Boys Do Bleed

C’mon people now, whale on your brother.

Fight Club

Directed by
David Fincher
20th Century Fox

Boys Don’t Cry

Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fight Club is silly stuff, sensationalism that mistakes itself for satire, but it’s also a brash and transporting piece of moviemaking, like Raging Bull on acid. The film opens with–literally–a surge of adrenalin, which travels through the bloodstream and into the brain of its protagonist, Jack (Edward Norton), who’s viewed, as the camera pulls out of his insides, with a gun stuck in his mouth. How’d he get into this pickle? He’s going to tell you, breezily, and the director, David Fincher, is going to illustrate his narrative–violently. Fincher (Seven, 1995; The Game, 1997) is out to bombard you with so much feverish imagery that you have no choice but to succumb to the movie’s reeling, punch-drunk worldview. By the end, you might feel as if you, too, have a mouthful of blood.

Not to mention a hole in your head. Fight Club careers from one resonant satirical idea to the next without quite deciding whether its characters are full of crap or are Gen X prophets. It always gives you a rush, though. At first, it goofs on the absurd feminization of an absurdly macho culture. An increasingly desperate insomniac, Jack finds relief (and release) only at meetings for the terminally ill. At a testicular cancer group, he’s enfolded in the ample arms of Bob (the singer Meat Loaf Aday), a former bodybuilder who ruined his health with steroids and now has “bitch tits.” Jack and Bob subscribe to a new form of male bonding: They cling to each other and sob. But Jack’s idyll is rudely disrupted by–wouldn’t you know it?–a woman. A dark-eyed, sepulchral head case named Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) begins showing up at all the same disparate meetings for essentially the same voyeuristic ends, and the presence of this “tourist” makes it impossible for Jack to emote.

Jack finds another outlet, though. On a plane, he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a cryptic hipster with a penchant for subversive acts both large (he makes high-priced soaps from liposuctioned human fat) and small (he splices frames from porn flicks into kiddie movies). When Jack’s apartment mysteriously explodes–along with his carefully chosen IKEA furniture–he moves into Tyler’s squalid warehouse and helps to found a new religion: Fight Club, in which young males gather after hours in the basement of a nightclub to pound one another (and be pounded) to a bloody pulp. That last parenthesis isn’t so parenthetical. In some ways, it’s the longing to be beaten into oblivion that’s the strongest. “Self-improvement,” explains Tyler, “is masturbation”; self-destruction is the new way. Tyler’s manifesto calls for an end to consumerism (“Things you own end up owning you”), and since society is going down (“Martha Stewart is polishing brass on the Titanic“), the only creative outlet left is annihilation. “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything,” he says.

Fincher and his screenwriter, Jim Uhls, seem to think they’ve broken new ground in FightClub, that their metaphor for our discontents hits harder than anyone else’s. Certainly it produces more bloody splatter. But 20 years ago, the same impulse was called punk and, as Greil Marcus documents in Lipstick Traces, it was other things before that. Yes, the mixture of Johnny Rotten, Jake La Motta, and Jesus is unique; and the Faludi-esque emasculation themes are more explicit. But there’s something deeply movie-ish about the whole conceit, as if the novelist and director were weaned on Martin Scorsese pictures and never stopped dreaming of recapturing that first masochistic rush.

The novel, the first by Chuck Palahniuk (the surname sounds like Eskimo for “palooka”–which somehow fits), walks a line between the straight and ironic–it isn’t always clear if its glib sociological pronouncements are meant to be taken straight or as the ravings of a delusional mama’s boy. But onscreen, when Pitt announces to the assembled fighters that they are the “middle children of history” with “no purpose and no place”–emasculated on one hand by the lack of a unifying crisis (a world war or depression) and on the other by lack of material wealth as promised by television–he seems meant to be intoning gospel. “We are a generation of men raised by women,” Tyler announces, and adds, “If our fathers bail, what does that tell you about God?” (I give up: What?)

FightClub could use a few different perspectives: a woman’s, obviously, but also an African-American’s–someone who’d have a different take on the “healing” properties of violence. It’s also unclear just what has emasculated Jack: Is it that he’s a materialist or that the materials themselves (i.e., IKEA’s lacquered particle boards) don’t measure up to his fantasies of opulence? Is he motivated by spiritual hunger or envy? Tyler’s subsequent idea of confining his group’s mayhem to franchise coffee bars and corporate-subsidized art is a witty one–it’s like a parody of neo-Nazism as re-enacted by yuppies. It might have been a howl if performed by, say, the troupe of artsy German nihilists in Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998). Somehow Brad Pitt doesn’t have the same piquancy.

