Fight Club and The Sixth Sense

Hollywood Gets its Millennial Knickers in a Twist

Poz Hulls

Talking Pictures alias






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Rather like the first rule of Fight Club, the first rule of twist cinema is that you don't talk about the twist. Often you don't even acknowledge its existence. While The Sixth Sense was billed as a twist movie (and was lucky enough to have the secret kept) Fight Club, which has just as important a twist, never even had this mentioned in the press. Instead the story was its violent content, its potentially subversive message and the pairing of its two leads, pretty boy Brad Pitt and serious actor Edward Norton. Why the difference? And why do two movies released at practically the same time, both come up with fundamentally the same twist? 

Not that twist cinema is anything new of course. From safely middle-class Agatha Christie adaptations to censor-snipping slasher-horror audiences have always been gripped by revelations both expected and out of the blue. This difference perhaps explains why The Sixth Sense and Fight Club were billed rather differently. All the way through The Sixth Sense you eagerly await revelation; shots of the depression pills and the cellar door demand explanation. Fight Club on the other hand moves so fast the audience barely has time to laugh, let alone question the reality it is presented with. Both types of twist offer the audience a kind of masochistic pleasure; you have to both see the falsity of your reading and simultaneously rewrite the story yourself. But what these more recent examples seem to emphasise is that if you cannot trust the world of the film, then by implication you cannot trust the world outside either. 

The Sixth Sense's revelation is of course that child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) was killed at the beginning of the film and is only seen by his supposed patient Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). In Fight Club unnamed narrator Norton eventually discovers that Brad Pitt is a figment of his own imagination and that he himself is the anti-capitalist guerrilla Tyler Durden. Thus both films have their main star revealed as 'unreal' in some way. Willis is a ghost, impotently walking round begging his wife to forgive him and not realising that nobody talks to him. Pitt is a creation that allows Norton to explore his own hopes for himself; to be sexy, confident, anarchic and free. What man wouldn’t choose Brad Pitt as their alter ego? But though Norton can learn to be more like Pitt, Pitt himself cannot exist. The image of a man sexy, charismatic, intelligent, brave and unique is dangled in front of Norton and the audience (with both men and women desiring his image) and then snatched away again. We can believe in the idea of Brad Pitt the untouchable movie star, but Brad Pitt the human being? Thus both Willis and Pitt are in some way held outside the narrative in which they are operating. To have two of Hollywood's biggest stars revealed as fake, and particular in such close proximity and in such different films, strikes me as something more than coincidence. Willis and Pitt are both such icons of masculinity that their unmasking seems to reflect the identity/masculinity crisis that Fight Club is explicitly dealing with. 

The Fight Club. All rights reserved.Pitt is an impossibly beautiful figure, who both on the silver screen and in real life appears to have it all. Fight Club subverts this idea so drastically that one has to wonder whether he can ever go back to being the Thelma and Louise golden boy. Even in David Fincher’s equally dark Seven Pitt is still an old fashioned lead who has married his childhood sweetheart and apologises when he swears in front of her. Detective David Mills believes that the evil in the world can be caught and punished and it is this anti-postmodern belief in progress that destroys him. In Seven’s urban nightmare it is Faith, not Wrath that he is really punished for. But in Fight Club Pitt’s character is for the first time working with and not as a sole remaining hope against, the evils that the film sees. Throughout he is dressed in scruffy, unglamorous clothes and though revelation of his body proves to be perfection as usual make-up and harsh lighting, as well as the fight scenes rough up his face. Pitt himself may be perfect, but then that’s part of the problem. As Pitt tells Norton "I look the way you want to look; I f**k the way you want to f**k" and of course following Norton's subjectivity he f**ks who he wants to f**k as well. Pitt tells the audience that we not going to grow up to be movie stars and whilst he includes himself in this the audience knows better. Nothing can be sincere and pretty Brad tells us this straight but the film winks at the audience. After all, how does Fincher expect us to take this reflection of society, with characters that knowingly wonder "what kind of dining table defines me as a person?"

