Shock Value

Shock Value

In the film   Se7en   (1995), John Doe (Kevin Spacey) turns himself in at the police department after bestowing another societal grace.

In the film Se7en (1995), John Doe (Kevin Spacey) turns himself in at the police department after bestowing another societal grace.

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Only in a world this shitty

Likely my second-favorite villainous film character (after the coin-flipping Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men), what more can be said of Se7en's John Doe—the mannerisms, the philosophies, the methodologies. In his mind it's crystal clear: he is offering us a gift.

With his own bloody hands, no less, he is holding out a grace for us. Albeit, one that is especially hard to see/hear.

Shortly after turning himself in, Mr. Doe tells the detectives: "Wanting people to listen, you can't just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you'll notice you've got their strict attention." Indeed, he has gotten the people's strict attention.

With the seven deadly sins at the fore Mr. Doe effectively creates performance-art installations as shocking as they are criminal. Crime as art as social statement—with each installation featuring the sin turned against the sinner.

But where is the social contrition? "Only in a world this shitty," Mr. Doe says to the detectives, "could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face."



How it arrives when it arrives

Mr. Doe is right: there is an almost direct line between our complacency and our pride, and, as it turns out, both can be adept at keeping us from what we so desperately need. If, that is, we ever hope to remain morally disturbed. And are we not disturbed?

The writer Flannery O'Connor appeared to make it her primary business to disturb dulled senses. In her 1955 short story titled "The Artificial Nigger," she uses a lawn ornament statue of a black man—not an actual black man—to shatter the self-righteous pride of the elder Mr. Head., She writes:

Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again, but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that [mercy] was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker.

For a fine, upstanding Christian man in the American South, like Mr. Head, who went to every length in the story to present himself as the good and moral guide of the young Nelson, it was a shocking turn. Michael Paul Gallagher says, "Through her strange and often 'grotesque' stories O'Connor set out to disturb the complacency of both agnostics and over-secure believers."

What she really had in mind with "The Artificial Nigger," O'Connor would later tell a friend, was "the redemptive quality of the Negro's suffering for us all." Here lies a deeply authentic grace that ruins all our proper social graces.



Cometh the whale

Even God himself is not beneath shock value. Especially if, by disturbing a shitty world, he can bring humanity back to life—from the brink of our many deaths, individual and social.

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once penned, "Into each life some rain must fall," which surely runs the risk of sounding like a proper social grace. One can only imagine how the ancient prophet Jonah might respond to Longfellow after, say, being thrown into the deep sea, swallowed by a big fish, and eventually vomited up.

Yet there was a stubborn grace available in the bottomless belly of Jonah's darkness—though it's nowhere easy enough to see/hear.

Nineveh, "that great city," a magnificently evil city, awaited everything humanity needed or could hope for: mercy. For his part, Israel's prophet knew that God always had it in him. Mercy, that is.

The biblical account ends with Jonah tired and sulking, his arms (perhaps) folded tightly, the glare of a passionate nationalist with an exclusive worldview who ends up suffering the usual disappointment with a god who doesn't meet our social expectations.

Compared to his messenger, God is positively ecstatic. His arms (perhaps) are open wider than the sea. Which—if we're being completely honest—is still nothing short of shocking.

Necessary Forces

Necessary Forces

Distilled (still aging)

Distilled (still aging)