Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Ending Of Fight Club & The Science Of The Exploding Shark

Spoilers lie for Fight Club & Jaws. You Have Been Warned!

Imagine if you will; your nth draft of your proposed film project has finally been green lit, and with a respected name director attached to helm it. The production process works like a dream. It all seems to be going beautifully, despite the fact that we're months off from final edit, and its pretty foggy at this point as to whether or not we know that the vision of the film works as a potent, cohesive whole. Millions of dollars spent on what can fairly be called something of a massive gamble. From the signs of all involved, all seems well.

But then a creeping worry arrives.

Your finale leaves the reader/potential viewer in a bit of a quandary. The hero needs that one last push. That final bit of oomph that can take the project into a potentially crowd-pleasing stratosphere. Problem is, that up until shooting, the film was hewing pretty close to some manner of reality. And the only logical thing to do with a story that has done so well until now, is to take a risk, and do the possibly unthinkable.

That's right....We pull an exploding shark.

Now what prompted all this was an old discussion regarding the Jeff Uhls penned, David Fincher directed subversive cult classic, Fight Club, when many have complained regarding the final denoument. As our narrator (namelessly played by Edward Norton) has finally revealed to us, not only his long-in-denial alternate personality in hunky mangod revolutionary, Tyler Durden (an unforgettable Brad Pitt), but their mad plan for destroying several blocks of credit card company buildings as part of their now nearly out of control, Project Mayhem moves into legend territory. The "hapless" captive in "narrator" soon realizes that in order to defeat Tyler from his mind, there is only one logical conclusion seeing as how the gun in Tyler's hand moments before, is really in his. The ensuing gunshot into his mouth, is seen coming out of the back of his cheek which soon is clocked by Tyler who smells smoke, and then succumbs to what looks like a perfect bullet wound out of the back of his head. While much of this is close in many ways to the Chuck Palahniuk novel of the same name, the big change comes when the thought captured Marla Singer comes back into the picture to find our narrator with the bullet wound, and very much alive as the bombs go off, setting everything back to (possibly) zero.

Mixing this with the giddy/creepy strands of the Pixies classic, "Where Is My Mind?, we are given the Tyler Durden special before credits roll. Now the complaints come as this in many ways seems unjustifiably bizarre, and not to mention screwy as the novel ends with narrator in hospital, tended to by nurses who seem to know that certain plans are still in motion. Now as much as I love that book's ending, it is by no means cinema-worthy. Especially in a film so rife with some of the most uncompromising notions, and actions ever captured in a mainstream release. The explaination I often offer is that in 1999, there was a great anxiety regarding the coming milennium that had been building up over the years prior, and perhaps that was in perfect alignment to even allow Palahniuk's novel to be opted into a large-scale production complete with name stars, some astounding CG-animation, special effects, and product placement so brilliant, it could only be IN a novel. Fight Club is simply a film that has NO place in a multiplex, and yet there it is...for all to see..Black blood & all.

Which leads me to something I mentioned via Twitter earlier today. Perhaps a means must be shared to help explaina way the difference between mediums. Especially the difference between independent, and large scale films. As well as films versus literature. And since film is cemented in the language of the immediate, there are varying ways to play with source material that doesn't stray too terribly far, and yet seems..well..out of this world.

So in the spirit of Jumping The Shark, or Deus Ex Machina, and for internet's sake, let's just call this phenomenon #explodingshark.

This is when a film is working on a multitude of levels, and by some minute decision, a change is made to the main character's final actions that border on straining whatever credulity that the preceding two-hours had established. Or maybe not straining so much as takes liberties with them in a final wild push.

The name, naturally comes from the story of possibly the ultimate surprise success story, the production of JAWS when the then still up-and-coming Steven Spielberg, beset by a number of production problems, came up with a peculiar new death for the film's titular Great White menace. Upon bringing this up to original novelist, Peter Benchley, a fairly knowledgable name regarding maritime life, and oceanic survival protested that for Brody in the now nearly completely sunken Orca, to in fact shoot the aqualung recently shoved in the shark's maw, the ensuing reaction would be nothing as aqualungs do not explode when shot.

Spielberg's response is nothing if not iconic, and telling:

"I have the audience in the palm of my hand by this point. They will believe anything I tell them!"

And how much was that decision worth? Oh, well over $260,000,000 in its initial run, the birth of the summer blockbuster, and a firm place in Hollywood history.

What Benchley eventually granted to Spielberg, was that film language by its very nature is very different. The emotional release from that film's wild assortment of tension, and memorable characters hit home in all the best populist forms. But this is far from a fix when regarding films made years after. We've seen time and again that it takes a certain alchemy of stoytelling, editing, performance, and energy to captivate an audience and suspend disbelief with such efficiency. And as audiences have grown to become more discerning by the year, the challenge becomes even greater when considering this rarely used narrative trump card.

Now again, only certain films with a certain propulsive quality that seem to be working on multiple levels can earn an #explodingshark card. These things are not cheap by any means, and can only be used once per film. Overplay these, and the audience can turn on you. (see M.Night Shymalan) The operative idea is for filmmakers to pick their shots, and only use them when instincts seem in alignment with the planets. Films need to earn moments like these, and often they don't, and just come out of the blue. (strangely enough, the last Gamera film I reviewed does have this problem at the very end, but the film is so lightweight in many ways that it hardly bears mentioning.)

So an #exploding shark is something that can be considered anathema by most major studios, particlarly in a time most desperate for a definitive financial success. The race has become even more intense due to changes in moviegoer habits, and has many studios running scared of taking even the most innocuous of risks, which is a shame. So in looking back at the mentioned Fight Club change, it seems more than understandable for a near 50 million dollar production to go in what can still be considered a (literally) ballsy fashion. Laughing mockingly at a coming decade of eschewed risk, and diminished returns. More and more, it seems like a perfect choice. And if not perfect, fitting (which is still great considering that this is a film that with it's rampant anti-consumerism, and near -again, mockingly- fascist bent, in no way could ever be green lit by a studio now. It remains a monumental rarity in the landscape of Hollywood.).

So naturally, a caveat had to be made. Especially a caveat in spirit of the often incredibly dark and freewheeling humor the film heaped upon its audience. To perhaps view the finale as a sort of surreal, alternate reality in the narrator's mind seems very much in keeping with the established themes, and in many ways, doesn't step beyond the bounds of what the film had established. It's catharsis by anarchy. (Catharsis being the operative word in the reason, even if it doesn't fit within common logic's rhyme. )

Have you ever found yourself at the mercy of an #explodingshark? Was there a final movie moment that seemed particularly created just to amp up the vibes coming off the screen? Let us know!

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