There are movies which go to cinema screens, gather their poor box office and in a month are forgotten. There are, however, such motion pictures, glory of which lasts for several decades and even generations, they become cults, they become integral institutions. Fight Club (1999) belongs to the latter group. The world now knows the movie as a box-office disappointment, current 12th position in Internet Movie Data Base Top 250 and a praised pet of all the rebellious young and old. Apart from being a great screen adaptation of a marvelous novel, the movie presents much interest in terms of cinematography and performance techniques. General integrity of the film is one of its characteristic features. It is revealed through interrelations between the picture, narration, actors’ performance and sound. Fight Club also totally complies with genre demands.
The plot centers on a white collar protagonist (Edward Norton) whose life, devoid of any excitements, has turned into mere consumption. He suffers from severe insomnia and manages to overcome it only due to attending of various support groups for people with different diseases. Protagonist’s comfortable lying existence there is interrupted by a similar faker, “tourist” Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). An accidental acquaintance with a man on a plain, weird soap-maker Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), although at first deemed “single-served”, brings a radical change into the life of the clerk who, by the way, remains unnamed throughout the film. This is an intriguing exposition of the story. They found an underground fight club which gradually grows into a powerful entity embracing men from all over the country. Fight clubbers turn into mayhem conspirators, resort to threats, murders and utter destruction, which prearranges the climax of the story. As the structure becomes uncontrollable, Tyler disappears and the investigation of the protagonist leads him to the conclusion that his companion was nothing but a product of his split personality enhanced by lack of sleep. In order to subdue his alter ago the protagonist has to resort to killing them both, which is a resolution of the conflict.
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Cast of the film is one of the success components. Pitt is responsible for the good looks (as well as Jared Leto) and slight craziness, the latter feature unites him with Bonham Carter, who contributes to art-house effect and decent acting, and, in its turn, it is what connects her with the most thoughtful colleague, Norton. Different in idiolect, displaying various amounts of screen experience, all of the actors create a dynamic combination enhancing the picture in general.
As Elsaesser and Hagener state, “the position of the camera represents the materialization of the conflict between the logic of the director and the inert logic of the phenomenon in collision” (Elsaesser and Hagener 23). There are plenty of collisions in the researched firm. Photography of Fight Club is innovative, fresh and very appealing regarding the loose MTV clip-like live-action movie genre. First of all, it must be mentioned that the picture offers a striking contrast between daytime when everything is dull and mundane (and the whiteness of collars and purity of faces are practically acid) and nighttime, when all of the major scenes take place and all the dangerous ideas are born. Dark settings symbolize night, crime and sleep, all of which are realms of Tyler (“Tyler was a night person” is far more than just mentioning the biorhythm of a person, for it is revealed by the major conflict of the movie).The whole film is based on interrelations of white and black, good and evil, presented by the protagonist and antagonist who is actually a single person. Dark, poorly lit scenes in basements, support groups rooms and house of Tyler and Marla on one side and light, almost sterile offices and hotels on the other side are designed in order to emphasize this contrast.
Another important thing is photography proper. As IMDB suggests, David Fincher is known to have spent an enormous amount of reels of film while shooting. His precision and perfectionism is totally understood. The camera follows all the possible filming patterns: it stays put and only rotates into the direction of the personages (e.g., at Tyler’s place in the mornings), it features the speaking personage in the classical way (for instance, the talk in the bar) and it follows the route of personages (as Tyler and nameless protagonist walk to the fight club meeting). Close following of objects, intricate flow between conditions of substances is present at the very beginning, in intro titles, and further, accompanying a journey of a trophy – tooth knocked out in a fight – down the sink, and the bomb wiring in a truck full of explosives. As for the shot structure, there is a prevalence of medium shots with rare intense close-ups and practically no long takes. The choice of such methods is explained by the plot itself, unfolding in a closed community with a lot of extras. The camera always has to embrace both the nameless protagonist and Tyler when they have a scene together, the emotional reactions of both are equally relevant, that is why focusing on only one of them might damage the movie composition. Consequently, one of them may stay out of focus, but still remains present in the frame. Slow motion is also resorted to in a couple of episodes: “destroying something beautiful”, namely soft features of Angel Face, running away from the police station, car crash or a scene when the protagonist shoots himself, trying to kill his inner evil twin. It is obvious that time-lapsing is meant to single out crucial episodes, most of which in the film also happen to be computer-enhanced.
MTV reference is not accidental. Clip-like movie structure came into fashion due to the popularity of music videos. David Fincher, director of Fight Club, has already had an experience in music industry at the time of filming the movie. Truly, the filmmaker knew how to attract young audience. Both key and not key moments of the film are shot with the application of a rapid sequence of frames. Probably, one of the most impressive cathartic scenes – that of the chemical burn – is made with insertions of images from guided meditation and dictionary entries. Such a sequence is meant to reflect the panic thinking of the protagonist in his trying to transcend from the present moment with its excruciating pain. One of the rare close-ups is also used in this scene in order to draw the attention of the audience to lye bubbling at the wet kiss on the hand of the protagonist. Another example is the setting of a support group with a sequence of frames featuring name tags, cups, donuts, sugar bags and coins.
One second, one-frame visions of Tyler appear on the screen at least twice (once during a hospital visit and for the second time – at the first support group meeting in the life of the protagonist). They present a kind of subliminal preconditions for the developing split personality disorder. Frames are essential elements of the narrative itself. The mean official misdemeanor of Tyler as a projectionist also involves close work with movie frames. The last frame in the film before credits is a pornographic one (accompanied in a DVD commentary by a remark “Tyler lives on”). This story inside a story is a hallmark of the movie.
