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Love Costs: Rescuing Se7en from Nihilism

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Love Costs: Rescuing Se7en from Nihilism

Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 04/29/2004, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).

The adjective “nihilistic” and its vague synonyms are all too frequently attached to opinions of David Fincher’s extraordinary Se7en. “Nihilistic” often appears in descriptions as an afterthought, a convenient substitute for the expression of a complex emotional reaction induced by a powerful work of art that leaves viewers feeling confused, depressed and devoid of hope. Used as such, it suggests that Se7en does not exist for any worthwhile purpose.1

The difficulty I have with the attachment of this label to Se7en is that Se7en is not nihilistic but a concertedly structured, almost mathematically precise exercise in moral calculus that argues people must abandon apathy as a private solution to the problem of pandemic human suffering. If an incorrect view of a valuable work is perpetuated it tarnishes the reputation of that work and those who created it, and obscures the ability of viewers to engage that work as it is intended to be engaged. Language activates a conceptual understanding, a presupposition. “Nihilistic” is an especially toxic word that suggests far more than merely that a film has a downbeat ending. It suggests a work is immoral, amoral, and that, by imputation, the filmmakers, director and writer have willfully conspired to create art whose intent is to hurt viewers and disparage our collective confidence that our lives are meaningful. Thus, one who believes Se7en is an cynical exercise in torturing an audience may conclude, “Se7en is a nihilistic work; therefore, it doesn’t mean anything. It does not exist for any purpose other than to shock and depress people like me.” This is unfortunate, because I believe the meaning of Se7en is immutably clear, brilliantly argued and vitally important.

Se7en may leave viewers upset, confused and devoid of hope; however, to label it nihilistic—or to suggest that its meaning is that there is no meaning—is nonsense. Se7en does not promote the idea that our lives are meaningless, that existence is meaningless, or that we should engage the suffering of others impartially. It does not shrug its shoulders at serial murder and a degenerated society. It does not seek to punish it characters and audience for no purpose, but for an important purpose.

The ongoing discourse between Detectives David Mills (Brad Pitt) and William Somerset (a brilliant Morgan Freeman) that simmers at the film’s core is a vigorous presentation of two opposing and irreconcilable philosophies. Each man believes his philosophy makes the world a safer rather than a more dangerous place. Over the course of the narrative, Se7en explores, challenges and ruthlessly demolishes the intellectual integrity of the appealing but pernicious philosophy advocated by William Somerset.

Confusion arises because, as the film answers this question of whose philosophy is best, it answers it through the catharsis of bloodshed and loss. Like Somerset, viewers become attached to Mills, Tracy and the conceptual innocence of their unborn child, and feel betrayed by what befalls these characters. It’s natural that some spectators will leave a viewing of this film feeling dismayed, repulsed, and never wanting to see or think about the film again. The climax leaves many with the feeling that nothing positive has been affirmed or accomplished. But something has been accomplished, albeit at an unusually high price for what pretends to be a genre picture: Se7en negates a flawed philosophy—one held not only by William Somerset but a great many people—and this negation corrects Somerset’s derisive opinion of human beings and his moral neutrality with respect to their suffering. The character who, because of his seniority and aptitudes, is in the position to do the most good if motivated to do so changes a core value. Somerset concludes that it is better to fight against evil than to amass excuses why he cannot and should not bother. This he learns directly from David Mills, who is the film’s antagonist. The film’s message is a repudiation, rather than an endorsement, of nihilism.

The argument against nihilism

Any argument that seeks to demonstrate that Se7en is not nihilistic must grapple with the design of its themes, while answering the objections that are bound to arise in response to the assertions in contention. A refutation of the nihilism charge rests on five pillars:

1. The “authority of the film” presents, negotiates and transcends the individual, disparate belief systems of Somerset, Mills and serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) to construct an argument that neither apathy nor nihilism are viable moral philosophies with which to engage human society.
2. Somerset’s apathy is not arrived at by enlightened or sincere philosophical thinking, but rather is a coping mechanism he favors because it shields him from emotional turmoil and ethical responsibility. Therefore, his world view is not genuinely nihilistic but a rational response to his fear of suffering and the feelings they provoke.
3. A common misunderstanding is that John Doe and David Mills are the mirrored characters in Se7en. When it is understood that John Doe and William Somerset are in fact the mirrored characters, confusion regarding what the authority of the film endeavors to prove about Somerset’s beliefs is more easily resolved.
4. A common misunderstanding is that John Doe is the antagonist in Se7en. When it is understood that Mills, rather than John Doe, is Somerset’s antagonist, the central argument of Se7en becomes more accessible.
5. The climax of Se7en directly dramatizes the consequences of Somerset’s belief system. The catastrophic consequences lead to Somerset’s transformation, and the coda is the primary vehicle by which the authority of the film coveys its meaning to the spectator.

Authority of the film

The “authority of the film” is here defined as the creative, guiding intelligence that constructs its essential argument; it structures a narrative based on a premise that strives to illustrate a point by demonstrating transformation in a protagonist. It manifests most clearly when it clarifies what message or belief a viewer is to take away from the experience of watching the film. The belief the filmmakers wish to impart can be said to be “endorsed” by the authority of the film; the film exists to make this point. The authority is no single element but the aggregation of many constituents that strive to impart this meaning to a spectator and may include everything from the sequence in which conflicts are organized to where emphasis is placed in cinematic compositions and the way in which pivotal scenes are choreographed. The authority conveys meaning systematically, intuitively and, in the case of Se7en, explicitly.

Se7en is meticulously constructed to convince the spectator that one set of beliefs is superior to another. This is more easily established by examining the conclusion the film arrives at contingent upon its premise. Se7en does not depart radically from structural conventions, so it is proper to examine it the same way we examine traditional cinematic narratives—in terms of its “A leads to B” premise, and in consideration of how the protagonist, Somerset, is transformed by direct engagement with an antagonist, Mills.

In the film’s coda, Somerset suggests his change to the Captain and then directly communicates it to the audience. First, he implies to the Captain that he is reconsidering his retirement, something to which he has looked desperately forward. Then, in a crucial, direct transmission to the audience, Somerset recants his previously established belief that it is safer to do nothing than something to combat the societal degeneracy that confounds him. He now believes the world is “worth fighting for.” This philosophy does not fall out of a tree; it is the philosophy advocated by Mills, and one Somerset has disputed for the entirety of the narrative.

Se7en arrives at Somerset’s epiphany after strenuously arguing that a belief system that justifies indifference is not beneficial because it “leads to” enormous suffering, not only for Mills, Tracy, and their unborn child, but even for the man who clings to this philosophy. Beliefs that exonerate apathy are demonstrated within the narrative to be more harmful than beneficial to society. The film shows us this is so, and in the coda Somerset articulates that he recognizes this is so.

The entire film is structured to arrive at this conclusion. In Act I, the spectator is shown that Somerset favors a philosophy of apathy and that by holding it he derives peace of mind. He suffers less because he adopts a conceptual rather than visceral relationship to human suffering. He does not struggle to explain the injustice in the world but accepts it as the inherent nature of a society over which he has no control. This belief attenuates the effort he exerts to capture John Doe, who embodies Somerset’s generalized view of a depraved humanity. Somerset also discourages the impulse of Mills to judge, label and combat this representation of evil.

In Act II, Somerset comes into repeated conflict with Mills over ideological beliefs. Mills believes the opposite of what Somerset believes and questions the value of adopting apathy as a world view. Somerset continues to retain his beliefs and to criticize Mills’ idealistic, “naïve” view that with diligence and effort they can apprehend Doe before the pattern is complete.

Late in Act II, Mills assertively confronts Somerset on the origin and authenticity of his beliefs that justify apathy, and Somerset confesses that he holds these beliefs but cannot defend them as a philosophy. Somerset does not believe what he believes as a result of deep theoretical rumination, but because to hold these beliefs is emotionally less costly to him. The beliefs are constructed as a wall between himself and a painful experience of human suffering. Additionally, something quite interesting happens to Somerset: by his own admission a “disagreeable” man with few or no friends, he violates one of his precepts and involuntarily develops emotional attachments to Mills and his wife, Tracy. If harm were to come to these individuals, it would activate in Somerset more emotional pain than he ordinarily experiences when exposed to human suffering.

In the climax of Se7en, Somerset consciously or unconsciously facilitates the completion of Doe’s design and suffers when Mills, Tracy and their unborn child are irrevocably injured by John Doe. As a direct result of realizations produced by these excruciating events, Somerset renounces the indifference he has previously justified, then adopts Mills’ view that he bears a direct duty to attempt to ameliorate human suffering.

This can be restated as an “A leads to B” premise, where A is a set of causes and conditions that give rise to B, where B is an epiphany, realization or change of a core belief by the protagonist. A film can be about many things, but the “A leads to B” equation describes what a film argues. Based on how Se7en is structured and how the protagonist, Somerset, is changed as a direct result of causes and conditions he encounters, the premise of Se7en could be said to be “An apathetic detective’s partnership with a highly motivated detective who opposes his apathy, as they attempt to apprehend a serial killer, leads the apathetic detective to repudiate apathy as a proper response to the problem of evil and suffering.”

That Somerset is the protagonist of Se7en is one point upon which the writer, director and actors agree. The film opens and closes with Somerset. As a direct result of causes set into motion by his collision with Mills, in conjunction with exacerbating constituents, Somerset renounces the core belief he symbolically embodies. Although Mills can be said to “be changed” by causes and conditions present in the narrative, his core beliefs do not change, nor does he choose his change voluntarily; his transformation is forced upon him against his will.

People sometimes ask rhetorically why there has to be so much destruction in Se7en; why must Tracy, Mills and their unborn child suffer horribly for this film to complete its argument? The answer is implicit in the temperament of its protagonist. Somerset is not motivated to rethink this philosophy by generalized suffering because his philosophy is designed to interpret suffering as an affirmation rather than a negation of his philosophy. But when he becomes emotionally attached to Mills and Tracy, and they suffer, and he suffers because they suffer, his relationship to suffering is altered. He must ask himself the question, “What if any responsibility do I bear for this outcome?” Somerset’s change is contingent upon the magnitude of damage done to people he cares about in the context of circumstances he is in the power to change; no lesser calamity could possibly activate so momentous a change in a man this attached to the philosophy that the authority of the film indicts.

The origins and dissection of Somerset’s philosophy

If Se7en appears to contains traces of nihilism, it is because it explores a belief system that champions apathy and indifference. One of Se7en’s most ingenious deceptions is to present Somerset’s philosophy as an appealing set of beliefs held by an impressive and cerebral man. Somerset is so intelligent that he knows how to disguise a fear of psychic pain as a philosophy so enlightened, thoroughly considered, impartial and alluring that Mills appears primitive, simplistic and ignorant by comparison for holding the opposite view. Se7en is Kubrickesque in that when it lies, it lies as truthfully as it possibly can, without the barest hint of a smirk. It could be said that the authority of the film defers to Somerset for almost two complete acts before it reveals it’s true intention. Until the pivotal reversal occurs and Mills unveils Somerset’s philosophy as a coping mechanism of no benefit to any human being but Somerset, there are few clues that it is Somerset’s philosophy that is under scrutiny. Then we see that the philosophy itself is rather ugly. Somerset believes that society is so debased that it is senseless to care about human beings or fight the evils that plague them. He clings to these beliefs because disengagement spares him the dual burdens of pain and moral obligation.

When discussing Somerset’s philosophy, it’s important to draw a distinction between the philosophy he propounds and the underlying fears upon which the philosophy is predicated. He proclaims that he holds certain beliefs because they are enlightened, but it is gradually revealed that he holds them because the world frightens him.

Until late in Act II, Somerset continues to defend his existential apathy. Because Somerset is more eloquent than Mills, there is an appearance created in Acts I and II that the authority of the film may favor Somerset’s perspective of human beings as hopelessly confused and unworthy. However, evidence in the film suggests Somerset does not believe in moral relativism out of conviction but rather because proclaiming such beliefs abdicates him of the obligation to expose himself to harm in the course of fulfilling his ethical obligation to fight against what is wrong. Somerset is highly intelligent and uses the best means at his disposal to exonerate his apathy—in this case, a philosophy that appears rigorously considered and self-effacing.

Somerset’s repeated requests to be excused from the case are one signal that his preference for apathy is a byproduct of self-preservation. We learn from the Captain that Somerset has a reputation for leaving “unfinished business.” Further crevices appear in Somerset’s belief system when we are exposed to John Doe’s diaries, and hear Somerset read aloud words authored by a misanthrope that appear, on the surface, to express Somerset’s own contempt for humanity.

Whether Somerset holds these beliefs out of conviction or convenience is important. By revealing that Somerset promotes this philosophy for a reason other than the one he states, the authority of the film sheds doubt on the presumed motivation for much of Somerset’s speech and behavior. He is no longer a conscientious objector or nihilist, but a scared human being. His philosophy is not a byproduct of enlightenment. He adopts it in pursuit of an objective: to absolve himself of guilt and ethical obligation. Somerset wants to be happy, and detachment is his strategic mechanism. The true consequences to himself and others of holding these beliefs are the subject of Act III.

The mirroring of Somerset and John Doe

A common response to a first viewing of Se7en is to conclude that Mills and John Doe are similar (i.e., doubles), and that Somerset is distinguished from either by his wisdom, elegance and ruthless clarity about human nature.2 The meaning of the film will be lost on people who misunderstand this to be the case. Somerset and John Doe are the mirrored characters.

