Sunday, October 24, 2010
Summer of '42 (1971)
The first time Hermie lays his eyes on her, she is being carried up on the shoulders of another man. The man is her husband. In a matter of hours, he will be gone. In a matter of days, he will be dead. Then, for just one night, Hermie will have her all to himself--before she is gone, too. He sums up his memories of her in terse words: “No person I’ve ever known has done more to make me feel more sure, more insecure, more important, and less significant.” And for the longest time, he doesn’t even know her name.
Hermie’s discovery-filled summer serves as the backdrop of Summer of ’42 (1971), Robert Mulligan’s unforgettable coming-of-age masterpiece. It is a trip back to another time, when world war was shaking the country and fragments of America’s youth could still find comfort in something as simple as an island vacation. Protected by a matrix of sex, friendships, ocean tides and movie theaters, the kids back then knew very little about the impending doom that was awaiting them in the war, especially when it would be time for them to register for the draft. The film came out the same year as Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, another great film about a generation of American youth on the verge of sexual awakening. But where Bogdanovich’s film stirringly documented the slow disintegration of small-town America, Mulligan’s film, with its gleaming cinematography by Robert Surtees and its enchanting, Academy Award-winning musical score by Michael Legrand, looks back nostalgically at America when it was more innocent. The finished film is a sparkling gem, and one of the most beautiful films of its kind.
Adapted by Herman Raucher from his own bestselling book, Summer of ’42 details the summer of 15-year old Hermie (Gary Grimes), a stand-in for the author, who spends his days running around the beaches of a New England island with his two best friends, Oscy (Jerry Houser) and Benjie (Oliver Conant). Together they form the “Terrible Trio”, although Benjie, being the youngest of the three, spends the majority of the film attempting to keep up with his two older friends, struggling to follow each of their individual examples. Benjie has recently come into possession of a medical book that Hermie and Oscy immediately take a liking to: it’s an invaluable educational tool for pubescent boys who have become increasingly aware of the female bodies surrounding them all over the island. Hey, anything to take their mind off the war; while it is never mentioned in the film, the title itself is a dead giveaway that it’s only been half a year since the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Foreplay!” Oscy squeals, as the boys turn to a chapter in the book that teaches them about how to prepare for sex. “It’s called foreplay! Everyone takes their clothes off and they play foreplay! Then he does this, and she does this, and before you know it, they’re screwing! Now, what could be simpler than that?” Nothing, it seems, although Oscy and Benjie notice right away something that is almost surely more difficult: Hermie’s infatuation with the 20-something girl (Jennifer O’Neill) next door. She lives in a cottage overlooking the edges of the island, and from the moment she enters Hermie’s sight, he cannot take his eyes off of her; Oscy and Benjie have a heck of a time making fun of Hermie and his hopeless daydreaming. “I don’t know what’s come over you,” Oscy mumbles. “You know, that’s a very old person over there.”
To be sure, she’s not much older than the boys are. The girl looks like she married at a young age, and although she and her husband (Walter Scott) have not yet conceived a child, it is almost certain that when he returns home from the war he’ll reengage with her before you can say baby boom. As he sails off to war, she waves him goodbye and then runs back to the cottage in tears. Soon she is sunbathing on the beach with her eyes closed and Hermie is making his first moves, although Oscy and Benjie delight in foiling his advances (“Hey, lady in the pink suit! It’s Hermie the rape artist! It’s Jack the Ripper! It’s Herman the German, Nazi spy! It’s a sex fiend!”). Hermie, angered, gets in a hotheaded brawl with his friends on the sand dunes. If Oscy and Benjie aren’t going to help him in his pursuits, he’ll just have to go it alone.