The Sixth Sense. All rights reserved.Willis's star persona come from the hyperbolic masculinity of Die Hard, with his iconic image of ripped white vest, dirty face and gun in hand bitterly fighting back for every man who has had his wife and family threatened by the possibility of their independence from him. In The Sixth Sense we see him emasculated; this time he cannot stop his wife going off with another man. For the first time death, so effortless avoiding in previous films can even stop the mighty Willis. Even he is human. Pitt cannot continue his anarchy because Norton's innate sense of self rescues him from his hallucination allowing him to fight back and get the girl. This is a movie where Edward Norton, the geek made good, wins the girl over Brad Pitt, the so-called sexiest man alive. Of course it is still Pitt who gets the sex scenes (subversion can only go so far) but fundamentally both Pitt and Willis lose out. Two of the biggest stars on the planet are shown up as impotent, out of time and performing only supporting roles. Fin de siecle apocalypse had been discussed to death, but have we really lost faith in the construct of masculinity as heroism? 

This lost faith that the world can be made a better place is fundamental to postmodernism, an-ism that seems to have hung around past its sell by date and bizarrely only become cooler. Postmodernism is explicitly used in Fight Club where Norton’s real problem is a lack of sense of self in the face of consumerism, capitalism and his perfect nine to five Ikea existence. In the grip of insomnia he believes "nothing’s real, everything's far away, everything's copy of a copy of a copy". That everything’s already been said may be a cliché, but then surely that is the point. What twist cinema seems to suggest is that you can’t trust the reality that you are presented with, even if it is only more consumerist clichés. But could this ‘trendy’ cynicism actually have a positive impact on Hollywood output? Our postmodern sensibilities seem to have led us to a place where audiences are finally being offered an alternative to linear, predictable stories in the mainstream market. This new brand of film is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by a film like Fight Club, which is at once controversial and dark as it is high concept and a star vehicle. The confusion that a twist brings marks our relationship with the world being brought into the cinema and we become unsure of what we have witnessed in both worlds. And of course we’re unsure: how can we judge what impact the spliced subliminal frames could have had on our reading of the story?

But Fight Club and the Sixth Sense are not the only example of this new breed of filmmaking, films as diverse American Beauty and Arlington Road offer their audiences a dubious pleasure in the recognition of their own paranoia. Both these films have their central protagonists destroyed by the corrupt world around them. If Arlington Road’s ending is not quite a twist then it is certainly is a re-writing, demonstrating again that no one and nothing can be trusted. What links Fight Club to these films is not only their cynicism and distrust of the world but their particular attacks on suburbia and consumerism. From Fight Club’s vehement “You’re not your f**king khakis!” to American Beauty’s destruction of the American Dream, the overriding fear is clear; what can we do when we no longer want the white picket fence? Particularly in relation to masculinity we are shown how nobody knows who to aspire to be any more. Incorporating so many other recent films (Happiness, The Virgin Suicides and The Ice Storm to name but a few) the corruption of the city has seeped into the suburbs. In Fincher’s Seven the climax notably comes not in the soul-destroying city that the rest of the film has taken place in, but in the blazing sunshine of American Midwest. Though Fight Club and The Sixth Sense both take place in cites, neither depict the high-flying city dealing that is normally associated with greed and corruption, like in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street for example. Norton is a white-collar drone who measured against most old-fashioned standards seems to have a perfect life, but with our new dissatisfaction with suburbia he and Pitt take to fighting. This dated and basic presentation of being a man is then shown as a release from the smothering effect of products and money and houses and jobs. 

The Sixth Sense. All rights reserved.The Sixth Sense. All rights reserved.Both Fight Club and The Sixth Sense feature a dichotomy between the internal and the external, the real and the projected, both for the characters and the audience. In The Sixth Sense something real has happened to Willis, but now as a ghost he functions outside the real. There is a big, wide world going on around him but we rarely see it and fears are externalised as apparitions. The secret video of the little girl being poisoned shows that what the eye see and what the camera sees is not necessarily the same thing. This is wonderfully illustrated as both shots of the girl’s bedroom (from the movie camera and the girl’s video camera) are from the same perspective of behind the bookcase, a place the camera can get but the eye cannot. This lies at the heart of twist cinema where the audience is deliberately presented with a false impression of 'reality'. The Usual Suspects demonstrates this in the guise of the unreliable narrator; as in the end every image could have been false. Norton is also an unreliable narrator of course, albeit an unknowing one. Fight Club deals explicitly with society's ills and set against an urban backdrop the site of conflict is internalised in Norton/Pitt's split personality.

The very idea of the twist works against classical Hollywood conceptions of narrative progression as instead of showing the audience what is happening you fool them into misinterpreting the story. The ending is also problematized as the audience is left wrong-footed about the narrative. Hence the almost parodic happy ending of Fight Club; how can we give the stories we tell proper conclusions when we no longer believe in it ourselves?
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