Saturday, September 28, 2013

Fight Club

(David Fincher, USA, 1999)

Watching again for the first time in years, I was struck by how much Fight Club remains a strange, hostile, grimy, pitch-black comedy.  Certainly, it doesn't seem as clever as it did when I initially viewed it (I was in high school.)  But it's still one of the smartest, zaniest films to be released by a major studio in the 90s.  Of course, it's eerily fitting that the film was released on the eve of the new millennium.  Fincher's grungy opus can even be viewed as a kind of warped eschatology of late-capitalist decadence and despair.  Preceding as it did 9/11, the silicon valley bubble, the Great Recession, and Occupy Wall Street, the film now appears both formidably prophetic and rather quaint.

Here's an amusing anecdote - my first viewing of Fight Club, when I was a freshman, was on a date.  The girl I took to see it was a senior, and while she wasn't exactly my "type," and in some ways it wasn't really much of a date (there were other friends of hers along) there was still a palpable sexual tension that didn't subside until after we left the theater.  This was exacerbated during the film by her periodically kicking my leg as an attempt, I suppose, to shake me from my rapturous immersion and incite a make-out session.  It didn't take.  As was painfully, awkwardly clear by the time the credits rolled, she was into me WAY more than I was into her.  Her advances not so much spurned as ignored, she subjected me to considerable bitterness over the next few weeks.  Being as I was young, dumb, and painfully anxious around girls, this was something of a blow.  But it ought to speak well of the film that I nonetheless enjoyed the hell out of the theatrical experience, and became a confirmed fan of Fincher on the spot.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight and age, I can see how incredibly apt Fight Club was as a failed date-movie.  The story's central catalyst, of course, is a woman, and the narcissistic tailspin that results from Jack's inability to ask her out on a date.  Of course, we can only go so far down this road.  It would be silly to claim that Fight Club is a feminist, or even crypto-feminist, film.  While it leaves no part of the fragile male psyche unbruised, and sets up Marla as the only responsible adult in the story, her character remains firmly secondary.  She also spends much of the time in a blue cloud of self-hatred, in which we see her attempt suicide, be saved only to become a ragged sex doll, and generally get pushed around by every male she encounters.  And it's not as if Jack would be all better if only he were to get (consciously) laid, or to open his heart to the charms of a woman.  It's clear that the crisis is deeper, even existential.  But the solution remains elusive, although there are a few intriguing hints put forth by the film.

While Fight Club flirts with some fairly Marxist ideas, it doesn't follow them very far.  It's particularly resonant in light of the 2008 economic collapse, given how many of the "members" are underemployed workers.  Even the relatively better off specimens, such as Jack/Narrator, don't have any deep commitment to their work. Part of what is occurring at Fight Club is a generation of young men with an enormous surplus of energy, specifically creative energy.  The film, in probably its most Freudian observation, views this as dangerous.  Give people a creative outlet, it seems to say, or they will easily be turned to the forces of destruction.

The film's plot clearly hinges upon the emergence of Tyler, and of the evolution of Fight Club from a pseudo self-help organization to the Fascist "project mayhem."  But it could have gone another way, setting aside the emphasis on violence.  This unexplored option, in the film and the book, would have been an examination of the results of Jack's addiction to mutual help groups.  What if he had never created Tyler?  What if instead he had stuck with the groups, began a relationship with Marla, in which both of them claimed to be dying, even though they weren't?  A pitch black romantic comedy that I would love to see.

Fight Club is a deliberately confrontational film.  In one of the many meta-textual embellishments, the film itself basically sets out to start a fight with the audience, or more specifically, with the portion of the audience that isn't in on the joke.  It's like the scene where the members of Fight Club are given the "homework assignment" to go out and start a fight with a stranger, and then to lose the fight.  What begins as the ultimate act of repulsion becomes a sales pitch, a come-on.   There is something aggressively sophomoric about this.  It even flirts with being antisocial, but it never completely embraces the amorality of some of the characters.  Jack, for all of his nebbishness, remains a fundamentally decent guy.  When he realizes what he has wrought, he doesn't waste a second before trying to set things straight.  This might seem like a cop-out on the part of Fincher.  For all of the grit and grime and nastiness, there seems always to be some hedging.  After all, it is satire, a form that provides a built-in safety hatch if things get too serious.  The filmmakers can always step back and cry "but didn't you see how we deliberately undercut the darkest and most troubling suggestions put forth in the story?"

