Summertime, and The Canon Is Fluid
Discovering Great Movies is Often About Timing.
It becomes a rarer joy the longer one devotes one’s life to watching movies, but there’s nothing like seeing something great for the first time. It’s only rare because while more movies exist than it’s possible for one person to see in a lifetime, there are a finite number of really great ones. I bring this up because I watched Summertime last weekend. Starring Katharine Hepburn, and directed by David Lean, it’s a story about an American woman, single in middle age (in an era where that was much less common), who vacations in Venice one summer and despite great resistance to the idea falls in love with a Venetian man, who it transpires is married, if only technically.
The film features exquisite location photography by Jack Hildyard, which in tandem with Lean’s masterful staging makes its take on Venice come fully, vividly alive, a setting worthy of the work Hepburn does in it. I’m only now catching up on Hepburn’s body of work, having had an unaccountably intense negative reaction to her accent when I was younger (long story short, it’s WASP genetic memory and a whole lot of class grudges; I used to synesthetically taste money whenever I heard her speak), and it’s only now as an older cinephile free of detrimental youthful attitudes that I can properly appreciate her genius as a performer and interpretive artist. At twenty-omniscient I would have said a lot of dumb things about stilted line readings undoing what was otherwise an auteurist triumph of evoking place, but at thirty-slightly-less-obnoxious I see an actor vividly conveying an austere yet powerful inner life through posture and gesture, and a sublime interplay between the star and the languorous Venice summer of her life’s dream.
This is why I think the relationship between film lover and film canon should be entirely personalized and free of overarching dogma. The problem with regarding canon as a fixed, immovable thing is that it encourages ‐ if not outright demands ‐ that people see every all-time classic as soon as possible, rather than at the right time to connect with a particular film. Some movies simply need to be watched at certain specific points in time. I’m not going to mention specific movies because getting into nitpicking arguments over titles isn’t the point here, but given a moment’s thought to the subject I’m sure you can think of movies best watched in childhood, as an adolescent, in college when you think you know everything, in early adulthood when you think you know nothing, and so on. Summertime is a film I know I could not have appreciated as fully when I was younger. As a formal achievement I’m sure I could have appreciated Hildyard’s cinematography, Lean’s direction, Lean’s and H.E. Bates’ adaptation of Arthur Laurens’ play, Hepburn’s acting, and the like. But there’s a level to art beyond critical assessment, and that’s where the film would have remained science to me and not touched my heart. I needed to grow to reach it, to have the sublime experience of watching it on a particular Sunday afternoon, and am glad that I did.
When I first became seriously interested in film, I was quite young, and my process upon first exploring the canon was the equivalent of shoveling food into my mouth without chewing, and was as gross and as much of a waste as that simile implies. As a result there are dozens, and maybe hundreds, of films I saw on terrible VHS or hacked up for TV and can only recall broad impressions, very few details. It was more important to me at that point to have seen something and say “I saw [title]” than to actually see it. The reason why is the endless, pointless dick-measuring with regard to canon, the perceived need to have seen such and such a classic film, otherwise you get thrown out of the cinephile club on your ear. (Like when Eddie Murphy “ruin[s] the buffet at the Harrow Club” in Beverly Hills Cop.)
There is no club. The only people who need to see this movie or that are professional film critics, who are the only people to whom canon is an everyday consideration, and only then because it can be a useful prism through which to study a particular film or career. For everyone else, canon should be a resource rather than a commandment, a list of suggestions that a lot of people think are good. (I’ve seen a good healthy chunk of the canon at this point, and can attest: it actually is good.) Not to universalize a personal experience, but we should all spend more Sunday afternoons watching Summertime because it’s right there on Hulu, and we’ve got a couple hours, and David Lean is one of the best to ever do the thing, and Katharine Hepburn rules. That’s one example, but seriously, y’all, Summertime is a really, really good movie.
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