Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Valentine redux

As 30 Rock pointed out to me this week, Valentine's Day is really a stalker's holiday. So I made an over long, totally stalkerish Valentine to one of my favorite classic films, David Lean's Summertime (1955).

I discovered this movie as part of a series I did about summer romance/travel movies that ripped off Roman Holiday. As much as I love Roman Holiday, I think Summertime might be a little better. While Roman Holiday definitely has youth on its side, Summertime is unabashedly mature. "If age is an asset than I'm loaded," Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn) says. While Roman Holiday shows postwar Rome to great advantage, Summertime shows Venice in a more realistic, although still highly romantic, light. People dump trash in the canal and Hudson's guide throughout most of the film is a barefoot homeless child who smokes and procures gondolas for adulterous couples to use as trysting places. To its credit, the film doesn't try to squirm out of these unpleasantries. Nor does it try to squirm out of the bleak dilemma that traps its central characters. While the lovers in Roman Holiday are doomed to part, Audrey Hepburn goes back to being a princess, and Katharine Hepburn goes back to being a secretary in Akron, Ohio.

Yet, Summertime is much more than a Geezer Roman Holiday. For one, it is also a David Lean film. It moves at a casual pace. Rossano Brazzi doesn't even appear in the film until 15 minutes in and then disappears for another fifteen minutes or so. Though the images are tightly controlled and composed, you don't necessarily feel like they are. You feel like you might be watching one of Jane Hudson's home movies. In that spirit, I'm taking my sweet old time, getting to the re-cap, so here goes...

The train bearing Jane Hudson arrives in Venice, seemingly floating on the water. We're introduced to her character, a single woman traveling alone. Her tail-wagging enthusiasm is endearing. Having been a solo female American on many travels I can attest that this is the best way to travel if you really want to see a place and meet its natives.

Jane meets the McIlhenny's on the "bus." They are the stereotypical ugly Americans giving offense and making fools of themselves wherever they go. Mrs. McIlhenny speaks Italian and it embarrasses her husband. Even though they are supposed to be awful, I kind of like them.

Jane arrives at Pensione Fiorini, and meets its proprietress, a widow Jane's age. Mrs. Fiorini is sophisticated and smart and she instantly takes to Jane's open heart. She thinks a lot less of Mr. McIlhenny who complains that "this WOP food is ruining my digestion." OK, when I said I liked the McIlhenny's, I meant, "outside their appalling racism." Jane refuses Mrs. Fiorini's offer of dinner with real Italians and instead decides to check out the famed Piazza San Marco.

People watching in the Piazza.

This is one of Lean's most brilliant and brilliantly simple set ups.

As Jane watches a couple of pretty girls being chased by two wolfish young men, she is shocked by the openness of the young men's approach.

In her reaction shot, we first glimpse Renato de Rossi (Rossano Brazzi) who is about to make the same completely straightforward move on her.

The noise of Janes' movie camera catches his eye and and Lean's camera follows their gaze up to the rooftops. One of the nice things is that although he lives in Venice, De Rossi always seems to be seeing the place through Jane's newcomber's eyes.

As he is about to turn away, he notices her legs.

I like these shoes, but I imagine, that's not what he's thinking about.

Jane senses she's being watched and is startled to find the wolf so close by.

She attempts to throw him off by putting on her sunglasses, which is hilariously ineffective.

Then she tries to pay the bill quickly and leave, but apparently the universal "check please" gesture doesn't work in Italy. Senior de Rossi steps in to gain the waiter's attention on her behalf to her mortification. Later when discussing their first meeting she says, merely, "you were wearing a yellow tie."

Jane flees to the quiet of the canal, where she broods a bit.

The next day Jane meets Mauro (Gaetano Autiero), a homeless boy who acts as her guide and sells her dirty postcards.

Jane is drawn to a red goblet in the window of an antiques store and goes in to inquire about buying it.

Jane is so focused on the goblet she does not notice that the attentive shopkeeper who is trying to sell it to her is the very same man from the Piazza San Marco.

"Maybe you could see it's color better if you took off your glasses," he says and she does.

There is a long beat before she finally recognizes him and then this hilarious reaction shot.

He smoothly inquires about her hotel, "in case a matching goblet ever turns up" and she responds "I'm staying in Venice" before she tells him the name of her pensione. It's hard to tell whether she is just awkward because she's nervous or used to repelling men out of habit, or both. He watches her walking away across the footbridge outside his shop and she tries to look back at him and trips, almost falling over.

That afternoon, Jane is writing a letter to her friends back home and already describing the handsome stranger as "me amico" and imagining that if her friends were there they could double date. This is so sweet and so real.

