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Progress Report

The Return of the Secaucus Seven Written and directed by John Sayles At the Orson Welles

By David B. Edelstein

JOHN SAYLES made The Return of the Secaucus Seven for his resume. He filmed it for $60,000 in 25 days with an inexperienced cast and never intended to release it commercially. Early in the film his cinematic technique is uncertain; Sayles edits and cross-cuts nervously, and yet his characters--'60s radicals preparing for a reunion in the White Mountains of New Hampshire--are a little nervous about seeing each other again, so it seems a charming extension of the characters' mood. Well, not really. But watching this extraordinarily modest, understated little home movie you want to give the director as much credit as possible.

The Secaucus Seven, arrested in Secaucus, New Jersey on the way to a Washington demo with an ounce of dope and a rifle in the back of their rented station wagon, have gone on to live decent, modest lives. No longer violent in their opposition to "the system," they have, with few exceptions, quietly abstained from becoming a part of it. One guy spends all his time fixing cars; others are teachers, drug counselors, songwriters. One girl writes speeches for a liberal senator whose politics smack of opportunism. She worries about it a lot.

Behind the opening credits bold sketches of the Seven appear while a guitar strums revolutionary chords. Then the director cuts to a close-up of a plunger in a toilet while the couple hosting the reunion chatters about Ajax and other domestic topics. The talk throughout is startlingly apolitical--mostly gossip about who's sleeping with whom, who's breaking up with whom. They are afraid of the Trilateral Commission; they don't think too much of Jimmy Carter--nothing too deep, no trace, for example, of Marxism. When they are busted for killing a deer (they are innocent), each character recites a list of his/her previous arrests--in '70, '72--and it all sounds so far away, so remote from anything they're thinking or feeling now. The closing credits play over Polaroid snapshots.

It is a loose, messy story of enduring friendships, and Sayles films it all as simply and loosely as possible. There are, however, three "cinematic" sequences, the first a lyrical, stunningly vivid skinny-dipping scene, in which sparkling water explodes around shiny male bodies, the others an intense basketball game and an intense bit of wood-cutting by an abandoned lover. Sound and editing point up the emotional undercurrents of these montages, and the effects are crude and somewhat heavy-handed. But they are exciting all the same: Sayles is enlarging his cinematic vocabulary, and one anticipates its refinement with pleasure.

The movie is witty and clever when the characters are witty and clever, and banal when they are banal. Some of the lines fizzle, the way lines fizzle in real life, and often these reveal the most about their speakers. Writers often go for laughs at the expense of their characters, and it is a measure of Sayles' compassion that he maintains little ironic distance from them. Yet the writing is not particularly economical, and the language, while sensitive and colorful and realistic, is not heightened or compressed the way great dramatic language must be. Some of the characters keep threatening to turn into caricatures, but this is true in life as well, when people identify themselves too much with an age or occupation. Sayles can't make great drama with these characters (or with these actors), and that, I suppose is part of the point. (The one theatrical confrontation between a "dramatic" couple is handled ironically but still falls flat.)

The Secaucus Seven seem purged of that terrible, adolescent rage that burst through the boundaries of politics and into all facets of '60s culture--many of them are just marking time. But how grandly they have aged! Gone are the sharp edges, the arrogance, the aura of indestructibility, replaced by a quiet maturity, a fundamental honesty, and, in most of them, a sad but touching self-awareness.

The performers are not attractive in the old symmetrical Hollywood-features sense, but they are appealingly natural. I particularly enjoyed Maggie Renzi's acerbic New Hampshire school-teacher, whose remarks on the acting talent of a former college roommate are both hilarious and revealing, and Maggie Cousineau-Arndt's medical student, an earth-mother with poetically smoldering sensuality. (Ms. Cousineau-Arndt is a family therapist in Boston.)

This is a charming movie, and one that makes you hope for a sequel in, say, 15 years. It's important to keep in touch.

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