1. Very interesting article, Hulk. I’m just wondering though whether this confusion/anger that you feel at Fight Club stems from the tonal problems or from the movie’s message. And yeah, the movie’s message is totally “embrace your inner Tyler Durden!” And I agree that the ending feels wrong.
    But it feels like your main dislike of the movie is supporting this message, that you feel is juvenile and irresponsible.
    And it’s totally ok to dislike a movie because you disagree violently with something in it. (I dislike many H.P. Lovercraft stories, despite acknowledging his importance to the horror genre, because of his rampant racism and fear of interracial mingling. Seeing people of your ethnicity being treated with the same fear as an elderitch abomination takes a bit of the fear off said abominations, but I digress… )
    The point is… Are we talking about the movie being badly constructed or are we talking about the movie spreading a bad message? Article is interesting, but separating those two criticisms would make it clearer, I feel. Still, I am thankful for the article.

    PS – What do you feel is wrong about people forming fight clubs in real life? Technically they’re grown men and not hurting anybody but each other. So why do you disapprove of it? And I don’t mean this as an accusation. I honestly want to hear your opinion on it.

    1. I cannot speak for Hulk, but if the movie were better constructed, the message would be less murky. Some argue that the message of “Fight Club” is ambiguous, but too often we extol ambiguity without understanding it. Lack of coherence is not ambiguity. Ambiguity is when one idea can hold multiple meanings, depending on one’s approach to that idea. In the case of “Fight Club”, its thematic throughline is an inchoate mess. Rather than taking a definitive stand on its themes, it hedges the implications of its actions and then proceeds as if it made a statement. It muddles any message rather than presenting multiple, viable readings.

      In the movie’s terms, a fight club suffers the same disconnect as that of consumerism. These boys have a problem (immaturity), but rather than address it, they beat the piss out of each other. They pretend it is a way around the consumerist, herd mentality, but as with most violence, they use it to turn individuals into a herd. They are left with the same problem (immaturity) in the same circumstance (namless member of the herd), but they pretend the club has helped them.

      The members of a real-life fight clubs (that I’ve known) suffer the same disconnect. If a person only feels something when they experience physical pain (received or inflicted), then the person already experiences psychological pain that needs to be addressed. Expressing it physically does not address the underlying issue. It can be part of a regimen, but a person must still dig to the root of why they need to take or dole out a beating. The fight is a displacement for another issue.

  2. I’m impressed at how well you captured my own feelings watching the film. The way it involves you viscerally is amazing, and I’ve always enjoyed the experience of it. But it truly fails to make itself “about” the ending. The ending really feels weird and wrong.

    It’s weird how the film is about this relationship between “Jack” and Tyler, but then in the end it just kind of all spirals down into all this plotting and Project Mayhem stuff. It doesn’t feel like the ending pays off the rest of the film, it feels like the film is going somewhere at 90 on the highway and someone jerked the wheel hard to one side at the last moment to keep it from getting there. There’s a powerful sense of momentum that just gets derailed at the end. It doesn’t feel like we get where the film was trying to go. So you have to wonder what Fincher thought he was making, when the audience has this powerful sense that what they’re seeing isn’t where the film was headed.

    I think of a film like the original Alfie, where at the beginning his behavior is so enticing and awesome, but by the end we see him doing all the same things but it comes off as pathetic and awful. That’s a director who knew how people felt watching a scene, and that’s what we needed if we were going to really honestly root against Tyler. We like “Jack,” but we love Tyler. If we have to side with one, it’s not going to be “Jack,” so yeah, we feel disappointed.

    Maybe it’s because Tyler isn’t there when the really nasty stuff happens. We don’t see him not caring that someone is dead, so we don’t see his callousness and evil. Whenever he’s there, he’s doing cool stuff and being awesome, so we can never really associate him with the evil. In The Third Man, *spoiler! Go watch it if you haven’t seen it!* it’s hard to really buy Harry’s evil until he tells us about it himself. *end spoiler* We can’t believe that the evil we’re told about someone is really theirs until we see it or hear it from them, see how it flows from their personality and is really a part of them, and we never get that with Tyler.

  3. Hi Hulk, good stuff, as usual, and excellent questions posed.

    Don’t know the answers, but the piece does remind of something I read (don’t remember who said it), about the way war movies only make war and violence look cool, so you can never make a real war movie. Maybe its the same way with the themes Fincher and Co. tried to tackle.

    As a side note, I once had the opportunity to interview Palahniuk and I ask him directly whether he felt any responsibility about what he wrote in Fight Club. He became defensive and stand-off-ish and generally laughed in my face. Any confusion about the film starts with that guy, who, at the time, was on the serious rise as a personality and individual AT LARGE. Don’t get me wrong, I love Fight Club and many of Palahniuk’s stuff (as welll as Fincher), but somewhere, sometime, the creator has to stop to ask themselves exactly what the fuck they’re selling. If I put the recipe for homemade napalm in my book (and I don’t know if its real), I would stop to ask myself what it could lead to.

    Also, I think the problems Fight Club has are the same as Goodfellas. No one ever seems to criticise the third act of Goodfellas, which basically subverts everything that came before it and puts the viewer in much of the same place as Fight Club.

    1. “Goodfellas” does not try to turn on a dime and say, “Okay, now the mafia is bad.” It makes it clear from the beginning, “These guys do awful things.” The entire process of indoctrination is littered with painful incidents. Henry pistol-whipping the horny neighbor, the murder of the bus boy, the poor bastard in the trunk–at first, the anti-heroes have the audience on their side, but then they keep going until they lose us. When the final act of that film hits, these guys are getting what they richly deserve. The only problem the audience should have is that Henry gets away, relatively scot-free.

      Compare that to “Fight Club”. Bob is dead, Angel-Face disfigured, Tyler contained, but the narrator survives a gunshot wound to the head and Project Mayhem detonates its buildings. They achieve all their goals, relatively intact, and completely contrary to the logical progression of the story. The ending is high fantasy, made “gritty and real”, even though it’s no more real than the hallucinatory, rapid-cut opening of the film.

