Fight Club vs. Bringing Out the Dead

Fortunately, filmmaking is generational. Scorsese’s baton has not fallen by Fincher.

When done right, film should be a marriage of two arts: imagery and story. As opposed to the print medium wherein words are the sole conveyance of ideas, scenery accompanies script on film. So naturally, there are a great many more factors to consider: lighting, location, sets, not to mention actors’ facial expressions and body language to name a few. Very few movies — or more importantly, directors — ever get both right at the same time.

Filmmaking by Heredity

The very name “Martin Scorsese” evokes a sort of benchmark for classic film. It’s encouraging to know that the name “David Fincher” does his predecessor’s justice for a new generation of socially provocative filmmakers.

To be sure, the Scorsese mantle is no light load. With such immutable classics as Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, and Casino, surpassing his distinctive visual storytelling style would be an achievement. Matching it would be accomplishment enough.

Yet Fincher along with a few other recent filmmakers have certainly made their mark. P.T. Anderson comes to mind with his epic new drama Magnolia, a third installment in a line of sprawling narrative films. Fincher’s previous works are no less stunning. His breakthrough thriller Se7en, a dismal portrayal of crazed vigilantism set against the backdrop of social depravity, perhaps most reflected Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Fincher’s next film, The Game, entered the vein of Hitchcockian mistaken identity.

One important similarity not to be overlooked between these two directors is the ease at which one can sit through multiple viewings of their films. While the subject matter in both Taxi Driver and Se7en are at times unbearable, it is easy to become engrossed by the style with which their stories were told. Neither Bringing Out the Dead nor Fight Club are exceptions. With Dead, Scorsese is almost intent on outdoing himself, and Fincher has upped the ante with Club, using so many fresh and amazing techniques as to make one sitting impossible to take in all the eye candy.

Similarities

  • Screenplays adapted from books
  • Vocational burnout and insomnia
  • Exaggerated characters, surreal environs
  • Singers-turned-actors
  • Visual manic style

Both films were adapted from novels. Dead and Club came respectively from the similarly titled works of Joe Connelly and Chuck Palahniuk. Interestingly, both of these stories were the debut novels for each author.

Their premises are loosely similar also. For one, both involve severe job burnout. In Dead, we begin with Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), feverishly navigating the streets of New York in an ambulance. Frank’s graveyard beat (no pun intended) renders him an alcoholic insomniac in a perpetual daze throughout the film. Tormented by victims he failed to save, he’s literally haunted by their ghosts in similar fashion to the young channeling Cole in The Sixth Sense.

This kind of character frailty is familiar ground for Scorsese. Rather obviously, he seems to be returning to his dank stomping ground. In lieu of the Travis Bickle figure infatuated with condemnation — a la Taxi Driver‘s homicidal vigilante patrolling the New York mean streets — is the Frank Pierce character desperately in search of redemption.

Club introduces an insomniac as well. The narrator of the story, known only as “Jack,” is played with perfect wasted deadpan by Edward Norton. Quite possibly the best actor of his generation, Norton exudes the “sick desperation” of his burnt out character, numbed by his modern cushy corporate existence. In this case, Jack is a disenfranchised recall inspector for a major automobile manufacturer.

The surrounding environments and supporting characters of these two guys are no less exaggerated. Accompanying Frank on his nocturnal missions of mercy are a dizzying array of quirky partners in Dead. Larry (John Goodman) detaches himself emotionally from the work by considering it just a job. He’s upwardly mobile, confident that one day he’ll make captain. Next up is Marcus (Ving Rhames), a charismatic camp-meeting Christian who places total trust in the Good Lord’s wisdom. In other words, when a patient dies, it’s just their time to go. Yet he relieves his stress with wine and women. Finally, there’s Tom Walls (Tom Sizemore), a sociopath who vandalizes the ambulances and terrorizes the patients, among them vagabond Noel (singer Mark Anthony).

In alternating fashion, these supporting characters each deal with the trauma of the paramedics’ life by disassociating themselves in unique ways — all except “grief mop” Frank who hasn’t figured out how to turn off the empathetic portion of his brain. Since the death of Rose, a young asthmatic woman he failed to save the previous year, Frank’s life has been a living hell. He feels his only responsibility is to “bear witness” to suffering and death.

