Messiah

Today’s topic: the analysis of what is to me the greatest thriller ever made; David Fincher’s Se7en (1995). 

{As a WARNING, anyone who hasn’t seen the film or finds its subject matter (violence and gore) too difficult to bear with, please stop reading since spoilers and violent descriptions/pictures are to follow.}

David Fincher’s opinion on people is well known to film enthusiasts and his fellow collaborators, his view on who we are is a very crude, straightforward yet brave one: “People are perverts, that’s the foundation of my career.” If we have a look at Fincher’s work, his films always tackle the subject of evil, perversion and dishonesty. His movies very often revolve around who has the ultimate power, who is in a position to set the rules, who is in charge of a specific situation. And like the themes of his movies, Fincher’s direction is very unique. A rare, revolutionary voice in today’s cinema: “People will say, “There are a million ways to shoot a scene”, but I don’t think so. I think there’re two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.” He always aims for the perfect, most suitable vision for the right moment. That’s why his rigorous shooting technique (shooting a car parking in front of a hotel over twenty times) is well known as a symbol of the ultimate effort in a day when movies are shot in a few weeks thanks to CGI and sound stages. Yes, I’m referring to you, Avengers. My point is, Fincher may be brutal as a filmmaker but within that brutality there’s beauty, pure beauty that no one can steal from him.

The hopeless bloody countdown.
The hopeless bloody countdown.

Aside from his crowning Oscar winning work in The Social Network, and the legendary craftsmanship of the classic Fight Club, Fincher has been known to most viewers as the man behind the 1995 thriller, Se7en. It’s a jarring film, its brooding tone will never leave you, right? But why is that? After all, it was Fincher’s only second feature after the studio-forced disaster of 1992, Alien 3. He was a young newcomer with a few films under his belt as an assistant cameraman and photography assistant in the early 80s, and a lot to say. But the competition’s always tough. So what is so outstanding about his second film? Se7en is not only a mystery, detective story. It’s a study of the forgotten parts of our society. The seven deadly sins represent the worst of the worst, yet all the victims can be considered innocent. Innocent because of the world they live in. Detective Mills and Somerset, played respectively by a young Brad Pitt, and Morgan Freeman, aren’t exactly the heroes we expect them to be. Why should they; they live in a city where it always rains, in a country where murders are a daily routine, bread and butter for the public. In fact, Somerset is growing old and the city is kicking him down, he doesn’t even have the courage to look outside the window anymore. He cringes in disgust. Sighs in desperation. It’s filthy, rainy and blood flows in the sewers. The city remains nameless, and slowly becomes a closed trap, a place with no escape route. You live and you die there. It rains. There is no hope. Embrace it.

There is always a start to an end.
There is always a start to an end.

Mills and Somerset’s relationship represents every attempt of every human being to bond with another within this particular world. I may sound as if I’m repeating myself, but take a close look and pay attention to the details. When the movie starts out, the two don’t like each other, in fact, Fincher underlines it to this point that in some scenes he sets Mills on the far end of a room from Somerset. As the investigation progresses the two get closer, literally. The camera doesn’t cut away between the two anymore. It frames them both at the same time. They grow fond of each other, they feel responsible for one and other, and they know what drives both of them to do what they do.  And by the time they are regular partners, buddy cops really, the ending hits them. The cruel, gruesome ending strikes both of them and sets the two apart, depicting this way a very realistic relationship that most of us can relate to. Because the world we live in is not only beautiful, joyous and inspiring, it is also raw and devastating. It’s the things that we don’t pay attention to that drive this world to the legendary apocalypse. It’s what we pass by every single day and don’t mind looking at. Maybe we don’t want to look. We don’t want to know. After all, truth is often merciless.

A friendship that is about to be shattered to pieces.
A friendship that is about to be shattered to pieces.

John Doe, the mysterious serial killer, played by Kevin Spacey in his prime (delivering a monumental performance yet again), calls himself the messiah of this generation. It may sound as the words of a madman, which he is. But really, what was Doe’s objective, his ultimate goal? He wanted the world to wake up, shake it to its core and shake people’s minds while at it. Force feeding an obese man until his stomach burst, torturing a well respected lawyer, keeping a drug dealer alive for a whole year strapped to his bed with few drops of water and the minimal amount of food, forcing a pill popping girl to commit suicide, cutting up a prostitute with the help of a sharp bondage toy, and finally going into Mills’ house and cutting his pregnant wife’s head, is the proof that for someone to notice something in today’s world there needs to be a gruesome crime. For Doe, it wasn’t a crime. It was sweeping the floor, clearing the useless dust and dirt off the streets. And to just quote the character: “We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example. What I’ve done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed… forever.” In a very twisted, sick, dark way it’s the truth. We tolerate all the wars, all the drug trade, the bombings, the fanatics, the pedophiles, the rapists. We see all the world’s filth on the news and our sole reaction is to shake our head, shrug and stand up and go make some tea. We brush our teeth and we’re off to bed. John Doe took the matter into his own hands, setting the example by even sacrificing himself: “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”

The walking conclusion.
The walking conclusion.

Mills, after hearing about the gory murder of his pregnant wife, loses his wits. He’s a human being after all, but Fincher manages to add something more to it. Whenever the camera focuses on the detectives, it’s shaky. But when it comes to a close-up of John Doe down on his knees, waiting for the big finale, the camera is set on a tripod demonstrating that Doe’s in charge. Steady as a rock. Believe what you want to believe, but the madman has power over the men of the law. Madman? At the very end is John Doe the real psychopath? Mills, knowing that by killing Doe the case will be dropped and he’ll lose everything he’s fought for, ignores it and guns down the prisoner. Food for thought.

