FIGHT CLUB, released in October of 1999, was and remains one of the most outrageously subversive big studio movies of all time. It’s certainly the only Gen X polemic-postmodern satire–psychological horror movie I can think of, and the only film I know that concludes with a still of a guy’s penis gleefully flashed on the screen. This can be viewed as an act of postmodern subversion or adolescent buffoonery, a dichotomy that informs the film as a while.
How director David Fincher convinced 20th Century Fox to spend an estimated $63 million on this monstrosity I’ll never figure out, but I’m glad he did–although, to be honest, I’m really not sure if FIGHT CLUB is truly a masterpiece or a bloated misfire. It’s a fact that the film contains some sizeable flaws, including a pell-mell narrative that leaves logic far behind–sorry, but I’ve never bought the PSYCHO-esque twist, which worked in the Chuck Palahniuk source novel (whose narrator wound up in a nuthouse) but not here–and frantic pacing that never slows down. The unflagging pace, in fact, actually has the paradoxical effect of dragging the proceedings down, being responsible, I believe, for the number one complaint people seem to have about FIGHT CLUB: that it’s too long.
Yet despite those flaws (or possibly because of them?) FIGHT CLUB remains a one-of-a-kind classic that taken purely as a piece of innovative and adventurous filmmaking is virtually without parallel. For me it remains the premiere movie, American or otherwise, of 1999.
It’s a bit of a stretch to call 1999 “the year that changed movies,” as Entertainment Weekly claimed, but it was an interesting period. It was the last year of a pivotal decade in American moviemaking, and its movie releases are reflective of the type of adventurous product that Hollywood once turned out. Some notable horror movies appeared in ‘99 (DEEP BLUE SEA, THE SIXTH SENSE, A STIR OF ECHOES) as well as a number of auteur-driven spectacles that nearly matched FIGHT CLUB in ambition (EYES WIDE SHUT, THE INSIDER, THE GREEN MILE, MAGNOLIA) and some fascinating oddities (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, FREEWAY 2: CONFESSIONS OF A TRICK BABY). Of course, it was also the year of THE MATRIX and THE BLAIR WITH PROJECT, which are likely responsible for the abovementioned Entertainment Weekly quote given their widespread influence.
Both films were actually quite innovative at the time, a fact that seems hard to believe today. For that matter, quite a few of 1999’s standout releases now look pretty stodgy. I find it hard to believe anyone took AMERICAN BEAUTY seriously, and ditto STIGMATA, ROMANCE, MUMFORD, DOUBLE JEOPARDY, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, THE BIG BRASS RING, THE LEGEND OF 1900, THE MESSENGER, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, THE HAUNTING, MAN ON THE MOON, ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, ANGELA’S ASHES, CRADLE WILL ROCK and THE HURRICANE.
Standing apart from them all is FIGHT CLUB, which actually seems more unique and astounding today than it did in ‘99. It’s appropriate that it was released in the final year of the nineties, as it encapsulates so many of that decade’s concerns. The Generation X skewering of films like REALITY BITES, S.F.W. and so forth found its apotheosis in FIGHT CLUB, as did the macho posturing of Quentin Tarantino and his legions of imitators, and also the then-nascent use of CGI, which was utilized, for once, in an intelligent and non show-offy manner.
FIGHT CLUB’S innovations, I believe, could have had to an impact on Hollywood comparable to that of THE GRADUATE and EASY RIDER in the late sixties, but its box office failure put an immediate stop to that idea. Perhaps understandably, Fox had a difficult time marketing the film, a situation that certainly wasn’t helped by the enormous controversy it inspired.
Regarding the hand-wringing about FIGHT CLUB, much of it was completely ludicrous. Claims that it exploited the holocaust because one of its protagonists made soap out of human fat from a liposuction clinic were surprisingly widespread, and easily debunked (people go to liposuction clinics voluntarily, a situation quite different from what occurred in the holocaust), but that didn’t stop the onslaught. The controversy became so great, in fact, that Fox executives were allegedly given a stern talking-to about the film by their chairman Rupert Murdoch, which is said to have led to the resignation of Fox studio head Bill Mechanic.
There was at least a happy ending of sorts, emerging from what in 1999 was an entirely unexpected source: the FIGHT CLUB DVD, a rare-for-its-time two disc release that hit stores in mid-2000. Produced by David Prior, a gifted filmmaker in his own right, and closely overseen by David Fincher, it remains one of the seminal DVDs, a jam-packed treasure trove in celebration of a film that was fully deserving of all the attention.
An ending, unfortunately, is what the FIGHT CLUB DVD was. There have been interesting and subversive movies made in the years since, but none with the big studio backing that graced FIGHT CLUB. Even its makers have scaled back their ambitions in the ensuing years, with the late Laura Ziskin, the Fox executive who oversaw the film’s production, spending the remainder of her life as a producer on the more palatable SPIDERMAN films (although FIGHT CLUB was mentioned prominently in Ziskin obituaries), and David Fincher apparently resigned to making dark-hued prestige pictures like THE SOCIAL NETWORK, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and GONE GIRL. None have had a shred of the impact of FIGHT CLUB, and nor in the past 15 years has anything else in our burgeoning but increasingly staid movie landscape.