What in fact does John Doe believe? He believes humans are “sick, ridiculous puppets,” immoral, irredeemable and all alike. In his mind there is “a sin on every street corner.” He claims to believe he too has a purpose: to act on God’s behalf to punish sinners in such a spectacular way that he will become famous and his efforts reproduced by others. But in Doe’s lair and during Mills’ interrogation of Doe we are provided evidence of less lofty motives. Doe derives gratification from inflicting and documenting pain. He is a narcissistic psychopath who craves recognition and remembrance, ostensibly from the human masses he disdains. Doe’s contradictions are ubiquitous; nevertheless, they are still beliefs—selfish desires disguised as a philosophy of Divine Intervention. We also realize that his selection of victims is capricious and symbolic, rather than particularized and coherent. He doesn’t “turn each sin against the sinner” but targets victims whose superficial features evoke a sin and, in the case of Mills, chooses a victim for extremely private reasons. He will also murder people—Tracy and her unborn child—whose sinfulness is not established because his infatuation with the ingenuity of “the whole complete act” takes precedence over moral cohesion. He believes the ends justify the means.

Proponents of the Doe/Mills theory3 argue that they are mirrored because they believe that which they believe fanatically, believe the ends justify the means, are dichotomous and simplistic in their determination of what is right and wrong, and resort to violence to achieve their goals. Mills is a manifestation of the same disease and discounted as a serious moral force because two wrongs don’t make a right. Somerset, in this interpretation, is singled out as evolved and ethically superior because he condemns and avoids displaying the destructive emotions that ultimately destroy Mills and Doe.

This argument is itself nihilistic because it makes no credible distinction between John Doe’s crimes and Mills’ efforts to stop them, nor even between John Doe’s status as a killer who preys on innocent strangers and Mills status as a police detective whose vocation is to incarcerate killers and prevent killings. There follows the implied assumption that the spectator and society as depicted in the film lack the moral capital to declare that Doe’s crimes are wrong, and that Mills has no legitimate right to label them evil and no duty to attempt to avert more killings by the means he employs. In order to make this case, the magnitude of Mills’ anger must be exaggerated, as Doe proposes, to “wrath” so it can shoulder the burden this tenuous argument places on Mills to embody an evil commensurate with Doe’s. Advocates of this theory draw a theoretical analogy between Mills’ aggression and Doe’s crimes which are both assumed to be seeds of the same spore and an affront to the enlightened civility Somerset represents. The idea we are not entitled to state outright that Doe’s murders are wrong, or even worse than Mills’ attempts to stop them, is to dispense with assumptions we are wholly entitled to make lest we permit moral relativism to reach comedic proportions. No moral equivalence can be convincingly drawn between Mills’ pursuit of John Doe and John Doe’s persecution of innocents. To suggest no human being is “innocent” is to adopt Doe’s psychopathic codification of human beings as inherently sinful and deserving of punishment.4 Also, this interpretation conveniently disregards Somerset’s admission that—although he would never kill anyone to make this point—he has a similar distaste for human beings.

In order for Se7en to make its case, it is necessary that Mills elicit Doe’s anger by deconstructing the grandiosity of the murders to redefine them properly as the private expressions of a mediocrity desperate for renown rather than components in a divinely inspired sermon. The vehicle he uses to unveil Doe is moral outrage, not “wrath.” This is the only expression of condemnation Doe receives in the film, and it is this expression that provokes Doe to reveal the contradictions that unravel the philosophical foundation for his Grand Design. In accomplishing this feat, Mills eradicates any basis Somerset has to be impressed by Doe’s “philosophy.” This important contrast between Mills’ moral exasperation and Somerset’s silence on Doe’s motivation (“It’s dismissive to call him a lunatic”) illustrates how the detectives are different—a difference that would indicate it is a deception to believe, as proponents of the Mills/Doe theory seem to, that Somerset is morally superior to Mills; Somerset never condemns, even in private, that which merits condemnation. Therefore, any display of anger, when viewed in contrast to Somerset’s ethical passivity, will appear to be excessive.

Nor is there any basis to argue that Mills’ anger is disproportionate to the events that provoke it or, specifically, that Mills can be said to embody “wrath.”5 That John Doe is able to induce “wrath” in Mills by slaughtering his wife and child is not convincing evidence that Mills is inherently wrathful; it suggests only that he is not extraordinary. We can’t say Mills is pathologically angry; all we can say is that he is more aggressive than Somerset wishes him to be, while keeping in mind that Somerset disapproves of nearly any expression of emotion, and has a personal motive to portray Mills as more violent than he is to self-validate private beliefs and consciously discourage Mills from engaging in behaviors that may expose Somerset, or his philosophy, to jeopardy. That Somerset and Doe both have an aversion to Mills because of the threat he poses to the moral credibility of their beliefs would tend to suggest they share insecurities.

It also presumes too much to suppose that Mills’ emotionalism is presented exclusively as a negative trait. Somerset may believe so, but the authority of the film suggests otherwise. Mills exhibits anger but that anger is produced by empathy for Doe’s past victims and a desire to prevent future homicides. We assess Mills’ conduct through the filter of Somerset’s evaluation, so his traits are deemed to be negative by a man predisposed to define them in this way (“We have to divorce ourselves of emotion no matter what” and, scornfully, “It’s impressive to see a man feed off his emotions”). Somerset discourages expressions that would make Mills seem fully contoured and is surprised to learn, for example, that he relates to animals and is, according to Tracy, “the funniest man I ever met.” Mills is the only character in the film who sustains and intimate relationship with another human being, or utters the word “love” without mockery. Mills is not purely anger but a blend of positive and negative emotions. Contrarily, the film suggests that Somerset’s lack of emotional literacy has cost him. By his own admission, people do not like him. He colleagues “can’t wait” until he is gone. His cold description of a relationship with a woman is divested of any sense of remorse or nostalgia. His advice to Tracy about whether to abort a pregnancy is poignant yet strangely lacking in empathy—it attempts not to comfort but frighten her. Se7en does not argue that emotional stoicism is a virtue; only Somerset does.

Furthermore, there are grounds to doubt that Doe targets Mills because he suspects Mills to be “wrathful”. Doe targets Mills before he knows anything more than that Mills is voracious to capture him. An ancillary benefit, from Somerset’s perspective, of adopting an attitude of indifference, is that he does not risk making enemies with a man like John Doe, to whom Somerset is apparently unthreatening because he does not overtly oppose Doe’s will. Somerset, free of personal attachments that can be destroyed in order to induce wrath, cannot be hurt in the same way as Mills. Somerset is called upon to play a different role in the culmination of the Grand Design, because Doe requires the passive cooperation of someone who is more intellectually curious to see how Doe will complete his “masterpiece” than humane in his drive to avert further suffering.

There is a gigantic distinction between Mills’ anger and John Doe’s anger, so it cannot be argued they are enjoined by their anger. Mills is emotional in the sense he knows what he is feeling at any given moment and is not afraid to express it—he expresses emotions other than anger. His anger is not fused, as it is in Doe, to entrenched, ideological rage produced by a disordered mind craving notoriety. Mills is emotionally diverse and responsive to circumstance, whereas Doe’s intellectualized misanthropy is showcased only through calculated violence he controls in private, and that is a metaphoric manifestation of Somerset’s fatalism and detached contempt for humans. The assumptions that affirm Somerset’s apathy bear underlying resemblance to Doe’s beliefs—that human beings are inadequate and contaminated by ignorance because they permit emotion and transitory desire to overrule reason and civility. This point is important: Although Doe and Somerset differ in mechanism of expression, they both believe human beings are morally indistinguishable from one another and collectively guilty:

Mills: “We are talking about people who are mentally ill [and] fucking crazy.”
Somerset: “No, no. We are talking about everyday life here…”
Mills: “You say ’the problem with people is that they don’t care, so I don’t care about people.’”

Doe sees all human beings as sinful, and Somerset sees all human beings as selfish, ignorant, and lacking inherent value; he believes they punish themselves and is content to allow them to do so. Somerset finds it fascinating to observe, but not to prevent. His job is to “pick up the pieces.”

In the climax of the film, the belief systems endorsed by Doe and Somerset are revealed to be subjective preferences rather than authentic philosophies. Both men have disguised preferences as enlightened belief systems. John Doe purports to know and implement God’s will. Somerset professes to have transcended the messiness of human emotion. Just as the wholly unjustifiable murders of Tracy and the unborn child serve to coruscate any delusion that John Doe’s Grand Design is credibly predicated on an intelligible fundamentalist philosophy, to the extent Somerset and Doe are mirrored, any notion that their respective philosophies are anything other than manifestations of private desires implodes simultaneously.

It is more fruitful to hypothesize that what distinguishes Somerset from Doe is a conscience rather than to argue, as some have attempted, that the only thing that separates Doe from Mills is a police badge. Mills is not misanthropic, nor does he believe that human beings are morally indistinguishable from one another. He makes a distinction between those who are innocent, those who are mentally ill, and those who are evil. When Mills says he “cares”, he means that he cares enough to draw this distinction and, on the basis of making this distinction, form an opinion of who to fight against and who to fight for. Somerset believes, like John Doe, that there is no need to make this distinction because everyone is uniformly guilty.

Additionally, although it is true that for both Doe and Mills the ends justify the means, this is true—though less obviously so—of Somerset as well. His philosophy is predicated on the belief that indifference towards the suffering of others—the means—is a legitimate mechanism to repel emotional pain—the ends. Somerset, like Doe, demonstrates contradiction. Although he derides Mills for violating protocol, Somerset carries an illegal switchblade and bribes an F.B.I. agent to procure Doe’s library records. When Mills questions its legality, Somerset justifies it in this way: “Legal, illegal—these terms don’t apply.”

If Somerset is indeed the character whose views are to be embraced, why when questioned is he embarrassed to defend and explain why he holds them? He admits that he holds one set of beliefs because to hold another set of beliefs would provoke emotional pain. Although we may empathize with Somerset’s humility and despair, is this a sound basis for adopting and perpetuating a philosophy? Individuals spellbound by Somerset may be enraptured not by his beliefs but his presence and aptitudes. He produces valuable results when pressured to do so, most notably dislodging the identity of the killer. What is under scrutiny is not his skillfulness but a philosophy that undermines its usefulness, and a core belief that serves neither him, his partner, Tracy, nor the other victims of John Doe.

David Mills is the antagonist

Once it is understood that Somerset and Doe are the mirrored characters, it becomes easier to see that Mills is the antagonist of Se7en. This conclusion rests on a recognition of the film’s premise in conjunction with an understanding of which character is directly responsible for Somerset’s transformation.

Somerset only changes because specific causes and conditions set into motion in Acts I and II prepare him for a change that is brought to fruition in Act III. These conditions are all produced by David Mills. Absent Mills, there could be no change in Somerset.

Against Somerset’s wishes, he is partnered with David Mills. Mills is a detective who asks questions and states opinions. Mills questions Somerset’s beliefs, and this requires Somerset to contemplate and explain them. Once they are explained, Mills “cannot agree” that they are sincerely held beliefs that constitute a viable, worthwhile philosophy. On the contrary, Mills believes that his life has a purpose and that homicide investigation fulfils this purpose. He fights to get reassigned to an undesirable city because this affords him a greater opportunity to “do some good.” When he recognizes that Doe’s murders constitute an emerging pattern, he expresses a belief that the crimes are malevolent and that the killer must be apprehended to spare future lives. He believes that in some instances the ends justify the means. His violation of procedures brings him into conflict with Somerset. Eventually, Mills accumulates negative beliefs about Somerset’s apathy and indifference. Mills represents the moral contrast to the nihilism that is an involuntary byproduct of actualizing a philosophy of apathy.

Then, late in Act II, there arrives the critical inversion during which Somerset’s philosophy is attacked by Mills and exposed to be a psychological coping mechanism rooted in confusion and fear. Mills challenges Somerset’s indifference directly and speculates that Somerset has adopted beliefs that justify apathy as a convenience to insure his emotional tranquility and rationalize his withdrawal from the world. Somerset can neither deny this is true nor adequately defend his beliefs to Mills.

Somerset: “This isn’t going to have a happy ending. It’s not possible…”
Mills: “You know, you bitch and you complain and you tell me these things. If you think you’re preparing me for hard times, thank you, but—”
Somerset: “But you’re going to be a hero. You want to be a champion. Well let me tell you: people don’t want a champion. They want to each cheeseburgers, play the Lotto and watch television.”
Mills: ”…You’re no different. You’re no better.”
Somerset: “I didn’t say I was different or better. I’m not. Hell, I sympathize. I sympathize completely. Apathy is a solution. I mean, it’s easier to lose yourself in drugs than it is to cope with life. It’s easier to steal what you love than to earn it. It’s easier to beat a child than it is to raise it. Hell, love costs, takes effort, and work…”
Mills: “See, you should listen to yourself. You say ’the problem with people is that they don’t care, so I don’t care about people.’ That makes no sense… The point is, that I don’t think you’re quitting because you believe these things you say. I don’t. I think you want to believe them because you’re quitting.”

Prior to this encounter Somerset creates an impression that his philosophy is grounded in reason, but the opposing view, expressed by Mills and which Somerset does not even attempt to dispute, is that these beliefs do not constitute an authentic philosophy. Somerset does not hold these beliefs out of conviction but to protect himself; the cost of not holding these beliefs would be emotional discomfort he cannot bear.

Following the inversion, we are shown that Somerset is upset by the things Mills has said to him. Mills is the only character in the film to challenge the core belief that Somerset ultimately repudiates. Furthermore, Mills not only indicts the beliefs as fraudulent, but embodies a philosophy in direct opposition to that proclaimed by Somerset. Contiguously, Somerset violates his philosophical code by forming an emotional attachment to Mills and his wife. Then, still clinging to his philosophy of indifference, Somerset participates in a sequence of events that leads to the destruction of people he has grown to respect.

