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By David Grove | January 21, 2001

“Acting is cheap,” explains Sayles. “I knew I couldn’t afford lots of moving cameras, and cranes and dollies, so I needed to get movement into the film, any way I could. I thought that if I have lots of little subplots, I can always cut to a different subplot, and that’ll give the film the movement I need. I realized early on that the film was going to be a group of people, turning thirty, who had lots of subplots with each other.”
Exactly, and isn’t this the same approach we saw in “Slacker,” made a decade later? Maybe a better word is freedom. Maybe that’s what you get when you have nothing with which to shoot a film. All of Sayles’ films show a tremendous amount of storytelling freedom. When a character in a Sayles film walks off screen, you get the eerie feeling that THEY ARE off screen, living, breathing, possibly about to walk back into the frame, unlike mainstream films where characters seem to exit the stage at random. The characters in Sayles’ films, and the films of Richard Linklater, seem to exist in that parallel universe.
There’s something else special about Sayles, visible throughout “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” and that’s a willingness to move the camera anywhere and everywhere, also seen with Linklater. So often movies bore us with what’s going on in the main frame, that we think to ourselves, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could take the camera and see what’s in the corner of the screen, in that window, down that street, because this stuff is boring?” “Slacker” paid tribute to this idea, even though Luis Bunuel had told a similar story in “The Phantom of Liberty.” This was a fresh form of storytelling, and in “Return of the Secaucus Seven” we see it on display.
“Return of the Secaucus Seven” isn’t a great film. It’s a good film, observant in its form and in the subtle observations about the characters. Actually, the film was pioneering(as all important independent films are) in inspiring two better films with more or less the same story. Both “Four Friends”(1981) and “The Big Chill”(1983) were more literate, and probing examinations of people recovering from life in the sixties. The performances are better, the director, writing, everything, but that’s to be expected, right? That’s not a bad thing. It’s great that “Return of the Secaucus Seven” could be so important and influential. Maybe the real “point” of low budget, original independent films is to inspire better films, with more resources, on more or less the same subject. They say Hollywood should be remaking bad films not good ones because the bad ones can be more readily improved, as opposed to the remakes of good ones where the audience will compare and scrutinize more. Why not remake good independent films, ones that are original yet not as fully realized as they could be?
The characters in “Return of the Secaucus Seven” are tortured with regret of their days of would be activism in the ’60’s and the ghosts of college days passed and long dead. The film reminds us that reunions, for the most part, are cold, horrible events. It’s like we prefer people in the past to exist there, in some parallel universe, not to appear twenty years later, bald and fat, but to stay the same as we pictured them. Twenty years later, it’s likely that the Secaucus Seven wouldn’t even recognize themselves. Would any of us? How would they feel about a remake?
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