Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/08/2000.
Little did I know at the time that within a year, I'd be going out with someone who rated Fight Club as one of her top three favourite movies. Which is why this site's official Tenth Birthday Post is affectionately dedicated to The Belated Birthday Girl. Cheers, darlin'.
Meanwhile, thanks to the BBFC unpleasantness mentioned in the links section, we didn't get a UK equivalent of this full US special edition until 2007. Still, at least we've got it now. See the Amazon link at the bottom of the page, inevitably.
Here's the plot of one of the funniest damn movies to get released in 1999. Pay attention, this gets complicated.
An unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton) is going through some sort of male existential crisis: his job sucks, he can't sleep, his possessions bore him. He finds comfort of a sort by gatecrashing several support and counselling groups: pretending to have testicular cancer, sickle cell anemia and any number of other ailments in a desperate attempt to get sympathy.
Bear with me here, it gets even funnier.
Driven away from his beloved groups by the sudden appearance of fellow "tourist" Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), the Narrator is at his lowest ebb when he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) during a plane journey. By comparison, Tyler is a powerhouse of energy, "free in all the ways that you are not". Over the course of an evening, Tyler expounds his philosophy on the sterility of modern living, and his solution to the general problem of not being able to feel anything any more: fighting. "How much can you know about yourself when you've never been in a fight?" From these humble beginnings, the pair form an underground movement where men meet up in back rooms and beat the living shit out of each other in order to reconnect with the physicality of existence.
You're probably rolling in the aisles by now, I can tell.
The Narrator moves in with Tyler and begins to treat him as some sort of personal guru... as do the other members of Fight Club. And from here on in, things start to go pear-shaped. Marla reappears on the scene to have frequent and vociferous sex with Tyler, to the Narrator's mixed disgust and envy. Tyler begins to stretch the definition of Fight Club, retraining its members as Space Monkeys and putting them to work on the crypto-fascist, anti-corporate program known as Project Mayhem. By the time the Narrator finally discovers where all this is leading, the stage is set for a climactic psychological and physical apocalypse.
Laff riot, or what?
Chuck Palanhiuk's novel Fight Club could take all these elements and gradually introduce them over the course of a complex narrative to carefully guide the reader towards the staggering conclusion. But David Fincher didn't have this luxury when he directed the movie version. An entire film has to be sold on the basis of a single image or a one-line pitch, and the movie of Fight Club boiled down most easily into the image of a half-naked Norton and Pitt beating each other to a bloody pulp. Fincher couldn't win: the blokes who came expecting Kickboxer 5: The Bloodening got pissed off with the small amount of violence in the movie and the high amount of weirdness, while the intellectual crowd were just too scared to go in the cinema. The film died on its arse when released in Autumn 1999, and indirectly led to the head of production at Fox being given the boot.
Almost a year later, as Fight Club gets a new lease of life on video and DVD, it's become my personal crusade to shove this movie in the faces of people who avoided seeing it in cinemas last year, and watch their delight as they discover it's nothing like what they expect. As for the Kickboxer 5 audience, it's tempting to see their disappointment as being one of the film's best jokes.
Because as I keep on insisting, Fight Club is funny: a point that tends to get lost in all the analysis. At its most basic level, it's a very black farce of misunderstanding and confusion: what, you thought it was coincidence that Edward Norton spends the last fifteen minutes of the film running around without any trousers? While some critics seem to think the film endorses the anarchy and destruction of its second half, it's surely obvious to anyone with half a brain that it's actually taking the piss. If you think that the moronic Space Monkeys are some sort of advert for fascism, you've definitely missed another one of the film's best jokes. I wouldn't go so far to describe the film as satire, though: that implies some sort of focussed point of view, which is definitely lacking here. The closest comparison I've been able to make is with the films of British arthouse director Peter Greenaway: he shares with Fincher an outstanding eye for an image, a tendency to overload a movie with visual and verbal ideas, and a problem with trying to fit a coherent story around it all.
Fight Club has the balls to hurl around big ideas about God, consumerism, masculinity, identity and the ghastliness of airline catering, while leaving it to the viewer to decide which ones to accept or reject. (A textbook definition of a 'dangerous' film if ever there was one.) And it crams all these ideas into a big effects-packed theme-park of a Hollywood movie, with three stunning performances at its centre. Edward Norton, hilariously sleepwalking through his life like Wile E. Coyote going over a cliff and walking on air till he realises where he is. Brad Pitt, abusing his star image to full effect as he gaily skips the line between charisma and plain bloody insanity. And Helena Bonham Carter, tying the two male characters together in a performance that only reveals its true brilliance on the second viewing. As several people have pointed out before now, it's amazing that a major studio like Fox could invest so much money in a movie like this: but maybe that's the best joke of all.
