WEIRDLAND: Dystopian Adventures: "Seconds" (1966) and "Mr. Robot" (2015)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Dystopian Adventures: "Seconds" (1966) and "Mr. Robot" (2015)

"Seconds" (1966) directed by John Frankenheimer. Plot: An unhappy middle-aged banker agrees to a procedure that will fake his death and give him a completely new look and identity - one that comes with its own price.

You can buy everything in America - even a new life. This is exactly what Arthur Hamilton, a successful middle-aged banker, discovers after one of his old and supposedly dead friends begins calling him at home. At first Arthur refuses to believe that he is the same man he knew years ago, but after he points out details from his past no one else could have known he changes his mind. Encouraged by his friend, Arthur also agrees to visit the office of a company specializing in procedures that allow its customers to reinvent their lives.

Soon after he returns to his lavish beach house, Tony meets the attractive blonde Nora Marcus (Salome Jens, Savages). The two then visit a Bacchanalian grape-stomping ceremony that forces Tony to reexamine his new and supposedly better life. It is an indisputable fact that John Frankenheimer's Seconds was well ahead of its time. Completed in 1966, the film asks a number of questions that are frequently debated in the media today. To see that Frankenheimer was able to imagine a future reality and more importantly accurately describe how technology could alter people's perceptions about right and wrong is indeed quite extraordinary.

Seconds is structured as a thriller, but there are various themes in it that actually make it an unorthodox study of morality in America. There are two major character transformations in it that are linked to different perceptions about success and happiness and the price one may have to pay for them. As the film progresses, Frankenheimer carefully forces the viewer to ponder whether the two are related or simply misunderstood. Cinematographer James Wong Howe shot select sequences with a hand-held camera and many of them greatly enhance the sense of paranoia that permeates the film. Seconds is also complimented by a terrific, very dark soundtrack courtesy of award-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith. Source:

Seconds cuts even closer to the bone, exposing the precariousness of the American dream through a vertiginous blend of genre elements: horror, noir, and science fiction collide with suspense worthy of Hitchcock, outrageousness worthy of Kafka, and an acid critique of American capitalism.

Frankenheimer told an interviewer that he wanted to adapt David Ely’s eponymous 1963 novel because “all of today’s literature and films about escapism are just rubbish, [since] you cannot and should not ever try to escape from what you are.”

The attack on advertising was particularly relevant less than a decade after Vance Packard’s best seller The Hidden Persuaders skewered the original Mad Men for their amoral manipulation of American consumers. Frankenheimer was a thorough­going liberal in his politics, incidentally, and in Seconds he found excellent parts for three gifted actors who had endured much hardship in the Hollywood blacklist years: Jeff Corey as a Company executive named Mr. Ruby, Will Geer as the unnamed Company chief, and Randolph as Arthur, his first Hollywood role after the studios banished him in 1955.

Seconds is both Frankenheimian and Frankensteinian, carrying Mary Shelley’s concept of a “Modern Prometheus” into territory that James Whale and Boris Karloff never dreamed of. Since the Company is cagey about its location, for instance, Arthur can’t go there directly. Instead, he’s routed through other businesses like a character in a fairy tale: first a claustrophobic laundry where steam-hissing trouser presses hint at the surgical smoothing in Arthur’s future.

At its deepest level, Seconds is also a resurrection story. It’s a deeply dystopian one, however, where the body is reborn but the spirit stays dead. A particularly haunting element is Geer’s brilliant performance as the folksy old gent who founded the Company and still clucks over it like a mother hen. He chats with Arthur more than once during the film, coaxing the prospective customer into his fold with smooth talk and therapy-speak. In one of their fateful conversations, the camera’s framing makes the brim of his hat look like a glowing halo; “I believe you,” Arthur murmurs in response, like a little boy in Sunday school. Almost half a century after its premiere, Seconds remains unique—a probing psychological adventure, a merciless assault on social evils, and one of the most startling, spellbinding rides you’ll ever take. Source:

"He stepped closer to it; obediently, the image advanced to meet him. He wondered whether it would not be possible for him to merge with it finally, so that he might become forever fixed in the coldness of the shining glass, a two-dimensional representation of a man." —"Seconds" (1963) by David Ely.