That Mills is Somerset’s antagonist can also be established by a process of elimination. Who other than Mills can be said to be responsible for Somerset’s change? John Doe? Certainly not. For William Somerset, John Doe is nothing more than the physical manifestation of the degeneration that he already presumes to be the intrinsic nature of humankind; over the course of his career, Somerset has met thousands of John Does. As a result of people like John Doe, Somerset adopted his philosophy to begin with—Doe is not the antidote to, or refutation of, Somerset’s belief system but its cause and affirmation. Somerset interprets John Doe as living evidence that his core belief is correct! Does John Doe even once challenge, or give Somerset cause to challenge himself, the core belief that Somerset ultimately repudiates? Not only does Doe never challenge it, but it is in Doe’s best interest that Somerset practice apathy. Doe neither targets nor views Somerset as a threat to his design for this very reason—Somerset’s frigid intellectualism is an asset to John Doe. John Doe specifically exploits Somerset’s apathy to complete his design. Even if one were to fantastically argue that Somerset recognizes a distorted version of his own philosophy in Doe’s articulations, an equally strong counter-argument can be made that, if this is indeed the case, recognition only becomes possible because Mills has indirectly pointed this similarity out to Somerset.

If we were to remake Se7en and change only David Mills—rewrite him as a detective who never challenges Somerset’s core beliefs, does not embody a diametrically opposed strategy for synthesizing emotional pain and engaging human suffering, and make him such a sycophant that he does not cultivate Somerset’s admiration or affection—there could be no change in William Somerset. Somerset is changed as a result of his collision with Mills. He renounces his philosophy because he has experienced excruciating pain and guilt. He does not feel pain because of harm done to John Doe but because of harm done to Mills and Tracy, and worries that his apathy was a contributory factor. He experiences guilt, because Mills showed him a better set of beliefs and he failed to adopt them in time for them to be of benefit to David and Tracy Mills. Somerset adopts another philosophy only because he has been directly exposed to it—by Mills.

The clarification of the argument in the climax and coda

Acts I and II establish the philosophical issue in contention. In Act III the dogmatism is set aside and the consequences of Somerset’s beliefs are tested and explicitly rendered. As a result of the destruction they directly or indirectly produce, Somerset is transformed. By imputation, and in dependence upon all that has come before, the authority of the film endorses the transformation. The filmmakers have chosen to leave the audience with a very specific message; this message is the meaning of Se7en and reveals that this film exists for the purpose of persuasion.

By the arrival of the climax it is firmly established that Somerset’s philosophy of apathy is so entrenched that in order for it to be changed he will have to suffer onerously. He has spent seven days defending his beliefs, arguing why they are accurate perceptions of reality that constitute a well considered philosophy. For seven days he has justified disengagement from the suffering of the first five victims; because he has no emotional investment in the decedents, they remain in his mind symbolic “others.” For seven days he has expressed a desire to be excused from the case, and for seven days he has expressed curiosity and encrypted reverence for the fastidious ingenuity of these particular homicides. Tumbling into an existential syllogism, Somerset argues the schema will be completed because it must be completed—there is nothing he or Mills can do to stop it. Therefore, he is in the paradoxical position of having been entrusted, like Mills, to terminate a sequence of homicides that he believes are mythopoetic, larger than life, and inevitable: “This will go on and on and on”; “He’s two murders away from completing his masterpiece”; “This isn’t going to have a happy ending.”

The conflicts that arise between Somerset and Mills all revolve around the question of whether Doe’s cycle can be interrupted. Somerset’s insistence there is nothing they can do to prevent these crimes or capture this killer is both a byproduct of and pretext for apathy and ethical laxity. This belief also explains his censure of Mills for behaving as if the opposite is true. If Mills were to successfully avert the schematic before it is complete, this would constitute a refutation of the philosophy Somerset has used all along to justify his passive indifference.

When Somerset and Mills dispute this investigation, on the surface they are disputing core beliefs about the culpability of human beings, and whether evil is omnipresent and ubiquitous, or sporadic, mediocre and conquerable. Beneath the surface, however, they are disputing whether or not Somerset, in the context of his vocation, has the right to adopt apathy as a philosophy and still consider himself a decent human being.

If one accepts that Somerset is emotionally invested in the completion of the crimes because he has yoked the validity of entrenched beliefs to the idea that all seven homicides must occur, and that Mills is naïve for believing otherwise, then it’s possible to say that Somerset has a vested interest in the completion of Doe’s design because this will affirm beliefs, attacked by Mills, that Somerset is reluctant to abandon. Because the murders are reconstituted as symbolic validation or negation of opposing philosophies, whether they are completed or not will affirm or contravene private beliefs these men dispute which are diametrically opposed. If John Doe is stopped, this imperils the credibility of beliefs Somerset uses to rationalize his failure to try harder to prevent the killings in particular, and apathy in general. Because Mills has attacked Somerset personally for holding these beliefs, and because Somerset cannot defend them, the existential proof of his philosophy becomes contradictorily hinged to whether or not Doe can complete his design.

In the finale, Somerset’s beliefs cease to be mere abstractions and produce damaging real world consequences. Because he believes that which he believes, he consciously or unconsciously assists John Doe in the completion of the design. Somerset has every reason to presume there are two murders yet to occur, that Mills has been personally targeted (i.e., the photos discovered of Mills in Doe’s lair, in the company of photos of prior and future victims, Doe’s phone conversation with Mills), and that the trip to the field is a set-up. Earlier in the film, Doe issues a personal warning to Mills: “I feel like saying more but I don’t want to ruin the surprise.” Prior to the car ride Somerset expresses doubt that Doe is merely leading them to “two more dead.” Note the epigraph that opens this essay, in which Doe slips up by confessing that he has so far murdered only five. Doe flagrantly admits that they are riding into a trap and insinuates that one or both detectives may die:

Mills: “We aren’t just going to pick up two more bodies, are we, John? That wouldn’t be shocking enough.”
Doe: “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer. When this is over, you’re going to be remembered…”

When no bodies are discovered in the field, and when the box arrives, promptly at seven p.m., there is no explanation other than that the Design is in progress. Many spectators initially speculate the box contains a bomb. Somerset does not fear this, or he would not approach and open the box. Although it is not possible to predict what is inside the box, it is reasonable to assume that it is a catalyst for finalization of “the whole complete act.” Yet, Somerset plays precisely the role that Doe asks of him, turning his prediction of an unhappy ending into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One reason Fincher (the filmic authority) blocks the finale as he does is to place Somerset in the excruciating position of having to choose whether or not to open the box, and what to do after he does. Mills would certainly open the box; however, because Somerset is wiser, there is a question of whether he will or won’t. Fincher shows us the deliberation—not fear—on Somerset’s face before he opens it. By situating the protagonist in this predicament Fincher crystallizes the conflict between Somerset’s investment in a tenuous philosophy and his suppressed humanity. The completion or failure of the design rests in Somerset’s hands, and he complies with Doe’s instructions.

What happens next is well known.

Objections

Certain objections are bound to arise at this juncture. Some may argue that because Mills fails to escape fulfilling John Doe’s purpose for him that the authority of the film cannot be said to endorse the idea that Mills is superior to Somerset for believing apathy is not a solution, evil must be judged, and that he has a purpose he wishes to fulfill.

A response to this objection is to point out how the narrative strongly suggests it is the failure of Somerset that leads Mills into this violent paradox—and that Somerset actually recognizes this is so. Somerset’s repudiation of a core value, arriving as it does immediately after tragic events, signals not merely that he has casually decided to change his mind, but demonstrates an actual consciousness of guilt that he is partially to blame for what has transpired. One conclusion that may be inferred from the coda is that Somerset recognizes that things might have turned out differently if he held Mills’ philosophy of moral vigilance instead of his own. Secondly, it is not credible to theorize that Mills “fails” because he does not fail alone; Somerset fails as well, and plays a pivotal role in this outcome—not merely because of his behavior in the field but his behavior all along. Because Mills’ philosophy is predicated on the obligation of mutual cooperation, Somerset must cooperate with Mills in order for Mills to succeed. Mills is dependent upon Somerset to behave, in the climax, as if he too has the same purpose as Mills and as much at stake, and Somerset fails in this obligation.

Viewers who interpret the moment when Mills shoots Doe as a cataclysmic failure of Mills’ beliefs alone, independent of Somerset’s influence over the avalanche of events that lead Mills to this abyss, are compartmentalizing this scene as if it is not directly produced by the thematic continuum of causes that is its antecedent. Somerset, not Mills, is the film’s protagonist. When the three men set out for the field, Mills ceases to be an agent in shaping the course of events and becomes part of the outcome Somerset has predicted and inadvertently sanctions. The climax is fixated exclusively on the sincerity of these philosophies and the consequences of holding them. Somerset’s experience is greater, so his moral responsibility is significant and he is apportioned, by the filmmaking itself, a greater degree of authority over, and responsibility for, the outcome of events.

From a structural standpoint, it cannot fall to Mills, the antagonist, to unify the film’s themes in the resolution. Nor, were Mills to spare Doe’s life, would it negate or affirm the question at issue, since Mills’ immediate dilemma must negotiate the possibility of personal restraint in the face of violence so personally devastating that his response to it can be nothing other than emotional. Se7en does not attempt to argue Mills is superhuman; merely that his view is more likely to positively shape society than Somerset’s belief that the solution to private turmoil is moral abdication and escape. Mills’ failure to spare Doe’s life is not a new evolution in the film’s theme, merely a dire consequence of the film’s construction upon a single theme established at the outset and developed continuously. Although Mills pulls the trigger, Somerset cocks the gun.

It is not necessary that Mills spare Doe’s life in order for it to be fundamentally true that Mills is correct to believe apathy is not a solution and that his life has a purpose. Somerset is less damaged by the outcome than Mills, but there is no basis to conclude that this represents the triumph of one belief system over another. Somerset’s beliefs are predicated on a wish that he not come to physical or emotional harm and they have served the first purpose, but he is not happy that they have; he is not content with the results of holding his beliefs and rejects them for this very reason. He has learned not merely that apathy can lead to suffering but that the suffering of others can cause suffering to himself. Somerset’s philosophy does not even serve Somerset.

Finally, why is Se7en constructed to convince the spectator that Somerset is mistaken to hold the philosophy he propitiates and is improved by revoking and substituting it with a belief adequately defended by Mills if, as proponents of the Mills/Doe theory believe, what the filmmakers actually seek to convey is that Somerset and the beliefs he personifies are an antidote to the deterioration of society portrayed in the film? It makes no sense that Somerset would voluntarily adopt views Mills acclaims if the perspective of the filmmakers, and this protagonist, is that Mills and Doe are byproducts of the same pestilence. If Somerset, in the film’s coda, is still sincerely convinced that indifference is preferable to tenacious engagement he would not repudiate it on the spot. Se7en is not structured to argue that Somerset holds superior beliefs; it argues that he holds morally problematic beliefs and is improved by recognizing they are deficient. It argues that Somerset’s intellectual detachment is a trait to be disavowed rather than an attribute to be celebrated and adopted by society at large.

Another objection may be that in spite of Somerset’s self-confessed apathy, intellectual infatuation with Doe’s crimes and apparent knowledge he and Mills are being ambushed, it presumes too much to assert that he can or should do anything other than he does in the climax or that, even if he did, he could not avert the outcome. To wit, even if he does not open the box, John Doe can still procure the same results by verbally relaying to Mills what is in the box; he can still induce wrath.

Somerset’s actions in the finale of Se7en must fairly be judged as components of an entrenched belief system, which is to say he is habituated by pre-existing beliefs to react in a limited way and cannot be expected to demonstrate spontaneous ingenuity in how he copes with fantastically unpredictable circumstances. The authority of the film does not indict Somerset for an inability to change in the climax; rather, it takes a diagnostic approach in its examination of why he has constructed such beliefs and how their influence over his behavior reaps unanticipated consequences. Se7en unfolds in seven days, and its purpose is ruthless in that it is not interested in changing Somerset in time to save David Mills; on the contrary, it is designed so that transformation of Somerset is contingent upon the sacrifice of its likeable characters.

Showdown in the field

Rather than speculate what Somerset might do differently in the climax, let’s examine what he does.

One byproduct of Somerset’s apathy is that he sees the murders as an existential proof of his own belief system rather than individual acts of violence he relates to with compassion. It is established that he is curious about how the scheme will end, and believes there is nothing he can do to avert its completion. He has reason to suspect that the culmination of the design rests on two murders yet to occur that will take place in this field where only three men stand. He knows this information before they reach the field. As the senior detective on the scene, he has the authority to abort the excursion. He does not have an obligation to act in accord with John Doe’s wishes. In spite of this, he indulges John Doe. In spite of all this, Somerset takes custody of, and opens, the box. John Doe doesn’t “have the upper hand”; Somerset permits him to have the upper hand. Even though Somerset does not convey to Mills what is inside the box, his behavior after opening attests to the veracity of what Doe claims is in the box. Somerset’s appeal to Mills to exercise restraint—“Give me the gun, David. David, if you kill him, he will win”—is an intellectual plea that unwittingly honors the legitimacy of Doe’s design rather than functions as a heartfelt identification with Mills’ torment; therefore, it is unlikely to prove persuasive to Mills in circumstances that transcend rationalism.

The outcome is not “inevitable” but Somerset, in accord with his beliefs, behaves as if it is inevitable even though he has ample cause and reasonable opportunity to avert, or attempt to avert, completion. He does not discourage the outcome. He cannot later deny that he possessed important information that something terrible would happen in the field involving him or Mills. Nor can he later assert that he took actions to prevent harm that he reasonably presumed could come to himself or to Mills. Somerset’s behavior in the climax is a direct result of disengagement and curiosity produced by apathy and a general lack of consideration for cause and effect where human life is at stake, characterized earlier in the film by Mills as an indifference towards human suffering.

