Remedial Film School: Watching Seconds with Vince Mancini

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

I am a film critic, but almost all of the movies I watch are new releases. That is going to change. With Jeff Bayer’s Remedial Film School a notable film critic or personality will assign me (and you) one film per month. Vince Mancini (@Filmdrunk) from Uproxx selected Seconds. It is available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes. Is it a coincidence that the Rock (Dwayne Johnson) has a big-time summer blockbuster called San Andreas opening up this weekend and that this 1966 film stars Rock Hudson and partially takes place in California? Yes, yes it is. Each section begins with a quote from the film.

“What kind of man is he? There’s grace in the line and color, but it doesn’t emerge pure.” (Mancini explains): I first saw Seconds in college, in a film class taught by Jean-Pierre Gorin, a guy who used to work with Godard in the ’70s. But at the time, I knew him only as “JP,” an insane Frenchman who’d waltz into class late, chugging a massive latte, who would openly ogle students and was given to pronouncements like “Sir, you are a cretin, you are nevair alload to speak een my class again,” and “Teacheeng eez not about being bored, or boring, eez about the the grand clowning act of child molestation.” Needless to say, I loved that man. I didn’t share his tastes on all films, but one he showed that always stuck with me was Seconds.

The easiest way to describe Seconds is that it’s like American Beauty meets The Matrix, but better than both. It’s a trippy sci-fi film about something so grounded – suburban ennui. If you think about it in terms of its historical context (it came out in 1966), it’s one of the best expressions of the existential angst that American life produced in the ’50s and early ’60s. America in the ’50s was the most comparatively wealthy country in the history of the world. You could earn enough to have more than you ever even knew you wanted, just from working at a factory. People were prospering beyond their wildest dreams, yet a lot of them looked around and thought, “All that striving … for this? Twin beds, a fancy washer/dryer, and bridge on the weekends?”

The counter culture of the later ’60s partly grew out of the realization that “suburban bliss” might actually be boring as f*ck. Seconds seems to express that perfectly, without the squibbly bop jazz-scat nonsense of the beats, or the comical-in-retrospect optimism of the hippies. And it’s dark as hell. No happy endings here. But it’s one of those endings that’s dark, but also so perfect and so … metal, that it actually pumps me up. Great movie, and it doesn’t feel dated at all. In fact, maybe because it’s so unsettling and so unsentimental, it feels more relevant today than a lot of the more so-called “iconic” movies of the period. Like, say, Easy Rider, which I always found interminably dull.

“This may hurt a little.” (Bayer watches): I have seen Giant. Before this film, that was my entire list of Hudson films. The film starts with a distorted eye and some organ music that would make the phantom from that opera proud. Then it’s a young Clark Sr. (John Randolph) from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation! The uneasy tone of the film had me trying to figure out what Seconds meant. I was trying to memorize the town, the numbers, and the address thinking this could be a film full of clues and every second counts. Nope. But I wasn’t disappointed. Instead we get Arthur Hamilton who kind of signs up to say goodbye to his old life and become a younger looking Tony Wilson with the help of some plastic surgery through a business simply known as the Company. Easily, my favorite part is that it takes 40 minutes for all of this to unravel. In the modern version of this film (hold that thought), it would take 10 to 20 minutes, maximum. There are strange phone calls, a dream rape, and a guy eating chicken. It’s all uncomfortable, because even though this film takes its time, it doesn’t fill in all of the blanks for you.

Tony is a painter, or will be with enough practice. He’s still being helped by the Company, which is a lovely touch of good business sense and creepy control. So, how does the film progress? Does it dive deep with its touches of thriller and science fiction? No, it focuses on painting, a wine orgy party, and a house party. Somehow this doesn’t make it any less unnerving. I felt stress for him painting, panic at the orgy, and complete annoyance at the house party. He has a momentary relationship with Nora (Salome Jens, who is still a working actress), and then he realizes this new life isn’t for him. Sadly, he’s pretty naive when it comes to the Company and that’s where the true Twilight Zone vibe of the film sets in. It’s a wonderful ending, which lingers in an uncomfortable way.

