Nihilism and Pop Culture

Anyone who has seen the movie Seven will probably agree that it was excellent. The acting was intense, the plot was captivating and the skillful directing greatly heightened the dramatic impact of the movie. Watching Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman play off each other while portraying hard-nosed detectives was thoroughly enjoyable. And yet if I had known more about Seven before actually watching it last week in the Science Center, I would never have gone. After seeing it, I have come to regret that it was ever made.

Seven is not only inherently inhumane, but it smacks of being inhuman as well. The gruesome murders which Pitt and Freeman must solve are so cruel and visceral that I find myself amazed that anyone could conceive of them, let alone decide they were appropriate fare for a major motion picture. The final scene of the movie is a glorious tribute to nihilism in which Brad Pitt's world is torn apart by a senseless crime that leaves the viewer convinced that life is meaningless, that pain will always triumph over happiness and that it's kinder to abort an unborn child than to bring it into the world.

There is one tiny redeeming moment at the film's end. Morgan Freeman mentions that the world is worth fighting for, but this line seems an incongruous afterthought and does little to dilute the overwhelming sense of spiritual darkness one takes away from Seven.

Feelings of alienation and cynicism, unfortunately, are very much in vogue in popular culture and run rampant through it. Anyone who has listened to the lyrics of such groups as Nine Inch Nails or Smashing Pumpkins has undoubtedly felt the incoherent and inexplicable anger conveyed by the music. (Not surprisingly, Seven director David Fincher has many music videos under his belt. The movie's opening music is, in fact, a Nine Inch Nails tune.) And it's impossible to watch television without seeing talk shows and real-crime dramas which amplify and extort human misery for ratings.

Many will argue that art is simply a reflection of society; that it's wrong to fault it for expressing trends that are simply part of our underlying cultural fabric. But art is by no means an unbiased sample of the feelings and mores that its creators are exposed to. Rather, it is a lens which is used to focus, isolate and amplify certain trends that the artist wishes to bring to the public's attention. This process in turn helps to reinforce the sentiments that engendered it.

This is why nihilistic pop culture and art are so detrimental. They help perpetuate the most damaging and destructive attitude that a free and democratic society can hold: that life is not worth living and that all our efforts will eventually lead to pain and disappointment. The most frustrating aspect of this is that often such thought is not expressed genuinely but rather because it will shock and entertain and earn a profit.

Even if the creators of Seven genuinely feel the sentiments they espouse, it's troubling that none of its producers or financial backers came to the conclusion that the public didn't need or deserve this dimly-lit tribute to pain and suffering. Artistic license does not abrogate social responsibility, and it's simply wrong to make money by playing to people's worst instincts. This does not mean that we should ignore or gloss over our collective problems and concerns, or seek a return to the repressive innocence embodied by the 1950s. But neither should we let the pendulum swing entirely in the other direction to a state of moral anarchy in which nothing, including human life, has inherent value.

Obviously, there's no litmus test that can be used to determine if a movie is "acceptable", nor should there be. And any form of government censorship of the media is completely unacceptable. But those responsible for producing popular culture need to take a harder and more thoughtful look at what they are saying with their movies, music and art, and learn to recognize when one of their products is so morally bankrupt that it would be irresponsible to foist it upon society. Seven is such a product, and it is by no means the only one.

David H. Goldbrenner's column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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