Fight Club

Fight Club (1999)

Dir. David Fincher

Written by: Jim Uhls (from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk)

Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham-Carter

 

Over the years, media collections have always served as markers of an individual’s personal tastes. An album collection, a bookshelf, or a list of favorite movies can be a representation of one’s personality and interests that they can cultivate and put on display for the world to see, a Rosetta stone to unlock the mystery of someone’s cultural affinities. The media that we choose to collect and value can make an important statement about our personal identities. While much of my collection is probably a testament to my overall movie snobbery, there are certain movies in it that are so culturally universal and so definitive of a time and a place in American cinematic cultural history that they fail to reveal much about my actual personal tastes. Just like “Rubber Soul” or “Four Way Street” in my mother’s album collection, there are simply certain movies that it seems like everyone who was alive and consuming mass culture during a certain time can agree upon, and seems to have a copy of floating around in their collection somewhere. Fight Club is one of these universal movies for people, such as myself, who came of age in the late 1990s.

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Despite being only a modest box office success, Fight Club is the movie that helped put both David Fincher and Chuck Palahniuk on the cultural map in a big way. Fincher already had a few features under his belt, including his helming of a major misstep in the Alien franchise, and his redemptive efforts in directing the cult hits The Game and Se7en. Palahniuk became a household name after the film adaptation of his first novel became a cult hit and a cultural touchstone. Fight Club’s story of disaffected, displaced masculinity, embodied by the Narrator (Norton), came to resonate with a generation of young men who identified with the film’s anti-corporate message and with its ultraviolent content. The film sees the Narrator leave a comfortable white collar job after a chance meeting with Tyler Durden (Pitt), a misanthrope and social provocateur who comes up with the idea for a secret club that can help men struggling with a perceived loss of agency in the face of societal change. Tyler and the narrator found Fight Club, a secret underground fighting league in which men can vent the frustrations of existing in a post-Industrialist, post-Feminist world through brutal fist fights. The fights help these aimless men feel alive and vital, giving them a sense of belonging and purpose, and Fight Club begins to spread across the country, with its adherents praising Tyler like a cult leader. Eventually, Fight Club begins to change into a more organized and militant force, Project Mayhem, as Tyler’s devotees begin to engage in more bombastic, socially motivated acts of vandalism and anti-corporate mischief. The Narrator starts to worry that Project Mayhem has gotten out of control, but there doesn’t seem to be much he can do to stop the momentum that Tyler has built in creating an army.

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I can remember watching Fight Club for the first time with one of my best friends when we were sophomores in high school, a year or two after it had been out in theaters. We watched the movie on VHS and I was taken in by its highly stylized visuals and its hip, sardonic take on modern workplace culture. I clung to Tyler Durden’s sloganeering in the film, taking phrases like “How can you know anything about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight,” and “You are not your fucking khakis,” to heart and starting to turn them into the building blocks of my nascent teenaged personality. I found Fight Club’s anti-corporate, anarchic sensibilities to be mature and enlightened viewpoints, and the film’s overall theme of rejecting societal expectations in favor of a return to a primal sort of self-exploration truly resonated with my developing worldview. Eventually, I bought the movie on DVD, and I became totally obsessed with it. I watched it over and over again, listening to various commentary tracks, watching deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes vignettes. Even though I already knew the outcome of Fight Club’s famous twist ending, I didn’t care, and I reaped just as much enjoyment from my tenth viewing of the film as I had from that first time watching it. Fight Club was exactly the sort of smart, stylish, edgy movie that boosted my credentials as a fan of ”important” movies, and when I moved to Pittsburgh for college, I chose to display my tastes for the world to see by purchasing a Fight Club poster and tacking it to the wall of my first dorm room.

