By Jonathan Price
It opens with the unclogging of a toilet and ends with a young man furiously chopping wood. Two seemingly quotidian chores that try to express more, and are yet appealing, understandable, resonant. The Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980, directed by John Sayles) suggests a sequel to a film we’ve never seen, but is actually best understand as a poor man’s answer to The Big Chill (1983, directed by Lawrence Kasdan). And now, in 2012, it’s a doubly nostalgic film, reminiscent of the counterculture, quasirevolutionary 1970s when many of us grew up or maintainted that we grew up, and also reminiscent of the 1980s, when it was set and made, when we supposedly matured from that revolutionary period.
The occasion is a reunion of the seven people, in Vermont, who were arrested in Secaucus, New Jersey 10 years before, capriciously, on their return from a political rally in the nation’s capital. And the arrested created a community of friends which has since renewed its vows several times at these annual reunions. Stop here if you don’t want key plot data released.
And so the film is an exploration of social trends and changes, and an examination of the maturation process and, as most good films are, a confrontation with American values. There is a history lesson on the Haymarket strikes, a hilarious disquisition on why you should “never leave home without” a birth control device, by an aspiring physician, and a variety of scenes that are episodic and occasionally lame, but still amusing and unpredictable. Other topics covered sporadically are the music of rock and roll, how much of a sellout working in politics may be, whether teaching high school has any intellectual or political value, and the ethics of a hookup with your best friend's girl.
What distinguishes Return from Chill is the lack of superficial success and the apparent lack of arrogance of all the major figures. In The Big Chill we have stars as actors, Jeff Goodman, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Mary Kay Place, William Hurt. We have stars as characters: a reporter for People magazine, millionaire owners of a major shoe company (perhaps like Nike), a Washington staffer. Everyone in this film seems a member of the 1%, and yet most are unhappy or dissatisfied or unfulfilled, yet witty and attractive and compelling—it’s a certain kind of American film, of which there are many. John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus Seven, by contrast, had no recognizable actors, and its characters were not stars, and it seemed shot, as it was, over a few weeks on a modest budget in a small town. The characters in Sayles’s film were high school teachers, an actress in summer stock, a struggling guitar player, drug counselors, and—with a slight contrast—two aides to a senator.
There’s a slight revision to the comment “no recognizable actors,” and this is part of the charm of returning to such a film after many years, like recognizing Richard Dreyfuss as having a 2-word bit part in The Graduate when you see it twenty years later. A few of the apparent nonentities have become entities and their film debuts now seem intriguing, even charming. The most well-known is David Strathairn, now a veteran of many A-list films and currently playing William Seward opposite Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln; he debuted as a minor character in Sayles’s film, not one of the 7, but a townie gas station employee who seemed to chew up the scenery whenever he was on screen and even walked backward over a parked car while chatting up the budding doctor. Some of you may also recognize Gordon Clapp, who went on to a role in NYPD Blue.
The film keeps asking the question, what becomes of youthful idealism and incipient revolution, and what arcs do lives defined by mobility and some college take? At some level, it confronts one of the perennial questions in narrative and poetry: loss, or what to make of a diminished thing. It offers no answers, and it doesn’t have the conventional drive of an American film with plot or resolution, but it also speaks with its own earnest authenticity and charm.
Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Price