The primary reason audiences return to the movie theater hasn’t changed in almost 120 years since Edison first started showing his kinetoscope to the world. Fans wait on crowded lines, buy merchandise and even start professional careers all because watching a film can have one of the most singular impacts on the human psyche possible. Eyes become focused, ears turn into finely tuned machines, thoughts are turned off and an energy of anticipation fills the theater like a thick fog compelling audiences to turn themselves over completely to the images and sounds that will soon let them escape into a world far far away from home; that is, if the movie’s good.
As David Bordwell argues in his essay “Intensified Continuity,” visual style in contemporary film, the main principles of filmmaking used to captivate movie goers, has not changed significantly from the start of the structured studio system in the 1930s to today’s reign of the arthouse independent and “blockbuster.” This is not to say that the art of filmmaking has not evolved. In fact, the styles of each new generation of directors adds something new to the vast array of techniques used to make excellent movies.
The “new Hollywood” style is one such example. Bordwell argues that this approach is composed of four “tactics” in terms of camera use and editing that work together to create a film that belongs to a unique category: bipolar extremes of lens length, closer framings in dialogue scenes, more rapid editing and the use of a free-ranging camera. David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) is a film that owes its success completely to the “new Hollywood” style. Without the techniques mentioned above, Fight Club’s ability to ensnare audiences the way it has for over a decade could not be possible.
While it would be sheer blaspheme to try and sum up Fight Club in fifty words, it would be even worse for someone who has never seen the film to read this article without at least a bit of a plot summary.
Our narrator (we never learn his name) is slowly but surely crumbling with his poor excuse for a life, until he meets Tyler Durden. They decide to start a (insert movie title here). As the club grows larger and larger Tyler decides to add activities other than fighting such as vandalism, terrorism, ect. Our narrator is not to keen on all of this new activity and when he confronts Tyler he discovers something about himself that he never new existed. While this article is not focused on the plot of Fight Club it would be impossible to critically analyze its style without mentioning a few spoiler alerts, so if anyone reading this article has never seen this film, go see it before you finish reading.
Fincher’s use of long shots, medium shots, close-ups and extreme close-ups throughout the duration of Fight Club vary tremendously. The constant interchanging of these shots throughout the film intensifies the plot creating peaks of intense action and troughs of mellow dialogue. In this film it is clear Fincher is motivated to use the close-up and extreme close-up shot in order to put the characters right into the audiences’ faces. The closer the shot is on Tyler Durden the easier it is to discern the deranged look in his eye.
These shots are interchanged with the long shot, which is used in the film frequently. During the first full fight between the narrator and Tyler the audience is far removed from the action creating a distance between the violence and the viewer.
As the movie progresses and the fights become more intense Fincher interchanges medium shots with close-ups, showing the point of view of a spectator of the fight simultaneously with the fighter himself. This “bi-polar” use of the camera creates more action, making the scene chaotic, like an actual fight. The use of the extreme long shot comes into play when Tyler gives the members their first homework assignment: start a fight.
The long shot creates space around each character essentially making everything farther away, which enhances the idea that these guys are the farthest thing from someone would call normal. When the Narrator talks to the audience, like when he explains Tyler’s jobs, he steps towards the camera causing a focus effect blurring Tyler in the background and enhancing the Narrator’s own features creating an interesting dynamic between the two characters.
A similar dynamic occurs frequently throughout Fight Club as the two characters’ interactions with each other become increasingly tenser until the Narrator eventually turns on Tyler (i.e. himself). These scenes are intelligently composed of close-up and extreme close-up shots, which intensify the strain on the relationship with the Narrator and himself.
Closer framings of character dialogue occur in almost every scene involving two characters in Fight Club. Bordwell mentions that in the studio years “a filmmaker would rely on the actor’s whole body” but now “actors are principally faces… mouths, brows, and eyes become the principal sources of information and emotion, and actors must scale their performances across various degrees of intimate framing.”
