Monday, September 06, 2010

Summer of '42 (Robert Mulligan, 1971)

(Warning: story discussed in close detail)

Can't remember the last time I saw Summer of '42--I was all of five years old when it first came out, so it must have been a rerun over the television, or some kind of special screening we managed somehow to see, sometime over the weekend. I do remember details, images, that damned music--it was all over the place, you couldn't escape it; like the stylings of Dan Fogelberg or Chuck Mangione, it was the kind of openly emotional romantic melody Filipinos loved to listen to, over and over again, endlessly, on their radios and portable tapedecks. Watching the film again on TCM was an experience similar to peering into Charles Foster Kane's crystal-ball snowscape--as if you were watching a moment out of time, a moment out of childhood that seems oddly, fascinatingly out of synch with the overall flow of things. 

Not an easy condition to describe--we're talking about screenwriter Herman Raucher's vividly realized memories of the summer he lost his virginity and my barely remembered memories of watching his recollections. I do remember dimly sensing the strength, the intensity of the feelings involved (I could have been five, but I swear I must have been closer to ten or twelve--I had developed a devastating crush on Jennifer O'Neill).

And with a shock, I realized just how half-assed the first half of the film seems to me, now. The adventures of Hermie (Gary Grimes) and his friends seem shrill and unfunny in their forced hilarity; when Hermie's told that he was fondling an arm and not a breast in the cinema house you want to slap him upside of his head; it's not only ignorant, it's inept. Yes, they're Raucher's memories, and I assume they actually happened, but Mulligan seems to have failed to stage any of this with any sense of verisimilitude. You only have to see Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart (1971) to see how sophisticated youths (and films about youths) can be about sex, even sex with an older woman (even sex, one might add, between the youth and the youth's own mother--a detail that goes far and beyond anything Mulligan's boxoffice hit might ever dare deal with). 

Difficult to say what rings so false--partly, I think, it's the younger actors playing up their ignorance and awkwardness with what I feel is a touch too much enthusiasm; partly it's the indulgent view (which I suspect Raucher holds, and Mulligan accepts and translates to the screen) that this is all innocent fun, unlikely to come back and bite them--most of them, anyway--in the ass. Whatever it is, I find the movie-theater scene (where Hermie and friend double-date and attempt to feel up a pair of girls) and the beach scene (where Hermie sits with one girl by the beach fire roasting marshmallows--roasting them badly, I couldn't help but notice--while his friend makes out with the girl's partner)--I find both scenes where the primary players are all under the age of twenty awkward and unconvincing. Which is a bit of a mystery, I thought; Mulligan's handling of children in his best-known work, To Kill  a Mockingbird, is nothing short of masterful, the single finest element in that film (not so crazy about his handling of race--but those problems stem, I think, more from Harper Lee's book than from anything the director did).

And when all is said and done I suspect it's mostly the young actors at fault, or at least the director's in failing to rein in and modulate their performances. When Grimes plays against a more seasoned veteran--Lou Frizzell, as a druggist--suddenly Grimes is perfect, and perfectly funny. His slapstick shenanigans, his constant mugging in his quest to buy a condom, seem perfectly encapsulated in the concept of a clumsy liar playing before a hidden audience (Jerry Houser as his best friend, peering into the pharmacy's window). Frizzell helps by meeting Grimes half-way, concocting his own explanation as to why the boy would need a condom ("you fill them with water, tie them off, then use them as water balloons, right?"). The scene does give us one pithy observation--how adults, faced with the possibility that their children are no longer children, are perfectly willing to steps back into their invincibly clad ignorance to put off that inevitable moment of reckoning. I'm not as happy with Hermie's scenes with Dorothy (Jennifer O'Neill), possibly because O'Neill is younger and less experienced than Frizell. Hermie's use of big words to show off to her for example ("you drink coffee, don't you?" "I consume a couple of cups a day") is fairly funny, but O'Neill seems oblivious to the incongruity and comes off as being more clueless than tactful.

When Hermie visits Dorothy (Jennifer O'Neill) the next evening, however, all awkwardness and slapstick is gone. Hermie knocks on the door, realizes it's open, walks inside. He's quiet, puzzled; a lit cigarette lies in the ashtray, but no one answers to his calls. He sees a telegram on the table, picks it up; the message is just the kind of melodramatic masterstroke that helps convince me Raucher's story is true--he wouldn't have the wild imagination or the courage to make such a message up.

Here O'Neill plays Dorothy just right--a light patina of casual cheer covering unguessable emotions roiling away underneath. When she finally faces Hermie Mulligan cloaks her in shadow, a mysterious figure representing the boy's unknown future. She walks into the light, takes his hand, dances with him. Mulligan picks up details while they dance: Dorothy clutching an ashtray behind her back, the camera panning down to reveal Hermie wearing shoes, Dorothy barefoot. The details seem unaccountably real, lifelike--somehow it seems right that Dorothy didn't have the presence of mind to put away the ashtray; somehow it seems right that Hermie, who has been preparing for this moment, should be well dressed and shod, while Dorothy, who has just been blindsided, should dance on naked soles. Later Dorothy takes Hermie's jacket and puts it away and that seems right too--she's playing up the illusion that she's with her husband, or at least a grown man, and Hermie, whose night this indubitably is, has the incredible luck to be wearing a coat at the right time.

The next morning Hermie wakes up, and Dorothy says "Goodbye, Hermie" and he just walks out. That seems right too; he's discovered a measure of sensitivity in a matter of a few hours, and he's developed enough tact to know--his finest moment, in my book--that any words would be useless, or worse, wrong. I like Mulligan's work--like most of Kill a Mockingbird and would assert that it's the best version of Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn yet put onscreen (think about it)--but for me this was the first time I saw just how good he can be: to take a wordless climactic sequence in an otherwise flawed movie and not just lyricize or romanticize it, but make it psychologically truthful, at least to some extent.      


1 comment:

Lam Vu said...

I completely agree that the "dancing in the dark" scene makes up for the rest of the movie. However, you forgot to mention the this long scene is not just wordless, but there is no music, no sound at all! Genius...

The last time I watched the movie, with 4,5 friends from high school time, none of us seemed to forget to breath throughout the 10 magic minutes! (We were all closed to the 60 mark).