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Brad Pitt and Edward Norton star in Fight Club, David Fincherís new movie. Like Fincherís previous film, Seven (in which Pitt also starred), itís not easy viewing, but itís already being labelled a masterpiece. Pitt expects it to be 'hammered' for immorality, he tells our UK correspondent NICK RODDICK. But there's more to it than that; like, how hard is it to be a man today.

Odds are, if there was a worldwide competition to invent a better universe, few people over 45 would vote for one designed by David Fincher. The prison planet of Alien 3 (Fincherís directorial debut), the mutilated corpses of Seven, the paranoid universe of The Game - these could well be places you wouldnít want to live in, not if youíre getting on in life.

"Fincher's new movie... takes his world view to extremes"

On the other hand, maybe they represent things that should be faced up to. Maybe there is more to life than romantic comedies and action epics in which a few well-toned men and a couple of token women save the planet from a careening asteroid.

At all events, Fincherís new movie Fight Club, which received its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in early September 1999, is not just true to form, it takes his world view to extremes. Subjects include bare-knuckle fighting, urban terrorism, nihilism while sex and violence are the very essence.

In an early scene, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton go down into a dank basement and beat the crap out of one another, almost for the sake of it - in Fight Club, fighting is about fighting, not winning. There are no rules, other than that you donít tell anyone about the Club. Itís part of a process of finding yourself in a world where your identity has become increasingly tied to what you do, where you live, what you wear, what you earn...

Fincher himself, who learned his trade making music videos for the likes of Aerosmith, Madonna and the Rolling Stones - not, you might say, the three easiest sets of clients to get along with - is equally uncompromising about what he is trying to do.

"You should educate people about the repercussions of violence," he told Corie Brown of Newsweek. "This is a moral movie - every bit as moral as, say, M*A*S*H." Brown recorded her reservations about this: "Convincing everyone of that may be an ugly fight," she concluded.

"Itíll get caught in the morality net," Brad Pitt

From which you may deduce that Fight Clubís relationship to Babysitterís Club, The Joy Luck Club or First Wivesí Club is little more than a semantic coincidence. Fight Club - not The Fight Club: weíre talking something almost generic here - is, in the words of one Internet user who saw an advance screening, "angry, savage and out-there". The word "masterpiece" also figures in references to the film on the Net.

But Corie has a point: the movie isnít going to get an easy ride from the self-appointed guardians of social propriety. "Itíll get caught in the morality net," says Brad Pitt, who co-stars with Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter (in this film, emphatically not the submissive, sweet young English girl of Room With a View). "Weíre gonna get hammered. The week that Seven came out, Kathie Lee Gifford said on her [TV] show, ĎIt is your moral imperative to avoid this movieí. If we donít get that on this one, then weíve done something wrong."

Fight Club is based on a first novel by Chuck Palahniuk (pronounced, according to Premiere magazine, Ďpaula-nickí), a 37-year-old (exactly the same age as Fincher) truck mechanic from Portland, Oregon, who got so fed up with fixing transmissions that didnít need fixing (his job was to write the repair manual) that he joined a writersí group.

"doesnít exactly view the world through rose-tinted spectacles"

That proved a turning point: bye-bye Freightliner Inc, hello literature. It took Palahniuk three months to finish Fight Club ("It sort of wrote itself," he claims, using the phrase that strikes terror into anyone who has ever experienced writerís block). Since then, he has written two more: Survivor, which has also been optioned by Fox, the producer of Fight Club; and Invisible Monsters, a novel about a woman disfigured in a drive-by shooting which is due out this month (September). Like Fincher, Palahniuk doesnít exactly view the world through rose-tinted spectacles.

The Village Voiceís Hillary Johnson described Fight Club, the novel, as a classic text about "the emasculation of Western civilisation", which she characterises thus: "Men are failing at work, at school and in families, in theory because the modern knowledge and skill-oriented world is basically testosterone intolerant. While menís strength and aggression were useful in establishing the modern world, theyíre an impediment to its smooth day-to-day operation, a task better suited to the instincts and behaviours of females."