It’s easy to see why Fight Club became such a hit with a generation of movie watchers. The movie is perfect for the DVD era, with its dense and twisting narrative rewarding repeat views. Its cutting edge visuals, for the time, were eye-popping in the relative high fidelity that DVD offered, and lent themselves well to the types of supplemental material that were popular on the prestige DVD releases of the early 21st century. These qualities, and the increasing affordability of collecting DVDs, led to Fight Club’s ubiquity in millennials’ movie collections and helped turn a box office disappointment into a run-away cult success that has garnered praise as one of the best films of its period. Though it tells the story of disaffected members of Generation X, who came of age in a rapidly changing world where the workplace success and stable domestic life that seemed to be enjoyed by their predecessors was rapidly eroding, Fight Club’s sloganeering and paint-by-numbers approach to societal discord and extreme civil disobedience made it a perfect movie to be adopted by the next generation of young people who were actually coming of age upon the film’s release. These teens and preteens took the movie’s simplistic politics to heart and many started to form an identity based around the primal, uber-macho points of view that are embraced in Fight Club. Just like the members of Project Mayhem who mindlessly parrot Tyler’s screeds and credos back to him and to each other, Fight Club’s fans were having the film’s messages drilled into their heads through repetitious viewing at home.

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Of course, Fight Club is a work of satire and its politics and social commentary should be taken with a grain of salt. I recognized the film as such, and while I never espoused the macho posturing in the film, I was taken in by many of its more pointed social critiques, particularly its examination of the inability of the modern American worker to exist as anything other than an undifferentiated cog in a heartless, brutal corporate machine. I took to heart Tyler Durden’s warning that “the things we own end up owning us,” and tried to eschew materialist or corporatist urges, but I didn’t need a movie to tell me that big businesses and corporations were bad for individuals, and that working people are endlessly exploited by a profit-hungry system of Capitalism that values them only for their productive capacity and not for their creative or humanistic qualities. Watching a movie like Fight Club helped to crystallize some of my beliefs, but as I got older, I started to see the fallacy in living your life by movie quotes or by letting a piece of pop culture become a guiding or defining part of your life and personality. I still enjoyed Fight Club as a movie, but eventually the poster came off of my wall, and my viewings of the film became fewer and more far between. Changing tastes and a broadening world view shifted my interests towards more intellectually rigorous and nuanced films, but Fight Club still existed in the background of my cinematic excursions, an old favorite waiting to be rediscovered in a new light, or simply to be returned to as a form of filmic comfort food.

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While I have watched Fight Club a handful of times since it ceased to be a very important movie to me in my late teens and early twenties, I think that watching it for this project must have been my first time really sitting down and engaging with the movie in a deep and relevant way in close to a decade. The experience didn’t disappoint, and, if anything, I found Fight Club to perhaps be more relevant today than it was when I first saw it almost twenty years ago. Watching a movie that attempts to explore the fragility of modern, white-collar, White American masculinity in the age of the Me Too movement and the resultant backlash from so-called “Men’s Rights” advocates was an interesting experience, to say the least. It was difficult for me to watch Fight Club without coming to the realization that perhaps this ubiquitous movie could be, at least partially, to blame for a subset of the male population in my age group who seem bent on creating grievances and blaming the world, and particularly women, for their own shortcomings or disappointments in life. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these Men’s Rights types held Fight Club in high esteem, while certainly missing the movie’s satirical critique of the macho culture that it depicts. Tyler Durden, and the club that he creates, are responses to the perceived marginalization of the White American male, in the face of increased visibilities and opportunities for women, people of color, and other traditionally marginalized groups. In the film, the formation of a heterosocial group, in which physical assault is the only outlet for these men to feel alive or to come into contact with their own conflicted, and conflicting, emotional centers, is celebrated as a return to some sort of male primacy. However, as the film shows, embracing that vicious, violent form of machismo has deadly consequences for many of the characters, and leads to a series of counterproductive and empty revolutionary gestures. Fight Club should be read as a cautionary tale for men against letting too much of the Id control our behaviors, but instead I think that there is a large portion of the movie’s fandom that sees it as a primer and a call to arms against societal strictures that are “emasculating” a generation of men.