  4. We need an article on the theory behind evaluating tonality. “He has no control over tone.” How can you argue that in a structured way, distinct from your reactions to the content of the film’s ideas, e.g., “I don’ t like what he’s saying here.” How do you know what is the film’s “tone” versus knowing what is you, the viewer? Here’s why I ask for the theory behind it.

    I once was persuaded tonality could be tracked across scenes, informing us of the filmmaker’s intended motifs and not-so intended motifs(Twilight, Arkam City). I insisted to friends “oh, the violent tone of this elevator scene in Drive is deliberate contrast to the fairy tale tone of the rest of the movie,” but did I really know? Isn’t it possible the filmmaker lost control of the tone in that scene, the thing you criticize Fincher for? When I tell my friends it’s deliberate I’m basically ignoring the kiss just before the face smashing and the music playing.* I’m just insisting; the theory behind it is “c’mon, what else could the filmmaker be trying to do?” which is not much a theory at all.

    Between Twilight and today, your study of tonality seems to have dissolved into a personal reaction to the messages in the films, with no through-line I can grab a hold of. With as much respect as I can convey, you seem to have problems with a filmmaker’s control of tone whenever the power of women is reduced or violence is reified, and praise tone whenever it represents inner city youth and male empathy in a positive light.

    At this point, it might do me well to provide some specific examples of inconsistencies between articles on how you judge tonality, but I’m really not trying to make a case against your judgment. I’m just trying to explain why I hope you’ll write 10,000 words about it.

    Specifically, in hulk-vs-fight-club-and-the-work-of-david-fincher, what specific film techniques can you point to that you used to evaluate the tone? Other than the reference to the atmosphere–which is fairly specific–I walked away with a general impression that you just couldn’t believe the film would let anarchism and violence be as seductive as it is. How did Boogie Nights get it right?

    Earlier I mentioned my tonal evaluation works for Drive, but what if instead of his brains squirting out, the bad guy just gets shot in the struggle, a less overt tonal shift (according to my not-thought-out theory of tonality)? And suppose movie was made by a filmmaker of more ambiguous quality. Wouldn’t these changes make our assessment of tone even more like a guess? A guess about the filmmakers intent…there’s more to tone than that, right?

    I think this confusion, or debate, if you prefer, extends to a lot of other Hulksters too. What I’ve termed a lack of “through-line” between articles is actually the same divergence you’ve seen in the comments where people argue that the satire of Fight Club was apparent before the ending, Zuckerberg is a jerk the whole movie, and that you’re right about Boogie Nights.

    I’m becoming convinced there is no objective way to evaluate tone. Many people will happily accept and reply “yeah, it’s subjective,” but I think that reduces “tone” to the misnomer we use to discuss our reaction to ideas, while pretending we’re still criticizing the filmmaking. That’s dishonest thinking.

    *Is it the beats? Are the kiss and face smash different beats? You should explain what they are in a future post since they’re always standing mysteriously in the background any misunderstanding I have.

    1. “I think that reduces “tone” to the misnomer we use to discuss our reaction to ideas, while pretending we’re still criticizing the filmmaking.”

      For example, regarding the Drive elevator scene, I asked what if that was an example of the filmmaker losing control of tone. One person might say no, it clearly is intended to be gross, as that grossness plays into the larger motifs. But another person, who hates gross violence and feels emotionally slighted by a filmmaker who makes her witness it, might find herself arguing that the tone of the scene ruined what the film had worked for up to that point. They disagree, and I think the dispute as likely has to do with the emotional reaction to a scene as a critical assessment of “tone.” They use tone to talk about what they thought was or wasn’t enjoyable. More importantly, they think about what they enjoyed or didn’t enjoy in terms of “tone.”





    3. Whoops!

      I accidentally posted a reply to Charming Charlie in a separate thread. (Idiot!)

      Please look down and consider.

  5. (Right off the top, allow to me apologize if this comes off strongly. I am told I write forcefully, but what I write is a mere argument. I’m anxious for a discussion without flaming. However, there is no “IMHO” or “I think” or “I’d argue” because that’s all implicit. I’m typing this. Of course, it’s in my humble, nonprofessional opinion.)

    As readers, we have to take care not to conflate tone to intent. The average discussion about art devolves into a back and forth about an author’s intent even though his intent is, in the main, beside the point. He put his art out there; what he meant by it has little to do with the content of the artifact itself. If a reader makes a completely false claim (“Swift wants us to eat poor, Irish kids!”), then clearly the author’s intent trumps the reader’s stupidi…naivety. However, if Swift’s essay had caused an epidemic of Gaelic paedocannibalism, there is little harm in offering that the tone of his essay was, perhaps, off–regardless of his intent.

    I cannot speak for Hulk, but as a fellow reader, when Hulk says Finch flubs his tone, he is not condemning the message of the film (he’s careful to do that separately). Hulk can probably name a great many films with nigh-reprehensible messages that maintain their tones and reflect their authors’ intents. In the case of “Fight Club”, the bungled tone reflects the muddled thematic content which, besides his general aesthetic, is the one constant throughout Fincher’s oeuvre. Hulk isn’t prescribing corrective actions to Fincher’s methods; he’s describing the problematic nature of his final products, especially in relation to Fincher’s reaction to audience feedback. Hulk doesn’t question Finch’s intent during the shoot, rather his disbelief at the reaction of the general audience. Hitchcock and Kubrick might have been surprised at the extremity of their audiences’ reactions, but rarely was either not in control of its sympathies.