With the process of emasculation complete, Wilson willingly sells his mediocre existence for a chance at personal freedom. However, the Faustian exchange is superficial, enacted only on the surface of Wilson’s body, and the act of rejuvenation ultimately divides Wilson against himself. He faces the stark realization that his manufactured self has no core, that the change in his physical body has not transformed his inner being. Rather than lending coherence to the self, Wilson’s metamorphosis has merely created a disjointed and fragmented identity.

Wilson’s transformation is not a rebirth but a stillbirth; Wilson is reborn dead. As the dreadful nature of the company’s operation is confirmed, Wilson sees nothing but vast expanses of emptiness and corruption. Seconds can be read as a liberal cautionary tale against the feminine lure of totalitarianism. —"The Double as Failed Masculinity in David Ely’s Seconds" (2005) by Marilyn Michaud

"What kind of man is he? There's grace in the line and color, but it doesn't emerge pure. It pushes at the edge of something still tentative, unresolved - as if somewhere in the man there is still a key unturned." —Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) in Seconds (1966)

There are many ways to interpret what Elliot dreamed. The most important thing is that Elliot is repeatedly given a key and Elliot doesn’t know what it opens. We also see him revisiting his old house, where now there’s only a sign of “Error 404. Not Found”. He goes back to his apartment where he finds Tyrell, but instead of talking to him, he talks to the fish. The fish complains about always seeing the same thing (which would go back to Episode 2’s question of “Are you a 1 or a 0?”). The fish is later eaten by Angela, who is having dinner with Elliot. Elliot ends up choking with a key. The key here represents a ring, to which Angela says “yes”.

They go to the FSociety headquarters where they are dressed to get married (Elliot is still wearing his hoodie over his tuxedo). Angela says “You’re not gonna do it, are you? Change the world… Figures, You were only born a month ago. You’re afraid. Afraid of your monster. Do you even know what it is?”. Then she gives him back the key and says “it didn’t fit”. When he asks why not, she replies “You’re not Elliot“. After this strange trip, Elliot wakes up and repeats over and over again that he is alone. Source:

“My approach with Elliot,” Malek explains, “is to dig deeply, but know that I just have to find a way to distance myself from him before it really becomes something that physically and mentally can torment me.” There is a level of transparency and control in reading and writing code, whereas one can never truly know what’s going on inside another person’s head. Human emotions, however, can be hacked with the right amount of precisely applied brute force, which Elliot does as easily as he breathes.

“Elliot is trying to numb himself from the world and remove himself, in a way,” Malek says. “But at the same time, Elliot’s on the search for humanity as well. He may not go at it in the most productive way, but he’s definitely searching for something.” Our addiction to technology and comfort has made us debt slaves at the service of corporate greed. We’re in danger of becoming a little less human.

Mr. Robot’s pilot won the Audience Award in the Episodics category at South By Southwest, and the series itself has enjoyed near universal acclaim. But as the season finale nears, it’s still searching for a larger audience. Even so, USA has already picked up season two – fortunate, since the end of season one is already leading to more questions just as quickly as it’s revealing answers. Malek is under strict instruction not to reveal any details about the final episodes.

“I hate when actors say it took a while to shed that guy, but it had an impact on me psychologically. How could it not? The exploration of what makes these men so complicated is something that I’ve always been drawn to,” Malek says. “I’ve traveled to some really dark places playing both of them, and I’ve learned from playing Snafu that there’s only so deep that I can go before it really starts to take over?”

“I started to think about the ways Elliot’s mind functions. His reclusive self brings him to sit in front of a monitor. “That’s one way that gives his mind peace, which I think is interesting,” Malek adds. “Because for me, that is the exact opposite.” He goes on to add, “I actually did my own audition process of who would be that voice. And I always pictured a woman’s voice in my head. I wanted that.” Asked why, he replies, “I don’t know. Maybe I can be more honest with women in my life, and I found that Elliot might have the same thing. He might be yearning for that, in a certain way. To speak honestly, or to hear the truth, might come from that perspective. Source:

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