After a painful scene in which she attempts to wheedle an invitation to drinks with the Yaegers, an American couple at the hotel, Jane is left on her own again. She heads for the Piazza. She is waiting for her "amico" but sees the Yaegers walking past and doesn't want them to think that they should come join her. She puts the chair next to her up against her table as a sign that she wants to be alone. The Yaegers don't see her and Jane is relieved. Then Mr. de Rossi enters the frame from behind.

He approaches, says "good evening" and pauses.

Jane realizes too late that the chair against the table has warded him off and she makes this total "I love Lucy" face as he walks away again.

The next day, Jane gets lost exploring the back alleys of Venice. Mauro finds her and brings her back to the antique shop, where she inquires for her friend, who is out of the shop.

Then she tries to film the front of the shop and falls in the canal.

Jane's fall into the canal makes everyone's days and Mr. De Rossi turns up at the pensione to inquire after her health.

She is wearing a dish towel and keeps asking him why he's there. He tries to explain sexual attraction to her without using any words. I love how he just keeps getting closer and closer to her in this scene and we don't see him move. It's like he's on casters or something.

The McIlhenny's come in and ruin everything. They have half a dozen goblets to match the supposedly rare one Jane bought at Mr. De's store. Awkward. Mr. McIlhenny says "Arrivaderci" and that makes Mrs. McIlhenny all excited in a way that I really don't want to think about.

He tries to explain that hers is an antique but she is mad and knocks over one of Mrs. Fiorini's really old chairs. For someone who runs an antique store, Mr. De Rossi doesn't seem at all bothered by his new girl's furniture abuse, but we'll let this slide. He's in love.

Mr. De gets overly-familiar with her dishtowel and eventually asks her out on date. Jane finally accepts.

They go to a concert at the Piazza and then she surprises him by picking a white gardenia from the flower vendor. Why this is surprise, I have no idea. I guess I just don't have enough Fifties Italian flower savvy.

Jane looses her flower in the canal and he's unable to retrieve it.

Undeterred by the obvious symbolic foreshadowing, they kiss. Things get a little passionate, and she asks him why he kissed her like that, which is the kind of thing only people in old movies would say. I mean I get that she's a rookie to this whole romance thing, obviously, but it would serve her right if he would just say, "Because I'm Italian and I'll get busted down to being Belgian if I don't get to first base.." Jane first tells him she doesn't want to see him again and after another kiss, she says, "I love you" and runs away. Newbs.

The next day Jane has an old movie makeover, which is awesome. She gets her hair done, her nails painted, buys a strapless gown (which she still wears with a dishtowel-like scarf attached with a weird necklace thingy) and red high heel shoes.

The red shoe becomes a big symbol of her newly found sexy side so keep an eye on them.

Jane waits for Mr. De Rossi and his "nephew" turns up to tell her he's going to be late. Though the kid is 12, she offers him a cigarette. It's funny how the things that were shocking about this movie when it came out are kind of humdrum now, and things like this little cigarette business with the kid are scandalous.

Jane finds out that the kid is not really Mr. De Rossi's nephew but his son. What is worse, the boy's mother is still in the picture.She heads straight to Harry's bar to get shit-faced. At Harry's she meets Phyl Jaeger who has a head start on her in the whole drinking and crying department. Jane must hold it together in front of Phyl who thinks she is tough. Phyl and Jane bond--not over what pigs men are, as they would in a contemporary movie--but over how much it hurts to not be everything to the person you love.

Back at the pensione, Jane overhears Mr. Jaeger and Mrs. Fiorini arranging a late-night gondola excursion, which explains why Phyl was crying at Harry's bar.

Mauro helps the lovers get a gondola. Jane catches Mauro and freaks out at him. Just then Mr. De Rossi arrives and her anger switches to a more appropriate target.

Mr. De tries to explain that he and his wife are separated and then Jane pisses him off by asking him if Mrs. De Rossi has "gondola friends." I think that's the best euphemism ever, by the way. Jane asks him why he didn't tell her he was married and why he pretended that his son was his nephew. He answers lamely that he was afraid of scaring her away. She doesn't ask if he ever planned on telling her the truth, and I think it's because she's afraid he'll either lie again or she won't want to hear the truth.

He gives her a speech. "You wanted someone young, rich, handsome witty and of course, not married. I am not young. I am a shopkeeper. I'm not handsome or witty (I'd beg to differ on both accounts) and of course, I'm married. But I am a man. And you are a woman." Then he kisses her and at least this time she doesn't ask him why he did it. Then he gives her this beefsteak and ravioli analogy, which doesn't really work logically but has the effect of making her hungry which was all part of a clever plan to get her to go to dinner with him. Boy, is he smooth.