In Club, Jack’s environs reek of caricatured satire as well. To counteract his sedated lifestyle, Jack frequents support groups to which he shouldn’t belong. Self-help “tourism,” he calls it. As his only outlet for emoting, Jack finds that blood parasite groups or brain cancer circles allow him to cry and thus sleep at night. As shockingly voyeuristic as this sounds, to Jack it’s a haven from his perfectly boring life. In his assortment of support groups, he meets such characters as Robert Paulson (singer Meat Loaf), a testicular cancer survivor. Resulting from hormone treatments for his disease, Paulson’s physique has been radically transformed from a masculine body builder’s to the grotesquely effeminate with overdeveloped breasts.

There Jack also meets Marla Singer, played by Helena Bonham Carter who looks positively like the faternal twin that Edward Scissorhands‘ Johnny Depp never had. She’s constantly strung out, chain smoking, and tired of living. Her only regret in life is that she wakes up each morning. She’s Jack’s mirror minus the perfect IKEA-filled condo and steady job.

With such a wide variety of wildly manic characters in these two movies, the filmmakers produced some daring visual photography to match. Jumpy camera work, erratic angles, over exposures, lens flare, deep hues, et al, fill both Dead and Club. I’m still not sure what made Scorsese incorporate this rather 90s technique of cinematography, except that his script certainly called for it. Needless to say the style is quite addictive. Indeed, many a movie have tried to duplicate the look since Fincher’s Se7en exploded the genre in mid-decade. So for Club, I fully expected Fincher to go further with his noir vision. For Scorsese though, I found myself perplexed by his choice of telling this story the way he did. Is the new generation perchance teaching its predecessor some new tricks?

I suppose that the maestro is simply reinventing himself for a new era, or perhaps the characters in the story demanded a harsher sporadic reality painted around them. Whatever the case, the result is a pulsating music video look instead of Scorsese’s usual deeply affecting photography, like Kundun.

Fincher also combines unique visual and computer animated effects in Club to achieve his vision. From the very beginning, the opening credits of the film are overlaid on a meandering backwards shot of the inside of Jack’s brain. Transitioning from the digital animation to extreme close-up, the shot finally ends with the perspective of a sweat bead exuding from a pore on Jack’s forehead. This rather unorthodox technique suggests Jack’s inner turmoil over his life, literally enabling the audience to get inside his head!

These styles and settings aside, the distinctions between Fight Club and Bringing Out the Dead are many.

Differences

  • Plots: introverted individual redemption vs. extroverted social revolution
  • Pittfalls and Cages: a closer look at the motivations and obstructions of both leading actors

Dead takes a more introspective examination of innocence lost. At it’s outset, Frank tells us that he hasn’t saved a life in months. To Frank, this represents much more than burnout or job performance, but a crisis of his soul. In his recent failure to consistently play God, the spectres of his past are haunting him like accusing demons.

For penance, Frank involves himself in the well-being of disillusioned junkie Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of a cardiac patient. Perhaps if he can save Mary from her addictions, then he can propitiate Rose’s ghost and thus redeem himself.

In typical Scorsese fashion, there is great ambivalence with his characters. Frank’s one solace from his life and neurotic partners is the comfortable pad of the local drug dealer. Compared to the rest of the savage characters, this one’s the most noble. Frank unwinds there in a foiled attempt to rescue Mary from her misguided lifestyle. The irony quickly becomes apparent, as Frank realizes that his sober life is really no better than Mary’s willfully sedated one. They both are in such desperate need of comfort that they settle for numbness.

Where Dead is provocative interpersonally, Club is intensely political. Literally a visceral experience, Club is a shocking challenge to the complacency this generation inherited from the past.

In fact, no other film this year has resonated the mantra of the nihilist zeitgeist with such urgency. If you were to cross Office Space with Falling Down, add LSD, and fill it with Douglas Coupland whimsical sentiment (“This is your life… and it’s ending one minute at a time.”), you would have Fight Club, an urban aggressive hyper-stimulated surrealistic trip of mayhem. And believe it or not, that’s not the half of it.

