I still remember the first time I saw the trailer for Se7en. It was summer vacation, 1995. I was immediately intrigued. Maybe it was because of Morgan Freeman who was coming off Shawshank, and I was hopeful for something of equal quality. Maybe it was the left turn young Bradley Pitt was taking, steering his boat away from “The Sexiest Man Alive” moniker and into some dark territory. Maybe it was the despairing tone the trailer promised. Or maybe I’m just sick in the head and against all reason, attracted to sick things. Probably the latter.
“How's this for culture?”
On Friday nights, the majority of my eighth grade class would turn up outside the local cinema. Our parents didn’t want us kicking around their houses with bubbling hormones and “act-before-you-think” mentalities, so we were pushed out into the world, with no cell phones and very little money, if any. Some of us walked or biked from all over the city to get to the Regal Cinema, and some of the lucky ones got dropped off, but any way you got there, there was always the promise of comedy, drama, and romance – inside and outside the moviehouse. We loitered our socks off all night, commiserating, sharing gossip, flirting, hiding cigarettes and sneaking kisses. And when we had the money, we went to see movies.
On one of these nights, immediately after school let out, I convinced my mother to drive me to the theater and purchase me a ticket for Se7en – it was R-rated. I told her it was a cop movie, but I know that if my mother had had any inkling as to the nature of the film (which, to be fair, I didn’t even really have), she would have loudly protested. I say protested and not forbade because my mother and I had recently come to an understanding.
A couple months before Se7en, right around the time I saw the first trailer for it, I’d come home from the local library with a copy of A Clockwork Orange which my mother reacted to immediately. With caution, worry, and a little disgust, she politely asked me not to watch it, citing the film’s disturbing rape scene. Perhaps since she phrased it as protestation and not an edict, I dug deep for a rebuttal, claiming I was old enough to understand that movies were just movies. I explained that I’d already read a bit about the film’s violent nature but needed to endure that violence since the film was lauded as a classic. I assured her it would be alright, that I wouldn’t be warped, and honestly, I wasn’t. At that age, I was too immature to appreciate Clockwork, and though I tried desperately to understand it, I was mostly confused. The best part was I had unlocked a door. My mother, previously keen to play censor, was now yielding to my own judgment.
“Anyone who spends a significant amount of time with me finds me disagreeable.”
I had my ticket in hand as I stood waiting for the 7:35 showing. Some girls asked me if I was going to see Hackers that night with everyone, and without an ounce of regret, I said, “Nope. I’m going to see Seven.” And when they asked me “With who?” I stuttered briefly before admitting there was no one else – just me. Not surprisingly, these girls thought it was strange that I would go to a movie by myself. I didn’t do it a whole lot, but sometimes there were movies that I wanted to see that no one else did; Leaving Las Vegas andDead Man Walking jump to mind. I watched so many movies alone in my parents’ basement that the prospect didn’t seem so alien. Not to mention, if there was a movie I really wanted to see, I didn’t necessarily want anyone else there with me if they were going to be disruptive. They seemed a bit weirded out: “By yourself? Really?” They graciously offered a perfunctory invite to join them if I changed my mind about hanging out alone on a Friday night. Thankfully, the allure of females failed to supersede my own interests that evening, and I went in to take my seat in the back.
“Honestly, have you ever seen anything like this?”
When the lights go down in a theater, I used to get a thrill. There was a time when a couple of coming attractions were the only commercials that preceded a movie, and those were cued by a slight dimming of the lights. You knew the movie was coming even before the “feature presentation” reel because the lights dimmed fully. And for a few short seconds of silence, the only sound (other than popcorn being masticated) was the whirring and ticking of the projector above your head.
When the credits for Se7en began, I was immediately uncomfortable. I squirmed in my seat, anxious at the inability to escape the scratching sounds, the fleeting insert shots of razorblades shaving at fingertips, and all the while grimacing at the discordant, disturbing music – then I heard “You get me closer to God!”, and I sat up in my seat, assuaged by the usage of NIN. I had the tape (yup) of The Downward Spiral and was well aware of Reznor’s penchant for remixes, and though I’d never heard that version before I felt at once a calmness because I perceived a modicum of understanding for the tone of this upcoming film. Of course, I had no idea.