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I guess the question that I was left with after rewatching Fight Club and thinking about the movie in the context of its potential role in creating, or at the very least reaffirming the beliefs of, a group of vile, hateful men, was whether or not the film’s positive qualities outweigh the connection that I’ve now made between the movie and a real world ethos that I find incompatible with my own point of view. In the end, I think that I still enjoy Fight Club. Although I’ve found Palahniuk to be something of a provocateur in his own right, I find it hard to believe that either he or Fincher would support the reading of this text that I’m imagining some fans clinging to. Perhaps because the film isn’t ostensibly branded as a comedy, its satirical point of view is easier to lose, but I think that most viewers will very easily realize that Tyler is the film’s antagonist, rather than an idol to be worshipped. As a movie, Fight Club still holds up visually in spite of two decades of technical progression since its release. The film’s gritty, grimy visual aesthetic is perfect, and finds Fincher expanding on the visual aesthetic of his earlier films to incorporate limited CGI, and employing some flashier camera work and editing than he had previously in his feature films. Its twisting, non-linear narrative is still a joy to unpack, and the film’s pacing is spot on, with its lengthy runtime seeming to fly by. Fight Club is a movie that is indelibly of its time, both in terms of its larger context and its role in my own personal development as a film viewer, but like other great movies it remains culturally and cinematically relevant. Great art should be a mirror for the society that produces it, and Fight Club uses its violent, satirical narrative to great critical effect, but there’s often no accounting for the ways that an audience will warp and distort that reflection based on their own prejudices and predilections.

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now/Apocalypse Now: Redux (1979/2001)

Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Written by: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr (from the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad)

Starring: Martin Sheen, Larry Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando

This review is going to be a bit different, because I’m going to be writing a lot less about Apocalypse Now as a film, and a lot more about its presentation as a DVD, and about my experience with collecting DVDs in the early-to-mid 2000s in general. As I’ve mentioned before, those years when I was in high school and, to a lesser extent, early college, much of my disposable income was spent on building my DVD collection. The portability, special features, and relative low cost compared to VHS made collecting DVDs fun and easy. Though we know now that it isn’t true, it seemed, at the time, that this format would last forever, the discs not being subject to the same kinds of physical degradation that tapes could suffer from. DVD was sold as a format for serious film viewers and collectors, people who would be interested in listening to multiple full-length commentary tracks from directors and stars, people who wanted to see the footage that was left on the cutting room floor. DVD took the promise of Laser Disc and made it affordable and convenient for the masses. I bought in completely, and I often sought out “Special Edition” discs that contained hours of extra footage and bonuses about the movie. My copy of Apocalypse Now is just such a set.

The “Complete Dossier” collector’s edition of Apocalypse Now was released in November 2001, and was one of the first DVDs I added to my collection. It marked the first home video release of Coppola’s full cut of the film, entitled Apocalypse Now: Redux, which premiered at Cannes earlier that year. The set includes both the original cut of the film and Coppola’s director’s cut, which adds nearly an hour of extra footage to the film, spread out over two discs. It also contains a third disc with hours of special features, commentaries, and behind the scenes photographs and films. All of this is neatly packaged in a trifold case featuring stills from the film, and then inserted into a beige slip case, meant to mimic the look of the confidential file on Colonel Kurtz (Brando) that Captain Willard (Sheen) carries with him. The packaging is fantastic, and makes this collector’s set feel essential. The amount of material contained on the set’s three discs is overwhelming. Watching both cuts of the film would take up just under six hours, and the additional supplemental features could comprise an additional feature-length making of documentary if they weren’t broken up into bite-size pieces. Overall, it’s a great set.

