Total Film – October, 1999


Prepare for the inevitable tabloid backlash and moral-minority crusade against
David Fincher’s latest, in which Brad Pitt and Ed Norton batter each other
black and blue on the streets of corporate America. And love it.

David Fincher, the director behind the darkly brooding thrillers Se7en and
The Game, seems keen to leave the meaning of his latest movie Fight Club open
to interpretation. Until commercial pressures to feature pin-up star Brad Pitt
won through, his preferred design for the posters was simply a bar of soap embossed
with the words “Fight Club”. The reasoning? Pitt’s character
Tyler Durden is a soap salesman. And he made a couple of teaser “public
information” trailer, one where Pitt explains to the audience where the
cinema emergency exits are before commenting: “Did you know urine is sterile?
You can drink it.” Deemed too obscure to promote the movie, Fight Club’s
trailer is likely to take a more normal form.

Small wonder then that the press conference for Fight Club at this year’s
Venice Film Festival was open to interpretation too. The participants—director
Fincher, actors Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter and Meal Loaf—took
the stage at the Sale Perla theatre to a rousing reception, but within minutes
were embroiled in a stand-off with the assembled international journalists.
Soon, Brad Pitt was mumbling “Man, this is ugly…” into his
microphone while Meat Loaf was biting his tongue. Bonham Carter said little
more than “That’s crap!” while Norton and Fincher attempted
to articulate some kind of defense against what they clearly felt was an unwarranted
onslaught from the international media. Gloves off all round.

Everyone seemed baffled by the other side’s response. The film makers
felt mauled by the relentlessly single-track questioning—violence, violence,
violence,–while the press were surprised that Fincher and Co had been unprepared
for this. If you make a movie where yuppies engage in consensual bare-knuckle
free-for-alls, then isn’t it naïve to be affronted by questions comparing
it to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange? And after America’s 12 separate
mass shootings this year, including the Columbine High School massacre, isn’t
it fair to ask about Fincher’s responsibilities as a film-maker?

Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote the original novel, certainly intended to court
controversy with his first book. Frustrated by a dead-end job as a Freightliner
service researcher [he’d repair truck engines and write manuals for each
procedure], he poured out his worries and resentments in just three months,
basing the characters on his friends. Fight Club isn’t about learning
to fight well, it’s about learning what it feels like to be beaten down,
and this idea too came about from Palahniuk’s personal experiences.

Looking for ways to test himself, he worked with the homeless and the terminally
ill, because they scared him, and even convinced a med-student friend to let
him dissect a corpse. Says Palahniuk: “We are cushioned by this kind of
make-believe, unreal world and we have no idea what we can survive because we
are never challenged or tested.” Like the characters in his book who face
beatings as a way of reinforcing their masculinity, he faced his fears, and
it’s this aspect that director Fincher feels people should take to heart.

“There’s no way of getting around the ideas of an emasculating
society that Chuck was talking about in the book,” says Fincher. “But
I also think about it as a darkly comic tale of maturity. I really saw myself
in the Edward Norton character. I remember being 27 and going: ‘OK, now
it’s time to start buying furniture and making a decision about a cappuccino
machine.’ And then four years later you say: ‘Well, I spent all
this money and I bought all this shit and it really isn’t me…’
Who really gives a shit? So there were a lot of things in the book that I thought
were unbelievably funny.”

For Edward Norton, who plays the film’s narrator, the notion that cinema
should steer clear of any subject regarded as ‘dangerous’ by some
is clearly hogwash.

“If art in general was limited by fear of the copycat consequence, should
Nabokov have written Lolita because of the fear that some older man would molest
a young girl? It’s ludicrous to suggest that the only role of art should
be to present escapist or romantic or positive images. That’s more dangerous
to me than the role of dangerous art. It’s a completely legitimate role
of art and film as art to hold a mirror up to our flaws and our dysfunctions
and try to examine the roots of them.”

Critics who just focus on the violence are, says Norton, missing the point
of Fight Club. “The book expresses thoughts that I’ve had or I feel
in the energy of the people of my age. I’ve always thought that a lot
of things that are written about our generation by our parents’ generation
were too simplistic or too dismissive of us as a Gen X, slacker, aimless generation.
I’ve never related to any of that stuff and this was the first thing I
read that I said: ‘Yeah, this expresses the depth of the numbness and
despair that I feel in a lot of people I know.’ And you know what people
seem to overlook? It’s very funny.”

Pitt, too, could relate to the theme of young men suffering an identity crisis.
“This script was the first time that I actually got really excited. I
heard a unique voice, a new voice and with fincher leading it I thought it would
be very exciting. I was drawn to the character of Tyler. There’s a bit
where he is saying ‘advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, buying
shit we don’t need…’

“I actually find that more destructive than some of the complaints we
have been hearing about violence. I find this truly damaging, this kind of focus
on exterior beauty, things, clothes, cars. The film attacks that notion and
gives the idea that maybe we are heading in the wrong direction…”

Grudgingly, Fincher eventually admits that he’s rather pleased that the
violence in the film has had such an impact. “I’m glad that it was
violent because after a year of storyboarding and rehearsals and stuff you do
get stressed and start to worry that it’s completely tame.”

Which loops back to the questions at Venice: isn’t the film irresponsible
in promoting an activity that its core audience—young men—could
easily imitate? Palahniuk has said that “I’d rather have them beating
the crap out of each than walking into McDonald’s with a sawn-off shotgun.”
What about Fincher?

“I just hoped that the book and maybe the film would deal with some of
the feelings that young men have about their place in the world and I don’t
think the film ever strives to find a solution for it,” he says. “I
don’t think anybody is ever responsible for somebody else’s behavior.
I think we have to be responsible to ideas that we present in a prurient or
a glamorized way but I don’t think the violence in this movie is portrayed
in a glamorous way.

“With regards to ‘will people emulate what is going on?’
I don’t know. I don’t have a problem with people starting fights
clubs. But I don’t think we made it with any intention of getting people
all riles up and sending them out on the streets.”