As the movie of Fight Club is utterly crammed with visual and verbal detail, it was always going to be a prime candidate for a DVD special edition. But few people could have expected the lavishness of the package that hit the streets in June. (America only so far, I'm afraid, though an equivalent UK edition is planned for the autumn.) A two-disk set complete with a beautifully designed slipcase and booklet (the latter containing some hysterically bad reviews from the likes of Alexander Walker), it's a consumer's wet dream that would sit quite happily in your Ikea DVD rack.
The first disk contains the movie, and here I could go into all the usual DVD review cliches. Top notch anamorphically enhanced image, beautifully mastered sound with a 6.1 option, cunning placement of the disk layer change, yadda yadda yadda. Apart from the scenes where a pixel-perfect freeze-frame is useful (you'll know them when you see them), this is nothing more than the decent mastering job that a movie this detailed deserves. (Although the fake FBI warning at the start is a particularly nice touch.)
Also on this disk, we get the beginning of the huge range of extra features, as four separate commentary tracks are available to play alongside the film. Most DVDs just make do with a single commentary by the director: curiously, David Fincher's solo effort is one of the weaker ones here. His approach is to use a scene as a springboard for a particular discussion point, and then talk about it for five or ten minutes regardless of what else is going on on screen. He's quite good on changes made in the cutting room, and his battles with the Fox suits to keep the tone of Palahniuk's original novel: but the commentary's a bit short on the celebrity namedropping and on-set anecdotes we've come to expect from these things.
For that, you have to go to the cast and director commentary, probably the most entertaining of the four. Fincher, Pitt and Norton are all boys together, swapping stories and jokes (though Norton does have some very thoughtful stuff to say about the movie). Bonham Carter was recorded separately and edited in afterwards, which kind of reduces her role to that of an outsider, rather like Marla's in the movie: but she adds some useful insights into the gaps. Fincher loosens up in this commentary and reveals the secret of Fight Club's product placement deal with Pepsi: he subverted the deal by ensuring that Pepsi machines and ads were only seen during scenes of anarchy and destruction.
The two writers involved - novelist Chuck Palahniuk and screenwriter Jim Uhls - share the third track, and it becomes a bit of a literary love-in. There are a lot of long silences while they watch the movie, broken occasionally by Palahniuk thanking Uhls for covering up the structural flaws in his book. Palahniuk obviously came from the same background of dead-end white collar jobs as his narrator, and gleefully admits that all the main characters are thinly disguised versions of his friends (they all get namechecks here). The talk occasionally drifts into LA Writerspeak, with far too much use of the word 'interaction' to describe any scene with two people talking ("this is a bit like the interaction between Christ and Peter"). But the two guys are witty as hell, and are even happy to point out major flaws in the narrative where necessary. (When the Narrator first calls Tyler from a pay phone, he gets no reply, only for Tyler to phone him back almost immediately. "I *69ed you," he explains - for British readers, star, 6 and 9 is the sequence equivalent to our 1471, allowing you to check the number of the last person who called you. But when we finally get to see Tyler's house, all his phones have rotary dials. Think about it.)
Finally there's a commentary by key members of the technical crew - DP Jeff Cronenweth, designer Alex McDowell, costume designer Michael Kaplan, effects supervisor Kevin Haug, and digital animator 'Doc' Bailey (the latter mainly on hand to talk about how the final shot took him a year to do). For a film as visually intense as Fight Club, this would seem like a great opportunity, but unfortunately the result is a little too technical to be enjoyable: unless discussions on the advantages of spherical lenses over anamorphic are the sort of thing that floats your boat. You get the feeling these people are so integral to the look that they can't actually watch it as a movie any more: though one of them does reveal that his children watched Antz earlier that week, and he considered Fight Club to be both less violent and more funny.
To get a handle on the work that the technical crew did, it's best to move on to the second disk of the package, which is entirely dedicated to supplementary material. The centrepiece of all this is no fewer than sixteen - count 'em - sixteen mini-documentaries on how various scenes were put together. Six of the key settings are represented by DV camcorder footage taken on the set during location scouting and actual filming. A lot of the documentaries have multiple soundtracks, allowing you to hear two or more commentaries on how it was all done. There's even a chance for DVD users to put that little-used multiple angle function to use: some of the featurettes allow you to switch between the location scout footage and the production on the fly, while the opening title sequence can be seen in four different versions simultaneously with two alternate takes of the Dust Brothers' theme tune. Any location shots left over appear to have been randomly assembled into a separate 'on location' feature, most notable for the gruesome sight of Meat Loaf jogging in his fat suit, his bitch tits flying everywhere.
The nine major effects scenes get the red carpet treatment, as you'd expect. As all of these involve CGI to one degree or another, they consist of a breakdown of the individual elements in the scene (several million in the case of the final shot), followed by sequences in which they're gradually layered on top of each other to produce the finished effect. Again, the commentaries are crammed with surprising detail, such as the titbit that the cold breath seen in the ice cave scenes is actually digitised breath left over from Titanic.
