Travis Bickle Vs Louis Bloom: A Character Analysis


“Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”  
                                                                    -- Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver (1976)

“What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them?” 
                                                                        -- Louis Bloom, Nightcrawler (2014)

                                               The aforementioned quotes depict the fundamental difference between the lead characters of Scorcese’s seminal masterpiece “Taxi Driver” (1976) and Dan Gilroy’s media satire “Nightcrawler” (2014). Yet, we found critics and movie-lovers finding a thread that connects these two characters. May be because the way Jake Gyllenhaal imbued De Niro’s vigor into his Bloom character, or may be because the way they fashioned themselves, with that ghoulish, hollow-eyed look. But, still what makes Louis Bloom of ‘Night Crawler’ a companion to Travis Bickle rather than Norman Bates (“Psycho”) or Patrick Bateman (“American Psycho”)?

                                              Travis and Louis are loners as well as losers, and they both descend into the vortex of lunacy as the respective movie narratives proceed. But, most importantly they are marred products (a subjective view in the case of Louis Bloom) of their time. Although, both Taxi Driver and Nightcrawler don’t shed light into their protagonist’s childhood, we can easily attribute their senseless behavior to the societal cesspit rather than an abusive childhood. “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets”, utters Travis Bickle conceding his view of New York of the seventies, the era when America was lacerated politically, culturally, and economically. Louis Bloom shows us the worst things that could come out of consumer capitalism and the voyeuristic, fame culture.

                                             However, the way these two characters react to these defective affairs is where we could find glaring difference in their character arc. Travis is a loner because he doesn’t seem to grasp the ways of interacting with people.He struggles even to make small talk. On the other hand, Bloom chooses to be a loner, but at the same time he has great verbal skills, enough to manipulate people to do his bidding. Both these guys are angry and want to find something; something that might make them feel like ‘somebody’. Travis searches that 'something' through the humans he encounters. When all his attempts fail he transforms himself into a man who stood up (“Listen, you fuckers, you screw-heads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up”).

                                           Louis Bloom finds what he wants earlier in the movie. He feels serendipity at watching those ‘stringers’ and that gruesome accident. As he doesn’t want to do anything with humans (except to manipulate) he seeks money or fame. But, at later point, we get to know that even money isn’t the driving point for this guy. He wants fame. He wants to hold the power of media, wanting to manipulate the events in a way that would increase the ratings. Bloom is also intelligent in the way he handles the looming police investigation and his partners’ threat. Many would read Bickle as stupid since he takes his girlfriend to a porn film. But, Bickle is equally intelligent and his clumsy actions should be looked through his psychological setbacks. But, both these guys’ intelligence is somehow directly proportionate to the way they handle their lunacy.

                                         Bloom is a bad guy right from the start. His insanity only deepens his subsequent amorality. While Bickle, far from being a good guy, possesses a high moral sense, or at least a conscience. Bickle self-destructs himself as he descends into insanity. But, Bloom’s insanity is more or less like a missile launcher often looking for targets to annihilate. If Bickle is a man who stood up against evil in a psychopathic manner, Bloom is a stand-up guy who wants to divulge his evil methods. The way Bloom quotes the business gurus words like religious scriptures reflects our society’s warped view of success (“Who am I? I am a hard worker. I set high goals”). Perhaps, the most significant point “Nightcrawler” conveys is that you need to have a little bit of insanity to stay above your competition or in your field.

                                           For both Bickle and Bloom, television represents a promising alternate reality. Bickle partly resents and envies the people he sees in television because those characters don’t seem to have any problem in developing relationships. The TV is the only thing that transmits feelings, but when that (TV) breaks in one of “Taxi Driver’s” vital scenes, Bickle’s self-control totally disintegrates. Bloom says to Nina, looking at a huge wallpaper of L.A. in night-lights that the setting looks more real in TV. So, he is attracted to this virtual reality, but the era he was born in, urges him to be a player rather than a simple observer. The inherently vile and manipulative nature of Lou Bloom also points him to achieve that stage. The ‘God’s lonely man’ felt agonizing pain by watching other people’s happiness in TV, whereas the 'night-crawling stringer’ was elated to look at other people’s agony.

                                            On the whole, I felt “Taxi Driver” is the masterpiece that laid the path for the existence of good movies like “Night Crawler”. Personally, I am very skeptical about “Nightcrawler” standing the test of time like ‘Taxi Driver’. And of course the performances of Robert de Niro and Jake Gyllenhaal in these films give us one more valid reason to hate the Oscars. 

