Spring Night, Summer Night

05/29/2017

USA / 1967 / English

Directed by Joseph L. Anderson

With Larue Hall, Ted Heimerdinger, Marjorie Johnson

Still from 'Spring Night, Summer Night'A young man named Carl stands in his backyard shooing the headlights out of a tractor with a shotgun. Well-built, neat, with a crest of blonde hair, he seems out of place – the land around him is muddy, chaotic with refuse both human and natural. But the destructive emptiness of his activity sums up the fact of being stuck where he is, with his quarrelsome family in Southern Ohio. Could this place, between rust belt and Appalachia, have ever been vibrant? If it once was, it now breathes indigence. The mining industry that boomed there has withered up and gone, leaving equally withered people – but who can’t leave – in its place.

The paterfamilias, Virgil says grace, with the grandmother dozing before a roaring TV in the other room. The family has come together for their customary meal. They pick at it and argue a bit, we get a sense of the general dynamic – who is who’s child, who can’t stand whom, etc. Then they disperse again, the mother to smoke cigarettes, the father to cause mischief and stress. He brings his prize fighting rooster into the house and sets it loose on his wife. It seems that if he can’t derive any joy from her, he will at least get some from terrorizing her.

Carl seems the only one ready to act on his boredom and leave. But he has the freedom to do that; he has only to decide when the moment is right. His half-sister Jessica’s list of possibilities appears short: to marry or to stay with the family – father, mother, grandmother, four or so siblings and step-siblings – which can’t take care of itself. On one hand, she’s saddled with most of the household duties. On the other hand, none of the local men seem like good options. All that lies before her is a life of odium and tedium like that demonstrated at the family table. Carl is Virgil’s son from a previous marriage, and she is (supposedly) Virgil and May’s daughter together, although people in the town delight in challenging that notion. May may not even know for sure, although she maintains the fiction that she’s certain that Jessica is Virgil’s.

The crowded dance hall where they go at night has the feeling of a wedding party, with people young and old each doing their thing. They all know one another, and many are probably related as well. While May flirts with a visiting army officer, Jessica dances closely with a young man who works at a gas station. She is freckled and swan-necked, with fashionably short and bulbous hair, and always seems to be in a nightgown even when she isn’t. Carl fends off a woman’s drunken advances. Later we get a clue as to why, when he flies into a rage at Jessica for dancing with other men.

We wonder if others notice the jealousy that he has over his step-sister, if it is commonplace, if they are too drunk to care, or all of the above. He starts a brawl with one of her suitors and she runs off. It seems even in the numbed abandon of the dance hall, she can’t escape the repression of the home. Carl tracks her down in the night and violently forces her into his car. Back-lit by the dawn, we see them in a field, he pulling up his pants and she leaving the scene of their love-making. It’s as though he has punished her for going dancing. And it is an event that never fully pulls back into focus, and seems to last as a blocked-out blot on their memory.

Still from 'Spring Night, Summer Night'That night segues into a point some time removed, in the summer, on a country road. Carl is now returning home from time spent away, having hitched a ride with a man in a convertible and a golfing hat. The passing landscape, if you could call it that, is scattered with the remnants of logging. Suddenly a rude hut will rise from the splinters, like a sudden cohesion of the debris. It is incredible that anyone, let alone a large family could be inhabiting them. Abandoned cars, sheds, wispy wooden fences drift by. They hit Canaan, and he gets out and walks to the family house. His friend pulls up in an insectoid tractor and a cloud of dust, and asks him where he’s been. Carl says he’s been in Columbus for the last half-year. Why did he return? Being away has only intensified his anger, his longing. Down below the dusty road is his broken homestead. Drama plays out like a mechanical clock display.

Virgil catches on that Jessica is pregnant, so he drives off recklessly (he knows no other adverb) to bully and yell until he finds out who is to blame for her “predicament.” In town he takes a break for beer and salt, and finds his wife at the bar. “Your place is in the home,” he slurs at her. “My place is where I want it to be,” is her reply. He says he’s concerned that Jessica will end up like her. In reply, she taunts him with the possibility that Jessica isn’t his. May’s friend, whom Virgil slapped for insulting him, sends him on a wild goose chase for a possible baby-daddy, taking advantage of the man’s depressive rage to gloat.

May is like a desiccated go-go dancer, aging but still dressing like a teenager. She still wants irresponsibility, fun and freedom, and has never been compelled to give those things up. Virgil, meanwhile, is a failed patriarch. He stalks around bellowing and trying to get his family to obey him, but always gives out too soon, eliciting only contempt. He’s an eternally frowning pigpen of a man, dressed in dirty overalls, who appears defeated even when he is going on a rampage. Each is swirling around in their own eddy, but they still want to control one another, to know the business of others. It’s a small community.

Meanwhile Carl slips back home, back to the yelling, the barbs and chickens. Jessica asks him if he’ll stay, and he just says that it depends. After lunch they go out into the open field and join the younger kids. In spite of what they’ve been through together, they are still just kids. The two of them wade into a cold river, and in that sudden spark of freedom – from the toxic town chatter, the prying eyes and the upbraiding of their father – the intimacy between them can be seen.

Still from 'Spring Night, Summer Night'May, out on a picnic with two friends, reminisces about being in Los Angeles during the war – the parties, the sailors. Even their township, she says, run-down little Canaan, used to have life to it, when the mines were still open. “We’d start drinking here Friday afternoon, wake up in Columbus or Cinci Monday.” Director Anderson uses her maudlin reliving of those times as a documentary voice-over, the camera tracking past old people on their elevated porches, and shirtless men standing around the town center, the fallout of mass unemployment that can neither leave nor evolve. Everyone seems full of recollections, which only serve to overshadow both the present day and its equally bleak tomorrow.