Computer-generated imagery is a great emphasizing aid used in Fight Club. Thus, sex scenes with Marla were 80% computer-enhanced, as well as the imaginary scene of a plane crash. This aspect reveals the innovational approach of Fincher, who used photogrammetry – a method of measuring objects using photographs. Applying it in Fight Club meant “finding a balance between CGI and storytelling”. David Fincher resorted to it to solve a common filmmaking problem. Such a pyrotechnical scene as a ‘kitchen explosion’ in protagonist’s condo, for example, reveals this cinematography solution (De Semlyen 12).
Dollying in usually ends up with a close-up, singling out the person in focus and concentrating on the person’s emotions. A good example is one of the scenes of Tyler’s preaching – the one where he mentions khakis and all-singing and all-dancing stuff. The climax of the scene is a close-up on the man’s face when the camera becomes frantic, the picture breaks free from the frames, and the audience is once again given an opportunity to realize that it is just a movie.
Framed narrative structure with numerous flashbacks insertions is a hallmark which became rather popular in 2000’s. It cannot be called Fincher’s invention, but it is surely what made his movie memorable. A lot may be said about the intricate screenplay stemming from novel of the same title, but in the context of the given research it would be reasonable to appeal to a single detail of narration, namely, the implementation of humorous scenes within the movie. Here it should be mentioned that the film under analysis is generally defined as drama, but it also undoubtedly incorporates the elements of an action movie, thriller, mystery and comedy. Humor in Fight Club is versatile and directed at the vices of modern society in general and problems of masculinity in particular, although tiny mise-en-scènes create little gags which give the audience an opportunity to stop analyzing the deep bitter critics, just relax and have a smile break (like the one where Tyler asks Raymond K. Hessel whether the midterms were hard after the latter replied that he studied “s-s-s-tuff” or the fight clubber’s funny remark about a “near-life experience” after the car crash). Humorous references in Fight Club are based on verbal means mostly. They are, for example, presented in reflecting about the role of consumption expressed by imagining “planet Starbucks” and other new celestial bodies, notorious Ikea mentioning and even caustic remarks about the modern art (one of which is made at the car crash scene and is followed by approving laughs of the extras). The screen picture is also a medium of conveying humor and irony. Thus, a superb example is the sequence of scenes when at first Tyler and the protagonist see a Calvin Klein poster with a man’s bare torso and brand underwear (followed by mocking of modern gym-enhanced masculinity), and then there is a transition to the basement of the fight club which reveals the stone-carved abs of Tyler. It is an intelligent humor: the purposes of two men are different; a fight clubber deems his muscles the means of survival and destruction. Humor is traced in various interactions between the images the protagonist sees and those which actually take place (“We should do this again sometime” – and a beer bottle deemed to be passed to Tyler just drops down, because there is no Tyler there). The idea that there is no use believing that “one day we’ll be rock stars” (featuring Jared Leto at the fight club meeting) proved to be debunked by the further successful career of the musician. Thus, humor in Fight Club builds a separate genre block.
Allusions are inherent in Modernism. Fight Club presents a good deal of them, skillfully applying them to the plot. If Tyler stood as a God-figure for violent American males, then “in Tyler we trusted”. Biblical references continue in a paradoxical decomposition of a set phrase: there is no such thing as “salt of the earth” anymore, as the elite of society appears to be “fat of the land”. This nomination simultaneously performs the role of one of the key images of the story, referring to a socially mocking soap-making. Literary references are also resorted to when describing the central conflict of the narration: it is Marla who transforms the title of Stevenson’s novella into “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Jackass” when talking to the protagonist who tries to reveal the horrible truth of the situation to her. One-medium reference, inevitable in the modern period of film history, also takes place in Fight Club: “Run, Forrest, run!” from the lips of Tyler who has just let go of Hessel greatly relaxes the tension from the previous scene of violence.
Sound editing and score are elements that hold the picture and narration together. Marvelous score by The Dust Brothers fits the movie perfectly, whether it is a simple walk home after the support group meeting, comic assignment of starting a fight or enhancement of intense action moments. Sudden stops in music flow create a peculiar pace of the movie. Other sound effects are also thoroughly elaborated, for example, flashbacks during the protagonist’s investigation are intentionally accomplished by echoed versions of the previously shown scenes, thus separating parts of narration. The movie is characterized by a kind of audio-visual caesura, a prosodic term designating the phenomenon when an utterance does not fit the conditional frames and flows on to the next frame. In Fight Club it can be observed when a calm and unemotional speech of the narrator (which is stable throughout the film) is overflowing to an enlivened direct protagonist’s speech, as showed in the dialogue during the first meeting with Tyler on the plain.
Two-disc Fight Club DVD, put on the list of The Best DVD Commentary Tracks, presents some inner insights into various aspects of the movie. Thus, marketing battles are mentioned. Wish to save the authenticity of this piece of cinematography may have been the reason why the revenue figures were not as high as anticipated. The mysterious message of Tyler at the beginning of the film already tunes the audience and acts as a kind of a movie teaser. Impressions of the filmmaker and actors help to conceive the purpose and process of making the movie better.
Fight Club proves to be a logical product of its time. Made as a mocking of modern society, the movie might make ones laugh thoughtlessly and enjoy the tough fighting scenes, and the others ponder over the deeper sense of the narration. For the both groups of audience the movie presents a high-quality sound cutting, bright and dynamic picture, bright actors’ performances and, of course, an unusual story. All of these elements interrelate and contribute to the general effect of the movie. Due to this interrelation Fight Club manages to remain a never-fading cult cinematography piece even 13 years after the release, and, moreover, shows no signs of leaving the lists of best motion pictures ever made.
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