Saturday, September 8, 2012

Here's a Thought: David Fincher's Romantic Comedy

So I decided to try something a little new: I have these weird theories rattling around in my brain, and since I have this forum for them, I might as well let them out. A warning, though: Not all of these are book-related. Still, I hope you join me for this new venture, as I think it might be cool. Also, hi, friend* who requested this. Hope it pans out.

 DISCLAIMER: So it goes without saying that there will be a lot of spoilers in this. If you are worried about spoilers, then you by all means don't have to read the article**. I'm sure it'd probably ruin the experience a little for you anyway. But I feel like this is a viewpoint that hasn't yet been explored, so I might as well do it here. Furthermore, I'd like to apologize, as some of the logic will be a little faulty. I'm kind of working with severely warped takes on tropes here, so there's a chance not all of it will shake out and exactly conform to what I want to say, but hopefully I can get my point across just enough.

           So here's my thought: Fight Club, the dark comedy-thriller movie known mainly for its iconic quotes and glorification of pop-nihilism, is a romantic comedy. A very dark and kinda sick romantic comedy, but a romantic comedy nonetheless. Due to its subversion of both the straightforward narrative form and a surprising variety of tropes, it manages to hide this point in a larger point about the male situation in the final days of the twentieth century, but if you look for it, it's there. But I'm not asking you to accept this without evidence, so let's go through the film, just bit by bit:

            The beginning and end of Fight Club are a framing device: In the beginning, a gun is held to the narrator's head, the two-hour plot of the film shows how the narrator got a gun put to his head, and then the ending follows what happens after that. Both the opening and the closing scenes rely lightly on stock romantic comedies, however. In the opening, the narrator has the line "You know how you always hurt the ones you love? Well, it works both ways." which helps illustrate his relationship with Tyler Durden, one of the other main characters. Furthermore, just before the scene cuts to flashback, Jack continues with "And suddenly, I realize that all of this...has got something to do with a girl named Marla Singer", which ties the trouble in the film to a single woman. This sets the central relationship of the film as one between Tyler Durden, Jack, and the as-yet-unmet Marla Singer. The film then goes into a flashback to show how the characters got to the point where one is holding a gun to the other with buildings about to blow up in a controlled demolition. 

        Jack's lines here betray that we are essentially watching the culmination of a romantic relationship. They "only hurt the ones (they) love", which would establish some kind of loving relationship at the very least between Tyler and Jack. Jack's insistence that Marla has something to do with the whole mess would, in fact, hint at a love triangle, though who the center of attention is and what the triangle is really about are currently up for grabs. It also hints that Jack is closely tied to Marla, which also sets up a major relationship between the three characters. Having now outlined the three relationships, we can look closer at the three characters involved in them, all of whom comply with certain romantic film tropes.

        First, we have Jack. Jack is introduced as someone who is very successful at his job, and has pretty much everything he can ask for, but there is something missing in his life. This "something missing" is defined in the character as a constant insomnia, making him dead inside...a man simply going through life. At first, he seems like the average male rom-com protagonist: Overworked, looking for something that's missing, and unable to find love. To fill the void in his life, he cruises support groups so that he can find some kind of intimacy and human connection in his interactions. Finding this connection with other people (tellingly, both male and female, as we'll get to later) seems to (in the classic romantic comedy style) solve all his problems: He starts sleeping at night, and becomes in his words "the warm little center of the world..." 

        In any case, Jack becomes addicted to the feeling of feeling things, and this is where Marla comes in. At first, the two of them have what could be a typical relationship for such a movie. Boy meets girl, boy and girl are fascinated by each other but outwardly hate each other, boy and girl banter for a while, and are somehow thrust together by the plotline. Marla even acts like the quirky dream girl present in so many terrible romantic comedies. In her introduction she chainsmokes through a cancer support group, steals clothes at a laundromat to sell for money, dresses like a mutilated Goth Barbie doll****, and fast-talks Jack into sort of admitting a kind of odd affection for her (as seen when he doesn't want her to leave, and makes sure they exchange phone numbers). She even completely upends Jack's world by appearing at his support groups, making it impossible to cling to the fake intimacy he has become dependent on.  However, she slowly shifts out of this role with the appearance of Tyler.

