Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: Seconds

“Don’t it always seem to go… that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…”

--Joni Mitchell
“Big Yellow Taxi”

Perhaps this column should be subtitled “Halloween Hangover.” I had intended to write about this film in October, but the more I thought about it, classifying Seconds as a horror film does it a disservice, and I mean no insult to the genre I so dearly love. Many sources classify Seconds as science fiction, but that label does not quite fit the bill either. Seconds is a genre unto itself; it defies easy classification.

The Plot In Brief: Middle-aged Arthur Hamilton (played by John Randolph) leads an aimless, unhappy life. He sleepwalks through his day and feels no passion or happiness of any kind. A strange phone call in the middle of the night leads him to a mysterious address and “the Company.” For a fee, the Company will fake your death, provide you with extensive plastic surgery and a new background, and allow you to start life again somewhere else in the world. Our protagonist is reborn as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) and is set up in Malibu as a successful artist. However, there are as many problems with his new life as there were problems with his old life. Perhaps if Wilson were allowed to be reborn one more time…
Directed by John Frankenheimer and released in 1966, Seconds is one of the most depressing movies ever made. “How then does it fit the rubric of ‘foolish pleasures,’” you ask? “How depressing can it be,” you query? “May I pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” you inquire? Geez, you are full of questions, mister.

In response, let me tell you a story about Beach Boys founder and chief songwriter Brian Wilson. During early 1966, he was hard at work on the Beach Boys’ new album Smile and slowly going insane. One day he took a break from recording and attended a screening of Seconds. He arrived late and entered the theater just as a character on the screen said, “Hello, Mr. Wilson,” so Brian was quickly convinced that either a) the movie was really about him, what with all those scenes on the BEACH or 2) he wasn’t actually attending the movie, but hallucinating it. The experience freaked him out to such an extent that he cancelled the rest of the recording sessions, shelved Smile for 45 years, and did not step foot into a movie theater until 1982.

THAT is how depressing Seconds is.

I find the two most salient quotes (when it comes to movies and depressing stuff) are “I would rather feel bad than feel nothing at all” (Warren Zevon) and "No good movie is depressing, all bad movies are depressing" (Roger Ebert). Seconds is soaringly depressing, artistically depressing, and deeply depressing. It is a kind of sublime depression, that cathartic and necessary depression to which some art aspires.

The performances in Seconds are all terrific, particularly Rock Hudson, who was always seen as a bit of a hunk and never a serious actor. Hudson acquits himself nicely here; his final scene is a tour-de-force. Many critics have commented over the years that Hudson, a closeted gay man, would have special empathy playing a character forced to pretend he is something he is not.

The film also features a boatload of actors blacklisted during the McCarthy era, all giving interesting, nuanced performances. In fact, I would argue that John Randolph, Will Geer, and Jeff Corey are all at their peak here, doing career-best work. Geer is particularly good; he takes that homespun sincerity that later became his trademark on The Waltons and here turns it sinister and cold. What a shame that he was prevented from performing by political bigotry for 16 long years. Murray Hamilton, the mayor from Jaws, also shows up in a small but crucial role.

Seconds delights in its cool camera tricks, courtesy of DP James Wong Howe. He uses fisheye lenses and long-lens cameras attached to moving actors; this distorts the spatial relationship between actor and background and creates the effect of a nightmarish travelling shot in hell. I love it when a movie flaunts its “movie-ness.” Fancy or self-referential camerawork never pulls me out of a movie -- I know I’m at a movie. The invisible editing, match cuts, detailed performances, “realistic” dialogue, and accurate production design of most Hollywood films are not the subterfuge of charlatans trying to convince us that what is happening on screen is ACTUALLY HAPPENING; they are stylistic choices. I don’t mind – in fact, I relish it – when an innovative filmmaker uses the range of possibilities available to him with the camera to make other, different, choices. It can be risky, but in Seconds it works.

TANGENT: For my Film Studies class one semester long ago, I had a GREAT idea: I scheduled after-school supplementary screenings on Wednesdays that would be connected in some way to the regular film we were screening that week. Back them, Seconds was very difficult to see (it wasn’t released on videotape until 1997.) I had to drive three towns over to rent the film on laserdisc. No one showed up for the screening; no one showed up for any of the supplementary screenings. That idea lasted one semester. Every Wednesday afternoon I would sit alone in my darkened classroom and screen a classic film for an audience of one.

This was an ideal setting for Seconds.
SPOILER ALERT: This film will spoil your happy life. Just kidding! (No one has a happy life.) What I mean to say is… this film is in the fine tradition of art that teaches by negative example. We are meant to examine the awful life of someone else--say, Oedipus Rex or J. Alfred Prufrock or that guy trapped in a closet--and vow not to make the same mistakes. This is a popular theme in drama because sometimes we need to be taught the same lessons over and over again. Seconds, like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol or Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, has the same effect on me whenever I revisit it—it makes me re-examine my own life and find joy in all the things that are right with it.