The Narrator’s dialogue with Marla and Tyler are all close framed, medium shots. This means they are all primarily face acting. With all the close-ups Fincher uses in this film it only makes sense that he would center his frame tightly around the characters letting their faces show distress instead of their bodies.
Almost all over-the-shoulder are close framed and show very little of the actor besides the face. Closing the frame keeps scenes intense, allowing the camera to convey the character’s emotions, which registers with an audience more than a medium shot could. Closer framings of dialogue scenes keeps the anticipation high, which keeps the attention of the audience.
Bordwell mentions that average shot length (ASL) continues to decrease from the end of the 1960s to today where a film is likely to have an ASL of three to six seconds. The use of fast editing in Fight Club enhances what Bordwell calls “a keen moment-by-moment anticipation.”
It is obvious in any movie that the action scenes are cut much faster than other scenes in the film to provide tempo and suspense, however, Fight Club is continuously cut at a fast pace even in simple dialogue scenes. As the movie progresses and the action intensifies there are faster and faster cuts, but Fincher has also decided to cut fast when there is not any action. Every dialogue scene between Tyler and the Narrator involves fast cuts, whether it is Tyler inflicting the lye burn on the Narrator, or their actual fight towards the end of the film.
Fincher has contrasted this by deciding to make the Narrator’s scenes without Tyler slower, causing the audience to infer that without Tyler the Narrator is complacent. At certain points in the film Fincher has also decided to use a slow motion effect. When the Narrator destroys the blonde charecter in their fight, instead of showing the brutality of the fight by speeding it up, Fincher decides to slow it down while still cutting the scene at a fast rate, thus making it appear more gruesome than it already is.
The fight scenes, as should be expected, are cut particularly fast, but what is interesting is the way Fincher edits each progressive fight, making them faster and faster as the movie advances towards its conclusion. When the Narrator finally finds out that he is indeed Tyler Durden, the cuts reach new speeds, combining flashbacks with the dialogue he is having with Tyler who is sitting across from him.
The “moment-by-moment anticipation” is accelerated and it fully immerses the audience in the action.The use of the free-ranging camera has become another major factor in the “new Hollywood” style. Bordwell mentions in his article that “Today, everyone presumes that a long take, even a long shot, is unlikely to be a static one.” Fincher decides to use this method in two particularly interesting takes. During the longest scene of the film the camera moves with Tyler as he delivers his speech to the members of the club. At first the camera appears to be “watching” Tyler as if it is another member of the club.
As soon as Tyler starts to pace the camera travels with him still appearing to be a first person view of the scene. When Tyler turns his back, however, the camera follows him as he walks away from the group and turns to face the members, the shot ends in a close up of his face. This scene demonstrates that long takes can no longer simply be point and shoot scenes. Today’s audiences have become increasingly uninterested with static scenes and directors must combat this disinterest for their films to be successful.
The second scene involves the Narrator being confronted by both Tyler and Marla in two separate parts of the kitchen, each coming in at different intervals, as one of them is not really there. The camera starts on the Narrator and Marla talking, and as they finish, it switches from left to right to show Tyler entering the scene saying a fast line.
The camera switches back to Marla and so on for around two minutes of dialogue. This use of the free-ranging camera keeps the audience involved with their eyes as they hear the characters speaking. It is also worth mentioning Fincher’s one use of the skycam. A shot from above of the members of the club piling into the basement was a fresh way for Fincher to add a new cut into the scene.
It is clear that Fincher had the “new Hollywood” style in mind when he made Fight Club. The cinematography and editing used in this film deal with an action movie that is not necessarily full of action.
There is way more depth to Fight Club than just a flurry of punches and Fincher’s choice of camera movement and editing techniques make scenes with no action appear more intense than some of the actual fight scenes themselves. That being said it is important to understand that even with the execution of the “new-Hollywood” style Fight Club is still a film that requires one’s full attention.
Its plot alone makes audiences want to stop and contemplate, but with the addition of the fast cuts and intense moving camera, it is a film audiences will have to watch again and again, which in the end is the sign of a great movie.
– By Kyle Silverstein
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