A Triptych – 3 Interesting Films
Summer of ’42 – (1971)
Often it is with great trepidation that I approach the business of looking at a film I remember fondly but haven’t seen in a long time. Because more often than not when I look at it again I am disappointed by what I had thought to be so wonderful and fine. Then I ‘m embarrassed about being such a fool for liking it in the first place. Of course I always blame it on my being young and naïve but the disappointment always saddens me a bit.
Anyway that was how I approached looking at Summer of ’42 which was being shown on one of the cable channels. I wanted to see it but I didn’t want to see it. The film had been released in 1971 and I remember going to The Sutton Theatre in New York City with a friend and coming out afterward completely enchanted by what I had seen. And I wasn’t the only one. The entire audience was. So much so that the film was one of the hits of the year and nominated for several Academy Awards. The theme composed by Michael Legrand was also one of the hits of the season and remained high on the Billboard Chart for many weeks. All those memories sent up red flags because I’ve found that films which were extremely popular in their time date badly and wind up just looking creaky and sentimental in the worst sense of the word. Still I couldn’t resist looking at Summer of ’42. But I watched it with the idea that the minute it began to turn mawkish or stupid I would turn it off. Well, I’m happy to say that the film took me in and enchanted me once again just the way it had all those years ago.
For anyone who hasn’t seen it the Summer of ’42 is a sexual coming-of-age story involving three teenage boys during the season and year of the title. But mostly it is the story of one boy Hermie, and his private rite of passage…An adult narrator sets it up at the beginning so right away we know that we’re looking at a time gone by and a remembrance of something past being seen through the romantic prism of a young man’s memory. And then through the magic of delicate and understated direction (Robert Mulligan), an insightful screenplay (Herman Raucher), poetic, evocative cinematography by Robert Surtees and a haunting score by Mr. Legrand we relive that summer with them and it becomes part of our nostalgia as well as theirs.
The young men were played by Jerry Hauser, Oliver Conant and Gary Grimes in the principal role of Hermie. All were excellent but Grimes stands out because he has the biggest role. Jennifer O’Neill, a model turned actress plays Dorothy the unaware object of their summer desires. Ms. O’Neill was 25 when she made the film and in the full blush of her young womanhood. . Everything about her as photographed by Surtees suggests innocence, romance and sexual allure but in the most idealized and chaste way imaginable. And her performance is so straight forward and without calculation that she thoroughly enchants the viewer as well as the young men in the film. It was a breakout role for her and made Ms. O’Neill a star not only in the US but in Europe as well.
This is not a very dramatic film thank God. It has its moments of seriousness but none of it is strained or pushed. Things just sort of occur in a slow episodic fashion and culminate with a quietly emotional wallop. But I think that the best thing about the film for me is the easy and relaxed feeling the film induces while it is being viewed and experienced. Sort of spending a pleasant summer on an island, in this case Nantucket Island, a long time ago. Give it a try see if you don’t agree with me.
Ulzana’s Raid – (1972)
Actor Burt Lancaster once said that in the movie business after you make your first million there’s nothing to go after except quality. And he always did especially in the latter part of his career when he was older and totally in command of not only his craft but his mind and body as well. And he gave performances that were masterpieces of minimalist perfection. See films like Go Tell the Spartans (1978), Valdez is Coming (1971), Lawman (1971) and Atlantic City (1980) for which he was highly praised and nominated for the Academy Award. There is another that should be added to that list and it is Robert Aldrich’s neglected near masterpiece Ulzana’s Raid (1972). A western about a group of Calvary soldiers going after a murderous Indian and his band. At the time of the film’s release there were some discussions about the way the Native Americans were being portrayed but upon close inspection one can see that Alan Sharp’s insightful script is not about stereotyping but providing rounded portraits of all the characters. And aided by Aldrich’s uncompromising direction, he is successful with the characters on both sides. The young inexperienced Lt. DeBuin (Bruce Davison)who is trying to understand what all the cruelty and barbarity is about and McIntosh, the scout played to quiet perfection by Lancaster. The American Indian characters who straddle their own narrow path on the event are played by Joaquin Martinez as the renegade Ulzana and Jorge Luke as McIntosh’s aide Ke Ni Tay. Both roles are steeped in mystery and deeply hidden concerns that transcend easy articulation and so they are wisely left unsaid. And both actors using body language and spare movement convey everything we need to know about who these individuals are.
The film presents the story of a chase just as Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965) did. And the plots are almost identical. The soldiers are after a tough, renegade Indian who is smart as well as ruthless. But the focus is different in both. In Peckinpah’s film the focus is on the men and their relationship with each other. In Aldrich’s it’s really about the land as well as the men. And what the terrain does to them. Several lines of dialogue attest to that.
Lancaster’s McIntosh says:
“Remember the rules Lieutenant. The first one to make a mistake gets to burying some people.”…And when asked by the young Lieutenant if he hates the Apache McIntosh responds: “It would be like hating the desert because there ain’t no water in it.”
