagination.

The character of Marla flits in and out as the plot demands. Cornelius can't stand her, but she and Tyler start having lots of wild sex, which of course is actually with him, since it's his alter-ego. It's not really so much of a well-defined character as the connective tissue between scenes where the filmmakers want to go.

"Fight Club" is one of those movies that needs the separation of years for proper perspective. When I first saw it, I thought it was a spectacular failure of a film, ambitious and unwieldy. More than 10 years later, it looks like a truly audacious movie with a lot of important ideas underneath the kooky terrorism plot and spurting blood of the club's arena. Give it another 10 for the true reckoning.

3 stars

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