To Die For -- A Satire on the Fame Culture

                                            American film-maker Gus Van Sant is one of the few successful directors to switch back and forth by doing wildly experimental movies as well as commercially accessible movies. He had made proverbial awards season movies like “Goodwill Hunting”, “Finding Forrester”, “Milk”, and also minimalist style of movies that were largely ignored and heavily criticized as miserable failures (“Gerry”, “Last Days”, “Elephant”, “Paranoid Park”). Let’s not forget his shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, which was abrasively rejected. By observing his oeuvre, we can feel that Van Sant is a complicated film-maker, who navigates between the art-house arena and conventional Hollywood. In 1995, Van Sant was pushed into a desperate situation as he had to redeem himself after making the abysmal “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” (and his “My Own Private Idaho” wasn’t a commercial success). He took a step in the right direction by opting to direct “To Die For”, a biting satire on American Television.

                                           The movie was based on Joyce Maynard’s novel, and was efficiently adapted to screen by Buck Henry. Although “To Die For” couldn’t be deemed as a masterpiece, it triumphantly showcased people’s obsession over a popular, stilted culture. The narrative unfolds in a mockumentary style as a bunch of pseudo-interviews of characters takes us back and forth to the movie’s nominal incident. Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) is an attractive, highly ambitious, moderately intelligent, small-town girl, who is obsessed with the prospect of becoming TV star. She falls for the dull-minded hunk Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), who runs a restaurant, and the son of esteemed local mobster (Dan Hedaya). Larry falls head-over-heels, and soon gets married with Suzanne.

                                         Suzanne, with a dream of heading a prime-TV show, starts at a local cable TV station. She soon gets to be the weather reporter and persuades or annoys her station manager to produce a trite cable special called “Teens Speak Out”. For this program, she enlists innocent, inarticulate students: Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), Russel (Casey Affleck), and Lydia (Alison Folland). However, Suzanne’s family life becomes a bore as she feels entrapped by her husband’s ambitions and his desire for children. So, when Suzanne’s big plans are threatened, she intimately befriends those students hailing from dysfunctional families, to commit a squeamish act.

                                       Although the film has dark storyline, its actually rather funny: not in a laugh-out-loud manner, but in intellectually tantalizing manner. Thanks to the accomplished satirist Buck Henry’s script, there are some good moments, where the greater issue that confronts American society (the allure of easy fame through extreme behavior) is effectively satirized. There are some great lines in the film: “What’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody is watching?” (Which is a more relevant line in this social media era); “You aren’t really anybody in America if you’re not in TV”. However, the movie misses the frankness of Martin Scorsese’s “Kings of Comedy”, which allowed the viewers to chuckle as well as reflect deeply on the subject. But, here the traditional ending and one-note character sketches make us maintain some distance from the subjects.


                                      Gus Van Sant’s direction is excellent as his shots tries to find a perfect tone for a scene, even if it’s moderately written. The undertone of television’s influence is always present. For example, take the murder scene, where the camera jumps back and forth between the gun, the teens, and the TV studio where Suzanne is reciting the weather report. The scene where Suzanne’s is taken out of courthouse is my most favorite scene. In this scene, the director perfectly juxtaposes subjective and objective views as the yelled questions from journalists, and shutter snapping of photographers just sounds like applause for Suzanne. Van Sant also sympathizes with the characters of those alienated teenagers. He allows the one-note characterization of Folland’s tubby Lydia to achieve some transcendence, as we could connect with her forlorn isolation. Van Sant also makes us feel for the imprisoned Jimmy, who in the end wants to avoid the prying eyes of a camera, but it chases him with ever-increasing close-ups.

                                     By playing Suzanne Stone, Nicole Kidman won her first major award (Golden Globes). She wonderfully played against her usual pinup girl image, bringing out a hilarious, telegenic confidence. Some of her best moments are when Suzanne describes her shallow theories about television, death, and life. She hits at the precise satiric note of her character without getting too annoying (it is important to note that in the novel, the Suzanne Stone character says that when they make a movie of her life she wants ‘the girl who married Tom Cruise’ to play her).