Just when Jack nearly reaches bottom with his dead-end job that bounces him around the country inspecting car crash disasters, he meets Tyler Durden. A “single server friend” as Jack calls him, they happen to share a flight, which Jack incidentally wishes would crash because life insurance pays triple if you die in a plane crash. Jack’s outlook on life isn’t an enthusiastic one. His wish for a mid-air collision underlies his desire to break with life’s draining monotony, albeit in the most shockingly horrific of methods.

Tyler is everything Jack only wishes he could be. He’s confident, arrogant, charismatic, and totally independent. Tyler doesn’t care about people’s impression of him, and certainly not about his income, residence, or role in society.

It’s at this point that the Fight Club is born. Outside a bar where the two have drinks after bemoaning Jack’s present infatuation with materialism, Tyler floors him with a simple question. “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”

Jack eventually does, and what the two of them discover is that, oddly, a good fight is just what the two of them needed. Jack had felt comatose by his job and his life; Fight Club reawakened him. Tyler just showed him what he needed to see.

Their regular fighting soon attracts other disenchanted working class brutes. Meeting in basements, they were hardly unruly brawls. Christened “Fight Club” by Tyler, there were specific match rules:

Rule #1:
You do not talk about Fight Club.

Rule #2:
You do not talk about Fight Club.

Rule #3:
If this is your first night at Fight Club, you have to fight.

Rule #4:
One fight at a time…

…and so on. With Tyler as its prophet and Jack as its moderator, Fight Club began swelling (breaking the first two rules of Fight Club). Between matches, Tyler would pump up the seething crowds of testosterone with anti-establishment sentiment. “Our generation has had no Great Depression, no Great War. Our war is spiritual. Our depression is our lives.”

Laid in this groundwork is a crucial idea, the backbone of the film really. The concept goes like this: the society that consumerism has fashioned goes against the natural instincts that make us men. The “IKEA nesting instinct” Jack refers to actually denigrates our quality of life, in that it contradicts the evolutionary characteristic of hunting in the Hunter-Gatherer instinct, turning us into gatherers instead of hunters. In essence it’s the feminization of the modern male, resulting in a man more in tune with his feelings, more communicative to his mate, and less combative to the outside world.

Not bad changes really, but shocking to an inertial sex. What’s at stake with this model of manhood is his masculinity. What used to define the man no longer is fashionable, much less acceptable. Club is a very surrealistic journey into just such a man’s attempt to change all that (similar to American Beauty), to buck the current system and bring back the Hunter in the equation.

For instance, as Jack begins to understand the error of his materialist ways, Tyler steps up the mayhem. Tyler’s communist notion of erasing class status through personal sacrifice for the common good is accelerated by his fascist ideal of becoming super human and recruiting impressionable hungry followers. An alternative to Jack’s support groups, Fight Club morphs from a mere club into a full-fledged terrorist organization, moving literally out of the basement back into society only to undermine it. The first two rules of the club are modified into the first two dictatorial rules of Project Mayhem, “You do not ask questions.”

His revolution is infectious to a generation raised on infomercials and told to buy useless merchandise and work in dead-end cubicle jobs. Tyler’s only answer to these stressed-out desensitized masses is cultural upheaval. Project Mayhem includes mostly vandalism, food tampering, and other acts Tyler describes as “the rejection of the basic assumptions of society, especially the notion of material possession.” Their goal is “economic equilibrium,” sort of an insurgent cultural revolution. To finally achieve this lofty goal, they target several credit companies for demolition in the hopes of leveling the debt records.

There’s a one word theme for Jack’s descent into mayhem: “slide.” His psychological degression is best described by the three major acts of the film:

  1. Personal loss — breaking the bonds to a consumer prison (loss of Jack’s apartment and possessions)
  2. “Hitting bottoming” — reducing the concept of self-worth and importance to a state of self-destruction in order to truly achieve freedom (abuse in Fight Clubs and finally Tyler branding Jack’s hand with hydrochloric acid)
  3. “Economic equilibrium” — destroying the debt record (demolishing credit card buildings) and technological dependency (vandalizing satellite dishes, TVs, consumer electronics)

As you can see, there’s an awful lot to take in here. It’s hard to pinpoint where Fincher really draws the lines, if anywhere. Is the film really anti-civilization? If so, it’s no wonder it was shut out at the Oscars simply because awarding anarchist propaganda would undermine the foundation that an awards ceremony is built upon. Whichever the case, Fincher certainly leaves a lot to the viewer to decide.