Seconds encourages us to ask ourselves the age-old question, “Who am I?” Seconds also teaches us that if we do not like our own answer to that particular question, then we should endeavor to change. One of the most affecting scenes in the film is when the reborn but still dissatisfied Tony Wilson breaks the Company’s rules and returns to New York to visit his—or rather, Arthur’s--wife. Tony tells her he was a friend of her husband, and the conversation that follows about their marriage is absolutely devastating. Adam Sandler’s moronic, misbegotten movie Click aspired to this type of all-of-life-is-precious self-reflection, but it fails utterly on every known scale of human endeavor and a few that particle physicists have yet to dream up. The difference? Seconds isn’t afraid to take us to some uncomfortable places, and its characters suffer consequences that go deeper than mere plot contrivance.

Seconds reminds me of a particular line in a particular play I used to teach to high-school sophomores. It is one of those lines that sticks in your head, and not a month goes by that it doesn’t occur to you again, but always in a different context. That’s the great thing about art. And though it may seem depressing, Seconds is art. Here’s the line:

“The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in our selves.”

William Shakespeare
Julius Caesar


  1. This sounds like a MUST see!

    Ive slowly developed an appreciation for "depressing" movies, or movies with a down ending (which I am assuming this has), because I find these types of movie linger on the mind far longer after it has ended than a satisfying happy ending does. You tend not to get that "Ive already forgotten what Ive just seen" phenomenon that can happen with formulaic Hollywood happy ending movies. So, when the movie has a point and a message I mull over the issues and message in far greater detail and consider all of its nuances more thoroughly than with a happy ending, ultimately have a far more satisfying experience. Whether that's a broad human drive to find meaning in despair regardless of whether the meaning exists or not (hello religion), or a personal/individual tendency towards intellectual inquisition...I couldn't say. But I like when a movie with a meaning and message has a down ending (i.e. Vanishing Point), but I can get quite furious when a pointless and meaningless movie has a down ending (i.e. The Collector...sorry, ill get over it eventually....probably) because the only reason then for the movie is to make me feel low.

    Three cheers for intellectual artistic expression through cinema!

    Seconds seems a little hard to come by from the looks of it, ill need to keep my eyes open. Thanks for the tip JB.

    1. Criterion just put it out on Blu-ray a couple of months ago!

    2. Oh sweet. I couldnt find it on netflix or hulu nor at our national big video/electronics store (coincidentally called "JB Hi-Fi"). But the Best Store In The World has a Criterion Collection section. Never fails to impress. Ill be visiting this weekend.
      Thanks Patrick.

  2. Barnes and Noble started their annual Criterion sale today. 50% off until the end of the month.

  3. I think this is a fantastic film. I love the way the corridors are distorted in his dreams, how his own image is distorted as well in the opening credits, to reflect his sense of despair and loss of identity. I do think it is very much its own film but I have picked up a few possible influences. I think that the feeling of bleakness and the playing with imagery, as well as a few other parallels, reminded me of film Noir in the first section before his surgery and after it seems to become more influenced by 60s European art cinema.

    That image where Rock Hudson is looking in the mirror and you see three reflections of him in the separate pieces of glass really would fit right into a Noir film. There are two Noirs in particular that stand out as possible influences on the film. Firstly Murder my Sweet (1944), which I really love. There is a rather remarkable dream sequence in the film. All the themes of loss of identity and hopelessness are there, plus some brilliant visual experiments, such as when Phillip Marlow (Dick Powell) wakes the camera lens looks as though it is covered in cobwebs or 'smoke' as he describes it. His vision blurs as does ours as he sees the floor and door in front of him in a fuzzy moving haze, to make us feel his disorientation. The second is Dark Passage (1947), where they avoid showing Vincent’s face. One of the ways they do this is by using POV. He gets a face transplant as he is an escaped convict. When he goes under he has a strange dream where you see three half heads that look like they don’t have skin and distorted images of the faces of the people he has met since he has escaped, where he sees about four images of the cab driver, for instance, with the center one being blurred. The dream becomes a nightmare with the doctor laughing manically. When he wakes we get to see his face, but is covered in bandages. His identity is as distorted as those faces he saw in his dream.
    The scene where they are making wine, somehow reminded me of that overwhelming build up of frenzied emotion, similar to a scene in Suddenly last Summer (the cannibalistic orgy). I do think the film is definitely an art film. I see some influence from Italian art cinema of the 60s, even British art cinema, such as films like Darling, which came out the year before Seconds.

    The way I think it is individual is the way it addresses reassessing what is important in life. He talks about what he is supposed to want, that end up being hollow, which reflects on the pointless nature of the American dream and the deadliness of the pursuit of it. People and meaning are what he is after, but he realizes this too late. There is far too much going in this film to comment on with one comment so I may want to write about this on a blog at some point. Thank you for your recommendation JB!

  4. Great observation, Gabby. I'm kicking myself for not thinking of it. The film's mood of doomed fatalism too, I think, makes it film noir.

    BTW: I really liked your seven word reviews on the Scary Movie Challenge. They were poetry.