                                    “To Die For” (107 minutes) isn’t the most original or powerful satire on the tabloid culture. But it’s worth watching for Van Sant’s visual flair, stinging dialogues, and for Kidman’s vibrant performance.


Elena – A Guileless Portrayal on the Allure of Money and Moral Emptiness

                                              Russia’s renowned film-maker Andrey Zvyagintsev has only directed four films (made an exceptional debut with his 2003 film “The Return”) but has won more than forty international awards, and his films are justly compared with the early works of Tarkovsky and Sokurov. On the surface his stories are very simpler, but within that simplistic outline, he weaves a distinct critique on the contemporary Russian society as well as on the moral degradation of humanity at large. He imbues many enigmatic elements that compel a viewer to observe his works in an active manner. He makes us wrestle with our mind & heart to coax out the meaning of some supremely enigmatic shots. In his first two films, Zvyagintsev opted for non-specific settings, but his third-feature “Elena” (2011) is clearly set in the post-Soviet Russia, where the class discrepancy continues to haunt the Russian oligarchy.

                                         Andrey has described “Elena” as ‘a moral catastrophe’ and has turned into the territory of his favorite Dostoevsky. Pervasive melancholy and knife-edged irony seems broods over the film, reminiscing us a 19th century short story from the Russian literary masters. The movie starts in the usual contemplative manner as a crow lands on the barren tree, situated outside an expansive house. The final shot also shows the same barren branches. May be the director through those branches is echoing the deformed state of the family at the heart of this story.  Middle-aged Elena (Nadezhda Markina) awakes to the sound of an alarm clock. She combs her hair, prepares tea or coffee and proceeds to a bedroom to wake an older man named Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). The separate bedrooms and Elena’s sturdiness indicates that the woman might be the house-keeper.

                                       But, it turns out that Elena is the old man’s wife, and later we also learn that she was once Vladimir’s nurse. Elena has risen in class only after marrying Vladimir, two years back. The couples lead a calm and luxurious life but we could sense a palpable tension between them. Their mutual affection and respect shatter whenever the subject of their respective children comes to light. Elena financially supports her indolent, alcoholic son Sergei (Aleksei Rozin), who lives with wife and two kids in a seedy neighborhood. Sergei’s elder son Sasha is about to finish his school and with his don’t-care attitude, he may either end up in army or prison. Vladimir supports his estranged and spoiled daughter Katerina (Yelena Lyadova), although she doesn’t visit him often.

                                      Elena, blinded by her blood ties, often takes a trip through train and bus to her son’s dilapidated neighborhood. She begs Vladimir to pay for Sasha’s college fees as they all know that the boy’s grades won’t land him in a college. Things go bad for Vladimir one day as he suffers from a devastating heart-attack. In the hospital, he partially reconciles with his daughter, which leads Vladimir to decide on his final will. Later, when Vladimir is recuperating at home asks Elena for a paper to draft his will as he called for the lawyer the next day.

                                      Although the movie’s titular character takes risks and bears consequences for the sake of love, the character doesn’t express any sincere act of love. Sergei sits with his aloof son to play video games. Don’t mistake that the guy is trying to bond with his son; he sits there to further disconnect him from the familial responsibility as mommy has brought home more money. We even don’t know whether Elena’s desperate efforts come from a sense of duty she feels towards her son’s family or from the unquantifiable motherly love. Elena, as played by Markina, seems to have relinquished all tangible human emotions over the years. The internal vacuum she feels in the end makes the film more realistic and renders a more disconsolate feeling.

                                      Director Zvyagintsev is said to have used certain tropes of American film-noir movies, but at the same time there are certain powerful moments that makes us think back the classic Russian literature. Towards the end, Elena rides a train with thousands of rubles and suddenly the train comes to a stop. She clutches to her hand-bag nervously as uniformed men rush through the coach. The guilt inside her involuntarily guides her expressions, but the event that made the train stop is even weirder: a dream-like situation that tries to say something ‘symbolic’. Zvyagintsev also hints at the ubiquitous nature of violence in the Russian society through a discursive sequence, where Sasha & his group fight with other boys in a wasteland. It indicates at a younger generation who seems to have inherited the malice of the previous generations.