Even though I was half his age or more, I was drawn to Pitt’s character – young, good-looking white dude just like me. (Snort). In earnest I found him determined, confident, and still a little green around the edges but eager to work. What I didn’t notice, until many viewings later, were his faults. His determination was self-serving and alienated, isolated and trapped his wife. His confidence was in fact arrogance; his inexperience proved detrimental, and his work ethic rarely equated to quality policework. He was short-sighted, impetuous, and excitable, but most importantly, Mills lacked humility. His unearned ego was large and easily bruised, offering a transparent glimpse of his insecurity. From the word go, he clashes with Somerset (Freeman) who is supposed to orient him to his new gig. And though Mills recognizes Somerset’s authority, he glosses over the tutelage, rejects the veteran’s methods, and disobeys consistently. Not exactly a modest student.
However, in spite of all this, Mills is still likable. His youthful arrogance, notwithstanding, he wants to do a good job. Beneath all of his tough-guy, hard cop rigmarole, Mills is, I daresay, an idealist. Not unlike a young teacher who voluntarily takes their talents to an impoverished, failing school district, Mills sees the need for his passion in the despair of the crime ridden, unnamed city. He challenges his partner’s retirement from the force and resignation from civilization. He refuses to concede to Somerset’s evaluation that the world is shot to hell, and we should get out while we can. He believes in people. Or maybe he just believes in his own capacity to save them all.
The fiery Mills is well-contrasted by Freeman’s Somerset, the steady-handed, intelligent, and patient veteran detective. When I first watched the film, I remember admiring Somerset’s resourcefulness and self-reliance; at one point, I even conspired to steal my friend’s dusty metronome off of the piano his family never used anymore. At the same time, since I felt more linkage with Mills, I saw the grump that Mills rebelled against, the soured old man convinced the world was beyond saving. But like Mills, I lacked Somerset’s informing life experiences, and the script only does so much to convince a 14-year old that this grizzled vet has seen enough, that he’s peerless where dedication is concerned, that he’s utterly alone amidst a sea of policeman who’ve numbed themselves to empathy long ago. I wasn’t old or perceptive enough to realize this. As it turns out, Somerset’s fervent and unapologetic pursuit of retirement is a façade, one which begins to show cracks when Mills comes into his life and John Doe’s killings begin. Somerset’s attempts to resist both Mills and the assignment prove to be tentative when he quickly moves from conducting research on Det. Mills’ behalf to accepting a dinner invitation to dine with Mills and his wife. As much as he longs to wash his hands of the job and keep Mills at a distance, Somerset is bound to duty, hamstrung by his last lingering modicum of “give-a-damn”. Or maybe he’s just worried this cocksure little rookie might screw the whole thing up.
“This isn't going to have a happy ending.”
I watched this movie many times, never paying much mind to Mills’ wife, Tracy. Like many young men, it was easy for me to subconsciously dismiss supporting female characters in a male dominated film. Before the age of 25, I can count on one hand the amount of times I found a female character undeniably relatable. More often than not, women in the movies I saw were flat characters adding little to the story, young starlets serving as set design more than actualized characters. Or they were stereotypes devoid of complexity, saturated in elements from only one side of the moral spectrum – insanely evil or perfectly angelic. Even in films where women were featured prominently they were very rarely relatable to a young me in that they tended to occupy a maternal or romantic role, doling out compassion or unconditional love. And I was always more in the business of sponging up love rather than giving it. Thankfully, there has been a bit of a shift both in me and in Hollywood’s attitude where the fairer sex is concerned.
