Shannon Spencer on Seven: Ethics for Actors

Twice in my life I have walked out of a movie feeling sick to my stomach, having watched it to its bitter end. The first movie was The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and the second one was the current Brad Pitt thriller, Seven, so titled for a serial killer who mutilates and/or tortures seven people on the premise of teaching the world a lesson about the seven deadly sins. These kinds of movies, which place a premium on sick psychological horror, raise all sorts of questions about what the movie industry is spending their money on, what they must think of their viewing audience, the moral responsibility of film-makers to society, and the idea that these movies give to people about how to treat other people and what is really acceptable behavior in the '90's. Movies are a form of narrative, which has been called "our chief moral compass in the world" (Cronon, "A Place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative" (1992)). As moral guideposts, movies provide the members of society with cues about responsibility and acceptable behavior. As I left the theater where I sat through Seven, I pondered these thoughts and questions as well as another: do movie stars themselves have any moral responsibility to a society which regards them as role models and heroes?

Seven is a movie about a young firebrand police investigator (Pitt) new to a big city police department and assigned to a terrible district. He is given a case to work with an older investigator, played by Freeman. Pitt's character does not even make a pretense of following the letter of the law he has sworn to uphold, in fact he stoops to the level of breaking the law to get his collar. Freeman's character, on the other hand, has lost all hope, has no personal life whatsoever, and seems to have no goals except to do his job and retire, which he is scheduled to do at the end of seven days (the same time span as the movie). Pitt's character has a lovely wife whom he neglects badly for his work--leaving her alone basically nonstop throughout the movie in a terrible neighborhood where they have just moved from "upstate", where she has no friends, no job and a lousy apartment right next to some well-used train tracks. The other character is the killer himself, who methodically and horrifically tortures seven people to death so as to deliver a message to the world about the dangers of the seven deadly sins--gluttony, greed, sloth, pride, lust, wrath and envy. His intent is to illustrate what happens to those who indulge in those "sins" and each murder corresponds to one of the seven sins.

To give credit where credit is due, the film certainly was artfully done, I have no arguments there, and the storyline was somewhat interesting--at least it had a plot. However, the vile acts perpetrated by the morally-righteous-yet-fundamentally-amoral killer and the absence of any redeeming characters, aside from the ultra-sweet wife, who is beheaded by the killer so that Pitt's character will become the seventh victim by giving in to his rage, have me questioning why this film was made and whether it is ethical for a movie star with the audience pull of Brad Pitt or even Morgan Freeman (a more talented actor but with a smaller following among younger movie goers) to act in and lend his or her name to such a morally vacuous film.

Movie stars have been made into heroes and role models--most often without training. Their basic qualification is that they are in the public eye in a way that few, if any, other people are. There are certainly actors and actresses who deserve to be viewed with respect and admiration for the quality of their work and their other contributions to society, but many actors and actresses are admired simply for their looks or their image rather than what is underneath. Actors like Brad Pitt, who have the looks which appeal to the general American fashion taste buds, (blonde, intense blue eyes, etc.) get the lion's share of the adulation of young audiences. This puts them in a peculairly powerful position and, I believe, creates an obligation to provide a positive role model to their fans. I think of it as an exchange of services--the audience adores, pays money to see movies, buys posters and other paraphernalia, screams at the sight of, and generally feeds the ego and pocketbook of the actresses and actors (and those of the movie houses, the production companies, the film studios and the myriad others involved in the movie industry). In exchange the actresses and actors provide a figure to idolize and fantasize about and hopefully to look to as a role model. This may sound Pollyannaesque, but I don't think it is so outlandish to hope that actors who can basically get any role they want would choose roles in movies that have some sort of value to the people who will watch it. We are all members of a large community called the United States of America (or the world, if you like). As members of this community, I believe that we each have a duty to the other members to do whatever we can to make it stronger or healthier. And we have a duty not to do conscious acts that will hurt that community. That is exactly what I think Seven has done. It has no redeeming characters, no morality, no lessons to teach us--it is a depressing example of low quality, mainstream entertainment which has received top billing at movie theaters across the country.

I cannot come up with any positive lessons that can be learned from this movie-- except the one being learned by all the executives of the industrial sized movie companies. They all know a new formula for getting money flowing into their coffers: create a horrific plot--no redeeming factors required--hire a young glamorous movie star, kill off people, get a good soundtrack and sell the movie to young audiences across the country, regardless of the emotional wake that it might leave across the national psyche. That is hardly a positive lesson for the world at large.

Movies, in their role as narrative, serve to "motivate and explain our actions, the stories we tell change the way we act in the world." William Cronon, a cultural historian, believes that stories, more than merely preserving the tales of a time, have morals from which humans learn about themselves.

It is undoubtedly true that we all constantly tell ourselves stories to remind ourselves who we are, how we got to be that person, and what we want to become. The same is true not just of individuals but of communities and societies: we use our histories to remember ourselves, just as we use our prophecies as tools for exploring what we do or do not wish to become.

I hope that Seven tells people more about what they do not want to become than about what they do want to become or about what is acceptable--or even the norm--in our society. A list of things that society does not need could go on for uncountable pages, but the obvious ones that Seven embodies include: socially unconcerned actors, movie producers, directors and screenwriters who choose to be involved with films like this, marketing companies that sell it to the public, theaters that play morally bereft movies for weeks on end, people like Pitt's and Freeman's characters, who either are irresponsible and lack ethics or are pessimistic about life, and, not to be forgotten-- serial killers. The people involved in the making of this movie and others like it have themselves committed one of the seven sins which this movie says are so terrible--they have all put greed, and perhaps vanity, before their ethical responsibility to the public that looks to them for entertainment, and, more importantly, moral guidance.