Summer of '42 (1971): Part 1 of 2
Director: Robert Mulligan
Writer: Herman Raucher
Cinematographer: Robert Surtees
by Jon Cvack
I’ve never heard of this movie and I’m no longer sure how I came across it. I’m near certain it was through Netflix, except how this movie was suggested I’m not entirely certain. It’s a 1940s period piece made in 1971, rated a bit below four stars, and made by the director of To Kill a Mockingbird. What hooked me was the idea of a period piece being made in 1971, which has long qualified as a period piece in itself. Like Stand by Me or Diner being about the 1950s, or Now and Then with the 70s, it’s about a narrator’s recollection of a summer he spent on an island with his best friends as he fell in lust with an older woman.
The film starts out with an insufferable pace - to the point where I nearly turned it off - following three friends as they navigate the summer beaches and main drag. It’s a small drag, where they’ve spent every summer as long as they can remember, back when fathers could take an extended vacation and spend it with his family (I don’t mean to take this jab, but the fact this is presented without any type of politics; simply showing us how things once were historically - as in, this modest single income family could vacation like this; that you can’t help not just thinking or hoping, but knowing that, economically, things were pretty good back then).
Hermie (Garey Grimes) is the main character, acting as the narrator. Using a voice rather than seeing the actual adult - like Richard Dreyfuss in Stand by Me - does make up for the sentimental romanticism. The whole story is shot as though a dream, opening and closing with a sunset, as though the narrator is staring into it, remembering this time in his life. Because we don’t see him, there is no association except our own. I pictured a man who was either approaching death, or who had experienced a significant death - a wife, child, or parent. We enter into the story thinking we’re going to see a tale of love, and leave realizing it was about the pursuit of lust; that overwhelming feeling that clouds the mind, forcing you to make choices you wouldn’t usually make, all because of a sexual urge, culminating in a feeling that is only but moments and it can still drive men toward irrationality.
Before any of this juicy stuff arrives, we’re forced to watch Hermie and his friends Oscy (Jerry Houser) and Benji (Oliver Conant) in their regular world. For a second it’s endearing to see, as Oscy busts Hermie’s balls non-stop. Benji is the odd man out, acting as the Donny to Walter. They do things like go to the beach, talk about sex while we’re suppose to find their ignorance funny, and steal Benji’s mom’s sex book that has twelve or so steps on how sex works, things like foreplay are mentioned and it’s all okay, but each scene for the first fifteen minutes or so felt about twice as long as they need to be. Every time I got that feeling, where you’re sitting there thinking, ‘Okay, I got it’ and wanting it to end and get to the next thing. Near the end I found myself preparing, betting with myself over how long each scene was going to take. It ended on Hermie helping older woman Dorothy (Jennifer O’Neil) with her groceries. The movie did a fantastic job of making you feel old, as Hermie’s friends can’t stop making fun of the fact that Dorothy’s older and therefore unattractive. Being in my late twenties, I was pulled into thinking of where I was at Hermie’s age and who I had lusted after, shifting to where I was at Dorothy’s age and who I had loved and would have been devastated to lose, and toward reflecting how different my experiences were, now that I can reflect with a pitiful few years ahead. It’s a film I know I’ll revisit throughout life, knowing each viewing will be a different experience from the last.
It’s only when the story ends that you realize it’s not about love at all, but lust. In one of the most honest scenes I’ve watched recently, and that I could probably pull from the period, Hermie is invited over to help Dorothy with some boxes she needs put up in the attic. Given the year it was made, I was wondering whether this was pulled from a generic porno plot, or was what influenced the generic porn plot. Hermie had been over a few times, but on this occasion Dorothy was wearing an incredibly revealing - pardon my complete ignorance of specific fashion items - casual, non-beach bikini thing, with white shorts that fit like boxers, and a bra, or what caused me to keep thinking of Selena's (1997) bustier. Dorothy then proceeds to a climb up a ladder and open up the attic for Hermie, as Hermie watches her silky smooth tan legs climb up, with the shorts revealing the slightest amount of her ass. I want to say “butt” to avoid making this feel gross or offensive, but ‘butt’ sounds cheap and far less sexy, with “ass” capturing the lustfulness and general porn plot-like situation.
However, by this moment Hermie is so honest and true, occasionally annoying and pathetic, that however you feel about him, he feels like a real person. And as all characters do, we put ourselves into them, trying to experience the world as they do. Even with the generic porno plot setting, this scene captures arousal and embarrassment with perfection. After Hermie stares up toward her, moving his eyes from her butt to her stomach and breasts, he is fully hard. I was blown away by how much I reacted to this scene. I can’t say I’ve ever been in this exact situation, but I’ve been in similar, when I found myself with a crush, love, lust or whatever, alone and with the other person seeming to make moves, causing the libido to react beyond control. Hermie descends, and sends him up, with what we assume is an erection, and given the tight jeans he was wearing - again, I don’t mean to be crass - I think that Robert Mulligan had to shoot this in such a way, completely above and below the waist, to play with our minds. It’s an incredibly sensual scene, especially as images of Dorothy as she was standing on the ladder flash before Hermie’s eyes. We watch as he attempts to confront his urges and his body. This scene is as memorable as any most memorable (though a bit more obscure) scenes are: Mikey talking to his answering machine in Swingers, Woody Harrelson blowing his ass off in The Thin Red Line, and so on and so forth. I’m nervous that how I describe it, especially after mentioning porn conventions, is going to taint what is a very intense and powerful moment.
BELOW: A devastating moment
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