You can’t help but admire Hermie’s inspired, if totally clichéd, first successful attempt at making a connection with the girl, when he offers to help carry her groceries all the way to her cottage. Sure enough, it works. She’s so charmed by his cute ways of impressing her that she invites him into the house. Once inside, Hermie himself manages to do three wise things: a) turn down the girl’s money but gratefully accept a cup of coffee, so that he can still find a way to stay in the house and talk to her; b) take his coffee black, which is certainly how he should take it if he wants her to think he’s manly enough; and c) excuse himself to leave, before waiting for her to ask him to leave. He even does it in such a way that she asks, “Oh, do you have to go?” although he kicks himself over warning her that she might “get a hernia” if she doesn’t bring a wagon for her groceries next time. No matter: he’s made a good impression on her.
We know that Stanley Kubrick was a fan of Summer of '42; in The Shining, Wendy and Danny are watching this very scene on the Overlook’s television set. Perhaps Kubrick took a liking to Hermie’s idiotic flirting with the girl, especially when they start talking about music and he claims to be “quite musical”. She asks him if he plays any instruments. His deadpan reply: "Yeah, I sing." She chuckles at that. “Oh”, he explains, “I think a voice is like an instrument!” I am willing to bet Kubrick was even more impressed with the later scene, in which Hermie comes over to the girl’s cottage again, this time to clean out her attic. To his surprise, she shows up dressed in provocative white sporting gear. When she ascends the ladder and Hermie is staring up at her from down below, he gets a good look at her figure. Then, when she goes down below and Hermie ascends the ladder, he is, by this point, completely aroused by what he has just seen. This is where Mulligan’s aesthetic really kicks off: when the girl observes that Hermie’s legs are shaking, Hermie starts fantasizing about her legs. And when he blames his loose demeanor on the ladder and the girl asks, “Do you want me to hold it?” Hermie starts fantasizing about her shapely rear.
It’s just one of the many important questions this film asks its target male adolescent audience. How do you control arousal in the presence of an attractive woman? How do you know when it’s the appropriate time to put your arm around her at the movies? How do you know, without looking, if you’re squeezing a breast… or an arm? How do you hide your embarrassment when buying your first condom? The latter makes for what is perhaps the most hilarious scene in the film. Oscy and Hermie are preparing for a campfire date with a couple of girls their age, and Oscy has dared Hermie to buy contraceptives at the local drugstore. Mulligan plays this scene until it’s absolutely side-splitting: first Hermie has to wait for an elderly female customer to leave. Then he has to ask the druggist (Lou Frizzell, one of Mulligan’s favorite actors) for a triple strawberry ice cream cone, then some sprinkles, then a napkin, and then “HOW ABOUT SOME RUBBERS?” Which brand? the druggist asks. How many? Who’s he buying them for? Hermie by this point is so overwhelmed with options, the druggist finally has to cut to the chase: “Alright now, son, fun is fun, but how old are you?” He asks Hermie if he knows what condoms are used for. “Sure,” Hermie responds. “You fill them up with water and then you throw them off the roof.”
The movie considers that Hermie and Oscy’s obsessions with sex may have something to do with proving their masculinity. They both have brothers who are serving in the war: Hermie’s brother is a paratrooper, and Oscy’s brother, judging from one of Oscy’s T-shirts, is apparently in the Army. Not being in the military puts Hermie and Oscy at a disadvantage maturity-wise, thus elevating their sex drives and causing them to be constantly competitive with one another. Oscy calls Hermie a “homo”. Hermie calls Oscy “crass”. They argue with each other over the medical book’s confusing descriptions of foreplay—that dreaded word they keep hearing. The book claims that there’s 12 steps to foreplay, and Oscy lectures Hermie: “When you get to point 6, there’s no more talking; just moaning and sighing. Just moan and sigh!” The problem is that Oscy has a much higher sex drive than Hermie does, and the competition between the two boys ensures it so that, on the campfire date, Oscy ends up with the voluptuous girl, Miriam (Christopher Norris), and Hermie ends up with the shy “intellectual”, Aggie (Katherine Allentuck). In the most poignant scene in the film, Aggie, bored by Hermie’s lack of interest in her, stumbles upon Oscy and Miriam making love in the grass—and flees from the scene in tears. Her flight represents the natural teenage fear of sex that even Hermie finds himself wrestling with.