                                     Andrey Zvyagintsev also stops us from forming easy opinions on who is the story’s villain. At the end, we feel pity for all characters and don’t’ choose any sides. The director creates a world where coldness seems to have pervaded on all corners. The poor neighborhood with brooding towers of nuclear reactors and the gorgeous, spacious apartment of the rich has the same coldness because the humans who inhabit these places are not spiritually different from each other. In most of the indoor scenes, a mindless reality TV show seems to be running on the background. May be the director is symbolically representing that these inane shows modestly contributes (fixation on money may be the largest contributor) to that kind of ‘emptiness’.

                                  “Elena” (107 minutes) depicts the age-old conflict between haves and have-nots with brutal honesty. It caustically remarks that surviving in a withering society is itself a punishment for our past crimes. 


Whiplash – A Riveting Drama with Nagging Questions

                                             Damien Chazelle, the 29 year old writer and director, has suddenly become this year’s award season sensation. Chazelle’s second-feature film “Whiplash” (2014) has earned a Golden Globe, five Oscar and BAFTA nominations, and numerous other jury awards. The movie belongs to drama genre, but the electrifying script and performances gives us a feeling of watching a blistering action/thriller. “Whiplash” tracks the experiences of a young wanna-be Jazz legend, who is broken-in as well as broken-down by a furious, tyrannical teacher. Chazelle has written the script based on his own experiences with an abusive mentor during his brief stint as high-school drummer.

                                           The film has a simple storyline and plot structure, but provocatively twists the way the relationship between student and mentor is usually portrayed in Hollywood movies. It also questions how a genius is born and limitations of control that influences the mastery. Movies like “Goodwill Hunting”, “Dead Poets Society”, “Finding Forrester” etc, had mentors who positively influenced their pupils to achieve greatness. But, what would happen if that mentor is a despot, who is ready to wreak all kinds of havoc until he pries out the genius out of his talented pupil. “Whiplash” is also one of the rare films in the teacher/student genre that’s truly contemplative. It genuinely raises many questions about the nature of teaching and the sacrifices made by legends without zeroing in on a simple answer.

                                         The movie starts at one end of a hallway, and on the other end we see our protagonist Andrew Neyman (Milles Teller) fiercely drumming. The camera moves slowly and at the doorway, the camera turns around reveal Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). This guy is intrigued to see what Andrew’s got. He asks to play the double-swing. Andrew attempts and the camera spins around, showing us a slamming door. That opening sequence mildly showcases the Andrew’s desperation and Fletcher’s abusive nature, a theme which runs throughout the movie. Andrew is a talented Jazz drummer who wants to become a legend like Buddy Rich. He is freshman at an elite, prestigious music school called ‘Shaffer Conservatory’. Andrew’s dreams are little skeptically supported by his middle-class father (Paul Reiser).

                                         Terrence Fletcher, a senior-level instructor at the school, invites Andrew to sit in as ‘alternate’ with his prestigious core band. He asks Andrew report at 6 AM, although the rehearsal starts up at 9 AM. In the class, Fletcher plays sleazy mind-games and is impossible to please. During the interval, Fletcher softly asks about Andrew’s background. Andrew says that his mother has left him when he was a little boy. Later, Fletcher gives him a chance at the drums, and immediately starts praising him.

                                        But, gradually the smile vanishes from the face of Fletcher, and stops Andrew at every turn, repeatedly saying “Not my Tempo”. Andrew desperately tries to pick up the tempo, but out of nowhere, a chair is hurled, and then comes the barrage of verbal abuse from Fletcher (“You are a worthless, friendless, faggot-lipped little piece of shit whose mommy left daddy when she figured out he wasn't Eugene O'Neill and who's now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a fucking nine-year-old girl!”). He shows enough flashes of humanity to draw in his subject, and suddenly uses profane electricity to jolt the dazed student to see whether he snaps or gives his best. From then on, Andrew become more determined to succeed and forms a complex, symbiotic relationship with Fletcher.

                                       “Whiplash” basically has the structure of a sports film genre. Like a boxing movie, there‘s a young prodigy, hot-headed mentor, a big game etc. Director Chazelle takes this trajectory and adds enough subjectivity to give us that ambiguous feeling. As the movie ends with a furious, complex drum solo, we don’t see applauds, praises or resolving statement that states “Playing music should be fun” or “Greatness could be achieved only at great cost”. Many might feel that this movie makes an unusual or objectionable statement in the end. But, Chazelle doesn’t give us any conclusions as he himself has said in an interview that “I guess it’s still something I’m not sure about” (Q: Do you think the talented should be pushed to the edge in the pursuit of excellence).

