[This weekend, we are covering New York City’s First Time Fest. Check back for reviews of some competition films from these directors trying to prove they have a cinematic future. More information can be found here.]
Whenever I watch an indie film set in New York City, I wonder if I’m an unwitting extra in a crowd scene. I’ve walked by at least half a dozen cameras in the past year alone, and those are just the ones I’ve noticed. I don’t really know what I’d do if I saw myself doing something stupid in the crowd, but I think it would hurt a film for me. Knowing that a film’s universe is explicitly linked with my own is kind of a weird thought, and even if I recognize those locales and have taken those trains, if I don’t see myself, it’s really not the same.
As far as I know, I’m not in Summertime, and I’m glad about that…. I was confused enough as it was.
Director: Max Weissberg
Release Date: TBD
Summertime is a film about sex. More specifically, it’s about characters who want to have sex. Almost everybody in the film is at least attempting to have sex with at least one other person, and in many cases those people want to have sex with most of the other people (of the opposite gender; this may be the Village, but there don’t appear to be any homosexuals). Fortunately, the film isn’t explicit. You see a few shirtless men, but all of the women are covered up at all times (even if those coverups aren’t always made of the most… opaque materials). But even if it’s visually tame, there are unpleasant implications in basically every lewd act that happens off-screen. The line between what is and is not acceptable to the characters is ever-changing, and their reactions to each others’ fidelity or infidelity is not always the clearest thing.
Much of this has to do with the overall context. Although they have names, the characters are referred to by title cards which introduce each scene. These title cards say, for example, “The Actress and The Director” or “The Tour Guide and The Writer.” These are the designations given the characters, and if you forget the actual character names (as I did), you can keep up thanks to the designated employments. Not all of these employments are a part of the film (The Waitress, for example, is actually a wanna-be actress who says she works in a restaurant but never does so onscreen), but it’s easier to remember “The Writer” than “Dan.” Inconveniently, the characters don’t refer to each other by their title, so when people mentioned “Dan,” it took me a few seconds to place the name to the title. So that’s confusing.
But it’s not what’s really confusing. No, what is really confusing is what follows The Actress (and, to a lesser extent, The Waitress). The primary conflict in the film is that both characters have been cast in the same part by The Director, a scuzzy sumbitch who at the very least forces The Actress into his bed with possibly-false promises about giving her the lead role. What’s confusing about it is that this character, while dealing with that, is also having problems with The Writer, who is her boyfriend. In both relationships, she is unhappy and expresses that unhappiness. However, the film’s insistence on opening scenes on a single person talking with no context meant that I often didn’t know if she was shouting because The Director was telling her to act or if she was actually mad at The Writer (or if there was some third party that she was having a problem with). Once the title cards stop coming up (after an individual relationship has been established), I had to guess. I was wrong on pretty much every count. That got really tiresome.
For the most part, I actually enjoyed the scenes themselves. Once the context was established, even if it came too late for my liking, I was able to get into it. The writing is pretty good, and the characters tend to be well-defined, although motivations are not always clear, something which becomes very problematic at the ending (which is complete bullshit, by the way). But even if ultimate goals were sketchy, the minute-to-minute was usually pretty obvious, and I could follow that. The minute-to-minute is what makes things work. Fortunately there is never a scene of two insufferable characters, and the characters that are insufferable are that way by design. They are designed to be excessive and they are played to excess. It works, and I liked them for it. It could have fallen apart pretty easily, but it didn’t.
But, and this is a pretty big one, there is something extremely off about the characters’ delivery, and I’m still not entirely sure what it is. It has to do with the actual recording of the dialogue, which seems to have gone wrong at some point in the production. It’s too loud and doesn’t always seem to perfectly line up with the mouths, and it also doesn’t always fit with the mood. It’s like the entire thing was dubbed, but they weren’t always sure what they were dubbing. It’s a weird technical/performance (don’t know which) flaw that serves to just make everything in Summertime more confusing. It was worse at some times than others, and it usually was only mildly irritating as opposed to outright obnoxious, but it’s definitely an oddity. Someone should get a stern talking to about that.
The backdrop of New York City is a fine one, and the whole sexual obsession brings to mind Shame (a comparison that does not work in Summertime‘s favor), but it’s not about the nightlife or going to bars. For the most part, the film takes place inside apartments and there’s very little in the way of onscreen “fun” (except for an uncomfortably long dancing sequence). But some scenes, rather than even beginning with a shot of one character with no clear indication of who they are talking to, start with shots of the city. New York City is a pretty nice place, and it’s all well and good that the filmmakers want to show it off, but it doesn’t really help the film in any way, because the characters never walk by the shops and things that are being shown off. I expect it’s to give context to the characters’ environment, but it doesn’t actually do all that much for anybody.
If it seems like I’m being hard on Summertime, it’s not because I didn’t like it (I did); it’s because it has some really weird underlying problems that make it harder to enjoy than it should be. Just using a few more master shots early on in scenes would give some of the context that was missing and made things difficult to parse at times, and taking another look at that audio mix wouldn’t have been a bad idea either. But I still recommend the film, because for the most part it has interesting characters and does right by them. It’s also under 90 minutes, which means it doesn’t overstay it’s welcome.
Although, if they had made it ten minutes longer and expanded on that ending, I probably would have liked it more. Goddamn that ending was stupid.