This essay will examine the use of mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing and sound in David Fincher’s psychological thriller, Fight Club (1999).
Focusing on the opening sequence, this essay reveals how these stylistic elements intertwine within the narrative to communicate the film’s overall meaning. Genre conventions of a thriller film have audiences expecting to be excited, engaged, and encounter twists within the narrative. The sequence introduces the film’s two main protagonists, the narrator and Tyler Durden, and the character of Bob. Through ongoing subjective narration and flashbacks, the audience gains insight into the narrator’s bland lifestyle, recognises the deterioration of his mental state, and observes his lack of emotional intimacy.
The opening sequence of Fight Club exposes multiple facets of the narrator’s consciousness; from the gritty, cold atmosphere of his psyche, to how he deals with his mundane work and home life, and his desire for intimacy and comfort. The opening scene highlights the narrator’s disintegrating psyche and loss of control against his dominating alter ego, Tyler Durden. The viewer also learns of the destructive plans of Project Mayhem.
The sequence begins with a relaxed Tyler holding a gun in the mouth of the narrator. Although Tyler’s identity is concealed, the viewer fast becomes aware of his power over the narrator and dangerous attributes, further cemented when Project Mayhem’s plans are revealed.
... experience during the opening chapter is a little different. The scene has the same set up: Tyler and the narrator are together in ... readers. The differences that arise in the endings of the film and book are clearly seen when comparing and contrasting them ...
A sudden flashback brings the viewer into the men’s support group, and introduces Bob, whom the audience recognises shares a particularly special bond with the narrator. This scene highlights the great lengths the narrator will endure to receive intimacy and comfort. Unbeknown to Bob, the narrator has fooled him into believing he suffers from testicular cancer, and upon learning this, the viewer feels increased sympathy towards the narrator, realising the only way he believes he can receive comfort is through pretending to be severely ill.
Another flashback brings the viewer into the narrator’s bland and unfulfilling work and home life. The audience perceives the narrator as visibly unhappy with his life. In an attempt to fill the void in his existence, they learn of the narrator’s attempts to seek happiness in the accumulation of possessions for his home.
Dark hues of black, blues and greens, incorporated with dynamic use of top lighting, low key illumination, attached shadows and chiaroscuro fills the high rise building with a grungy aesthetic; a reflection of the ominous and pessimistic psyche of the narrator. Strong use of top lighting directs the viewer’s attention towards the narrator’s sweat drenched forehead, while make up has been used to make the narrators eyes look bruised and fearful, indicating a heightened sense of panic when confronting his alter ego.
Costume presents information about character attributes. While Tyler is dressed well, with his singlet showing his powerful arms, the narrator is dressed in unclean pyjamas. The contrast in costume depicts the narrator’s deterioration and loss of control against his alter ego. Tyler is seen towering over the seated narrator holding a gun in his mouth, further signifying his authority over the hopeless narrator.
The limited number of props included encourages the viewer to observe their functionality. The light situated at the window directs the viewer’s attention towards the immense city, highlighting the magnitude of Project Mayhem’s destructive plans.
A wide angled shot presents scene space and depth, with the narrator situated in the front plane and Tyler in the middle plane, overlapping the city background.
Bright lights emitted from the buildings direct viewers attention to the enormity of the city, while deep space suggests an emotional detachment between the narrator and Tyler and their contrasting viewpoints of Project Mayhem.
... because she stayed at home, she will probably always wonder what her new life with Frank would have ... Eveline had left home, She would have had feelings of discontent in her new life. She felt ... in portant decisions that will affect their future lives. Although it seems that Sammy hastily quit ... obligated to care for her family, and she had promised her mother that she would keep the home ...
A sudden flashback thrusts the audience into the men’s support group. An overhead spot light shines down upon Bob and the narrator’s embrace in an almost angelic fashion, hinting at the intimate relationship between the two, while remaining men are bathed in shadow, suggesting that they are less important to the narrator’s quest for intimacy.
A third flashback launches the narrator’s work and home life. The colour scheme is bland and colourless, a poignant reflection of his mundane and monotonous life. Fluorescent, three point lighting fills the work place, reflecting the reality of his existence, while light emitted from the photocopier depicts his lifeless expression. The backward/forward motion of the photocopier alludes to the narrator’s ‘one step forward, one step backwards’ movement through life.
