Realism Is No Humanism: Joseph L. Anderson's "Spring Night, Summer Night"

How can a filmmaker apply not just the style but the philosophy of Italian Neo-Realism to other countries and other peoples?
Patrick Holzapfel

Joseph L. Anderson's Spring Night, Summer Night (1967) is showing September 1 – October 1, 2018 on MUBI as part of the series byNWR.

Treated like a lost link in American Cinema and being placed by scholars somewhere between John Cassavetes and the L.A. Rebellion movement, Joseph L. Anderson’s Spring Night, Summer Night is foremost a problematic approach to a rural community. The film is set in south-eastern Ohio and follows the story of a young conflicted love. The cast in large parts consists of locals and amateurs. Carl, son of a local farmer, in a sudden outburst of emotion impregnates Jessica, a passive woman who wants to keep the child. What is more, they could be brother and sister. Anderson, who collaborated with Donald Richie on The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, spent about two years researching the coal-mining area in Ohio to prepare his first feature film in what he called “New Appalachian Cinema.” The partly ironic term the director employed to describe his cinema is already an indicator of an approach that is more concerned with its own originality than with the people portrayed.

The film is fascinating and beautifully shot, no question about that. Anderson makes use of fast cuts and camera movements that give the impression of direct cinema. The rough black and white adds to the feeling of unadorned truth. One can almost smell the newly mown grass and alcoholic breath. There is roughness and tenderness. Especially during a scene in a pub the rapid montage of local faces finds the perfect balance between a kind of ethnographic interest and a subjective narrative. Yet, while watching the film I never quite got rid of the impression that somebody looks down on these characters. First, I think, this has to do with the film’s relation to neo-realism. Using the term neo-realism is a rather delicate but a conscious decision here since it is maybe a bit troubling how the term is used nowadays. It seems to pop up everywhere as soon as non-professional actors are used. Historically, it is related to a very specific cinema in Italy after World War II. Filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica, Giuseppe De Santis and Roberto Rossellini as well as writers like Cesare Zavattini not only used non-professional actors and shot with longer takes on real locations. They also tried to convey deeply humanistic sensibilities towards their characters. The humanism of neo-realism was, of course, a direct answer to the preceding years of fascism. In my opinion, to compare a film to Italian Neo-Realism, be it American neo-realism or any other related genre, also has to examine how people are looked at by the camera. In the case of Anderson, realism seems indeed to be a genre, not an exigent way of making a film. It almost can be compared to the way Jordan Vogt-Roberts in his reboot of the King Kong franchise in a highly problematic manner declared the Vietnam War a genre.  

Though it is of interest and merit to focus on the rural communities of Ohio, the question must be asked as to whether the film is really interested in the life of the people or if it just uses the place as a setting for a gnarly story about incest. Compared to some European films that are also not neo-realist but employ certain stylistic elements of the Italian cinema of the 1940s, such as Farrebique by Georges Rouquier, Mudar de Vida by Paulo Rocha or Déjà s'envole la fleur maigre by Paul Meyer, Spring Night, Summer Night does not really show the places the action takes place. It is not interested in the work of those people or how they relate to nature. For example, the house of the farmer is merely used as a setting for the drama. There is an establishing shot and in all the other shots people interact within the place. They are neither motivated by their work nor by the weather or daily life. There are only very few scenes that show people who are not important for the plot. As soon as we get a glimpse of a place a character walks through the door and pushes the story forward. The film not only tells a big Greek drama of incest, it also does it in a way that is reminiscent of Hollywood cinema. There is a functionality to all that is shown. Of course, the places such as the farmer’s house or the pub tell something about the people. Still, in the film everything exists only in relation to the story. Compared to other films being labeled as neo-realist the film does not give any sense of time passing. There are no images showing dead time. There is mainly action and plot. 

The images of the father walking through the village to find his daughter’s lover made me think about Gary Cooper’s search for help in High Noon. High Noon is a great film but it does not love the people it shows. Now, is it important to love characters? In my opinion, not necessarily; but when filming people that live a very different life and derive from a different class, it might be important to listen to them instead of imposing a story on their lives. It is not enough to pick up dialects and use them in a script. One never has the feeling that the characters in the film play themselves. Instead they play a character invented by the director based on his observation and narrative.    

The stylistic emphasis on chaos and the feeling that everybody is drunk and violent most of the time manipulates the way we perceive those people. There is no chance to keep a distance, no offer to really look at them. A good example for this is a hysterical scene in which a rooster runs loose around the house. The father announces that the rooster will win him some money. The mother objects him. Then the father throws the rooster into the room. Everybody comes trying to catch it, the mother screams, Anderson cuts very fast and the camera pans nonstop. We cannot see anything, we are just thrown right into it. Toward the end of the sequence the grandmother appears and asks who is going to take her to her meeting. It is a humorous moment that works very well and admittedly also finds some empathy for the people. Nevertheless, the people are portrayed as wild and unpredictable. These character traits serve the story, yet the film by using real settings and people, claims to be a portrait of those people.

Thinking about a film like Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945), which is mainly set on a cotton farm in Texas, one can easily find some parallels but also huge differences. Both films have a rather long scene in which heavy drinking takes place. In the case of Renoir, it is looked at with humor, a tenderness showing human weaknesses and understanding alike. Anderson’s take on it is much rougher, there is bestiality and uncontrolled melancholy to it. I think both ways of drinking and looking at it exist. It is not about lie and truth, but it is about trying to understand human beings or just feasting on their otherness. Incest, alcohol and frustrated lives is what we get to see in Spring Night, Summer Night. It is reactionary and could have been shot anywhere.Obviously, a rather big question lingers between those thoughts. It is connected to the motivation for making a film. Of course, there are many different reasons for making a film, it is just that I can’t see any of them in the case of Spring Night, Summer Night. Maybe it is because I am naive and don’t want to really look at reality. Or I just oversee the more tender moments between sister and brother. But then I think one can always look a bit longer, care a bit more and try to bridge gaps when making a film instead of presenting people as if going to the zoo. 

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