    Respectfully, I disagree with the reading of the elevator scene in “Drive”. Its tone is not violent; it’s orgasmic. Its content is extremely violent, both emotionally and physically, but its tone is set by the slo-mo, edit, lighting, and sound: all romantic. Even when the sound shifts to the mechanical and the regular frame rate resumes, it is the progression from anticipation (don’t ejaculate!) to action (let loose all cannon!), from cerebral to rote physiological. He gets aroused by a chaste kiss with a girl then gets off on a prolonged beatdown of a dude. That is like every fairy tale ever. “Oh, I’m in love!”, “Meany took my girl!”, “I kill Meany!”, “I’m no good for girl!” (the last part is where the American fairy tale diverts from the Indo-European one; no “happily ever after” in the West, just death).

    As to the “what-ifs” of this scene (gunshot vs. beatdown, unknown vs. renown, etc.), notice that Hulk does not attempt that with Fincher’s work. He evaluates what is, not what might have been. He only engages what Finch did and said, not how it might have played differently. Rather than postulate possibilities which are endless, he considers the reality which is limited thus ripe for discussion and dissection.

    Even though Hulk seems to grasp it, I do not fully understand one of your qualms. What is the problem with emotions clouding judgment of tone? The intent of tone is to direct audience reaction. The tone of a work sets up the audience’s expectation. Just saying, “Oh, we’re going to laugh about eating Irish children” doesn’t quite come off as funny unless you read the essay in which he carefully constructs an absurdist viewpoint. Even then, the satire will be lost on some. However, “I didn’t enjoy this” may be a strong indicator of an issue with tone. Hulk digs into why he’s pretty sure Fincher’s tone is the culprit. Hulk may be wrong, and if he is, take him to task for it. Hulk’s a big boy, he can handle it. Most of us would be anxious for a well-reasoned rebuttal. However, the fact that something rubbed him the wrong way does not mean that he’s taking the tone to task for the message. He addresses the message (represented vs. received) then discusses why the tone disrupts its delivery.

    Finally, do not let the lack of an “objective” method of evaluation ever dissuade you from evaluating a work of art, not ever. Anyone who claims to objectively evaluate a subject is a liar, or if you prefer, an exaggerator. As writers, we endeavor to think objectively, knowing fully well that we will fail. We will fail absolutely and miserably, never getting within a country mile of objectivity. An action as passive as subject selection reveals a writer’s values and perspective. The best we can hope for is to elucidate a novel perspective on a work or its medium. If a writer looks to prove anything definitively, he’s looking to be made a fool not long after.

    (Wow. That went from a couple of sentences to pretty extensive. Again, I am told I write forcefully, but I hold very little dear. If you have any thoughts and can afford the time, please have at it.)

    1. Again, if any confused reader actually made it this far, this was a response to the post by Charming Charlie.


  6. That’s odd. I never really got it out of this movie. Before the tonal shift there is the section where Norton becomes isolated from Tyler. For me the allure of Tyler (and the project) broke when Bob died. Their refusal to conform to society only lead them to conform to some bullshit anti-culture. Given that the first half of the movie focused entirely on not-conforming, that sets you up to reject it in the second half. The last twenty minutes only cements that.

    Kill your heroes, etc.

  7. Ok, let’s take it from different perspective – what if it’s all a test – a game Fincher sets for his audience. I read this article (http://www.hollywoodreporter.c… ) and it made me wonder. Quote D.F.: “I don’t like movies that ‘tell’ me – I want to engage in a movie that says, ‘Here it is.’ It’s not a colder point of view; that’s reductive. It’s more adult.”. Taking it into consideration let’s assume he is true to his words, and didn’t lose control over tone of this movie. It makes it all about personal response to the movie and tonal shifts are tools that simply makes it more possible. I agree that director is responsible for a massage of his/hers movie, by that rationale we can assume Fincher could have used similar trick Kubrick used in A clockwork orange. Kubrick’s character, narration and tonal choices manipulated audience into feeling sorry for Alex not being able to propagate ultraviolence and being a monster. Movie’s conceit was different form original novel for a reason.Tonal shifts are a kind of vehicle to test audience and then let it build its own bias within the film’s conceit. It’s about choices we make evaluating this movie. The movie itself is about choices one makes. Ideas behind project Mayhem are catchy and tricky. We, as an audience, tend to follow suit with even extreme ideas within a movie much more easily than in real life. Said that I don’t mean whoever find’s Norton’s character volte fake is guilty of being an ass**e not a human. By not making unambiguous tonal massages director gives more space for audience to respond, think and choose themselves – either to regret Mayhem or celebrate it’s ( partial yet still) failure.
    That makes HULK a internally torn beast
    Peace out!

    1. It’s useful to consider the work from another viewpoint (outside our own as audience members), but this response drifts into the no-man’s-land that is artistic intent. After the artist publishes his work, his intent holds very little weight. Stephen Daldry, Tom Hanks, and Sandra Bullock (all top-of-line professionals and, by all accounts, exemplary human beings) intended for “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” to be an uplifting take on 9/11. The audience does not need to know their intent to know that they failed. Whatever Fincher’s intent may be, the film’s reception and his ensuing bafflement support Hulk’s theory about mixed message and conflicted tone.

      As for Fincher’s quote, I love it when an artist dismisses a viewpoint as “reductive” by assuming his very own reductive viewpoint. It is no more “adult” to say, “Here it is”; it is simply less direct. As an odd example, “Jackass” is the epitome of “Here it is”: setup, execution, aftermath. There is little commentary beyond “Boy, this is gonna hurt!”, “That’s gotta hurt!”, and “Wow, did that hurt!”. In what way is it “more adult” than “The Hangover”? “The Hangover” devolves into direct moral messages, but those are merely its apologia. The ultimate message of both series may be twee, but they both celebrate grown men behaving badly, and both are juvenile (for better or worse). I’m not arguing against their merits, just hopefully illucidating that “Here it is” is no more “adult” than “telling”.