It’s quite interesting that when Mills aims his gun at John Doe, Somerset does not remain silent because the outcome is, as he has maintained all along, inevitable, and there is nothing he can do to prevent Mills from firing. On the contrary, he urges Mills not to shoot because he believes the outcome can be averted. Somerset recognizes that Mills has the choice to kill or not to kill, just as Somerset has had choices all along, responsibility for which he abdicated on the grounds that his drug of choice is apathy. He has, for example, a choice to encourage or discourage Mills’ tenacity, a choice to help or not help Mills chase and capture John Doe, a choice to obey or disobey John Doe’s instructions, a choice to open or not open the box. Suddenly, he confesses a belief that what human beings do can alter the outcome of atrocious events.

It’s irrelevant that in theory the identical outcome might be brought about by means other than Somerset’s participation, because Se7en’s fascination is that they are in fact brought about with the protagonist’s complicity, lubricated by an apathy whose consequences Somerset appears to comprehend immediately after opening the box. Somerset is the protagonist and it is his beliefs, and their influence over his behavior and the welfare of other characters, that is the subject of the movie.

One intriguing way of interpreting the climactic scene is as an allegorical passion play performed exclusively for Somerset in which his darkest impulses and demons are revealed in the starkest possible terms. Just as Mills cannot be said to embody Wrath, it’s not believable that Doe’s sin is Envy or that he is telling the truth when he confesses it and requests atonement. Doe, who is “independently wealthy”, does not express any desire other than post-mortem infamy; this complete lack of desire is why he does not fear death. John Doe’s sin, in the context of how he defines sin, is Pride. But in the finale, John Doe arises as an exteriorized manifestation of Somerset’s suppressed jealousy of Mills, pleading for Mills—who arises as a symbolic manifestation of Somerset’s suppressed self-hatred and rage at Everyman (thus, “John Doe”)—to put him out of his misery. Somerset is forced to witness this as retribution, because he is largely responsible for this escalation. Somerset brings this play into existence and it speaks to him directly. Like a mirror, it reflects his innermost self. Envy begs Wrath for euthanasia. Wrath complies and, like a subject without an object, self-annihilates. Once Somerset’s anger and jealousy are expunged, Somerset is resurrected with self-knowledge and a clearer sense of purpose. He is able to adopt Mills’ philosophy because envy and anger no longer separate him from his innate wisdom. This explication rhymes with earlier scenes in which it is inferred Somerset suppresses both emotions. Se7en deals with the synthesis of feelings and each of the seven deadly sins is, or is directly dependent upon, a distorted emotion related either to desire or it’s opposite, aversion. Envy and Wrath are directly opposing delusions that, when residing within a single individual, create excruciating anxiety and confusion that might tempt one to produce precisely the type of coping mechanism Somerset invents for himself: one that pretends to have transcended emotion. Apathy is emotion in denial. A man who is terrified of his own emotions has an obvious incentive to concoct a philosophy that forbids their expression and discourages behavior that might provoke them to arise.

Somerset maintains this mechanism until he is personally injured by holding it, and this only occurs when people he is attached to become victims of the evil he is indifferent towards. An extreme interpretation is that Mills is martyred by the eighth sin of apathy. Se7en argues that indifference only appears to be a harmless doctrine; it is easily held until it hurts so much it must be dropped. For this reason much suffering must occur in the climax of Se7en; Somerset will continue to hold these beliefs until holding them causes more pain than pleasure. This pain triggers the recognition that his philosophy is no longer harmless but morally indefensible.

Somerset’s repudiation of his philosophy in the coda is his change, and his change reveals the purpose of the film. Se7en argues that it is a moral failure to disguise indifference as a rational philosophy for the purpose of private contentment because of the harm to everyone else. Thus, Se7en affirms a conventional moral ideal—the call to action against that which society, by consensus, has deemed wrong. Caring is preferable to not caring. The reason John Doe prefers Somerset to Mills is because Somerset doesn’t care. Men like William Somerset make it easier for men like John Doe.

Fortunately, because Somerset is equipped with many attributes, the importance of his transformation is exponential. His renunciation of apathy indicates the potential for a true, rather than artificial, enlightenment that is less clearly present in Mills. Mills understands the concept of moral obligation but his wisdom is obscured by youth, inexperience, impatience and immaturity. Mills may one day have made a great detective. Somerset once held the incorrect view but now, holding the correct view, is in a position to accomplish more with the realization Mills has bestowed upon him.

Conclusion

In defense of the spectator, although Se7en argues a universal idea, it does so intellectually and by imputation. Schindler’s List argues the same point—once suffering is recognized by an individual in a position to assuage it, neutrality as a personal refuge is morally untenable—and argues it in such a way that a young child can perceive the message. Schindler’s transformation occurs early, rather than in the dénouement; cause and effect is clearly established and the remainder of the film is devoted to examining the positive results produced by Schindler’s change. This is not true of Se7en, where, although the message is clear, the link between a cause and its effect is abstract, and the visceral excruciation the climax produces partially obscures an intellectual insight articulated by the protagonist in the final five seconds of the film. For this reason the coda must be, and is, definitive in its identification of Somerset’s transformation. There is no room left in Se7en to illustrate the consequences of Somerset’s change. For this reason it is difficult for many people to understand that something of value has been accomplished.

Because Se7en attempts to persuade the viewer that apathy, indifference, and the nihilism they produce are terrible for society, it’s not proper to call it a nihilistic work, a movie with no discernible purpose, or a celebration of meaninglessness. It means something very specific. The film is constructed to convince spectators of one thing and one thing only. Se7en does not contain a single scene, sound or image that is not germane to its central debate about whether or not human beings have a duty to fight for the rights of other human beings to live free from prejudice, ignorance, oppression and violence. Mills believes he has this obligation; Somerset believes he has no such obligation. The authority of the film then demonstrates that Somerset’s apathy contributes to the destruction of decent people and results in psychological pain to the individual who is apathetic. Somerset, recognizing that his philosophy poses a disproportionate hazard to human welfare and, therefore, cannot be justified by the peace of mind it may once have brought to himself, repudiates his philosophy and endorses another—perpetuated and forcefully argued by Mills—that opposes nihilism.

If Se7en were to argue that people should adopt Somerset’s philosophy because an individual purged of emotional attachments and moral outrage cannot be wounded or disappointed as easily as one who engages the world intimately, and have a right to do so regardless of the consequences, Se7en would be a nihilistic film propitiating a nihilistic set of beliefs. But Se7en argues that apathy, however fancifully philosophized, is antithetical to the rights and interests of society and must, for the welfare of self and others, be abandoned.

My deepest thanks to James Moran and Peter Gelderblom for their valuable insights, encouragement and helpful advice.

1. A sampling of opinions from amateur and professional critics discussing the film: “Putrid, disgusting, formless, meaningless and needlessly excessive” (Amazon.com); “Stylish but nihilistic in the extreme” (Epinions.com); “Cynical and nihilistic” (movieforums.com); “I felt dirty when I left the theater… I don’t have to see that movie to know that this world is totally out of whack. Seeing the movie simply made me feel sick… It’s not good for our brains or our hearts.” (hollywoodjesus.com); “The bottom line is a cliched script that manages to be both pretentious and ultimately meaningless at the same time… just plain mean” (movies.nush.net). Reviewers, even in the context of largely positive critiques, expressed similar concerns: “[Screenwriter] Walker’s finale…feels like an act of treachery against the viewer. It undoes the limited faith we’ve invested in the story” (Desson Howe); “Ugly, derivative, pointless… There is nothing behind [it]… this is pathology of the ugliest kind” (Phil John); “…the ending and its epilogue are breathtakingly nihilistic and take away the will to live” (John Barker); “Its director is an aesthetician of rot and entropy” (Amy Taubin); “…don’t look for a lot of deep social commentary” (Christopher Null); “But still, the question that always arises from a film that seems to offer no hope: Why did they make it?” (D. K. Holm, who does attempt to answer this question).

2. This idea that Somerset is a morally transcendent contrast to Mills, and that Somerset earnestly seeks to capture John Doe, is proposed by many reviewers, often in nearly identical terms: “Mills is all brawn and little brain. Somerset, on the other hand, spends long hours in the library researching Dante and Chaucer, looking for clues that will enable him to prevent the next killing” (James Bernardinelli); “Mills is a cocky hothead who needs tempering, while Somerset is a bookworm and every bit as methodical in his own way as the killer they are tracking” (Chris Hicks); Writer Rob Lund, in the process of comparing the film with 8mm, refers to Somerset as Se7en’s “moral anchor.” Stephen Farber writes of Freeman’s “crucial” “moral presence” and comments, “What Freeman brings to the movie is humanity at the heart of a nightmare…. Freeman convinces us that Somerset still cares deeply about the atrocities he’s witnessed. That sense of sadness and concern makes the movie something more than a freak show.”

3. For an example, see Anne Marie Olesen’s thoughtful piece “Film as Metaphor: Cannibalism and the Serial killer as Metaphors for Transgression” in P.O.V. She writes, “The bar scene anticipates the final scene with a tragic resonance, but it also stresses the dominant figure or structure of the film: the mirroring of David Mills and John Doe.” Her argument is based on the spatial arrangements of climactic compositions. However, often when a reviewer suggests Somerset is the film’s moral compass, that Mills is out of control, and that John Doe may have a point or succeeds as a result of Mills’ wrath, the Mills/Doe modality is subtly proposed.

4. In critiques, this idea that Somerset is enlightened is sometimes paradoxically coupled with the suggestion John Doe’s crimes may somehow be legitimate: “The more we get to know [John Doe] through the eyes of Detective Sommerset [sic] and Mills, the more morbidly sensible he becomes though” (Rob Lund). Of particular fascination is some of the Christian-based criticism of the film. Seth Studer, who has an online column called “Christian Cinema,” writes: “Mills is thick-headed, unwilling to hear Doe’s explanation…. Somerset, on the other hand, is quiet and attentive as Doe explains himself…. He cannot get past the possibility that Doe is right. Is Doe right? Is his message true? Are his horrible fruits good fruits? I don’t want to answer those questions… but go read the Book of Judges, read of those prophets, and decide for yourself. Christ said to judge them by their fruits, and John Doe’s fruits seem awful. But if a wolf can wear sheep’s clothing, can a sheep hide beneath wolf-skin?” One comment at hollywoodjesus.com reads: “Some people need the movie’s reminder”; another: “The people [Doe] killed, for the most part, may be the scum of the earth. However, he didn’t have any right to do what he did.”

5. Although mainstream critics were generally cautious not to draw too many ideological conclusions from the climax of the film, the ideas that Mills is wrathful, is punished for his wrathfulness, and that his execution of Doe illustrates that Somerset is essentially correct are widespread among spectators discussing the film. An unsigned but passionate commentary at “Hierarchy” reads: “I came to the observation that this film is about a total loss of control… Mills…did indeed commit wrath… Mills [is] seeking retribution for the murdered and silently enjoying the suffering of the murderer… The light is shown in Somerset, the darkness in John Doe, and Mills is the middle ground… When asked to become wrath, it was more like a declaration of that which was already there. Often it is overlooked that the murderer is the winner.” From a review at CineFile: “…the fundamental opposition between emotion/faith (Mills) and logic/despair (Somerset/John Doe) is apparently resolved in favour of the latter when Mills in an act of wrath kills Doe.” Lucia Bozzola, reviewing the film at movies.nush.net writes, “Circumspect old-timer Morgan Freeman’s dedication and tyro Brad Pitt’s fury both mirror the telling responses of their characters, and reveal signs of how tenuous the line is between cop and killer.” At a Web site called Tokyo Tales a blogger weighs in on the meaning of the climax, arguing that by enacting the sin of wrath Mills “[validates] Doe’s commentary on the wickedness of man.” Reviewer Rob Gonsalves writes that the film is not “so much about catching the killer as about how one cop’s worldview is validated, to the despair of his partner.” Students can even purchase a term paper online that argues Mills is “brash, full of anger” and succumbs to a killer who is “trying to send out a message of how despicable and ugly mankind has become.” In a complex and impressive examination of the film’s ideology, Steve Ferrier interprets Se7en as a “right wing” examination of “a world full of sin”: “Se7en however is a film that basically marginalizes everyone except for those with intellect. This is shown in the characterization of Somerset… By refusing to listen to other perspectives, Mills is punished by the film’s ideology at the end when he is compelled to end Doe’s sermon by killing him and thus committing the sin of wrath…. Characters such as Mills are punished by Se7en’s prevailing ideology as they show no intellectual rigor towards common values that society bases its traditions on. ” Ferrier interprets the ending as “overtly dark and pessimistic,” “presenting us with no real hope for the future.”

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Review: Martin Margiela: In His Own Words Celebrates Secrecy as Fashion Power

Reiner Holzemer’s adulation of his subject feels most credible because he spends a lot of time focusing on the clothes.

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Martin Margiela: In His Own Words
Photo: Oscilloscope

A major reason behind Maison Martin Margiela’s appeal was the French luxury fashion house’s embrace of secrecy and anonymity. The company’s eponymous founder stopped doing interviews or allowing himself to be photographed as his brand grew in popularity throughout the 1990s. Seating at his runaway shows became available on a first-come-first-serve basis. The runway models’ faces were often obstructed by veils and masks. The labels on the fashion house’s clothing bore no name, only four white stitches. Even Margiela’s stores lacked signage and weren’t listed in the yellow pages.