The film is full of wonderful dialogue that goes by unnoticed because it comes so naturally to the characters. McIntosh at one point says:
“Lieutenant, a horse will run so far so fast, for so long and then it will lie down on you. When a horse lies down on an Apache he puts fire under his belly and gets him back on his feet. When the horse dies he gets off, eats a bit of it and steals another. Ain’t no way you can better that.”
Ke-Ni-Tay explaining Ulzana says:
“Each man that die, the man who kill him take his power…Ulzana is long time in the agency. His power thin. Smell in his nose is old smell of the agency. Old smell. Smell of women, smell of dog, smell of children. Ulzana come loose for new smell. Pony running, the smell of burning, the smell of bullet- for power.”
Major Cartwright says:
“What we have to determine Mr. McIntosh is how many of them there are and whether they are hostile.
To which McIntosh replies:
Well the first is open to question; the second you can bet money on.
And probably the most telling line is when McIntosh says to the young man;
“What bothers you lieutenant, is you don’t like to think of white men behaving like Indians. It kind of confuses the issue, don’t it?”
Aldrich was known as a man’s man type of director due to films like The Dirty Dozen (1967), Flight of the Phoenix (1965), and Vera Cruz (1955). But with this one he went past the surfaces and produced a film that is quietly poetic because of its resignation to the fact that it’s nature and the land that shapes men’s characters. And in the end there’s nothing we can do but accept that fact whether we like it or not. This is a genuinely thought provoking film that also maintains the surface excitement of its genre.
For me it’s a beautiful little gem that’s worth viewing and then viewing again.
Paris, Texas – (1984)
This film was a collaboration of three very original but eccentric talents. Wim Wenders, the German director of such films as Wings of Desire (1987), An American Friend (1977) and the terrific documentary The Buena Vista Social Club (1999), L.M. Kit Carson an actor and writer whose erratic career includes things like David Holzman’s Diary -actor (1967) and as a writer; Breathless (1983) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2(1986) and Sam Shepard the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (Buried Child) who is also a well known actor in such movies as Black Hawk Down (2001), The Right Stuff (1982) and Days of Heaven (1978).
The screenplay by Carson is sort of adapted from a Shepard’s collection of essays, prose poems, and reminisces entitled Motel Chronicles. It is about a man’s search for a woman that he walked out on and the love that he squandered and would like to regain. It is also about fathers and sons and the tenuous connection that can develop between them. Much of what takes place in this film takes place between the lines into the deep recesses of the psyche. So there are many passages when the characters just stand there looking off into space and saying nothing. Especially the leading character Travis Henderson played to quiet perfection by character actor Harry Dean Stanton. One of the few genuine leads he’s ever had in a movie. Usually he’s there as stalwart support in films like Wild at Heart (1990), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Missouri Breaks (1976) and Straight Time (1978). Here he is a man who walked out on his family for mysterious reasons and then turns up again just as mysteriously. This time he is found by his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) who with his wife is bringing up Travis’s son Hunter played by Hunter Carson,( son of the screenwriter) who has been left behind by his mother Jane played by Natassia Kinski. It takes a while for us the audience to sort out what’s going on because like Walt we’re completely baffled by Travis’s odd behavior. But then when things start to slowly settle down we begin to get some insight into who Travis is and what it is that’s bothering him. Nothing is explicitly stated because as I said before it is all between the lines. And the directorial pacing of the film is slow to the point of maddening for those expecting their movies to move at a considerably faster pace. But if you have the patience for this sort of movie making you will be rewarded by a movie that is sad, melancholy and painful because life can at times be painful. Especially when we have to face certain truths about ourselves and our demons.
One of the things that give this film its elegiac quality is the settings and locations Wenders chose. Much of t is in the southwestern part of the US, mostly California and Texas. But he shows us nothing that we’re familiar with. What we get are the back roads, the strip joints, the empty parking lots and the endless roadways that lead from one place to another. And in a lot of ways it’s all pretty much the same. In other words this is the no-man’s land aspect of America. And for anyone who’s read any of his work, this is prime Sam Shepard territory. He’s used and alluded to it in many of his plays as to being the terrain that his characters came from and are shaped by. The nationality of the film is listed as being West German, French, UK and USA because that’s where the money to produce it and many of the talents came from. But beneath that what we have here is a truly American film about people who have been marginalized and forgotten. The unsophisticated he’s and she’s that we pass by everyday but never notice. The lost and the disenfranchised that don’t belong to any minority group. They’re out there just floating free on their own until someone like Shepard along with Carson, Wenders and their talented cast of actors come along to give them some identity, give them some dimension, give their lives some poetry.
The film clocks in at 147 minutes running time. So if you don’t have that kind of time to sit and watch people tentatively reach out to touch and more often than not miss each other then this film isn’t for you. It’s an art film without calling attention to itself as such. Because like its characters it’s plain, unpretentious and ultimately inexplicable. Because that’s the way life is sometimes. Inexplicable.