      Furthermore, the only way for a movie to not “tell” you something is to leave the screen blank. (Even then, would anyone claim there is no message?) The obsession some artists have with supposed objectivity baffles me. As a filmmaker, he cannot claim to say, “Here it is” because every filmmaking decision reveals, in some measure, his position on an issue, right down to the very selection of the subject itself. French filmmakers explore the essential subjectivity of the camera much more thoroughly than their American counterparts, and even they generally resort to “cheating” with the camera in order to capture the events that the audience needs to see.

      Let’s assume that Mr. Fincher intends this as a game for his audience. Right off the bat, he chose the wrong medium. Cinema is a game about as much as a book is a painting. A picture is worth a thousand words, but the book actually contains the words. A movie may trick the audience, but the audience has no opportunity to retaliate. It is captive. There is some give-and-take in cinema, but in most respects, it is a unidirectional assault, a monologue, a sermon. Seasoned actors enjoy their returns to the stage because the feedback is more immediate, and, in the case of improvisational theatre, its structure is much more like a game’s. (Audience: “Do this! Don’t do that!” Performer: “You mean that? Not this?” Audience: “Boo! Yay! Boo!”) At the movies, the reception cannot refocus the material. We are seeing exactly what the filmmaker chooses to show us, not a single thing more or less or in any other order. It is impossible for this to be a game so much as a trick. If it is a trick, shame on the filmmaker, his uppance shall come. If his point is didactic then, as an instructor, he ought to recognize his own bias, not just assault us for ours. An artist can include caveats and acknowledge differing views without sacrificing his tone and message. If the disruption of tone is his point, firstly, fuck him for foisting a short student film into a feature, and secondly, he still must justify his experiment. To what point and purpose this seesaw? It does not have to be crystalline or strictly linear, but any conclusions he reaches have to carry weight. The audience has to believe that filmmaker is invested in the exploration, even if he ultimately disagrees with its conclusions. If the received message is reprehensible, but the filmmaker is clearly not, and he is shocked that the audience digs what is so reprehensible, it’s fair to say that he failed to capture his intended tone.

      The ideas behind Project Mayhem are catchy, but the project itself is transparently a foolhardy, ineffective way to address them, even from moment one when Tyler assigns homework. The first time I saw it, I giggled, not at the assignment, but at the grown men actually willing to consider doing someone else’s homework. Even as a teenager, I recognized being inserted right back into a bullshit, nameless hierarchy, and I was flabbergasted that no other character seemed to catch it. Project Mayhem’s failure is not partial; it is total. All those nameless, capitalist individuals are now nameless, socialist individuals under the thumb of a very human demagogue. The narrator has developed a cult of personality composed of full-fledged terrorists (and not in any freedom fighter sense). Where’s the success?

      It’s tempting to cite Kubrick when discussing Fincher because of their similar working method. (I’d argue strenuously against placing Finch anywhere near the Pantheon, but he still has the potential.) However, “A Clockwork Orange” is easily as problematic as “Fight Club”, moreso in the context of the directors’ oeuvres. Few people claim “Clockwork” as Kubrick’s masterpiece; some (including me) claim it as his nadir. I’d argue that even he agreed, given his support of the ban in Britain. (How about that one-two comeback with “Lyndon” and “Shining”, huh? Nobody mistook Jack for the hero, boy.) In “Clockwork”, Kubrick’s clinical eye mistook his own sympathies and the effect on the audience’s. “Fight Club” is top three Fincher even if you find the message abhorrent, and there are many who still prefer it to “Zodiac” (including me) or “The Social Network”. When one of an artist’s major works conveys a confused message with a conflicted tone, it opens a line of inquiry to his work as a whole. Hulk nails it when he contends that to this day Fincher lets his tone spiral beyond his control.

      “We, as an audience, tend to follow suit with even extreme ideas within a movie much more easily than in real life.” Do…do you really find this to be true? I find that humans tend to be more herd-like in real life, especially toward the extreme. How often do you hear completely inept comparisons to Hitler and Nazism?

      Wow. Another long one. I gotta shut up more often.

      P.S. Enjoyed the animation.

      1. I agree with you that this leads to a sort of grey area, and I don’t want to be Fincher’s advocate. Neither do I intend to bash him. This movie has its flaws (like all) I just want to explore this concept.

        I agree with most HULK said. What I think is that the more urgent topic, when it comes to Fincher’s work, is his movie’s editing, timing and pacing of sequences, all leading to unexplored and over-explored themes etc. I suspect tonal modulation over the time of the Fight Club was more intentional less accidental (if so due to pacing issues). Well direction is about proportions so is a case of Fight Club. Death of one of the Club members along with reaction of other followers seems like a good reason for a sudden change of heart, this has been explored in earlier comments.
        What I think we should look for origins of FC’s awkwardness in social context and director’s intentions.
        Misunderstood director is a common theme. I don’t blame Fincher for being “disappointed” with his movie wide reception/reaction. Just to mention Kubrick (easy!) alone a number of times; would he change his films for a reason not being clear enough to the audience ( f.i. bashing said Alex all the way)? He re-cut his movies months after initial release, but never took it this way, just like many directors did too (or wished to)– Reasons for that is a topic for another discussion, I’m sure to come.

        I think it’s likely that Fincher played here with “common carefree nihilism” of his late 90’s audience. That would be interesting, and I believe way he constructed the film could prove it in a ways. We all agree he is capable of doing such things (although I’m not putting him on pantheon on mind-game masters like the Kubrick- yet)
        I believe Project Mayhem was partially successful because of :
        a)network dedicated people following idea to the end
        b) well – successful demolition spectacle

        We basically have two major ways of doing stuff. Hardcore “my way” making a film for “me”, hoping an wide audience finds it interesting or making films approachable to widest possible one, all for a dedicated topic. It is not exclusive to director, it’s a choice, sometimes coercion. Both this ways always mix in different proportions. Of course now not as it used to do, in the 90’s or 70’s. It connects close with “adult” way of treating your audience. And it is interesting for Fincher to point it out this boldly. Well we have argument at least he believes in it.