                                         The movie’s ambiguity could be best experienced if it’s seen from the characters’ subjective point of view. According to Fletcher, fear is the biggest motivator. So, he uses it at every turn bringing in doubts on the talented. Fletcher has single conversation with Andrew grasping in the boy’s back-story and uses it against him to raise his inherent fear. He says Andrew’s drumming talents is similar to his father’s writing talent or that he deserves his mother’s rejection. Those basic dreads combined with Andrew’s obsessive nature puts him in the path of achieving greatness. Fletcher’s argument is that to achieve such a stage, you can damage or sacrifice anything. He is happy to crush thousands of students’ musical dreams, if he could just find one legend (or one Charlie Parker). In the end, Chazelle neither condones nor condemns Fletcher’s conduct. We don’t know whether Fletcher final insult to Andrew is a plan to bring out his talents or just pure revenge. It could be both. The director also observes in the climax that Andrew, by not giving into Fletcher’s abuse, kind of gets drawn into the teacher’s web. There’s a tight close-up shot in this scene, where both the characters laugh, but we are once again left ambiguous on whether it’s a happy or sad ending. 

                                      Women in such male-dominated films are either shown as supportive figures or like pitfalls. Chazelle break the romantic sub-plot at very earlier stage, and uses it to show how Andrew’s state of mind is affected by Fletcher’s influence. The shy Andrew approaches a pretty girl (Melissa Benoist) and goes on one or two dates with her. After experiencing the abuses, Andrew gives this weird speech to the girl, where he talks as if he knows everything about her – her hopes, dreams, and ambitions. He cites that he is breaking up because she’s going to pin him down with this relationship. It’s basically Fletcher talking through Andrew’s mouth. It’s a little scene that powerfully depicts the cyclic nature of abuse.

                                           The energetic jazz rhythms and exuberant drum solos are as engrossing and tense as the film’s thought-provoking ideas. The unbridled energy in the music itself dictates the shooting and editing styles. The questions raised by this film wouldn’t have reached our eyes & ears if not for the great performances from J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. As Fletcher, Simmons is cloaked in black, tight T-shirts, and the camera itself focuses on him as a daunting guy who’s hailed from the Scorsese universe. His characterization would easily draw comparisons with R. Lee Ermey’s Sergeant Hartman in Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”, but I felt Fletcher is the most sinister one. Hartman was only putting on a face to turn those guys into a killing machine. Of course, he is sending them to die. But, take Fletcher, who puts on a deceitful, humanistic face to get details to wreak more havoc, psychologically. He uses the demise of his former, prized student to create the myth of a prodigious talent taken too soon, but neglects his part in that young man’s untimely death. Simmons also enacts all these psychological violence with an elegance and swagger that’s just more terrifying. Teller is best known for his smart-ass roles in “That Awkward Movement”, “21 & over”, “Footloose”, but with this film he is pushed to showcase all his acting capabilities and he is wholly convincing too.

                                       “Whiplash” (107 minutes) deconstructs the inspirational teacher genre, offering no easy resolutions. You don’t have be Jazz fan to view this movie, since you can take the film’s fundamental thesis and use it to address any art form or sports that involves immense hard-work and sacrifice.


Raining Stones -- The Indomitable Spirit of Working Class

                                            British film-maker Kenneth Loach is best known for his compassionate portrayal of the British working-class. Right from the 1960’s (“Kes”) he’s been making movies about poverty in a Neo-realist style. With his low-key film-making style, Loach has influenced a generation of film-makers like Neil Jordan, Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, Dardenne Brothers etc. “Raining Stones” (1993), a strong addition to Loach’s oeuvre, offers a bittersweet portrayal of proletariat family struggling against the recession in Northern England. The film’s title is an expression that offers a sympathetic view of the underclass, as one character in the film states, “When you are a worker, it rains stones seven days a week”.

                                          The movie starts in a comical fashion as Bob Williams (BruceJones) and Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson) try to rustle a sheep to sell it to the local butcher shop. Both these middle-aged guys’ families are barely making end meet. Bob is an unemployed plumber who roams around social service offices and carries home assistance vouchers to put food on the table. Religion (Catholicism) offers Bob and his wife Anne (Julie Brown) hope, but lately that too has become source of a problem. Bob and Anne’s seven year old daughter Coleen (Gemma Phoenix) will be soon celebrating her first communion. And as per the custom, the little girls undergoing this rite need to wear a pretty, expensive dress.

