John Sayles Collection: Return of the Secaucus Seven Review

Ten years ago, at the end of the Sixties, seven college students from New Jersey were arrested on the way to a demonstration in Washington DC. Now Mike (Bruce MacDonald) and Katie (Maggie Renzi), now married and both schoolteachers), invite the others and a few friends to their New Hampshire home for the weekend for a reunion. Maura (Karen Trott) has broken up with Jeff (Mark Arnott) and is now seeing J.T. (Adam LeFevre), a struggling country singer/songwriter. Meanwhile, Irene (Jean Passanante) brings along her new boyfriend, who being a Republican feels distinctly out of place.

The golden age of the American independent film is usually taken to begin with Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989, but there were plenty of examples before then. Jim Jarmusch – who remains staunchly independent to this day – and Spike Lee – who mostly works for major studios but “smuggles”, in Martin Scorsese’s term, different angles and perspectives into his films – debuted earlier in the decade. Earlier still, there was John Cassavetes, who sustained his directing career with money from his acting roles, not to mention such fascinating one-offs as actress Barbara Loden’s only film as director, 1971’s Wanda. And then there was John Sayles. He began as a short-story writer and novelist and broke into the film industry as a scriptwriter for Roger Corman, writing Piranha and The Lady in Red. He has continued to use his writing assignments and script-doctoring work to finance his own films.

In 1979, Sayles was twenty-nine. Return of the Secaucus Seven was written to make a virtue of its low budget ($60,000) and twenty-five-day shooting schedule. The action is set in and around on house, and the characters were all around the same age – the cusp of thirty – so that Sayles could cast his friends. As well as writing, directing and editing the film, he also took a small role as Howie. The film was shot in 16mm. Certainly at that time, Sayles was a writer-who-directed rather than a fully-fledged writer-director, and to some extent he still is. Visually, the film is no more than functional. But even then, Sayles has a gift for dialogue that is a joy to listen to: sharp, funny, revealing of character. In this film especially, character is plot. Not a great deal actually “happens” but these people are so engaging to be with that hardly matters.

Secaucus Seven was at a forefront of a trend that continued during the Eighties, of films where characters reunited and examined their lives and whether they had lived up to their ideals or not. To the unsympathetic this can come over as baby-boomer navel-gazing, but Sayles avoids that trap. For these characters, that is a vital question, in an America that would soon turn very cold for those on the left of centre. Much has been made of the resemblance between Secaucus Seven and the later The Big Chill, which has a very similar premise, though by all accounts this was coincidental. A British variation on the theme was Kenneth Branagh’s Peter’s Friends.

Nearly three decades after his debut, Sayles is still working, making films that on the main are character-led and more politically aware than most studio fare. As I’ve said before, Sayles is moving out of fashion at the moment. His film La Casa de los Babys didn’t even get a British release (it’s out on Region 1 DVD) and critical comments for Sunshine State and Silver City tended to be along the lines that Sayles may be worthy and Good for You but not exciting. It may be true that he is not the most virtuosic of directors, but his best films are still vital – anyone who can make something like Limbo is hardly played out and safe. Return of the Secaucus Seven is where it started, rough edges and all, but the talent obvious. I don’t think this is Sayles’s best film, nor indeed my favourite though I do like it a lot. However, its place in the history of American indie cinema is secure.

Return of the Secaucus Seven is available as part of Optimum’s three-disc John Sayles Collection box set and not available separately. The DVD is single-layered and encoded for Region 2 only.

The film begins with text listing credits for its restoration and preservation in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. This, plus the Optimum and FFC idents, lasts 47 seconds. Including this, the feature runs 104:16. I spell this out because the cinema release from the BFI in 1981 ran 109:37 according to the BBFC, a time which would have included the distributor’s ident as well. Given PAL speed-up, this DVD seems to be a little short: there are reports of a couple of brief scenes missing from this version (one showing hamburgers being prepared). I can’t confirm this, as I have only seen this film once in a cinema and don’t remember it in that much detail. As this is a restored and preserved version, I have to assume that the slight trimming is intentional.

The correct aspect ratio for this film is 4:3, a fact lost upon whoever arranged for it to be blown up to 35mm for cinema distribution. Black matting lines appeared on the print, which cut off parts of the end credits. Fortunately that isn’t the case with this full-frame transfer, which is unmatted throughout. Given its 16mm origins, the transfer is a little grainy and soft in places, with not-especially-vibrant colour, but it’s clean and undamaged.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and I had no problems with it. The all-important dialogue is always clear, which is just as well as once again Optimum have declined to provide any subtitles.

In fact there are no extras of any kind, unless you count the scene selection which I don’t. This is a major missed opportunity. At the very least, we could have had a commentary from Sayles, which on the basis of his other commentaries, would be worth listening to.

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