        I disagree with your definition of adult viewpoint and way of making films ( or I wasn’t clear with my intentions in the first place). If Fincher’s adult comes from distance and choice not to impose certain massages by letting audience make their own mind, discover ( mainly within sequences, scenes less frequently a whole movie) there’s nothing wrong with that. It is common choice for a director and It has become a kind of a landmark for Fincher’s work. This create “a playground” – more space for interpretation etc. It also creates a space for an “audience – social experiment” IF he conducted it. You can easily apply reductive style for majority of Coppola, Kubrick, Scorsese or Coen’s work. That makes it more a part of style, convention. That said one can easily find influences of 70’s era, cinema verite elements etc. now part of film vocabulary ready to be used.

        “We are seeing exactly what the filmmaker chooses to show us, not a single thing more or less or in any other order. It is impossible for this to be a game so much as a trick.”
        What about subtexts? It’s a manner of choice that not include “sacrificing tone” in the equation . By creating film more a flexible medium director gives more space for interpretation and understanding to the ones with more f.e. cultural knowledge. He lets them see, discover and explore more things from a scene than the others. Perceive and interpret – feel scenes differently, feel tone shifts and changes differently. Director stays true to his intentions and yet one perceive his work differently. It works for me – doesn’t for you…
        “he ought to recognize his own bias, not just assault us for ours.” No one can say he has.

        “it’s fair to say that he failed to capture his intended tone.”
        Or was it audience who failed at that time? We’re back in the discussion of “artists–their work- public understatement” and where/when in happens. He could have used, intended mixed tone to confuse and achieve certain state in his audience mind just for kicks. I’m not telling he did but he could have. To clear things up I meant – dazed and confused people stick to core principals – instinct. I think It’s ok if a director want to “test” you from time innit? If movies play on a visceral level…? Ok it depends on a how much movie like this can confuse/ touch you. Like I said I can’t say I find Fincher tonal issues his main flaw. I personally find one of the top directors working today, so it’s all sort of picking holes. I admire how meticulous and visually astonishing his work is.

        I never had mixed filings about this movie as a satire. It misfits conventions so much I’m not sure this it was supposed to be a vivid satire in the beginning. This also makes “play with audience theory” more real.
        Of course cultural context was different and clearly movie would be perceived differently now. On that condition Fincher wouldn’t have had to say he was surprised by reactions. It’s interesting how people, like Hulk, who saw this film back in the 99’ look at it now and perceive it. I suppose George Lucas must have been genuinely shocked when he found out how many people “cheered and supported dark side” and its embodiment – Darth Vader , a clear reincarnation of evil Nazi (and all idea behind it). So was this audience tricked? Maybe – I just don’t believe Lucas tempted them consciously :] . Lately similar case with Chris Nolan’s villain, who large parts of the audience seem to cheer more than Batman himself (The Dark Knight). I predict the same with Bane. Tone wrong? I find it very similar to Fight Club when we discuss tonal issues.

        Big it up for one whom still with me – the last movement
        Did he fail to capture his intended tone? As many other artists, on different mediums did or didn’t depands on individual. What’s a role director has, what he can or can’t do is a huge different topic. That said I can’t agree with what you said in the matter. Hope we explore it in the future. So yes. I say Fight Club has too many rushed scenes in its last 20 minutes. Fincher has tendency to do this (or more precisely: his editors to overpower him in this field strangely). His last film is just a great example for what I said. I agree with some comments above: he wastes some time in the middle, less relevant scenes seem too long, and he could have focused more on exploring motivations and setup for the volte. I’m just not sure he‘s juggling tone unconsciously . I think It may have been a part of the “greater good”.

        Thanks for watching my short. Sorry for this loooong post. Damn that Hulksizeness is spreading fast

      2. Well, it’s been nearly a year. Always intended to respond, but…anyway if you’re there, Mr. Bialek–

        We approach Mr. Fincher’s work with similar caution despite you granting credit and me denying it. There is simply no denying his preeminence yet his work is problematic. Is there anything better to think through? What’s the use of digging into a subject that a person feels he understands thoroughly? It’s the subject that eludes a man that can teach him the most.

        To be clear, Fincher should not give an inch to mass appeal. Many great artists appeal brazenly to the niche, the masses be damned: Kubrick, Cassavetes, the Coens, the Andersons, Wes and PT. Sometimes, the masses catch on; most times, we do not.

        However, Fincher willingly gives more to commercial considerations than most of his peers. He works at a different scale, and big movies require big audiences. Even when he works on a smaller scale, he acknowledges when it’s a job-for-hire like “The Social Network”. I imagine he’d acknowledge as much about larger movies like “Alien 3”, “Seven” (he might feel closer since it proved his breakthrough), “The Game”, “Panic Room”, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”.

        Only “Fight Club” and “Zodiac” seem to spring as much from his id as any source material. Obviously, something catches his interest in every movie, but these two stand out as projects where the subject matter fascinates Fincher as much as the technical exercise. Does anyone claim that for “The Game”? “Panic Room”? “Benjamin Button”? (A defense of his passion for the themes and subjects of those projects would interest me greatly.)

        If Fincher intends to present ambiguity, then muddling the message only moves him further from his goal. Ambiguity has entered the cinematic lexicon as a somewhat fuzzy term, which is a shame because it carries a great deal of philosophic consideration behind it. An object is ambiguous if it carries one of several possible meanings; it is ambivalent if it carries several meanings, even contradictory ones, at the same time.

        To achieve ambiguity, it is not sufficient to claim “it speaks for itself” because nothing in any medium speaks for itself. In film, the director speaks for everything. The audience only sees what he shows us. If what he shows us does not present any solid lines of reasoning, it cannot be ambiguous.

        A film achieves ambiguity by offering several valid lines of reasoning, and it achieves ambivalence with several valid simultaneous readings. Fincher does not maintain thematic consistency from scene to scene, let alone multiple threads over the course of the film.

