The Return of the Secaucus Seven

May 2, 2012

It’s not every good movie that convinces you of its worth in the first five minutes—from the git-go, as Joan Micklin Silver might say. Sometimes it takes awhile—especially if the filmmaker is an unknown quantity, as is the case with John Sayles’ first directing effort, The Return of the Secaucus Seven—before you suddenly realize that Hey! this guy knows what he’s doing! After a few minutes and scenes into Secaucus (and, nicely, before we have even had a chance to sort out who’s who in this weekend get-together of old friends), we notice that the people we are watching have a very stylized way of speaking—and they don’t merely respond to what has been said when they’re answering somebody; they also bring back phrases or refer to incidents that have happened long before (either in screentime or in real time).

For instance, just the first name of an ex-boyfriend of one of the women is conjured up as a running gag, and it gets funnier every time his name is invoked (Dwight, for God’s sakes) even though we will never come close to seeing the guy. Such rich intricacies make the screenplay very solid—but I think that, being in the middle of a breathless screenwriting class, I’ve probably got Screenplay on the brain; and it’s important to note that Sayles makes a very satisfying, modest directorial debut (particularly under such low-budget conditions). Not that I care to separate the success of Sayles’ script from the success of his direction, ’cause I believe they go (as they should) hand in hand. But, to grab the first example that comes to mind, Steve Tesich’s script for Breaking Away was also very solid, and directed with fine professionalism by Peter Yates—yet somehow that professionalism could not quite match the spirit of the screenplay, and didn’t make for that special experience when a really enjoyable film clicks onto a higher level altogether.

Well, The Return of the Secaucus Seven clicks. The way Sayles shuffles bodies around in the frame is a nice complement to the seemingly freewheeling screenplay, and his occasionally showoff-y editing (like the cutting between J.T. and Maura on their walk/talk versus the rest of the gang back home trying to decide whether to present J.T. with a possibly depressing 30th birthday cake—the rhythm of the editing somehow reinforces the complexity of the dialogue) also highlights this. Just watch the movement—by the actors, of the dialogue, of the editing, of the music—during the long scene in a tavern. It’s a deliriously happy mixture of all those elements, judiciously weighed and beautifully timed (“Sunday! Sunday!! Sunday!!!”).

Anyway, it’s a relief to be able to recommend a movie wholeheartedly again; and refreshing to be engaged by a filmmaker who does not speak down to his audience, or feel that he has to (it’s exhilarating—as one exhausted character says at the end of the movie, “I get so excited with people around who I don’t have to explain my jokes to”). Sayles goes so far as to begin his movie with a series of still photographs, full face and profile, of his main characters—and we can’t possibly understand why they’re there or what they are until the movie is four-fifths over. Then we jump back to that opening, realize what it was (and what the title means) and as a healthy moviegoer, you have to smile—isn’t it nice to be respected again?

First published in the Informer, November 1980

I guess Joan Micklin Silver was the first person I heard use the phrase “from the git-go,” and I think it might have been during the huge Screenwriting course that Jeff Dowd (yes, the original Lebowskian Dude) and others organized at the University of Washington that Fall. Sayles came and spoke to the course (his remarks collected in Movietone News, a memorable talk), and so did Jonathan Demme and the Airplane! guys and a bunch of others. I’m trying to make the case here for Sayles as not merely a great word man, which Sayles’ own subsequent movies has made somewhat difficult; he so frequently seems suspicious of the juicier possibilities of moviemaking and of his own sense of humor. Interesting to see who came out of the cast with careers: David Strathairn, the hard-working Adam LeFevre, Gordon Clapp. Not necessarily the people you’d predict. By the way, an Oscar suggestion: the Irving Thalberg award (that’s for producing films) to Sayles and Maggi Renzi – can you think of a better example of producing genius than to work at the true indie level and re-invent the wheel every time out?