Return of the Secaucus 7
Film Length: 107 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Full-Frame (4:3)
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Audio: English - Monaural
John Sayles may not enjoy the same recognition as directors of more “mainstream” material like Steven Spielberg or Jay Roach, but he is nothing short of a bona-fide legend among the connoisseurs of independent cinema. A pioneering filmmaker who chooses to operate outside the confines of the major studios, Sayles has put some truly wonderful stories onto celluloid. Arguably, Sayles’ most beloved works, including the Oscar-nominated films Passion Fish and Lone Star are fairly recent releases, but his earlier efforts like Return of the Secaucus 7 are equally magnificent in their own right.
It is interesting to note a couple of the common stylistic threads that Sayles employs throughout his films. One recurring theme is the depiction of the moral quandaries facing his characters from several points of view. Another is his use of realism, as many of these moral issues go unresolved, much as they do in real life. Ultimately, Sayles’ films feel “authentic” because of his commitment to conveying the message he wants to get across, and because he is more than willing to sacrifice aesthetics to serve the story should it become necessary. These are lofty goals even with a large budget, but the remarkable thing is that Sayles is generally able to achieve them with minimal financial resources and unproven talent.
Even if you do not appreciate his films, John Sayles’ huge influence on many of the most famous contemporary independent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and Kevin Smith (Mallrats, Chasing Amy) is undeniable. Sayles was at the forefront of the indie film movement before there really was one, and has been independently creating personal works of art for over two decades now. His trail-blazing efforts helped pave the way for the many that have followed since, serving as shining examples that a good story, inspired performances, and cleverly constructed dialogue can be every bit as effective as a big budget.
John Sayles’ debut film, Return of the Secaucus 7 is a perfect example of a film that does not need to rely on eye-popping special effects, gimmicky camera tricks, or big-name talent to be entertaining. Incredibly, Sayles (who wrote, directed, and starred) captured this story on film in just over three weeks for the paltry sum of $40,000, which he earned writing screenplays for Roger Corman (famous for his low-budget creature features). It’s deep, carefully sculpted characters, and focus on their complex relationships, earned Sayles substantial respect as a director and the Sundance Festival’s Grand Jury Prize nomination for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen in 1981. In addition, this film was recently restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and earmarked for preservation by the National Film Registry.
The story begins in the late 1960s, when the seven main characters, all low-level members of the anti-Vietnam War movement, are arrested in Secaucus, New Jersey while on their way to a protest in Washington, D.C. We then flash forward 10 years and rejoin two of these characters, Mike (Bruce MacDonald) and Kate (Maggie Renzi), who are awaiting the arrival of the other 5 members of the “Secaucus Seven” for a reunion. Once they are all together again, they spend the weekend discussing how their lives, political; views, and love interests have changed during the past decade.
In Return of the Secaucus 7, Sayles employs a cast of inexperienced but talented actors to undertake an intriguing and intellectual exploration of how political idealism can be diminished over time as life experiences whittle away the zealousness of youth. He also deals with how friendships evolve and change over time, the complexity of male/female friendships (including the sexual tension that may be created by them), and a variety of other complex social topics. The film does move a bit slowly at times, a fact not helped by its lack of camera movement, but the witty dialogue and charming performances by almost everyone involved help keep things engrossing. Further, Sayles’ skillful manipulation of the story led me to really care about these characters, and want to see what was going to happen to them as the story unfolded. Can you really ask more of a movie than that?
After watching this film again, it is evident that it was drawn upon heavily by The Big Chill, Hollywood’s lavish, more stylized version of this reunion movie. Return of the Secaucus 7 feels more substantial than The Big Chill though, due to its grittier dialogue, better exploration of the relationships between the characters, and the fact that everyone is kind of average, in terms of looks and social status. These could easily be people we know, which makes it easy to relate to them. In this respect, the actors’ great chemistry also does a marvelous job of giving this film an easy, laid-back feel. Overall, a very solid directorial debut by John Sayles, and a good indication of where he would go in his later works.
So, How Does It Look?
Considering the film’s age, budget, and the equipment used to record its images I was not expecting much from Return of the Secaucus 7, despite its restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. I am sorry to say that despite making allowances for the above deficiencies, this transfer is average at best, but it could be that the source material limited what the good folks at UCLA could do.