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Over the years, as streaming has become most people’s preferred method of media consumption, disc formats have become less and less extravagant. With the exception of boutique lines, such as the Criterion Collection, which are aimed at serious film nerds, physical copies of films are now often rushed to market with little fanfare, and precious fewer special features. Retailers are stocking fewer discs in store and the shelves are dominated by cheaply packaged new releases, aimed to make a quick buck off the folks who will come to pick up a physical release on day one, before they ultimately meet their end in a bargain bin. Gone are the days when a movie like Fight Club could become a cult classic based on its second life in DVD sales. In a post-Netflix, post-YouTube world, there is little need to own physical media. Behind the scenes footage is now the stuff of viral marketing campaigns, directors can provide commentary about the making of their films directly to the audience through a podcast or a Twitter feed. Though streaming may not have the fidelity of a BluRay disc, it can compare to any DVD, and is far more convenient. I can’t blame anyone for ditching physical media altogether, but, as is probably painfully obvious to this point, I still have a strong nostalgic attachment to these discs. The promise of insider’s knowledge that a good DVD set offered to me in 2001 is still something that I relish.

I can remember the first movie that I ever watched on DVD. It was the summer of 2001, and my family was visiting my grandparents in Upstate New York. At that time they had a cabin on a lake and for several years in a row, my family and my cousins, aunts, and uncles would vacation at the lake and stay at my grandparents’ cabin. During the day we would go out on the lake, swimming, fishing, or sit out and read, but at night time, there wasn’t much for us kids to do. We’d play cards or watch the Yankees game, but we never watched movies because the only tape I remember my grandparents owning was Doctor Zhivago. That changed in the summer of 2001. That summer, my cousin brought a PlayStation 2 with him to the cabin, and a stack of discs. I had heard about DVD as a new format of home video that would soon supplant VHS as the dominant video medium of the time, but the first time I’d ever experienced watching one was when he popped in Ghostbusters and I and my family gathered around to watch the movie, followed by nearly an hour of deleted scenes. I had seen the movie dozens of times by that point, but this viewing experience was like opening up a treasure trove of information about one of my favorite films. Immediately, I started scheming on ways to acquire a DVD player of my own.

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Later that year, my sister and I made that goal a reality as we pooled our financial resources and bought a PlayStation 2, and I started to use the money I made at my first part time job building up a collection of movies, both new and classic. I remember fondly some of the first titles that I picked up: Monty Python & the Holy Grail, The Matrix, A.I., Fight Club, and, of course, my own copy of Ghostbusters. As I mentioned before, in its earliest stages as a home video format DVD was truly aimed at collectors and cinephiles, and these discs were all bursting at the seams with special features, commentary tracks, and deleted or extended scenes. Growing up, my family had taken frequent trips to the movie theater, and we often gathered in front of the television to watch movies that we’d taped during an HBO free preview weekend, but transitioning to DVD changed my viewing habits. I suddenly had my own movie collection, and movie nights became more of a solitary event than a family affair. I soaked up as many different stories as I could, and explored the commentary tracks and making-of documentaries included on the discs as I began my self-driven education in film.

My copy of Coppola’s Viet Nam epic, Apocalypse Now, was an essential piece of that self-education. When I purchased the Apocalypse Now: Redux set sometime in early 2002, I had not yet seen the film. At that time, however, The Godfather was my favorite film, and I was eager to see more of Coppola’s work, particularly the universally revered Apocalypse Now. On initial viewings of the film, I had trouble breaking through the murky haze (both literal and figurative) that permeates the Viet Nam of the film, particularly in its extended version. Though it certainly doesn’t lack for action, Apocalypse Now shines a light on the horrors of war through revealing its characters’ reaction to increasingly dire straits. War is Hell, but in this film it is also madness, unjustly cruel and senseless. Apocalypse Now feels like a fever dream, the inscrutability of its imagery and narrative increasing as Willard traverses deeper into the jungle towards the mouth of madness personified in Kurtz. The film proceeds as a death march, following Willard and the crew of PBR Street Gang as they traverse up the Nung River into Cambodia. The river is frequently obscured by fog or smoke, a visual obfuscation that mirrors the lack of psychological clarity that these characters have in relation to their surroundings in a hellish warzone. Though Kurtz is singled out for assassination for having lost his mind and deserting, it’s clear that the war has robbed most, if not all, of these characters of some piece of their sanity.

