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[whitespace] Brad Pitt Pitt Stop: Brad Pitt takes on all comers in 'Fight Club.'

Hit Parade

'Fight Club' undermines modern man's search for macho affirmation

By Richard von Busack

IN THE TRAILERS, Brad Pitt keeps begging, "Hit me as hard as you can." Viewers who wish they could take him up on the offer will be surprised to discover that Fight Club is one of the most subversive films of the '90s. Although marketed as an all-you-can-eat buffet of knuckle sandwiches, Fight Club delivers instead the consequences of brutal, bare-knuckle fights: hideous Nan Goldin-quality bruises, knocked-out teeth, lots of blood. In one case, we see a bartender who is a regular Frankenstein of inexpertly sewed-up scars crowned with a cast in the shape of a halo.

Of course, showing violence in a movie is as easy as deploring it afterward. This gnarly, savage fantasy rises above that simple dialectic. Fight Club exposes the worst implications of the dreaded "search for the father" plot.

The unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton) serves up the usual complaints about his absentee dad, who used to start a new family every six years, like a fast-food franchiser. When the Narrator finds a loving, surrogate father ready to test him, to lead him into manhood, this self-same father, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), turns out to be a grade-A psycho.

The film follows the insomnia-ridden corporate cipher as he seeks sleep. He begins crashing cancer support groups, looking for sympathy and schadenfreud (the pleasure got from someone else's pain--moviegoers will understand the idea). His favorite group is the Remaining Men Together self-help meeting, where testicular cancer patients grieve for their lost balls.

Because of his hormone therapy, his regular co-sympathizer Bob (Marvin Lee Aday, a.k.a. Meat Loaf), a bodybuilder, has grown what he calls "bitch tits" (and indeed, orchiedectomy cases sometimes grow breasts--according to Neil Gabler's biography of Walter Winchell, such a fate befell the previously brass-balled columnist--but triple-D cups like the ones Bob sports might be an exaggeration).

On this alienated guy's dream--a man with nurturing breasts--the Narrator lays his weary head and cries for his lost manhood, even if his own testicles are still there in their sack. He cries for his helplessness, his insomnia and his empty nest--that is, his sterile condo filled with furniture from a mail-order catalog.

While traveling for his malign, dull insurance job, high on sleeplessness, he meets Durden, who is everything the Narrator isn't: dead confident, sloppy and impulsive. A friendship forms, sealed by a brawl in a bar parking lot. It's the old Western movie cliché--a fistfight makes friends.

Together, the two men begin an underground organization of guys who meet anonymously in the back rooms of bars at night. These back rooms are like the back rooms of some gay men's bars, where strangers meet for anonymous sex. Instead of sex, however, the men engage in bare-knuckle fistfights.

The narrator rhapsodizes about the pleasures of these impromptu brawls, about the awakening of his inner toughness. He tells us of how he only lives for these encounters. But the casual violence--which spreads from city to city--isn't enough for Tyler, who sees all the fighting as essentially boot camp for a bigger scheme: an anarchic Operation Mayhem.

Pitt's Durden is a loon's messiah. Since his character is not meant to be swallowed whole, Pitt's performance is much more fun than usual. Pitt is most enjoyable in this kind of role when he isn't given room to stand and look like an oracle.

The casting of Norton, always convincing as a gray-faced weirdo, takes apart some of the pretentiousness of Chuck Palahniuk's novel. In the book, you get the sense that what Palahniuk had in mind was a main character who was more average and bland, an almost demographic alienated young man. In his alto-pip-squeak mode, Norton exposes the book's sense of self-pity. I think director David Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls understood the limitations of their source and devised a way to overcome them.

A FRIEND SAID that I ought to read the novel before seeing the movie, because it was the kind of book that would be spoiled in the transfer to film. After reading Fight Club, I thought the opposite was true. The novel, repulsive and yet haunting, possessed qualities that could be improved by a movie adaptation.

Like any wise novelist today, Palahniuk seemed to be writing for a movie sale. He added a car crash for no good reason except that it would look good onscreen. And he opened the book with a hostage situation at the top of a building, minutes away from being demolished by tons of explosives--the kind of thing that would hook a pitch meeting.

Fight Club contains a surprise twist, taken from an idea used by both Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma. In the novel, Palahniuk even referred to the Hitchcock movie by title. I'm not sure why, but such a borrowing looks less bald-faced in a movie than in a novel. Maybe more is expected from a book than a movie; maybe an homage looks less like a rip-off onscreen. In the same way, the film makes Palahniuk's blatant borrowings from J.G. Ballard's Crash less obvious.

More importantly, Pitt and Norton change the mood of the film, letting the humor of the book move to the forefront, letting the novel's endorsement of the violent life look more like a ridiculous pose and less like a stab at philosophy.

In the press notes, Palahniuk endorses his characters' fights: "We are a nation of physical animals who have forgotten how much we enjoy being that. We are cushioned by this kind of make-believe, unreal world, and we have no idea what we can survive because we are never challenged or tested."

Truly spoken like a man who sits in a room all day and conjures up make-believe, unreal worlds for a living. The worst parts of the novel are the sulking white-guy notes beneath the surface of the prose--the suggestions that a real man needs to get his knuckles bloody. The template for a good movie was there in the novel, but so too was the mold for a bad movie, for a Sylvester Stallone trial by ordeal.

FINCHER HAS BEEN doing promising but uneven work. He is the one director who has emerged from music videos with a genuine sense of the importance of story, but for a man with a very good eye, Fincher is irresolute as a director.

All of his films have limitations: Fincher dueled with the requirements of a movie franchise in the AIDS threnody Alien3. Pitt's tedious hothead-cop routine flawed Seven, a movie almost saved by Morgan Freeman's and Kevin Spacey's chilly underplaying. In The Game, the director was conquered by whatever law it is that says that Michael Douglas must always be redeemed in the last reel, no matter what a bastard he's been during the rest of the movie.

In Fight Club, Fincher turns out to be the perfect director for a piece of nasty pulp fiction. The story is set in Franklin, one of Fincher's composite cities. This city is a swamp, from ugly skyscrapers to the rotten, half-flooded industrial slum where Durden and the Narrator come to live.

The incredible sordidness of Durden in his greasy thrift-shop duds and the fierce and crazy counterpoint of Marla (Helena Bonham Carter)--the transient girl Durden picks up, sleeps with and drops--function as countercurrents to Durden's reactionary ideas about the purity of pain. Fincher has found the better nature of Palahniuk's conflicted novel. More than this, he's found grimy humor to balance his dank imagery.

This nervy, scary film looks almost like a companion piece to Susan Faludi's superb new book, Stiffed. Both works talk about the misdirected anger of disenfranchised men and their terror at being unmanned. And both works come to the same conclusion. Instead of understanding the economic forces that have imprisoned both sexes, men retreat into movie-fed fantasies of the lone hero who beats the world into shape. In Fight Club, as in real life, these men only end up clobbering themselves.

Fight Club (R; 139 min.), directed by David Fincher, written by Jim Uhls, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, photographed by Jeff Cronenweth and starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the October 14-20, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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