Sunday, July 3, 2016

Capitulating to Se7en

That's right, Se7en.

Not Seven.

For years I've been opposed to what I considered to be a cutesy way of writing the title for David Fincher's 1995 film. Saddled with the compulsion to read it as it is written, I have satirically read the title as "Sezzen" when it's written this way, since the 7 sort of resembles a Z. (Just one Z, but when typographically representing a sound, two Z's give it a more traditional word structure.)

It took finally seeing the movie again on Friday to make me -- still reluctantly -- change my mind.

You will note in my Most Recently Revisited section on the right side of this blog that I now write the title as Se7en. I'm about to tell you why.

Whenever I've wondered the correct way to type a title -- usually, like if it uses the word "and" or an ampersand -- I always defer to how the title appears in the actual film itself. I suppose there's a film or two out there where the title never appears, so I guess in that case I just have to go with my gut, or with how other publications have chosen to write it.

David Fincher's movie gets one of two treatments, depending on the decision of individual publications. This poster is a good example of the attendant schizophrenia, as it includes both versions. There are those, like me, who have found Se7en to be a gimmicky and silly way to write the title, and have opted for Seven. And then there are those who just write the title as it appears in the film.

It appears in the film, of course, as Se7en. So this is now the means of typographic representation I will also favor.

I'm not happy about it. I can tell you that much. But one distinct advantage is that it more immediately communicates what movie you're talking about to a reader. Not that there are a lot of other prominent films named Seven, though I suppose there are some. It does allow you to mention the movie entirely out of the context of talking about films, and the reader will immediately understand you are referencing not only a film, but this specific film. Films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain already enjoy this advantage -- now Se7en does too.

Since I am nothing if not anal retentive, I have now gone through my various lists in which Se7en appears -- films I've seen in 1995, my total list of films, etc. -- and changed the spelling. If I were even more anal, I'd probably try to seek out references on this blog and update them too. But there's no tag associated with the movie, meaning if I've ever discussed it it's only been in passing. And just searching the blog for the word "seven" will get me nowhere.

As for the film itself, I enjoyed watching it again for the first time in at least 15 years, though I didn't particularly glean new insight from it. I did have a couple things I wanted to point out, though, and they all relate to the way the film belies the typical detective film. In fact, in at least three different ways I can think of, Se7en undermines the intelligence of its detectives rather than privileging it.

A heart, not a brain

In the very opening investigation of a crime scene, in which we meet detective Will Somerset (Morgan Freeman), there's a throwaway moment that never pays itself off later in the film. (Or if it does, I missed it.) Somerset asks one of the other cops where the children are, as he notices children's drawings on the refrigerator of some kind of crime of passion that has left a husband or wife dead. (Two days later, I already can't remember which, and the Wikipedia plot synopsis does not specify.)

The other cop scoffs and says it's a dumb question.

In a typical detective movie, which immediately wants to establish that our detective is smarter than the others, this "dumb question" ends up proving immediately prophetic. In a typical detective movie, what the others thought was a ridiculous possibility -- that a child would still be cowering somewhere in this apartment where one of his or her parents was murdered -- would prove to be true.

In Se7en, it's not true. There is no child on the scene. And so Somerset's question would seem to be entirely without merit, except that it has a different function: It proves he has a heart. In a city full of corruption, violence, brutality and evil, his heart distinguishes him more than his brain. Especially when the other detective talks about how worrying about where the children might be is not part of their job.

Of course, we see plenty of examples of Somerset's brain later on -- but Se7en doesn't worry that we won't trust his smarts. It worries that we might not know he has a heart, and that's the most important thing to establish with him.

Street smarts, not a brain

One way Somerset's smarts are proven is not only that he notices details, like the children's drawings on the refrigerator, but that he has a deep understanding of classic literature, one that actually contributes to the cracking of cases from time to time.

That does not describe his new partner, David Mills (Brad Pitt).

Mills is a hot shot in his own right, but he's not an intellectual. He'd like to emulate the research-intensive approach of someone like Somerset, as it has obviously gotten results, but he just can't sit there reading Milton and Chaucer.

So instead he gets a beat cop to buy him Cliff's Notes for the books Somerset has told him to look at.

When Somerset later expresses surprise that Mills gets a reference from one of these books, meaning he read them, Mills says something under his breath like "sort of" or "mostly" before continuing on. It's one of the film's few attempts at humor, and it really lands.

Interestingly, Mills' shrewdness is also undermined when he asks a beat cop if they checked for a pulse on the guy whose face is found sunk into a bowl of spaghetti. It seems like a dumb question at the time, and Mills explains that he's seen corpses who weren't corpses before -- though when Somerset asks him why he was hammering home the point, he can't really explain why, which gives an indication of how green he is, how much he does things without thinking and on instinct.

This one does pay itself off later, however, when they arrive at the home of the child molester who has been starved over the course of a year, and the apparent corpse does gasp out a helpless breath.

Luck, not a brain

Despite all the clues they uncover that do in fact lead them to John Doe, Doe still bests them and escapes from the scene of his potential arrest. And the only reason they do eventually take him into custody is because he walks into the police station, covered in blood, and surrenders himself. (In fact, this sight is so apparently commonplace, and people are so numb to it, that he actually has to scream "Detective!" to get anyone's attention despite his ghastly appearance.)

So in the end -- unlike other detective movies -- it's just dumb luck, or rather, the nefarious scheming of the criminal himself, that ends up getting the criminal caught.

So yeah, I guess I did glean some new insight from Se7en after all -- and not just on the "correct" spelling of its title.

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