Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Critique: It’s Called a Change Over

Director David Fincher’s Fight Club was released last month on the Blu-Ray format in a commemorative 10th anniversary edition, packed with all kinds of interviews, commentaries, and other special features. An honor like this is not bestowed upon just any film, especially one that did so poorly at the box office and was nominated for only one Academy Award (which it did not win). Additionally, the critical response of the time ranged from bewildered at best, to disgusted at worst. The film Fight Club could not be fully appreciated in 1999 because contemporary critics knew not what to make of it as it was so different from what they expected, and its influence upon the art and business of cinema had yet to be witnessed.
Critics and general audiences alike went to see Fight Club not knowing what to expect. The marketing campaign put together by the studio, 20th Century Fox, led people to believe that the film was all about underground boxing, when in fact that is only a small part of the story. The film does feature boxing, but it is only one ingredient that David Fincher used to tell the story of a man frustrated and numbed by the culture of consumerism he lives in. The marketing did not sell the real gist of the film to moviegoers, instead opting to push the action as much as possible, and in so doing, accidentally created a false expectation of what the film was like. If the film had been sold instead as an art film, or as a psychological thriller, it might have been more successful at finding an audience while still in theaters. Alas, audiences and critics were confounded when what they thought was a straight action film turned out to be an intelligent, multilayered cinematic trip about societal emasculation and schizophrenia, which they did not recognize at first; this led many critics to write negatively of the film:
Fight Club isn't a movie so much as it is a series of blows – three fast shots to the gut, an uppercut, a left-right combination to the head and a final jab that splinters your rib cage. It doesn't end; a bell rings. You stagger to your corner, beaten and pulped, sucking for raw oxygen. Is this the same as being a good movie? Well, not exactly, though the director, David Fincher, clearly thinks so. (Hunter)
The contemporary review quoted above, which appeared in the Washington Post, uses a multitude of boxing metaphors to describe the film negatively, and even takes a passive-aggressive shot at Fincher himself. This kind of hostility from a critic exemplifies how frustrated many reviewers and filmgoers were when they first laid eyes upon Fight Club. The film challenged audiences in ways they didn’t expect and could not recognize at first.
In the decade since its release, Fight Club has influenced countless films and found both a devoted audience and the critical respect it deserves. Critics have been able to views the film in the proper historical context:
Indeed, a few short years later, it is now viewed as a milestone, a benchmark in the careers of everyone involved. For Fincher, the story of a young man discovering the beauty - and the inherent danger - in embracing your inner maleness become a commentary on an entire sub-generation of dejected men. Thanks to Palahnuik’s brilliant deconstruction of the bottomed-out baby boom, complete with IKEA “nesting” instincts and designer mustard mandates spoke volumes back when Clinton was canvassing the White House, and now, two regime changes later, it seems even more prescient. (Gibron)
The above review of the recent Blu Ray release of Fight Club has ten years of hindsight to work with, and this historical perspective helps the critic better appreciate not only the artistic merit of the film, but also its significance in cinema and pop culture.
Fight Club has had a strong influence on subsequent films. Mostly, filmmakers have been inspired by the film’s unique and riveting visual style. Take, for example, the opening credit sequence in Brian Singer’s X-Men (2000), a computer generated backward tracking shot which twists and turns through strange clouds and patterns, accompanied by fast-paced, dramatic music. It is almost identical to the opening credits sequence in Fight Club, the only difference being that the original scene takes place inside the protagonist’s brain, where as the copycat moves through some generic, nebulous ether. Fincher started with setting the scene inside the character’s brain, and then the style and technique came from that, whereas Singer and his effects team saw the sequence in Fight Club and copied the style, without putting any intent or purpose behind it. This hollow mimicry is evidence of Fight Club’s extreme originality.
When people saw Fight Club for the first time in 1999, they failed to grasp how mind-blowing it was. Nothing like it had been done before, and it had yet to be imitated, so it did not jive with the accepted notion of what a film is supposed to be. Over the last ten years, however, many people have come to recognize just how revolutionary the film was. It has not only changed our idea of what the art of cinema can do, but also opened a previously closed window into our collective unconscious and, in turn, helped to shape our cultural discourse in ways we are still struggling to comprehend. The most famous line from the film, “The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club”, has been quoted and paraphrased so much that it has evolved beyond the film to become a part of our everyday lexicon. In the years after the film’s release, actual fight clubs began to spring up all across the country. The film was so powerful that it inspired young men to get together and beat each other up. What other film can this be said about? Fight Club is now such a large and integral part of American culture that it is mind-boggling to imagine that it was not embraced and revered more widely in its own time.

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