Wednesday, March 30, 2005

#22: Summertime

Summertime, 1955, directed by David Lean, screenplay by H. E. Bates and David Lean, based on the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents.

At a time when anything European is held up for scorn by the right wing, it's salutory to remember the place Europe once held in the American imagination. Summertime is the zenith of romanticized views of Europe. Or, I should say, a very 1950s way of romanticizing Europeans. It's not the "so cultured! so bored with life! so existential!" romantic European who dominated the 60's, but the 50's version: cultured, but not yet bored, and most of all, sensual.

Katherine Hepburn plays a retired secretary from Akron, Ohio, touring Europe for the first time; Summertime is about an affair she has with a married Italian (Renato de Rossi, played by Rossano Brazzi) while staying in Venice. I can't imagine what this was like as a play, because if you took away the lush travelogue shots of Venice, you'd be left with maybe 30 minutes of film. Those 30 minutes have their moments, but the central love story between Hepburn and Brazzi didn't really interest me. This is one of those movies where the woman says "Renato! Renato!" and it's a big plot point, which is fine for what it is, but not my kind of film.

Even if the main story left me flat, there are some great touches; Jane Rose and MacDonald Parke play an older couple on a mile-a-minute tour of Europe. Their travel agent has planned everything out for them, including an hour of "I. A." (Independent Activity) each day. They're amusingly gauche; MacDonald Parke turns down a drink, saying, within earshot of his Italian hostess, "I'd like to, but this wop food has ruined my digestion." Later, he marvels at the Academy of Venice: "Pictures! Thousands and thousands of pictures. All of them done by hand!" The ugly American is a staple of this sort of film, of course, but these two are a cut above, not least because they're genuinely charming and not unsympathetic. This sort of character is usually only an object of scorn, but Summertime gives them at least a little breathing room.

The movie also succeeded in making me miss Italy; Venice has never looked better. And Lean doesn't have any qualms about shooting the whole thing like it was being made for the tourist board; he has a lot of shots of Venetian landmarks that have nothing to do with the story. Is a character walking into the Piazza San Marco? That's enough to motivate two minutes of basically static shots of architectural details of the palazzo ducale. I'll admit it; when I was there I shot a whole roll of film of the same building, and it fits the story to give in to that impulse and shoot it like a tourist (in fact, Katherine Hepburn carries an 8mm movie camera with her throughout the first half of the film). Although I enjoyed seeing the city again, I prefer a more economical style of directing; with movies like this, people talk about the setting like it's a character. It's not.

This is also the first movie I've seen that unironically cuts from two characters embracing to fireworks going off in the background. No kidding; I always thought that was more of a theoretical cliché than something that ever really happened. And yes, Brazzi runs after Hepburn's train as it leaves the station. He doesn't catch it, though. And Hepburn leaves him, goes back to the states. So in that sense, Summertime is not as hackneyed as it could have been. And Hepburn's performance, especially towards the beginning, is very good; they get exactly right what it feels like to be alone in a city you don't know. Venice was that way for me.


Jody said...

If you believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then a cliched moment is a sign of good writing if you're the first to do it...

Recife said...

This has nothing to do with the movie. Just wanted to get that out of the way.

I have been thinking about this. How many Matthew Dessems can one world hold? And how many of them can be 28 years old right now? I think the number is a small one. Which is why I think this particular Matthew Dessem should send an email to his old friend Nathan.

Matthew Dessem said...

Jody, you're right; if you write something that *becomes* a cliche, you're doing something very, very right. I think it must be very annoying to see your ideas get reused again and again, even if it means the original idea was a good one. I'm willing to bet that most of the cliches in Summertime were already cliches, though.

Recife, email on the way.

Anonymous said...

Just be glad Criterion released this. If it was anyone else, we might not have wonderful eight-year old smoking action!

Matthew Dessem said...


Hard to imagine this with an R rating, but I guess that's what it would get today...

Anonymous said...

We usually go to the movies to be told a story, and everything else takes a back seat. The plot is generally the first element to be discussed and if it is found lacking in any way, we tend to disparage the film. But sometimes it isn’t about the narrative. Sometimes it is about the experience. Sometimes you just have to kick back and let that symphony of images and sound wash over you. Sometimes, like Jane Hudson (Katherine Hepburn) in Summertime, you have to let yourself be seduced.

Watching this film on a television screen puts us at a disadvantage, for I imagine that being enveloped by those sumptuous, Technicolor shots of Venice, bigger than life, was a very satisfying film experience. But I will admit that this is the first film in the Criterion catalogue that seemed less substantial on repeat viewings.

Arthur Laurents, author of the play on which this film is based, didn’t care for Summertime because essentially only the first act of the play was filmed. This may explain why the plot seems thin. In particular, both Jane’s reasons for finally surrendering to Renato’s advances and her reasons for ending the affair remain elusive. Agreed, if you lose the travelogue footage of Venice, you’re left with a short subject. But why would you want to lose Venice? Lean knew what he was doing when he scrapped half the play.

Summertime was a pivotal film for David Lean. It was shot entirely in Venice, and it was the first film to take Lean completely out of the studio. Summertime was also his favorite film. His Quaker upbringing and a strong sexual drive were at odds his entire life and he had a long string of short-lived affairs and marriages. It’s easy to see why a film about loneliness and repressed sexuality resonated strongly with him. But as the director of Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and A Passage to India, this also makes the strong argument that an artist is not necessarily the best judge of his own work.

deanepuddle said...

I'll admit I was completely swept up by the feeling of this movie. Twice, the shots of Venetian architecture had me tearing up with their beauty. As one who very rarely cries at the movies, and never before at a non-human, non-story related element, it took me aback. Also, this was my first Katherine Hepburn experience outside of Cate Blanchett in The Aviator. I can see why people were so taken with her, despite her lack of classic beauty.

On a side note, I was just laid off for the summer, and needing some structured recreation for the summer so as not to go mad, I decided to also watch the Criterion Collection in order from the beginning. I've been at it for about three weeks and gotten this far. Having Hulu available is such a blessing, but so many of these early ones are out of print (and expensive?).

How did you manage to get copies of all these? Are you buying them as you go? As loathe as I am to do it, pirating seems my only option sometimes. (Though on most of the OOP dvds, it's not like CC would be getting my money anyway).

Love the blog; Thanks for sharing your thoughts.