Sunday, 19 February 2012

Fight Club (1999)

Dir. David Fincher
Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf

“The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.
The second rule of Fight Club is: YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT FIGHT CLUB!”

This could be a short review.

The unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton) is a victim. He works a good job at an automobile company, assessing faults in their cars. He goes where he is told and toes the company line. He fills his apartment with IKEA furnishings. He has a very decent stereo and a wardrobe that is getting towards very respectable. His life is lived by other peoples’ rules – do this, say that, buy these. He is 30 now and knows the next thing expected of him in the Game of Life is marriage and children. He never makes any decision for himself and never takes any responsibility for his actions. He cannot even sleep at night.

Then he meets Tyler. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) is the mirror opposite of everything the Narrator is. “I look like you want to look, I fuck like you want to fuck, I am smart, capable and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.”  He is free-wheeling, anarchic, his own master. He lives off the grid. He argues that you don’t need all your possessions: “The things you own end up owning you”. His ‘career’, if that is what it can be called, consists of stealing the waste human fat from liposuction centres, converting it into soap, and selling it back to upscale department stores. He also finds a little time to splice pornographic images into family films as a cinema projectionist and, ahem, ‘adulterate’ the food in the fancy restaurants he works as a waiter in. When the Narrator returns from a business trip to find that his flat has exploded he ends up living with Tyler in his squat. A beautiful bromance develops. The Narrator becomes more like Tyler in some ways. Notably together they set up Fight Club, a (literally) underground society where men from all across the social spectrum can come together and indulge in the most primal masculine act of all: beating the living shit out of each other. It is not done for money, or glory. It is done because without having experienced a fight and without having experienced pain, how can a man say that he has lived? Letting go of possessions, of status, of self-regard is the only way, in Tyler’s eyes, of finally becoming ‘free’.

But then something comes between them. Tyler starts having sex with Marla (Helen Bonham Carter, establishing the goth-queen look that would so bewitch Tim Burton), a woman the Narrator had met when they both started crashing the same victim self-help groups. Tyler tells the Narrator to never talk about him with Marla; in return the Narrator begins to suspect that Tyler is keeping things from him. Fight Clubs start to spread across the local area. Participants are given ‘home work’, such as getting a random stranger to start a fight with them, a fight which they are to lose. This then develops into a dedicated cadre of black-clad urban commandos (or ‘space monkeys’) pitching up at Tyler’s house. They become thoroughly deconstructed, not even having names. Similar groups (or, to be more accurate by this point, ‘cells’) spring up across the entire country. And then they start planning for ‘Project Mayhem’… The Narrator starts to panic as he realises that everything he and Tyler created together has spun out of his control. At this point Tyler vanishes. In a panicky cross-country chase the Narrator finally comes to realise precisely who Tyler is and what he has planned.

The film, then, essentially comes down to a battle for control, between the tyrannical Tyler and the beaten-down Narrator, over the organisation they created together. Tyler gets stronger as the Narrator gets weaker; as soon as the Narrator is absent or asleep Tyler manages to ramp up his plans. In the end it comes down to two climactic face-to-face meetings. In the first, in an anonymous hotel bedroom, Tyler points out certain home truths, stating as fact that the Narrator wants Project Mayhen to succeed just as much as he does. In the second, when the Narrator desperately tries to prevent the realisation of Tyler’s plans he finally comes to the conclusion that only by finally letting go and taking responsibility for his own actions can he finally defeat his nemesis.

Living off the fat of the land:
The Narrator follows Tyler's lead

There are certain movies – like American Flyers – that one cannot help but watch without thinking “This is so ‘80s”. I have always said that while you can get ‘’80s movies’, ‘’70s movies’ and so on, you never really get ‘’90s movies’. I take that back. Fight Club is a ‘90s movie. It has a late ‘90s cod-philosophy. There is a resentment about how the world has turned out, a world of advertising selling consumerism. Brands are all over the place: Calvin Klein, Volkswagen Beetles, IBM. We see the Narrator on the toilet with his trousers around his ankles flicking through what we at first assume to be a pornographic magazine but instead turns out to be the IKEA catalogue. Allegedly there is a Starbucks coffee cup in every single scene of the film. And then there is a reaction against this, an anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist anger like that witnessed at Seattle’s anti-globalisation riots (which took place in 1999, the year of the film’s release). Tyler expresses his contempt of “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 have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… Our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

At the same time the styling, right from the opening computer-generated speed tour of the brain’s synapses, through the typeface of the titles and the pumping Dust Brothers soundtrack, effectively took me back to my time at university when I first saw the film. I could not even tell you whether Brad Pitt’s hipster-cool look with his leather jacket, tank top and tinted sunglasses merely reflected the age or served as pop-culture inspiration for it. Ed Norton’s drab washed-out shirts and Helena Bonham-Carter’s messy hair and chunky heels were definitely the former however.

What have I learnt about Delaware?
Assuming this is Delaware it’s pretty god-damn scuzzy. I say ‘assuming’ because nowhere does it mention specifically that the film is set there. There are clues. Apparently the zip and telephone area codes on Tyler’s business card are Wilmington, Delaware, numbers. The sign outside the Narrator’s apartment block proclaims it to be “A Place to be Somebody” which is the monumentally bland slogan of the city of Wilmington. And in one scene Tyler and the Narrator discuss that apparently other Fight Clubs have started, and list their locations as Delaware City and New Castle (both located just south of Wilmington) and also Penn’s Grove (which is situated just across the river in New Jersey. And finally there are all those office blocks headquartering credit card companies. And many credit card companies are indeed headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware, so it makes sense for the film to be set there.

But as I say, it is seriously scuzzy. The streets are perpetually rain-slick, the roads lined with self-help groups in church halls and neon-fronted cinema marquees, grand buildings sub-divided into flats or left to collapse through rot and mould. A cityscape has not looked so horrific since Taxi Driver.

Can we go there?
The film might be sort-of set in Delaware, but it was not filmed there; the good burghers of Delaware forbade it. Gee thanks guys. That really helps. But we are meant to believe that the locale is that of Wilmington – even though the city referred to on Tyler’s business card and in the news clippings seems to be called Bradford instead.

The film was actually shot in many locations in and around Los Angeles, with most of the interiors being created at the 20th Century Fox Studios in Century City. ‘Lou’s Tavern’, the bar where the first Fight Club is formed, is in Wilmington however – Wilmington, California. It was a real-life strip bar called ‘Shipwreck Joey’s’ and was located near Los Angeles Harbour. It also appeared in the movie To Live and Die in L.A. Sadly it was demolished back in ’99. Tyler Durden’s house – or, rather, its exterior – was constructed especially for the film nearby at (I think) 240 N Neptune Avenue. It too was torn down after filming. This means the actual number of genuine, still-existing locations is pretty limited. Marla’s apartment is in the Hotel Bristol at 423 W 8th Street which reopened as housing units in 2010 after standing empty for seven years; the Narrator’s apartment block (the ‘Pearson Towers’ in the film) is actually Promenade Towers at 123 S Figueroa Street. Both are in Downtown L.A. The launderette where Marla steals clothes from the washers is ‘Laundryland’ at 4371 Melrose Avenue. The church where Marla is first met at the cancer victims’ support group is St Brendan’s Catholic Church at 310 S Van Ness Avenue. And the grand restaurant where Tyler spiked the lobster bisque is the dining room of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel on South Grand Avenue. Photos of some of the locations can be found here.

Overall Rating: 4/5


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