DVD Review Of The Return Of The Secaucus 7

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/23/07


  Independent filmmaker John Sayles’ debut film, The Return Of The Secaucus 7, released in late 1979, is a film that is typical of the low budget feel of such films from that era- even such horror films like Last House On The Left or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like those other films it is filled with inexperienced and mediocre acting, and unrealistic dialogue. Before this film was made, Sayles had been a screenwriter and script doctor for Roger Corman’s cheapo horror films. This film, however, was the first that bore his own imprint and vision. Unfortunately, the excellence of his later films only points up the flaws of this first film, written and directed by Sayles on a low budget. Like many low budget indy films, this film is long on talk and short on action and visual razzle-dazzle, and was filmed at a New Hampshire lodge.

  The film has often been compared to the 1983 Lawrence Kasdan film The Big Chill, but, like that film, there is a dearth of characterization that weighs this film down. The characters in The Return Of The Secaucus 7 are little more than stereotypes, or, at best, archetypes- some are teachers, two are speechwriters for a U.S. Senator- Irene Rosenblue (Jean Passanante) and Chip Hollister (Gordon Clapp), and another is a bad country singer-songwriter. The plot follows a group of pretentious thirtyish former college radicals who gather for a weekend reunion in a small New Hampshire town. Other than that, there is no plot, merely thinly connected scenes of gossip, flirtation, barbecues, Charades and Clue, volleyball, and basketball, nude male rock diving, and alcohol and drug consumption.

  The film opens with a shot of one of the characters, Mike Donnelly (Bruce MacDonald), plunging a filthy toilet, and it never gets significantly better after that. Such a film, short on narrative, requires in-depth characterization, and this is where The Return Of The Secaucus 7 fails. There is not a single character that stands out, and other than the bad and mooching country singer, J.T. (Adam LeFevre), not a single male character stands out- and J.T. stands out in a negative light; and all the female characters- unusually homely and stereotypically Ms. Magazine whiney, seem to be cut from the same monodimensional cloth, in looks and opinions. When the gang goes to a local Summer Stock performance, they badmouth one of their friends as an actress, Lacey Summers (Amy Schewel), yet their very criticisms are applicable to the film’s actors themselves. Perhaps the only good performance turned in is by Sayles regular David Strathairn as grease monkey Ron Desjardins. The rest of the performances seem to be merely barely memorized lines uttered devoid of passion, which explains why none of these wannabe actors ever crafted careers in film after this. When two characters have a one night stand- J.T. and Maura Tolliver (Karen Trott)- the lone ‘semi-sexy’ female, they lack any real chemistry, as their scenes together are embarrassingly forced. Of course, the next day, the gal’s ex-boyfriend Jeff Andrews (Mark Arnott)- and best friend of J.T., shows up. This is the stuff of bad soap operas, not ‘cinema,’ and stands in sharp contrast to contemporaneous films, with a similar bent, that were much better, such as Diner.

  As for the film’s title, the viewer is only clued in to its meaning near the film’s end, when the gang is held by local police for supposedly killing a deer they come upon on a nighttime road. It seems that seven of the dozen or more people at the reunion were wrongfully arrested and detained in Secaucus, New Jersey, on their way to a Washington D.C. rally against the Vietnam War- a joking asides to the Chicago Seven. Because the film only had a forty thousand dollar budget, there was no chance to use a great musical soundtrack, ala in The Big Chill, so the film relies on bad folk songs penned by Boston based friends of Sayles.

  The DVD, put out by MGM, includes only a trailer for Sayles’ 2003 film Casa De Los Babys, and an eleven minute featurette with Sayles (who starred as motel clerk Howie) and star Maggie Renzi (who played Katie Sipriano, Mike’s girlfriend) recalling the film’s making. The best part of the DVD package however, is an excellent audio commentary by Sayles. He is an excellent commenter, even if the commentary leans a little too hard on technical aspects of low budget filmmaking. Still, the anecdotes on the male nudity, The Big Chill, and others, are involving and brisk, and it is a treasure for young wannabe filmmakers, with such details as the film being shot on 16 mm film, and then blown up to 35 mm, in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
  Yet, one wonders why more was not made of the great late summer landscape of New England? Surely panning over the White Mountains would not have been such a large cost? Is the film wholly devoid of good moments? No. The basketball scenes are well coordinated, and give a good sense of how men bond vs. the women’s bonding over Clue, but such moments are too few in number. The Charades scenes are typical of the bad and unrealistic conversations the characters have. Instead of having real conversations that reveal depths, Sayles cuts far too quickly between scenes, in order to push the film forward, but at the expense of depth. With later classics such as Matewan and Lone Star, Sayles would reveal himself as a filmmaker capable of greatness, but this film gives few glances into that later flowering. That it was recently put on the list of important American films worth preservation is more a testament to its place as Sayles’ initial film than any qualities the film, alone, has. Still, The Return Of The Secaucus 7 is an interesting film that, despite its flaws, is well worth seeing, if only for film historians who love discerning small traits that hold clues to later and greater art by the artist. For the rest of us, flip a coin, and you have the same shot at enjoying this film. That’s still better than most Hollywood films these days. Sigh.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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