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When I first saw Apocalypse Now, I had never seen a war movie that was so thematically rich and dense with meaning and symbolism. At the time, I was watching movies like The Patriot, so to engage with a movie like Apocalypse Now that presented war so cerebrally was a major shift. For much of the movie, Coppola replaces the typical spectacle and bombast of the war genre with a more insular and meditative tone. Rather than propping up nationalistic or patriotic ideologies, Coppola’s film depicts the Viet Nam war with a healthy dose of skepticism for America’s interventionist military position. Willard’s mission to assassinate Kurtz operates as a microcosm of the war at large, cloaked as it is in secrecy, and undertaken with a dubious claim to the moral high ground. In Coppola’s vision of war, there are no clear winners or losers, only survivors, and even they seem to have been irreparably damaged by their experiences. Where a film like Saving Private Ryan (which I enjoy, and which is one of the great war films) presents the viewer with a tidy moralistic view of war, in which saving one man can somehow make up for the deaths of so many others, Apocalypse Now presents war as a scenario that brings out the basest, most animalistic instincts in men, and in which no one can expect to be redeemed. Apocalypse Now is a look into the savage, black heart of the individual and of society.

It’s always a pleasure to rewatch Apocalypse Now, which I believe to be the best movie about war ever made. The director’s cut of the film does add some interesting scenes that enhance both the strange, dreamlike quality of the film, and its anti-imperialist/anti-interventionist themes, but I typically default to watching the original cut, which is what I watched in advance of writing this post. One could teach a master class on film style with this movie. Form and content match as the film’s pace ebbs and flows like a river, the languid, dreamy scenes aboard PBR Street Gang intercut with flashes of brutal action, such as the arrow attack that kills Chief (Albert Hall). The lighting is perfect, particularly towards the film’s end, with Coppola often presenting Willard and Kurtz in total silhouette, or obscuring their faces with shadow, to reflect that darkness that they both share within. The acting is both naturalistic and inspired, from the leads down to supporting characters like Mr. Clean (a 15-year-old Fishburne) and Chef (Forrest), two members of the crew, and the unforgettable Colonel Kilgore (Duvall). The characters feel lived in and fleshed out regardless of how much screen time they get, with Brando’s performance as the mad Colonel Kurtz standing as one of his best, despite not appearing in the film until the final act. Apocalypse Now doesn’t attempt to make sense of all of the madness and horror, it simply allows it to be, challenging the viewer to respond to and reflect on it.

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I think that I have such admiration for Apocalypse Now because of the particular way in which I was introduced to it. While it doesn’t exactly rank up among my favorite films of all time, it’s unquestionably a great movie, and, as I said, I believe it to be the best movie about war ever made. My understanding of the film was enriched by my ability to watch it in multiple cuts and replay specific scenes, or the whole film, over and over again. I was also given a wealth of supplemental material to put the film into a greater context and provide insights into the thought processes and working methods of the people involved in the making of the film. I have become so enamored with Apocalypse Now as a result of having owned it on DVD. I’m sure that I would have greatly enjoyed seeing it, but I don’t know that if I had seen the movie in a theater or just viewed it one time at that age, it would have made quite the impression upon me that it did. Being able to engage in a deep dive with the film provided me with a relationship to it that I rarely have to films that I see now, even ones that I greatly admire or objectively like more than Apocalypse Now. This project was born of a desire to explore physical media that I own, and while I mostly like to write about the movies themselves, it’s also important to consider the physical object itself sometimes. Apocalypse Now is a great movie, but I learned to appreciate it as a great DVD set, which in turn led me to discover its greatness even more.