The same dull colour palette comprising of white, greys, greens and browns is depicted within the narrator’s home; suggesting monotony transcending through to home life.
As the camera pans across his house we see the Ikea items the narrator has purchased in an attempt to fill the void in his life, with artificial lighting beaming down upon the items, altering the overall ambience of the room. However, the empty state of his refrigerator reflects the emptiness inside him. No matter how much he chooses to fill the spaces around him, he is still empty inside.
An extreme close up on the narrator’s face opens the sequence, with particular emphasis placed on the sweat beads on his forehead, highlighting his frightened reaction to Tyler. A close up shot depicts a side profile of the narrator with the gun pointed into mouth, switching to a high angled, POV shot from Tyler’s perspective. Tyler’s identity is completely concealed, signifying the dangerous attributes associated with him.
The camera proceeds to reframe and follow Tyler as he crosses in front of narrator towards the window, maintaining him as the centre of interest and reinforcing his control. A wide angled shot conveys the city landscape as the most prominent in the frame, highlighting the enormity of project mayhem’s plans.
A reverse shot through the window shows Tyler overlooking the city, with city lights blurring the seated, barely visible narrator, portraying him as obsolete against Tyler.
... or head and shoulders. Tracking shot: single continuous shot made with a camera moving along the ground Reverse shot: shot taken at a 180 degree ... angle from the preceding shot (reverse-shot editing ...
From the vantage point of the upper floor, the narrator runs through the devastating plans of Project Mayhem. The long take begins with the camera tilting down from the window and rapidly tracking through the sidewalk into the underground carpark, presenting a van with bullet holes in the windscreen. The camera then tracks through the bullet hole to reveal explosives, tracking again through the van wall to another underground car park, exposing more explosives.
We suddenly return back to the narrator, and the camera moves from a medium shot into a close up, portraying his dread before being suddenly jerked across into the chest of Bob.
The camera pans across the room to show men crying, before moving into a medium long shot of Bob and the narrator embracing. A high angle shot above Bob shows his expression as he sobs, “We’re still men”. A camera tilt down towards the narrator shows his reaction. A dolly shot begins to circle around their embrace; the mobile frame signifying unity, closeness and understanding.
Another flashback sequence emerges, and takes the audience into the narrator’s work and home life. A wide angled, POV shot of the office portrays the dull working environment. The viewer’s attention is directed towards a co-worker walking into the frame from off screen, and a subliminal, single-frame cut of Tyler appears, indicating Tyler’s character beginning to emerge in the narrator’s subconscious.
The scene cuts to the narrator’s house, where the camera tracks into him sitting on the toilet perusing an IKEA catalogue. A low angle shot of the narrator’s face shows him on the phone to a salesperson, ordering from the catalogue. A POV shot depicts the narrator throwing the magazine down, and the camera magnifies the blank room on cover. The shot then blurs into next screen and the camera pans across the house, with Ikea products and text descriptions magically appearing like a virtual showroom. The camera follows the narrator’s movement as he walks into the frame from off screen and across the room, his pace coinciding with the speed of the panning camera.
... scene, help ties these two scenes together. In essence, the linking shot is done with lens movement. As the camera ... a get in your face type of shot, letting the viewer know that this movie will be in ... the problem at hand: racism. This shot is solely for the viewers, to get their attention. We stop ... very loud, annoying, ringing sound. This is done in order to get the viewers attention to the problem ...
The slow duration of editing combined with long takes subjects the viewer to the inner workings of the narrator’s consciousness, while flashbacks present story information.
By lengthening the shots to slow the tempo of the scene, the viewer is able to digest important mise-en-scene elements. The slow duration of editing intertwined with long shots not only reflects the narrator’s extended periods without sleep, but also the droning routine of life.
Fincher utilises continuity editing within this sequence, clearly following the narrative action. Rarely will he begin a scene with an initial establishing shot, instead choosing to utilise the Kuleshov affect, so that the viewer can infer a possible locale where the action is set before it is revealed.
After a long take outlining Project Mayhem’s plans, the camera zooms into a close up of the narrator’s face, where a graphic match between shots is made, following the movement of the narrators head from one scene to the next. This jolts the viewer into the next scene of the men’s support group, where the slow rhythm of editing continues.
