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“I’m a total whore for computer animation. I just – I love what Pixar does. Visual storytelling that’s not encumbered by compromise, filmmaking at its highest, I think, right now.”
– David Fincher, 2004
“I was asked if I might be interested in [directing] the first Spider-Man,” said David Fincher at a Q&A in 2009. “And I went in and told [Columbia Pictures] what I might be interested in doing, and they hated it.”
This conundrum of “likeability” has plagued many of the characters found in David Fincher’s cinema of cruelty. While he doesn’t make strictly anti-hero stories, Fincher’s films are often populated with serial killers, crooked politicians, abusive spouses, and fascistic tech-bros, insisting that the darker parts of humanity are far more commonplace (and revelatory) than may seem at first glance.
“The thing I liked about Spider-Man was I liked the idea of a teenager, the notion of this moment in time when you’re so vulnerable yet completely invulnerable.”
However unconsciously, Fincher’s pitch was sounding eerily like Fight Club, but with spandex.
Told in the language of new-age ’90’s wellness movements, vulnerability is a core theme of Chuck Palahniuk’s infamous novel. Vulnerable hearts, vulnerable minds but also vulnerable bodies, locked in a bloody struggle for greater power and, perhaps, greater responsibility? And while he ultimately objected to shooting a hokey origin story with a radioactive spider bite in Spider-Man (“just couldn’t sleep knowing I’d done that”), Fincher did keep a scene from Palahniuk’s novel where a chemical burn to the hand awakens a character to an even deeper vulnerability: that someday he’s going to die.
Death is enumerated in Fight Club’s very first sentence, with Palahniuk writing, “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.” The book is full of grimy lines like this, elucidating the fatalist attitudes of a lost generation, and also repelling any potential publishers in the process.
“If you’ve never read the book, it’s as good as it gets – I nearly pissed myself, I was laughing so hard when I read it,” recalled Fincher.
Selling a modest 5000 copies in the summer of 1996, Fight Club was not a smash literary hit, but its reputation preceded itself in Hollywood circles. Manuscript copies went out to agents and producers prior to publishing, immediately catching the attention of producer Ross Grayson Bell.
“What’s really interesting,” Bell told Australia’s The Saturday Paper in 2017, ”is that this treatise on masculinity was generated by gay men. Chuck Palahniuk, the author, is gay, and he was mentored by a gay writer. Palahniuk sent the book to a gay agent. The gay agent sent it to a gay executive who then sent it to me, a gay producer. Ultimately masculinity is not about gay and straight – people get confused sometimes with that. The idea of being a provider, of being able to fight, all those things, is separate from gay and straight. Gay men sometimes suffer because they don’t fit that image. The pressure to be a man is the same whether you’re gay or straight.” Gay or straight – man or woman.
After several unsuccessful meetings at all the major studios, Bell finally found a partner in Laura Ziskin at Fox 2000 – the only female studio president he pitched to. Remembered most for objecting to a line in the book where Marla says, “I want to have your abortion,” Ziskin was actually the film’s most fervent champion, purchasing the book rights when no other studio would and greenlighting a budget of more than $60 million.
“A lot of people condemned the movie without seeing the movie,” Ziskin told Sharon Waxman in Waxman’s book Rebels on the Backlot. “But it is a scary movie. I think that’s right. It was at the crest of something.”
As with most of his films, Fincher shot Fight Club in Los Angeles in another deviation from the source material. Palahniuk set his novel in Wilmington, Delaware, but in Fincher’s hands, the location is more fluid, unnamed, suggesting that this sort of thing can/is happening everywhere.
Growing up in San Anselmo, California, David Fincher has shot many portraits of his home state that, when taken together, form a sort of anthropological unity. The Game, Zodiac, and The Social Network are his tall tales from the Bay Area, procedural stories of ruinous obsession and incalculable loss. With exception to The Game, each of these films fictionalizes true events that have fundamentally altered the cultural, economic, and topographical landscapes of California, affirming cinema as a powerful tool of history: where memory and reality enmesh.
Shot against Southern California scenery, both Fight Club and Se7ven evoke the seedy Hollywood noirs of yesteryear. Cops, robbers, double-crosses, and tragic men. Mank is the natural extension of this, where all of Fincher’s generic expertise is channeled into a Babylonian production about the nature of Hollywood itself.