So, Mancini, old Arthur wanted to be a tennis pro or artist. What is your secretly desired profession? Also, is this your go to film you are always trying to get people to watch, or is there another? Any time I see an older film, I can’t help but play this game, so go along with me … In the remake do we go Steve Buscemi to Matt Damon? Bryan Cranston to Ed Norton? The idea of this film is fantastically under-explored and could easily become more of an action/science fiction film at the end. My minor complaints would be, did they do a good job of showing he’s terribly unhappy in the beginning of the film? Or extremely unhappy before he gets drunk at the house party? More importantly, the Company is a brilliant pyramid scheme. I want to watch a movie solely focusing on the Company. And finally, who is the better character actor here? Old Man (Will Geer), Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey)?

Movie Score: 7/10

“Relax, old friend… Cranial drill.” (Mancini responses): It’s funny you call it a “Hudson film,” because I never thought of it that way, and in fact for me, the acting is by far the weakest part of the film (Hudson is hammy, and Salome Jens’ overenunciating drives me up the wall). I do agree that the house party is the weakest part, and I blame that largely on Hudson’s acting. To answer your questions … I don’t know what my secretly desired profession is. For the most part, I think I’m living it. I could dream of getting paid more for comedy, I guess. Or get paid to eat exotic foods and travel … maybe travel writing? Basically, I think I want Anthony Bourdain’s job. But it’s not really “secret,” otherwise I wouldn’t tell you.

I wouldn’t call this my go-to film, but it’s certainly one I suggest when people ask about an older film they probably haven’t seen. It is one I remember, for whatever reason. Lots of others I’d have to be reminded of. A lot of the “classics” don’t do much for me, but Seconds always feels relevant.

For the remake I go Richard Jenkins to Tom Hardy. Or Bill Murray to Christian Bale. Lots of possibilities there. Ideally, an older man with an expressive face into a younger, handsome guy with acting chops (a stronger actor than Rock Hudson, preferably).

“Did they do a good job of showing he’s terribly unhappy in the beginning of the film?”

Jesus, man. Are you really asking this? It just goes to show, you can lead a donkey to water, but it’ll still be a jackass. (Jk, jk, I love you, shoe twin). But seriously, you thought you needed someone to explain vague dissatisfaction to you? That he’s not “terribly unhappy,” just vaguely unsatisfied at his core is the whole point. He hasn’t had a bad life, he’s just done what he was told all his life like there was going to be some “prize” at the end. As his wife tells Rock Hudson, “He fought so hard for what he’d been taught to want. And when he got it he just became more and more confused.” He’d been taught to strive and finally got around to asking why. There’s also a read of this (most notably illustrated in the wine orgy, which I very much wish had had more nudity) where an older man is seeing this youth movement/counter-culture revolution stuff happening but feels like he’s missing out on it because of his age. Then he gets a young body and gets to experience it first hand. And I love that it doesn’t treat the hippies as “better” than their parents’ generation, just confused in different ways.

“Or extremely unhappy before he gets drunk at the house party?”

Okay, here I sort of agree with you. I think the point was that his problem was that he didn’t know himself, and becoming a new person didn’t fix it. But there wasn’t much time to communicate that, so it sort of feels like he goes from having a grand old time at an orgy with a pretty lady to all of a sudden hating his new life so much he has to find another new one. Which really goes against everything I thought I knew about wine orgies.

Finally, on Geer vs. Corey I have to go Corey. Geer is great, but Corey definitely made me IMDB him because something about him is so unforgettable you’re just convinced you’ve seen him before. Those eyebrows, that nose, those nostrils. He has an amazing face.

“The question of death selection may be the most important decision in your life.” (Bayer concludes): I have a feeling your ideal headstone would read, “Here lies Vince Mancini, he had a grand old time at an orgy.” I completely get the concept of less is more when talking about Arthur being vaguely unsatisfied, but if that’s the case, I wanted him to put up more of a fight when considering the idea of suddenly saying goodbye to his old life, or being uncomfortably happy with the opportunity. And I’ll take your “sort of agree with” as a major victory of proving that I belong in this column I created.

Not only is Jens verbally annoying, she just isn’t fetching. She needs to be, and that would definitely change in the remake that they’ll eventually get to making even though there is nothing planned yet. We’ll go Murray to Bale for the win, and add Jennifer Connelly because it’s Jennifer Connelly. At the ripe old age of 38, I still feel like I’m growing (thankfully) as a human being. I have a young child, with perhaps more on the way some day. Hopefully I will remember this film 30+ years from now, and watch Seconds a second time. I have a feeling the chills will only increase.

Your Next Assignment: Guest critic Matt Singer from Screencrush selected F for Fake by Orson Welles. It is available to rent on Amazon Instant Video, and iTunes. Your due date is Thursday, June 25.