Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: Seconds
“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…
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.
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.”