Keeping in line with this commitment to counter the cultural injunction of hyper-presence, Reiner Holzemer’s documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words comes to life through Margiela’s narration, though all we see of the Belgian-born designer are his hands and the subversive artifacts that comprise his oeuvre. We don’t see what Margiela looks like, only what he makes. This self-imposed obstruction points the film toward a less conventional direction, preventing it from becoming an all-to-familiar fashion hagiography rife with talking heads. And the effacing of Margiela’s face replicates the conceptual framework of the designer’s own practice while also forcing the film to inhabit a self-reflective sphere.

That sphere, which allowed for Margiela’s ethics to emerge and blossom, was one of crisis and contemplation in the wake of self-centered ‘80s excess. And those ethics involved a critical, playful, and at times even a mocking stance vis-à-vis the fashion industry’s tendency toward ephemerality, feminine objectification, and wasteful luxury, all while profiting from them. In sartorial terms, that meant that Margiela’s models wore dry-cleaning plastic bags atop their garments; that collections were staged at such locations as a subway stations and a Salvation Army; that the models’ necks were accessorized with colorful ice jewels that, as they melted, stained the garments; and that the red paint applied to the bottom of models’ heels just before the start of a runaway show led to catwalks looking like a Tarantino bloodbath.

Margiela is obviously not the only designer to instill meta-critiques into fashion spectacle. Jum Nakao’s shows have featured elaborate gowns made out of paper that the models rip at the end, and Alexander McQueen’s ready-to-wear collection from 2001 included impossibly sexy models in hospital headbands and a Leigh Bowery-esque masked figure surrounded by moths. The latter show remains a classic example of fashion doing two presumably antithetical things at once: protesting the sale of bodies as high-priced goods by selling bodies as high-priced goods. Holzemer’s documentary makes the case for Margiela’s revolutionary ethos to be understood as akin to Andy Warhol’s and establishes his critical approach as less of a trick than a genuine life principle that’s guided him from the start, as a child fabricating kooky wigs for his Barbies, to his divesting from his own company in 2009.

Holzemer’s adulation of his subject feels most credible because he spends a lot of time focusing on the clothes. The images of collections and the occasional animation of sartorial sketches serve less as evidence of glamour than of technique—or how abstract principles such as ecology and honesty take shape in the materiality of the garment, its design, and the assembly process. A contextualization of the artist’s approach to his craft escapes boring biographical expectation (we’re introduced to Margiela’s childhood midway through the film) and allows us to see—at the level of the fabric and its mise-en-scène—how the designer borrowed from Rei Kawakubo’s deconstructive aesthetics, Pierre Cardin’s theatrics, Jean Paul Gaultier’s rock concert atmosphere, and Brigitte Bardot’s unflappable femininity.

Holzemer doesn’t shy away from exploring Margiela’s commercial failures, such as his critically panned collaboration with Hermes. The director is smart to, once again, let Margiela’s creations do the talking, which here means exposing the fashion critics at the time as simply unable to see the sophistication in the presumably simple. The juxtaposition of Margiela’s subversion with Hermes’s aristo-bourgeois classicism was supposed to produce some kind of scandalous monster. The collection was instead received as a buzz-killing disappointment for its restraint. But as its delicately trimmed coats and Gilda Hayworth gloves prove, the extravagance lay in Margiela’s refusal to provide what audiences anticipated and what critics prescribed. Once that model became unsustainable the designer chose consistency over compromise, rejecting the vulgarity of fast fashion and perpetual visibility. The kind of classy exit that separates ethics as mere rhetoric from ethics itself.

Director: Reiner Holzemer Screenwriter: Reiner Holzemer Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Boys State Presents an Aptly Dire Microcosm of American Politics

The film suggests that our political system is a popularity contest that functions for no one but those jockeying for power.

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Boys State
Photo: A24

Initiatives to get young people involved in politics are often organized in service of a given party agenda, but the “non-partisan” Americanism of the American Legion’s Boys and Girls State programs differentiates them from groups like the Young Republicans, while somehow also managing to make the blind enthusiasm of youthful politics even more off-putting. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s Boys State offers a skeptical take on the eponymous summer leadership and citizenship programs. A disconcerting mix of a Boy Scouts outing and Model U.N., the Boys State program, based on the evidence presented in the film, appears to be less an educational tool or a communal gathering of like-minded youth, and more an indoctrination into a cultish fetishization of American power politics.

McBaine and Moss predominantly focus on four boys participating in the Texas iteration of the annual gathering in which, as the opening-credits graphics inform us, such dubious luminaries as Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh also participated in their youth. While the program’s participants are overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, and conservative, the four boys who rise to fake-government power don’t quite fit that stereotyped Texan mold: René Otero is a black, liberal Chicago transplant (“I’ve never seen so many white people in one place in my life,” he confesses at one point); Steven Garza is Latino, and was inspired to get into politics by Bernie Sanders; Ben Feinstein is a Reagan-worshipping arch-conservative with two prosthetic legs (he had meningitis as a child); and Rob Macdougall, a breezily confident white boy who publicly plays the right-wing All-American, privately harbors pro-choice convictions.

After the program’s 1,100-plus participants arrive in Austin—all clad in the same white uniform shirts, like members of a religious mission—they’re randomly split into two political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, in reference to the constitutional debate of the 1780s, though the particulars of that nation-founding conversation play no part in how each party is meant to behave. Instead, each group organizes and forms a contemporary party platform, and, using the actual facilities of the Texas state government, runs candidates for governor against one another. This, presumably, is how it came to pass that in 2017, the year before the documentary was filmed, Texas Boys State voted to secede from the Union.

One might be tempted to conclude that the Nationalists won the mock gubernatorial election that year, but, again, the party names mean nothing. Indeed, Boys State shows the entire program as a form of social conditioning that compels its participants to talk without saying very much at all, and teaches them how best to make cynically calculated power moves. The worst culprit in this regard is Ben, who arrives fully formed as a self-styled political wheeler and dealer, and who, despite espousing some conservative convictions, mostly sees politics as a zero-sum game of self-fulfillment. Elected as the Federalists’ state chair, Ben runs his party by the mantra that “you have to find divisive issues in order to differentiate yourself at all.”

In such moments, McBaine and Moss capture the way teenagers can be adept at obliviously, even innocently articulating the subtext of the politics of corruption. After confessing he gave a stump speech misrepresenting his true views, Rob explains with a final note of uncertainty, “That’s politics…I think.” Few of these kids really have a fully formed idea of their own political identity: The purportedly left-leaning Steven, while achieving unlikely popularity among a body politic almost unanimously against background checks and immigrant rights, professes an open admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte. In his final pitch for governorship he even quotes the French emperor who displaced a democratic republic.

Boys State initially looks askance at all this naïve politicking, mixing a sympathetic view of the teens with ironic commentary, delivered by judicious cuts to interviews or metaphorical images that undermine the sentiment of the prior scene. After a visibly nervous Steven, uncertain of his political platform, rises to the occasion with a primary debate performance that’s surprisingly fluid and honest-sounding but absent of detailed policy proposals, there’s a cut to a racoon outside the debate hall diving headfirst into a trash can. Point taken.

At the same time, however, Steven’s rise through the ranks of the tumultuous Nationalist party—a concurrent plotline sees René, the group’s chair, doing battle with racist party members want to see him impeached and removed for declining to move forward with a secession platform—gets plotted as something like an inspirational tale, the American dream in miniature. It’s easy to identify with the humble Steven as he forms an inchoate political voice, but the way that voice only reflects the crowd’s own pleasurable ideal of itself back to it constitutes a development more tragic than the documentary appears to realize.

In assembling Boys State as a rise-to-the-top narrative, the filmmakers dull a potential critical edge that might have allowed them to ask more pointed questions about actual policy, history, and political science at this camp. If women have nominally been full participants in U.S. politics since 1920, then why does the American Legion train politically interested youth to address only the (often frivolous and always underthought) concerns that arise from homosocial teen groupings? But even if it sometimes emphasizes the individualized drama of a political contest over such critical matters, Boys State presents a fittingly dire microcosm of American politics, suggesting that our political system as an exclusionary and essentially contentless popularity contest functions for no one but those jockeying for power.

Director: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss Distributor: Apple TV+, A24

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Review: Sputnik Toils in the Long Shadow Cast by Ridley Scott’s Alien

Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.

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Sputnik
Photo: IFC Midnight

Ridley Scott’s Alien has cast a long shadow. Certain images in the film conjure an unshakeable terror of violation, which is afforded a brutal catharsis when one creature, suggesting a cross between a tapeworm, a snake, and a phallus, rips its way out of a man’s ribcage in one of the most brutal “births” in cinema history. Many movie monsters since have been compared to the various creatures of Alien, just as virtually every slasher movie owes some form of allegiance to Psycho. Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik is already at least the second film to riff on Alien this year alone, after William Eubank’s Underwater, and it adds one promising gimmick to the body-horror formula: The alien here is a symbiote rather than a parasite, entering and exiting its host over and over again. The violation is ongoing.

Sputnik is set in the Soviet Union in 1983, and Abramenko subtly allows us to feel the pall of the Cold War as it’s entering its death rattle. It’s cast in lonely, shadowy hues, and the soft, warm, and grainy cinematography un-showily suggests that the film has been beamed in from the analog era, in the tradition of Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night, also from this year. The Soviets are concerned with heroes to keep morale up, and cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) will do nicely. He’s returned from a space mission that’s vaguely defined by the filmmakers, which is an evocative touch that suggests that when heroes are needed by a society the specifics of their aspirational accomplishments hardly matter. Something happened in space though: A shadow drifted over Konstantin’s vessel, and his fellow cosmonaut is now in a coma. Konstantin has amnesia and is being held in a bunker presided over by Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), who’s pressing scientists to solve the mystery of the time he lost in space. Semiradov recruits a doctor who’s in hot water for unorthodox measures, Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), in an effort to crack Konstantin.

Sputnik’s first act is eerie, strange, and unusually character-centric for a monster movie. The film initially suggests many episodes of The Outer Limits, in which the audience was chilled by the implications of what happened to characters who ventured into outer space. And Abramenko doesn’t tease the audience as long as one might expect: Soon, Semiradov reveals more details of the situation to Tatyana, inviting her to watch Konstantin in his holding cell in the middle of the night, when he convulses in his sleep while a creature gradually crawls out of his mouth. This sequence is unnerving, showing the creature’s emergence partially from the point of view of laboratory cameras, lending the event a patina of casualness and “reality.” The creature itself is, in design, beholden less to Alien than to the mutations of that film’s prequel, Prometheus, as it’s pale and amphibian in nature, suggesting a miniature manta ray or hammerhead shark, with little legs and a gelatinous tail that is, of course, so very phallic.

Like the various otherworldly beings of Prometheus, Sputnik’s monster is disappointing, timidly designed for the sake of a supposed, greatly overrated notion of believability. It doesn’t seem especially plausible that a tapeworm creature would evolve, seemingly overnight, into the metallic praying mantis colossus of Alien, and this irrationality, coupled with the primordial design itself, is terrifying. By contrast, Sputnik’s wan creature ushers forth a series of anticlimaxes that ripple through the film. After the alien’s symbiotic relationship with Konstantin is explained via amusing pseudo-science, Sputnik changes formulas, becoming a story of a special man who must be saved from evil military industrialists. At times, Abramenko even seems to be visually quoting Ang Lee’s Hulk.

But a story of a special man must be fixated, as Hulk was, with the psychology of said man. Konstantin’s anguish at being invaded, and the weird elation he might feel at discovering that he can control his interloper, are glossed over by Abramenko. Sputnik’s third act is a rush of formulaic action meant, perhaps, to compensate for the interminably repetitive and impersonal second act, which is mostly concerned with reinforcing a set of foregone conclusions. Incredibly, the central notion of the film—of an alien that symbolically rapes its host over and over—is relegated to an inciting incident. Sputnik is an egregious missed opportunity that bites off more formulas than it can chew.

Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Albrecht Zander, Anna Nazarova, Vasiliy Zotov Director: Egor Abramenko Screenwriter: Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Interview: Alejandro Jodorowsky on Psychomagic, the Theater of Cruelty, and More

The maverick filmmaker discusses working with the tarot, the surrealist moviement, and more.

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Alejandro Jodorowsky
Photo: ABKCO Films

At the age of 91, maverick Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has made his first ever documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art. In many ways, it’s a companion piece to his recent self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical films The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, in which Jodorowsky inserted his present-day self into the narrative of his own boyhood and youth. Where the earlier films show Jodorowsky arriving at private rituals and symbolic acts to deal with his own issues, Psychomagic expands his sphere of influence to include men and women who find themselves in a cul-de-sac of existential distress.

Essentially a daisy chain of case histories, the film allows Jodorowsky to demonstrate the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques he’s developed over a lifetime spent studying various psychological systems and an astonishing variety of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. As you might expect from the man behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain, it can be a wild ride, full of sometimes totally bonkers, even grotesque imagery, yet also betraying Jodorowsky’s full-blooded compassion for the vicissitudes of human suffering.

Ahead of the VOD release of Psychomagic, I had the opportunity to speak with Jodorowsky via Skype. We touched upon a far-ranging assortment of topics including working with the tarot, Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, the “last days” of the surrealist movement, and the films of Dario Argento and Luis Buñuel.

Early in your new documentary you mention your work with the tarot deck. How did that contribute to your development of psychomagic?

For me, the tarot isn’t magic that let’s you see the future. It’s only a language to open the unconscious. That is all. It’s to work with the dreams like Sigmund Freud worked with dreams. My films help me to speak about dreams, and put you on the table [in a tarot spread]. I use tarot to do that. But, in order to do that, I needed 50 years of working with the tarot, learning how to memorize the tarot deck. I memorized every line, every color, every meaning. [Jodorowsky proceeds to give a quick three-card tarot reading.]

