Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Seconds (1966) directed by John Frankenheimer

What is a man?  Is he his family?  His age?  His job?  His location? His physical appearance? What combination of factors creates a personal identity? Do you choose who you want to be, or are decisions made for you by others? John Frankenheimer’s Seconds tries to peel back the layers of this philosophical onion in this brilliant and bizarre film.  It’s impossible to talk about this film without spoiling the plot, and it’s a film that benefits from going into it knowing very little.  

Seconds is about what happens to a man when he gets given the chance to make a perfect break with the past and start over.  Bank manager Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) lives a detached and numb suburban existence: he’s become emotionally distant from his wife and his daughter is married and lives far away.  He feels a constant, deep sense of ennui.  Then he is offered an opportunity to start over – to be ‘reborn’.  A secretive company fakes his death, ensures security for his wife and daughter, gives him plastic surgery – everything he needs to start over with a new identity.  His purported ‘dream life’ is served to him on a platter..  He takes it, and becomes successful artist Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson).  But can a man cope with being transplanted into a new life, even one which fulfils his every desire?

Reborn as Rock Hudson
John Frankenheimer directs the hell out of this.  For a man with such a long working career (1957 – 2002) I’m ashamed to say I’ve seen very few of his films.  Earlier this year I watched The Manchurian Candidate (1962) which I thought was brilliant.  I’ve also seen The Island of Dr Moreau (1996), but the less said about that the better.  What I’ve noticed from both The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds is his firm grasp of ‘the weird’. 

What is ‘the weird’?  It’s when a film accentuates dissociative qualities in an attempt to disturb the audience.  The conventions of realistic dialogue and normal human interaction become suspended, the film enters a liminal state.  It’s not that the characters begin to speak in surreal nonsense; it’s more a question of a shift in tone and emphasis.  Characters might place unusual priorities on behaviour, they could matter-of-factly say horrible things, or conversely, cheerily talk about atrocities. One of the best scenes in Seconds is when, after a metaphoric trip through the underworld, the unsuspecting Arthur Hamilton finally meets ‘Mr Ruby’.  Mr Ruby is the representative of the company in Seconds which ‘rebirths’ people.  As a confused and nervous Hamilton takes a seat, Ruby sits relaxed behind his desk and says;

“My name's Ruby.  I've been assigned to go over the circumstances of your death with you” 

As the scene continues Mr Ruby happily and calmly outlines the details of how they’re going to ‘kill off’ Mr Hamilton as if it were the equivalent of buying a new car or taking out a loan.  You can get a lot of mileage out of viewing sinister acts through the lens of banal bureaucracy.  Mr Ruby in this scene seems to prefigure Michael Palin’s ‘Jack Lint’ in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), where the most insidious evil lies in affability and chumminess. 

A plate of food is delivered to Mr Hamilton, who, understandably is not in the mood for some light dinner (and considering the tea he drank earlier was drugged I’m not surprised).  Mr Ruby is clearly distracted by the uneaten food – and soon he’s perched on the desk, nibbling at a piece of chicken, pausing from his graphic explanation of how they’re going to disfigure a cadaver to resemble him to extol the virtues of the cafeteria’s cheese covered chicken.

"They have this wonderful way of baking the cheese onto it so that it gets very crispy."
Having done this, he casually proceeds to show our hero a film strip of him drugged and delirious, and apparently sexually assaulting someone.  “Rest easy Mr Wilson.  You did not ravage our girl” he helpfully adds. 

"Of course the photography is not too professional.  But I think it's clear enough."
What Frankenheimer understands is that you can’t plunge headlong into ‘the weird’, you have to gently escalate things.  Treat the audience like a frog in a pan of water – to boil your frog alive you’ve got to heat the water slowly so it gets used to it.  The escalation begins with the journey to Mr Ruby, as our lead is given cryptic messages, lead to a bizarre steam filled laundrette, and then through a meat-packing plant.  It climaxes with the appearance of ‘The Old Man’, who runs the ‘Rebirth’ company.  He is easily the most outré character in the film, a sinister eccentric with undefined but extensive means.  His taut but lined face has a salesman’s smile stitched into it, his voice is smooth, grandfatherly and trustworthy.  He is Satanic, and he’s got an offer that he says you can’t refuse.  As Mr Hamilton hesitates, the pen hovering over the document, the old man sits staring at him, nodding supportively, that horrible grin seemingly slashed into his leathery hide.