In other words, Johnson sees Fight Club as belonging right in the middle of the same debate which drove feminist Susan Faludi to write a book like Stiffed: The Betrayal of the Modern Man: the recognition that, patriarchy or no patriarchy, sometimes itís hard to be a man. Now especially.

Not surprisingly, Palahniuk sees it more archetypically - as a generational thing. "We are the middle children of history," he writes, "raised by television to believe that someday weíll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we wonít."

"Fight Club has a generational energy to it, a protest energy," Ed Norton

Norton, the 30-year-old Yale-educated movie star who has scored two Oscar nominations (for Best Supporting Actor in Primal Fear and Best Actor in American History X) from a mere six screen appearances, sees it in much the same terms. "Fight Club has a generational energy to it, a protest energy," he told Premiereís Johanna Schneller. "So much of whatís been represented about my generation has been done by the baby boomers. They dismiss us: the word slacker, the oversimplification of the Gen-X mentality as one of hesitancy or negativity. It isnít just aimlessness we feel: itís deep scepticism. Itís not slackerdom: itís profound cynicism, even despair, even paralysis, in the face of an onslaught of information and technology. Weíre much more intensely informed at a much younger age than our parents were."

Norton plays Jack, the narrator of Fight Club, who finds himself sitting next to Pittís Tyler Durden on a plane. Jack is fed up with his life, despite all the comforts it has supposedly bought him, and feels a strange affinity to Tyler.

"What do you do?" he asks him.

"I make and sell soap," is the unexpected reply. "Did you know," he continues, "if you add nitric acid to the soap-making process, you get nitroglycerin? With enough soap, one could blow up just about anything."

It is Tyler who introduces Jack to the world of Fight Club - which Palahniuk claims he made up but versions of which are rumoured to exist in Newark, London, Warsaw... anywhere where you arenít when you speak of the rumour. The point of Fight Club is to annihilate your previous existence in violence - a process which leads on to a wider programme of insurrection and revolution, just as accepting the challenge in Seven or agreeing to play in The Game took those filmsí central characters into another sort of existence.

"Picking up where Kubrick left off," Brad Pitt on director David Fincher

"In Buddhism," Norton told Schneller, "thereís Nirvana, and then thereís Samsara, the world of confusion and disharmony. That world is our testing ground, where we have the experiences that help us become enlightened. Iím not saying that Fight Club is The Book of Living and Dying, but it was kind of that idea: youíre challenging yourself to break out of the world."

Fox 2000 president Laura Ziskin acquired Fight Club when it was still in manuscript, but didnít put it forward as a Fox project until Jim Uhls, a young UCLA graduate making his feature debut, had written a screenplay and Fincher was attached. Pitt, Norton and Bonham Carter followed soon after, the last-named playing Marla, a chain-smoking drop-out with whom both men fall in love.

All three reckon Fincher is the only director who could have made the movie. "Picking up where Kubrick left off," is how Pitt puts it. "Iím gonna leave that one up to the scholars, but thatís what I think."

"Fight Club is a challenge to an audience"

Itís an intriguing analogy because Kubrick had the same meticulous vision of an unlovely world; because Kubrick never gave up until he had got exactly what he wanted on screen ("Fincherís mediocrity is everybody elseís perfection" is Bonham Carterís take); and because Kubrickís critically acclaimed films took a while to become classics (except for 2001, which was critically lambasted but became a classic almost overnight). Likewise, Fight Club is a challenge to an audience lulled into the world of the aforementioned romantic comedies, wanting their excitement in the form of the instantly gratifying bite-size chunks of the action blockbusters.

"Every movie you take on makes you nervous," concludes Ziskin. "But if youíre going to really examine society, you canít be bogus: youíve got to be authentic."

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MEAT LOAF, co-star of Fight Club, talks to Jimmy Thomson at the Venice Film Festival and defends the violence.



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