Emerging from the oubliette of film history and inspired partly by the starkly beautiful films of Ingmar Bergman, partly by the semi-documentary non-professionalism of Italian neorealism, partly by the spontaneity of the French New Wave, and partly by the American independence of John Cassavetes, we have Spring Night Summer Night (1967) on a dual DVD/Blu-ray from Flicker Alley.
Shot in Southern Ohio by a local film professor and his students for $29k, this black and white character study of a corner of Appalachia begins in the possibility of “white trash” stereotypes and
Erskine Caldwell sensationalism. The film, like its characters, struggles to break free of limits imposed by internalized expectations. “You know you don’t care what these damn hillbillies think,” is an early line spoken by a young man to his half-sister, and the oppressive network of what everybody thinks in a town where everybody knows everybody’s business is one element in Spring Night Summer Night atmosphere.
The family lives in a two-story house on some acreage in a depressed area, where we see a lot of abandoned and falling-apart houses. Dinner time with a passel of kids is a network of sniping between husband Virgil (John Crawford), his second wife Mae (Marj Johnson), oldest son Carl (Ted Heimerdinger) and oldest daughter Jessie (Larue Hall). Everyone likes their drink and cigarettes and everyone is sullen. An ancient granny sits apart, eating in front of the TV. It’s Saturday and the main quartet looks forward to a night out. Carl aims to make money at the cockfights with his rooster, which he lets loose in the dining room to chaos. It’s all very, how do you say,
This is the spring night, the first of the two days a few months apart that encompass the film’s action. The brooding Carl, liquored up, eyes Jessie jealously as she dances at the local crowded beer hall, packed with smoking and drinking and smiling locals and scored by excellent local musicians. All the film’s music is diegetic in a highly natural sound mix.
After a near fight at the bar with some other fellow, Carl manhandles Jessie into the car and drives her home and, in an elliptical sequence that encourages wide-open interpretation, we realize they stopped to have sex. When they analyze this event months later, he blames himself. “I wasn’t that drunk. I knew what I was doing,” he says. Jess stops in her tracks, looks up and asserts her agency: “I could have stopped you.”
One of the film’s radical secrets is that she doesn’t especially object to being “in trouble”. She’d prefer it otherwise and she doesn’t like having to discuss it, but she’s rejected her friend’s advice to get rid of it and fully intends to raise her baby without naming the father. Her contained strength throughout complements Carl’s shaky explosiveness, although both her fatalism and his emotionalism are problems.
In the interim, he disappeared to Columbus, Ohio, in search of work, and now he’s back to convince her to go away with him. The first thing he notices is her pregnancy, which would be the first he’s aware of it, since the two of them have had no contact since that night. She’s stubbornly silent on the subject to her parents. Virgil keeps running around town trying to find the father while Mae just says it’s her business.
It’s on this second day and night of the film’s plot that the portrait of a town deepens, thanks to two excellent drinking soliloquies delivered separately by Mae and Virgil. They each discuss their past and their relation to the town, and we understand that they are depicting real, credible people with real histories in a mining town that thrived during WWII and has been withering since. The characters both recall the war with understandable nostalgia, and that’s an element in the film that feels right. Mae and Virgil argue but they have, in a sense, made peace with each other and know very well that their choices are limited to decline. In the end, they don’t feel mismatched.
Another detail Spring Night Summer Night gets right is the way people frankly refer to money. A farmer brags that his tractor “cost a lot of money”. In the most lyrical and exhilarating sequence, a young man declares that he bought his motorcycle with army money. That feels true, army service as a means for the joy of spending money on the speed and wind of freedom in the face. Again, military service is a kind of window to another world, a form of escape that feels credible in this environment.
Behind-the-scenes footage shows how that cycle sequence was shot. Filming in the summer of 1965, the filmmakers couldn’t know they were dipping a kickstand into the wave of biker movies like Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966) and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), but it was blowin’ in the wind. Actually, one of their writer-producer associates had been killed on a motorcycle before filming began.
Possible SPOILER: We’re used to the grind of melodrama in backwoods potboilers, especially one that begins with the bang of a shotgun as the first sound effect. One of the film’s nicest surprises is that, after teasing us with the possibility, it avoids melodramatic or even dramatic resolution. Like another film finished in 1967, Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, the story ends with a couple on a bus, and yet the ending in Spring Night Summer Night feels more hopeful than that doomed epiphany. Anderson’s film and its characters are embracing uncertainty (“We’ll never know”) and therefore defying conventions and expectations. They’re going to make it up as they go.
The story behind the film is discussed in the extras. In what must have been a bitter blow for a film partly indebted to the do-it-yourself emotional truth-seeking of Cassavetes, this film’s place in the New York Film Festival got bumped for his Faces (1968), because apparently you can only have one movie like that. I can’t help wondering if someone literally said “We’re not showing your film because of this Cassavetes picture” or if that just makes a good story for the irony. The festival finally showed it in 2018.
Then exploitation distributor Joseph Brenner picked it up for the grindhouse and drive-in circuit on the condition that it be re-cut with some nudity added. That incarnation, retitled Miss Jessica Is Pregnant, played on 1970s’ double-bills. It’s been preserved by UCLA Film and Television Archive but isn’t included here for comparison.
Decades later, Spring Night Summer Night has been restored and scanned in 4K thanks to the patronage of Nicholas Winding Refn. The only nudity in the director’s cut is a brief glimpse of Carl’s buttocks, which would have frustrated any good old boys at the drive-in. There’s also Jessica’s chum Donna (Betty Ann Parady), introduced in a Lolita pose, slouching in a polka-dotted bikini with one strap hanging off the shoulder, and that’s it for skin.
One of the extras discusses and shows some of the differing footage between the two versions, as well as material that never made it into either version. Several participants are interviewed 50 years later, including director Joseph L. Anderson, co-writer/producer Franklin Miller, and actors Heimerdinger, Hall and Crawford, who all express surprise and pleasure at the film’s resurrection.
Anderson has had a long career in various venues, including academia and public TV. He’s probably most famous for co-writing a significant book of film history with Donald Ritchie: The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (Grove Press, 1960, revised 1983). He’s interviewed in a couple of contexts, as is Miller. One of the extras involves revisiting the film’s locations. The booklet is also full of information and perspective on the film’s rediscovery and restoration.
The most delightful extra is the so-called Bluegrass Trilogy, three shorts by Anderson and Miller scored to bluegrass music. These come across as viable works of cultural observation with humor.