That said, Paltrow plays Pitt’s wife, Tracy Mills, who is hopelessly trapped in an empty home while her husband works and forced to endure the grind of an unforgiving city which is slowly eroding her soul. Unlike the fears Mills or Somerset are forced to face, Tracy’s reality smacks of a palpable fear for audience members, a domestic and relatable fear. Tracy is stuck supporting her husband’s career, friendless and alone. She keeps her recent pregnancy a secret from him as she can’t bear the thought of inflicting the world around her upon a new soul. She confides in Somerset who seemingly convinces her that motherhood might just make her happy. Why doesn’t she talk to her husband? Well, he’s a bit of a reactionary. Perhaps she knows all too well her protests might be drowned out, her concerns waved off. Tracy’s story, for these reasons (and another more spoilerly one) mark her as the most tragic character of the film – a marginalized woman and apprehensive mother, trapped in a despairing world, lonely, and incapable of communicating compromise with her absent husband.
“I feel like saying more, but I don't want to ruin the surprise.”
Since seeing this film in the theater, I have slowly fallen in love with Fincher. This was before the time when my college roommate taught me to “follow directors, not actors”. Back then, I really only knew Steven Spielberg and didn’t think about the generals of movie sets. However, when I saw “From the makers of Seven” in front of the ads for 1997’s The Game, I was immediately drawn in. In fact, other than Alien3 , I’ve seen every one of Fincher’s films in the theaters, even Fight Club during its dismal theatrical run. Fincher has evolved considerably since the 90s. Apart from adopting more and more digital tools, diversifying his script choices, and dabbling in streaming television, his films – beginning with Panic Room – have slowly moved away from the depressive Seven and the nihilistic Fight Club. Though he has returned to the serial killer scenario with Zodiac and Mindhunter, he also branched out with the Shakespearean Social Network and his Oscar-nominated fairytale, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. His style has certainly evolved for the better. Films like Gone Girl and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are thematically relatable to his 90s films but possess a steadier hand and less conspicuous camerawork. While I am nostalgically connected to his earlier films, I continue to be impressed by his evolution. He is certainly one of the most exciting directors working today, and there is a sense that, in spite of his already impressive filmography, his best entries are yet to come.
“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "The world is a fine place and worth fighting for." I agree with the second part.“
When Freeman delivers this final line, the screen goes dark as he walks towards the back of the frame. I remember sitting in the silent theater. All the popcorn and soda were gone. No was stirred. And the sounds of California’s helicopter circled the theater a few times before trailing off. This was the first time sitting a theater where I felt paralyzed by a film. When the credits (which atypicalled rolled from top to bottom) breached the screen, I didn’t move. I watched them all. Not because I wanted to. Because I was stunned.
Unpredictably, Seven has become increasingly difficult to watch. I’ve owned several copies of it over the last twenty-three years and rewatched it in the ballpark of twenty-five times. The older I’ve gotten, the sullen tone and nihilistic ending which once made me beam have begun to sink their claws more effectively into my slowly softening skin. As a younger man, I luxuriated in the cynicism and horror of the film, as though it validated my nascent understanding of a world I’d only read about in books or seen on the news. If I was lucky enough to talk a virgin into watching it, I sat and relished their growing horror and disbelief: “Pretty messed up, huh!?!” Nowadays, I almost feel as if I could cry during the final, damaging reel.
I’ve long since shed the notion that movies can only be good if they end negatively. I think any burgeoning cinephile goes through this phase. That’s not to say that I’ve retreated solely to the safety of happy endings; I still think films with dark content or a downer ending are valuable, if only for their sense of verisimilitude (yes, I’m still a reluctant cynic). And while Seven isn’t nearly as shattering as Requiem for a Dream or The Stoning of Soraya M, it has nonetheless, taken hold of me, continuing to occupy a darkened corner of my mind. It’s a bit like a traumatic experience. For my part, there really hasn’t been anything quite like Seven, nothing that has cut me so deep, creating a wound that reopens every time I screen it, a wound that requires more time to heal with each viewing. Call it masochism if you like, but I call it…well...yeah, it’s masochism. But if it hurts, it’s also good cinema.
The Man in the Hat and the Man who Used to Make Him.
A blog post by Dewey O'Neil
Senior Odd Dog Blog Writer
“The man is…nefarious.”
