Sunday, April 1, 2007


dir. John Frankenheimer

Who needs 3D when you got James Wong Howe?

March 31, 2007 - DVD

In addition to being an amazing movie, Seconds has one of the great titles in film history. It implies a certain greed, or a general dissatisfaction with what you’ve been given. Even when the “second helping” is insisted upon instead of requested, it’s in the act of taking that a person’s self-interested nature reveals itself. At the same time, this movie is savvy enough to sympathize with the taker, and it aims to investigate the larger problem, which is a society that knows an individual will take everything they’re offered, and irresponsibly keeps… on… offering. When a pet goldfish eats itself to death, who’s to blame?

Whoa. But I’m getting carried away. First, the set-up. The story is one of those things that begi
n with a successful man, perhaps in his mid-fifties, who lives his life as a ghost. He and his wife sleep in separate beds, it’s awkward when they kiss, and he finds nothing very worthwhile about his comfortable existence. One day he receives a phone call from a friend he thought was dead, and he’s given vague instructions that will lead him to an opportunity to live an altogether new life, as a new man, complete with a new face, new personality, new interests, and even “a new signature!” For more, check out the trailer.

This Twilight Zone-y premise is just the beginning, though, and Frankenheimer steers t
he story through some of the most harrowingly photographed psychological set pieces I’ve ever seen (special fun note: big fans of Requiem for a Dream might be surprised when they see shots that predate Aronofsky’s cheeseball “camera-attached-to-the-character” business by almost 35 years, and do it with infinitely more success, purpose and panache). Cinematographer James Wong Howe attacks this stuff like a man unfettered, often jamming his lens so close to the features of the actors that the camera shadow jags across their face. More than once, physical instinct had me leaning backwards, thinking Rock Hudson’s forehead might smash through the screen. It’s like a latter-day Orson Welles picture (or maybe one of Larry Cohen’s cracked bits of pulp genius) in its seemingly limitless supply of funhouse angles, some of them magnificently sloppy, and all of them supplementing the movie’s surreal, manic atmosphere.

Seconds was apparently met with a lot of confusion and derision upon release, and even now is generally seen as a fairly minor, “flawed” cult film. This is insane, of course, because the movie’s an awesome success, but I think I have a theory as to why the uncertainty remains. Like The Beguiled, this film uses our knowledge about other movies and about ourselves to assume that we’ll take certain notions as a given. Take the dissatisfied middle-aged man element, for example; Seconds makes no real effort to probe the main character’s psyche and find out what, specifically, is wrong with him. Instead, we’re talking about a general, familiar malaise, and it’s with this kind of vaguery that the film asks the audience to fill in the character gaps by projecting their own minds and experiences upon him. This kind of thing makes viewers nervous—it’s getting a little too personal. Couple this with truly invasive cinematography, and suddenly Seconds is "psychologically shallow" and "overly stylized."

And let's talk once again about that style. There are two scenes in particular that come hand in hand, one after the other, which I believe earn Seconds most of this type of criticism. In actuality, these are probably the best scenes in the entire movie. The first is set at a weird kind of wine festival, and the second occurs at a cocktail party in the main character’s house. Both of them are long, essentially plotless pieces of pure movie mania; in the first, we watch a stodgy, proper man gradually lose all his inhibitions. It begins as a fairly innocuous-seeming, renaissance-style grape stomping party. Quickly, though, it evolves into a full-blown, drunken, naked free-f0r-all (I mean, full-frontal... and this is 1966!), and by the time Rock Hudson is grinning like a mental patient and screaming "YES!! YESSS!!" we totally feel the release. Interpret that as you will. In the second sequence, we watch this same man crumble under the weight of his new (and, at its core, false) personality. We watch a man drown himself in alcohol, stumble around embarrassing all his guests, and eventually hit rock bottom (ho, ho) as he realizes that no matter what he does he's the same lost and dissatisfied man as he was in his old life. Calling this second sequence "uncomfortable" would be an understatement... it's brash and ugly and insane. And it gets us exactly where we need to be, down and out and massively depressed. Because of the elation we felt in the earlier sequence, this actually kind of feels like a personal failure. It tears at us as viewers, not just at the Hudson character, and it's this kind of invasiveness that, I think, freaks the shit out of some people. It's a more advanced level of filmic interaction, but if you can deal with it and acknowledge that it's achievement is pure and direct, and that the uncomfortable feeling is just the film working its magic, then this movie may be among the most powerful you'll see.

And in the end, it all comes down to greed. This is a film about a man destroyed by accepting an offer for "seconds," and thinking that the answers to his problems lay in a different assortment of company and products. I've read some reviews (and, indeed, Frankenheimer himself has agreed with this assessment) that at it's center this is a "be careful what you wish for" sort of film. I completely fuckin' disagree, even despite the director's interpretation of his own work. This is a man who only "wishes" for something after he's told it will fix all his problems. When it doesn't, as it certainly never would, he gets blamed for the failure, and the punishment he receives is nothing short of permanent and ever-repeating. What a crushing, fantastic movie.

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