There are a lot of interesting moments in this 1991 interview with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, but the one that stood out was Siskel’s defense of what he believed to be Ebert’s misconception about their differing approaches to film, art, and reviewing. Ebert’s ascension into pop cultural grandfather figure at the end of his life — thanks in part to the tremendous volume of work he began to publish online when he lost his ability to speak, as well as his memoir Life Itself, later turned into a documentary — was genuine and well-earned, but Siskel tends to get short shrift when it comes time to dole out posthumous honors. He was, after all, an equally smart critic and the one who sparred with Ebert all those years, and I’m convinced he’d be remembered differently if he’d lived long enough to see online criticism flourish. As is, he died in 1999 at 53: complications from surgery to remove a brain tumor.

Anyway, at one point in the interview, Ebert says of Siskel: “He’s lacking in enthusiasm. … I go to the movies anticipating a good time. Gene goes fearing a bad time. My glass is half full, his glass is half empty.” Siskel’s response is honest and direct about his personality and about the nature of the job, which requires sifting through the dunes every day in hopes of finding a diamond. He says:

I’ve heard Roger say that before, and I don’t believe it’s true. I want movies to be good. I’d have to be a masochist to want them to be bad. But if you were to stop me any day and say, “Gene, do you expect to see a good movie or a bad movie today?” I would tell you I’m expecting to see a bad movie. The reason is that most of the movies I see are bad. I’m being practical in telling you that most of the things that people create aren’t all that interesting, and that’s too bad. What keeps me going is that I have a strong desire to see something great. And when I see it, it lasts for a long time.

Siskel’s words reminded me a little of Daniel Mendelsohn’s thinking about how beautiful these things are, and how easily they can be broken. I believe and act as Siskel does here. I don’t want a movie to be bad. I never go in hoping for failure. But doing this job (even part-time) means seeing a lot of movies, and a lot of them don’t connect for one reason or another. So you keep looking, and you keep looking, and when you find a treasure, you dig it out of the ground and hold it up.


Stray Thought About the Fifth Season of The Wire

The fifth season of The Wire gets short shrift not because it’s bad (which it isn’t; it’s pretty good, and in places great), but because that’s the year that David Simon’s cynicism about the inevitability of systemic corruption and ignorance expands to implicate us, the viewers. The season’s focus on media hype and the glorification of certain narratives is as timely as ever — and is timely material to revisit in the wake of the murder in Ferguson — but it’s also hard to take because it puts us on the hook for the things we don’t see. For the first four seasons, we watch a sweeping narrative unfold and feel a subconscious pride in the fact that we’re having the experience. But in the show’s final year, Simon says: no matter what you think you know, you know less. You miss so many things. You miss what matters, and you sweat what doesn’t. It’s not untrue, but it’s understandably a harder pill to choke down than, e.g., the game is the game. To fully engage with the show’s final season is to accept our own role in the institutional quagmire of the drug war, the faltering economy, and the ruined castle of education. We want to remember the more gruesome but comparatively less accusatory stories about corner boys. We can tell ourselves we aren’t them. Come the final season, it’s no wonder we want to look away.


Slow Down

Speaking to The Playlist in a conversation about Men, Women, & Children, writer-director Jason Reitman had this to say about the state of modern film criticism:

Film criticism has become a tweet. The moment the movie plays, people are writing about it and there’s no digestive period. The most important movies in my life are the ones that I’ve watched and watched again and have changed for me over time. Not films that I instantaneously loved the moment the credits rolled.

It would be easy to write this off as a defensive play from a filmmaker looking to do damage control for his latest film (which has not exactly been embraced by the critical community), but it’s not. In fact, it’s one of the sharpest and most concise summaries of the general problems facing the field. Proving Reitman’s point, a young critic named Michael Pattison, who participated in the 2013 Locarno Critics Academy, had some choice words for other critics:

Step up or step off. If you can not write 500 excellently watertight words in 40 minutes flat about a film you have just finished watching and analyzing, then you are shit at what you do, and you should resign yourself to sitting there like some flaccid lump of flesh sponging up the pretty colours and lovely, fluffy sounds that bedazzle your waste of a layperson’s mind.