        I do not follow your point about the subtext. Almost the entirety of our discussion centers on the film’s context and subtext. I cannot speak for you, but I wouldn’t be writing now if we just tossed quotes and scenes back and forth. We both know the movie, the text; we’re digging into the context outside of the film and the subtext within it. We examine not what is in the text but what is assumed and implied by it. (It drives me nuts, absolutely up a wall, when a filmmaker makes textual the film’s subtext. If a filmmaker has no faith in me as an audience, then the feeling is mutual.)

        When I say that we only see what the director shows us and how he shows it to us, the statement addresses the difference in structure between a movie and a game. A game has many possible endings through many possible avenues; cinema simply does not function that way.

        The most game-like mechanism a filmmaker utilizes is to trick the audience as a player would an opponent. As film relies on a multitude of tricks anyway, it can be easy for a director to overstep his bounds, to break our fragile suspension of disbelief. In part, the audience’s disbelief is its only way to push back. The film is set, the director is player one, and he has the only turn. Our sole retaliation is to divest from the film.

        Cinema is less a game than a sermon, less a sermon than a screed. Fincher‘s setups are so multitudinous, his edit is so vertiginous, and his framing so meticulous that he does not allow the audience time to luxuriate in its constituent parts. Most shots are here and gone in a flash. Sometimes, he allows us to catch the most salient detail before he’s on to the next one; other times, he’s just on to the next one. He does not give us a chance to make up our minds; he barely gives us a chance to make up our eyeballs.

        Even when Fincher holds a shot, it typically serves to show manic action (the building construction in “Zodiac”, the rowing contest in “Network”, etc.). He doesn’t create a playground so much as he assaults the senses with input. (I prefer David Bordwell’s term: “intensified continuity”. It’s got a nice ring to it, and the term suggests its meaning.) Fincher is a music video director in the proudest tradition of one, for all the good and ill that the term entails.

        Anyway, I think I misunderstand your point on the subtext. If the preceding did not address it, might you elaborate?

        Assuming that it is a game and Mr. Fincher’s goal is didactic, to teach the audience a lesson, then he patently assaults our biases without acknowledging his own. It is not a small subset of the audience that misunderstands his alleged satiric intent. General audiences adore Tyler because Fincher himself clearly adores Tyler whether or not he cops to it. He need not acknowledge his infatuation because his camera clearly adores the character, much like Mr. Kubrick does Alex.

        This failure is not the audience’s but the director’s. Kubrick did not throw his audience under the bus for coming to a different conclusion than he about “A Clockwork Orange”. He so feared what the press and the public had wrought from the film that he petitioned the studio and pulled its British distribution. He didn’t release it then claim that the audience’s reaction was misguided and confused. He took action to limit exposure.

        As for the challenge of a film, it is the primary reason I attend films. However, not all challenges are created equal. It is not a challenge if the director loses sight of what he expects of the audience. Here are a few inapt metaphors describing how much more likely it is that the director fails the audience than vice versa.

        We do not blame the camel when its leader dooms the convoy to death by dehydration. The camel goes where he is led; it’s not his fault there’s only desert in that direction.

        A man doesn’t lose a gun duel if an airplane hits him before getting off his shot. The question is, “Where did the plane come from?” He was in a duel, not an aerial dogfight.

        As a reasonably literate film viewer when I come to a film and the director either manhandles the audience’s sympathies or hoodwinks the audience with a mind game, it does not suffice to say, “It doesn’t work for me,” because the film does not work, period. “For me” is a false qualifier.

        For example, Tommy Wiseau cannot claim that he intended all along to make a midnight movie. The audience would sense it and reject the film out of hand. Midnight audiences eat up the “The Room” because of its ingenuousness in the face of its utter incompetence. Whether I like or dislike a movie may say something about me, but whether I can or cannot argue its merits using the director’s own words, the work itself, and the audience response says more about the film itself.

        A further example: I love several of Terrence Malick’s films. When someone else does not, I understand the position. Mr. Malick’s films have a particular ebb and flow, and not everyone will be down for it. However, if someone intimates that Malick’s films are bad or boring, I move to correct him. Not simply by saying “Uh-uh!”, “Is not!”, or “I disagree, and it’s all opinion anyway!” (In which case, to what point and purpose the disagreement? Just to sow discord?)

        Liking a thing is a reaction; establishing its relative worth is an opinion, an argument. It ain’t hard tearing apart the assertion that Malick is bad or boring. The other person does not have to like him, but he cannot denigrate Malick’s skill. However, if the objector elaborates on which issues bother him, he can convince me that I missed an issue with the film.

        Our visceral reactions to a film can only help fuel our investigations into it. We need to recognize that the reactions–be they positive or negative–cloud the issue, but to ignore them as though they do not exist is the height of folly. The key is to limit their influence on the measures used to gauge the relative validity of a reaction and success or failure of a film.

        “Fight Club” is very much a 50-50 movie for me. Actually, it’s more successful than that, but whatever credit I give it is severely hampered by my objections. I back Hulk’s suggestion that its tone fails the director’s stated intent, and it’s a trend in this particular, very skilled director’s work.

        I do not deny Fincher’s visual prowess or meticulous nature. I assert that they often fail to serve a greater purpose. For example, Michael Bay is an extraordinary visual artist. He is an exceedingly exacting asshole on set, and, to his credit(?), he admits as much himself. That he manages to inspire great loyalty in his crew is a testament to his underlying character in spite of any superficial abuses.

        These qualities do not mitigate the fact that the tone of Bay’s oeuvre (ugh) disturbs many critical thinkers: so much misogyny, so much homophobia, so much thinly-veiled contempt for humanity. Fincher is a cut (or twelve) above Bay but not in his visuals or persnickety nature. They are very much peers on a visual level, but Fincher is operating at another level in terms of subject, theme, and–yes–tone, even though his tone often slips away from him.

        As to the success of Project Mayhem, I do not understand the first point. They are not a “network dedicated people following idea to the end”. Tyler’s first step is dehumanize them (“space monkeys”), stripping them of their very names. They are cogs, not people. Their dedication is to the man, not the confused idea.

