Director: John Frankenheimer
Writer: Lewis John Carlino; based on the book Seconds by David Ely
Cinematographer: James Wong Howe
Producer: Edward Lewis
by Jon Cvack
I’ve had this movie in my queue for at least six years now; one of those films that sounded fascinating but would always get bumped down, until suddenly it was next in line and nothing was deserving enough to replace it.
The film is a black and white art house sci-fi film made by John Frankenheimer; who while providing a barrage of fantastic movie (the suspense thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962), one of the best WWII epic action adventures The Train (1964), and 1998’s Ronin with Robert de Niro) but never ventured quite so close into the art house. Most comparable to The Game (1997), the story involves Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) who’s banal life comes to a crossroads when he’s contacted by a strange organization called “The Company” which promises to decrease his age by half and make him into an attractive and successful artist. Arthur agrees, abandoning his wife and all the life they created in order to start anew.
It provides the most heartbreaking scene of the film as his wife and Arthur sit in their bedroom after Arthur gets home from work. They sit in separate beds, not speaking, with cinematographer James Wong Howe using a fish eye wide positioned at the top of the room, making the relationship feel all the more empty. The awkwardness enhanced when the wife tries to seduce Arthur who no longer finds her attractive.
The story opens with the operation, in which Frankenheimer films an actual nasal plastic surgery. We watch strings and needles enter into and out of a person’s nose as they get sewn up; allegedly so grotesque that some of the audience at Cannes walked out. Later Arthur goes in for his operation, meeting the mayor from Jaws (1975), Charlie (Murray Hamilton), who guides Arthur through an incredible surrealistic* scene as he undergoes the transformation; resurrecting as painter Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson) whose house is on the Malibu coast where an Old Man (Will Geer) operates as both butler and his liaison to The Company.
Tony has all the skills of a successful painter, along with the wealth and charm to host large parties and attract beautiful women. He meets the mysterious Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) on the beach who takes him up to a hippie commune up in Santa Barbara where the members mash grapes and have sex. Later at a party, Antiochus drinks too much and embarrasses himself, fighting with his guests and Nora. He requests that the Old Man demand The Company return him to his prior life. He again meets Charlie who tells him he too is being reborn once again, however, instead of Tony being reborn, he’s killed in order to provide another empty shell for Charlie.
Middle Class Angst Films were some of the most effective in piquing my initial interest in film. Movies like American Beauty (1999), The Chumscrubber (2005), The Ice Storm (1997), In the Bedroom (2001), SubUrbia (1996), and others are some of the earliest moments I recall of connecting art to my own experiences. There’s a strange bell curve in that you initially feel alienated in your home town, which then becomes part of the mainstream fringe, as its the same feeling that brought everyone out here - the way Hot Topic caters to this alienated fringe while being part of the mainstream consumer culture. The process then weeds people out, as some grow out of the feeling, others fail to escape, and few make the move to do something about it. I recall the foolish pride I had in telling people I was studying film when in college; as so many others were doing such boring things. Nearly a decade later, I’m left thinking of a quote I read in Movie Maker in that you better love film with all of your heart to have any success, because it’s that passion which drives the competition. I love it with all my heart and am miles from where I hope to be at the time of writing this; feeling the gradual progress, literally what feels like a nail’s rate of growth. But it is advancing.
To think of how easy it would have been for me to stay back and pursue Construction Management (a random major I selected after discovering my mind was incompatible with the math/science rigors of engineering); have a great house, maybe live in the city, have an interesting and pretty wife (these adjectives are deliberately generic), and perhaps, by now, a child. Given that I’m not perfectly content now, I often wonder if - discontent being omniscient - whether it might have been worth the annoying struggle. When I go home, it’s seeing the forest for the trees. Which means the discontent is therefore inevitable and it’s better to at least be making inch by inch strides toward what you hope to achieve. Tony wanted it all without the effort and heart; that is, the idea of what provides a meaningful life rather than locating that meaning himself.
On The Ezra Klein Show's "Is Modern Society Making Us Depressed?" - Ezra debated with a psychologist Johann Hari who believes that it’s the market driven system itself that makes people depressed; as there are few indications that it’s entirely or a dominantly chemical imbalance.The man gave the example of the ubiquitous problem of everyone believing that buying more stuff provides happiness, giving the example of a man who hated his job, but wanted a new garage so bad that he put off switching careers for another few years to save up. The extreme example is being so overridden with car payments, mortgages, children, and all the other expenses that escapes becomes next to impossible.
Ezra had a different perspective - wondering if it’s within our genetics to always want more than we can have, and that this desire drives us toward progress. While I side more with the guest, it does make me wonder - is it culture and social media specifically, in which everyone is sharing the best version of their lives making the viewer feel inadequate; that’s driving record levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide; growing inequality and job insecurity, or is it simply genetic? I’m sure it’s a combination of all three.
Arthur/Tony deals with the perpetual dissatisfaction; gaining first hand experience in the grass always being greener. Look up Antiochus on Wikipedia, I see the name means “God Manifest”, stemming from Antiochus IV Epiphanes who was a Greek King around 175 B.C.; gaining the nickname “The Mad One” for his weird behavior. I’m not a big fan of dissecting names and trying to learn what it means, but this one’s peculiar enough, and clear enough to understand. Arthur’s life in many ways mirrored a king, dominating the marketplace and creating a good life; willing to abandon it all in order to buy himself an alternative and allegedly more satisfying life. Ultimately, it’s the same money that kills him; in that I can only surmise that Charlie was so envious of Tony, that he was willing to buy the boy at the cost of a man’s life. That’s how much these individuals are determined to transform their lives. To think they have enough money for anything they want, they then decide to spend it on destroying the life that allowed them to make such a purchase. That’s the great madness; something we all might face, if we all could achieve our dreams or have endless time to do so.
*For anyone wondering about other thoughts on surrealism, when done well - like in this film or The Sopranos - it can offer incredible sequences.
BELOW: The infamous opening that caused walk outs at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival
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