The Nonlinear Editor: John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus 7 and the Disruptive Moment
Thirty years after its release, the remarkable thing about John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus 7 (1979) is not how shamelessly Lawrence Kasdan ripped it off when he wrote the much better-known The Big Chill (1983), but rather how Return of the Secaucus 7 has provided the template for so many thinly plotted, dialogue-driven, indie-produced ensemble dramedies that followed over the intervening decades. Shot in 25 days for $45,000 with summer-stock actors as the cast and produced not so much for theatrical release as to serve as an audition reel for Sayles as a director, Return of the Secaucus 7 captures the midsummer reunion of seven former '60s student radicals in the summer of 1978. They gather for an off-season weekend in a Jackson, N.H., ski lodge to talk, swim, talk, play Clue, talk, drink, talk, play charades, talk, smoke pot, talk, play volleyball and basketball, and talk. The title (a play on the Chicago Seven, the seven protesters charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968) refers to an incident in which the seven main characters in the film were all arrested in Secaucus, N.J., en route to a protest in Washington, D.C.
Even as The Big Chill tidied up Sayles' film for mass consumption with splashier cinematography, tighter editing, better and bigger-name actors, upwardly mobile characters, more punchlines, contrived epiphanies, broad-stroke themes, and a soundtrack that spawned a still-profitable radio format, Secaucus 7 remains the more relatable film today, if only because its characters seem more like real people. The pushing-30 seven are two schoolteachers, a mechanic, a struggling musician, a legislative aide, a medical student, and a methadone clinic counselor. The Big Chill characters sport a bit more Hollywood flash. How often do casual reunions of your old friends bring together action TV stars, interstate drug dealers, wealthy real estate developers, and reporters for People magazine?
The rather overwrought and simplistic issue with which the characters in The Big Chill wrestle, albeit briefly, boils down to, "We were great then; we're sh*t now." And as a pivot point for the movie that theme works—and, more importantly, sells—partly because the characters have all abandoned their revolutionary roots so spectacularly, and partly because, in the way the film absolves them, it also absolves every former activist who sold out, bought in, moved on, moved up, and traded in '60s radicalism for '80s solipsism-while reclaiming the biggest radio hits of the '60s for the generation that left everything else behind.
For the record, Lawrence Kasdan has insisted for years that he never saw Return of the Secaucus 7-or at least that he never saw it before he wrote The Big Chill. And why should the Hollywood demigod who wrote the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark ever have to admit to something as inconsequential as co-opting a penny-ante independent film whose own writer/director never intended it for the big screen? For what it's worth, John Sayles has dismissed the connection too, though he's probably just rising above the controversy, which he might as well do at this point. Post-1981 (after Kasdan's two Lucasfilm blockbusters), Sayles has arguably had the far more substantial and impactful film career anyway.
Oddly enough, Return of the Secaucus 7 might not be nearly as appealing today if it were possible to watch it without thinking of The Big Chill and musing on how refreshing it is to see a film that isn't so eager to assuage its audience's worst fears about themselves and doesn't try so hard to assert its cultural significance. The cultural significance of Return of the Secaucus 7, in fact, is not so much what it says about '60s radicals trying to find their place in the world when the upheaval of that era was over-or coming to terms, to paraphrase Tom Hayden (one of the real Chicago Seven), with a world that they helped change so much that left them with so little. Rather, the triumph of Return of the Secaucus 7 resides in what a quiet and offhand film it is: A film that can't afford camera moves, crane or dolly shots, or multiple angles and so keeps its visuals moving with frequent cuts between scenes. A film that dares to squander screen time showing its characters playing charades and Clue, quizzing each other on the Boston police strike of 1919, and quoting Herbert Biberman's 1954 miners' strike movie Salt of the Earth. A film with the audacity to open with grainy mug shots of its seven main characters, followed by a guy in a T-shirt plunging a toilet. A film that evokes the mundaneness of its characters' lives' second acts by daring to chronicle the mundane. A film that dares to not have a plot, to not take its characters on a journey, and to not depict transformations in their lives-at least not transformations that occur within the period of their lives captured on screen.
So how does a movie like this, that doesn't start much of anywhere and pretty much takes us nowhere-a quiet film with virtually no dramatic arpeggios along the way-not only hold an audience's interest but inspire a big-budget Hollywood rip-off and an entire subgenre of indie films with the same low-drama, discursive, anti-Hollywood approach? And as viewers who ultimately sit through the whole thing, where do we end up at the end of a movie like this?
It seems to me that the problem that Sayles not only faced but created for himself in Return of the Secaucus 7 is the same one faced by the wedding videographer who wants to shoot and edit a wedding as a film: There's no journey from Point A to Point B built into the story. There's no huge, dramatic conflict or any appreciable suspense about how things are going to turn out for the characters in the end because there's little, if any, turning in the beginning or the middle. We all know the bride and groom are going to end up together at the end of a wedding film. Likewise, one fractured relationship notwithstanding, in Return of the Secaucus 7, we have no real reason to believe that the lives of the characters or the connections between them will have changed substantially or shifted course at the end of the movie.
So how does Sayles bring resolution to his film? He uses what I'll call a "disruptive moment." Jeff, the one character in the movie whose past radicalism seems to have been driven by a pervasive anger that hasn't abated 10 years later with much less context in which to vent itself now, and the one character whose long-term romantic relationship with another of the seven has just ended, doesn't come out to say goodbye to his friends as they head home at the end of the movie. Rather, Jeff sequesters himself in a field behind the lodge, chopping wood.
In this short, wordless scene—which is intermittently interrupted with cuts to other scenes showing his friends saying goodbye to one another—Jeff splits logs with increasing violence, intense concentration, frustration, and all-too-apparent rage on his face, while a quietly wrenching bent-string guitar motif plays in the background. This scene is shot differently and cut faster and much more dramatically than the rest of the film. Whereas the rest of the film is quiet, languidly paced, and drifting, this scene can only be described as staccato in the way it's shot and cut and presented.
In this way the wood-chopping scene briefly (but memorably) disrupts the entire mood of the film. If Return of the Secaucus 7 has anything profound to say about what it means to be cast adrift in a world you helped make but barely recognize—or simply to wonder what in the world your life is supposed to be about after you discover that the world was never yours to remake—it says it in this scene, the only scene in this dialogue-driven film in which no one says a word.
It struck me that maybe what wedding films that lack feature films' traditional narrative journey, suspense, and resolution need-and especially wedding films that otherwise take the "indie film" approach that Chris P. Jones identified in his first presentation on the national conference scene in 2008—is a disruptive moment that signifies the culmination of the drama in the film without attempting to impose resolution where there was nothing to resolve.
Obviously, showing an angry, self-loathing man chopping wood isn't the way to go in a wedding film. But it isn't really the rage of Return of the Secaucus 7's disruptive moment that makes it so powerful; rather it is the editing and the stylistic contrast that sets it off so jarringly from the rest of the film and suggests all sorts of analogous possibilities in our own work for bringing dramatic resolution to films that are inherently short on conflict.
What's more, it epitomizes what John Sayles told us in that first near false start of his filmmaking career about the director that he was going to be, and the kind of filmmaker that we can all aspire to be but only a dedicated few of us will ever become: one whose message is not so much "I make films" as "I will dare."
Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EventDVLive and program director of EventDV.tv.