50 Movies for 50 States: Week 30 – New Hampshire, Film – The Return of the Secaucus Seven

Week 30 – New Hampshire

Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), directed by John Sayles, written by John Sayles, with Bruce MacDonald, Maggie Renzi and Adam LeFevre

If your pet peeves include pretentiousness, passive-aggressiveness, bad folk music, and fugly folks, then Return of the Secaucus Seven might not be for you. In fact, you might want to skip right to next week’s review, because you’re probably not going to give it much of a chance.

If you’re the type that might watch a movie with the ability to judge it based on its historical significance or contribution to the art, read on.

Return of the Secaucus Seven (which for brevity’s sake we’ll shorten to just Seven from this point on, not to be confused with the David Fincher directed horror flick) is the first film written and directed by independent filmmaker and screenwriter John Sayles, whose later directorial credits include Matewan (1987), Eight Men Out (1988), Passion Fish (1992), and Lone Star (1996). Sayles has won numerous awards for his films and overall work, including a lifetime achievement award from the Writer’s Guild of America and a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for Lone Star. Sayles’ critical claim began with Seven, which was chosen as the best independent film by the Boston Society of Film Critics and best screenplay by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You get the idea. Critics go coo-coo for Sayles, even if his movies don’t pull in the big bucks.

A big part of Sayles’ appeal is his that he pretty much embodies what it means to be an independent filmmaker. Check out any number of reviews of Seven –- including this one –- and you’re bound to read the same story. To fund Seven, Sayles raised $30,000 by writing screenplays for B-movie producer Roger Corman. These scripts include the cheapo horror classics Piranha (1978), Alligator (1980), and The Howling (1981).

Seven was shot almost entirely in a New Hampshire lodge over a two-week period, using entirely non-professional actors. The movie’s plot is extremely simple, even by indie film standards: seven college friends, now in their late 20s and early 30s, reunite for a weekend. Stuff happens, but nothing really life-altering. The old pals play games – volleyball, basketball, charades, Clue – get drunk, smoke some dope, skinny-dip (just the dudes), and reminisce.

Four of the seven friends are romantically involved. There’s dull Mike and his homely wife Katy – a pair of school teachers who play host to the get-together. Then there’s Jeff and Laura, who the group learns have just broken up prior to the reunion. Jeff and Laura surprise each other by showing up separately. Hilarity ensues.

Rounding out the group is Francis, the homely doctor, and JT, the homely country-western singer. Then there’s Irene, a sorta cute Jewish girl. Irene brings her homely boyfriend Skip – the two of them are speechwriters for a U.S. Senator. Prior to the reunion, Irene describes Skip to her friends as “square,” and before Irene shows up with her beau, the group theorizes what Irene meant by “square.” When the scene cuts away to Skip and Irene changing a flat tire on their car, and Irene is on the ground jacking up the vehicle while Skip reads from the instruction manual on how to change a tire, it’s clear what Irene meant.

As whiny and wimpish as Skip is, at least he has character. So do some of the other supporting characters, such as the great David Straitharn as Mike’s high school buddy Ron, and Sayles himself, playing another hometown pal of Mike’s, Howie. The core group, however, is pretty interchangeable. While I understand it’s realistic for close friends to behave alike when they get together in a group – that doesn’t necessarily make it any fun to watch.

I have to agree with one review of the film in which the author said they kind of felt like Skip when they watched it. Sayles does not provide any sort of reference to help you understand the little inside jokes and references to past people and events constantly being made, so it’s easy to feel like an outsider watching the seven characters at the heart of the film interact. In some ways, Seven was more enjoyable the second time I watched it, after I had already gotten to know the characters and went into the movie understanding what little back story about them you’re given.

Maybe Seven is not the kind of movie from which you can expect to catch just bits and pieces and find any redeeming value. Maybe it’s best to be viewed as a whole. Maybe I related to some of the lines and scenes in the movie personally because I happen to be around the same age and place in life as some of the movie’s characters.

This movie is all about watching Sayles’ characters interact. In spite of the painfully amateur acting, there are some good moments, even if the main characters are a bunch of pretentious assholes. Witness one scene, in which the group attends a play starring a mutual friend, and bulldog-faced Katy loudly and obnoxiously jeers the leading lady. Or another where Jeff tries to impress a woman at a bar who says she’s into the bands Rush and Yes by going on a faked diatribe about the virtues of progressive rock. The “Secaucus Seven” are the types of people that I live to hate and yet I can appreciate these occasional moments of realness. The fact that the cast are amateurs only aids in this realness. The fact that they can’t act has the opposite effect. Such is the dilemma of indie film.

Even if you can stomach the rampant smugness on display, the movie is slow going. The closest thing to any sort of plot development is when the newly estranged Laura sleeps with JT and JT confesses this to Jeff. Even then, it appears to be a non-issue.

“Are you mad?” JT asks Jeff.

Jeff says, “No,” and proceeds to tell JT that “It’s over between me and Laura.”