                                         Bob doesn’t even have a quid to pay the gas and electric bills, although he promises his daughter that he will buy a beautiful, new dress. He and his buddy Tommy plan various schemes to earn a few quick pounds. But, misfortune follows him as his van gets nicked. He goes door to door offering to fix faulty drains, but gets covered up in excrement, cleaning out the toilet of local Catholic Church, and that too for no payment. He becomes a bouncer in a local pub, only to get bounced in his first day work. To make matters worse, Bob also borrows from a loan company and gets embroiled with a dangerous loan shark.

                                       Director Loach and script writer Jim Allen finds the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy. In the opening scene, we see the primary characters repeatedly fail to catch a sheep, and towards the end we see a loan shark threatening Coleen and Anne. One is played to a comic effect and the other is shockingly menacing. These polar opposite scenes makes an equal impact on us because of the three-dimensional characterization and dialogues. When Bob goes to buy an old van, the owner insists that the van had only one owner previously. To which, Tommy cracks up, “Who was it? Ben-Hur?”  The unforced comedy in such painful situations prevents the movie from being bleak or pessimistic. At the same time, Loach and Allen never chucks the painful reality to get some more laughs.

                                      Loach and Allen also create a sense of realism for every character in the movie. When Bob goes to social services office, we hear the struggles of a single mother in bringing up her children. It’s a character that’s there on-screen for few seconds, but it’s conveyed with a sense of realism. Director Loach has expressed his political views less explicitly than his other works. Jimmy (Mike Fallon), Bob’s father-in-law, working in the Tenants’ Association office, is the only overtly political character. Jimmy highlights how their society is affected by crime, booze, and drugs. He states that religion is only a distraction as it doesn’t allow people to get-together to make real changes. These words express the Loach’s view towards the Capitalist system and religion. Nevertheless, Loach has approached religion in a more ambivalent manner. Father Barry (Tom Hickey), who plays a significant role at the plot’s decisive point, has been portrayed in a sympathetic manner. In fact, by making the priest condemn at the social forces that result in hardships, Loach attests that religion could support communities. Even the lawmen, who never find themselves to help under class people shows up at the door of Bob, bringing some good news.
                                      Ken Loach may be little uncertain about religion’s value in the society, but he is very clear about his views on conservatism. In one of the comical scenes, Bob and Tommy steal turf off the lawn of a Conservative Social Club. It’s like a rare moment where the Conservatives denote the working class establishment. Barry Ackroyd’s naturalistic, grainy cinematography keeps up with the movie’s mood and setting. The cast is full of little-known actors, who all have given a remarkable performance. Bruce Jones as the rumpled protagonist imbues the much-needed hope into the proceedings. Julie Brown showcases her characters’ frustration and anger without ever playing like a victim. Jonathan James is so terrifying as the thug Tansey (it’s hard to believe that this guy is a comedian in real life). If you had to point-out one problem with the film, it’s the thick Manchester accent, which makes it difficult to entirely catch what’s being said (even with the use of subtitles).

                                    Ken Loach’s “Raining Stones” (88 minutes) is one of the overlooked works in the British kitchen-sink sub-genre. It stays away from being dogmatic and offers humor even in the most despairing situations. 


Seconds -- The Fretful Nature of Human Soul

                                            Paranoia, deceit, shame, and tragedy haunted the American politics from the 1960’s to early 1970’s (from Kennedy’s death to Nixon’s resignation). The ensued bundle of political gossip and public drama gave us one of best sub-genre in movies, called ‘paranoid thriller’. From Coppola to Roman Polanski many great directors gave cinematic rendering to the fears and distrust of that era. John Frankenheimer was one of those prominent film-makers, whose movies were drenched in paranoia. He targeted the delusions of the powerful politicians and media barons in “Manchurian Candidate” (1962) and “Seven Days in May” (1964) and got loads of critical acclaim. However, his bold and downbeat flick, “Seconds” (1966), which was a commentary on the social excess and suburban existence of the 60’s, didn’t get much attention as viewers failed to connect upon its theme in the initial release.