I admit I smiled when I read this. It’s the kind of piss-fueled fire a lot of us throw in our 20s, eager both to claim the mantles of our elders and allay any fears we might have about our own shortcomings. I didn’t begrudge Pattison the folly of youth, or even its anger, for what else is youth for? But there’s no doubt in my mind that Pattison’s approach is deeply, wholly wrong, and that it’s antithetical to any kind of serious or searching criticism.

To jam out copy, to churn and burn, to gorge on five movies in a festival day and be expected to write something insightful about them: these things are not unfamiliar to working critics. And indeed, critics (like most people) aren’t short on opinions after seeing a film. But the insistence that a reasoned thesis or appreciation of a film has to come fast or not at all betrays a massive misunderstanding of the writing and analytical process, and worse, it treats films as means to an end instead of approaching them as works in their own right, to be studied or talked about with care and reason. Not every film is a masterpiece, but every film deserves more than a tossed-off dismissal or pasted-together praise.

Part of the issue is the cycle that treats each film as pure product, good only for discussion on the day of its release and the weeks leading up to it, forgotten until a five- or ten-year anniversary rolls around. But that’s not new. Distribution models have evolved over time, sure, but there’s always been the pressure to hang a piece of criticism on a news hook. That makes sense. What is new, though, is the amount of platforms with which we can make our voices heard, and the contracted form that those platforms encourage. I can all but guarantee that whatever you produce in an hour after a film ends will only be the start of what you want to say, and that’s OK. Pick your well-worn advice here: you can’t unring a bell; measure twice, cut once; you get the idea. When the point is not to write something accurate and honest but to write something fast, it’s easy to lose sight of the film in question.

I’ve been guilty of this in the past. You’re at a screening for something that’s getting a lot of buzz, and you know that the general public won’t even be able to see the movie for a few days (or weeks, or months), and when the lights come up you let loose 140 pithy characters that reduce a movie that took years to make down to a two-beat joke you’ve crafted for maximum retweetability. It’s awful and reductive, and it’s symptomatic of the mindset Pattison seems to champion. Writing takes time. Writing takes thinking, which takes time. Half of the job is just sitting at a keyboard and staring at nothing while you map new roads in yourself. You wrestle and think and wrestle some more. Sometimes the words come easy, and sometimes they don’t, but only rarely do they come quickly. If anything, the more you feel and want to say, the more time it takes to get it right. We’re reading braille with gauze over our fingers, and no one’s bad writing was ever praised because it came out before everyone else’s. When it works, the process brings with it the kind of relief that accompanies physical labor: earth has been moved, fence posts have been sunk. Something was built. That just takes time.


Only After Disaster Can We Be Resurrected: Fight Club at 15


I contributed a blurb about Fight Club to a David Fincher retrospective over at Movie Mezzanine. Five years ago, around the movie’s tenth anniversary, I wrote about its place in pop culture. While I might approach the prose a little differently today, I stand by my point that the movie is about man’s inability to stop constructing the systems that suffocate him, and further, that the movie’s thesis is almost totally ignored by the subcultures that would benefit the most from meditating on it. It’s still a really good movie. Here’s my original piece:


There is no more profound or powerful example of the way David Fincher’s Fight Club has been misinterpreted and misappropriated in the decade since its release than the fact that Spike honored the film at the 2009 edition of its Guys’ Choice Awards with a trophy for “Guy Movie Hall of Fame,” where it joined There’s Something About Mary in ignominy. Spike — whose tagline is “Get more action” and whose award for best literary achievement was delivered 13-year-old Bobb’e J. Thompson in a speech weighing which author “gets the most titties” — aims squarely for a teenage and college mentality, roping in men who think like boys and praising anything where stuff gets blowed up real good. And were Fight Club just the guy-centric bashfest its detractors and dumbest fans make it out to be, it would be Spike material all the way. But the film is infinitely more than that, offering up scathing indictments against all brands of groupthink, not just certain postmodern conceptions of masculinity. This isn’t a “dude” movie to rest on the DVD shelves of dorms nationwide next to copies of The Patriot; this is a smart, compelling, expertly made announcement of a new brand of storytelling. It’s a timely deconstruction of societal function and simultaneously a warning against letting those deconstructions go to far. Based on the novel by the idiosyncratic Chuck Palahniuk, Fincher’s film is a dark, grimy examination of the death of the modern male at the hands of all institutions, even the ones he sets up in order to free himself from his imagined burdens. This isn’t a movie from a Nick Hornby book, where the flawed but lovable protagonist does some soul-searching and figures out a way to grow up and get the girl; this is the poisoned flipside of that world, a tour through the dark underbelly of masculinity where doubt runs away with dignity. This isn’t a movie about “being a guy,” in whatever clichéd way Hollywood likes to run that notion out. It’s about being alive.

