By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 12, 2017)
Since we’ve officially hit the “dog days” of summer, I thought it would be a good excuse to cull a list of my 10 seasonal favorites for your consideration. These would be films that I feel capture the essence of these “lazy, hazy, crazy” days; stories infused with the sights, the sounds, the smells, of summer. So, here you go…as per usual, in alphabetical order:
Jazz on a Summer’s Day– Bert Stern’s groundbreaking documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is not so much a “concert film” as it is a time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the artistry of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, etc., but it’s equally compelling when cameras turn away from the artists and linger on the audience and their environs while the music continues in the background.
The effect is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day, because if you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, you know half the fun is people-watching. Stern breaks with film making conventions of the era; this is the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t fully come to flower until a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.
Last Summer– This underrated 1969 gem is from the husband-and-wife film making team of director Frank Perry and writer Eleanor Perry (who adapted from Evan Hunter’s novel). It’s tough to summarize without possible spoilers. On the surface, it’s a character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during an idyllic summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) innocently bumbles into this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, it blows the lid off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. It’s sort of Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there. Beautifully acted and directed.
Mid-August Lunch-This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorra). Light-ish in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.
The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. In exchange for some forgiveness on back rent, he requests that Giovanni take on a house guest for the weekend-his elderly mother. Giovanni agrees, but is chagrined when the landlord turns up with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Things get more complicated when Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call, then in lieu of a bill asks if he doesn’t mind taking on his dear old mama as well (Ferragosto is a popular “getaway” holiday in Italy).
It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring.
Mommy is at the Hairdresser’s- Set at the beginning of an idyllic Quebec summer, circa 1966, Lea Pool’s beautifully photographed drama centers around the suburban Gauvin family. A teenager (Marianne Fortier) and her little brothers are thrilled that school’s out for summer. Their loving parents appear to be the ideal couple; Mom (Celine Bonnier) is a TV journalist and Dad (Laurent Lucas) is a medical microbiologist. A marital infidelity precipitates a separation, leaving the kids in the care of their well-meaning but now titular father, and young Elise finds herself the de facto head of the family. This is a perfect film about an imperfect family; a bittersweet paean to the endless summers of childhood lost.
Smiles of a Summer Night– “Lighthearted romp” and “Ingmar Bergman” are seldom mentioned in the same breath, but it applies to this wise, drolly amusing morality tale from the director whose name is synonymous with somber dramas. Bergman regular Gunnar Bjornstrand heads a fine ensemble, as an amorous middle-aged attorney with a young wife (whose “virtue” remains intact) and a free-spirited mistress, who juggles a number of lovers herself. As you may guess, this all leads to amusing complications.
Love in all of its guises is represented by a bevy of richly-drawn characters, who converge in a third act set on a sultry summer’s eve at a country estate (which provided inspiration for Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy). Fast-paced, literate, and sexy, it has a muted cry here and a whisper there of that patented Bergman “darkness”, but compared to most of his oeuvre, this one is a veritable screwball comedy.
Stand By Me– Director Rob Reiner was on a roll in the mid-to late 80s, delivering five exceptional films, book-ended by This is Spinal Tap in 1984 and When Harry Met Sally in 1989. This 1986 dramedy was in the middle of the cycle. Based on a Stephen King novella (adapted by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans) it’s a bittersweet “end of summer” tale about four pals (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) who embark on a search for the body of a missing teenager, during the course of which they learn hard life lessons. Reiner coaxes extraordinary performances from the young leads, who navigate a roller coaster of emotions with an aplomb that belies their age and experience at that stage of their careers. Richard Dreyfus provides the narration.
Summer Wars– Don’t be misled by the cartoonish title of Mamoru Hosoda’s eye-popping movie-this could be the Gone with the Wind of Japanese anime. OK…that’s a tad hyperbolic. But it does have drama, romance, comedy, and war-centering around a summer gathering at a bucolic family estate. Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the finer animes of recent years. While some narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s screenplay will feel familiar to anime fans (particularly the “cyber-punk” elements), it’s the humanist touches and subtle social observations (reminiscent of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu) that makes it a unique and worthwhile genre entry.
A Summer’s Tale– It’s nearly 8 minutes into Eric Rohmer’s romantic comedy before anyone utters a word; and it’s a man calling a waitress over to order a chocolate crepe. But not to worry, because things are about to get much more interesting. In fact, our young man, an introverted maths grad named Gaspar (Melvil Poupaud), who is killing time in sunny Dinard until his “sort of” girlfriend arrives to join him on summer holiday, will soon find himself in a dizzying girl whirl. It begins when he meets bubbly and outgoing Margo (Amanda Langlet) an ethnologist major who is spending her summer break waitressing at her aunt’s seaside crepery. Margo is also (sort of) spoken for, with a boyfriend (currently overseas). So a friendship blooms. But will they stay “just friends”?
Originally released in France in 1996, this film (which didn’t make its official U.S. debut until 2014) rates among the late director’s best work (strongly recalling Pauline at the Beach, which starred a then teenage Langlet, who is wonderful here as the charming Margo). If you’re unfamiliar with Rohmer, this is as good a place as any to start.
In a way, this is a textbook “Rohmer film”, which I define as “a movie where the characters spend more screen time dissecting the complexities of male-female relationships than actually experiencing them”. But don’t despair; it won’t be like watching paint dry. In fact, even a neophyte should glean Rohmer’s ongoing influence (particularly if you’ve seen Once, When Harry Met Sally, or Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy). One gentle caveat: any viewer of A Summer’s Tale (or any Rohmer film) will recognize themselves at some juncture, yet at once feel absolved for being only human.
Tempest– “Show me the magic.” Nothing says “idyllic” like a Mediterranean getaway, which provides the backdrop for Paul Mazursky’s seriocomic 1982 update of Shakespeare’s classic play. His Prospero is a harried Manhattan architect (John Cassavetes) who spontaneously quits his firm, abandons his wife (Gena Rowlands), packs up his teen daughter (Molly Ringwald) and retreats to a Greek island for an open-ended sabbatical. He soon adds a young lover (Susan Sarandon) and a Man Friday (Raul Julia) to his entourage. But will this idyll inevitably be steamrolled by the adage: “Wherever you go…there you are”? The pacing lags a little bit on occasion, but superb performances, gorgeous scenery and bits of inspired lunacy (like a choreographed number featuring Julia and his sheep dancing to “New York, New York”) make up for it.
3 Women– If Robert Altman’s haunting 1977 character study plays like a languid, sun-baked California fever dream…it’s because it was (the late director claimed that the story came to him in his sleep). What ended up on the screen not only represents Altman’s best, but one of the best American art films of the 1970s. The women are Millie (Shelly Duvall), a chatty physical therapist, considered a needy bore by everyone except her childlike roommate/co-worker Pinky (Sissy Spacek), who worships the ground she walks on, and enigmatic Willie (Janice Rule), a pregnant artist who only paints anthropomorphic lizard figures (empty swimming pools as her canvas). As the three personas slowly merge (bolstered by fearless performances from the three leads), there’s little doubt that Millie, Pinky and Willie hail from the land of Wynken, Blynken and Nod.