Odds are, if there was a worldwide competition to invent a better universe, few people
over 45 would vote for one designed by David Fincher. The prison planet of Alien 3
(Fincherís directorial debut), the mutilated corpses of Seven, the paranoid universe
of The Game - these could well be places you wouldnít want to live in, not if
youíre getting on in life.
"Fincher's new movie... takes his world view to
On the other hand, maybe they represent things that should be faced up to. Maybe there
is more to life than romantic comedies and action epics in which a few well-toned men and
a couple of token women save the planet from a careening asteroid.
At all events, Fincherís new movie Fight Club, which received its world premiere
at the Venice Film Festival in early September 1999, is not just true to form, it takes
his world view to extremes. Subjects include bare-knuckle fighting, urban terrorism,
nihilism while sex and violence are the very essence.
In an early scene, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton go down into a dank basement and beat
the crap out of one another, almost for the sake of it - in Fight Club, fighting is about
fighting, not winning. There are no rules, other than that you donít tell anyone
about the Club. Itís part of a process of finding yourself in a world where your
identity has become increasingly tied to what you do, where you live, what you wear, what
Fincher himself, who learned his trade making music videos for the likes of Aerosmith,
Madonna and the Rolling Stones - not, you might say, the three easiest sets of clients to
get along with - is equally uncompromising about what he is trying to do.
"You should educate people about the repercussions of violence," he told
Corie Brown of Newsweek. "This is a moral movie - every bit as moral as, say,
M*A*S*H." Brown recorded her reservations about this: "Convincing everyone of
that may be an ugly fight," she concluded.
"Itíll get caught in the morality net," Brad
From which you may deduce that Fight Clubís relationship to Babysitterís
Club, The Joy Luck Club or First Wivesí Club is little more than a semantic
coincidence. Fight Club - not The Fight Club: weíre talking something almost generic
here - is, in the words of one Internet user who saw an advance screening, "angry,
savage and out-there". The word "masterpiece" also figures in references to
the film on the Net.
But Corie has a point: the movie isnít going to get an easy ride from the
self-appointed guardians of social propriety. "Itíll get caught in the morality
net," says Brad Pitt, who co-stars with Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter (in
this film, emphatically not the submissive, sweet young English girl of Room With a View).
"Weíre gonna get hammered. The week that Seven came out, Kathie Lee Gifford said
on her [TV] show, ĎIt is your moral imperative to avoid this movieí. If we
donít get that on this one, then weíve done something wrong."
Fight Club is based on a first novel by Chuck Palahniuk (pronounced, according to
Premiere magazine, Ďpaula-nickí), a 37-year-old (exactly the same age as
Fincher) truck mechanic from Portland, Oregon, who got so fed up with fixing transmissions
that didnít need fixing (his job was to write the repair manual) that he joined a
"doesnít exactly view the world through
That proved a turning point: bye-bye Freightliner Inc, hello literature. It took
Palahniuk three months to finish Fight Club ("It sort of wrote itself," he
claims, using the phrase that strikes terror into anyone who has ever experienced
writerís block). Since then, he has written two more: Survivor, which has also been
optioned by Fox, the producer of Fight Club; and Invisible Monsters, a novel about a woman
disfigured in a drive-by shooting which is due out this month (September). Like Fincher,
Palahniuk doesnít exactly view the world through rose-tinted spectacles.
The Village Voiceís Hillary Johnson described Fight Club, the novel, as a classic
text about "the emasculation of Western civilisation", which she characterises
thus: "Men are failing at work, at school and in families, in theory because the
modern knowledge and skill-oriented world is basically testosterone intolerant. While
menís strength and aggression were useful in establishing the modern world,
theyíre an impediment to its smooth day-to-day operation, a task better suited to the
instincts and behaviours of females."
In other words, Johnson sees Fight Club as belonging right in the middle of the same
debate which drove feminist Susan Faludi to write a book like Stiffed: The Betrayal of the
Modern Man: the recognition that, patriarchy or no patriarchy, sometimes itís hard to
be a man. Now especially.
Not surprisingly, Palahniuk sees it more archetypically - as a generational thing.
"We are the middle children of history," he writes, "raised by television
to believe that someday weíll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we
"Fight Club has a generational energy to it, a protest
energy," Ed Norton
Norton, the 30-year-old Yale-educated movie star who has scored two Oscar nominations
(for Best Supporting Actor in Primal Fear and Best Actor in American History X) from a
mere six screen appearances, sees it in much the same terms. "Fight Club has a
generational energy to it, a protest energy," he told Premiereís Johanna
Schneller. "So much of whatís been represented about my generation has been done
by the baby boomers. They dismiss us: the word slacker, the oversimplification of the
Gen-X mentality as one of hesitancy or negativity. It isnít just aimlessness we feel:
itís deep scepticism. Itís not slackerdom: itís profound cynicism, even
despair, even paralysis, in the face of an onslaught of information and technology.
Weíre much more intensely informed at a much younger age than our parents were."
Norton plays Jack, the narrator of Fight Club, who finds himself sitting next to
Pittís Tyler Durden on a plane. Jack is fed up with his life, despite all the
comforts it has supposedly bought him, and feels a strange affinity to Tyler.
"What do you do?" he asks him.
"I make and sell soap," is the unexpected reply. "Did you know," he
continues, "if you add nitric acid to the soap-making process, you get nitroglycerin?
With enough soap, one could blow up just about anything."
It is Tyler who introduces Jack to the world of Fight Club - which Palahniuk claims he
made up but versions of which are rumoured to exist in Newark, London, Warsaw... anywhere
where you arenít when you speak of the rumour. The point of Fight Club is to
annihilate your previous existence in violence - a process which leads on to a wider
programme of insurrection and revolution, just as accepting the challenge in Seven or
agreeing to play in The Game took those filmsí central characters into another sort
"Picking up where Kubrick left off," Brad
Pitt on director David Fincher
"In Buddhism," Norton told Schneller, "thereís Nirvana, and then
thereís Samsara, the world of confusion and disharmony. That world is our testing
ground, where we have the experiences that help us become enlightened. Iím not saying
that Fight Club is The Book of Living and Dying, but it was kind of that idea: youíre
challenging yourself to break out of the world."
Fox 2000 president Laura Ziskin acquired Fight Club when it was still in manuscript,
but didnít put it forward as a Fox project until Jim Uhls, a young UCLA graduate
making his feature debut, had written a screenplay and Fincher was attached. Pitt, Norton
and Bonham Carter followed soon after, the last-named playing Marla, a chain-smoking
drop-out with whom both men fall in love.
All three reckon Fincher is the only director who could have made the movie.
"Picking up where Kubrick left off," is how Pitt puts it. "Iím gonna
leave that one up to the scholars, but thatís what I think."
"Fight Club is a challenge to an audience"
Itís an intriguing analogy because Kubrick had the same meticulous vision of an
unlovely world; because Kubrick never gave up until he had got exactly what he wanted on
screen ("Fincherís mediocrity is everybody elseís perfection" is
Bonham Carterís take); and because Kubrickís critically acclaimed films took a
while to become classics (except for 2001, which was critically lambasted but became a
classic almost overnight). Likewise, Fight Club is a challenge to an audience lulled into
the world of the aforementioned romantic comedies, wanting their excitement in the form of
the instantly gratifying bite-size chunks of the action blockbusters.
"Every movie you take on makes you nervous," concludes Ziskin. "But if
youíre going to really examine society, you canít be bogus: youíve got to