Analysis of fight club
David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club relies on lighting and editing to drive its story of a meek, discontented white-collar worker who, with his aggressive alter ego, rebels against his conventional life through increasing amounts of violence and antisocial mischief. By using varying degrees of dimness and rapid, often-nervous editing, Fincher evokes his protagonist’s edgy, frantic state of mind en route to discovering himself.
The story concerns an unnamed narrator whose unhappiness with his dull, stultifying life drives him to seek solace in support groups for diseases he does not have, where he meets Marla, a mysterious, somewhat nihilistic woman with whom he has a very ambivalent relationship. After his condominium explodes under suspicious circumstances, he meets and moves into a decaying abandoned house with his brash, aggressive, risk-taking alter ego, Tyler Durden, who encourages him to abandon his numbing, conventional existence. Tyler drives him to seek more masculine remedies for his sense of malaise and urges him to experience life more genuinely, through pain and violence. They start “Fight Club” for other disillusioned men like themselves, and as the group expands to several cities, it transforms into “Project Mayhem,” whose purpose is to commit creative, sometimes disgusting acts of vandalism and mayhem aimed mostly at credit-card companies and retail chains. Ultimately, he discovers that Tyler is simply the repressed side of his own personality that occasionally takes control, and in the end he is able to reckon with his own duality.
The film’s dominant theme is violence as an affirmation of masculinity; Tyler and the narrator begin Fight Club as an outlet for frustrated men to regain their male identity through brutal fistfights. However, the emptiness of conventional life and consumerism is also important because the narrator rebels against both. Formerly an unhappy office worker who seeks identity through catalog shopping and ownership of a high-rise condominium, he rejects his dull, materialistic lifestyle in favor of living in a dilapidated house and attracting followers for his mayhem, which begins with minor pranks (like splicing pornographic images into children’s films) to more overt acts, like bombing credit-card company headquarters.
The cinematography and editing help drive the story because they illustrate the narrator’s state of mind. Much of the action occurs within the narrator’s imagination, mainly the dialogues with Tyler. When the two appear on screen together (and especially when they commit violent or antisocial acts), the scenery is shadowy and dimly lit. In comparison, when the narrator occupies his safe, “respectable” white-collar existence, the scenes are well lit, devoid of conspicuous shadows, and display clean-looking buildings, furnishings, and objects. In addition, the editing changes pace throughout the film, with many rapid crosscuts illustrating particularly intense moments, such as when the narrator experiences or inflicts pain. Camera angles also accentuate this; low angles make certain characters (particularly Tyler) look large and looming to illustrate their dominant personalities. In addition, when the narrator looks within himself, the results are often humorous; for example, when a support-group counselor urges him to look within himself and seek his “power animal,” he encounters not a wild beast but a penguin.
A scene that illustrates Fincher’s style particularly well comes relatively early in the film, when the narrator and Tyler are making soap from stolen human fat. It opens with quick cuts from the stove’s switch to the flame, burner, and fat being poured into pots on the range. The kitchen is dimly lit and shadowy, with Tyler in partial darkness more than the narrator. The camera cuts back and forth quickly between them, to illustrate the rapid dialogue and film’s overall nervous, edgy quality. As Tyler discusses how human sacrifice’s relationship to creating lye, the crosscutting shows both characters from low angles, but Tyler is filmed from a much lower angle, making him look larger and thus more dominant. After Tyler pours corrosive chemicals on the narrator’s hand, the narrator’s voice says in an aside, “If meditation worked for cancer, it’d work for this,” and the cuts begin to come more quickly, illustrating the narrator’s frantic mental state as the chemicals burn his hand. The cuts first show a peaceful forest scene, then a forest fire, a close-up of the word “sear” in a dictionary (as the voice-over says the words “searing flesh”), a green leaf, flames, the word “flesh” in close-up, more flames, then back to the kitchen as Tyler and the narrator exchange dialogue. Clearly, the frantic editing here reflects the narrator’s panic at being burned and his efforts to put the pain out of his mind through meditation techniques, which do not work despite his efforts. (He even briefly reverts to his former self, seeking his “pain cave” but finding only Marla, who blows smoke in his face to mock his lack of manliness.) Tyler urges him to thoroughly experience the moment by relishing the pain instead of distracting himself from it. The scene ends with Tyler splashing the narrator’s hand with vinegar and looking down at him, making him seem more dominant than before.
Fight Club tells the story of a split personality who struggles to reconcile the disparate halves of his psyche by inhabiting two distinct worlds. The tame, respectable world of white-collar work and consumerism stifles his sense of masculinity and identity, while the seamy world of violence and anti-establishment mischief fulfills him. Director David Fincher relies on vivid, sometimes shocking and disorienting images and uses of light and editing to illustrate the inner world of a tormented individual who plumbs his mind’s inner depths to discover who and what he really is.
Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter. Twentieth Century Fox, 1999.