     Which brings us to Tyler Durden, both a straightforward Manic Pixie Dream Guy, and a subversion of the trope. When Jack first meets Tyler on a plane, Tyler is stylish, witty, and oozing with appeal. He's an independent businessman (he makes and sells soap and seems ridiculously successful), he supposedly drives a flashy car, and he's always dressed to the nines. He's also responsible for almost all the quotable lines in the film, which come from his seemingly-cool monologues on how society is doomed and basically how all one needs to feel good about themselves is to tap into the more primal urges, and destroy society. When he first appears, he seems to give Jack everything he needs, and in a far nicer way than Marla does. In fact, with his constant shouts of "You need to let go!" in the second half, his twisted emphasis on joie de vivre, and his kind of hipster-ish style, he's kind of a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (indie variety) before the trope even reached prominence. And naturally, Jack, our hero, falls for him.

     It is at this point that Marla kind of leaves the movie. Her presence is still occasionally felt, but the film's focus shifts to the relationship between Tyler and Jack. Jack moves in with Tyler after his apartment blows up, goes drinking with him, and starts fighting him in the parking lot of their bar. The fights in the film, all centered around the titular fight club, are a stand-in for the intimacy that Jack got from the support groups. Though more or less a form of false intimacy or false belonging, the fight scenes between Jack and Tyler have a certain amount of subtext between them, as do the conversations about fighting. It's a way of relieving the romantic tension between them, as well as entertaining the idea that Jack is into Tyler. An idea which reaches its climax in the second half of the film.

      And it is in the second half where everything gets really freaking dark. It remains funny, and the romantic relationships continue along, but it gets dark, and really quick. After an almost-suicide scare where she is saved by Tyler, Marla winds up completely snubbing Jack for Jack's new "friend", leaving Jack without a man or a woman. Jack, who is effectively alone, reacts by trying to shut both of them out, and it is here that Marla is the only one who reaches out to Jack. Tyler continues to act as an abusive boyfriend, keeping Jack around but not including him, and telling him not to tell Marla "about not tell that woman about anything we do." Tyler also continues to "help" Jack in such ways as giving him a chemical burn on his hand (by kissing him on the hand and then shaking lye over it, just for further subtext), shouting revolutionary slogans while Jack talks to an arson investigator about the destruction of his apartment, implicating him in two incidents of robbery and psychological torture, and finally almost killing him when he decides to engineer a car accident.

         It is here, though, that we get yet another twisted take on a romantic trope. Jack has an incompetent boss who continues to ride him throughout the film for being poorly-behaved at work. Normally, the "telling off the bad boss" scene comes somewhere near the end. Here, it comes somewhere in the middle, allowing Jack to tell off his boss, and then beat himself senseless to gain financial independence. This then allows Tyler to take more advantage of him. Still, it's an important part of every romantic comedy, gaining that independence through the actions of a loved one, and the film hits it in a very twisted way.'

       Tyler's plan to help Jack accomplish anything in his life continues with the inception of "Project Mayhem", a terrorist cell born from Tyler's love of philosophy he doesn't quite seem to understand and the ashes of the fight clubs. This involves him implicating Jack in multiple instances of terrorism, and further machinations to keep him away from Marla, the voice of reason in his life. All of this comes in line with abusive behavior, and Jack trying to stop him then becomes a fight against Tyler's abuse. This reaches its nadir when Jack, having seen Tyler mentoring and palling around with a member of Project Mayhem named "Angel Face" (drawing a very nice cheating analogue) and promptly beats the beautiful right out of him. It's Jack taking out his abuse and pain on the person Tyler rejected him for, which is a common thing to do when in an abusive relationship, especially one with mild Stockholm Syndrome-y tendencies: Blame everyone but the person actually responsible, especially the people who are paid more attention and treated better. 