Somerset ends the movie with the famous quote, which in my opinion, tells the whole hidden story not only behind the movie itself, but our reality as well: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” I agree with the second part.” And that’s it. Fight for the better.

Losing every bit of humanity.
Losing every bit of humanity.
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The Duke

Today’s topic: the controversial icon. I’ve known the name ‘John Wayne’ since I was a little child. It made me feel safe, it made feel right at home. That familiar face, those reassuring blue eyes, and that walk. He would come up on screen and it was celebration time for me and the entire family. An old friend. That’s who John Wayne is to me. Because let’s face it, maybe not my generation, but anybody who’s lived through the 50s, 60s or 70s  must remember what it felt like when the big man hit the theaters. Of course, a lot of people think of him as the racist, homophobic, over-the-top republican washed up Hollywood actor. Yet, there must be a reason why he’s still famous and remembered by millions as “The Duke”.

You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would.
“You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would.”

Go ahead, complain about how every movie of his was about cowboys shooting Indians, cowboys taking over the prairie, cowboys killing buffalos. I won’t argue. But there is a lot more to who he really was than just that first impression. Wayne (with an acting career that spread well over 50 years), in fact, was an inspiration to such future celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Roger Moore, Martin Scorsese and Michael Caine. He was great friends with Dean Martin, Bob Hope, Walter Brennan and James Stewart. He was revolutionary in the way he brought the Western genre to the big screen time after time and still managed to be a box office hit. However, Wayne was and still is misunderstood by the public. Seen as the ‘macho’ type, the one who always comes fists first, words later. The kind of character who punches someone and then asks the questions. A very common mistake committed by Hollywood, that still applies to today’s situation. John Wayne was type casted in the last twenty years of his career. He would be hired to make B-movies where he knocked the guy’s teeth out, or rammed through a door with his powerful kick. But as Wayne said many times: “The guy you see on the screen isn’t really me. I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one if his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.” 

In fact, many people don’t know this or refuse to believe it, but John Wayne’s walk was invented by the actor. Like the greatest performances we see on screen by actors like Daniel-Day Lewis, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Wayne would undergo tough, compelling changes in the way he behaved and talked. The famous walk was invented and built in its entirety by the actor himself. He wanted some of his characters to have a past, dark motivations, scarred memories. He wished to push the character development as far as possible, to the extreme edge. And look how he fooled whole generations of viewers, letting them believe that it was all part of his true self. The slurred speech, the funny look, the way he reached for his rifle, Wayne had it all under control and all hidden under a great actor’s mask. A hidden identity.

The angry bastard in Red River.
The angry bastard in Red River.

Of course, he also had a bad reputation amongst other Hollywood stars and well known directors; he would argue like a madman with frequent collaborator, the legendary John Ford (director of Stagecoach, Rio Grande, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), up to the point where the two would start cursing at each other and one of them would walk off set. During the shooting of Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948), Wayne and actor-friend Walter Brennan would fight with co-star newcomer Montgomery Clift over political ideas; Brennan and Wayne were hardened Republicans while Clift was a convinced Democrat. Clift, after the movie got released, said he’d never work with the two again, especially with John Wayne. The Duke was  famous for his heavy drinking and chain smoking that eventually led to his death in 1979. He was also a strong supporter of the Hollywood Blacklisting, convinced that “un-american Americans need to stay out of here”.

So what is there to admire? Wayne’s passion and love for what he did. He loved acting, he loved people and he loved life. He loved simplicity and when we watch him act out his lines we see honesty and truth in the way he delivers them. Want to see an unusual, subtle performance by the tough guy who breaks people’s noses? Watch The Quiet Man (1952) and notice the transformation. For me, it will always be the 1959 Western, Rio Bravo (one of Tarantino’s favorites). The way Dean Martin’s character introduces the big man, Sheriff John T. Chance. His confident walk, his posture and warm look. A familiar face in a saloon full of bandits and drunks. There would always be hope when he  appeared on the big screen. His presence would and still does, make everything seem better. He can be the bad guy, the asshole, the hardened Sergeant, but he will always have a positive impact on how we view the picture. And I’ll never forget when Bruce Dern’s character in The Cowboys murdered John Wayne in cold blood. The tears I cried when I was a kid watching that scene. The many nightmares I’ve had since seeing that final bloody shootout. How could a nobody just go ahead and kill the man who’s never been killed before? How could someone put a deadly bullet into the back of a legend? I couldn’t comprehend and to this day I don’t have the courage to watch that scene in its entirety. It takes guts to kill John Wayne.

The way, Wayne revolutionized acting in The Searchers.
The way Wayne revolutionized acting in The Searchers.

What’s my point? Perhaps I’m just talking to myself, perhaps I just want to remind myself of some childhood memories or perhaps I just like to brag about some of the forgotten idols. Whatever it is, I like to think that Wayne is and always will be appreciated for his presence, his warm smile and the fact that John Ford admitted that “Wayne will be the biggest star of all time”. Don’t let the controversies fool you, because we all live in a world that’s built on controversies. That’s no news.

The Duke will always be The Duke.

Sail on, Captain, sail on.
Sail on, Captain, sail on.