It's been a bruising morning for the 36-year-old director: going one-on-one with a few journalists, getting worked over by the press, all in the interest of promoting his latest film, the ideological action flick Fight Club. But the tall, neatly groomed Fincher isn't shrugging off a rain of blows as he registers his disgruntlement with the process; he's just sarcastically evoking one of his film's rhetorical flourishes.
Fight Club is a movie in which aggravation and sparring are ways of life, in which men have become so alienated and disposably packaged by life on Planet Starbucks that they start referring to themselves as if they were one of their own distressed and suddenly rather talkative body parts. Fincher, by somewhat jarring comparison, seems pretty content to be one of Hollywood's hottest players. At the moment, he's sitting in the middle of a very tidy, very upscale hotel suite, fiddling with a chilled bottle of Frappucino.
"To me," he says, as if all things were equal, "making the movie the way we did -- with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, with big effects, a big budget, big time -- seemed like the ultimate act of sedition."
Maybe so. Not just any revolutionary could lift a psychotic screed about subliminal coercion, lifestyle fascism and downloadable anomie off the pages of an obscure cult novel and, $60 million and dozens of admittedly very cool special-effects shots later, throw it up onto nearly every multiplex screen in the country. "It was also the easiest time I've ever had getting a film made," he sighs with relief. "I might have had a slightly meaner version in mind before we got the MPAA, but trimming a few shots wasn't a debilitating thing. And there was none of the usual 'Is this guy likable enough? Are we being irresponsible? Does it have to be a head in the box?' to-ing and fro-ing with the studio."
Fight Club is Fincher's fourth feature film. His first two, the elegantly grotty Alien3 and the head-in-a-box policier, Seven (a film so critically anointed that it's already the subject of a British Film Institute "Modern Classics" volume), announced the former advertising hotshot as a style guru for the fabulously despairing and the millennially attired. His last one, the sluggishly imagined Michael Douglas thriller The Game, backed off on the atmospherics and, by returning more than double its $50 million investment, cemented Fincher's Hollywood career.
If nothing else, The Game's success allowed Fincher to return to form with a vengeance: Fight Club is filled with the high-tech grubbiness and shadowy weirdness of his first two films, although it moves at a funnier, altogether more breakneck pace. One minute it's treating state-of-the-art filmmaking as if it were a new kind of extreme sport, even going so far as to throttle the filmstrip by its own sprocket holes. The next it's milking heart-rending sympathies for monstrously tender men. And that's where Bob, a big, blubbery man with a big, blubbery pair of "bitch tits," comes in.
Bob, like much of Fight Club, may be about wearing sexual and political contradictions as if they were trademarked slogans on a T-shirt, but he's also the movie's empathy center, its tragic supervixen. And he's played, heartbreakingly, by a very huggable Meat Loaf. "I remember going to see Cirque du Soleil once," Fincher smiles, ready to embrace his dissonances, "and watching the way they'd bring the clown in. They'd begin by doing something funny with the clown, then slowly they'd begin doing things that were more and more degrading to the clown. And finally, you'd find yourself weeping for the clown. I always thought that was brilliant. It's like Dino De Laurentiis saying, when he was making King Kong, 'When the monkey die, the people gonna cry.' That's what I wanted for Bob."
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But bring up one too many of the multitude of really interesting ideas in Fight Club, and Fincher has a tendency to get a bit cagey. It's not as if he doesn't seem up to intellectual multitasking, rather that, in a world of thorny thoughts, he's eager not to get caught in a briar patch.
"I always loved the ideas in Subliminal Seduction when I was in high school," Fincher admits, recalling Wilson Bryan Key's paranoid advertising study. "But now I know, from working in advertising, how completely absurd they are. Advertising guys couldn't come up with ideas that good to save their lives. What would it mean if those subliminal messages began rising to the surface? Well, it would probably mean that our entire society has gone to hell in a handbasket, and somebody's got to do something about it."
Ask him a pricklier question still, like whether, as a successful Hollywood player, his lifestyle personally agrees with his movie's anti-consumerist crusading, and he just doubles down on the dissonance. "I don't look at this film as a manual for living," Fincher insists, re-capping his Frap. "But I do disagree with the idea that buying anything is going to help define who you are and fill up your life. I'm anti-stupidity. I object to the predatory nature of lifestyle advertising. I don't have any problem with people wanting to subscribe to a magazine called Martha Stewart's Ideas or Martha Stewart's Recommendations. But I completely object to a magazine called Martha Stewart's Living."
Or maybe he's not being dissonant. Maybe all that contradiction is just the crux of a new kind of sedition, of revolution Fincher-style. Playing the game and fighting the club at the same time; sucking the blood of Planet Starbucks, feeding the hand that bites you.