Later, when the boys play a pick-up game of basketball and Jeff checks JT like a professional hockey player, it doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to see that there’s definitely some unresolved issues going on. This is even more obvious when Jeff is shown alone at the end of the film chopping firewood and with each wild swing of the ax, you can picture Jeff wishing it was JT’s head on the chopping block … or Laura’s head … or maybe both. Since Seven isn’t a Catherine Breillat movie, it doesn’t end with a double ax murder or (wink, wink) Laura’s head in a box –- but I would have liked to have seen that ending.

In Seven, Sayles doesn’t delve too much into what’s really eating some of his characters, but beats around the bush. Some may like the ambiguity, but I found it only made it really hard to stay interested.

A few years later, Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill would emulate The Return of the Secaucus Seven with a similar story — just with bigger (and better looking) stars and a “real” soundtrack. Numerous other films owe a debt to Seven, like St. Elmo’s Fire. More importantly, Seven –- and Sayles’ following films — would influence a generation of independent filmmakers by showing a movie can be produced on a shoestring budget and still get people’s attention without resorting to shock tactics a la John Waters or using other “crass” tricks. Who knows? Maybe without Sayles we would have never had a Jim Jarmusch, a Todd Haynes. For that, you have to give him respect. I think most people would agree with this assessment.

In 1997, Seven was selected for preservation into the United States National Film Registry by the Library Of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Still, I’m not going to recommend Seven to anyone but the most hardcore indie film buffs. It is, however, available to watch instantly through Netflix. If you’re the casual film fan and you’re interested in Sayles, might I recommend instead one of his later films. Many of Sayles’ movies are available to watch instantly through Netflix, including:

* Lianna (1983)

* The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

* Eight Men Out (1988)

* Honeydripper (2007)

Next week: It’s a Jersey thing.

Matt D.’s Top Five Slow Burners (not recommended for people with ADD, small children, fans of reality television)

5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – I haven’t seen this movie, however, I know it’s a favorite of fellow Critical Masses writer Jonathan Scovner and he’d probably kick me (or whatever the equivalent is of “kicking” someone over the Internet) for not including it. I should probably be kicked for not seeing it. I hear it’s great, but mostly due to its length (almost 3 hours), I’ve had a hard time getting the motivation to watch it. Jonathan? Your remarks?

4. Enter the Void (2009) – Gasper Noe’s latest is an epic journey partially based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Noe has referred to it as a “psychedelic melodrama.” This one almost made my 2010 Top Ten list (Despite having a 2009 release date, it didn’t hit American shores until 2010). I thought this was visually amazing, one of the best “experimental” films I’ve seen in a long time. Drugs play heavy into this movies plot, and if you watch it alone in a darkened room, you’ll feel like you’re on drugs.

3. Inland Empire (2006) – A lot of David Lynch’s work I would file under the “slow burn” category – see The Straight Story — but Inland Empire makes some of Lynch’s other films look like Star Wars. My advice is to not spend too much time wondering what’s going on. Just enjoy the ride. And if you experience any creeping paranoia or feelings of nervousness while watching Inland Empire, that just means it’s working.

2. Elephant (2003) – The first three-quarters of Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-inspired film is paced like an … uhm … elephant. Maybe that’s because you know what’s coming in the end — unimaginable horror in the form of two psychopaths dressed in black trench coats turning a school into a living, breathing game of Doom. As you spend most of the movie following around a group of blissfully unaware students on a typical school day, the minutes stretch and stretch with the knowledge of how it all ends. When the shooting starts, it’s a blur. The anticipation of the violence is excruciating.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Without a doubt, this is my #1 slow burner. A masterpiece of the slowest, longest variety. Once you get past the monkeys (And don’t get me wrong, I love the monkeys), you’ll bear witness to lingering shots of space and astronauts floating in zero gravity, all set against an amazing score of classical music – most famously, Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. 2001 is a challenging but rewarding film of the highest quality.


7 responses to “50 Movies for 50 States: Week 30 – New Hampshire, Film – The Return of the Secaucus Seven

  1. aw, assassination of jesse james is SO GOOD. and i’m not even scovner. watch it.

    agreed on inland empire and 2001, both of which i LOVE. haven’t seen the other two. (or secaucus seven, for that matter.)


  2. Yes, its great. I lent it to a neighbor about a year ago and he still hasn’t watched it. Everytime I ask him about it, he’ll say, “Yeah, I just can’t get past that train robbery scene.”

    About twenty minutes into the film there is a train robbery sequence which is just beautiful to behold. For thirty seconds or so there is just pitch blackness, then the light from the train getting steadily closer and closer. In the foreground we see Jesse James walk toward the light, silhoutted as the light becomes closer and larger and we finally hear the screech of the wheels. In the woods sit the robbers, wearing white sheets over their heads, the light from the train slowly passing over them. There’s this slow, atmospheric music playing.

    I was reading about it online, and the cinematographer – can’t remember who it was – was saying that he’s been working in the industry his whole life and he considered that scene to be the crowning acheivement of his career.

    Here I just found it and re-watched it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWvvnn68iB8


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