There are seven deleted or alternate scenes included here, which isn't as big a deal as you may think. The deleted stuff only really amounts to a minute or two, and is primarily transitional material that was lost in the final cut. The alternate scenes are just recuts or alternate takes with a different tone from the original. The big violent scene the BBFC objected to in the UK - the Narrator's brutal beating of Angelface (Jared Leto) - is included here in a longer version that seems to last about four days: don't expect to see that one in the UK release. There's also the infamous line of post-coital dialogue - Bonham Carter's "I want to have your abortion" - that freaked out the Fox suits so much, and was the one big change they demanded prior to release. (The alternate line that Fincher used - "God, I haven't been fucked like that since grade school" - grossed them out even more, but it was too late to do anything about it by then.)
The Publicity section of the disk is similarly loaded. We have a couple of trailers, dozens of TV ads (how did that dildo shot make it into one of them?), and two hilarious Public Service Announcements intended for showing to unsuspecting cinema audiences. ("Did you know urine is sterile? You can drink it!") We have five specially made short ads shown as streaming video on the web site, which are ludicrously detailed for something that would only be seen in a window a couple of inches high. ("Wipe your ass with the Mona Lisa. At least this way God will know your name.") We have a series of posters taking the Fight Club soap logo and tying a string of fake advertising slogans to it. ("Creates a thick rich lather. Kinda like rabies.") We have the video for the Dust Brothers/Brad Pitt collaboration This Is Your Life, consisting of bits of the movie edited together even faster. And we have the press kit, a beautifully mocked-up catalogue of useless items for the bored shopper. ("Whether overseeing the day-to-day operations of his genocide project or frolicking with one of his 40-odd illegitimate children, Pol Pot never left the house without his favourite glasses.")
And that's before we get to the stuff on the disk that doesn't move. The entire storyboard, over 230 pages of it. Tons of pre-production artwork, featuring initial designs for costumes and sets. An unfeasibly large gallery of stills. A text piece based on a talk Edward Norton gave to his old college buddies at Yale, again showing that he's really thought all this through. Eighteen cast and crew biographies. And if you dig around hard enough, you'll find a secret catalogue of Fight Club items you can actually buy, if you don't mind the way the catalogue takes the piss out of you for wanting them.
It took me the best part of a week to get through all the terrific material on this set. About the only thing I didn't get to try is watching the film with the dubbed French soundtrack to see if it feels more like an art movie that way. Because in the end, that's what Fight Club is: an art movie that cost a major Hollywood studio seventy million dollars. An art movie with challenging ideas, eye-mangling visuals and some of the best jokes you'll see and hear all year. Plus the odd fight or two. If that sounds like the sort of thing that does it for you, and you've got a DVD player that can cope with region 1 disks, then get hold of this set now. As for you Space Monkeys out there, feel free to watch it and get annoyed to the delight of the rest of us. I can only sympathise. Being a monkey, and all.
20th Century Fox have gone somewhat mental with official sites for Fight Club. Choose from the Flash-heavy US site, the sneakily witty UK site [dead link] or the new Fight Club DVD page. But steer clear of fightclub.com, which is something else entirely - note that pop-up window that gives you a search engine prompt because "this may not have been the page you were looking for..."
Amazon.com, the preferred supplier of Region 1 DVDs to Spank The Monkey, will sell you the Fight Club DVD if you cross their palm with plastic. Doubtless the crew from WHSmith (the preferred supplier of Region 2 DVDs to Spank The Monkey) will be happy to do the same when the British version comes out in November or thereabouts.
davidfincher.net [dead link] is a rather detailed fan page dedicated to the director and his works. Yes, even Alien 3. If you're curious as to what he's done since Fight Club, check out the site of rock band A Perfect Circle: you can watch his magnificently fucked-up looking video for their single Judith.
A Writer's Cult is the official homepage of Chuck Palahniuk, so if you want to find out about the novels he's written since Fight Club and what else he's doing, this is the place to go. And if you're trying to work out how much of the brilliance of the movie is down to its adaptation, check out The Filmhouse [dead link] and their small but perfectly formed collection of screenplays, including Jim Uhls' Fight Club script.
Project Mayhem [dead link] is one of a string of unofficial fan sites dedicated to Fight Club. This one gets preferential treatment purely because it's British, dammit.
The ChildCare Action Project is a bunch of right-wing Christian twats who analyse Hollywood product for subversive and unGodly content, and publicise it in a series of crazed ranting articles. These people notoriously walked out of Roald Dahl's Matilda after half an hour in sheer disgust. Wonder what they made of Fight Club?
The British Board Of Film Classification, as has been widely reported, cut four seconds of footage from the UK release of Fight Club (still visible on the US DVD, obviously). In a rare move for them, they explained why.
Evan Mather is a loopy genius who cobbles together short films and gives them away on his web site. A chance accident during some research led me to his recent production, Buena Vista Fight Club, in which three old guys wreak bloody mayhem in a furniture catalogue. See it to believe it.