I feel infantile sometimes admitting that Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. was the first person I wanted to be since (1) he’s fictional and (2) the majority of my peers award their fathers with such an honor. To that point, I would concede the following: my father has done far more than Dr. Jones to assist and support me, but when I was six, I didn’t want to be the guy in the suit with the briefcase - I wanted to be the man in the hat with the whip.
Nonetheless, my Dad was responsible for showing me many great films in my youth, an activity which, to a young father, may have seemed insignificant or simply a rudimentary way to keep his two boys engaged after a long day of work. However, these viewings are vividly etched into my memory and still stand as the kindling and first sparks of my lifelong love of cinema. And in spite of the countless ways in which we differ, movies still remain the solid bridge which joins my father and me thirty years later.
I first saw Raiders (or most of it, anyway) sometime in the spring of 1987 or 88, and it was precipitated by a combination of our weekly family dining ritual, a newspaper, and the old man.
“Didn't any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?”
Immediately following church on Sundays, my family would sit down to a big breakfast. We’d hit the grocery for all the essentials: bagels, bacon, eggs, and a cheese danish. And once at the register, my father would throw on the Sunday edition of The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s top rag. Sunday breakfast was the only time I felt like the world slowing down for all four of us. It was leisurely, peaceful, and punctuated by the smells of Mrs. Dash and fresh newsprint. We sat, sipping tea and coffee, munching bagels and Danish, and scanning the Sunday Plain Dealer.
Speaking personally, I only ever wanted two sections – Sports and the Arts. I was a baseball fan in my youth and devoured every Cleveland Indians’ box score, but I would usually have to wait for the sports section until my father was done with it, so I would snatch the arts section to look at the film advertisements. Within the arts section was a television schedule which I would also peruse, looking at the Sunday night movies on WUAB, channel 43.
On a rare occasion, one Sunday morning, my father preempted his sports section by checking the television listings. It was a strange move, and I remember staring at him, waiting for the moment he set the arts section back down so I could grab it. Before he relinquished his grip, the following conversation occurred:
Dad: Oh, honey. Look what’s on tonight! (shows Ma the listing and points with his finger)
Me: What? What’s on?
Dad: It’s called Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s on tonight, but you’ll be in bed. I’ll tape it for you. You’ll like it.
I wonder if, like me, you ever get the feeling that memoirists employ a bit of creativity in their recollection of conversations. I assure you – this conversation occurred almost verbatim.
“Look at this. It's worthless - ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless.”
I remember Indy’s introduction where, after being mostly shadowed by the canopy of the Kauai rainforest, he stepped into a shaft of light as the orchestra tumbled out a couple measures of sinister notes – almost like composer John Williams was going for some sort of “Duh duh DUUUUUHHHH!” I remember being a bit confused by that musical cue and wondered if these dark, descending notes indicated that this man was not someone to be trifled with, if he was in fact, a bad guy. In such a dangerous, foreign environment, he seemed all business, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him.
All my concerns dissipated once Indy’s burlap sack of sand failed to register the same weight as the golden idol it replaced. That was when the cracks began to show – figuratively and literally. Jones quickly became a fallible man, one whose escalating trials were…well…funny. Later in life, I was made aware of Lucas and Spielberg’s affinity for Republic serial adventures, a genre which, while I never experienced directly, I was exposed to through the cliffhanging commercial breaks of such cartoons as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or GI Joe. All of Indy’s obstacles were both exciting and humorous to behold. I giggled at Indy trying to pull himself out of the chasm by the tiny weed, and Ford’s self-satisfied albeit short-lived smirk in that scene still makes me chuckle. I marveled at the enormity of the giant fiberglass boulder, the imposition of Belloq and his platoon of Hovitos, and particularly at Jones’ escape and the ensuing chase. I think it still remains my favorite chase scene from any movie in spite of its brief length. This is also the first moment I heard “Raiders’ March”, the Indiana Jones theme, a song which thirty years later still fills me with heroic delusions. Needless to say, Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford owned me almost immediately.