                                        “Seconds” is a cautionary tale about the perils of wanting too much or dreaming the wrong dream. The cult classic is simply based on the saying, “be careful what you wish for; it might come true”. The film’s credits run in a backdrop of stark black-and-white close-ups of different facial parts that are twisted and pulled to create a hypnotic feel. The musical score (by Jerry Goldsmith) is also brooding and little harsh. Then we see a middle-aged Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) trudging through the metro station with a feeling that some is watching over him. When he hops inside the train, he receives a slip of paper from a mysterious stranger. Later that night he gets a mysterious phone call from a friend, who had long been dead.

                                       Arthur is a banker and could be termed ‘successful’ in terms of wealth, but he has grown distant from his wife (Frances Reid) and the life he has created for himself. The bored Arthur follows the voice of the caller and goes to meat-packing plant, where he is escorted to a sinister company that specializes in giving the wealthy men a second chance. Arthur is offered a re-birth. His death is faked by the Cadaver Procurement Unit, and he goes through extensive, radical plastic surgery. After the operation Arthur emerges as a much younger Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). By exploring his dreams, the company gives him an identity of a wealthy painter. He was set up with a beach-side home in California and with a faithful servant (Wesley Addy). Tony even finds a free-spirited acquaintance in Nora (Salome Jens). But Tony’s new wild life starts to battle with old Arthur’s conscience.

                                      “Seconds” demands some suspension of disbelief to fully understand its themes. It rises a ‘what if?’ question, and so the procedures involved with surgery and giving new identity may be riddled with plot holes, if it is closely scrutinized. It hauntingly explores an individual’s conscience amidst a culture that dramatically changes from one era to another. Director Frankenheimer powerfully displays the cultural divide between the liberated youths and their conservative parents in the beginning of American 60’s. Arthur, the protagonist, once dreamed of being a liberated youth but his job and marriage has given him a conservative life. But, he still holds to his early dreams of emancipation. His new identity, which is filled with radical art and free love, is a dream comes true. However, it turns out that our old Arthur hasn’t dreamt the right dream. The reality of his fantasy only makes Tony/Arthur more uncomfortable.

                                        Only during the aggressive sequence of wine orgy, Arthur/Tony lets his old-self and enjoys the seditious things, but soon after that scene he goes back to being a man stuck in mid-life crisis. Sexually voracious women and free-spirited artist eventually turns into a nightmare from which he can’t awake. This whole identity-changing procedure gradually showcases restless nature of human soul, which is constantly in pursuit of something unattainable. It’s a perfect choice from Frankenheimer to cast the handsome Rock Hudson in the role of Tony Wilson. Although John Randolph (Arthur) and Hudson has no single physical resemblance, the choice once again stresses the point that even when you polish your external identity, you can’t escape from your own internal persona.

Title Sequence by Graphic Designer Saul Bass

                                        Rock Hudson, who has known for his roles in melodramatic and romantic comedies (“All that Heaven Allows”, “Pillow Talk” etc), has taken a vital acting departure in the film “Seconds”. He was a matinee idol whose success was highly dependent on the perception of him as a clean-cut, traditional male. As Tony Wilson, he perfectly displayed the inherent frustration and dullness of alter-identity, Arthur because he has really experienced the wearisome routines of an uncomplicated man. Through Rock Hudson, the director has finely explored the surging desperation behind good looks or star persona.
                                      Apart from the impressive on-screen performances, the talking point of “Seconds” is the flawless, unique visual style created by John Frankenheimer and cinematographer James Wong Howe. The black and white cinematography constantly employed various tricks and stylistic flourishes to adjust us to the primary character’s subjectivity. Howe was one of the first to use snorricam devices in the scene where a nervous Arthur moves through a crowded train station (and later when Tony goes through mental breakdown). Scorsese used a Snorricam shot in “Mean Streets” and the shot was extensively employed in Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” (in the walk of shame sequence) and “Pi”. All these hand-held camera work and weird tracking shots (for that period) immediately created a sense of paranoia and dread even among the not-so dreary atmosphere.   

John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe

                                       The script from Lewis John Carlino, based on the novel by David Ely, slackens a bit in the second act. The relationship between Tony and Nora also felt too contrived, but the compelling ending firmly brings back the feeling of unease.  The ending may be one of the bleakest in Hollywood cinema, but it’s a thematically perfect one.

                                       “Seconds” (107 minutes) is full of slippery, paranoid energy that’s infuriating as well as honest. It is one of the underrated classic of American cinema which showcases the diabolical goings-on of the era it was made.