Symphony of sin


Richard Dyer <em>BFI Publishing, 88pp, £7.99</em>

Barry Norman, reviewing Seven in the Radio Times, jauntily complained of the terminal pessimism of the film, of how its "bleak climax is much too hard on the viewers, depriving them even of the final comfort they fully deserve". Seldom has a film so ruthlessly bleak emerged from the vulgar money-making factory that is contemporary Hollywood. Blade Runner - which informs Seven, particularly in its constant rain and dark interiors, muffled sound and its dystopian urban setting - was corrupted by an artificially imposed happy ending. It was only with the release of the superior Director's Cut version that one was able to appreciate the daring complexity of the director Ridley Scott's vision.

The climax of Seven certainly has an apocalyptic desperation, as the severed head of the wife of the younger of two cops investigating a series of macabre murders is delivered to him in a box, so completing the "master plan" of John Doe, a serial killer whose victims are each identified as being guilty of one of the seven deadly sins. It was an ending that appalled the Hollywood paymasters; even when the film was completed, David Fincher, the talented director, was pressured by studio executives to reshoot the ending, so as to conform with the traditional closure of the suspense narrative - a closure offering the exhausted audience a semblance of moral restitution. The intervention of Brad Pitt, the highly paid "face" of Seven, eventually preserved the integrity of Fincher's film. "The ending," Pitt said, "is everything [the film] has been leading up to."

There is a compelling readability to Richard Dyer's Seven, the latest in the British Film Institute's series of studies of "classic" and "modern classic" films (the series was established by Wilf Stevenson during his tenure as head of the BFI). What impresses about these mini-books is their critical inclusiveness: Dyer interweaves traditional Leavisite practical criticism, interviews, reportage and marketing and production analysis. He offers canny close readings of the kind long since disallowed by theory-addled literature professors - suggesting, for instance, that John Doe may be impotent.

Dyer is good, too, on how Seven at once conforms to and subverts the standard serial-killer genre, on how the serial killer is a phenomenon of modernity and of the anonymity and indifference of advanced societies. In the next century, when film studies is as established (and valid) a subject of academic discourse as, say, literature has been in this century, then these BFI books will have helped popularise a new way of reading cinema as text.

Jason Cowley is literary editor of the "New Statesman"

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - This country is not so special