She decides to go for a walk and he follows, chasing her into some symbolic dead ends.

A gondola driver asks if they need a ride and Mr. De Rossi totally jumps down his throat, which would be funny if it weren't so painful.

At dinner a toy peddler comes by and Jane cheers up a bit. I mean who doesn't love wind-up monkeys? So cute!

Oh yeah, back to the adultery, which 80 minutes into the movie is finally starting to happen. After dining and dancing and lots more walking around Jane finally just decides to go for it.

Kiss with the red shoe.

It's a well-known fact that in the 1950s when people had sex, there were always fireworks.

The red shoes spend the night on Mr. De's balcony.

Sun coming up on the shoe.

We see the sun coming up on Venice, which is beautiful. Mr. De walks Jane to the dock and puts her in a gondola.

She waves goodbye with her shoe, which is genius.

Jane's walk of shame back to her room at the Pensione is adorable and the shoe makes it's final stand at symbolism. Is that a men's bathrobe she's rocking as outerwear? Also, I love how the dishtowel is now a sporty ascot.

Riding in speedboats is classic film short hand for adultery.

They rent an apartment on a little island and spend the next few days making sweet, sweet innuendo. Here's a sampling of dialog, "You sleep all day and then you don't want to sleep at night." Renato's "hungry like the wolf" look and his sleepy look are almost exactly the same. Ah, Men!

This scene is beautiful, but what distracts me is the building in the background. Is that a grain elevator or a nuclear power plant? Well anyway, it's phallic, so it works.

Jane is way more relaxed and laid back in these scenes which is hilarious when you think about it.

Jane suddenly remembers this relationship can never really go anywhere and decides that she can't wait until divorce becomes legal in Italy in 1974. Preferring to rip the bandage off quickly, she tells Mr. De that she's packed and her train leaves in two hours.

They have a fight which consists of him kissing her and her saying "Oh, Renato!!" I guess in times of distress you stick to what you know works for you.

Gut punched by love.

Jane jumps on a gondola and waves good-bye with her white shoe. It's here that I wonder about Katharine Hepburn and her real life paramour, Spencer Tracy. How much of this is just wish fulfillment for Hepburn? If she could have walked or floated away like this, I think she would have.

Even though she just totally dumped his ass, Jane seems to expect Renato to turn up at the train station. This is another one of those sweet and true to life character details that I love in this film. She says good-bye to Mauro who somehow knows she's there. There must be a Jane Hudson channel on the police scanner. Everyone always knows where she is.

As the train is pulling away, with Jane on it, Renato finally turns up with a little box. We never find out what's in it. It's too small to be a goblet. Also we hope it's not breakable because at one point it goes skittering across the platform.

Renato runs after the train, holding up a white gardenia. She is too far away to take it. This is Jane's final glimpse of him.

The movie ends with lavish hand waving and a blatant disregard for train platform safety protocols.

Yes, Summertime is an effective example of a tear-jerker romance, but what I really like are the characters. Renato di Rossi is very slick and polished and yet we get the feeling that this more a result of his being Italian than his being such a well-practiced player. Part of this is Brazzi's performance since he cleverly manages to be at once super smooth Euro dude and tired middle-aged guy. He has to realize that Jane is way more high maintenance the casual fling he'd probably originally envisioned, but he pursues her because, they are both lonely people who are practiced at putting on a brave face. When he turns up at the pensione and she pretends not to understand why he's there, he rightly points out that she's been stalking him all over the city. He cuts through all her romantic notions and dares her to take his love even though it doesn't live up to her ideals.

I can't decide whether it's because she's a "spinster" (God what a terrible word, I hate to even type it), because she's a free spirit, or because it's vacation and she just wants to enjoy herself that Jane allows him to seduce her. It is chauvinistic to conclude that if you are a woman of a certain age who has waited to fall in love because you were unwilling to "settle," you might actually end up alone. It is feminist to say that if you a woman alone you can be perfectly happy even though you do still sometimes feel like you are missing out on certain things. Miraculously, Summertime makes both conclusions without making your head explode. Then again it might have nothing to do with ones age or gender. With love , things might be more complicated than you are prepared to accept. (Try fitting that on a Valentine's Day card.) That truth hits everyone, even young people. If you don't believe me, watch Roman Holiday!


Kate Gabrielle said...

Seriously, one of the most perfect reviews ever!!

Jennythenipper said...

Thanks. It's all part of my diabolical plan to make reading the review take longer than actually watching the film!

Millie said...

I LOVED this! I've never seen the film...but this review was brilliant!

Broadway Baby said...

