July 2003

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

DVD commentaries are beautiful things

As I write this month's column, I'm watching Edward Norton gleefully throw himself around his boss's office, his face a bloody mess, while on the DVD commentary, Chuck Palahniuk and Jim Uhls talk about the glee of breaking shit up.

"You made connections that I should have made!" Chuck is saying now. He's referring to the fact that Jim Uhls, in adapting his novel, referenced Jack's work as an investigator of car accidents in a later scene when Jack himself gets into a car wreck.

"This part here, where the bartender points to the scar on his hand -- that's so much cleaner than how I did it!" Chuck again.

Thing is, Chuck's definitely right.

Fight Clubhas been my fallback column idea for a while, because I seem to spend a lot of space in these columns critiquing the transition from book to film -- mainly because there's usually a lot to complain about. But no matter what you actually think about the story and execution of this "cheerfully fascist big-star movie" (Roger Ebert, not me), it's still a marvel of a thing. Because they got it right.

The novel is ripped in bits and pieces from Palahniuk's life, in some respect -- he volunteered at a hospice and sat through innumerable support and therapy groups; he wrote large chunks of the book sitting in boring periwinkle-blue-necktie meetings. Listening to the commentary - hearing him talk about how much he took from his friends and family to create the story - it becomes clear where the novel gets its rawness, its slightly crazed airs. In some form or another, the sources for his inspiration were based on real life, real people, leaving a sense of authority, the ingrained knowledge that these things really did happen. And that just makes the first person narrative feel more claustrophobic, internal. I usually sprint through books, but found I had to take this one slow, for fear of suffocating inside the narrator's brain.

The movie manages to preserve this warped wood and open wound feel. But it's strange how once you get outside of the narrator's head, everything seems a bit more ridiculous. The themes of emasculinization, deconstruction, freedom are still just as vivid -- but the slightly distanced perspective makes them even more powerful, because they stand in such sharp contrast to the rest of the world.

They keep the narrative intact with large portions of verbatim voiceover, but as Uhls points out, they aren't necessary. The voice-over doesn't drive the narrative forward, but rather adds context, a psychological awareness. Fight Clubis a book of ideas, in many ways. And the movie is a movie made by people who get it.

To paraphrase Palahniuk yet again - he's such a gleeful fanboy about this movie that he acknowledges as superior to his book...

"Every single detail in this movie was chosen so carefully, considered - there's nothing accidental or questionable about it... What's happened as a result of this movie is that it's ruined me for other Hollywood movies. When I see them and they're just not as good as this - I get disappointed."

Yeah. What Chuck said.