        On the other hand, if the viewer accepts that the goal is a couple of downed buildings then it is successful. However, Tyler never claims this objective. He wants to replace the consumerism which had in turn replaced paternal approval as his primary objective. Just as he shuns his father, Tyler shuns capitalism–

        *teehee* Ever price a leather coat? Even in ’99? How about the stuff Tyler just takes (house, sports car, etc.)? Tyler is the ultimate capitalist. Gaming the system is not usurping it; when a man works the black market, he reinforces the existing system. Any serious evaluation of an economy accommodates for its informal sector. It is not a rogue faction, and its extra-legality is little concern to an economist. Money is money; that’s why they call it “money”.

        –anyway, Tyler shuns (sic) capitalism. The gaping hole in his soul that he filled with material goods, he now fills with the new generation of lost boys. Uniting them into a nameless, faceless mass is not a challenge. They already are a nameless, faceless demographic. When one of them dares have a face, the narrator beats it unrecognizable.

        These boys are in place and anxious to be taken advantage of as is most every boy or girl with parental issues. They deem their mothers’ efforts as insufficient, to the point of not bearing consideration. They want someone to assume the place their fathers abandoned. They even address Tyler as one would his disciplinarian father. “Yes, sir.” “No, sir.” “Is this a test, sir?”

        The members of Mayhem could try to get to the root of their daddy issues, but instead they install a replacement father figure, one who will not even say their names until they die for his cause. (To think, many fathers just don’t say “I love you” often enough.) This father instructs their daily lives and actions down to the tiniest detail, mostly directing them to destroy without much explanation. After all, he showed them how to inflict pain on themselves and one another, and for that, he gets their undying loyalties. It is the textbook example of an abusive relationship.

        Unfortunately, the deification of Tyler, the destruction of corporate ephemera, the elimination of credit histories, the resumption of the Stone Age–none of this helps fill the spiritual hole around which they build their lives. None of it makes them any more complete or helps to address the underlying issue that they refuse to grow up. They’ve gone from immature boys to immature boys with toys to immature boys with napalm.

        Of course, there are two common, reasonable alternatives to serving a destructive father: stand on your own or with a partner. The former isn’t going to happen for reasons that are–“Not my fault! Not my fault! I’m just a widdle boy because only my mommy raised me!”

        The latter is impossible for a stunted man because he does not want concede any impulse to meet the needs of his partner. When Marla’s concern turns from sex to well-being, she becomes a danger. (“Oh dear God–I have a mother again! And she fucks like an animal!”) This is only a danger for little boys who refuse to mature, to feel icky emotions and the like.

        So in the stated goals of breaking from capitalism, outgrowing a father’s approval, and making whole what was once filled with stuff–Project Mayhem is not successful one iota. Through all this, only once, in the final sequence does Fincher even hint, “Well, maybe it’s not such a great idea”, and the audience–which was lapping up all of Tyler’s pabulum–rejects the merest consideration of Mayhem’s shortcomings and believes that the ending is a misstep.

        To be fair, the ending does ring hollow. Fincher tries to pass off that final half hour as less hallucinatory than the opening. He plays it straight even as the narrator faces mounting nightmare logic. From the moment he realizes that Tyler doesn’t exist, everyone he meets seems complicit: service workers, policemen, bus drivers. Just before the realization, the narrator had to be in the right places to sense the fights and smell the bro sweat. Only after Tyler outs himself does Mayhem seem legion.

        If the audience trusts the narrator, he then has several runs-in with members of Mayhem. However at this point, why would we trust the narrator? He spends the last half hour demonstrating the extent of his schizophrenia after we just spent two hours watching its germination.

        Making a lateral leap into pure conjecture, the members of Mayhem are not legion. They are his paranoid, schizophrenic mind falling to pieces. Yet Fincher continues to play it straight, right down to steadying his camera in the last exchanges, and Marla joining his delusion. She’s clearly willing to go that far, given their relationship to that point. She’s always down for freaky sex even though the whole time her partner just imagines himself scrubbing tile in the next room. God only knows where she displaces herself.

        As to whether Fincher shifts tone successfully, Robert Paulson’s death provides a great pivot for a turning point. Other viable turning points include the disfigurement of Angel Face, the banishment of Marla, Paulson’s reveal of other fight clubs, the revelation of Tyler’s nature, or even just the homework assignment–that scene alone begs for a Cassandra, if not the narrator then another member to question Tyler and foretell the disturbing direction that the movie is headed. All of these would serve perfectly well to seed the idea that the audience’s expectation is going to turn back on itself.

        For comparison’s sake, consider a crowning achievement of satire: “Dr. Strangelove”. An audience member can feel ill at ease about that film’s tone for the first half hour. Knowing Mr. Kubrick’s work to that point, an audience had every right to expect a sincere examination of the nuclear threat from a clear-eyed, meticulous filmmaker in the classical tradition. The film does channel the zeitgeist and fear of the era yet something seems off. The characters are broad and stereotypical; musical arrangements are wholly inappropriate; significant revelations lack gravitas.

        However, the moment Gen. Jack D. Ripper (come on!) delivers the doozy, “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids,” there is no question: this is farce. In spite of its apparent earnestness, it is stares into the abyss and chuckles at the absurdity.

        Fincher never turns that corner. When Bob dies, the audience wants to chastise Tyler as the narrator does. However as the narrator turns against Tyler, the audience turns against the protagonist. We want Tyler to succeed. We groove on the schadenfreude of watching the narrator fail, and Fincher obliges us. He beats the ever-loving shit out of the audience surrogate except that he’s no longer our surrogate; we are all space monkeys.

        Fincher not only encourages the turn, he revels in it. The narrator surrenders himself, but the audience groans and laughs that Tyler outthinks him again. Tyler becomes a myth right in his own movie and not as the fool but as the rebel standard-bearer. As the narrator seeks to do right, the audience pulls for Tyler to do wrong.

