"I just like spending time with people who I don't have to explain my jokes to."
Most people today only remember the Black Panthers: their salute, guerilla warfare get-ups, and blatant social militarism. Indeed, the image of an ebony fist raised in defiance over a yellow background can sum up more about the civil rights movement, or lack thereof, than any treatise on change or PBS documentary. Yet most of the other groups that fought side-by-side, if not ideology-by-ideology, with Huey Newton and the gang are as forgotten as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. Mention the SDS and you'll get blank stares; people mistakenly asking what a feminine hygiene product has to do with the history of radical subversion in America (and that's FDS by the way). A moniker like The Weather Underground will probably be misconstrued as the name of an alternative band or a strange local cable channel. Few if any will recall its violent overthrow mentality. And what about the poor yippie, a badge of honor once heralded as a proclamation of protest against a seemingly unstoppable totalitarian state which in today's sad post-1960s sentiment smacks of mindless cheer, not anarchy. Which makes it all the more depressing for the Chicago 7, the group of once-famed revolutionaries who took a stand (and a beating) at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and then went to trial for it. They once were legendary. Now they are the foggiest of memories, so much so, in fact, that most moviegoers would barely recognize an inside reference to them.
There really was no such group as the Secaucus 7, except in the minds of its members. These lost children of the anti-war movement still meet every year to catch up on current situations and reunite with that now far off, distant era. In John Sayles Return of the Secaucus 7, new to DVD from MGM, the last spark of young America's activist past is mourned as an even more uncertain future in the '80s looms ahead.
Facts of the Case
A group of friends reunites in a New Hampshire cottage to reconnect and remember. The hosts are Mike and Katie, still living together and adding a little radical thinking to their high school teaching curriculum. Frances is a medical school student just a few semesters away from being a full MD. While seemingly secure and stable, the lack of a man in her life has caused feelings of dissatisfaction. Then there's JT, a country singer wannabe who is saddled with an untamable spirit and a guitar case filled with mediocre songs. Irene, who has gone off to a successful career as a political speechwriter, is bringing her new, seemingly square boyfriend Chip up to meet the menagerie for the first time. When everyone arrives, they learn that long-time lovers Maura and Jeff won't be able to attend. They are committed to a family event.
Everything seems sedate until an emergency call comes in: Maura has arrived after all. She has left Jeff. Suddenly tensions are high, but once the boundaries of relationships are set and the "bedding" arrangements made, everyone settles in and shares their thoughts about life, emotions, and politics.
The next day, Jeff arrives. He is an isolated, introverted drug counselor who may have remained connected to substance abuse as a means of access to that aspect of his past. Mike has also remained close to a couple of high school friends, Howie and Ron. Each represents a road not taken in his life. Howie is married with a nowhere job and three small children. Ron is a roustabout rascal with no forward direction and a carefree life as a gas station attendant and mechanic. When a misunderstanding with the police over a dead deer lands the group in jail, they recount their past as semi-active radicals, mainly floating around the outskirts of the real revolution. That's how they became The Secaucus 7, even if the name is only a gentle joking reference to a much more influential group of rebels.
Lord, does everyone love and lament The Big Chill? That potent combination of Motown and male/female menopause, sprinkled lightly with the death of free love liberalism, marked a true turning point for the Woodstock generation and introduced the concept of a baby "boom" to a nation still spinning round like a record from disco. In Lawrence Kasdan's calling card for a misspent youth in campus riots and far out happenings, an entire subset of subjects and superstars was unearthed. Looking back at the names involved—Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, et cetera—it's plain to see that this 1983 populist praise-a-thon (which has thankfully lost some of its luster over the last 20 years) practically defined '80s cinema, what with its special brand of internalized quirkiness. Indeed, the entire movie was about discovering your inner idiosyncrasies without a cause, noble or nutty, to justify them. But the film was also about friendship, about how time and tides can change, yet the bonds created in our younger years can find a way to forge on even as we age and separate. The Big Chill recognized future options traders in training and marked the end of the "me" and the start of the "mine" decade. But three years before, in 1980, John Sayles discussed a similar sentiment in Return of the Secaucus 7, except without the bitterness and bile. For John's vanishing vagabonds of peace, love, and understanding, adult life was a pleasant set of memories being properly stored away for future reference, not some excused mass mid-life crisis.
