Wednesday, September 23, 2015

how's this for culture?

Twenty years ago, I worked at the United Artists Marketplace theater in Old Town Pasadena.

INSERT: me pausing to watch the awesome opening credits to SE7EN.

Hell, not only are those credits amazing, but I love the establishing shot that follows--nothing but buildings. Like this city has no sky, even though the incessant rain would suggest otherwise. And in the next few minutes, the shots outside are framed to leave out the sky or include the slightest glimpses of it at the edge of the frame. There was supposed to be an opening sequence with Somerset (Morgan Freeman) looking at a house outside the city, to buy for his retirement, but the production reportedly ran out of money before they could ever film that sequence. I'm kind of glad they didn't because the open space of such a sequence would have countered the way this stuff is being framed a little too much.

We're offered a dark, wet, melancholic city, and Somerset is the buddy cop stereotype, the guy about to retire partnered up with a rookie. Except, this is no buddy cop picture and Mills (Brad Pitt) is not a rookie, though he definitely has an almost childish glee next to Somerset's seriousness. As far as cop film tropes this movie utilizes then leaves behind, there's not just the retiring detective partnered with the new guy, there's also the two cases tying together--like all those novels in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang--when Mills is assigned to a new case when Somerset complains about him after the first victim (GLUTTONY) is found. His case, a district attorney found dead (GREED). Where the film

And, I have both forgotten to continue talking about working at the movie theater, and have neglected to say more about the movie. Sometimes I like movies too much to write about them; I'd rather just sit and watch.

As for the movie theater, when this film came out, out theater had this one (#1 box office), plus To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (#3, and for which I made a handdrawn banner to go over the auditorium door when the real one got lost), Dangerous Minds (#4), The Usual Suspects (#7), Babe (#9) and Braveheart (#10). Actually, one of those--Babe probably, since I can't remember seeing parts of it over and over again--was likely at the AMC theater a block away because I think we might have still had Batman Forever (#15). And, there you have the interesting thing about working in a movie theater; it's not just that you see a lot of movies (we were allowed to see them at our theater (and the one nearby, as long as we arranged ahead of time) for free), it's that you see a lot of pieces of movies. Especially, the moments before the end credits. I would actually make an extra effort to see the latest releases opening weekend (which was difficult, because I was usually working the weekends) so that there wasn't risk of spoiling the ending. For SE7EN, the whole sequence with the box out in the desert--I saw that a few times a day, a few times a week for however long the movie was at our theater. See, unless I was at the door doing tickets, I was with the cleanup crew after each screening and you'd get to know exactly when each movie was going to end and I, at least, would be there beforehand, watching the end of the movie and then, if there was a crowd, get to the door and thank them for coming as they left, or if there was only a few people in the audience, I'd probably get started cleaning before the credits even ended.

And, all that has nothing to do with this film in particular, but it's weird to recall watching the end of this film and then having to sweep up spilled popcorn. It was like two different universes entirely, but I was there in both. Even watching a short piece of a longer film, I could get into it, get involved, care about the characters and what is happening in their world--and in this film, that involvement could take one to a very dark place, thinking about the kind of message John Doe (Kevin Spacey) was putting into the world... And, right now, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Somerset are talking about how horrible the city is and whether or not she might bring a baby into such a place. And, I'm reminded of why Denzel Washington supposedly turned down the part of Mills--because the film was "dark and evil." But, while the film is certainly very dark, I don't think the film is evil. At all. This is a film about evil, about darkness, about two different men standing between that darkness and the rest of us. Somerset has seen too much, and Mills hasn't seen enough. The world in the film is a dark place--just look at the way the cinematography frames out the sky for buildings, the way everything is a little dark and hazy, the way the rain pours down in so many scenes like a failed attempt to cleanse the world. This city, regardless of Tracy saying how much she hates it, regardless of how much Somerset is dying to leave it, is a very unpleasant place. Doe's victims are clearly not the only sinners around.

Mills tells Somerset, "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." And, I think of the notion of "mean world syndrome" and I've got to wonder, what else would a homicide detective think about humanity than that it is capable of horrible things? I worked office jobs and the world was a miserable, monotonous thing, and I sought out whatever outlet I could to make it more interesting. If you deal with customers complaining all day, you probably think the worst of everyone you talk to. If you see murders and murderers all day, I suspect you must assume the world is a dark place full of such things and such people. If just watching a lot of crime dramas can make you think the world a darker place (which is a fairly simplistic description of "mean world syndrome"), surely dealing with the real thing must to a far greater degree.

Then, though, I gotta wonder, a la High Fidelity's Rob Gordon, do movies like this happen because the world is a dark place? Do we think the world a dark place because we see it in movies like this? When Mills calls Doe's victims "innocent" Doe responds:

Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny? An obese man, a disgusting man who could barely stand up... a man who if you saw him on the street, you'd point him out to your friends so they could join you in mocking him? A man who if you saw him while you were eating, you wouldn't be able to finish your meal. And after him I picked the lawyer. And you both must have secretly been thanking me for that one. This is a man who dedicated his life to making money by lying with every breath that he could muster, to keeping murderers and rapists on the streets.

Mills interrupts: "Murderers? ...murderers, John, like yourself?" John continues:

A woman so ugly on the inside that she couldn't bear to go on living if she couldn't be beautiful on the outside. A drug dealer--a drug dealing pederast, actually. And, let's not forget the disease-spreading whore. Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But, that's the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it's commonplace. It's trivial . We tolerate it morning, noon, night. Well, not anymore. I'm setting the example. And what I've done is going to be puzzled over... and studied... and followed... forever.

Thing is, I think--just in the world of this film--of those security guards and janitors hanging out together in the library playing poker and listening to classical music. Even in a world cinematically constructed to be dark and depressing and cynical and unpleasant, there live people sitting around playing cards and listening to music. It's trite to say--but not inherently false--but the darkness may stand out greatly in contrast to light, but the opposite is also true. The light stands out all the greater when there is darkness to which to compare it.

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