DVD Review: Fight Club

I watched this film again recently, having not seen it for quite a number of years.  It’s funny how things change with time.  In this case, I feel as if society has moved on from Fight Club.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, to spoil it as little as possible, it tells the story of two men:

The first one we meet is the unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton), who is suffering from insomnia at the begining of the story.  However, we soon realise that what is keeping this guy awake is just a general dissatisfaction with the world.  His life revolves around working to earn money to get lots of stuff to furnish his apartment.

In fact, his life becomes so devoid of meaning that he ends up joining cancer counselling groups, posing as a terminal cancer patient.  It is here, where people all want to focus on him and listen to every word he has to say, that he feels great.

However, the major turn in his life comes when he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a plane trip.  Tyler represents everything that the Narrator is not: he doesn’t care about the material things in society, he seems to have little or no respect for social conventions – in short, he’s the most liberated person that the Narrator has ever met.

So the two of them start hanging around together and after the Narrator’s house is accidentally blown up by a gas explosion, the two move into a creaking old house in an industrial zone.  It is shortly after this that they come up with the concept of Fight Club: a group of guys who get together and fight with one another.  It is in this rather pointless activity that they find some meaning in their lives.  Of course, as the story goes on, the activities of Tyler and Fight Club start to get more dark and dangerous . . . and to say any more would spoil the ride.

When it came out, this was a huge hit with young guys (myself included), probably because it offered the novel idea of a bunch of guys getting together to fight with one another.  (I can’t see this idea being attractive to many women, but it’s an ideal pitch to a room full of guys.)  The reality of the movie, of course, is that it was actually a very clever (and very scathing) attack on the rampant materialism of the day, and the emptiness of the life that was on offer to the average male.

For those of us who like our films a bit deeper, it said something to us.  For those of us who weren’t that subtle and liked our films dumb and with action, there were still the fight scenes to watch.  So it became something of a cult classic.

Looking at it now with the distance of nearly 10 years, I don’t think we’re quite as cynical now as we were back then.  The film offers an almost unrelentingly gloomy picture of the world, and only briefly is the solution to the problem hinted at (the final few moments suggest that forming human relationships are probably the key  to the problem of a meaningless world).  In fact, I’m not sure the film itself is entirely convinced by this solution.

Nowadays, I’m finding films tend to be a bit more optimistic about the human race, and hold out hopes that if we just all be nice to one another, that eventually we’ll eliminate most problems.

Of course, you know where I’m going to be coming from.  I believe that the solution to life’s meaning is going to be found in a relationship with the God who made us for a purpose, and gives our life meaning.

Fight Club quite rightly (whether it intended to or not) recognises the meaninglessness of a world where acquiring stuff has become the point of life.  The agony of work with no purpose.  It also plays around with the idea of destruction and violence as a temporary solution, before ultimately rejecting it.  But I don’t think it puts anything in its place.

All in all, it feels like a good set of questions, without really having an answer.

4 out of 5.

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CD Review: St Matthew Passion – Otto Klemperer

Sometimes at Easter time, when I find that my daily Bible readings are working through the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death, I like to listen to Bach’s passions. This particular Easter, my Bible reading was through the Gospel of Matthew, so I decided this was as good an excuse as any to listen to the St Matthew Passion one more time.

For those of you who’ve never heard of it, this is an oratorio (a piece of sacred choral music) composed by Johann Sebastian Bach in the 18th century, originally designed to be heard in two halves, one before and one after the Good Friday church sermon.

It must have been a long service.

The fastest (and I mean really fast here) performance I’ve ever heard of this work goes for two and a half hours for both halves. Most are closer to the 3 1/4 hours mark. Imagine that with a sermon in between!

Maybe because of its length, it disappeared into obscurity for a long time. Then, in the 19th century, young Felix Mendelssohn discovered it and revived it. It has since gone on from strength to strength, growing in popularity, until it is today regarded as one of the greatest musical masterworks ever produced.

The basic idea is that it is an enhanced telling of the Easter story. The two chapters of Matthew that deal with Christ’s last hours and crucifixion are all set to music, with one singer (the Evangelist) singing the in-between narrative parts, and all the other Bible characters being sung by various other singers and any groups of people (the mob, the disciples, etc.) being sung by the choir. These sung dramatised Bible verses are then interspersed with three other forms of music:

Arias: There are four soloists who sing in this music, a soprano, alto, tenor and bass.  They sing solo arias that comment on the music.  Usually, the words are along the lines of expressing grief at what Jesus is going through, while also recognising that it is necessary for our sin.

Chorales:  These are hymn tunes of the day that are also interspersed throughout the story, and also comment on the action, in a similar way to the arias.  However, because of (what would have been) their recognisable tunes, it becomes music to express the thoughts of the listening congregation as a whole.  (In fact, I once saw one production on DVD where they had a separate choir just to sing the chorales, and they stuck them right up the back of the church behind the audience, almost as if it to demonstrate visually that they were singing for the congregation.)

Choruses:  Slightly different, there are three big choruses in this work, one at the beginning, one at the end of the first half, and another one at the end.  These are huge, complex pieces of choral singing and, to this day, are considered masterpieces of choral writing.  I find the opening one, especially, which is written for orchestra, a double choir echoing back and forth to each other (usually the main choir splits for this) and a children’s choir over the top (they only appear for this one number).  It is amazing stuff.

So, having laid all that groundwork, how does Klemperer’s recording stack up?  Well, for me, not quite, but it’s hard to put my finger on what it is.  First of all, it should be a fantastic recording.  The artists are all top-notch, in fact, it’s probably the best line-up of singers that have ever been put together for something like this – the always-glorious Elisabeth Schwarzkpof, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda, with Peter Pears as the Evangelist and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Jesus. (If these names mean nothing to you, let me just say that these names are to the classical vocal world what names such as Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart are to the movie world.)

But Klemperer takes the work far too slow.  At 3 3/4 hours, this is without doubt, the longest St Matthew Passion on record.  Now, speed does not necessarily make this piece, and it is quite possible to take it too fast.  And certainly, going slower, should give you more time to be expressive with the story.  But I didn’t get that feeling here.  Compared with  my current favourite recording by Karl Richter (also recorded in that era), it comes through quite clearly, to my mind, that Klemperer views the work only as a piece of music, not as a choral masterpiece.   I can understand that he’s going to great pains to highlight Bach’s music, but it feels emotionless.

But when you look at the words of the text, you need that emotion to make it work.  I doubt very much that Bach sat there coldly composing the work without being moved by the subject he was dealing with.  So, all in all, I find this recording a bit of a disappointment, despite the calibre of the artists involved.

3 1/2 out of 5.