It’s hard to believe it’s been over twenty years since this film came out. Really hard. “Return of the Secaucus Seven” has no real conflict, except the bewilderment and pain the characters experience upon their thirtieth birthdays. The “Seven” as they’re fondly known, were of course, a group of would be political activists, in their college years, who planned to storm Washington in the dawn of that era. Funny how the name “Secaucus Seven” seems to imply a goofy version of the real badass groups of the sixties, like the Chicago Seven, the SLA, or the big baddies, the CIA. The “Seven” never made it to Washington, they never got to see if Abbie Hoffman could levitate the Pentagon with what was left of his brain cells. That might be the only conflict in “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” the aborted trip. They were arrested on their way to Washington, on bogus charges they still can’t comprehend, the details of which haunt them through their twenties and into middle age. The first shot of the film shows one of the characters plunging his toilet. I think the point is to show cold domesticity. The “Secaucus Seven” have more or less, been domesticated. Of course, now they’d all be in their fifties.
The film documents their reunion, at the home of two of the characters (the toilet plunger and his wife) who are married, and resigned to domestic life. Some of the group members we learn, have done well. We meet a doctoral candidate, and a fast rising congressional aide. But the two most interesting characters in the film aren’t very successful. There’s Ron(played by Sayles alum David Strathairn), whose chosen to stay in the hometown and work at a gas station, and wait for life to blissfully elapse, more or less. Then there’s J.T. (Adam Lefevre), a good natured, yet unambitious drifter who dreams of becoming a folk singer. As Sayles demonstrates(in some aggressively bad singing scenes), he sucks. Where will J.T. be twenty years from now? Still drifting? More importantly, are we able to predict such things more from a film that observes its characters all the time, such as Michæl Apted’s “7 Up” series, where we felt we could predict everything? “Return of the Secaucus Seven” evokes some of those feelings too.
The story structure Sayles uses in “Return of the Secaucus Seven” is groundbreaking too, especially at the beginning. We meet all of the characters and we’re a bit confused. It’s too hard to follow who’s who. Sayles helps us by introducing a “guest” character (Gordon Clapp, another Sayles veteran), who does the work for us, by eliciting the information we need from the characters, and it helps us get everyone straight. The rest of the film? Well, not much happens, not in a typical Hollywood sense. Is the thought of a film containing nothing but people talking for an hour and forty minutes still considered to be static and on the fringe? There are no “big” moments in the film. No murders, hidden plots, agendas. We observe some members of the group become closer than others, and some resentment from other characters, and the spark of some potential(and short lived) love affairs. But Sayles doesn’t feel the need to resolve anything.
Why did Sayles make this film? Here’s what he had to work with back in 1978: $40.000 earned from writing films for Roger Corman, a bunch of actor friends from Summer Stock, willing to work for food, a modest home in New Hampshire and oh yeah, the use of a bar for twenty four hours. What kind of film would you be able to make? What kind of film would we expect Sayles to shoot? What kind of film would we have expected from Kevin Smith, given the resources he had before making “Clerks?” If Sayles could’ve made a slasher film, would he have done it? Maybe. Why wouldn’t he, if he had possessed the resources?
Get the rest of the story in the next part of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE “SECAUCUS SEVEN?”>>>