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Fight Club, a 1999 David Fincher film, is a psychedelic journey into the mind of an insomniac (Ed Norton) who forms a relationship with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). After the insomniac’s home explodes, destroying all his worldly possessions, he phones Tyler, a soap-selling nihilist – who he had recently met on an airplane during a work assignment – and asks to meet for a drink. The insomniac implies he needs a place to stay and Tyler offers him a room in his dilapidated home; Tyler then asks the insomniac to punch him as hard as he can. This is when the story takes the men on a journey, with Tyler teaching the insomniac how to be nihilistic. The men form a fight club, which catches on throughout the country before it is eventually discovered that the insomniac is imagining his best friend, Tyler.
From the very first sound cue in the film, Fincher begins the chaotic journey, which is not only fueled by the actions and dialogue of the characters, but also by the use of harsh sounds, on which this essay will be focused as the film’s motif. Because the two lead actors play the same character (Pitt as nihilistic Tyler Durden and Norton as insomniac Tyler Durden) the actors’ last names will be used to refer to each character.
During that first bit of sound, Fincher begins with about a second of classical music before it is stopped – like a needle harshly being pulled off a record player – and then a rushing chaotic electronic rock song invades the tempo of the movie, much like how Pitt invades the life of Norton. During this opening scene and first example of the sound motif, the camera tracks what appears to be the inner working of the human brain. This links nicely with the theme of the movie, which is Norton’s mental condition. The shot pans out from his brain and rests at the trigger of a gun. It is later discovered that Norton’s mind, or more specifically his imagination, has caused the gun to be there, which immediately identifies Norton’s mind as the cause of the chaos.
But Norton finds relief from his insomnia when he attends support groups, during which Fincher plays soft classical music. This provides a construct to which the audience associates good and bad: when pleasant sounds are played, good is happening, and when harsh sounds are played, bad is happening. But when Marla Singing appears in one of the support groups, a character that would interfere with Norton’s ability to sleep, a high pitch string sound that resembles something that would be heard in a horror movie, reverberates in the background.
But the sound motif is even more impactful when Norton is about to meet Pitt. Just after Norton explains to a fellow airplane passenger about the car business in which he works, he imagines an airplane crashing a few aisles in front of his. This causes a sharp sound when a hole is blown through the plane, much like how Pitt will blow a hole through Norton’s life. This crash is a sign of the destruction that Pitt will impose onto Norton with his nihilistic lifestyle. Immediately after Norton wakes from this dream, he meets Pitt. Throughout the men’s initial conversation there is an eerie airplane noise in the background.
The second time Pitt and Norton speak, sirens are heard in the background as the two talk on the phone. This is like a warning to Norton that Pitt is a destructive character in his life. The eerie background noise continues after the two men leave a bar and crickets are heard. Later, when Pitt asks Norton to hit him as hard as he can, a harsh train horn is triggered in the background. These background sounds set the tone for the movie, gelling with Pitt’s nihilistic view of the world and the outlook he presents to Norton. The sounds represent the chaos in Norton’s mind, and the insanity that will manifest itself in his life after meeting Pitt.
Most of the rest of the movie is full of fists slapping against flesh, as the men start a fight club. This is where the warning sirens, and eerie crickets and airplane sounds, come together in the hard packing sounds that continue the motif that ties the film together. But the pounding doesn’t stop during the fighting. Once Pitt meets Marla, the two hook up and Norton must come home to them having sex. Even when Norton is in bed, trying to sleep, the entire house is falling apart from the rough sex that is going on in Pitt’s room. Marla screams and the bed squeaks, adding to the harsh sounds of the film and building on the chaos in Norton’s mind.
Later, when Pitt pours lye onto Norton’s hand and burns it, a piercing electronic sound resonates. This is the point in the film where Norton is hitting rock bottom, to which Pitt is guiding him. To this point, it is perhaps the most pain Norton has experienced and, thus, the darkest moment on his nihilistic path.
The music also plays a key role in creating a steady motif throughout the film and tying it together. For example, during a homework assignment that Pitt asks the members of his fight club to complete, harsh fast-tempo electronic rock plays – it matches the pace in which Norton is becoming nihilistic. Shortly after, harsh sounds resembling a guitar pick scraping the string of an electric plays as Pitt talks about his nihilistic outlook – the camera distorts as well, shaking violently.
As Pitt and Norton are driving along the freeway and Pitt releases his hands from the steering wheel, veering into oncoming traffic, horns blaze and wheels screech. At this point, Norton learns to “let go,” and this is when he appears to hit rock bottom during the journey on which Pitt has sent him. The audience later discovers that his morals won’t allow him to fully hit bottom.
When Norton suspects after a conversation with a bartender that he could be Tyler Durden, a high pitch winding sound is cued, providing a final link to the sound motif that ties the nihilistic philosophy of the movie together. This finishes the harsh sound motif nicely at the end.