From the start, the film is a skittering, self-aware explosion of sight and sound, buoyed along by music from the Dust Brothers and the pleasantly resigned voice-over narration of Edward Norton. Norton’s character is simply known as the narrator, but he remains unnamed as the film gets under way. Refusing to name him works on a structural level as well as philosophical one, withholding the twist about his identity until the final act while also allowing him to serve as the ultimate blank slate for the modern male consumer. Both functions are vital to the film’s success, since it has to — and does — work both as an intelligent, darkly comic drama and as an essay on the culture of its time. The narrator works as an claims adjuster for an automotive company, mindlessly flying around the country to examine crash sites and determine the cost-benefit ratio of recalling badly manufactured cars. This is the world of Fight Club: Society is killing us, but we’re still not sure we want to give it up. The narrator’s fractured, white-noise existence is wonderfully captured by Jim Uhls’ screenplay and Fincher’s rapid transitions and cuts and the compelling use of CG effects and digitally overlaid text (most notably as the narrator strides through his apartment, the dollar values for his living room set appearing as he passes). Plagued by insomnia, he winds up crashing support meetings for men with testicular cancer, riveted by their desperation and drawn into their world of struggle beyond repair. Crying into the massive chest of Bob (Meat Loaf), whose pecs had swollen to “bitch tits” from hormone therapy, the narrator finally discovers the peace that comes with running out of options. “This was freedom. Losing all hope was freedom,” he says.

Fincher spends plenty of effort and no small amount of time establishing the emotional basis of the story — the narrator’s discontent and attendant willingness to lie about his own life just to cop a high off the suffering of the truly desolate — before even getting into the film’s real meat, but Fight Club never once feels slow or meandering. If anything, it was a prime example of the kind of quicker, more kinetic storytelling that came to the forefront in 1999, from Magnolia‘s scene-hopping madness to the beautifully frantic Being John Malkovich. Fincher said to Entertainment Weekly that year that he’d told one of his producers: “Don’t worry, the audience will be able to follow this. This is not unspooling your tale. This is downloading.” It was a modern word and method applied to a century-old art form, and it worked. Fight Club is tough to describe on paper but makes total sense when seen and experienced.

Enter Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who shows his face around and even subliminally appears in a few quick frames before finally winding up next to the narrator on a flight. Tyler’s as cool as the narrator is boring, and that’s because he’s nothing more than a hyper-detailed projection of the narrator’s own frustrated mind. The schism in the central character’s persona is not a narrative cheat or cop-out in the least, and in fact is what elevates the film from good to great, from watchable to remarkable. The film’s arc is only understood through the lens of this splintered man who, finding no purchase in the real world, retreated into his own head to seek refuge from an encroaching society of materialistic excess. He’s got money, but Tyler’s got a life. The men get to talking, and when the narrator arrives home to find his condo destroyed in a fire (engineered by his own subconscious), they grab a beer and talk about the basic disintegration of the classic hunter-gatherer roles and the way that society has now begun raising men who have a desire to hunt but nothing to fight:

Tyler: Do you know what a duvet is?
Narrator: It’s a comforter…
Tyler: It’s a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?
Narrator: Consumers?
Tyler: Right. We are consumers. We’re the byproducts of a lifestyle obsession.