Jessica’s friend asks her why she’s been keeping to herself lately. She scolds Jessica for getting “in this fix.” Meanwhile Jessica would rather let Virgil run around trying to extract a husband for her than tell him that it is, in fact, Carl. Her father’s traditional patriarch bluster blows all around the town, but people just brush him off. It comes out, in this long-broken society, as shapeless, alcohol-muddled rage. And there’s nothing, legally or even socially, that he can do. Imagining that May’s habits are being repeated by Jessica, he regrets not being able to hold his wife down. “She’s seen too much,” he rues.

When she and Carl are alone, Jessica presents excuses to shoulder some of the blame for him. “You were drunk” … “I could have stopped you,” etc. That their union that night was marked by violence and was not entirely consensual, complicates the love and change of life that they discuss, like trying to see through ripples in a pond down to what lies below. And it makes his actions even less defensible. He talks of loving her, and she calls him out on that, not least because love, as he means it, must be earned.

Still from 'Spring Night, Summer Night'Jessica admonishes him for believing local gossip that they aren’t biologically related. She has a point, even if she doesn’t make it: if that were true, would it justify anything? It sounds to her like he’s attacking May when he repeats the rumor, but he says he wants nothing to do with the woman. Since she isn’t his mother, May’s running around doesn’t bother him. His attachment to Jessica seems like a feeble justification for perpetuating, even aggravating their inherited unhappiness.

It’s hard to contextualize this film today, whose existence was practically unknown for nearly fifty years. It joins a rather scattered canon of forward-thinking Americana. The simple text at the end says: “filmed in Southeastern Ohio.” J.L. Anderson – known as co-author of The Japanese Film: Art and Industry with Donald Richie – started Spring Night, Summer Night shortly after taking a teaching job at the University of Ohio, Athens. The crew were mainly students of his and local people, and it took about five years to complete. Since there weren’t many avenues for the distribution of an independent film at the time, it only found release as grindhouse scrapple, bearing the title Miss Jessica Is Pregnant, and with nude scenes spliced in to generate some appeal.

Indeed, the imagery has the flat shadows and unfiltered light of a stag film, as well as the claustrophobia and sexual boredom. Occasionally Anderson and his cinematographers will fashion a rather sculpted shot of a character, in greasy streaks of light over dingy shadows. There are times when the primary and most relevant element is molten darkness, and electric light seems like an intrusion. The sound is raw and clattery, voices collaging in and out, and the film shuffles fragmentedly through time. The twilight hums with insects. There is a sense of freedom from emulating or matching narrative cinema, as well as the space to work with time and with light.

Moody shots of people’s faces and a confessional quality to their exchanges and soliloquies both lend intimacy to the film’s neorealist grime. Ultimately its paucity of style generates the right atmosphere for conveying the hopelessness, the pointlessness, but nonetheless the urgent emotions that keep people in perpetual, grounded motion. There isn’t any cruel caricaturing or any of outsider’s critical distance on it. The crew spent years on the locations, getting to know the locals and their world, and as a result the characters’ misguided intensity, their deadened knocking about, is conveyed unadorned and direct – it feels like it is ours.

Still from 'Spring Night, Summer Night'The film handles autochthonous types, in a place of byways but no highways, in a way that seems, if not always fully-developed, certainly more sincere than the New Hollywood rewrites of its time. And it cuts rather deeper than much gimmicky docu-drama could. Taking place in a level of social abjection that mainstream films can’t go near, it seeps up out of the most tired and dilapidated places. (Evidently there was a rare locust season going on when they filmed, which isn’t seen, but no doubt adds an additional quality of decimation to the place, as if it needed more). The end result is caked in mud and small-town paranoia, the latter being both mitigated and enabled by the ambient level of apathy.

There is a sort of anthropology of regret being committed to the screen, even if Anderson is also trying, a bit haphazardly, to draw a lugubrious art film from the setting. What he does capture is a stunted, short-sighted living, and the mirthless pleasures that are expressions of sadness. We get a sense of unending cycles; anyone who gets a little money spends in on Saturday. Even humor is absent, beside the occasional morsel of schadenfreude. And the film doesn’t treat its central incest as a given in backwoods communities, a perennial joke. If anything it offers a reason for why the two siblings cling to each other (and childhood): they create shelter, albeit problematic, from their belligerent, doomed surroundings. To each other they are a scrap of truth in this cynical chasm – and, as the hillbilly-sploitation cut’s trailer sagely notes: “the truth isn’t nice.” The pair are terminally haunted, and they replicate their parents’ violent dynamic. However there’s something still alive in both of them that wants a way out, even with dead ends on both sides.

When Carl goes so far as to confront May over Jessica’s parentage, he ends up getting angry at her denials. “You bitch,” he spits at her. She says “they don’t have a word for you, Carl.” Since he has sold his Ford, he tears around on foot, surrounded by frog-song and heat, eventually finding Jessica, in a scene reminiscent of the night that he took advantage of her. He says they should escape for the city, to run from everything. She seems on the verge of accepting his justifications, forgetting that questions of whether or not they’re in love can’t be adequately answered, now or ever. After such altercations as the characters in the film have, and which seem commonplace, it’s hard to imagine love surviving in this heartless heartland. If they decide to make a change, it must be out of resignation rather than impetus. There is no delivery from the darkness, just a pair of headlights up ahead.

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