Film

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

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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:

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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.

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Passages

“To Invent Your Own Life’s Meaning”

Bill Watterson:

“You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.” […]

“You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

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Passages

The Form of Funny

This bit by Chuck Klosterman, from an essay in Eating the Dinosaur, remains one of the sharpest and most valuable critiques of what’s become a dominant style of writing online. When he wrote the essay, it made sense to address the problem as one belonging to blogs, but it’s long since spread to mainstream publications, too:

“If you’ve spent any time trolling the blogosphere, you’ve probably noticed a peculiar literary trend: the pervasive habit of writers inexplicably placing exclamation points at the end of otherwise unremarkable sentences. Sort of like this! This is done to suggest an ironic detachment from the writing of an expository sentence! It’s supposed to signify that the writer is self-aware! And this is idiotic. It’s the saddest kind of failure. F. Scott Fitzgerald believed inserting exclamation points was the literary equivalent of an author laughing at his own jokes, but that’s not the case in the modern age; now, the exclamation point signifies creative confusion. All it illustrates is that even the writer can’t tell if what they’re creating is supposed to be meaningful, frivolous, or cruel. It’s an attempt to insert humor where none exists, on the off chance that a potential reader will only be pleased if they suspect they’re being entertained. Of course, the reader isn’t really sure, either. They just want to know when they’re supposed to pretend to be amused. All those extraneous exclamation points are like little splatters of canned laughter: They represent the ‘form of funny,’ which is more easily understood (and more easily constructed) than authentic funniness.”

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TV

Teaching a New Girl Old Tricks

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The third season of New Girl, which aired from fall 2013 to spring 2014, was a muddy and unpleasant experience in a lot of ways, not least because the union of Nick and Jess morphed from opposites-attract romantic-comedy to self-destructive loathing. Speaking to HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall, New Girl creator and showrunner Liz Meriwether offered this take on the season:

“It’s tricky having a couple on a show. It really limits what you can do with them as characters. It felt like we had to see them together in every episode, and that limited Nick from going off on his own and having stories. We put them together too much. They were in every story together, and there was fatigue of the two of them together.”

This is the biggest and most dangerous lie that some storytellers believe: that a couple’s story exists only in the way they came together, not what kept them together. Part of the mistake is probably logistical. Watching a couple meet, date, and fall in love provides a natural arc for writers and viewers, so it’s easy to keep going back to that well. The truth about life as a couple (married or not) is that there’s no more arc. It’s instead about commitment and exploration, about going through your life with someone and learning what that give and take means on a daily basis. It’s richer and deeper, but also harder to shoehorn into a sarcastic 22-minute weekly slot that also has to support several other characters.

This also starts to feel like a cheat for viewers, especially after it’s been made clear (through the individual text and the storytelling tradition) that Jess and Nick are going to wind up together at some point. Putting them together and pulling them apart just because you don’t know what to do with them as characters starts to make the show feel like a game, and one we’ll eventually get tired of playing. As Meriwether said later in that interview: “For me, the heart of the show has always been Nick and Jess, and it will always be Nick and Jess, and I don’t think this is the end for them.” We know.

I wrote several months ago about why it’s important for TV to keep telling stories about actual couples, so rather than rewrite it, I’ll just reprint it here:

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The end of How I Met Your Mother brings with it many things: no more flash-forwards or teases, no more narrative fake-outs, no more episodes designed to play out the string. But the biggest hole it leaves in primetime television comedy doesn’t have to do with any of the show’s official major stories about Ted Mosby and his long-suffering search for love. Rather, it’s the departure of Marshall and Lily we’ll come to feel most sharply in the coming months and years. Played by Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan, they were something most viewers never get to see in a TV comedy: a realistic, committed couple who were together for the long haul.

