Reincarnation always seemed worse than Hell to me. Never mind that I feel pretty bound up in this-here body and these-here experiences, one ride on this train is enough. To invest all that love and hatred into one cast of characters, forget everything, and do it all again as a vole—not for me. Hell, for all its problems, is at least a place you can put down roots. It’s torture, yes, and eternal darkness, but it’s got the benefit of familiarity. And Heaven—hoo boy Heaven—how could you get bored of eternity there? Sure, it’s a question-begging concept, but what isn’t? As Homer Simpsons tells us while banging himself in the head with a bat, “wow, up here that feels good!” Give me Catholic Heaven any day.
John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) is an experiment in starting over, in reincarnation with the mind in-tact (a fact made obvious by its German title, “Der man, der zweimal lebte,” “The Man Who Lived Twice”). On paper, it’s classic 60s sci-fi fare, a Twilight Zone episode stretched out to 107 minutes and blessed with the disturbing cinematography of James Wong Howe. It’s the tale of a white-headed, gray-flannel suited executive, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), who abandons his wife and distant daughter to be reborn as Rock Hudson (or, in the movie’s terms, Antiochus “Tony” Wilson). Seconds has all the mainstays of mid-century paranoia—the corrupt corporation, evil psychiatrists, spies disguised as friends, generational conflict, and the exhaustion of the happiness offered by the post-war truce between capital and labor. We see shots of a real rhinoplasty operation, witness horribly distorted montages of surgeons, mutilated faces, and glaring medical lights. It all makes sense as a collective American fever dream. Just on these terms, Frankenheimer has made a masterpiece.
But I propose to do one better—to look at Seconds on the other side of the Great American Century. It did poorly in the 60s and it would do poorly today, in large part because the problems it scrutinizes have only become worse. That, and much weirder. Take the notion of “reinvention” the film plays with. Arthur becomes younger and hotter. He leaves behind his frigid familial relationships on the East Coast for West Coast orgies and nude grape stomping. He is become hippy, fulfiller of dreams. What ruins this shift for him is the public recollection of who he is. The company that subsidized his surgery doesn’t like that. But he’s defiant; he realizes he’s both Arthur and Tony (a man who is recently deceased and whose identity he has essentially stolen, in a horrific presage of the British Undercover Cops and Sex Scandal). And so, he visits his wife and speaks to her as if he were but a friend of Arthur’s who wanted to pick up some of his art. His wife, however, doesn’t have them anymore and speaks of Arthur as a distant, dissatisfied man. There is nothing but dejection for our protagonist, who is not who he is and feels seen and suffocated in who he was.
Today we can reinvent way more rapidly. Yes, there is ubiquitous plastic surgery. Yes, you can try on a thousand hats as a thousand different accounts. But above all, we are reinvented by attention, by clout. The hyper-competitive marketplace of faces, songs, and styles means an incessant drive to be baptized in the gamer girl bathwater of fame. We all wish to enter what Michael Judge calls the “Eikonosphere.” Here, Judge says, we willingly and enchantedly accept the parasite Fama, who, no doubt, plans to give every working man a brain slug. This is also an attempt to disappear, to be erased by the very glory that overtakes us, to become small under God’s microscope—or better yet, under the magnifying glass composed of humanity’s collective and individuated eyes. Who among us isn’t Arthur? Who among us would not be destroyed? Need I tell you how many of my wife’s pre-school students want to be YouTubers?
Seconds also highlights sexual blackmail, which we all accept, know exists, and see in movies, yet seem to reject as any meaningful part of the dirty work of politics (Dennis Hastert anyone?). In its time and place, the movie’s depiction of Arthur’s getting drugged and videotaped committing sexual violence might seem like a reflection on MKUltra or the general melting of America’s acid-washed brain. Today, it reeks of Jeffry Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell, and Jean-Luc Brunel. In the movie’s world it is fundamental; it forms the fulcrum of Arthur’s decision (or lack thereof) to go through with his transformation. How’s he going to say no when such a tape exists? Equally key, however, it is never brought up again. Sexual blackmail is the invisible knot holding the whole operation together, keeping the Company going and forcing our protagonist under the knife. Qoheleth was right: ain’t nothing new under the sun.
What’s left but that eternal human desire, immortality? True enough Arthur is not seeking eternal life. But is constant reinvention not just reincarnation? Sure, the Company’s clients need to suppress their old selves, but in classic metempsychosis, the “old you” determines a lot about the new one. This is the fantasy of escape, most ably incarnated today by the ultra-rich, who imagine transferring their consciousnesses to new (perhaps mechanized) bodies. In Seconds, the idea is that the body changes and with it the mind. In our world (as usual), we get the worst all around: the body is often adapted to suit Fama, but not without the ultimate focus on the mind. A rich man must be a smart man, and a smart man must be smart enough to save his consciousness from degradation and eventual demise. As we learn in the film, there is no such escape; you can be damned to be yourself only in the negative sense. To imagine liberation while remaining entirely your own is to imagine slow insanity and eventual subjugation. We run because we can dream up no decent answers to the actual problems facing us. This too is Arthur’s cowardice.
There’s too much to say. Seconds is a phenomenal work of art with the technical essentials to back-up, complement, and enhance its vision. Frankenheimer made something special here, something that stands out even now, not as a reflection of the 60s and its angsts (though it is that), but as a remarkably contemporary investigation of our society’s basest desires and ways of doing business. A rolling stone picks up moss; it picks up crap as well.