Awesome review! You made me actually ashamed that I don't own this movie (a situation that will soon be rectified.)

Jennythenipper said...

Broadway Baby: Shame, Shame!
I highly recommend the Criterion Disc. This is one of the few movies I tivoed and then went out and bought the official DVD anyway.

Sarah said...

Seriously. Wonderful. Review. And so clever catching the sexual symbology.

Rossano Brazzi- Oh. Mein. Gott. Where have I been that I haven't caught that dude sooner?

I will definitely add this to my list of must sees. Thanks!

Jennythenipper said...

Sarah: OMG, I know, right. HAWT. So much so that the contemporaneous New York Times review actually said he was too handsome for Hepburn to break up with at the end. This is a stupid thing to say because a) Katherine Hepburn is pretty cougarlicious in this and b) hawt or not the dude is still married, so she would have no status in his life. She doesn't speak Italian so getting a job there doesn't seem likely. From a practical standpoint it couldn't work, especially not for someone as independent as her character.

SteveQ said...

I've always liked the elegiac "last fling" atmosphere of "Summertime." The nasty American couple reminds me of a couple in my favorite holiday film, "Mr. Hulot's Holiday" starring Jacques Tati; one of the carefully planned "throwaway" jokes in it is that the woman keeps handing him things to collect, which he takes and immediately drops... and she never notices.

It'd be an odd double bill, to say the least!

KC said...

Wow--amazing. This was a mesmerizing review! Excellent observations.

Jennythenipper said...

Hey Steve! I agree, there is an elegaic tone to the movie--as much elegy as there can be in a movie that uses all the trappings of Rom Com (pratfalls, misunderstandings, missed opportunities, etc.).

I haven't seen Mr. Hulot's Holiday. That's terrible, I know. I'll add it to the list. We have Traffic on the Tivo at home and the boy loves it. Even though he can't read, you don't need to understand the dialog to follow what's going on or get the jokes. Also, all those cute old French cars are to die for.

Jennythenipper said...

Thanks, KC! And double thanks for the link on your blog.

Rupert Pupkin said...

Great post! I have to agree that SUMMERTIME is a little better than ROMAN HOLIDAY. I think it's one of Lean's films that doesn't get nearly enough attention. I'm a pretty big Hepburn fan so that probably plays into my affection for the film a bit too. It's no HOLIDAY, but its very enjoyable. Oh and I am also a big fan of the Mr. Hulot films. Highly recommended!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic review! I love this movie so much. Once a year I have a very cheesy "trip to Italy" day, during which I watch my favorite classic movies set in Italy -- "Roman Holiday", "Come September", "Three Coins in the Fountain" and of course "Summertime".

I wish more people knew about "Summertime", because it really is a gem. Katharine Hepburn's lonely spinster (I agree, it's a dreadful word but one that seems to fit in this case) breaks my heart, and Rossano Brazzi is super sexy.

Jennythenipper said...

Rupert: I loooove Holiday too. I have a tendency to prefer drama, usually, but Summertime is one of the few weepies I really like. And as I said, it's only as weepy as you can get with the conventions of rom com in place.

Happythoughts: I love the idea of a trip to Italy. These kind of movies are wonderful if you live in Minnesota and it's February. They warm you up from the inside!

rudyfan1926 said...

I'm late to this party, but had to weigh in on one of my favorite films. Le Sigh, Rossano Brazzi, Rowr! Those first shots of him, Lean's camera loved him and it made me fall in love with him, too. That yellow tie, those eyes, those expressive eyebrows and that hair. Then when he speaks, well, I'm done. Seriously, a wonderful write-up and Valentine to a lovely film. If it had been me, I would never have gotten back on the train. I would have found a job teaching English and died in Venice happier, wiser and perhaps alone, but not for long.

Jennythenipper said...

Rudyfan, not too late to the party as far as I'm concerned. I agree, I never would have gotten on that train!

kevin said...

I found your review when I was looking for information on Mauro's acting career (apparently non-existent). Too bad, I thought he was excellent along with the rest of the cast.

My wife selected the film and I enjoyed it and your review. If you haven't seen Avanti! with Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills, I think you would like it.

Margaret Perry said...

This is such a great review - I laughed my head off! I love what you noticed about the red shoes. SUMMERTIME is one of my favorite movies! I love your pics and your play-by-play rundown of the film. Here's my recent post about SUMMERTIME - I'd really love your feedback!

e.esquire said...

i've always assumed that the gardenia that renato attempts to give to jane at the train station was in the small box that you mentioned.

e.esquire said...

i've always assumed that the gardenia that renato attempts to give to jane at the train station was in the small box that you mentioned.