When you think of its origins, Return of the Secaucus 7 either makes completely perfect sense or is an anomaly worthy of joy and marvel. John Sayles, as a young writer/actor worked many summers in stock companies around the Northeast and his theatrical ear for sharp, spontaneous dialogue graces every entrancing moment of the movie. His characters are well drawn and real from the minute they open their mouths to express themselves. But all this was the creation of a man making a living scripting B-movie monster fests for Roger Corman (it was much later before he became a respected filmmaker), banging out plots about killer fish and reptiles. There is none of this pulp sensibility in Return, no trashy take-offs or prickly parodies. Instead, Sayles uses his experiences and expertise to craft the exact opposite of what we'd expect from the film about the '60s and those folks who found themselves radicalized by the nation's climate of growing intolerance. This is not a political treatise or a scathing denouncement of a movement. Return of the Secaucus 7 wants only to discuss and discover how such a surreal, survivalist time affected the lives of the mostly fringe element of revolution; how a call to arms almost became institutionalized servitude. The 7 were the foot soldiers, the student souls inspired by the crazed charismatic leaders at the top to take up the mission and try to make a difference. However, about the only thing that changed significantly was their rose colored glasses.
If one had to describe Return of the Secaucus 7, it would easily be categorized as mediation on the lost art of conversation combined with a final love letter to the ideology of the 1960s and early '70s. It's a Four Seasons style story of friends and relationships in flux without any of that film's smarmy self-referencing. It's an introduction to the greed and "yuppies" of tomorrow underscored by those last few remaining legions that believed they could save the world from itself. With only a couple of exceptions (the entire "teacher-student" sequence and the "bar room brawl of beliefs"), this is a naturalistic movie substituting articulateness for artifice. There are no movie moment montages or musical roots nostalgia (an obvious effect of there being no budget to buy classic '60s songs for the soundtrack), and, again, this sharpens the point of this film. For these people, their past is part of them, not who they are exclusively. The fact that they still get together once a year to maintain their friendship and feelings indicates that their political views don't usurp their interpersonal ones. This is not a walk down ideological memory lane for campus bombers and administration building sit-in organizers. These are the people who the '60s really affected, the youth targeted by the government to fight its wars—and when they said hell no, they wouldn't go—only to be besieged by the agitators on the radical left
There are a few name performers here, but no slumming superstars or soon to be household faces (Gordon Clapp as Chip will be easily recognizable to fans of NYPD Blue, and David Strathairn has gone on to be a solid character actor with many standout films to his credit) and this helps to keep the movie grounded. Sure, there are some acting missteps along the way, with some performers' ability to properly "pretend" challenged on screen, but overall The Return of the Secaucus 7 is real people populating a simple story. For the most part, Sayles is discussing the need to belong, to feel linked—either to a group of people, a person, or a cause—and how that helps to shape us as individuals. In the hometown boys of Howie and Ron we see that a life unexplored becomes a calling card for the mundane. Ron is all faux pretense and made-up mischievousness. Deep down he is merely a small timer living in a small town. Howie is domesticity cemented into the establishment's view of the American life and dream. Married with children, he is arrested adolescence forced by fate to live in the conservative world. For their friend Mike, escape came in the form of educational opportunities. Via college and the chaotic times he and the rest of this associates found themselves thrust into, the "7" dislodged themselves from their individualized roots and forced to create a new compact, one that can be seen in the intimacy they express to each other as well as the fading contempt they have for the outside world.
The '60s are summed up in the personas of the "7," in the way they look, feel, and act. Mike and Katie are the last remaining segments of intellectualized liberation, of freedom through the use of the mind. Irene is the sell out, convincing herself that a straight boyfriend and a political job are ways of fighting "the man" from the inside out. In reality though she has surrendered, becoming a member of the "if you can't beat them, join them" club. Frances is feminism deflowered, the waking realization that a life spent in the pursuit of personal and professional equality will most likely result in a sense of loss and loneliness. The fact that she wanders into the bed of someone almost her polar opposite (the chauvinistic grease monkey Ron) indicates a desperation that will probably result in her being that much more militant. Then there's JT, who relies on the irresponsibility and unrealistic pipe dreams of Sgt. Pepper as a means of staying stuck in the time that meant the most to him. Sadly, one can see him hard up or even homeless, the failed fragment of the "all you need is love" mentality. Maura and Jeff are the dreams of the era in dissolution, the failure of relationships and a life devoted to the service of others to make up for personal disorder and despair. They are an inherently sad couple, seemingly locked into each other through their dedication to the issues, but no longer able to function as human beings. Jeff no longer needs to connect with human beings. He is jaded to the point of ambivalence. But Maura is looking to start over, to win back the life she and her friends fought so hard for in their younger days.