Psychomagic techniques seem to involve a dreamlike, poetic logic. How do you arrive at the specific details of the treatments?

When you’re working with me, first I make your genealogical tree. You have the son, you have the partner, the father and mother, the grandfather. Then I know where you are, what formed you. And then, when I know that, I will not experience you in a psychoanalytic way, an intellectual way. That is for psychoanalysts, who take dreams and teach you what is real life. I am different. I take what you think with the reality and I put it into the image of the dream. I use the language of acting, not speaking, doing things you never did before. New things. I am breaking your psychological defense with an image to go do something. I will say, “Paint your beard gold and kiss a woman, or a man, who has silver hair.” I will say that’s an image. That will open to you the unconscious, something you will discover. That is the work of psychomagic.

With most of the participants in the film, all we see is their short-term response to the treatment. What made you follow up with the woman who had throat cancer after almost 10 years?

What I did in the theater was an experience. Because I had a theater. I had to pay to have that theater. Because every healing I do is free. I’m not a psychoanalyst, so nobody paid me. It’s free. Because I had a big theater, and in Chile I am very well known, I will have a conference in the theater. Five thousand people came. And then I decided to make an experience. I didn’t know if collective thinking, like quantum theory says, could change reality, if we have a group of people who do the same thing. Can we heal this woman? She thinks she will die very quickly. And then I take the woman and I make the experience. And then I didn’t speak with her. And then, when I made the picture 10 years later, I wanted to know, because I never repeated it. In order to teach healing, you need 5,000 doctors! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wanted to know, with thinking, do we or don’t we have the power? The cancer, they say we cannot heal that. I don’t know if they fought the cancer for years because it’s a big, big business, and they don’t want to find the solution. That I don’t know. When healing becomes a business, it cannot heal for me. Healing is an act of love. You have to take the person in your arms. The psychoanalyst doesn’t take you in his arms!

And then I get a telephone call from a friend of the woman, a student of mine. I asked him if she had died. He said no, she’s alive. I asked if I could make an interview for the film. She tells how the experience was. She said it was very good. I don’t know if it was a placebo. Placebos can be good also.

Yes, if it works, it’s good.

But it was only an experience that I did once. I can’t find 5,000 people for every person who has an illness.

Psychomagic includes short clips from many of your earlier films. Do you see this film, and the therapeutic work it illustrates, as an encapsulation of your entire career?

From the theater I came to the “happening,” improvised theater, the theater of action, then to psychomagic. I came to it. I didn’t create it. But, in all my pictures, I was searching for something. I respect very much the industrial movies. Movies from the beginning were an industry. Their goal from the beginning was to make big money. And then they discovered Hollywood and all that. But there was not one real truth, one real feeling, it was acting feelings. The show must go on! But for me movies are not a show, they’re an art.

What is art? It’s open for the person who does the work, new horizons, they will open the human soul. That’s what I did in my pictures. I started to put real things into the picture. Reality says, “Problem! I am having problems with my mother, problems with my father.” I was telling it all. Step by step, I was coming to introduce my real life into the pictures. I was having problems with my father in Endless Poetry, and I was shooting, and suddenly I jumped into the picture! Psychomagic is only real feelings, not an imitation. And that’s what I was searching for. I put examples in my pictures, saying I am speaking always of the same thing, but in an artistic way. I show a guy closed in a tower [in El Topo] and in Psychomagic I show a guy breaking pumpkins. I did that in El Topo, but in a metaphorical way, not directly. And then I show in my film that it was the same position, but in another language: artistic language, therapeutic language.

Can you tell me something about your encounters with André Breton and other surrealists in the Paris of the 1960s?

I will speak about that in my third film. It’s a trilogy: The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry, and Essential Journey. That’s number three. I hope, if I am alive, because I am an old person, to start it in January. The script I’ve done already. I am very happy with it. I speak about that time, until I started to be a movie director. I stop there. In it, I am going to France to work with the surrealists, with the theater of Marcel Marceau, with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. I have those three worlds.

My mind was opened with philosophy. With surrealism, I think I am the last surrealistic moviemaker who’s really surrealistic. But I am a little step farther, because surrealism doesn’t show, doesn’t explain. It’s the mystery of something you don’t understand. That is surrealism. A dream image you don’t understand, you have no need to explain that. In the art I do, you know what you’re doing. It has a finality. It has to solve your problem and come to felicity. Felicity of life. That’s what I feel with the idiotic love story. Love is not like love with a star. Love is love. We need to show what love is. Tell the things that are true, make you go to happiness. Not an idiotic happiness, not Disneyland, a real internal life. Happy to be alive. I am alive. It’s fantastic. What an incredible thing. Art has to give you with possibility to be what you are, not what the moviemaker is. Not what the actor is, you. It’s complicated, no?

Speaking of surrealistic filmmakers, what do you think about the films of Luis Buñuel?

He was a surrealist, yes, but he’s too realistic for me. He was a real person, in the real. And for me the pictures have not only a meaning, they’re a painting. You can shoot something like that [mimes different angles], traveling shots, etcetera. Everything speaks. Buñuel’s show only one point of view. He’s sitting and everything is in the size of someone sitting. But he doesn’t go out [he mimes leaving the Skype frame], he doesn’t make other things. Hollywood discovered camera movement. Camera movement is fantastic! I need to have Buñuel in Hollywood and that would be good. He could show a deep meaning but with greater freedom of form.

When you worked with Claudio Argento on Santa Sangre did you know anything about the films of his brother Dario?

Yes, I like them a lot. He was a guy who doesn’t give too much importance to the script. He can be not logical. The pleasure to shoot something that’s weird! And I liked that. No message, no meaning. Very aesthetical.

Do you have a favorite film of his?

I am very old. I don’t remember the names. I’ve seen it a lot of times, this picture. He goes into a building, he goes inside the house.

Santa Sangre

A scene from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre. © Republic Pictures

Deep Red. Profondo Rosso.

Yes! Profondo Rosso. Fantastic picture. A film like that, for his time, he made explosive cinema. Because it was the film of a director. Generally, in the industrial film, the director is an employee. The studios are surveying the script. You aren’t free with the script. You need to shoot what’s right there. Because, when you’re free, you make the script to start the picture. But in the middle of the picture you can change whatever you want and put new things in. Because there are magic things that happen when you’re shooting. In Santa Sangre, when the father commits suicide, the naked father, it was in Mexico, in the street. A very old woman was singing, drunk. There were a lot of bars there. I said, “Go find me this drunk woman, because it’s the music I need for that suicide.” And then he will kill himself, but in the image there’s a real song of a person who’s really suffering. And it’s fantastic, like that. You need to be free. When you make the picture, the director is the poet. In Hollywood, the poet is the money. More money, more happiness. I say, “No.” More poetical, more artistical—that is good. Like the tarot, that isn’t a business. I know I’m crazy, but you need some crazy person in the generality, then somebody will use it in another way.

We certainly need more people in the world who are crazy in that way.

Yes, because crazy people aren’t crazy. They’re just using their mind in another way. And it’s very interesting.

How closely did you collaborate with David Lynch on your King Shot project?

He was very gentle with me. He said, “Maybe we can make a picture.” But my project was so crazy. Maybe I wanted to shoot in Spain. I wanted to do what I always do. But he had a little company at that moment. He was not able to have the money to do that. So, since I didn’t have the money, I didn’t do it. It was too expensive.

What can you tell me about your time with Arrabal and Roland Topor in the Panic Movement?

That was really a fantastic moment in my life. Because we were accepted within the surrealist group. That was the end of surrealism. A lot of surrealists were into politics. They were Trotskyists. Into the Romantic realization of the woman, not the real woman. Arrabal, Topor, and I were searching for absolute freedom. The artist needs to be inside the play, for example, inside what you’re shooting or playing. You need to be inside, in your body. You are there. Not out of the work. You need to go farther than the intellect, farther than the unconscious. Farther than the religions. You need to find the panic. Panic isn’t fear, panic is the totality. You need to find what a man is in totality. And then, if you are an artist in totality, you need to be a painter, dancer, mime, cinematographic creator, marionette. All the things I did. Because it’s the totality. Searching the totality of expression, that’s what we did. It wasn’t a movement, it was only three persons. And we called it a movement. We wanted to show that culture was fake, was an illusion. Because three persons will go into history as a movement that doesn’t exist!

Your performances sound a lot like what was called “happenings” in other countries or what the Vienna Aktionists were doing with their films. Would you say that’s accurate?

No, the happenings were going on in the milieu of painting and sculpture. It was a way to develop the plastic arts. I made ephemera. Ephemera is not that. Ephemera is a kind of theater, psychoanalysis, dreams, surrealism. The language of art, with meaning. Happening is an expression of freedom, but only freedom.

So the performances were closer to what Antonin Artaud was talking about with his Theater of Cruelty?

I was a big admirer of The Theater and Its Double. I started from there. He opened my eyes. In Fando y Lis, you have a little influence of Artaud. I had a theater play of Arrabal, with Fando y Lis, but I didn’t use the play, I used the memory I had as director of the play. With a lot of violence coming from Artaud. And then in El Topo, I had a Japanese Zen Master, Ejo Takata. Zen meditation, not like a hippie, real Zen meditation. Seven-day meditating without sleep. I was sleeping every night for 30 minutes, that’s all. Terrible, incredible! I brought this experience to El Topo. Because Artaud made the Theater of Cruelty. When you see the cruelty, you are open. But then I didn’t want any more cruelty. I decided I wanted to make the encounter with our self, make the cathedral [forms a steeple with his hands]. You are a cathedral. You aren’t a butcher. You’re creating the sacred. Some religions are fanatical. But I read the teachings of the Buddha, and I think there’s something more true than Artaud.

Is it true that René Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue was an influence on The Holy Mountain?

Yes. I love René Daumal, because I love his teacher. He had a great teacher, who was Gurdjieff. And in that novel, Daumal is speaking about his experience with Gurdjieff. More than surrealism, Daumal took it a step farther: The Great Game [a “counter-surrealist” journal founded by Daumal and friends]. He started to choke himself to see how it was to almost die. He was searching for stronger things, real metaphysical searching. I wanted to do his unfinished novel, Mount Analogue. He never finished it because he died very young from tuberculosis. But the family didn’t want to give me the rights. I said, “Well, I will make my own Holy Mountain!” What I directed depicts Daumal’s book. It’s a group that goes with a teacher to find immortality on a mountain. That I took. Then I developed my ideas.

The Holy Mountain

A scene from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. © ABKCO Films

So, at the end of the film, when we see the making of the film, when you turn one camera on another, was that a way of opening it up to the interpretation of the viewer?

I never thought of it the way you are saying now. Maybe, yes. I went to a real mountain in Mexico. I brought a tiger, a monk, actors, all that. And the Mexicans told me it was dangerous. Why? “Because there are tempests, and when there are tempests, you can die. Be careful.” No, I will go, because it’s beautiful, the weather is so fantastic. I shoot what I shoot, and when I finished shooting, the tempest came. And then we started to run in concert, to get off the mountain, because it was dangerous! I was running and I slipped and [mimes rolling down the mountain]. But I had a hammer and [mimes jamming it into the ground]. “No! I don’t want to die, I need to finish this damn picture!” I am making a picture. Like this, I will finish. This is the end of the picture, because it was the real end. It wasn’t as good, but I put in reality into my film. I wanted to make real things, and that, for me, was a real thing!

We’re making a picture. It’s not a comedy. There are real sentiments, because all those people I found were not actors. Every person I showed had the problem I show in the picture. Real people I used, real tiger! I’m not a Hollywood company making fake everything. I asked Hollywood that I want a stampede of tarantulas, big spiders on a body. They made fake ones. So we went out and bought spiders and had their fangs cut out. We made up the body and then we used the spiders. Real spiders came out there. And the person who did that, also myself, never liked spiders! There he was, suffering something enormous with those spiders!

Are you currently working on any new graphic novels?

Graphic novels. That is my industrial business. Because I have The Incal, Metabarons, Sons of El Topo. That I am doing all the time. That is normal for me, because I have a big imagination. If I didn’t have imagination, I would die. I am taking a step farther than Psychomagic with Psychotrance. It’s a kind of literature, but at the same time you’re reading, I’m giving you exercises. It’s mixing a lecture with exercises to inspire what you do, the impact of having a trance. With drugs, you have a trance. I say no drugs. We can do it without drugs. How to do it like this. Not only meditation. Go farther than meditation. Go immediately to what you are when you’re not intellect. What is in you? You don’t need to take LSD. You don’t need to take ayahuasca. Because those are dreams. I am saying do the same thing I do in movies. In movies, in a century of fake feelings, I am making real feelings. In a culture full of drugs, psychological drugs, I am putting in a real hallucination, guiding how you can do it.

Translation by Pascale Montandon.

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Interview: Kate Lyn Sheil on Calibrating Her Performance in She Dies Tomorrow

Sheil discusses how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.

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Kate Lyn Sheil
Photo: Neon

Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow is of obvious relevance in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The film, which had been set to premiere at this year’s SXSW, grapples with the contagious nature of despondency and angst in a contemporary milieu that so often seeks to minimize or ignore them. These amorphous feelings prove to be an inexplicably transmissible disease passed from character to character, each of which stops in their tracks and calmly declares, “I’m going to die tomorrow.”

That She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t buckle under the weight of its heady themes and supernatural premise is a testament to how the performances ground the film in reality. In the film, Kate Lyn Sheil stars as Amy, a surrogate character for the director who quietly yet urgently probes the boundaries of the anxieties that ensnare her. Sheil, who commands the most screen time, captivates as she wields her mastery of minutiae. She’s capable of precisely executing small physical gestures to convey forceful intent.