When in his embrace with Bob, Fincher chooses to violate the 180 degree system of editing. Bob begins on the left of frame and the camera circles around until Bob is situated on the right of frame. However, this violation does not disorientate the viewer, as the audience feels as though they are moving along with the tracking camera which works to unify the two men.
We cut scenes over to the narrator’s work, and while the narrator is speaking to his boss, a shot / reverse shot sequence and an eyeline match is utilised, establishing spatial relations between key figures.
A long take is employed in the narrator’s home, as the viewer sees the placement of Ikea bought items, portraying his attempts to fill his empty life.
The narrator provides ongoing, subjective narration throughout the sequence, introducing the viewer to various characters and scenarios, and providing insight into his life.
The echoey, resonating voice of Tyler implies large space within the room and is a reflection of the large, unfurnished space within the narrator’s psyche. Tyler’s voice is calm but stern, an indication of his relaxed yet authoritarian character traits. In contrast, the narrator’s voice is robotic and expressionless, conveying his lack of enthusiasm in life.
... what the film is about. In the next scene the camera pans rapidly across the garden causing the image ... react, involving other prisoners in the fight. Various camera shots were used during the fight. One of these ... lands at the bottom of the well, the camera points upwards towards the bright light at the top ... . This is also done by the high pitched sound of the bats giving a panicked and fearful tone ...
An offscreen sound of rumbling wind suggests impending doom, and the decrease in volume of Tyler’s voice and footsteps as he walks towards the window suggests fidelity and provides the viewer with sound perspective.
An increase in volume of an offscreen alarm city sounds is heard as Tyler stands at the window overlooking the city, and a sudden tilt of the camera down towards the city amplifies and synchronises these sounds. As the camera rushes through the pavement into the underground carpark, the noise of the city is suddenly inaudible, replaced with the ambient, echoey sounds of the basement. A duplication of a rushing sound occurs as the camera zooms through the bullet hole into the van to show explosives, and as the camera tracks off towards a second carpark containing more explosives, the sounds of the city amplify in volume and then decreases as the camera hovers over the other set of explosives.
The camera returns to the narrator and slowly zooms into his face, where an almost inaudible ticking sound can be heard, signifying not only the explosives, but the countdown towards the destructive events that are about to occur. An ambient roll of thunder offscreen suggests danger before the narrator is slammed into Bob’s chest.
The ambient, high pitched sobs of men are a prominent sound occurring in the scene. Resonating offscreen whimpers suggest space and depth within the room.
A high pitched drone strikes the scene as the narrator advises the viewer to ‘back up’ into an earlier flashback, where an image of the narrator in bed is presented, accompanied by an offscreen sound of a clock ticking. As the narrator explains his insomnia to the audience, his words, “I couldn’t sleep” are repeated and faded out, highlighting the ill feeling associated with sleep deprivation.
The offscreen tapping of computer keyboards is heard as the narrator’s boss comes into his office, slapping down a stack of papers onto the desk, demanding authority.
A cut over to the narrator’s house presents the audience him placing a phone order. Jazzy, non diegetic music with an upbeat tempo can be heard, suggesting contemporariness and class.
... and when they vibrate against our eardrums, we hear sound. A basic law of physics states that energy ... pleasant spaciousness to your sound. In addition to the sound from your speakers, you hear reflected sound from your room ... plays a rather large part in the sound that you hear from your system. And as with any ... there’s much more to the sound we hear than just where you place your speakers in ...
The duplication of chinking china can be heard as the narrator opens his kitchen cupboards, before the slamming sound of the closing refrigerator door concludes the scene.
The analysis of cinematic techniques reveals how these elements interact to convey the film’s overall meaning. Various mise-en-scene elements utilised such as make up, lighting, costume and colour work to define character attributes and reflect the psychology of the narrator, while cinematography hints at relationships the narrator shares with characters. The slow rhythmic qualities of editing expose the viewer to the inner workings of the narrator’s psyche, and reflect his draining, monotonous existence, while resonating, echoey sounds indicate an unfurnished and bare psyche and alludes to the ill feelings associated with sleep insomnia.
• Bordwell, David, & Thompson, Kristin (2008), ‘Film Art: An Introduction’, 9th edn, McGraw Hill, New York
• Fight Club, (1999), motion picture, Director David Fincher