"There never was a struggle in the soul of a good man that wasn't hard.  My poppa told me that."
The weird is a slippery fish for a director keep a grip on.  It’s easy to alienate an audience with strange character behaviour and dialogue, and you can make yourself look pretty sophomoric if you lapse into ‘weirdo’ cliché.  After all, there’s nothing more predictable than a dwarf showing up in a dream sequence

Speaking of dwarfs in dream sequences… The obvious master of ‘the weird’ is Lynch (and he gets an pass on the dwarf dream cliche for inventing it in Twin Peaks).  Even after 30 years Eraserhead (1977) still sits near the top of the weirdo films pantheon, but elements in practically every Lynch film slide effortlessly in and out of ‘the weird’.  There are visual and sonic elements in Seconds that seemingly prefigure similar scenes in Eraserhead and The Elephant Man (1980).  Thematic concerns in Seconds - loss of control over your identity and the concept of the malleable personality also slot neatly into Lynch’s later works like Lost HighwayMulholland Drive and Inland Empire.

This film would not be half as successful without the cinematography of its DP, James Wong Howe.  He’s very much an unsung hero of cinema and in the 1960s about as experienced as it gets.  His career dates back to 1923, and he’s photographed classics like The Thin Man (1934),Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Hud (1963)

When he's not shooting in a beautiful wide-angle he goes straight for the intrusive.  Extreme closeups repeatedly fill the screen, the camera gets right in the actor’s faces letting us see every imperfection and nervous drop of sweat.  Again, the effect seems Lynchlike.  Inland Empire, shot on DV Cam utilises these techniques to the same effect, getting as close as possible to the actors, allowing their features to fill the frame, warts and all.  Seconds is shot in high contrast black and white, and the lighting of the film picks out every crag, scar and baggy eye of the case.  Considering a large portion of this film is set in MalibuCalifornia, it is notable that no-one looks particularly glamourous.

During a drunken cocktail party sequence later in the film the camerawork ducks and weaves as it tracks an increasingly out of control and self-destructive Rock Hudson.  Alternating between odd angles, and shaky POV shots the camerawork highlights the danger and picks out the disapproval etched on the faces of the guests.  In key scenes Wong Howe distorts the frame, stretching characters and scenery like a funhouse mirror.  It’s hardly the most original way to depict the fragile mental state of the characters, but it is undeniably effective.

This film is necessarily a performance of two halves, the first being Frank Campanella, who plays the lead pre-rebirth.  A jowly, insecure egg of a man, he doesn’t so much wear a suit, as have it grafted onto his skin.  He’s withdrawn, slightly twitchy and easily manipulated.  Time after time he’s browbeaten and ordered around, and every time he willingly submits to the orders.  Upon being asked to get into the back of a mysterious meat wagon he mildly objects, asking if he could ride in the front, but after meeting the slightest resistance immediately buckles and sits compliantly in the back of the darkened truck. This is a man who has supposedly achieved everything a man is supposed to: he’s got the comfortable suburban house in the country, the wife taking care of domestic duties, he’s next in line to be president at the bank, he’s got the boat to fiddle around in on weekends and a grown and married daughter.  Yes sir, he’s got it all! 

And he feels utterly neutered.

"So this is what happens to the dreams of youth."

So he proves a susceptible candidate to agreeing to the radical surgery that transforms, him into Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). If there ever was an appropriate stage-name Rock Hudson is it.  The stature and physicality of the guy seems to radiate dependability and security.  Douglas Sirk recognised this, casting him twice as the domestic dream hunk in his melodramas All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind(1956).  He also gives a fascinating portrayal of Texan masculinity during that period in Giant (1956).  So if you are going to have your appearance completely altered, you could do a lot worse ending up as Rock Hudson.  It’s a different side of him that we see here.  He’s essentially playing someone who has been told to try and emulate the Sirk-esque ‘Rock Hudson’ type. 

Rock Hudson does a fantastic job of showing us the insecurity of a weak man trying to pretend to be something he’s not.  When quizzed about what his ideal job would be, he first chooses a tennis pro (which, incidentally was Frankenheimer’s ambition as a youth) and then settles for his second choice, to be an artist.  The seemingly omniscient Rebirth company sets him up with diplomas from several prestigious art schools, produces a number of paintings that they’ve credited to him and gives him a plush and swanky studio on a California beach.  Who could ask for more?