It’s merely the latest in a line of exciting and unpredictable performances from Sheil, whose prolific presence in the New York independent film scene spans from working with early mumblecore pioneers like Joe Swanberg in Silver Bullets to partnering with boundary-pushing luminaries such as Robert Greene on Kate Plays Christine. She’s equally as revelatory appearing briefly in a short film, the latest Alex Ross Perry project, an episode of House of Cards, or working through the very ethics of her trade as herself in documentary format.

I caught up with Sheil prior to the digital release of She Dies Tomorrow to discuss how she approaches conveying such potent interiority, her long-term collaboration with Seimetz, and how she situates the specifics of work within such an ambiguous and allegorical film.

What are the ripple effects of Kate Plays Christine in your work and career, given that it’s such a meta performance about the nature of performance?

I worked with a director afterward who said that he wanted to work with me after he saw Kate Plays Christine because it made him feel like I would be honest with him if I didn’t like the way that he was directing me. And I was like, “Oh, no, you’re mistaken. I probably will not say anything at all and just try and toe the party line.” Because that movie plays with what is real and what is fake, I feel like there could potentially be a misconception that I yell. Which is…not the case. Your guess is as good as mine.

That scene where you really snap was staged too, right? It was something Robert Greene invented to see what would happen when you felt boxed in by the experiment.

Yeah, it was scripted, essentially.

Is the movie at all a window into the way you work?

I think I spoke honestly about some ways that I approach acting roles in Kate Plays Christine, while lots of it is scripted, embellished or made up to create a narrative arc. I think there are moments that I speak truthfully about the way I do approach a role. I, personally, would never go to Sarasota and think that I had to interview people in order to play a part correctly. But I think I talk about my—I hate to say it—“process” in a truthful manner at a certain point, and that’s how I would [do it]. That’s probably how I approached this movie. Amy wrote this role, and then the best that I can do is just to try to find ways that I relate to the character and use substitutions to think of times when I maybe felt analogous.

Part of what makes Kate Plays Christine so fascinating is the way the camera allows you to externalize the process of thinking and deliberating. Was that at all helpful for She Dies Tomorrow?

Yeah, that’s all that’s all Amy’s writing though. That was baked into the script from the earliest stages of it. She wanted the character to be very physical in the way that she was exploring that house and touching things in a way that, at least from the outside if someone were to catch you doing it, it doesn’t seem like normal behavior. But when faced with the enormity of this thing, normalcy doesn’t really mean anything anymore.

Amy Seimetz has said that the tactile details of touching the house came from her own experience grappling with the weird mix of emotions that arose from her becoming a homeowner. How do you find your way into this compulsion that’s so visceral and unique?

It’s Amy, she wrote it for me, and then she creates an environment on set where—I don’t want to say it’s not difficult, because I certainly was afraid the entire time that I maybe wasn’t doing as good a job as I could. I didn’t want to let Amy down. She creates an environment where you can sort of slip into it. We’ve known each other for such a long time, and we’ve worked together before. I love the way that she directs me. She’s not precious with me at all. She will quite literally show me what she wants if I’m not getting it. [laughs, mimes direction] “Okay, that’s what I’m supposed to do, cool!”

The beginning of the film is largely free of dialogue. How much of what we see was scripted or pre-planned versus discovered once the camera rolled?

Not much of an element of discovery once the camera starts rolling. Amy is pretty precise in her visuals, and she has worked with Jake Keitel, who shot the movie, for like 17 years now. They share a brain in certain ways in terms of lighting the shots. Because that element is so important to her, there really wasn’t much of the “go with the flow, we’ll just find it in the moment.” There’s a level of precision to it, which I like and appreciate. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t give you as much room as you need to emotionally find the scene. But, in terms of physicality, she really has planned it out pretty precisely beforehand.

Was that at all different from Sun Don’t Shine? Since that was such a scrappy, on-the-go road movie, did really planting your feet in a location change the nature of your collaboration with Amy at all?

With Sun Don’t Shine, yeah, certain things are obviously outside your control if you’re shooting outside. But also with that, the economy of the way that she approaches making the movie, she still has a scrappy sensibility. That’s my favorite thing because I think if you know how to make a movie for no money, then you can use those skills and continue to apply that to whatever budget you happen to be working with. She had everything on Sun Don’t Shine so precisely planned out in terms of how to shoot the car because she and Jake didn’t want it to become monotonous. In a way, that required a great deal of precision too. But then, of course, for that movie, you’re shooting in Florida in the middle of summer. There are just variables. I got very sick when we were making that movie, so there are scenes where [they] had one thing in mind. And then she’s like, “Okay, you’re just gonna be sitting because you can’t do anything.”

Since you mentioned that Amy and her cinematographer share the same brain, do you feel the same kinship with her or other directors? A lot of your work comes from collaboration with people like Amy Seimetz, Alex Ross Perry, Robert Greene, among others, with whom you share a social circle. How does the process of working with them, where you might be more involved at the ground level of a project, compare with something where you’re brought in through a more traditional casting process?

I love working with all the people that you just mentioned, and I think it’s very lucky that I happen to know people that, by my estimation, are incredible. It’s so wonderful to work with them because there is a shared history and a shorthand. It just so happens, as I said before, that I like their work a lot, so it’s more bang for your buck. Not only do you get to work with friends, but you get to be in a project that you’re probably going to like or would like, even if you had nothing to do with it. But, at the same time, there’s something really something very fun about showing up to a set and just trying your best to execute the thing, do your job and then go home at the end of the day and it’s not your old, close friends. There’s something nice about both.

What’s the best way to describe your relationship to that extended Kim’s Video orbit? Muse, co-conspirator, something else entirely?

I’m so close to it that it’s hard to think of what to call it. But that place meant everything to me. It’s where I feel like I got my education in film. I think my life would be completely different if it hadn’t existed. It truly does mean so much to me. Surprisingly, though I don’t think any of us truly saw it coming at the time, a bunch of people who have worked there at a certain time actually started making their own projects. I feel very fortunate that I was around at that time. And it’s nice to make movies with people [for whom] the impetus is a love of watching them. That’s a very joyous experience.

Kate Lyn Sheil

Kate Lyn Sheil in a scene from She Dies Tomorrow. © Neon

I know you kind of scoffed at the word “process” earlier and put it in scare quotes…

Yeah, but…I used it! [laughs]

Well, we can just caveat that. I know your training as an actress primarily came from a theatrical background at NYU. She Dies Tomorrow is about the farthest thing from a theatrical performance: The film opens on a shot of your eye, and meaning gets conveyed through how your pupil moves. How did you learn to communicate in these micro moments? Did it involve “unlearning” any theatrical training?

Yes and no. I feel like it’s all the same skill set. And then, of course, when you get in front of the camera, you learn to adjust and have a relationship with the camera also. Rather than acting for an audience, you’re trying to be present with your fellow actor, more present in the moment. If there isn’t anybody else there, which is largely the case for my stuff in She Dies Tomorrow, the camera’s your audience. I haven’t acted in a play in a very long time. I miss it, personally. I left school, and I never wanted to do to theater again. I was obsessed with movies, and I still am. But at a certain point, maybe a few years ago, I was like, “You know what, it would be fun to do to do a play!” But, I mean, I still struggle with it. I feel like a lot of my close friends who are actors talk about it too. I still walk away at the end of some days being like, “I was too big, or I was too aware of the camera. So I tried to be small, and I think it was too small.” You still have these anxieties about that exact thing, calibrating your performance to the medium.

As an actress in a film like this, do you feel the need to “understand” the rest of the film like the nature of the contagion or the impressionistic transitions? Or is it a matter of performing your part and trusting that the rest of the film will fall into place around you?

I think it’s important to make it make sense for you, but I don’t think it’s important for me to understand the structure of the entire film. But it’s always very important for me to know what I’m doing to understand where, in particular, I’m coming from. I definitely trusted that Amy was doing something great with those parts of the movie. When she told me that’s how the movie was going to proceed, that it was going to expand and extrapolate in that way, I was very, very happy. I was happy that there were going to be other people for the audience to sit with for a while. And I also love those scenes. The dinner scene, I think is so funny. Everything in the movie is wonderful, but [that’s what is] coming to mind right now. I like the way that those scenes bounced around with my scenes and recontextualize my scenes to a certain degree.

I’m always fascinated with this duality that to communicate something existential and widely recognizable, it’s often rooted in such personal and intimate performance. How do you manage the balance between the general and the specific, especially in a film like She Dies Tomorrow that has a more allegorical or representational edge to it?

I think that certain things are just outside of my control. The most that I can control is to try and make the character specific for me and then I can’t get too caught up in thinking of the overarching themes. I just try and stay in my lane, stay focused and make it specific and individual. But if the person directing movie is creating something allegorical, then hopefully my performance lends itself to that goal.

What are your thoughts on the meta element of anxiety and death premonitions being contagious? Do you think the screen is porous enough that the audience could, or should, catch it? By the end of the film, I was wondering if I would end up saying “I’m going to die tomorrow” like all the characters.

We’re obviously living in such a strange time right now that Amy never could have anticipated. Hopefully what people would feel more than anything is recognition, or that some experience that they’ve had is being reflected back to them. Hopefully that would make someone feel better potentially, less alone or less crazy. Something like that. But I mean, the movie is about ideas being contagious. So, maybe.

It was so interesting to watch in the back half of the film where, for certain characters, you can tell that the ability to express and verbalize their anxiety helps them manage it. Maybe that’s the more constructive takeaway.

Yeah, there you go!

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Interview: Seth Rogen on An American Pickle and Reconnecting with His Roots

Rogen discusses collaborating with Simon Rich, how the film enriched his understanding of Judaism, the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era, and more.

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Seth Rogen
Photo: HBO

It’s been over two decades since Seth Rogen made his small-screen debut in Freaks and Geeks, though one could be forgiven for assuming he’s been in the business much longer given all that he’s accomplished since then. He wrote for the acclaimed shows Da Ali G Show and Undeclared in the early aughts, before then breaking out in front of the camera in two comedy smashes released in the summer of 2007, Knocked Up and Superbad, the latter of which he co-wrote with creative partner Evan Goldberg. Rogen helped usher in the still-dominant Apatow era of big-screen comedy, a reign that not even the North Korean government could topple with the cyber-attack launched in response to his 2014 Kim Jong-un assassination satire The Interview.

While Rogen’s on-camera appearances have waned slightly over the past few years, his creative output hasn’t, as he and his partners at Point Grey continue to ramp up production across film, TV, and streaming. Their latest effort, An American Pickle, holds the distinction of being HBO Max’s first original narrative feature to premiere on the platform. But it also portends a distinctly more mature and reflective shift in Rogen’s own work as the cinematic face of exuberant millennial prolonged adolescence nears middle age.

The film stars Rogen in dual roles as Ben, a contemporary secular Brooklynite app developer, and Herschel, his devoutly Jewish great-grandfather who emigrated from eastern Europe and reemerges in the present day after being brined in a vat of pickles for a century. Neither the film or the characters in it dwell much on the absurd premise, and An American Pickle blossoms into a silly but sweet tale of misunderstanding and reconciliation between distant generations that share little other than a bloodline.

I chatted with Rogen on the eve of An American Pickle’s release. Our discussion covered how he collaborated with writer Simon Rich, how the film enriched his own understanding of Judaism, and how he envisions the exhibition prospects of comedy in the streaming era.

I saw Knocked Up as a teenager, and now it weirds me out that I’m older than you were when you made it. While working on it, were you aware that it might become such a generational touchstone for millennials? How do you feel about it now that it’s almost like a period piece?

I think when you make a movie you never truly know how it’s going to be received, honestly. Watch Hearts of Darkness, that’s a good lesson in that! There’s people on the set of the worst movie you’ve ever seen who think they’re making a masterpiece, and there’s people on the set of a masterpiece thinking that no one’s going to watch or see it ever—and even if they do, they’ll hate it. It’s not uncontrollable, but it’s hard to control and almost impossible to do with some sort of consistency. To that end, I’m glad that people still like any of our movies. The fact that any of them are viewed as remotely relevant in some way is lovely. You really don’t know what’s going to stand the test of time until time has passed, really.

I ask about that film partly because I feel there’s an interesting evolution we can chart from there to An American Pickle, which has an insight and understanding that feels like it can only be conveyed by learning and living. Is this the kind of film you could only have made at this point in your life?

Yeah, I think it’s definitely born of an older brain. Especially the themes of grief and how to process things we learned as kids, how we may have rejected those things even though they might add value to our lives, those themes are much more prevalent in my life as I get closer to 40 than when I was in my mid-20s. The idea of making a movie about grief and reconnecting with my roots was not prominent on my radar! [laughs]

There’s such poignancy to the way the film shows how past generations, be it through religion or some other factor, are better equipped to handle grief and hardship. Has any of that been valuable, pandemic or otherwise, in your life?

Yeah, I think religion specifically. My wife’s mother passed away earlier this year, and her uncle, actually. I’ve just seen with that specifically. Judaism has actionable protocols that do help. At one point in my life, I would probably write off all of it and say there was nothing helpful I was ever taught about religion. Now as I get older, I can cherry-pick and say you can take elements of this and apply them to your life as you find them helpful. Not all of this was born out of fooling people. Some of it was born out of truly trying to help people.

You’ve obviously done quite a bit of writing yourself on other projects. When it comes to something like An American Pickle, do you mostly just stay in your lane as an actor and let Simon Rich tailor the script to you? Or are you still involved in some writerly capacity?

