the better truth

the better truth

Friday, February 10, 2012

Fight Club (1999, reviewed 2011)

Fight Club Beaten By Heavy Idea

Two years before 9/11 a mainstream Hollywood film was released which references “Ground Zero” and “terrorists”. The cataclysmic ending shows the anti-hero holding hands with his girlfriend as a vast number of buildings in the financial district are blown to pieces. It is odd for the film industry to be so prescient. It is standard fair for the people in the dream factory to be late for the party. For example the industry took a stand on Vietnam many years AFTER the war had ended (“Coming Home”, “The Deer Hunter”….) Although “Fight Club” fails to be a direct commentary on international global intrigue or Arab extremism, there is an eerie, disquieting feeling one gets viewing this work in 2012. When asked why the terrorist were targeting the headquarters of credit card companies the answer seems to be lifted from a Ron Paul supporter: “if we blown up the credit card companies then no one will know what the debt is…. there will be chaos. “ Given the financial debacles of the last few years it is doubtful this dialogue would have okayed by a jittery mainstream film producer. After all scaring people sells…. But terrifying the audience is never good box office. Even for 1999 this film is testing the delicate balance between selling tickets and sowing fear. Whatever one feels about the artistic merits of the production it is a brave effort when measured against the sea of mind-numbing features. This film dares us to think. I accept the challenge.

There is always a problem with corporate sponsored entertainment that highlights revolution and sub-culture. Niggers With Attitude, the pioneering gangsta rap group that vividly portrayed brutal LA street life, had a majority of its fans in white suburban enclaves. Gwenth Paltrow, in her Marie Antoniotte-like blog called GOOP, highlighted the fact that she played NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” in her photo spread documenting her Harpers Bazaar cover shoot. It would be interesting to know if the number of subscriptions to Harpers Bazaar in South Central is greater than zero. In short, when the revolution is televised make sure you understand who owns the broadcasting company. The shows might be entertaining and exhilarating but there is a difference between Che and a Che T-shirt. Having made the point that “Fight Club” is about the bottom line and not real social commentary the producers might have stumbled into dangerous territory in spite of themselves. It is interesting to note that only a Hollywood film about a narcissistic, nihilistic socio-path would feel the need to create a love interest in order to frame this incredibly dark film as some sort of hybrid romance. What was Helen Bonham Carter doing in this movie? Unfortunately it is very apparent that Ed Norton’s real love is Brad Pitt. They are the REAL couple – the fact that Brad is actually an imaginary extension of Ed doesn’t undercut the genuineness of their romance. In short if Ed has the ability to beat himself to a pulp – it seems equally likely that he’d be able to fuck his own brains out. There is something forced about Ed’s struggle. Carter instead of being the motivating agent seems more of an awkward bystander. Unfortunately leading men as overt homosexual lovers is bad box office. This conundrum was illustrated in the classic “Bonnie and Clyde”. Although the scriptwriters were open to hinting at Clyde’s real life sexual preferences – the suits gave a resounding “NO”. The men upstairs were right in terms of ticket sales but not in terms of artistry. “Fight Club” has more homo-erotic sadomasochistic imagery than a soft core pornographic movie but the presence of Carter shields the producers from any charge of being “queer”. It’s odd think of a movie showcasing radical anarchy to be worried about homophobia but Carter keeps the film in the closet. Imagine what an audience member might think about Ed Norton’s serial embrace of a morbidly obese, castrated, former body builder without the allusions to his interest in Ms. Carter. This would certainly not be good box office but it would have rendered a more genuine anti-social radical. The failure to “go all the way” eats away at the film’s foundation.

Angst about ubiquitous, soulless consumer culture is fertile ground for artistic commentary. The essence of the film can be crystallized in Brad Pitt’s sermon to his troops:

I see all this potential, and I see squandering, God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history man… no purpose or place… we got no great war, no great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, movie gods and rock stars… but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re VERY VERY PISSED OFF.

The most interesting reference in the speech is to “the great war and the great depression”. Immediately one shifts back to the 1950s – the original pre-Vietnam generation that was raised in a society of boundless post-war prosperity and American supremacy. The Pope for the ironically disillusioned youth was Alan Ginsburg. His sermon, the poem Howl, begins with:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and
saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy
among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy &
publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear,
burning their money in wastebaskets and listening
to the Terror through the wall,

In this comparison Ginsburg kicks “Fight Club’s” ass. It would be foolish to expect a commercial Hollywood feature to compete with a classic poem but herein lies the problem for the makers of “Fight Club”. When you address big issues you are stepping into the ring with heavyweight champions. They’re going to break Rule #3 of “Fight Club”: If someone says "stop" or goes limp, taps out, the fight is over. In other words if you’re going to show buildings and computers being blown to bits in savage portrayal of the evils of consumerism you’re going to have to confront the ghosts of filmmakers past. In this case it’s the closing sequence of “Zabriskie Point”. I challenge anyone to watch ( and not consider Antonioni the winner by a knock out.