       Finally, Tyler leaves Jack alone completely, starting Jack off on a mad rush to find some trace of his friend/lover. This is also normal behavior when a relationship ends in an odd way-- you try to find some trace, so you can figure out what the hell happened. Needing some stability in his life, he finally latches on to Marla, only for Tyler to figure out that Jack isn't under his control any more and come back. This is where he reveals that he is actually Jack's imaginary friend, and not a real person. This makes Jack reach for Marla, the one person he had anything approaching a healthy relationship. And, realizing his psycho ex/split personality is going to come gunning for her, he tries to get her out as fast as he can. Tyler's psychosis builds to the point that he finally kidnaps Jack and forces Jack to watch his controlled demolition of six office buildings, screaming "I did this for you! I did this for us!" the way a psychotic ex might do it. Granted, Tyler is Jack's imaginary friend, so the relationship is more heavily twisted, but at this point, it's still in the realm of a  romantic black comedy, so there. 

         All of this leads back to the ending, where Jack finally realizes the only thing he can do to defeat Tyler and rid his life of this mounting emotional baggage is self-defense. By Tyler's design, Marla has also been brought to the vantage point so that he can get rid of her, thus ridding him of the only remaining obstacle for getting Jack back on his side (or simply to kill Jack and Marla in one fell swoop). Jack defeats Tyler by putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger, but angling it so that he only gets a shot through the jaw and a hole in his cheek near the throat line. This is enough to make Tyler believe he has been shot in the head, and he promptly falls over dead. The day is saved, and Jack rejoins Marla after dismissing the members of Project Mayhem sent to guard the two of them with his newly-won confidence.

          The final scene mirrors many romantic endings: The two leads, having found each other at last, looking at each other with a feeling somewhere between uncertainty and excitement, hold hands as the soundtrack brings up a mellow guitar song and the credits start to roll. Now, given that this is a twisted film, the final moments are punctuated by buildings blowing up and the mellow guitar song is "Where is my Mind?" by The Pixies, but the point still stands. This reading is even further cemented by the final like Jack has: "Marla, you met me at a very strange time in my life."

              In those concluding moments, Jack has found the "something" he (as a romantic lead) was looking for. It wasn't in Tyler's breezy pop-anarchy, it wasn't in support groups, it wasn't even in the nights he spent getting beaten up. He finds his place to belong, his thing he was missing, in Marla Singer's affection, and she finds someone in him to care about. It is the perfect ending to a romantic movie, even if it leaves multiple unanswered questions and some very unsettling implications about the overall plot. The film doesn't really care about those, anyway. It is content to leave us with the image of two people who are more or less in love with each other and roll credits without getting too much into it.          

            So, to conclude, David Fincher's adaptation of Fight Club touches on a surprising number of romantic tropes: It has psycho exes, stable relationships, fear of rejection, two meet cutes...the only difference between this and the regular romantic comedy is that Fight Club is twisted and couched in a story about reclaiming oneself through pseudo-nihilistic, pseudo-anarchistic philosophy, and the romantic core of the story is so well-disguised that no one would see it if they weren't looking for it. But it is a romantic comedy, and a very enjoyable one at that.

Noir by K.W. Jeter (Human skin buildings, guys! Monochrome augmented-reality implants! No way in hell am I not putting a review for this up!)

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Johannes Cabal and the Fear Institute by Jonathan L. Howard
Coverage of New York Comic Con
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

* Hi, Del.
**Also: It's a sled, they're a computer program, it's not really his daughter (his daughter's on her way to get cremated), the albino is actually an alien parasite, Kyle MacLachlan's the messiah, Kyle MacLachlan's an alien parasite, the rich people are all shapeshifting aliens, Jennifer Lopez transforms into a superpowered Virgin Mary, the top falls, she's her sister and her daughter, and Sigourney Weaver dies at the end***.
***Kudos to the two people who got any of these apart from the three really obvious ones.
****Foreshadowing her eventual marriage to Tim Burton and typecasting as a mutilated Goth Barbie in almost every damn film she's in, no doubt.

1 comment:

  1. white men can't jump, but they can kiss- with their fists... thanks CC for another fun ride