I also remember Marion Ravenwood’s introductory scene. I didn’t completely understand the drinking contest she was engaged in but felt sure it was some kind of game. In spite of my youthful inexperience, I still managed to perceive an otherness from this woman. She was a domineering, female business-owner, outdrinking or ordering around swarthy and dangerous looking men and controlling the conversation with the established male hero. She lacked familiarity when stacked against the delicate and demure sensibilities of another Marian I knew well, the one from Disney’s Robin Hood. While Ravenwood certainly becomes a distressing damsel at points in the film, she is always scheming an escape, slapping faces, or talking back (sometimes with her mouth full). Ravenwood was revelatory to me at a time when I was more accustomed to women in film and TV fading into the wallpaper.
And obviously I remember the truck sequence. Apart from the music, the stunts, and the comprehensive spectacle of this classic setpiece, I remember one part in particular – when Indy, after commandeering the truck, sends the jeep of Nazis careening off the side off of the desert mountain. That notion terrified me.
“I can only say I'm sorry so many times.”
So imagine it’s the climactic scene. Indy and Marian are tied to a post. Belloq enacts the ritual of the ark opening. The Nazi monsters Toht and Dietrich look on. Young me sits so close to the TV I could climb in. And then, Belloq finishes the Hebrew incantations before nodding with a slight apprehension to the Nazi stooges who respond by lifting the lid of the ark. The lid passes in front of the camera and we slowly begin to zoom in on Belloq who bends to peer inside -
– and that was it. The tape stopped and began to rewind. What. The. Fart.
My father, bless his heart, made an honest mistake. In the days of VHS, there were two settings the user could employ when recording: Standard Play and Long Play. If my father had recorded Raiders using LP, I would’ve seen the entire film, albeit in far inferior quality. As it happens, he used SP which captured Raiders with far better color and tracking but used the tape up more quickly. So, I had a copy of Raiders, an incomplete copy with a plethora of commercials but a copy nonetheless. And without reservation, I wore that copy out, watching it several times a week for 15-20 months which I feel stands as both a testament to Raiders’ quality as well as the quaint, bygone behavior of pre-internet, pre-youtube childhood. Sure, I could have just rented it, but my father, ever the frugalist, scoffed at the notion of renting a movie that we already owned 94% of: “Just find someone who owns it and borrow it from them.”
As luck would have it, my babysitter, Michelle, owned a VHS copy of Raiders. So in the summer of 1990, in a musty basement in Avon, Ohio - after seeing Temple of Doom at a friends’ house and Last Crusade in the theater - I finally watched the ending of Raiders in all its face-melting, bureaucratic fool glory. And then I watched it again, and again, and again, and again, maybe in an attempt to make up for all the times I’d watched the film incompletely or maybe because watching Dietrich and Toht’s faces melt and Belloq’s head explode was just so mouthwateringly vicious.
“Your persistence surprises even me.”
Far be it from me to criticize America’s most famous filmmaker, an artist whose undeniable legacy in Cinema is surely intact, a storyteller whose pictures have touched millions worldwide, but I miss the old Spielberg.
Beginning in the mid-eighties with Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple, Spielberg began to fluctuate between making popcorn movies and historical dramas. His desire to jump between genres and the products of this push for versatility were admirable and increased his appeal and stature. But I see 1993 as Spielberg’s pinnacle. 1993 saw the dual release of Jurassic Park, Spielberg’s last great popcorn movie, and the award-winning Schindler’s List, one of the greatest historical pictures ever made. His hard work and ambition was rewarded with unparalleled commercial/critical success and Oscar gold. There was no doubt that this man’s prolific contributions to cinema would last forever. Then came Hook.
In the past 25 years, I can’t name a Spielberg film that was really good. Catch Me if You Can and The Terminal were fun and cute, respectively. Bridge of Spies was well shot and proffered a heretofore cinematically unseen depiction of post-WWII Germany but frequently felt flat and overlong. The predictable Minority Report was really only visually appealing, and the same goes for War of the Worlds which, at one point, simply felt like Jurassic Park with aliens. And, let’s face it, Saving Private Ryan is saved only by two or three sequences – Omaha beach, the death of the medic (played by Giovanni Ribisi), and the final defense of the city. If we’re being truly honest, the rest of the film, though jarring, drips with melodrama and schmaltz.
