A few weeks ago saw the rerelease of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing on the occasion of the film’s 30th anniversary. In addition to being one of the great American films, it’s also one of the movies that best captures the feeling of summer heat. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, when I interviewed him a few years ago, explained that he and Lee achieved this effect by eliminating any “cool” colors from the film’s palette and by using the brightest lights they could find to shoot the daytime scenes; the mounting feelings of anger and frustration become palpable through the filmmakers’ aesthetic choices. (Viewers who appreciated seeing Lee and Dickerson’s work on film are highly encouraged to check out the Chicago Film Society’s 35-millimeter revival of Mo’ Better Blues, which screens tomorrow night at Northeastern University.)
One could call Do the Right Thing one of the supreme “summer movies,” if not for the fact that the term has become synonymous with brain-dead escapist fare. Yet there’s a long tradition of movies set in summer that consider emotions and experiences associated with the season. Liberty, sloth, short romantic flings, coming-of-age rituals, and explosive bursts of violence: storytellers have used the heat and brightness of summertime as a backdrop for tales about all these things, finding in the season a natural complement to the passions people undergo. Ingmar Bergman associated the season specifically with youthful capriciousness in his early features Summer Interlude and Summer With Monika, with characters coming to regret in autumn the decisions they make in summer. In the masterpieces Le Rayon Vert (originally released in the U.S. as Summer) and A Summer’s Tale, Eric Rohmer expressed similar sentiments, though he was far more forgiving of his characters, granting them a certain happiness after they make impulsive decisions.
Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives of movies in which summer defines not only the title and setting, but also the theme.
Summer Storm Douglas Sirk filmed this 1944 adaptation of Chekhov’s The Shooting Party shortly after his wartime arrival in Hollywood; not surprisingly, it’s the most Germanic of his American films, with darkly shadowed expressionist photography (by the uncredited Eugene Shuftan) and an emphasis on mood and character over plot. George Sanders is superb as a weak, corrupt judge facing both his past and the specter of the revolution, and Edward Everett Horton contributes an extraordinary dramatic turn as a provincial count. With Anna Lee, Hugo Haas, and Linda Darnell as the vengeful seductress. —Dave Kehr
Jazz on a Summer’s Day Bert Stern’s film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival (1960; his only film) features Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Eric Dolphy, Chuck Berry, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Anita O’Day, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton, and many others. Shot in gorgeous color, it’s probably the best feature-length jazz concert movie ever made. Despite some distracting cutaways to boats in the opening sections, it eventually buckles down to an intense concentration on the music and the audience’s rapport with it as afternoon turns into evening. Jackson’s rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” is a particularly luminous highlight. Stern doesn’t seem to know what distinguishes mediocre from good or great jazz, so all three get equal amounts of his attention. But he’s very good at showing people listening. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Summer of ’42 Gary Grimes is the shy, uncertain teenager who receives his sexual initiation from a beautiful, grief-stricken war widow (Jennifer O’Neill). Director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) brings all of his considerable gifts for atmosphere and lyrical emotionality to bear on Herman Raucher’s screenplay, though the qualities of the film have been obscured by the many imitations it inspired. Perhaps too simple and damply nostalgic to rank with Mulligan’s best work, but still illuminated by an intense identification with adolescent confusion, beautifully communicated by Mulligan’s subjective camera technique. With Jerry Houser and Oliver Conant (1971). —Dave Kehr
A Summer at Grandpa’s Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (A Time to Live and a Time to Die) emerged as a major new talent of the 80s, and this lyrical childhood remembrance (1984) shows you why. A young boy and his sister spend a summer at their grandparents’ house in the country while their mother recuperates from an illness; they while away the hours climbing trees, swimming in a stream, searching for missing cattle, and coming to uneasy grips with the enigmatic and sometimes threatening realities of adult life. The fine, unsentimental attention to childhood incident, as well as the vignettish formal structure, recalls the work of Japan’s Hiroshi Shimizu, a child-genre specialist of the 30s and 40s whose Four Seasons of Children this film closely resembles, though Hou’s social concerns run deeper, and his spare, contemplative styling—the precise formal center around which a world accumulates—sets him squarely among the modernists. There’s a slight sense of drift toward the end, as if Hou’s personal, long-take certainty had momentarily deserted him, but otherwise it’s a remarkably assured effort. —Pat Graham
A Burning Hot Summer Directed by French master Philippe Garrel, this leisurely paced drama (2011) shows his penchant for intimate, small-scale narratives that nevertheless aspire to complex emotions and themes. A married couple on the brink of divorce (Louis Garrel, Monica Bellucci) invite another couple (Jerome Robart, Céline Sallette) to spend a summer with them in Rome, where they discuss all manner of things—sex, love, art, politics. Garrel’s work is indebted to silent cinema style, but his recent films have shown a real flair for dialogue too; his characters tend to espouse hollow rhetoric that hints at ingrained conflicts. As a young man Garrel was involved in the protests that rocked Paris in May 1968, which may explain his disillusionment with the Sarkozy era; the real legacy of the left, he suggests, may be the political ambivalence its supporters passed down to their children. —Drew Hunt v