Non-place is Still Someplace: Seven’s Failure to Surmount Mass Culture
Tina Butler, mongabay.com
May 6, 2005
“Nothing remains true for very long. That’s why writers are brave.”
David Fincher’s film Seven is an attempt to critique mass culture in the spirit of Theodor Adorno, specifically in his essay, “The Culture Industry.” While masquerading as an unforgiving and unflinching meditation on mass culture’s assault on our national mental life, Seven is unwittingly incarnated as mere residue of the culture industry and hence, supportive of the things it is trying so fiercely to overturn or at least present in an unflattering light. The film employs numerous innovative techniques and treads upon seemingly new ground with regard to elements of plot, character and setting. At first glance, both stylistically and to some degree, topically, the film appears deficient of the typically all-encompassing, creativity-obliterating qualities that mark products of the culture industry as such. Some of the more original aspects of the film include the silver-skipping process performed on the film stock that gives Seven an invariably gritty, grainy, dark and unique appearance in addition to the story’s departure from the routine and predictable, such as the deeply pessimistic ending. Despite or in spite of these distinctions, Seven resorts to committing the sins characteristic of all works produced in and by mass culture, practices raised and identified by Adorno. It is in these failures by the director that the lasting pertinence of Adorno’s writing can be recognized. While many of his ideas have been overturned by more recent theorists as well as by technological innovations, there are key elements of his work that ring true even now and Fincher’s efforts, although ending in failure, reflect Adorno’s intelligence and foresight.
By employing a new technique that gives his film a distinctive look, Fincher is only perpetuating the inevitable cycle of mimicry and subsequent mass reproduction of his innovation in the public sphere. Silver-skipping becomes part of the popular domain; its specific style, as it is copied, becomes the negation of style by representing the culture industry like Adorno prophesies (36). All cultural production becomes homogenized for the mass audience. Seven is a film that launched a thousand imitations and while the process and look may be new, the story is regrettably old.
The conventional dichotomies and archetypes of characters are presented in their brightest and most ironic glory. There is the brilliant, ambiguously sexual, fetishizing serial killer, the sometimes dramatic, sometimes comedic interplay between the subtle old pro and loose-cannon rookie cop, and the representation of the other law enforcement officers as mildly inept and complacent to the prevention or halting of the killings. Each of these characters has noticeable quirks, but overall, adherence to the formula of mass culture style is fairly strict. Where Seven takes one of its few marked risks is in its ending.
The film’s ending is, by no means, uplifting and optimistic. At Seven’s close, the audience is left with no sense of redemption or hope for renewal. In mainstream film, produced in and by mass culture within the framework of the culture industry, this is a rare happening. When the credits roll, the world is unchanged, dark as ever, perhaps even darker than before, now that John Doe’s sinister vision has been actualized. Detective Mills has been destroyed and Morgan Freeman’s character of Detective Somerset is returning back to place he loathes. Even the rural, quasi-naturalized country setting cannot redeem or make light of the parting circumstances. Technology and signs of the enemy city scar the landscape, both visually and aurally, by the massive whirring high voltage towers. Their presence destroys any aura of the natural or good.
With the exception of the ending, in terms of plot elements and structure, Seven offers few twists and, for the most part, relies on convention. What makes the film different is how the setting is presented and used almost as another primary character in the diegesis. Here, the city is portrayed as a place so corrupted and sinister; it pollutes the hearts and souls of its inhabitants. The characters of John Doe and Detective Somerset are made by the environment; they see the ruinous nature of their world and its affect on humanity and act on it, albeit in strikingly disparate ways. In this sense, Fincher does make a bit of a critique on mass culture along Adorno lines. The city and its industrial base are presented as evil entities, capable of corrupting even the most common of men.
Fincher attempts to remove his audience from a clearly identifiable and logical space by constantly anchoring the narrative in non-places, through a series of disorienting flashes of spaces that we are unable to make linkages to. It can be argued that Seven is one of the first attempts at a new kind of cultural production, a kind of super-modern entity that cannot be tied to any one place, but rather contains elements of every place. In this picture world of fractured and incomplete skylines, anonymous alleyways, highways and road signs and a contradictory representation of seasonality, the setting for Seven is all at once anywhere, everywhere and nowhere. By dislocating the logistics and landmarks of place, Seven almost achieves autonomy from classification and thus, the culture industry, if only in regard to the setting.
But even in this, the audience is able, at some point, to tie this world to the parameters of their own lives. Fincher cannot help but make cultural references that bring his work into the glare of the specifically and distinctly American. Mentions of Jodie Foster and Yoda are impossible to ignore and ground the piece. Some may counter this claim by stating that these references are the most obvious elements of his critique, but these cultural allusions only serve to commodify and vulgarize the film. Fincher’s use of American actors (with the exception of the Wild Bill’s Leather clerk), police cars, filming locations and the aforementioned references reflect a uniquely American, albeit anonymous, city. So while the setting of Seven may occupy several facets of non-place, that place is undoubtedly somewhere in the United States. The filmic world can never fully escape the bounds of its identity.
Seven, even if it is anomalous of or detached from mass culture in some manner, there are moments in the film where the audience is prompted to react in a certain way that is reflective of products of mass culture. Such moments include those where the viewer is inclined to laugh. Adorno writes of laughter—
The triumph over beauty is celebrated by humour
There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh at. Laughter, whether conciliatory or terrible, always occurs when some fear passes. It indicates liberation either from physical danger or from the grip of logic. Conciliatory laughter is heard as an echo of an escape from power; the wrong kind overcomes fear by capitulating to the forces which are to be feared. It is the echo of power as something inescapable
laughter [is] the instrument of the fraud pratised on happiness
to laugh at something is to always deride it. (39)
Seven’s filmic content is, for the most part, quite bleak, yet there are undeniable instances where the tone is interrupted or shifted. Whether these instances involve Brad Pitt’s character Detective Mills’ sardonic comments concerning the somewhat frustrating nature of their investigation or Joe Doe’s mental state, or the scene of shared laughter following the first passage of the subway train during dinner; they are marked variations from the rest of the film. These moments release the audience from the fear it has been experiencing through the majority of Seven. In laughter, there is a brief holiday from the pervasive horror that saturates the film. Seven’s power to scare, subdue and surprise is compromised by these moments of frivolity. Yet at the same time, episodes of humor in such a film appear terribly out of place and the act of laughing, on many levels, seems to trivialize the gravity of the situations and suffering the film presents, in addition to betraying its tone. The audience is forced to laugh at things that, in and of themselves contain few elements of comedy—grotesque images, the mentally ill and a real estate swindle. In these and other scenes, the audience members for Seven, like any other film, are reduced to pawns of mass culture—prompted and prodded into responding in particular ways. By performing exactly what is expected of them, they feed the culture industry and become like the character John Doe describes in one of his many journals—”puppets dancing on a ridiculous stage.” With this simple excerpt, all of the film’s failures are brought into the glare of reality.
While Seven seeks to overcome or at the very least, transcend the clutches of mass culture, in too many instances, the film is conventional and thus, cannot be anything else. Seven fails to critique and instead fortuitously becomes a proponent of that which it is attempting to defy and render void. Adorno writes, “The whole world is made to pass through the world of the culture industry” (30). Fincher’s work is not exempt.