There are several trouble spots, most notably that the image contains quite a bit of grain, making it appear soft throughout the film, especially in bright backgrounds. Some minor haloing is also evident, colors seem to be a bit washed out, and flesh tones are also slightly off, leaning a bit toward orange. Black level appears to be somewhat ill defined as well, resulting in poor shadow delineation and a rather two-dimensional image. Again, it is hard to know whether to be disappointed or pleased with this transfer, or whether the source material is at fault, but the quality of the image is certainly not up to par with most releases of films made during the 1980s. Then again, most films during the 1980s were not made with a budget of only $40,000, so make of that what you will.
What Is That Noise?
The audio track in Return of the Secaucus 7 is presented in its original monaural form, and it does what it needs to do, nothing more, nothing less. This movie is very heavy on dialogue, and there is little in the way of music, except for a couple sequences during the film, one in a bar and one where the characters go swimming. The soundstage is rather narrow, as I expected it would be, but dialogue comes through pretty clearly, and sounds natural enough considering the way in which it was recorded (discussed in the commentary).
As you might imagine, there is also very little in the lower end of the audio spectrum, and the highs are a little flat, but I doubt anyone is planning on purchasing this title to demo the audio quality of their theater system. I guess the best way I can sum this up is that it is about average. You won’t be terribly disappointed with the audio on this release, but you won’t be overly impressed either.
This feature-length commentary, featuring Writer/Director John Sayles, is extremely detailed, and full of very interesting thoughts on the process of directing a feature film, editing, getting the most out of actors, and other tidbits on the art of filmmaking. While a bit dry, Sayles still spews out everything you could possibly want to know about this movie, which makes it a more than worthwhile listening experience. As I mentioned, there is also a wealth of information on the craft of filmmaking from a talented and well-respected director, which makes it an essential learning tool for budding filmmakers.
Some of the highlights included:
---The movie was made for only $40,000 (which Sayles earned writing screenplays for Roger Corman).
---Lots of tricks that Sayles used to keep the film within its tiny budget, including finding locations within a mile of the lodge used for most of the film’s interiors.
---Sayles mentions that he doesn’t like to have the primary actors in a scene improvise too much. He much prefers improvisation occur in the background of a scene, if at all.
---Sayles opening up about the virtually non-existent independent film scene at the time, and his small expectations for the film.
Sayles talks quite a bit over his film, and I suspect that the vast majority of his comments will be of great interest to his fans. Seriously, there is much more than I could ever hope to cover here. Suffice it to say that this commentary, while not overly energetic, is comprehensive, honest, and extremely informative.
Interviews with John Sayles and Maggie Renzi:
In this featurette, John Sayles and Maggie Renzi talk about the making of the film, specifically the experiences it is based on, and the fact that almost no one involved had any filmmaking experience. It seems that both have very fond memories of the twenty-five days spent making this film, and at one point Renzi proclaims that she never had more fun acting in a film. It is also noted that the photo on the keepcase is of the whole cast and crew. Not too heavy on detail, but a nice little featurette nonetheless as both Sayles and Renzi are thoughtful and pleasant to listen to.
**“Casa de Los Babys” Trailer:
The trailer for John Sayles’ upcoming film Casa de Los Babys, starring Darryl Hannah, Mary Steenburgen, and Marcia Gay Harden, among others, is featured.
The Score Card
The Last Word
John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus 7 is a delightful snapshot into the intricate relationships that bind its central characters together. It is also interesting to look at it as the foundation of Sayles’ well-respected career. Since this film cost almost nothing to make, and was completed in less than one month, it is hard to fathom that it ended up as good as it did. Clearly, Sayles was unsure what to expect from his baby, in terms of future prospects, but without question the response Return of the Secaucus 7 has generated over the years, the influence it has had on other filmmakers, and its recent preservation by the National Film Registry have given Sayles both respect and reason to celebrate. It took a lot of courage for Sayles to spend his own money on a film of this type, and I think it is nice that his big risk paid off.
As far as this DVD release is concerned, the image is not much better than average, despite being restored, and the audio quality is on equal footing. However, with this film, perhaps more than most others, some leeway must be allowed for the age of the source material and the equipment limitations forced upon Sayles by his budget. Fortunately, this film does not rely upon either image or sound quality to deliver its message and engage the audience. Simply put, this is a very good film in most regards, and the bonus materials, while not plentiful, are thoughtful and informative. Unless you have a strong aversion to films that are built mostly around relationships, or films that are rather “talky”, I recommend checking out Return of the Secaucus 7!
September 16th, 2003