In the parking lot, they spontaneously decide to fight each other just for the hell of it, leading to Tyler’s pointed, rhythmic declaration, “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” (There’s also a beautiful poetry to this line, relying on the amphibrachs, sets of three syllables with the second one stressed: I want you / to hit me / as hard as / you can.) From the narrative’s point of view, this is the beginning of what will become the illicit boxing group known as Fight Club, but it’s also the moment when the narrator begins to truly let go and run with his delusions, since he’s effectively beating himself up, alone, in a bar parking lot. Their brawl catches the attention of other men, and they begin returning to the parking lot weekly just to fight, searching for an outlet for the causeless rage and listless anger besetting their peers as they stare down the barrel of being in their 30s and not knowing what to do. The narrator at one point even opines to Jack, “I can’t get married. I’m a 30-year-old boy.” They start the underground Fight Club — with those eight now-infamous rules — as a way to tap into that anger and give it a dark new expression.

And if this were where the film stopped growing and changing, it would simply be about men beating each other up to try and feel like warriors once more. But the brilliance of the film is the way Fight Club soon enough metastasizes into Project Mayhem, a backyard group of anarchists doing Tyler’s bidding to up-end local businesses, pick fights on street corners, and just generally cause some mischief. The narrator feels increasingly adrift once the club takes on a life of its own, his confusion mirrored by the growing presence of Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a hanger-on who first came to know him by crashing the same medical support groups before eventually meeting and sleeping with Tyler, who was in fact the narrator all along. She’s a cruel but broken woman, someone in need of the actual guidance or counsel that Tyler’s group purports to give, but the narrator has no idea what to do with her or the fact that she’s around all the time for “Tyler.” Tyler’s work eventually gets out of hand in a real way, leading to deaths, destruction, and, well, mayhem. And the narrator is destined to fight this.

The true message of Fincher’s film is not just that modern men — and women — can find themselves lost in a maze of consumerism but that all men are born to build the institutions that will destroy them. Tyler rants to the narrator about corporate branding, the death of God, and the illusion of love, and his screeds aren’t just meant to free the narrator to the point where he lets his darker persona take over but to show how these man-made structures (the church, the home) can turn on you when you least expect it. Fight Club was the best way to start the new millennium and a new era of filmmaking because it shrugs off what came before while warning that it’s all going to happen again. We build it up, tear it down, and try to start over. The film builds to the point where the narrator is terrorized and beaten by his alter ego run amok, and eventually has to kill that part of himself — that one institution he thought he could build and use for salvation — to find freedom. He was righter than he knew when he said that to be free was to lose all hope: Tyler Durden was his hope for change, and to be free he must destroy it.

But as heavy as all that sounds — and is, to be honest — Fight Club is still a quickly paced and often sickly funny study of the cost of starting over and what it means to value life. Norton and Pitt are absolutely perfect in their roles, clicking with an easy chemistry that only gets better when they literally fuse into the same man. The two actors had spent the 1990s slowly carving out filmographies peppered with riskier choices, including Norton’s mesmerizing American History X and Pitt’s 12 Monkeys and Seven, the latter of which was his first pairing with Fincher. But Fight Club took them to another place, and rightly so. Norton’s screen personality as the white guy ready to slide over the edge made him the ideal choice for the narrator, much the way Pitt’s scruffy insanity let him slide into the part of Tyler Durden with ease. The dim, mildewed aesthetic is amazingly rendered by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who also worked on Fincher’s Seven and The Game, and it’s expertly edited by James Haygood, who also cut The Game. Fincher benefited from working with the technicians who’d helped make his other films so distinctive, and at the helm of Fight Club, Fincher broke out and made his mark as a storyteller to be reckoned with and respected. Zodiac may be his masterpiece, but that attention to detail and willingness to walk the darker roads really cemented itself in Fight Club. There’s not a single dull or predictable moment in it, and what’s more, it isn’t a one-shot wonder that loses all edge or meaning once the “twist” is unveiled.

“The things you own end up owning you,” Tyler warns the narrator, who spends the rest of the film learning the hard way that everyone is owned by everything, and fighting against that can often feel like punching yourself in the face. Fight Club is a psychologically bare and philosophically brave look at the boredom of the modern man, the inevitable escape he will attempt from that life, and his inexorable journey back.