Summer’s here, and the time is right for a summary of all things cinematically summery. The living is easy, and our 5 for the day talks movies with central events occurring during the hottest, most nostalgic season of the year. So go out and find a beautiful someone, dance all night (come on, come on) and when you’re done, chime in with your own choices.
1. Meatballs (1979). Summer camp is a rite of passage for some of us, even if mine was just a day camp where I won a prize singing a song about reefer. Ivan Reitman’s Genie-winning (that’s the Canadian Oscar) comedy presented unspoiled pangs of nostalgia mere months before Mrs. Voorhees hacked her way through Camp Crystal Lake. Before his quotable comic brilliance got Lost in Translation, Bill Murray could be counted on to bring a caustic wit and a merry prankster’s glee whenever he appeared onscreen. Though Caddyshack and Ghostbusters linger in more memories, Murray’s debut as Tripper Harrison carries more weight with me because his shtick had the luxury of being fresh. Who knew back then that practically every line Murray spouts from the camp loudspeaker (shades of Altman’s M*A*S*H) would be quotable?
Murray’s performance seemed bused in from another movie, but it keeps Meatballs from becoming too saccharine. His friendship with camper Chris Makepeace is sweet without being gooey, and I can’t help think of this movie whenever someone says “It just doesn’t matter.” In addition to giving Val Kilmer a model to craft his brilliant turn in Real Genius, Meatballs also gave Dr. Pepper jingle singer (and American Werewolf in London star) David Naughton a hideous hit disco song called “Makin’ It.” (Naughton’s “I’m a Pepper” jingle, coincidentally, was the musical basis for my aforementioned award-winning Mary Jane song. “I smoke marijuana dontcha know,” sang 12-year old me, who had no idea what he was singing about. “Wouldn’t you like to be a pothead too?” Snoop Dogg owes me his career.)
2. Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). I always believed that every female character Tennessee Williams created was really just a big ol’ drag queen. Williams may have written great roles for actresses, but I never believed any of his female characters were real women; they were painted with garish strokes better suited to an East Village revue than the Lifetime network.
Exhibit A: Suddenly Last Summer. (Warning: Spoilers galore.) We have Liz Taylor witnessing something so horrible that she is institutionalized. We have the victim’s cousin, Katharine Hepburn, walking around spouting overripe dialogue while wearing a hat that looks like the nest of a crack-addicted bird. And lest I forget, we have dark secrets, attempted lobotomy and cannibalism. Lifetime would have stopped at the dark secrets.
Kate’s son—and La Liz’s cousin, Sebastian—is a manipulative bastard who likes young boys. Kate and Liz pimp for him, attracting the boys with their looks (I can see Kate saying “you want this punany, RALLY you do.”) before Sebastian bribes them for favors in some bizarre sex-for-food exchange. Eventually, the boys got tired of going after Liz but getting Dick; so suddenly last summer, they ate Sebastian. Liz saw this and freaked out, losing her memory in the process. Kate and her crack-a-doodle-doo bird’s nest hat wants Liz lobotomized so she’ll never remember what happened suddenly, last summer. The flashback where Liz remembers what happened you-know-when must be seen to be believed. Liz says the title so many times that the movie plays like a recursive product placement. Billy Wilder said it best: “This picture will flop because it offends the vegetarians.”
3. Do the Right Thing (1989). Spike Lee’s masterpiece takes place on the hottest day of the year, and Ernest Dickerson’s cinematography makes you feel how stifling it is. When the temperature flares, so do tempers, and Spike uses the summer day as the catalyst for examining how the daily interaction between races can boil over into anger and violence. Do the Right Thing offers no easy answers to Rodney King’s famous question (“Can’t we all just get along?”), nor does it let the viewer off easily. It’s the anti-Crash.
It’s funny how the Academy was so willing to honor Paul Haggis’s easy answer to the King question, but didn’t even bestow a Best Picture nomination on the most honest movie made about race in America. It’s as ironic as the film’s title. “Always do the right thing,” Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) tells Mookie (Spike Lee). “I got it, I’m gone,” says Mookie. But does anybody actually do the right thing in this movie? It’s a debatable question, one I’m still trying to answer 17 years after sweating it out in the theaters with Lee’s tragicomic characters.
4. Summer of ’42 (1971). In the movies, losing one’s virginity is treated either as a triumph or the linchpin of nostalgic reminiscence. And, excepting oddities like Little Darlings (another cinematic summer tale with Kristy McNichol and Tatum O’Neal), deflowering is always told from the male point of view. It’s as if every woman in the world is as experienced as Body Heat-era Kathleen Turner or Stifler’s Mom, existing solely to earn eternal gratitude for touching the pee-pee of some innocent waif. It’s a raw deal for the women, if you ask me. I mean, my first time was more Biloxi Blues than Debbie Does Dallas. Fuck nostalgia; I look back and cringe. Think about your first time, and if there’s Oscar winning music and gauzy cinematography, you are full of more shit than a Christmas turkey. Either that, or you’re Summer of ’42 screenwriter Herman Raucher.
After scripting the squandered premise of Melvin van Peebles’s Watermelon Man, Raucher entrusted his autobiographical story to director Richard Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird). Summer of ’42 features a married woman (Jennifer O’Neill) whose husband is fighting in WWII, and a teenage boy (Gary Grime) who wants to get bizzy with her during the titular summer. It is full of the dishonest novelties of selective memory, flipping back and forth between the guy and his buddies and the guy and his (potential) booty. Better movies have been made about the first time, but for some reason, this one has a place in the hearts of the generation before me. Perhaps it’s Michel Legrand’s Oscar winning score or Mulligan’s knack for evoking times and places long since past. Whatever the reason, this was a big hit the same year a more honest loss-of-innocence film came out: The Last Picture Show.
5. Jaws (1975). What exploration of summertime in the movies would be complete without the quintessential summer movie—in both senses of the phrase? Jaws takes place in the town of Amity, where, suddenly that summer, a great white shark turned the beach into its own personal Sebastian smorgasbord. The shark ruined the Amity residents’ summer, and the summer of plenty of moviegoers who were terrified to go into the water after viewing it.
In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind tells an anecdote about an audience member’s reaction to Bruce the Shark’s debut. A guy stumbled out of the auditorium where Jaws was unspooling. He stood in the lobby for a second before throwing up. After puking, the guy turned around and went back into the auditorium. Biskind says that moment was when Spielberg and company knew they had a hit. Jaws went on to gross (and gross out) plenty, and created a Pavlovian response to John Williams’ theme music. Once, down the Jersey Shore, I brought my boom box to the beach. I popped in a tape of the Jaws theme and blasted it as loudly as my radio would allow. People actually got out of the water, and the lifeguard asked me to leave.
Happy summer madness, everyone.