MOVIE BABYLON: LAST SUMMER at the American Cinematheque
The sad thing about being a filmeaste these days is one gets sometimes to feeling like there are no more masterpieces left to discover. Film has only been around for 100 years after all, and I’ve had thirty hard working years of moviegoing and watching to see the greats, the near greats, the partially greats. I’ve gone to more times than I can count to see the screening of some supposed forgotten classic, which often turns out to be interesting, to have moments…but generally you leave those while appreciating the film, understanding how it got lost in the shuffle. It’s ridiculous to feel like I’ve seen everything from the cinema of the world, of course, but when you are youngish, and getting to see the greats for the first time, you get to see masterpieces for the first time every day if you want. It takes a lot more digging later on.
So it’s not often I have nights like tonight, where with almost no preparation or build up, I saw a genuine masterpiece for the first time.
Last Summer was made in 1969 by husband and wife team director Frank Perry and writer Eleanor Perry. I’d only been slightly aware of their work, having seen their excellent adaptation of John Cheever’s The Swimmer a while back. But I’d never known much about them, and their reputation has fallen into obscurity of late, compared to their contemporaries of early independent film like Cassavetes and Haskell Wexler. Last Summer, in fact, has all but disappeared. The Cinematheque spent two years attempting to locate a print, and finally found one in Australia which may be the only 16 MM print that still exists. It was released briefly in the early days of VHS, but has never been put out on DVD, and has never had an American screening it would seem, since the 70’s.
This is a tragedy because it is truly one of the great American films. This is a movie I would recommend to anyone without a moment’s hesitation. Telling the story of four teenagers spending a summer on Fire Island in the late 60’s, it plays out like a teenage Lord of the Flies, except told in an intensely personal, intimate style digging deep into their psyches. Cassevettesque in that nearly the entire film is conversation between these four characters with barely anyone else entering the frame and hardly anything “happening” the film is so beautifully composed and so relentlessly takes you deeper inside kids that it doesn’t feel slow or claustrophobic for a second. The sense of dread that bubbles up as these unformed teenage psyches press against each other makes the film play out like a thriller. But it is nonetheless, one of the most honest, searching and sensitive coming of age portraits I’ve ever seen.
You can watch the opening scene here starring the always great Barbara Hershey, who was there for the screening tonight. Also check out this scene (even thought it’s a moderate spoiler) for a glimpse at the amazing Catherine Burns, who played the nerd girl. Last Summer was Burns’ first film role and she won an Oscar nomination for it. After this she had a couple more roles in a couple flops, and then disappeared into obscurity. At the screening tonight, the curators reported being unable to find her despite serious digging. One brief newspaper report says she became a playwright and another that she was working on a project with her husband in Moscow in the late 80’s. It’s a great loss to cinema that we didn’t see more of her. And a horrific loss that this film was a hair’s breadth away from falling between the cracks forever. Hopefully now that it has been shown, it can be restored and there will be more screenings to come. Give yourself a big birthday present if it ever is shown and go see this movie.