Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Used Cow Dealer (Seconds)

This week the 1001 Movies Blog Club is pleased to present for your consideration the feature film Seconds, directed by John Frankenheimer. If you happened to notice the Twilight Zone homage in that previous sentence, know that it’s no coincidence. For much of its running time, Seconds reminded me of an episode of Rod Serling’s spooky sci-fi anthology extended to 106 minutes, and featuring a prominent guest star in the person of Rock Hudson.

Seconds is a story about suburban middle-aged malaise, and a radical solution to it: faking one’s own death, undergoing radical plastic surgery, and stepping into a new, fully-formed and empirically superior identity. With that premise, Seconds is able to pose and attempt to answer two different hypotheticals. One, if a man could be handed his dream existence on a silver platter, would it bring him true happiness? And two, if a man could speak to his loved ones anonymously after his own death, and hear how they summed up his life, would it allow him to understand himself?

The latter question is only raised briefly, in a single scene near the end of the movie. The protagonist of the piece, who goes by the name Arthur Hamilton when he is played by John Randolph pre-surgery, and is called Tony Wilson once he is reconstructed as Rock Hudson, goes to visit Mrs. Hamilton, passing himself off as someone who made her husband’s acquaintance just before he died. Mrs. Hamilton reveals that she was always aware that her late husband felt something in his life was lacking, and wanted something which would always be out of reach. The common interpretation (or so it seems to me) is that this is the key point of the movie’s depiction of the protagonist’s quest for fulfillment. Arthur Hamilton conformed to society’s expectations and achieved all the things he was told he was supposed to want: a respectable career, material comfort, a devoted wife and daughter who grew up and married well. He never took the time to understand what wants and needs might naturally arise within him, let alone made any effort to satisfy those yearnings. All of which is fair enough (to a certain point), but to my mind the most crucial point that the “widowed” Mrs. Hamilton makes is this: “We never talked about it.” This is (or should be) the epiphany, an understanding that whether Arthur Hamilton would have been happier as a banker or a tennis pro, as a patriarch with six children and twenty grandkids or as a polyamorous swinger, his biggest mistake was burying such concerns within himself and not sharing them with his wife or anyone else. The most important, most lasting things we can do on this Earth are to forge connections with other human beings, to help one another shoulder the burdens piled on by existence. Everything else is secondary logistics. That is the opportunity that Arthur Hamilton squandered, not a career or a lifestyle but a chance at meaningful bonding. But the realization comes too late, as Mrs. Hamilton conducts a kind of psychological post-mortem at Tony Wilson’s request, finally giving voice to matters which she, too, could never speak aloud in her marriage.

Obviously, the answer to the former question is a resounding “no”. A radical, unearned upgrade of lifestyle, dropping into the chic Malibu bachelor pad of an established artist complete with an attractive, receptive female neighbor who can introduce him to a troupe of Bacchus-worshiping wine-and-free-love enthusiasts does almost nothing to make Tony Wilson any happier than Arthur Hamilton was. For a time while watching the second act of the film, I could not wrap my head around how the Company’s approach made any kind of sense. Wilson’s manservant continually suggests that he throw a cocktail party to get to know his neighbors, which Wilson resists at first but then agrees to, only to have it unravel as a total disaster: he drinks to excess, begins letting slip that he used to have another life, and then ultimately realizes that the various guests at the party are either “reborns” like himself or at the very least employees of the Company. So rather than providing the new life to Tony Wilson, wishing him luck and allowing him to find his own happiness, the Company micromanages him and effectively destroys any chance he might have at making the most of his “rebirth”. Then the nightmarish climax kicks into gear, and I realized: that’s the point. The Company sells the illusory idea of happiness, but of course the last thing the Company wants is for their clients to be happy. The Company wants their clients to be miserable, which in turn will make them hopelessly dependent on the Company, which will allow the Company to manipulate them into participating in the pyramid scheme which allows the Company to perpetuate its own existence, and so on. (In a more cynical mindset, I might very well argue that this is a metaphor for the three C’s of modern American society, capitalism and corporations and consumers, no different today than it was in 1966: all companies sell the American people the dream of happiness, but if everyone suddenly became completely happy with what they had, no one would buy anything, so the whole point of companies is not to give people what they want but to keep them perpetually wanting. But it’s almost Christmas, so let’s not go too far down that particularly dark rabbit hole.)

And the Company is extremely, insidiously good at what it does. By surrounding Wilson with plants loyal to the Company’s agenda, the Company effectively walls him off, which plays directly into my point above about meaningful human connections. So despite a pervasive feeling of being trapped in a surreal quasi-reality (which comes across in several sequences in which the fast intercutting of shots and exaggerated camera angles and other effects really hammer a sense of freak-out disorientation into the audience; heavy-handed, admittedly, but I would argue appropriate to the story and its subject matter), the events of the film make perfect sense, so long as you understand that from the very outset Arthur/Tony is doomed.

The title of this post comes from the slogan of one of the business fronts used by the Company. Arthur Hamilton follows a trail of cryptic clues to penetrate the inner heart of the Company, presumably as a means of testing his determination and suitability as a client. This includes traversing a slaughterhouse where partially butchered animal carcasses hang from hooks as they are shunted along to their final destination. The moment I saw the white coats and delivery van referring to a purveyor of meats as a “Used Cow Dealer” I was profoundly (if morbidly) amused and knew I needed to work it into my review. By the end of the movie, the slaughterhouse is revealed for the foreshadowing that it is, as the Company finds that Hamilton/Wilson’s only remaining usefulness to them is to serve as the manipulated cadaver stand-in for faking a new client’s death.

We are all chattel to the Company, and everything the Old Man says is a lie. We should really know this by now, as the precept that anything which seems too good to be true most likely isn’t true at all is a lesson stories teach us even from childhood. We can try to beat the game, but the house has the advantage and always wins in the long run. Yet it’s in our nature to believe we’re special enough to be the exception to the rule, even if it leads to our downfall. It’s hard to resist temptation, even inherently self-destructive temptation. Seconds illustrates that point, chillingly. But it also offers the tiniest glimpse of a counterpoint, the suggestion that we’re most susceptible to temptation when we’re most alone, and that attaching ourselves to others might help us weather the worst trials. Or so we have to hope.

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