It seems a universal trait that actors bring to their roles a part of themselves. Some become so lost in the characters they play that it is hard to distinguish the fact from the fiction.

Such is the case with both Nicolas Cage, star of Dead, and Brad Pitt of Club. Here’s a closer look of who these guys are and how that affected their characters to the boost or bane of their respective films.

The Cage

Before Bringing Out the Dead, Nicolas Cage has starred in many a picture. From the acclaimed Coen Brother film Raising Arizona that got him on the map, there were a few innocent films including It Could Happen to You and Guarding Tess. Then came his Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas, despite that trademark puppy-dog fulsome pout. Things were looking good. And then something happened.

Since then, he’s been in the dud production business. By apparently selling his soul to the devil of movies, Cage has been able to retain his star power without actually having to act.

Cases in point:

  1. Face/Off — Here, Cage teamed up with John Woo, now infamous Hong Kong import. Woo showed Cage that the path to coolness is a slow frame rate and fluttering doves, while diving in leather and guns.
  2. Con Air — Cage solidifies his rejection of Oscar roles for more glamorous explosive cheesiness. Most of this one is fortunately erased from my memory except that one infernal line, “I’m gonna save the day!” Air marks Cages first partnership with Jerry Bruckheimer, a name synonymous with glam-bam popcorn movies.
  3. The Rock — By now, it’s definite. Cage is a goner. Albeit, Rock was a somewhat more earnest concept given Sean Connery’s involvement, but I suspect that Mr. Bond was just hard up for cash. Even his British lilt couldn’t save Cage’s smarmy smirk. Again, Bruckheimer.
  4. Gone in 60 Seconds — With this upcoming flick, Cage’s fate is sealed (three Bruckheimer strikes and you’re out?). Whatever brilliance was once noticeable from Vegas has now been replaced with gaudy Hollywood chrome.

Most recently however was 8MM, where any scathing critique the film attempted to make of society was so mired in depravity as to make the film unbearable. This film is where our two leading men seem to meet each other. For Mr. Pitt was first in line with the depraved murder mystery in the vivid Se7en.

The Pitt

Pitt, too, seems to be drawn toward characters that most resemble his own. Perhaps he is indistinguishable between them. Of his film characters most resembling Tyler Durden, believe it or not, is Jeffrey Goines from 12 Monkeys. In Monkeys, his character was quite delusional, if not insane. Spending most of his time in institutions with severe anti-establishment tendencies, he was a fringe maniac. Or was it that Goines’ keen awareness of the civilized world’s conspiracies against its citizens necessitated his institutionalization? Either way, Goines and Durden were very alike, with the obvious exception of violent tendencies.

In Club, Tyler was far from insane, just an unstable mercenary that acted out his aggression. Still, there’s only a fine line between insanity and genius, and Tyler was probably teetering at best.

In all fairness, Pitt isn’t without an abnormal attraction to the stylish either. If Cage is a glamour boy and loves it, Pitt is definitely a Hollywood pretty boy and knows it. His heart throb status has only encouraged the occasional sinker (Meet Joe Black for example).

However, Pitt’s other films have consistently been visceral and involving. Look at:

  1. Legends of the Fall — Brothers torn between the same woman and their separate search for identity in the resulting tragedy.
  2. Se7en — The underworld of depravity is turned upside down by a methodical serial killer who is trying to expose it.
  3. Seven Years in Tibet — Austrian explorer Heinrich Harrer, mortified by the desertion of his wife, finds inner peace with the Tibetan monks.
  4. And finally Fight Club.

Make no mistake, Fight Club is a brutal movie. Fincher himself has said that he isn’t interested in making films that don’t scar. True to his resume, he delivers this sharp material with unforgiving, assaulting style. In my opinion, it even eclipses Bringing Out the Dead both in plot and panache. Fortunately filmmaking, as with all artform, is generational. Scorsese’s baton has not fallen with Fincher.

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