The fact that all of this comes from the acting and the writing underscores the one minor failing in Return of the Secaucus 7. There are issues with Sayles' direction, or lack thereof. Indeed, his flat, unaffecting visual style here hopes to function as another member of the tribe, to place the audience into the story as the imaginary "8th" member of the group. And sometimes it works. When the gang is together playing volleyball or chewing the fat, the device is effective, like eavesdropping in on a series of private conversations. But when people are speaking to each other in organized tableaus of two or three, and then intercut, the conceit can be disorienting and pushes the boundaries of acceptable adjustment. For a film with so many names and faces to remember, Sayles at least has the cinematic smarts to reward our close attention with memorable tidbits for easy free association: JT and his guitar; Ron and his eternal goofiness; Mike with his introductory toilet plunger workout; Chip with his bright red Ivy League hairstyle. Surprisingly, it's the girls that resonate less spectacularly than the guys. Disguised in peasant blouses and junk jeans, they appear to be standing in the shadows, waiting for the day when they can finally step from behind the restrictive political agendas they fought for and express themselves fully and completely. There is also an aging, matronly quality to their attitudes, like the earth mother taken to an unacceptable degree. Sayles' work with the actors in making their performances come to life through all this thematic subterfuge is great. But there are no stellar vistas or panoramic shots of the New England countryside, some manner of outside world wonder that would move this insular story into the realm of the ethereally epic.
Return of the Secaucus 7 can therefore be seen as a film that centers on the power of small ideas to change people's lives, of how time and temperament have a permanent, never ending effect on human personality. The "7" are people of a freewheeling era that society is trying to readily compartmentalize so as to make more sense of it. And even though they lived through it, experiencing many of its joys and jars firsthand, they seem as removed from it now as those people who never made the commitment. Their lives have chugged along at the usual pace, problems and penances to be paid along the way, yet they remain optimistic, forever marked by the muscle of their thoughts and their words to tumble institutions and stumble governments. So what if the establishment simply changed tactics and the politicians turned poseur, The Secaucus 7 will always see themselves as living artifacts from that most miraculous of archeological epochs—a time where the citizens of a nation, disgruntled with what they saw as injustice all around them, took to the streets in an attempt to change the course of human events. They may not have succeeded (and indeed, each seems to carry a small wound from the battles lost or never fought) or perhaps they only achieved a minor portion of their goal, opening the future to hedonistic foolishness instead of social relevance. All this proves is that their will never be a true "return" for the Secaucus 7, only a ever clouding memory of when that moniker actually meant something.
Opening with a title card indicating that the film was saved and restored by Sayles' own company, dubbed the Anarchists Convention, in consultation with the preservationists of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the image for Return of the Secaucus 7 is startling. If you told someone that this was an ultra low budget feature shot on 16mm, they would have to take your word for it: there would be nothing about the print to give this away (the sets and direction, well…). The transfer here is immaculate, with a crispness and clarity that suggests something brand new, not made on the cheap 23 years ago. The open matte full frame presentation (Sayles notes in his commentary that there is some in-camera panning and scanning going on) is indeed the director's intended aspect ratio. He thought that no one would want to see a movie that featured people talking theatrically, so he purposely shot the film for a television presentation. And since Sayles is not trying to out Alfred Hitchcock with his framing and compositions, the lack of a widescreen image is perfectly acceptable. Sonically, there is a muffled quality to the minimal backing music in the movie. The voices are strong and understandable, even with primitive on-film sound sync recording. But the mix favors the dialogue so heavily that if there are indeed times when Sayles is relying on music to make his point, it is lost here. Still, it's a minor distraction and considering the visual restoration done, the lack of dynamic aural aspects can be forgiven.