I’m definitely still involved in some writerly capacity. I respect the writer and know their name is the one that’s on it ultimately, and they have to be able to stand behind all of it and take ownership over it. But I try to be constructive! I just try to help and support the ideas that I can. I try to acknowledge it and say this isn’t what I would do, always, but I’m not the writer! I try to respect that.

This film was originally geared toward theaters and is now going directly to streaming on HBO Max. In your mind, does the method of distribution affect the work you make? Or are you a platform agnostic and a laugh is a laugh on a big or a small screen?

We definitely make some films that are geared more toward a big-screen experience, in our minds at least, and some we are much more comfortable with that not being the experience. This being the perfect example of one of those! We understand that if we intend to keep making films for theaters, then they have to earn that right to be in a theater. Not every film automatically is granted that at this moment, and we understand that those are different types of films sometimes. It’s not always based on budget or anything like that. Good Boys, although it wasn’t expensive, is a movie we were confident would do well in theaters. There are some more expensive movies we would not be as confident that would be the best place for them. It’s an active conversation, but I do think some movies are better geared towards a cinematic experience and some towards a streaming one.

It still strikes me as crazy that so much data shows comedy is one of the genres people most want to view at home instead of in a room full of people.

I think people just like comedy! But to me, some of the greatest experiences I’ve had in a theater, I don’t think of the action movies I saw. I think about when I saw There’s Something About Mary or South Park in theaters, the Jackass movies, these wild experiences where you can barely hear what’s happening. Those are my favorite moviegoing experiences, and I think a lot of people feel that way.

Any chance you’d do a This Is the End sequel? It’s a movie I’ve thought about a lot over the last few months each time celebrities try to center themselves in the dialogue around a moment of crisis.

Not a sequel, specifically, but we do talk about building on the genre of famous people playing themselves interacting with supernatural situations. There maybe is more to be done with that.

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Review: The Secret Garden Is a Pale Imitation of Its Enchanting Source

Its emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the conclusion drawn by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

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The Secret Garden
Photo: STXfilms

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of a young girl who opens herself up the possibilities of human compassion after rejuvenating a garden and caring for her sickly cousin, has resonated with readers of all ages since its publication. And it’s clear from the brooding start of this latest cinematic adaptation that the filmmakers seek to amplify the book’s darker themes. A title card announces that the turbulent post-World War I India that newly orphaned Mary (Dixie Egerickx) finds herself in has been ravaged by a series of violent conflicts, and director Marc Munden initially does a fine job of mirroring the girl’s confusion and insecurity over losing her parents in the uncertainty of her surroundings.

Once Mary moves to the Yorkshire estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), the filmmakers also gesture beyond the novel’s thematic borders by having multiple characters—including Craven, who’s still grieving the death of his wife, and his infirm son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst)—face a collective trauma that leaves them unsure of how to deal with their feelings. Unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its initial promise of branching the story out into bold new emotional terrain after the narrative begins to diminish many of the characters and aspects that made Burnett’s book such a stirring vision of morality.

The secret life and death of the woman who was Craven’s wife and Colin’s mother is only a minor part of the book, but this adaptation pushes this mystery to the narrative forefront and vastly yet uninspiringly expands on it. In a departure from the novel, this rote mystery plotline largely centers on Mary, which only makes her quest feel conspicuously insular and self-serving. This emphasis on the achievement of the individual is practically antithetical to the very conclusion drawn by Burnett in the book: that enrichment and satisfaction is a shared experience that comes through something as simple as human kindness.

The focus on Mary’s plight in the film comes at the expense of capturing the idyllic beauty of the titular hideaway, whose function ultimately feels like an afterthought; it’s but a convenient plot device that exists solely to help Mary solve a problem that very much defies her efforts until the last act. Imbued with the power to cure ailments and react to people’s feelings like a sentient being, the garden offers a dose of fantasy to the film, and, predictably, it’s been rendered with a heavy dose of CGI that makes it feel cold and soulless, never eliciting the sense of calm that the characters feel while gallivanting its grounds.

As in the book, Mary learns to overcome her selfishness by helping to heal Colin, but where Burnett’s story slowly detailed the increasingly invigorating power of Mary and Colin’s friendship and mutual affection, Munden fails to show how Mary’s sleuthing ignites her spirit of generosity. It feels like a cop-out when Colin is healed by the garden’s mysterious properties, causing him to praise Mary for showing him that real magic exists. In lieu of pluming the emotional states of the characters, the film resorts to a whimsical, otherworldly fantasy element as an easy resolution. It’s the sort of fantasy that Burnett didn’t need to make room for in the book, because it recognized something more profound: that real magic isn’t necessary in a world where human beings possess the capacity for compassion.

Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis, Maeve Dermody, Jemma Powell Director: Marc Munden Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: STXfilms Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: Psychomagic, a Healing Art Is a Moving Look at Therapeutic Interventions

The film could stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes that have run throughout Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work.

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Psychomagic, a Healing Art
Photo: ABKCO

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first documentary, Psychomagic, a Healing Art, is a moving, visually striking exploration of the unconventional psychotherapeutic techniques that the filmmaker has developed over a lifetime of reading tarot cards and studying various psychological systems and an assortment of Eastern and Western spiritual practices. After a brief introduction, during which Jodorowsky lays out the major tenets of his technique, we witness a selection of individual case histories. The format for these therapeutic interventions varies only slightly: a preliminary interview describes the issues at hand; the particular treatment is undertaken, an activity that seems pitched somewhere between ritual and performance art; and then a follow-up interview permits the participant(s)—some of them are couples—to describe the therapy’s impact on their lives. These episodes are often intercut with a thematically or pictorially related moment from one of Jodorowsky’s earlier films, as though to emphasize the continuity of his vision from narrative cinema to documentary.

Throughout Psychomagic, individual treatments unfold according to a dreamlike, poetic logic. Many of them involve the participant undergoing some sort of symbolic death and rebirth. Often this entails nothing more radical than stripping off one’s old clothes and donning new ones. Sometimes it means reenacting the moment of birth through what Jodorowsky calls “initiatic massage,” a hands-on bit of dialogue-free theater. But the most intense version of this psychic renascence on display here starts with burying a suicidal man up to his neck in the Spanish desert. A glass dish (replete with air holes) covers his exposed head. Slabs of raw meat are spread over his “grave,” and a wake of vultures come to devour the uncooked flesh. Then he’s dug up, cleaned up, and dressed up in an expensive-looking new suit.

Later, there’s a section given over to “social psychomagic,” ritual manifestations that most resemble mass demonstrations. One of them, known as “the Walk of the Dead,” a protest against drug war fatalities that features large groups donning traditional Day of the Dead skeleton costumes, could have been lifted straight from a similar scene in Endless Poetry. Although, on this occasion, at least, Jodorowsky himself doesn’t make that connection.

One segment, involving a woman suffering from throat cancer, comes perilously close to making false claims for the powers of psychomagic but luckily skirts the issue entirely through some well-deployed disclaimers. Jodorowsky invites the woman on stage at a conference with 5,000 attendees, to see whether or not their combined energies can help or heal her, and without making any promises. It’s never entirely clear whether or not she’s cured, but 10 years later, she’s still alive. Nor does she claim in her follow-up interview to have been cured. The “experiment” merely “opened a door” for her healing process to begin.

What most shines through all the therapeutic interventions detailed in the Psychomagic is the scrupulousness of Jodorowsky’s compassion and his deep-seated desire to render whatever assistance he can. As he mentions at one point in the documentary, he never charges money for these treatments. Whether or not the 91-year-old director makes another film, Psychomagic could easily stand as a fitting encapsulation of the themes of suffering and transcendence that have run throughout his entire career.

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky Screenwriter: Alejandro Jodorowsky Distributor: ABKCO Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran

Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentary is striking for the way its subjects describe horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language.

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Sunless Shadows
Photo: Cinema Guild

Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams is striking for the way that it unhurriedly paints a portrait of its subjects, a group of teenage girls at a juvenile detention center in Iran, before then shocking us with matter-of-factly stated admissions of murder. At first, you may find yourself trying to determine the documentary’s reason for being, alongside wanting to know the girls’ reasons for being incarcerated. We sense that the film is supposed to have a cumulative effect, built on prolonged observation followed by intellectual reflection—until we hear one of the girls say, point blank, that she killed her father. Her no-nonsense statement is in chilling lockstep with the lack of prudishness to Oskouei’s line of questioning throughout Starless Dreams. Whether he’s asking the detainees for their names or details about their traumas and crimes, his disembodied voice maintains the same level of cool.

Sunless Shadows, Oskouei’s second look at the same detention facility, initially focuses on its subjects describing horrific forms of violence in the plainest of language. When a girl remembers the abuse she suffered, all that matters is her words. Redolent of Claude Lanzmann’s approach, Oskouei strips his images to their barest bones as his subjects openly speak about their traumas, as if trying to avoid aestheticizing their pain.

In Sunless Shadows, though, Oskouei eventually digresses from this no-frills approach. By design, the film lacks the astonishment of Starless Dreams, suggesting a great story being told anew and now given over to a sort of formula. A similar relationship can be drawn between Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing The Act of Killing and its follow-up, The Look of Silence. Order is the essential culprit in both filmmakers’ attempts to take a second look at the same subject matter. The first film takes advantage of the emotional possibilities of shock or fright, but the force of an unexpected blow is difficult to repeat. By the time we come to the second film, we’re already literate in and, in some ways, inoculated by the banality of evil.

At times, Oskouei also uses a more readily recognizable setup for his interviews. Although most of sequences here take place in the girls’ dormitories, with them sitting haphazardly on the floor surrounded by their bunkbeds, Sunless Shadows is punctuated by interviews with the girls’ mothers, who are also incarcerated (and on death row), and scenes where each girl enters a room and looks straight into the camera to address the family member they’ve killed. These moments bring to mind a reality TV confessional, and their gracelessness is replicated by sequences where the girls’ family members are presumably watching this footage and crying.

The film rekindles the aura of Starless Dreams more faithfully when it doesn’t try to dress up the scenario that links them—patriarchy as an interminable metastasis—with forms that deny the dramatic sufficiency of the girls’ accounts. Theirs are stories of parent-child relations mediated by chicken-carving knives, of a father driving to the desert with the intention of pummeling his daughter to death, of sons fighting tooth and nail for their mother’s execution, unless she pays up. Overtly calculated mise-en-scène in this context feels like an affront.

It’s refreshing, then, when Oskouei harkens back to the core of his project, the ultimately futile killing of the father, the acting out of the unthinkable, the avowing of the unsayable. He does this when he allows language do the talking by itself and when he reduces the cinematic encounter to a matter of language: sincere questions followed by disarming answers. As when the filmmaker asks one of the girls, “Is killing difficult?” To which the girl answers, unwaveringly, “At the time you feel nothing, except for the joy of having done it.”

Director: Mehrdad Oskouei Screenwriter: Mehrdad Oskouei Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 74 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization

The film is strikingly fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale.

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Song Without a Name
Photo: Film Movement

Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) wakes up in the early hours of the morning to walk with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas), into Lima from their shack in a coastal shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Because she has few alternatives, her late-stage pregnancy doesn’t deter her as she sits in the street selling potatoes to passersby. It’s only natural, then, that when she hears a health clinic’s radio ad offering care to pregnant women, it sounds like a godsend. But once Georgina gives birth to her daughter, the clinic whisks the child off for some supposed medical tests, shoos her out the door, and then seems to vacate the location entirely. In an instant, her life is upended, but as Song Without a Name sensitively makes clear, the indigenous Georgina’s degradation is an all too familiar one in Peruvian society.

Though Melina León’s feature-length directorial debut is set in 1988, it appears as if it’s been beamed from an even earlier time. Its images, captured in boxy Academy ratio, are visibly aged, its faded edges and conspicuously distorted elements bringing to mind an old photograph. As a result, the scenes depicting government officials disregarding the needs of the indigenous Georgina gain a grave sense of timelessness, a feeling emphasized by the lack of period-specific markers amid the ramshackle houses. The events become detached from their specific historical backdrop, suggesting nothing less than the perpetuity of disenfranchisement.

In Song Without a Name, the only person who lends Georgina a sympathetic ear is Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a journalist who, as a gay man, understands what it means to be an outsider, though he initially tries to pass her story off to someone else, as he’s reporting on a paramilitary death squad whose handiwork he observes early in the film. And just when you think that León is going to steer the film into the terrain of a conventional investigative thriller, she remains fixated on exploring loss and pain on an intimate and personal scale, through the despair on people’s faces as much as through the formal touches that reflect it.

The film’s backdrop is tumultuous, and the characters have to move on from the kidnapping without truly wanting to because they need to eat, to pay for the roof over their heads, to live. In a haunting moment that evokes how tragedy diminishes the connection between people, Georgina mournfully stays in bed as Leo goes to work alone, but not before he leaves a handprint on the window, barely visible in the black and white of the frame.

León depicts anguish in such stark, all-encompassing terms that she risks overplaying her hand at times, like one scene that positions the closeted Pedro and his lover, Isa (Maykol Hernández), on opposite sides of a thick line of tiles that’s only made more prominent by the camera’s distant position. But mostly, she weaves an atmosphere that borders on ethereal through the jerky distortions of Georgina walking home at night and the ease with which certain pieces of Pedro’s investigation seem to fall into place. León channels Georgina’s devastation to particularly powerful effect in one long take where the mother is taken out of the clinic but continues pleading and crying, unseen, from the other side of the door. Across the minute-long shot, Georgina is determined not to go away, and the scene fades to black with such painful slowness that she seems to be prolonging the transition through force of will, beyond the point where the audience might normally look away.

Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández, Lidia Quispe Director: Melina León Screenwriter: Melina León, Michael J. White Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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