        Who roots for Ripper in “Strangelove”? He grows ever more pitiable as we discover his middle-aged impotence harkens a long, nuclear winter. If Fincher’s intent is satiric, then he turns the audience on the wrong idiot. The narrator and Tyler are one and the same, but the audience roots for Tyler, leaves the theater tittering about his antics, and finally forms our own fight clubs against all good reason or understanding of the alleged satire–all because the tone contradicts the stated intent.

        As for “adult” storytelling, directness describes an approach to an idea more than it does its maturity or profundity. Greek drama comes to mind. Originally, plays were just monologues with one character after another addressing the audience about his thoughts and feelings. Then the chorus would come on and explain all the action that transpires between monologues. Its entire function was to say “here’s what happens, who cares, on to the monologue”.

        Aeschelus introduced dialogue to the proceedings, reducing the chorus considerably, but it did remain. Both the dialogues and the chorus are as direct as direct can get and yet we would be very hard-pressed to find any art that survives the ravages of time as well as a Greek drama. The plays drill to the core of what it is to be human, living among other humans. It is very direct, and it is highly adult. Apparently, Fincher would disapprove and consider them pandering. Not nearly muddled enough, I guess.

        Unlike theater, cinema is a visual medium so I agree entirely that the director should endeavor to “show” more than “tell”. However, to claim that showing on screen is not, in and of itself, “telling” is disingenuous of Fincher. Anything he shows on the screen, he imposes himself upon. That other directors are more direct is not juvenile of them; it can be more honest or more dishonest, depending on how the film plays. By its very nature, the camera is an unreliable narrator, and the director guides it. It’s right there in the title director. At each step of the process, his decisions reveal his thoughts and beliefs on the subject, whether held consciously or subconsciously.

        As an audience, we cannot consider scenes strictly within themselves. They are placed in an order for a reason. If someone rearranged the order of his scenes, Fincher would not approve. Scenes do not work entirely within themselves. If there is not some cohesive thread among them, then they simply do not work. The fabric and tone of a film suffer if scenes vacillate wildly between divergent ideas.

        Fincher does not let on for a moment that the members of Project Mayhem are idiot children. He agrees with the superficial analysis of modern ills, but after the movie acknowledges those ills, it dives into a narrative that reaches the opposite conclusion of Fincher’s later stated intent. Knowing the problem doesn’t lend credence to a solution. Knowing the problem is the very first (and some would say easiest) step in developing a solution. Mayhem is no kind of solution for these guys.

        As for your other examples, I have never known anyone who rooted for Darth Vader, even as the protagonist of his own trilogy. Audiences only ever loved to hate him which is why his revelation to Luke cuts so deep. We cannot believe that Luke bears any resemblance to Vader.

        Christopher Nolan is an entirely apt comparison to Fincher. Mr. Nolan, God bless him, is almost wholly tone-deaf. He knows one mode and one mode only: mounting tension cut with irreverent quips. It’s one reason Hans Zimmer is his go-to: the dialogue drifts without a pulsing, grating beat pushing the audience through to the next conflict.

        Nolan also exemplifies the type of direct filmmaking on which Fincher looks down. His characters say aloud exactly what they are thinking at almost all times then act out in complete opposition to what they were just thinking and saying. It’s startling that he gets away with it, time and time and time and time again. His plotting is clearly his primary concern for it runs roughshod over much of the resonance in the characters or themes.

        And I [i]like[/i] Mr. Nolan’s films. A lot. I don’t think he’s a god, but I’d more readily go to the mat for a couple of his films than I would Mr. Fincher’s. They are both aspirational filmmakers, aiming to do more than they have previously, but Nolan hits more of his marks and elevates would-be dreck or insufferable film-school babble into something nearly transcendant–if it weren’t so cold and one-note. (Also, I could write all day long about my objections to Nolan’s Joker, but that’ll have to wait for another day.)

        Sorry to just kind of peter out here, but I think I covered the major points of contention. Also, sorry this took a year. Every now and then, I’d remember it but never get around to it.

        I hope 2013 finds you well, Mr. Bialek, and if you never read this…well, it was nice talking with you anyway.

  8. You’ve captured some problems I have about Fight Club in better words than I would have been able to phrase them.
    I’ve got friends who at one point were watching FC repeatedly (it seemed to be showing on the Scifi Channel here in the UK twice monthly at one point), and I was always a little reluctant to rewatch it.
    I think the film’s thesis/message makes me a bit uncomfortable – in the same way as if a film were racist/misogynistic in a strong way.

    But maybe it wouldn’t be that hard to fix – have a late turn where Edward Norton comes to realise he’s created something as conforming as what he was trying to destroy, and ‘goes legitimate’ trying to make genuine social change through the proper channels.
    Perhaps show a montage over time – him as a social campaigner, almost losing control over his temper, maybe Tyler even reappears briefly, but Norton is able to suppress him. Show him buying furniture from a second hand shop, rather than Ikea. Maybe even goes along to a Fight Club and tries to talk people out of it, American History X style.
    Show that, as frustrating and infuriating as it is to work to change a system from within, it’s usually best in the long-term.

    That doesn’t really have much to do with Fincher’s overall tone control, which has some interesting points.
    The Social Network to me has a feeling of autumn (downbeat and melancholly, but not necessarily of deterioration). Perhaps the same tone can have different effects on the audience with different stories? I don’t think I had the same feeling from TSN I had from other Fincher films…

  9. “Dragon Tattoo” and “House of Cards” are definitely shifting my opinion–

    –not in a more positive direction, mind you, but still the needle’s kind of…yeah, it’s…that’s, that’s… that’s buried, really…


  10. It cannot be good that I want Fincher attending whatever support group we created around Burton.

    And Malick is no more than one movie-completely-lacking-a-single-diegetic-conversation away from putting in an appearance every other week.

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