The extras on the disc are equally outstanding. In an interview section, Sayles and partner in professional (and personal) life Maggie Renzi (who played Katie in the film and functioned as a kind of post-facto producer on 7) discuss the inception, the execution, and the excitement involved with the creation of Return of the Secaucus 7. Sayles highlights how focus (a single set of characters in a small location) helps independent filmmaking, while Renzi describes the trials and tribulations of creating a movie out of moxie and a mass of willing big screen novices. Like the trailer for the most recent Sayles movie, Casa de los Babys, it is a fine bonus, but not the best thing about the package. Indeed, if there is an award for best commentary track ever for a small movie, it has to go to Sayles hands down. Every issue you could envision—why the male nudity? What about The Big Chill? Why the full frame?—are addressed in his insightful, detailed narrative that is bursting with scriptwriting and filmmaking tips. Sayles is not ashamed to show his naïveté, both in his camera work and his direction, and loves to champion the job done by his actors. He provides details about how performances were honed and why certain issues were emphasized (the relationships) while others were sent far onto the back burner (the politics). And yes, he does address the appearance of Kasdan's can of worms three years later, shrugging it off with a slyly ambiguous statement or two. As much fun as it is listening to the characters in this movie discussing their lives, Sayles is equally riveting in this alternative narrative track. It transforms a must see movie into a must own DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is one word to describe The Big Chill and Return of the Secaucus 7 and it's not "insightful" or "entertaining." It's whiny. If you're idea of big fun is watching 30-somethings (or Thirty Something, for that matter) bitching about their sad lot in life and wondering why everyday can't be a paisley puke fest in Itchypoo Park or Strawberry Fields, then by all means, belly up to these tummy ache tantrum tales and enjoy! Listening to adults whimper about not having pot to smoke or political causes to occupy their time stinks of the soiled mattress in the back of a Volkswagen mini-bus on its way to a Grateful Dead concert. Sometimes, people need to grow up and take responsibility for their actions. But listening to the list of "charges dropped" that these self-important (and deluded) cynics have managed to avoid shows that, when it comes to paying the piper, our ersatz ex-hippies are hoping for the barter system. Their activism short-circuited by crow's feet and the lack of available student loans, the real world has demanded that these lost in Timothy Leary lunatics step into the starting block of the rat race and come out galloping. And all they can do is complain, complain, complain. Complain about the complacency of today's youth. Complain about how the government is still using and abusing its own people for ill-conceived ends. Complain about how patchouli oil just doesn't smell as good as it used to. Complain, and sleep with each other. The sexual liberation of that bygone Beatles-esque era is now just shorthand for a late '70s relationship. As long as there is bonding going on somewhere, then we two are one. Return of the Secaucus 7 is one of those movies that hopes words speak louder than actions. And unfortunately, we get a lot of them vowels and consonants, droning on and on, to try and prove its point.
The political activists of the '60s and '70s should have nothing but respect and admiration for Richard Nixon. No, not because of his wartime or homeland policies, but for his criminal verification of what they had been crying and dying for all along. When the Chicago 7 took their "beating" at the hands of Mayor Daley's cops outside the convention center in the Windy City, everyone thought (but no one actually believed) that such stalwart corruption rose all the way to the top of the ivory towers of power. Yet the warriors battled on, trying to convince a populace numbed by the nightly news reports of the dead and wounded that their commander in chief was rotten, that the system was flawed, and that change was needed. Eventually, a duo of investigative reporters would succeed where riots and sit-ins and marches had failed. They found the link to the boss and brought down a Presidency, thus rendering the radical obsolete. Such sudden ideological disenfranchisement has had resounding effects throughout the rest of the 20th century: The Studio 54 frenzy of the '70s, the ultra-conservatism of the '80s, and the singing of the body technological of the '90s. In 2003, with a new war raging thousands of miles away and a far smaller group of mostly dismissed protesters trying to raise their voice, it's amazing the number of deaf ears the pleas are falling on. Perhaps the new radicals need to understand what the old ones took for granted: that there will be no support from previous regimes. With their battles fought and over, they are content to re-acclimate into society, raise their kids, pay their mortgage, and forget there ever were groups like the SDS or The Weathermen. The Secaucus 7 will also never make a comeback. Like the smell of tear gas in a dorm room, or the sound of rubber bullets hitting all around you, some things will always be a part of the past. That is, if you were ever really part of them at all.
Return of the Secaucus 7 is found not guilty on all charges and is free to go. John Sayles is given special acknowledgement by the court for his outstanding commentary job and it requests that he volunteer his services in narrative recording to the local Halfway House for Half Ass DVD Extras to show others how it is done properly.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with John Sayles
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