Film history entwines nearly all of Fincher’s work but uniquely so in Fight Club. Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden character moonlights as a film projectionist, secretly splicing frames of pornography into family films. Both Tyler and Edward Norton’s Narrator character address the audience and explain the 24-frame-per-second phenomenon of cinema that makes this possible in a scene that feels cut from some bizarro version of The Fabelmans. Movie buffs by any other name.
Working in these distinctly analog terms, Fight Club persists as one of Fincher’s signature films shot on film. Its super-35mm format renders each frame in a chorus of repulsively graphic textures. Flickered green fluorescents; sweaty skin draped across bone and muscle; inky blood on broken pavement; flesh melting into soap. Pristine images of rot and decay.
Fincher’s eye towards these microscopic details is perhaps best articulated by the film’s opening credit sequence, where the camera traverses the inside of a sympathetic nervous system. As the names roll, Fincher maps a detailed network of feelings in motion from the inside out, creating the most atomically literal depiction of emotional distress in a film that’s full of fight-or-flight moments.
The world of Fight Club abounds with sick people trying to get help. Attending countless support groups for diseases and conditions he doesn’t have, the Narrator achieves catharsis by association, somnambulantly microdosing nirvana until he wonders if he could be a healer himself. While the internet is hardly mentioned in the film, moments like these depict the anonymity of a pre-social media age with a stunning foresight. The pipeline from therapeutic “self-care” to predatory cultish influencing online is so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable; in Fight Club, it’s a core thesis. Hurt people hurt people.
Though actual fighting takes up probably less than 20 minutes of the film’s 139-minute runtime, the grisly violence in Fight Club quickly became the subject of ire for many back in 1999 – perhaps still to this day. Less than a month after the film’s release, the Los Angeles Times ran an article that summed up most of this criticism with a headline that simply asked, “Just What Is The Message Here?”
“It wasn’t violence with no context, violence for violence’s sake,” argued Ziskin. “This is violence used to tell a story with a real context. I really think it’s an antiviolence movie. You know, what is the obligation of an artist? To hold up a glass to life. This in no way condones violence — the good self triumphs.”
Ziskin was not Fight Club’s only defender. It is apparently also a favorite of then-President Bill Clinton. “Tough movie,” he said in an interview with Roger Ebert shortly after the film’s release.
“[…] It was a little too nihilist for me, but I thought it was very compelling. I thought that those two guys were great, and I think that Helena Bonham Carter was in it, and she was a very compelling figure in it. I thought it was quite good.”
What does it mean that a sitting president thought your ballistic counter-cultural satire was “very compelling”?
In an interview with Mouloud Achour earlier this year, Fincher was asked about this very thing in the context of “incels” who may misinterpret the film’s message. “I mean, it’s not a cautionary tale,” he replied. “So from my standpoint, the idea that you’re supposed to provide the audience with some sort of like, ‘Look out! Don’t find this in any way amusing or seductive,’ um, seems kind of anti-the story.”
In other words, no matter how many times you repeat them, not everyone is always going to follow the first two rules of Fight Club.
It’s easy to object to the things that Tyler does in the name of Fight Club – and eventually Project Mayhem – but the film begs the question, isn’t what the Narrator does in the name of normalcy just as objectionable? Isn’t blindly working so much that you can no longer sleep, that you stop feeling emotions, just as objectionable as blowing up a credit card company? Isn’t lying about having cancer to gain the sympathy of strangers just as objectionable?
In the aftermath of Fight Club bombing at the box office, the collateral damage, all told, was minimal. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton remained bankable stars, and Helena Bonham Carter’s established world-class prestige was left unaffected. Studio president Laura Ziskin however, the one who advocated for a $60 million budget over a $30 million budget, would no longer be welcome at Fox 2000 after the poor performance of the film.
But out of the ashes rises something anew. Like Tyler says, the first step to creation is destruction. Ziskin received an offer at another studio following her resignation and jumped right back into development on a hot new property that the studio had just acquired: Spider-Man. Fincher was asked to direct but was not selected, and Sam Raimi’s version goes on to make $800 million at the box office and redefine the boundaries of superhero cinema writ large – but Ziskin still asked Fincher first. A small act that says that box office failures are not creative failures. Sometimes a person’s best work comes after a categorical reset that certain failures can provide. How does the saying go? “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything”?
Fight Club is loss. Grief personified. But it is also rehab. There to mimic your pain then blow it all up so you can move on. Burn baby burn. Try this trick and spin it.
Fight Club screens tonight, May 25th.