For my part, I don't think the film is guilty of any double-dealing.  As satire, it works quite well, but revolutionary agitprop it isn't.  This is unsurprising - after all, the movie was bankrolled by 20th Century Fox.  For all of the jabs at Starbucks and Ikea, it never winds up endorsing the anomie of Tyler and his cohorts.  Even the ending, with its majestic destruction of the credit card industries headquarters, is leavened by Jack's redemption: he's destroyed the specter of Tyler, and has finally found a way to connect with his feminine side.  But there's another level on which Fight Club remains steadfastedly radical: Fincher's depiction of the slimy, sweaty, bloody underbelly of the modern world.

On this level at least, the film remains a potent affront to good taste.  You'd be hard-pressed to find another mainstream film containing so much blood and mucus, or that took such perverse delight in its fuck-you sensibility.  Fight Club asks us to laugh along with it as it gleefully rubs our face in some of the ugliest tendencies of human nature.  And what's so damn exceptional about the film is that it succeeds so well in this regard.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Goodbye South, Goodbye

(Hou Hsaio Hsien, Taiwan, 1997)

After a dip into the besotted beauty of Wong Kar-Wai, it was a welcome and enlightening change of pace to re-view this stubbornly odd and beautiful film, released around the same time.

Hou can be understood, simplistically but not entirely incorrectly, as the anti-Wong.  Whereas Wong can whip a scene of two characters talking in a cafe into a swoony reverie of longing and regret, Hou can turn the same situation into an occasion for subtle humor, which can then suddenly become exquisite pathos.  Whereas Wong delights in underlining the emotional core of a scene with light, music, cutting, and camera movement, Hou is a much more laconic stylist, revealing himself only by degrees, and requiring considerably astute attention from the audience.  And yet there is much in Hou's work that is directly, gorgeously sensual, just as there is plenty in Wong's stuff that is deliberately elusive.

GSG on this viewing played like a strange, ultramodern version of Buster Keaton.  Many of the major moments are undercut with absurdity and irony in ways that are too perfect not to be designed for such an effect.  Hou is unparalleled (except perhaps by Kiorostami) in making the events in his movies feel both utterly spontaneous (even random) and calibrated to an eighth of an inch.


Monday, September 2, 2013

The Grandmaster

(Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong/China, 2013)

A long-delayed but triumphant return to form.  After the woozy shambles that was My Blueberry Nights, Wong has regained his footing and reinvigorated his art.  Since 2000's In the Mood for Love made him a bonafide international art-house star, Wong has been playing in a larger and more perilous sandbox.  He's matured out of his rollicking early period into a more reflective, stately mode, but his restlessness has kept apace.  Nights can be seen as a well-intentioned misadventure.  Bereft of the nostalgia and specificity of his own past, Wong grafted his well-developed visual sensibility to a disjointed string of American cinema-literary tropes, and the results ranged from "interesting" to embarrassing.   To some, this was proof-positive of Wong being an overrated auteur, but to many, including myself, it was a forgivable misstep.  As his latest indicates, he's still got the goods.

 Although there are the expected similarities to his earlier work, such as Ashes of Time, The Grandmaster shows Wong to be undiminished in his curiosity and ambition, as he attempts to marry his intensely interior aesthetic to what is primarily a historical drama, with components of the wuxia genre.  I'm not much versed in the martial-arts tradition, but what Wong accomplishes with the fights is marvelous; gorgeous and fluid, it's both highly kinetic and coherent.  Although the speed of his cutting is on par with any recent Hollywood film, the physical movements are never obscured or confused.  Wong cleaves tightly to the historical accuracy of the story, and thus denies himself the use of pop-music cues that have previously been so integral to his art.  But he makes up for this deficit with the fights themselves, which become interludes of pure rhythm and movement, every bit as mesmerizing and emotionally charged as Maggie Cheung sashaying down a nighttime street.

The Grandmaster also marks a certain departure in the way that Wong goes about telling the story.  Unlike so many previous films, in which the narrative served as little more than a pretext, this film really moves.  It isn't entirely free of Wong's distinctively slippery way with chronology, but compared to his earlier work it can feel positively brisk.   This is easily Wong's most utilitarian film: voiceover is used to convey not just feeling but to parcel out crucial information about the plot, and intertitles are used to clarify time and place.  The happiest surprise of all of this is that these things, which can occasionally have the feel of concessions to the genre trappings, actually end up working to the film's benefit.  They wind up being a grounding force, almost gravitational, that tethers Wong's romantic fancies to the relentless grind of history.  Ip Man's story is, after all, suffused with sadness.  In the end, bereft of his family and former life, he perseveres only through his commitment to the tradition of his school of Kung Fu, believing that it must be passed down to future generations.  In this final sense, the martial art becomes one of the few remaining strands of living culture, brought through the crucible of history, altered but not broken, to connect the uncertain future to the rapidly disappearing past.