Director and Monty Python alum, Terry Gilliam, once critiqued Spielberg’s films for their insistence upon happy endings. He quoted Spielberg’s longtime friend, Stanley Kubrick, who, in reference to the screenplay for Schindler’s List, posited that the holocaust was not about hope and success, as the script would have you believe, but rather about failure. As a reluctant cynic, I am inclined to side with Spielberg on this one; his film is about a small glimmer of hope surrounded, enveloped, and immersed in plenty of despair along the way. Perhaps it is different for some, but where such dark history is concerned, I prefer juxtaposing the horror with a dash of hope. In fact, if you crunch the numbers, Schindler saved 0.000019999999999999998% of the six million Jews murdered in the European Holocaust. Moreover, the film ends with Schindler lamenting not saving more when he clearly had the means, a lamentation which adds up to, in the protagonist’s mind anyway, a failed opportunity. I feel Spielberg courted both tones quite well: hope in despair and failure in success.
I am more interested in Quentin Tarantino’s take on the filmographies and careers of directors. Like him or not, Tarantino possesses a knowledge of cinema which I would surmise is unmatched by any other industry player. Moreover, the man talks a lot, and I frequently listen. In his studies, Tarantino has noted a pattern, perhaps not an altogether shocking pattern, but one which I feel applies to Spielberg. Though he refrains from using many names, Tarantino believes that as time marches on the quality of most directors’ films declines, perhaps owing to the depletion of their creative impulses or perhaps because they become less critical of the projects they choose to undertake. While he makes some exceptions to his rule – such as Martin Scorsese – Tarantino fervently believes that each great director has his time, and this theory seems also to be the main factor in his choice to make a total of 10 films before checking the gate for the last time. Were he in Spielberg’s shoes, Tarantino would probably have taken his final bow in 1993, secure in the legacy of his oeuvre, content to go out on top.
Suffice to say, Spielberg’s time has passed. He may still be a brilliant producer or a bankable name in foreign markets (where Ready Player One made the vast majority of its money), but he will never again create something like Raiders or Jaws or Jurassic Park. Some may be quick to decry such a claim as being overly influenced by nostalgic attachment, and I would agree; there’s certainly a good amount of that in there, too. Nonetheless, with as much objectivity as I can muster, since 1993, Spielberg has undeniably lost something. In his defense, we’ve all gotten older, viewers have changed, he’s changed, and God bless him, but I can’t muster even a fraction of interest in The Post. His final chance, in my opinion, is the forthcoming and final installment of the Indiana Jones films, and I say final because it’s the last time Ford will crack the whip as Indy. Any Indy films that follow don’t count – I’m looking at you, Chris Pratt.
“It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage.”
Before I moved out to Arizona ten years ago to begin my career as a teacher, my father and I screened Raiders at the family home in Westlake. We laid on the floor side-by-side, our heads propped up by pillows from the couch. It was late, and regrettably, we both fell asleep, but it was nonetheless fitting to conclude my life in Ohio in this fashion and a nice memory I have with my dad. It was also an interesting and relevant segue to begin my move to Arizona where I now live less than ten miles from Spielberg himself.
The man in the hat was my hero and still is in many ways. He was an expert in his field and motivated in his endeavors by a deep, unflinching respect for antiquities (except for the business with stealing the golden idol as well as whatever unnamed transgression he committed in Madagascar which earned him a death sentence, apparently). He was quick with an insult, loved by women, possessing of a tight circle of reliable friends, and when the dust settled, always standing atop a mountain of obstacles, his fedora silhouetted by the setting sun. While Last Crusade is probably my favorite because of the father-son relationship, Raiders is a technically superior film. Even Lucas says it remains his favorite movie he ever worked on.
Ford turned 76 today, and no matter how disappointing Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was, I’m still hopeful for one last adventure they’ve planned for 2019.