Actually, Pitt isn’t as terrible as usual: He’s playing not a character but a conceit, and he can bask in his movie-idol arrogance, which seems to be the most authentic emotion he has. But the film belongs to Norton. As a ferocious skinhead in last year’s American History X, Norton was taut and ropy, his long torso curled into a sneer; here, he’s skinny and wilting, a quivering pansy. Even when he fights he doesn’t transform–he’s a raging wimp. The performance is marvelous, and it makes poetic sense in light of the movie’s climactic twist. But that twist will annoy more people than it will delight, if only because it shifts the drama from the realm of the sociological to that of the psychoanalytic. The finale, scored with the Pixies’ great “Where Is My Mind?” comes off facetiously–as if Fincher is throwing the movie away.

Until then, however, he has done a fabulous job of keeping it spinning. The most thrilling thing about Fight Club isn’t what it says but how Uhls and Fincher pull you into its narrator’s head and simulate his adrenalin rushes. A veteran of rock videos, Fincher is one of those filmmakers who helps make the case that MTV–along with digital editing–has transformed cinema for better as well as worse. The syntax has become more intricate. Voice-over narration, once considered uncinematic, is back in style, along with novelistic asides, digressions, fantasies, and flashbacks. To make a point, you can jazzily interject anything–even, as in Three Kings, a shot of a bullet slicing through internal organs. Films like Fight Club might not gel, but they have a breathless, free-associational quality that points to new possibilities in storytelling. Or maybe old possibilities: The language of movies hasn’t seemed this unfettered since the pre-sound days of Sergei Eisenstein and Abel Gance.

A n actress named Hilary Swank gives one of the most rapturous performances I’ve ever seen as the cross-dressing Brandon Teena (a k a Teena Brandon) in Kimberly Peirce’s stark and astonishingly beautiful debut feature, Boys Don’t Cry. The movie opens with Teena being shorn of her hated female tresses and becoming “Brandon,” who swaggers around in tight jeans and leather jackets. The joy is in watching the actor transform, and I don’t just mean Swank: I mean Teena Brandon playing Brandon Teena–the role she has been longing for her whole life. In a redneck Nebraska bar, Brandon throws back a shot of whiskey and the gesture–a macho cliché–becomes an act of self-discovery. Every gesture does. “You’re gonna have a shiner in the morning,” someone tells Brandon after a barroom brawl, and he takes the news with a glee that’s almost mystical: “I am????? Oh, shit!!!” he cries, grinning. That might be my favorite moment in the picture, because Swank’s ecstatic expression carries us through the next hour, as Brandon acts out his urban-cowboy fantasies–“surfing” from the bumper of a pickup truck, rolling in the mud, and straddling a barstool with one hand on a brewski and the other on the shoulder of a gorgeous babe.

That the people with whom Brandon feels most at home would kill him if they knew his true gender is the movie’s most tragic irony–and the one that lifts it out of the realm of gay-martyr hagiography and into something more complex and irreducible: a meditation on the irrelevance of gender. Peirce’s triumph is to make these scenes at once exuberant (occasionally hilarious) and foreboding, so that all the seeds of Brandon’s killing are right there on the screen. John (Peter Sarsgaard), one of his future rapists and murderers, calls him “little buddy” and seems almost attracted to him; Sarsgaard’s performance is a finely chiseled study of how unresolved emotion can suddenly resolve itself into violence.

Though harrowing, the second half of Boys Don’t Cry isn’t as great as the first. The early scenes evoke elation and dread simultaneously, the later ones just dread; and the last half-hour is unrelieved torture. What keeps the movie tantalizing is Chloë Sevigny’s Lana, who might or might not know that Brandon is a girl but who’s entranced by him anyway. With her lank hair, hooded eyes, and air of sleepy sensuality, Sevigny–maybe even more than Swank–embodies the mystery of sex that’s at the core of Boys Don’t Cry. Everything she does is deliberate, ironic, slightly unreadable–and unyielding. She’s could be saying, “I’m in this world but not of it. … You’d never dream what’s underneath.”

Inbrief: If a friend tells you you’ll love Happy Texas, rethink the friendship. This clunky mistaken-identity comedy about escaped cons who impersonate gay pageant directors doesn’t even make sense on its own low farcical terms; it’s mostly one lame homo joke after another. The only bright spot is Steve Zahn, who could be the offspring of Michael J. Fox and Crispin Glover if they’d mated on the set of Back to the Future (1985).

It’s hard to make a serious case for Lawrence Kasdan’s Mumford, which has apparently flopped but which you can still catch at second- and third-tier theaters. It looks peculiar–a Norman Rockwell painting with noir shadows. And its tale of a small town healed by a depressive (Loren Dean) posing as a psychologist is full of doddering misconceptions about psychotherapy. I almost don’t know why I loved it, but the relaxed pacing and the witty turns by Martin Short, Ted Danson, David Paymer, and Mary McDonnell surely helped. I can’t decide if the weirdly affectless Dean is inspired or inept, but my indecision suggests why he works in the role. There’s no doubt, however, about his even more depressive love object, Hope Davis, who posseses the cinema’s most expressive honking-nasal voice and who slumps through the movie like the world’s most lyrical anti-ballerina. Even her puffy cheeks are eloquent: They made me think of Mumford as the home of the psychological mumps.