What’s in the Box? Disembodied audience in Se7en

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The Following text was written as part of my MA thesis in Film Curation: Deconstructing Cinema however, unfortunately it didn’t make it into the final draft. 

Looking at the greater picture, films are generally characterized as „ocular-specular (i.e. conditioned by optical access), transitive (one looks at something) and disembodied (the spectator maintains the safe distance).“ (Elsaesser 14). And to some extent I do agree with this characterization, but only to some extent because when it comes down to films of both Hitchcock and Fincher, especially to films like Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960), Fight Club (1999) or Se7en (1995) we, the audience, are everything but disembodied. Yes in a physical sense we are maintaining the safe distance meaning we cannot interfere in the events unfolding in front of us, nor can we be pseudo-harmed by them, simply because they are prerecorded, however, we are not the passive watchers because the director is playing (us) upon our own expectations, positioning us in relation to the screen in such a way by giving us the role of both the witness and the accomplice in a crime and therefore, in the end, it is we who assume the role of the perpetrator and the victim, respectively, it is we who keep changing our position constantly.

In Psycho, for example, the audience had, to borrow the term from Zizek, “the spontaneous confusion of directions” for they couldn’t identify with a single character; their emotions were constantly manipulated throughout the film with a clear purpose and goal:

The first part of a story was a red herring. That was deliberate, you see, to detract the viewer’s attention in order to heighten the murder. We purposely made the beginning on the long side, with the bit about the theft and her escape, in order to get the audience absorbed with the question of whether she would or would not be caught. (…) You know that the public always likes to be one step ahead of the story; they like to feel they know what’s coming next.  So you deliberately play upon that fact to control their thoughts. The more we go in to the details of the girl’s journey, the more the audience gets absorbed in her flight. (Hitchcock/Truffaut 269)

Therefore, siding with Janet Leigh when she gets pulled over by a cop, is only logical. We want her to escape although we are fully aware she did commit the crime. And even when she arrives to the Bates Motel and starts conversing with Norman we are still willingly letting the grand puppet master play us upon this story, hoping that the nice, charming young man will make her change her mind. But then unimaginable happens – the star is killed half way through the film and although the killing is quite shocking and although the prime suspect is Norman’s mother the minute the cleaning scene is done we side with Norman for the job well done. Yes, Hitchcock was “playing us” indeed.

However, unlike our position in Psycho, where we did not know the entire story, in Rear Window we were placed at the position of the one who had the crucial piece of information, which was, needless to say, purposely missed by Jeffries (Thorwald had left the building) and instead given to us, the audience.

In Fight Club we initially side with Tyler who personifies the liberation, freedom and escape very much needed by Jack only to turn on him the minute Jack takes control over his life again without ever fully realizing (and in my case, until the very end) that Tyler is the other side of Jack, his complete lack of surprise, his smirking revenge, his broken heart.

Se7en, on the other hand, is playing the audience in the same manner Psycho did some thirty years before. It is one of those films you watch but you don’t actually see. What Fincher did here was actually breaking the pattern of a genre, something that many people overlooked. What producers originally wanted was the classical ending of just another thriller movie – towards the end it is Mills and Somerset who find the serial killer and Tracy (with her unborn child) is saved in the nick of time; everyone lives happily ever after. If you have seen Se7en you know this is not how the story goes. It is not the police who find John Doe but vice versa – it is John Doe who finds the police and shockingly surrenders himself in the middle of the film, mirroring Janet Leigh’s position in Psycho. This revelation was so shocking for the audience because it raised a crucial question – where could this story possibly go from here? And this is the main asset ofSe7en. This is what breaks the pattern. Why? Well, at the point when we pass the 5th deadly sin we, the audience, are bored thinking that we already have everything figured out (this is the spectator’s expectation Hitchcock is talking about) – 2 more sins to go, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman cannot die for they are Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman (Psycho obviously didn’t teach us anything), the killer will be caught – leaving us, consequently, more or less indifferent, left with only one question in mind – is the killer someone familiar, someone we have already met? In regards to this, the killer’s identity becomes the only thing worth seeing this film to the end. But then, right after we have made the peace with this, the unthinkable happens – the killer, covered in blood, walks in to the police station and he is to our surprise none other than Kevin Spacey (which they skillfully hid from us in the opening credits and pre-screening adverts). He says there are two more bodies; two more sins – Envy and Wrath – and he’ll (willingly) take detectives to them in the afternoon. So now, after the killer has so generously uncovered his identity satisfying our initial curiosity in the process, we have no other choice but to trust his decision, and although we are somewhat disappointed we are still curious and above all wide-awake, eager to know what happens next, what the killer has in store for us. We are no longer indifferent. As we progress towards the end the colors are getting brighter, we get to see more of the unknown mystery city (that looks like New York but its actually Los Angeles). It’s raining less and less with a reason – it is „a distopian rain of Blade Runner, all the pollution caused by the mankind and sins they are committing on a daily bases – we are drowning in sin, in water“ (Dryer 57). The more victims appear the less rainy it gets. The killer himself further elaborates this, in a car on their way to the final destination, where the bodies are buried: “Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face“. This is crucial to my understanding of Se7en because it sheds some light on to killer’s agenda, revealing his humanity (if this is the right word to use in this context) and we do, for a brief moment, side with him, we agree with him because we are full aware these people are anything but innocent (in the Christian understanding of things, mirroring the title). Ironically, it is Mills’s presumptuous attitude that somewhat pushes us onto this path, of forgiveness. That is, until Fincher introduces the box, skillfully diverting our attention. Again. „What’s in the box?“ Mills wants to know and so do we. Our curiosity is beyond imaginable and the slowness of the moment in which the time – as if standing still – only increased our unquenchable thirst. The revelation of its ‘content’ – Tracy’s head – is the very genius of Se7en. The audience got what they wanted and now we feel ashamed. Disgusted. Tortured. With this newfound knowledge director punishes us by forcing us to go back and replay all the images in our head. Blood on John’s cloths – is it hers? How long was he watching them? Was Mills aware of the fact that he is going to be a father? Why did the killer break his pattern?All the compassion and understanding we might’ve had or felt for the killer is now gone, forever. After all, Tracy was the only sinless character (apart from Somerset) in this film, representative of all that is gracious, soothing and calm in this world. The destruction of that (which we unknowingly anticipated with certain dosage of excitement) is something the audience cannot forgive. Nor wants to. What the audience do want is to understand how could Tracy fit the profile? She was sinless. The image gets brighter when John utters the following words: „I envied your perfectly normal life. I guess envy is my sin“. This is the moment when everything falls into place – the 6th body we were looking for in the middle of nowhere is there but it’s not the body quite yet for it will only become the body if Mills in his vengeance, in his Wrath kills the Envy. This becomes the only murder we actually see. [3] Se7en doesn’t dwell on body gore but somehow this makes things even worse because the director deliberately poses these images on us letting our imagination free reign, filling in all the missing details and what horrifies me the most could be these images relentlessly replaying in my head, Tracy struggling for her life, all the possible ways she was executed but maybe it could be, and I think it is, the fact that she served as mere function of a plot which emphasizes Mills’s tragic destiny. The way 7th deadly sin was delivered and executed is the most horrific moment of Se7en yet there is something so wonderful about it, revealing its genius.

[3] Up until this point not a single killing was shown – we only saw the bodies and only for about 2 minutes of the total screen time. Four out of eight bodies (if we count Tracy and the baby in and if we exclude Mills who unlike others didn’t physically die) were shown and out of these four only two were shown in close up: Gluttony and Sloth.

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