Saturday, March 29, 2014

Seconds and Faces and Masks

Directed by John Frankenheimer
Released in  1966

Cheryl, one of my frequent visitors here, suggested a resemblance between the Japanese film The Face of Another and the US film Seconds, starring Rock Hudson.  The Face of Another is the story of a Japanese businessman whose face is horribly scarred in a laboratory accident.  He covers his head with bandages, resembling the character in films of  H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man.  He is not adapting well, so his psychiatrist suggests a radical solution.  He will make a mask that is so lifelike few will ever realize it is a mask.

In Seconds, the businessman is a successful officer at a bank and seems likely to become bank president in the near future.  However, he is suffering from what was called a midlife crisis.   His job is boring and the romance has gone from his marriage.  His daughter has grown up and is now married and living far away, sending only a few letters and making an occasional phone call. He has come to the point that life means little or nothing to him--just endless tedium.

Then, he is contacted by a friend, a shock, for he thought Sam had died.  Sam tells him there is a company that will solve his problems for him, for a fee of course.  The solution is plastic surgery.  The company will arrange everything:  plastic surgery so he won't be recognized and his "death," so he won't be searched for.  The company will even provide him with a new life--something like a witness protection program for the bored.

After a bit of coaxing, he finally agrees.  This part is the one that doesn't work for me--the plastic surgery.  He changes from a 50 year old man, of average height, and somewhat overweight to Rock Hudson, who is 6'4" with an athlete's body.  A few weeks of workouts in the gym is not going to change his  body that much nor can it add maybe a half foot to his height.  However, once I got past that, I found it an interesting and absorbing film.

Rock Hudson comes up with one of his finest acting jobs in this film.  Regardless of his physical appearance, Hudson really seems to be a 50 year old man, still tired and now lost in his new life.   As in Face, events do not go the way all had hoped for.

While Face is concerned with a mask and Seconds employs plastic surgery, the overlying theme in the two films is the same--the change of one's external appearance and the effects of that change.  In Face, the mask seems to release the inner monster or at least it allows one to become something other than it was without the mask, while the plastic surgery in Seconds may change one's physical appearance, it does not change the inner person.

In Thomas Mann's short novel (perhaps even a novella) The Transposed Heads, Mann proposes a third answer to the question of the significance of the physical body to the spirit.  In the story two vastly different friends, one an intellectual and decidedly not athletic and the other a hardworking farmer commit suicide in order to allow the other to win the heart of the woman they both love.   She, on her part, finds it impossible to choose between them.  Discovering that they have committed suicide by praying to the goddess Kali to decapitate them, she attempts to save them by putting their heads back with their bodies and praying to Kali to resurrect them.   Kali hears her plea and brings them back to life, but unfortunately in her grief and panic the young woman had placed the wrong heads on the bodies.

Over a period of time, the intellectual appearing head with the intellectual mind began to change a bit.  The features coarsened somewhat, its interests and thinking processes were not quite as intellectual as before, and the body began to soften and to resemble the body of an intellectual.  And, the head of the farmer on the intellectual body began to change in the opposite direction.  The head began to resemble that of the intellectual while the body became tougher and stronger.   Mann's point, as I see it, is that the spirit and the body are one unit and influence each other.   The two friends over time may resemble each other in physique and mind more than they did before they committed suicide.

So, there are three positions here:  the spirit controls the body or the outward appearance, the outward appearance greatly influences the spirit, and the spirit and the body mutually influence each other for they are really one.

 One side note here--in psychology the term "persona" refers to "the role that a person assumes in order to display his conscious intentions to himself and others."   The term "persona" comes from Latin and it means "mask."  So, the persona is a mask assumed to display his conscious intentions to himself and others.  The relationship to others is very clear, but what does it mean when we assume a mask to display our conscious intentions to ourselves?

I'm not sure what this all means, but the interrelationship among the terms persona, person, and mask is fascinating.   And how does Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fit in here, as well as stories about the doppelgangers by Poe, Dostoyevsky, and others?


  1. Fred,

    Interesting post. I also re-watched Seconds recently and my opinion is similar to yours. In The Face of Another: change your face, you can change your personality. In Seconds: change your face, your personality still remains the same.
    In Seconds, the company doing the procedure was trying to show the man that he could change his personality by setting him up in a new environment and giving him a different type of friends and a lover who was teaching him a bohemian way of living. But in the end, his dissatisfaction came from the fact that he knew he was the same person inside.

    I'll have to see if I can find that Thomas Mann novel you mentioned. As you said, there is alot to think about here.

  2. Cheryl,

    I hope you get the chance to read Mann's _The Transposed Heads_. It is a short novel, as I said. I did a post on it back in November of 2011.

    I wonder if the Company experienced more failures than successes. That waiting room near the end of the film had a lot of failures sitting and "waiting."

    Something I forgot to mention in the post is that both films came out in 1966. Strange coincidence, I suppose.