The older girl next door, by the way, is named Dorothy. To modern audiences it won’t come as a surprise to see that Hermie does finally manage to get in bed with her near the end of the film—to audiences back then, however, it came as a complete shock. Look at how Mulligan sets this scene up: Hermie comes to Dorothy’s cottage in the evening, only to find the house seemingly bare. The first things he sees are a wine bottle, an ashtray with a lit cigarette, a spinning record on a phonograph, and a letter specifying that Dorothy’s husband has been killed in action. Then Dorothy walks in, and to Hermie’s eyes she is a glistening, sad beauty. As she’s cleaning up, Hermie offers his condolences. She turns around and walks up towards Hermie—first she is shrouded in darkness, then she appears up to him in light. They dance. They kiss. And then, in a scene that lasts for a stunning four minutes, she takes him to bed.
Before this scene was to be shot, Jennifer O’Neill—a heavily conservative Christian with a strong belief in abstinence—made it clear that she didn’t want any of her exposed parts appearing on the screen, and so Mulligan was forced to figure out how to find a way around the nudity problem. We’ll never know if the scene would have been enhanced with nudity; Mulligan’s camera is clearly enamored with Jennifer O’Neill’s figure throughout the movie, as if screaming, even louder than we are, to see what she looks like without clothes. But by working within more classical bounds of filmmaking, Mulligan did something astonishing: he made the scene erotic without feeling pornographic. And the sex between Hermie and Dorothy feels not like “screwing”, as Oscy might put it, but like a sincere moment of bonding. There are no words between them, and there isn’t even really any foreplay, either: the entire sequence is told with visuals and images. Mulligan almost makes us forget we’re watching a sound film.
Hermie’s experience with Dorothy is not something he can ever tell his parents. Not that there’s any temptation to: they don’t even make an appearance in the film. From time to time we hear Hermie’s mother calling out to him, but we don’t get the feeling that she cares what he does, anyway. He speaks of his parents early on in the film, “they don’t bother me. I pretty much go my own way.” It makes for a nice contrast with some of the other parental figures in Mulligan’s films, notably Karl Malden’s controlling father in Fear Strikes Out (1957), Sam Waterston's strict but loving father in The Man in the Moon (1991) and, of course, Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). When you look at Ruth Gordon’s weak mother in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) or Diana Muldaur’s insane mother in The Other (1972), you see more eccentric parental figures. But because the parents in Summer of ’42 are not as involved in their son’s life, the narrative is given entirely to the son and his personal discoveries, notably those with Dorothy. After his book became a hit and his screenplay, completed in just ten days, was sold, Herman Raucher received several letters from women claiming to be the real Dorothy; he allegedly did receive a letter from a woman with the same handwriting, but there was never another form of contact between them again.
After they have sex, Dorothy wishes Hermie goodnight. In the morning, he’ll clasp onto one of the many fences on the island, looking out to the sea, pondering over what has just happened to him. To Oscy, sex has been nothing more than “my first lay, gone with the wind.” To Hermie, it has been too complex of an experience to put into words. He’ll find no solace in the banal conversations with his naïve friends, and he won’t find any solace in Dorothy’s cottage, either: when he returns to her door, she is gone. She has left him to cope with his feelings and use them wisely during his maturity into manhood. And we listen to Hermie’s recollections (voiced on the soundtrack by Mulligan himself) one last time, before the camera looks out to the glimmering sunset and then fades to black.
“Life is made of comings and goings,” he tells us. “And for everything that we take with us, there is something we leave behind. In the Summer of ’42, we raided the coast guard station four times. We saw five movies, and had nine days of rain. Benjie broke his watch, Oscy gave up the harmonica… and in a very special way, I lost Hermie forever.”
Cross-posted at Edward Copeland on Film.