Another unfortunate aspect of “Fight Club” valiant battle to say something “important” about the dehumanization of modern culture was the inclusion of the troupe of “class warfare”. Once again the filmmakers seem to possess déjà vu as this tired chestnut seems to have raised its ugly head in the contemporary Presidential debates. Most of the bourgeois (I am a card carrying member) consider suicidal terrorists to be completely insane…. But there is crazy and there is CRAZY. There is Osama Bin Laden, a selective reader of history and religion who justifies strategic murdering of innocents by brainwashing highly educated adults with a abhorrent propaganda. Then there is Joseph Kony, a rebel leader who raids unguarded rural villages murdering adults and taking their children as slaves to fight in his “Lords Resistance Army”. The goal is to set up a country based on the “10 commandments” with this fearsome child–army protected from bullets by special holy water. So far two million people have been displaced and thousands maimed and murdered. Although Brad Pitt would like to think of himself in the Bin Laden mold – the audience is in on the fact that he’s more of a Joseph Kony. The attempts to sanitize Pitt’s gruesome world view with a sprinkle of Marxism and a hollow visions of social justice only make Pitt/Norton inauthentic. The filmmakers counter Pitt’s savage attack on a immigrant, holding a gun to his head while grilling him about his dreams, as a deranged way of “helping” that refugee to focus himself so he can be prosperous. Pitt steals his drivers license and says he will “check up on him”. In a latter scene we briefly see a wall filled with drivers licenses. He’s “helping” scores of people. Once again his attacks on buildings are given the fig leaf of “being at night when noone is them”; as if this is some sort of victimless crime. Ed Norton is beside himself with grief when the overweight mommie-figure becomes a police causality. His counter-ego, Brad Pitt, coldly quips “you have to break an egg to make an omelet”. This seemingly shocking duality really can’t hold a candle to the real world. Truth is far uglier than fiction. Joseph Konys has no such maudlin sentimentality. If he must personally rape and maim hundreds of children it is all in the good faith of knowing you have to break a few eggs etc. This is perhaps the greatest failing of “Fight Club”. In trying to humanize characters who eschew the basic elements of humanity the work becomes merely shocking. If their boundless depravity becomes unleashed then the story really provokes reflection; otherwise the characters are abstract stick figures. Another hallmarks of cartoons that distances the viewer's engagement is their physical resilience. No matter what befalls Bugs Bunny – stabbings, violent fights explosions – he always returns unscathed in the next scene. Note that during the most gruesome interludes of “Fight Club” the participants wounds are superficial. There is remarkable absence of the type of brain damage or paralysis one would expect in bare-knuckled, free for alls on concrete floors. Angry young men have been known to be seduced by the allure of carefree mayhem. One need not be schoolmarm to be concerned about “the message”. This is not to say that the filmmakers should vilified for pandering to our collective blood-lust. In a sense - that’s their job.

The makers of “Fight Club” waged a hard battle. It is difficult to imagine upper management green-lighting a meditation on using extreme psychotic male aggression as a counter attack on mainstream consumerism. That takes guts. Those could not have been easy meetings. It is important to give credit where credit is due. However in a world of real-life monsters that terrorize millions with bankrupt philosophies the argument can be made that this work glamorizes charismatic demons. This is an old conundrum in features dating back to the days of “Public Enemy”. Does the “Godfather” film romanticize Mafioso lifestyle? Yes, but the artistry is strong enough to take the hit. “Fight Club” doesn’t stand up. The challenge in boxing is, no matter the barrage of punches, never let your guard down. “Fight Club” fails in its defenses by pandering to the culture it ostensibly wants the audience to question. If you want to make a film with a amoral anti-hero one can only provoke real thought by letting them, in the words of Aleister Crowley, “do what thou Wilt”. Anything goes.... anything. One of the most successful scenes in “Fight Club” is where Ed Norton blackmails his boss by beating himself silly and in the process destroying his superior’s office. It’s all there - a demonic determination to annihilate the system in a disconcertingly unconventional manner. Who knows what comes next. In trying to understand this monster it draws a critical eye inward. What exactly do we, as a society, expect. If the “terrorists” have a real moral code and have conventional ideas about fairness and justice it prevents a candid view of our own personal darkness. In short “Fight Club” fails to be artistically clever enough to merely entertain while being ironically timid in presenting the big picture. Brad Pitt, embodiment of Ed Norton’s id, does battle with one hand tied behind his back. Perhaps the paradigm film in the genre of digging in society’s basement would be Pasolini’s “Salo”. The director’s reward for bringing forth this creation: he was beaten to death then run over with his own car. There is a price to pay for bravery.... but it’s not good box office.

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