Hell On Earth: Darkness and Light in Se7en (Fincher, 1995)

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Comparing the opening and ending scenes in David Fincher’s Se7en goes a long way toward understanding the film’s devastating combination of dark spaces, drowning ambient sound, and urban decay. Before Kyle Cooper’s fragmented credit sequence, Fincher introduces Det. William Sommerset (Morgan Freeman) preparing for another day in his cramped, dimly lit apartment. Sommerset washes dishes, carefully puts on a tie, lays out his professional essentials (badge, knife, wallet, pen), puts on his coat only before picking off a piece of lint, then calmly turns off a lamp. These actions are juxtaposed with continuous, droning noise from the city beyond, immediately establishing the space as an expanding, shifting, and uneasy environment. Fincher then cuts to a medium shot of a body laying face down in a pool of dark blood, the textures of the space flickering off sharp light consumed by overwhelming darkness. Another detective explains the “crime of passion” just committed, then Sommerset replies, “Yeah just look at all that passion on the wall.” Cynical professionalism incarnate. The rest of the film pits Sommerset’s numbness against Det. Mills’ (Brad Pitt) naive eagerness and this clash of ideologies builds to a staggering conclusion.

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Passion and vengeance define the ending of Se7en as well, but Fincher stages the dramatic daylight finale in the middle of nowhere, an endless prairie of dead grass framed by distant mountains and dissected by dense telephone towers and wires. Instead of close-ups, Fincher’s favored shot throughout the film, wide angle images dominate, flooded with natural light and kinetic movement, often in the form of POV shots from the circling SWAT helicopter. Since Fincher’s goal is maximum tension and suspense, these shots quiver, jolt, and crush the camera’s eye-line. The sound design combines disjointed bursts of ambient noise with Howard Shore’s menacing requiem. In contrast to the dank and foul interiors of the film’s urban sprawl, these moments are even more horrific because their is no escape, no unsolved anomaly, no crazy uncertainty to distance the characters from the deadly reality. Even though light finally reveals the surface of John Doe’s plan, so much remains unexplained.

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So in the end, light and dark display different variations of hell on earth, completing John Doe’s “masterpiece” and the film’s narrative arc in a very unsettling way. Instinct destroys rational thought, and Mills inevitably succumbs to his own vision of heroism. Sommerset is left in limbo, watching his partner descend into the realm of madness, while John Doe gets off scot free with a bullet to the head. In the world of Se7en, we wait for those around us to get picked off by the evils of the earth, all the while selfishly hoping we aren’t next. The rain will never end, and so we helplessly watch in horror.

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Cinema Repeated: Films I Return To, Over and Over Again

In the three years since Match Cuts came online, I’ve found myself returning to certain recent films time and time again, trying to endlessly wrap my mind around them. It’s as if these select few works continue to challenge my understanding about filmmaking, writing, and the world around me, even after becoming incredibly familiar.  They’re often incomplete, mysterious, and confounding pieces, seemingly evolving over the course of time, and my repeat viewings are a direct confrontation with their shifting parts. Yet others resonate so perfectly despite their many flaws that the entertainment value actually increases with each viewing. These might not be masterpieces, or even the best films of their respective years, but they might just be some of my favorites since they continue to fascinate me no matter how many viewings. A small list follows, with thoughts for discussion in anticipation of further evolutions.

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Miami Vice (Mann, 2006) –  Michael Mann’s enigmatic cop film functions as a brilliant and cynical sign of the times, where subversive law enforcement factions fail to nab the big fish in the face of grave social danger, settling for a victorious return to the status quo. The strange digital artifice feels absolutely connected to the cold, blue hues of Mann’s stylized vision of moral ambiguity.

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Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Tarantino, 2003) – The best modern action film, not simply because the fight scenes are exquisite, but because the entire narrative boils with cinematic intensity. Music, visuals, and dialogue fuse together forming a calculated, masochistic, and breathtaking postmodern mish-mash. The film is a striking first half of a twin genre juggernaut constantly at odds with itself.

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Just Friends (Kimble, 2005) – Makes me laugh like no other recent film. Maybe it’s Ryan Reynolds’ inspired performance, or Anna Faris’ nut-job pop princess, or the vintage slap stick wackiness, but it all adds up to something unique – a modern comedy devoted to character and smarts over gross out set pieces.

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Gangs of New York (Scorsese, 2002) – Brash, brutal, and abrasive, but undeniably compelling. A disturbing vision of our nation beginning from spoils of blood, sweat, and revenge. Scorsese’s strange slice of historiography changes with each viewing, equal parts epic, war film, and melodrama. It’s these shifty tones that force the viewer to re-address the work with different eyes.

About Face: Thoughts on “Second Impressions”

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In the May/June issue of Film Comment, you’ll find Philip Lopate’s essay “Second Impressions”, a detailed and fascinating account on the issue of re-visiting films over time and why multiple viewings of a particular film can expand one’s affection for the work, or inevitably lessen the impact of it as well. It’s a strikingly candid approach to an often complex and personal scenario. The idea of re-visiting films, with some distance and age, remains the backbone of film analysis, a key factor in understanding how and why we think about movies in certain ways.

In college, my first Film History teacher introduced me to the writings of Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman, still for my money the two best American film critics working today. The cornerstone of their analysis was and still is the idea that films evolve over time, and the critic must revisit these works in order to evolve with them. This ended up being the perfect slap in the face for a Tarantino-infused student confident he had a firm grasp of the film world. Yet their words still ring true eight years later, and I revisit films all the time, some expanding, others contracting in importance. It’s the gamble we take as cinephiles to re-visit time-capsule emotions that might not exist in the same way any longer.

Lopate’s article brings to light a great deal of inner struggles the film writer experiences with historiography, preconception, and criticism in general, struggles that make film one of the most dynamic mediums ever. But his words also reveal how susceptible we are to specific time and place, emotion, and rhythm. Some films might seem slight at one point in our lives but change dramatically upon second viewing, not because the film changed, but because we have. This is a haunting feeling, maybe even a disturbing one, resonating from the idea that we can pass such clear- cut judgement on a piece of art then have an about face years later, merely because we sit from a different perspective. But the best film writers address this situation exactly how Lopate has, with compassion, respect, and love for the medium in which they are constantly battling.

My biggest about face came with Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, a film I despised upon theatrical release because of it’s seemingly overt contempt for the viewer and cop-out ending. But in the years since, I started screenwriting and teaching, and went back and viewed Adaptation again. This time I found the film mesmerizing, ground-breaking, and incredibly humane. Nicolas Cage’s dual performance as Charlie and Donald is one of the most complex ever, and when their bond finally breaks, its as devastating and sublime as film gets. All of the movie’s “contempt” had faded away, revealing a passion for challenging the traditional methods of filmmaking and expression. The first time I watched Adaptation I wasn’t a writer, but by this point I considered myself just that, and it made all the difference. I’m curious if any you Match Cuts readers have had a startling about face either way, and if so, why? Feel free to share in the comments section.