August 1, 2011  |  Film
Hot and Humid: Some Thoughts, and a Few Questions, about Summer Films

Jaws. 1975. USA. Directed by Steven Spielberg. On view in Hot and Humid: Summer films from the Archives

In 2008 the Department of Film “celebrated” summer with a short series of films from MoMA’s collection set during the season in which everyone relaxes in the sun, and most people end up being caught off-guard. Many filmmakers treat summer as the months in which bad things happen—swimmers are attacked; lovers betray each other, often with friends; tempers flare; exposed flesh leads to passion, which leads to babies and sudden, unwanted domesticity; and, on a global scale, wars begin and bombs are dropped. From August 1 through September 7, we continue “cheering on” the discomforts of summer with Hot and Humid: Summer Films from the Archives</a>, a further selection of fine motion pictures from the collection—24 films in 21 programs that limn the perils and excitement of the weeks before the refreshing breezes of autumn liberate us from heat and humidity.</p>

A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream. 1935. USA. Directed by Max Reinhardt, William Dieterle. On view in Hot and Humid: Summer films from the Archives

Here’s what we are showing, in alphabetical order: L’Avventura (1960), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Do the Right Thing (1989), The Gleiwitz Case (1951), Going Home (1978), Hiroshima-Nagasaki, August 1945 (1970), In a Year of 13 Moons (1978), Jaws (1975), The Little Fugitive (1953), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968), A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), My Hustler (1965), Une Partie de champagne (1936–46), Purple Noon (1960), Rashomon (1950), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), A Summer at Grandpas (1984), Summer with Monika (1951), Taxi Driver (1976), Vitelloni, I (1953), Under the Sand (2000), Wild Reeds (1994), and World Trade Center (2006) (see full details at the Hot and Humid site).

But first let’s talk about what’s missing…

Two remarkable films in MoMA’s vaults that could have very well been included are Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962) and Robert Siodmak’s People on Sunday (1930). However, Knife in the Water will be shown in September—just a few weeks away—as part of a Roman Polanski retrospective organized by my colleague Charles Silver, and People on Sunday was recently featured in the exhibition Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares, curated by yours truly.

But what about such different-behavior-in-summer films like American Graffiti (1973, USA, George Lucas), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958, USA, Richard Brooks), Dog Day Afternoon (1975, USA, Sidney Lumet), Early Summer (1951, Japan, Yasujiro Ozu), Rear Window (1954, USA, Alfred Hitchcock), The Seven Year Itch (1955, USA, Billy Wilder), Summertime (1955, Great Britain, David Lean), Summer of Sam (1999, USA, Spike Lee), Weekend (1967, France, Jean-Luc Godard), and Woodstock (1970, USA, Michael Wadleigh). These are films I would have very much like to include but, alas, we don’t have exhibition copies…yet.

The Little Fugitive

The Little Fugitive. 1953. USA. Written and directed by Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin. On view in Hot and Humid: Summer films from the Archives

Speaking about American Graffiti, a question arises, at least in my mind: How does the notion of films set in the summer apply to places like Modesto, California, where the weather varies only slightly from season to season. Is it “summer” because school is out, and that situation brings a whole new set of social coordinates to the fore, or is it summer simply because it is mid-June to mid-September in the Northern Hemisphere? Which brings me to another question: What about the Southern Hemisphere, where summer is mid-December to mid-March, but Christmas still falls on December 25? Can anyone recall a film from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, or South Africa where, in early summer, Santa Claus appears, quite naturally, in a bathing suit? There just have to be films about X-Mas when it may be “white” up here but it’s “hot and humid” down there.

Readers might wonder what films like Rashomon and In a Year with 13 Moons are doing in this series, and this leads to another observation and a further request—but first, the “answers.” The “incident” in the grove in Rashomon happens, according to director Akira Kurosawa, in midsummer; and Elvira’s last days on earth in 13 Moons are between July and August. Neither of these films seem at first glance to be about summer, and of course, they really are not. Yet summer plays a critical role in both, as it does, say in Toy Story 3 (2010, USA, Lee Unkrich), which is set in the period just before college begins.

I invite readers to suggest other films that take place wholly or significantly during the summer months, films like the above, in which (a) summer is not mentioned in the title—no National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation, please; and (b) where summer is barely mentioned at all, but the action is informed by the temperature being hot, the air humid, and people not very happy. Happy scouting, and thanks for your suggestions.