A lesser film might take this opportunity to show off how fun a life of luxury can be.  In different hands this script could have been adapted to a comedic premise, a somewhat less fantastical equivalent of Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor (1963).  Hudson never really looks like he’s having a good time, he clearly doesn’t enjoy his perfect life at all.  He spends the initial weeks of his new life as an insecure shut-in, clumsily daubing on a canvas to try and become the successful artist he’s been told he’s supposed to be. 

Eventually he meets a lively and impulsive woman sitting on a beach.  She, like Hudson has ditched suburbia, and is the kind of character talks to the sea and reads tea leaves.  Inevitably they fall into a relationship, and she begins to drag him out of his shell.  In a quite bonkers sequence she drags him to some kind of wine-making bacchanalian, where wild, freaked-out hippies slosh around naked in a huge vat of grapes.  In contrast, Rock Hudson begins to look a bit Alan Partridge-y, awkwardly watching in a conservative sports jacket and beige slacks. 

Here the film taps into a recognisable paranoia.  What if everyone sees through this mask?  Who hasn’t been at some social gathering and become convinced that people are going to call you out as a fraud?  In the face of such wild partying, the character immediately becomes discomforted and wants to get out of there.  We feel for him, the party is frantically shot and edited in such a way as to emphasise the overt sexuality and chaos of the affair.  If it were in colour, that vat of grapes might look inviting, but in black and white anything could be lurking in there.  The cold, creepy, middle aged loser huddled within Rock Hudson’s manly demeanour is beating the walls in desperation.  Eventually he gets pulled in, stripped, torn at like a victim in a zombie movie.  He begins screaming in terror, but as he’s repeatedly baptised in the grape mush his screams turn to manic laughter.  As he been ‘turned on’ to the hippy scene?

For a moment the audience can see a possible happy ending.  It’s the 60s, right? All hail the dawning of the Age of Aquarius!  What more optimistic message there be that even the stuffiest bank manager can become a sexually adventurous dope smoking flower child?  But this isn’t that kind of film. 

He goes further and further off the rails, manically screaming nonsense about his old life at a drunken cocktail party.  He ends up back at his old wife’s house, desperate to get one of his old “Arthur Hamilton” watercolours back.  She’s thrown them out.  In this last look back at the life he’s abandoned he realises that he neither wants to go back, nor wants to continue as Tony Wilson the artist.  He returns to the company for another bite of the apple and is led into a Kubrick-esque waiting room full of identically dressed men waiting for a re-rebirth.

The final scenes of the film involve a conversation with the Old Man who runs the company.  Rock Hudson tries to explain what went wrong.

"You see it's so important.  Choice!  We gotta talk about it!"

He’s then unceremoniously strapped to a gurney, gagged and wheeled down a corridor to an operating theatre while screaming unintelligibly and thrashing about.  

The doctors loom over him, drug him and kindly say “relax, old friend”.

Then they drill Rock Hudson’s brains out.  

"Nurse?  Cranial drill."
His last indistinct thoughts flicker before his eyes.

Cut to credits.


So, what have we learned from this?  The Arthur Hamilton/Tony Wilson character is fixated on the fact that the ability to choose for himself has been denied to him.  As Arthur Hamilton he’s miserable because he feels that society has predetermined the boring suburban path his life has taken. As Tony Wilson he’s miserable because the Rebirth company has again made all the important decisions for him.  All he claims he wants is his own capacity to choose a life for himself – “[give me] a new face and name.  I’ll do the rest.”  Unfortunately, he’s missed the point entirely.

He’s had agency all along, he was just too wrapped up in his own misery to realise it.  He’s a rich, white, Harvard educated male in the 1960s for crying out loud – the world is practically laid out for him on a silver platter!  His repeated desire to be able to make his own choices rings hollow – he’s always been able to make his own choices – he’s just lacked the imagination to do anything interesting with the hand of aces he’s been dealt.

Even when given another dream life, he still wallows in his own self pity.  You can change a person’s environment, you can change their appearance and damn near everything else, but you can’t cure a fatal lack of imagination or purpose.  Arthur/Tony could have an infinite number of ‘rebirths’ and would still remain stuck in his depressive, solipsistic loop, trying to work out who to blame for his misery this time.  Sure, this time things will be different, this time it’s going to work out!

The idea that the film deconstructs is that happiness and fulfilment can be achieved by manipulating the external factors around a person.  The ultimate message of the film is that long-lasting happiness is out there, but if you take too many shortcuts and don’t work out why you were miserable in the first place then you’re probably going to wind up with someone jamming a cranial drill into your skull. 

And that’s why this is a great film.

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