Aug 5, 2020

Must-Watch On Blu-ray/ DVD: The Vibrant, Independent Vision of Spring Night, Summer Night (1967)

In 1968, J.L. Anderson was invited to show his debut feature, an Appalachian-set drama about an illicit love affair, Spring Night Summer Night (1967) at the New York Film Festival. His film was later bumped for John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968). Cassavetes would go on to a prolific career as an independent director, while, with all other promotional efforts for the film falling flat, Anderson would fade from public view.

It’s frustrating to realize that a lack of spotlight may have been all that deprived us of a great cinematic oeuvre, but thanks to the support of Nicolas Wending Refn’s byNWR, at least Anderson’s fascinating and moving rural masterpiece has been restored and is available on DVD/Blu-ray from Flicker Alley.

The film is set in Ohio coal-mining country, in the actual homes, bars, and fields of its residents. Anderson was a film professor at Ohio University and he took his locations seriously, embracing the lonely clotheslines, porches piled with belongings, and peaceful dirt roads of the southeastern region of his state.

Ted Heimerdinger and Larue Hall star as Carl and Jessie, half siblings, or least so they think. There is deep affection and sexual tension between the two. One night, after Carl objects to Jessie’s flirtations in the local bar, he rapes her in a field. Ashamed of his actions, Carl leaves abruptly for Columbus to look for work. Two seasons later, in the summer referred to in the title, Carl returns home to find Jessie is pregnant with his child and the pair tries to determine their own true parentage in the hopes they haven’t committed incest.

In the midst of their conflict, we learn about the people of the town, among them Carl’s, and perhaps Jessie’s father (John Crawford) and Jessie’s mother (Marjorie Johnson). These parental figures are emblematic of the worn spirit of the town. Both are nostalgic for the prosperity and hope of the war years, where it was possible to travel the world and visiting soldiers offered fun and a little luxury. In a pair of devastating monologues each of them express how they, like many in the town, live in sad longing for what might have been.

Despite this depression, the people of Spring Night, Summer Night are not pathetic characters. Poverty may bring them misery, but it isn’t unrelenting torture. They’re humans in search of joy and sometimes they find it. Anderson weaves these scenes of happy escape throughout his film: shared laughs and lively dancing at a local bar, the camaraderie between friends sharing a fast food meal in a park, or the easy pleasure of a young couple riding a motorcycle together through the countryside, sharing licks from an ice cream cone.

Anderson captures these moments with a simple naturalism similar to that of Italian neorealism, a stylistic vision he chose intentionally. Though the production was low-budget, it was high quality, with a sharp crew hired from the photography department of the university and a cast full of actors he’d handpicked from various stage productions. He joined forces with grad student Franklin Miller (who he met via his father, with whom he made a series of short films about physics) and friend Douglas Rapp (his involvement was brief, as he died in a motorcycle accident before filming began).

With a solid cast and crew, Anderson was able to concentrate on craft and that shows on the screen. He was a hands-on director, always close to the camera and certain of the details he wanted to capture. As a result there isn’t a moment that feels wasted or careless in Spring Night Summer Night. There is a sensuous beauty amid its worn characters and settings that can only come from careful observation.

The Flicker Alley set provides a solid primer on the background of the film and Anderson’s career. A trio of the short films he made with Franklin Miller: the fast-paced and humorous Football as It Is Played Today (1961), How Swived (1962), and Cheers (1963) are dramatically different from the feature. A 2016 Q&A at the Cleveland Cinematheque and the short documentary Spring Night Summer Night: 50 Years Later both offer valuable insights from the cast and crew. A slideshow gallery and a remarkably extensive reel of 16mm behind-the-scenes footage give an excellent perspective on the production of the film, showing camaraderie and a vigorous work ethic throughout the group. The short film I’m Goin’ to Straitsville is a tour of the film’s locations as they look today and In the Middle of the Nights: From Arthouse to Grindhouse and Back Again explores the ill-advised decision (not approved by Anderson) to edit the film into the exploitation flick Miss Jessica is Pregnant in a bid to make more money on the film.

It’s an impressive set in tribute to a remarkable film which is profoundly deserving of classic status.

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the film for review.

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