By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 22, 2013)
Since this is the first official weekend 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 those “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:
Claire’s Knee– This 1970 offering is “part five” of a six-film cycle by the late French director Eric Rohmer known collectively as “Six Moral Tales” (each individual entry works fine as a stand-alone film), and my favorite of the cycle. Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy) is a thirty something diplomat enjoying his final “bachelor holiday” on Lake Annecy, where he runs into old friend Aurora (Aurora Cornu). She is a writer, currently blocked for ideas. Playfully informing Jerome that he will be her Muse, she offers him a guest room, and introduces him to her neighbor, a woman with two teenage daughters, a precocious 15 year-old named Laura (Beatrice Romand) and her aloof 16-year old sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan). It doesn’t take Jerome long to start giving Aurora story ideas. While mindfully keeping Laura’s platonic crush at bay, he finds himself drawn to her sister, developing an inexplicable desire to touch her knee. Despite how that sounds, there’s nothing leering about the way Rohmer handles it. To Jerome, this is an abstract and romanticized form of adulation (like Alan Ladd’s obsession with the painting in Laura), as opposed to a sexual urge . He keeps the voyeuristic Aurora apprised, as she eggs him on (she needs the material). Ultimately as enigmatic as love itself, topped off with gorgeous cinematography by Nestor Almendros .
The Graduate- “Aw gee, Mrs. Robinson.” It could be argued that those were the four words in this 1967 Mike Nichols film that made Dustin Hoffman a star. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role of hapless college grad Benjamin Braddock…even if Hoffman (30 at the time) was a bit long in the tooth to be playing a 21 year-old character. Poor Benjamin just wants to take a nice summer breather before facing adult responsibilities, but his pushy parents would rather he focus on career advancement immediately, if not sooner. Little do his parents realize that in their enthusiasm, they’ve inadvertently pushed their son right into the sack with randy Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), wife of his Dad’s business partner (the original cougar!). Things get more complicated after Benjamin meets his lover’s daughter (Katharine Ross). This is one of those “perfect storm” artistic collaborations: Nichols’ skilled direction, Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s witty screenplay, fantastic performances from the entire cast, and one of the best soundtracks ever (by Simon and Garfunkel). Some of the 60s trappings haven’t dated well, but the incisive social satire has retained its sharp teeth.
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 pristine, richly colorful time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the formidable chops of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, etc., but the film is most fascinating whenever cameras turn away from the artists and casually linger on the audience and their environs while the music continues in the background. The effect truly is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day, because if you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, half the fun is people-watching. Stern is breaking with film making conventions of the era; you are witnessing the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t flower until nearly a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.
Last Summer– This criminally ignored 1969 gem was directed by Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Diary of a Mad Housewife, Rancho Deluxe) and adapted by playwright Eleanor Perry (his wife) from Evan Hunter’s novel. It’s tough to summarize without possible spoilers. At its basic level, 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 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 by all.
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 not usually mentioned in the same breath, but it applies to this wise and drolly amusing morality tale from the director whose name is synonymous with deep and somber dramas. Gunnar Bjornstrand (Bergman’s most oft-used actor) heads a fine ensemble as an amorous middle-aged attorney with a lovely young wife (whose “virtue” remains intact) and a free-spirited mistress, who juggles a number of lovers herself. As you may guess, this leads to amusing complications. Love in all of its guises is deftly represented by a bevy of richly-drawn supporting characters, who converge in a beautifully constructed 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, literately scripted and surprisingly 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 really on a roll there for a while in the mid-to late 80s, delivering five truly exceptional films in a row, book-ended by This is Spinal Tap in 1984 and When Harry Met Sally in 1989. This 1986 dramedy sits smack in the middle of the cycle. Based on a Stephen King story (adapted by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans) it’s a bittersweet coming-of-age “end of summer” tale about four pals (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) who embark on a clandestine search for the body of a missing teenager, during the course of which they learn some hard life lessons. Reiner coaxes extraordinary performances from the young leads, who navigate a tricky roller coaster of emotions and richness of “back story” with an aplomb that belies their age and experience (at that stage of their careers). Richard Dreyfus (as the adult Wheaton character) does the voice-over narration. A modern classic.
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. Maybe Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the finer animes of recent years. Although a few narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s screenplay will feel somewhat familiar to anime fans (particularly the bombastic “cyber-punk” elements), it’s the humanist touches and subtle social observations (quite reminiscent of the work of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu) that makes it a unique and worthwhile film.
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. Alas, our hero’s idyll inevitably gets steamrolled by the old adage: “Where ever you go…there you are.” The pacing lags at times, but superb performances, gorgeous scenery and bits of inspired lunacy (like a hilariously 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 out like a languid, sun-baked California desert fever dream…it’s because it was. As the late director once claimed, the story literally popped into his head while he was sleeping. What ended up on the screen not only represents Altman’s best, but one of the best American art films of the 1970s. The three women of interest are Millie (Shelly Duvall), an incessantly chatty nursing home therapist, dismissed as a needy bore by everyone around her except for her childlike roommate/co-worker Pinky (Sissy Spacek), who worships the ground she walks on, and the enigmatic Willie (Janice Rule), a pregnant artist who whiles away her days painting bizarre anthropomorphic lizard figures on swimming pool bottoms. The personas of the three merge in compelling fashion, bolstered by fearless performances from all three leads. By the end, there’s no room for doubt that creations like Willie, Millie and Pinky could only have emerged from the land of Wynken, Blynken and Nod.