HOW DARE THEY MAKE THIS DISGRACEFUL MOVIE? - by Martyn Palmer

Prepare for the inevitable tabloid backlash and moral-minority crusade against David Fincher’s latest, in which Brad Pitt and Ed Norton batter each other black and blue on the streets of corporate America. And love it.

David Fincher, the director behind the darkly brooding thrillers Se7en and The Game, seems keen to leave the meaning of his latest movie Fight Club open to interpretation. Until commercial pressures to feature pin-up star Brad Pitt won through, his preferred design for the posters was simply a bar of soap embossed with the words “Fight Club”. The reasoning? Pitt’s character Tyler Durden is a soap salesman. And he made a couple of teaser “public information” trailer, one where Pitt explains to the audience where the cinema emergency exits are before commenting: “Did you know urine is sterile? You can drink it.” Deemed too obscure to promote the movie, Fight Club’s trailer is likely to take a more normal form.

Small wonder then that the press conference for Fight Club at this year’s Venice Film Festival was open to interpretation too. The participants—director Fincher, actors Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter and Meal Loaf—took the stage at the Sale Perla theatre to a rousing reception, but within minutes were embroiled in a stand-off with the assembled international journalists. Soon, Brad Pitt was mumbling “Man, this is ugly…” into his microphone while Meat Loaf was biting his tongue. Bonham Carter said little more than “That’s crap!” while Norton and Fincher attempted to articulate some kind of defense against what they clearly felt was an unwarranted onslaught from the international media. Gloves off all round.

Everyone seemed baffled by the other side’s response. The film makers felt mauled by the relentlessly single-track questioning—violence, violence, violence,--while the press were surprised that Fincher and Co had been unprepared for this. If you make a movie where yuppies engage in consensual bare-knuckle free-for-alls, then isn’t it naïve to be affronted by questions comparing it to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange? And after America’s 12 separate mass shootings this year, including the Columbine High School massacre, isn’t it fair to ask about Fincher’s responsibilities as a film-maker?

Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote the original novel, certainly intended to court controversy with his first book. Frustrated by a dead-end job as a Freightliner service researcher [he’d repair truck engines and write manuals for each procedure], he poured out his worries and resentments in just three months, basing the characters on his friends. Fight Club isn’t about learning to fight well, it’s about learning what it feels like to be beaten down, and this idea too came about from Palahniuk’s personal experiences.

Looking for ways to test himself, he worked with the homeless and the terminally ill, because they scared him, and even convinced a med-student friend to let him dissect a corpse. Says Palahniuk: “We are cushioned by this kind of make-believe, unreal world and we have no idea what we can survive because we are never challenged or tested.” Like the characters in his book who face beatings as a way of reinforcing their masculinity, he faced his fears, and it’s this aspect that director Fincher feels people should take to heart.

“There’s no way of getting around the ideas of an emasculating society that Chuck was talking about in the book,” says Fincher. “But I also think about it as a darkly comic tale of maturity. I really saw myself in the Edward Norton character. I remember being 27 and going: ‘OK, now it’s time to start buying furniture and making a decision about a cappuccino machine.’ And then four years later you say: ‘Well, I spent all this money and I bought all this shit and it really isn’t me…’ Who really gives a shit? So there were a lot of things in the book that I thought were unbelievably funny.”

For Edward Norton, who plays the film’s narrator, the notion that cinema should steer clear of any subject regarded as ‘dangerous’ by some is clearly hogwash.

“If art in general was limited by fear of the copycat consequence, should Nabokov have written Lolita because of the fear that some older man would molest a young girl? It’s ludicrous to suggest that the only role of art should be to present escapist or romantic or positive images. That’s more dangerous to me than the role of dangerous art. It’s a completely legitimate role of art and film as art to hold a mirror up to our flaws and our dysfunctions and try to examine the roots of them.”

Critics who just focus on the violence are, says Norton, missing the point of Fight Club. “The book expresses thoughts that I’ve had or I feel in the energy of the people of my age. I’ve always thought that a lot of things that are written about our generation by our parents’ generation were too simplistic or too dismissive of us as a Gen X, slacker, aimless generation. I’ve never related to any of that stuff and this was the first thing I read that I said: ‘Yeah, this expresses the depth of the numbness and despair that I feel in a lot of people I know.’ And you know what people seem to overlook? It’s very funny.”

Pitt, too, could relate to the theme of young men suffering an identity crisis. “This script was the first time that I actually got really excited. I heard a unique voice, a new voice and with fincher leading it I thought it would be very exciting. I was drawn to the character of Tyler. There’s a bit where he is saying ‘advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, buying shit we don’t need…’

“I actually find that more destructive than some of the complaints we have been hearing about violence. I find this truly damaging, this kind of focus on exterior beauty, things, clothes, cars. The film attacks that notion and gives the idea that maybe we are heading in the wrong direction…”

Grudgingly, Fincher eventually admits that he’s rather pleased that the violence in the film has had such an impact. “I’m glad that it was violent because after a year of storyboarding and rehearsals and stuff you do get stressed and start to worry that it’s completely tame.”

Which loops back to the questions at Venice: isn’t the film irresponsible in promoting an activity that its core audience—young men—could easily imitate? Palahniuk has said that “I’d rather have them beating the crap out of each than walking into McDonald’s with a sawn-off shotgun.” What about Fincher?

“I just hoped that the book and maybe the film would deal with some of the feelings that young men have about their place in the world and I don’t think the film ever strives to find a solution for it,” he says. “I don’t think anybody is ever responsible for somebody else’s behavior. I think we have to be responsible to ideas that we present in a prurient or a glamorized way but I don’t think the violence in this movie is portrayed in a glamorous way.

“With regards to ‘will people emulate what is going on?’ I don’t know. I don’t have a problem with people starting fights clubs. But I don’t think we made it with any intention of getting people all riles up and sending them out on the streets.”