Most TV comedies relegate serious relationships to supporting characters. Friends, notably, had Monica and Chandler, who got together at the end of the fourth season, married at the end of the seventh, and finished the series by adopting kids. On How I Met Your Mother, Marshall and Lily followed a similar pattern: they began the series as longtime partners, got engaged, and briefly separated before getting married and starting a family. They worked through a number of issues — financial problems, job insecurities, deaths in the family — but were always together. The plot was created to test them and bring them closer together, not drive them apart. Yet this is something that the lead characters on sitcoms almost never experience. While Monica and Chandler worked to grow as a couple, season- and series-long stories dealt with Ross and Rachel’s tumultuous relationship and ultimate reconciliation (in the series finale, no less). How I Met Your Mother was, for all its colorful storytelling, primarily about Ted’s search for love and fulfillment and his desire to create his own version of what he saw in Marshall and Lily. Sitcoms might let the lead character stay in a relationship for a little while (Ted did, and even got close to marriage), but these relationships always end in favor of keeping the lead single a little longer. The arrival of the true love, the one person tailor made for the lead character, is put off until the end. It’s viewed as a series-ending button on a long story, a clear-cut “The End” as a show fades out. Ross and Rachel went back and forth a million times and knew everything about each other, but they weren’t allowed to actually be together until Friends was down to its last commercial break. This is understandable, but it’s also unnecessary.

It’s understandable because the search for love, or the “will-they-won’t-they” tension between two leads, is a clear story that’s easy for viewers to understand and even easier for studios and networks to sell to audiences. This is a story about a guy looking for love; over here’s a story about two coworkers who secretly like each other. There’s room for individual details in the story even as the writers lay down a definite template and don’t deviate from it that much. Two people meet and develop feelings for each other, they overcome a very specific obstacle (being apart), and then they get together. Sitcoms like to repeat this on small levels for throwaway relationships and big levels for the “real” ones, but the moment where the two leads come together, or where the guy finally gets the girl, is seen as the end of the line. That’s where the energy is focused. That’s the goal.

What makes that unnecessary is that there are hundreds and thousands of stories to be told about couples in love who fight and work and grow together, who sacrifice for each other, who try to figure out what it means to be in a good relationship, and who do everything they can to make their relationship work. It’s not as if these stories are unheard of in sitcoms, either; they’re just on the periphery. Marshall and Lily dealt with debt issues, fertility questions, career worries, and the dim unease that comes with getting just a little bit older and wondering if this is what you’re supposed to be doing with your life. Monica and Chandler grew together and informed each other’s characters: he learned how to grow up, she learned how to be more giving. Happy Endings had Brad and Jane as the married part of their ensemble. Parks and Recreation did a little song and dance with April and Andy, but to the show’s credit, it soon enough skipped the formalities and just let them get married. Yet most comedies are afraid or unwilling to make those stories the primary ones. The American version of The Office drew its energy from the repression Jim and Pam put themselves through for years; once they finally got together, the series didn’t quite know what to do next, so it faffed around for a few years and drove artificial wedges between Jim and Pam as a way to recapture some of the show’s former glory.

There was no reason for How I Met Your Mother to minimize and prolong the appearance of Ted’s future love and the mother of his children. Things aren’t over when you meet someone; that’s when they’re just starting. Yes, the lead-up is exciting and thrilling in its own ways, but there are so many stories and moments that come after that. Learning to be with each other. Discovering who you are with another person. Wondering what to do with your lives together. Making major decisions about where and how to live. Having the same discussion about dinner and your in-laws a million times. Meeting a new group of friends through your partner and figuring out how to blend them with yours. It would’ve been fascinating and rewarding to include more stories like this on a major network comedy simply because they tend to get overlooked for what we convince ourselves are more dramatic options: falling in love, getting married, or dealing with death.

This isn’t anything new, either. Most TV comedies have stayed away from the romantic dramedy of two committed lead characters, and when they do present a committed central couple, they usually pivot into family stories pretty quickly. Bewitched and I Love Lucy only went one season before giving children to the main characters. Two high-profile sitcoms managed to focus on the relationship between the leads in recent years — Mad About You and The King of Queens — and though they took wildly different approaches to storytelling, they share something rare: a core belief in the union of their main characters. The plots are about their lives together after getting married but before having kids, when they’re learning how to navigate adult life as a couple. It’s a narratively rich area that comedies tend to avoid, maybe because creators are under the impression that there’s less comedy (or just too much drama) in a story about a relationship. But they also likely avoid such stories because relationship comedies offer no clear resolution, no signposts to mark your progress, the way a story about one person trying to get with another lays out a beginning, middle, and end. There’s no clear next step when you’re together. You just work at it and keep going. I can understand why that might make some creators nervous — “these two people love each other and do stuff” is probably harder to pitch than a gimmick-laden rom-com in reverse like How I Met Your Mother — but I’d love to see a writer or network take a chance on something built on a young relationship. There are so many stories to tell there. It’d be a shame to let them go untold.

