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Seconds (free)

  • Central Library 201 West Mifflin Street Madison, WI, 53703 United States (map)

John Frankenheimer's 1966 film is a masterwork of dystopian dark humor. Info

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Since its initial release in 1966, John Frankenheimer's prescient darkly comedic psychological sci-fi thriller Seconds has resonated not only in the cinema landscape but in a paranoid, ever-shifting reality governed by technology and avatars. The film's shrewdly conceptual, satirical layering of second chances (invoking its multifarious title), synthetically vicarious experiences, and labyrinthine bureaucracy clearly exerted an influence on Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990), David Fincher's The Game (1997), and even Being John Malkovich (1999). Seconds is an undeniably fascinating artistic statement of the Swinging Sixties, a decade when countercultural psychedelia existed alongside fears of nuclear annihilation. The film is obsessed with the possibilities of physical transformation, and combines its more modern aesthetics with loopy tributes to bygone Sirkian melodrama and film noir fundamentals.

Adapted from David Ely's novel, the narrative's turns envelop a bored, middle-aged, well-to-do banking executive, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), who is systematically stalked down in Grand Central Station, handed nothing but a street address, and then phoned in his home by a once-vanished friend. These mysterious encounters lead him to a clandestine "rehabilitation" Company that is as nameless as its own founder (Will Geer). Once there, Arthur learns that, through costly surgical procedures and a carefully orchestrated scheme, the Company will stage his own death so he can assume a new identity and life (almost like a perversely elitist witness protection program). The men exclusively in charge offer an amusing disclaimer or caveat about an ensuing but momentary adjustment period in this renovated body with antecedent mind; but, in fact, it's more of an opportunity to indefinitely surveil Arthur's re-emergence as the younger, Adonis-like Antiochus "Tony" Wilson (Rock Hudson) in scenic Malibu.

Frankenheimer wastes no opportunity to lambaste the American Dream's tethering to the failings of capitalism, demonstrating how the wealthy are capable of buying their way out of all responsibility, even their own lives, out of sheer ennui. Despite the weight of the dystopian themes about the inability to escape one's subconscious image and James Wong Howe's astounding, anxiety-triggering black-and-white cinematography that emphasizes wide-angled, confrontational tracking close-ups, Seconds also reserves a few longing, playful moments in Tony's interactions with Nora Marcus (Salome Jens), who takes similar refuge in the seaside area to escape married life. Their strange, chaotic fling is embodied most indelibly at a paganistic Santa Barbara hippie gathering that quickly escalates into this orgiastic, grape-treading ritual. —Grant Phipps