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Film, TV

Film Is Not Just a Delivery Device for Plot

When FXX broadcast a marathon of the entire run of The Simpsons to date, they cropped the remastered images, slicing off the top and bottom of the original image to fit into wider HDTV sets. The Simpsons, like many shows of its era, was originally broadcast in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This is what TV images looked like for decades. HDTV sets display a ratio of 1.78:1 (often referred to as 16:9, or 16×9), which is obviously wider. To show an older TV image on an HDTV set, you have two options:

1.) Center the image and put black bars on the sides (a practice known as pillarboxing), or
2.) Crop or stretch the image to fit the wider display.

The first option is always preferable. The goal isn’t to fill up your display with an image, but to view the image as it was originally intended using the best of our abilities. Before HDTVs, this meant opting for widescreen editions of VHS tapes or DVDs, which used letterboxing to insert black bars above and below the image to preserve a wide picture on a more narrow display. Many movies today will still be letterboxed on an HDTV, but because the display is already a good deal wider than old 1.33 TV sets, the bars are smaller and less noticeable.

That’s just for modern features, though. For older features and TV series, which were often created and distributed in a 1.33 ratio (or 1.37, aka Academy ratio), watching them on an HDTV and seeing a true representation of the work means having black boxes on the sides of the image. It’s the same principle as letterboxing; the bars are just in a different place.

Filmmakers and TV creators weren’t oblivious to the shape of the screens that would show their work. They composed and photographed images specifically in a 1.33 ratio. And this is where it gets important: a filmed image isn’t just a delivery device for plot, but a visual representation of the emotions of the characters and viewers interacting in the film space. Close-ups, tight shots, the interplay of camera positions. These aren’t haphazard, randomly chosen things. They’re all done with a purpose. And when you chop or distort the image, you twist and damage the intended emotions of the scene.

When Buffy the Vampire Slayer was released on DVD, some fans wondered why it wasn’t being presented in widescreen, especially as HDTVs began to gain footing in the market. Series creator Joss Whedon had this to say about it:

The fabulous episodes of BUFFY (and that one crappy one, sorry about that, seemed really cool when we wrote it…) were not shot in a widescreen format. They were shot in the TV 4 by 3 ratio. Now I’m a letterbox fanatic…. I want to see the whole screen, as framed by the director. The BUFFY’s I (and others) shot were framed for traditional TVs. Adding space to the sides simply for the sake of trying to look more cinematic would betray the very exact mise-en-scene I was trying to create. I am a purist, and this is the purest way to watch BUFFY. I have resisted the effort to letterbox BUFFY from the start and always will, because that is not the show we shot. This is.

The latest show to receive the HD remastering treatment is HBO’s The Wire, and it looks like it will unfortunately be cropped to fit HDTV sets, too. This is, of course, an affront to the creators of the original image, who knew what they were doing when they photographed one of the greatest TV series ever made. From a 2007 piece about the show:

The Wire for each of its five seasons has been produced in good old fashioned 4 x 3 standard definition. DP Dave Insley recalled, “The reason the show has stayed 4×3 is because David Simon thinks that 4×3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie. The show’s never been HD, even 4×3 HD and that (SD) is how it is on the DVDs. There is no 16×9 version anywhere.” As a viewer with an HD set I will point out that like much of SD television that makes its way to HD channels, it appears that HBO utilizes state-of-the-art line doubling technology. It may still be standard definition, but line doubled it looks considerably better on a high definition set than it would on a standard definition set.

Insley explained, “When the show started 2001 / 2002 they framed it for 16 x 9 as a way of future-proofing. Then a couple of seasons ago, right before Season 4 began shooting, there was a big discussion about it and after much discussion — David, Nina, Joe Chappelle, the Producers, the DPs — and we discussed what should be the style of the show. David made the decision that we would stay with 4×3. The DPs pretty much defined the look to be what it is now. And it’s been consistent for the past two seasons.”

Watching a TV show or a movie isn’t just downloading the plot into your brain. If it were, you could get the same emotional and aesthetic experience by reading episode summaries on Wikipedia. The visuals, including the framing, are crucial to an understanding of the work. All the pieces matter.

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