During this past sunny RVA summer, I concocted a list of films that played in the snow: films that used the cold and snow as essential elements to their storytelling. So as the metro RVA area sits in the cold, rearranging its schedule to deal with school closings, I decided to provide a companion piece, films that utilized the sun, summer, or sweltering heat to further their stories and themes. I had considered opening this list's limitations to include films that utilized sunshine in their cinematography, but I soon realized that the Terrence Malick films would comprise the preponderance of films in my list. While Malick can shoot a gorgeous sun-filled scene (think of Martin Sheen surrendering to the authorities in Badlands), the sun and heat don't really further the storytelling. So I hope that this list of hot, sun-drenched films can bring some warmth as winter drags on. Presented in chronological order:
"12 Angry Men" (1957) - Directed by Sidney Lumet
Not until the final brief scenes does any of the action move outside of the courthouse and jury deliberation room, but the intense summer heat infiltrates that tiny space and begins to work on the nerves of the twelve jurors. The heat allows for diversionary conversation as the men crack windows, remove their suit coats, wipe their brows, and attempt to start a faulty electrical fan. This miserable, urban heat, with stifling humidity resembles the case in front of them. They want it to go away, be done with it and go somewhere more pleasant. But they have to wrestle with the decision just as endure the heat.
"Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) - Directed by David Lean
What an amazingly gorgeous film. This easily rivals Malick's films for sun-soaked beauty. And while I won't waste space writing about the film's brilliance (which has been done many times and in better verse than I can compose), I will simply use Peter O'Toole's performance here to remind everyone what a sham the Oscars are. O'Toole never won an Oscar, yet his legacy is not diminished. Just think of how many Oscar performances will age far less well than this one by O'Toole. I have a theory that Oscars should not be awarded until about forty years after a film is released. This year's show would have been immensely more enjoyable had it honored the films of 1974. And if some of last year's films were deserving of recognition, they would earn it in 2054.
"Jaws" (1975) - Directed by Steven Spielberg
Maybe the perfect summer movie. It ushered in the era of the summer Hollywood blockbuster as a device to encourage people to escape the summer heat within nice air-conditioned theatres. Jaws, more than other summer blockbusters, actively encouraged people to flee the sunny beaches for the safety of the film house. In Jaws, the delicious, but fleeting, New England summer season acts as the economic motive to first risk beach-goers lives and then hunt down the famous great white. The shark imperils the summer tourist season, and this film shifted the economy of summertime film viewing.
"Do the Right Thing" (1989) - Directed by Spike Lee
The record setting heat and humidity in Spike Lee's brilliant film act in much the same way that they do in 12 Angry Men. The summer heat makes blood boil and temperatures rise. While obviously not the cause of either the racial tension or the ensuing violence, the heat serves as a way for the film to better communicate such themes. The tension, frustration, anger, and inequality cannot be escaped, just as one cannot escape the heat. In 12 Angry Men, the heat is both literally and figuratively turned down. To its everlasting credit, Do the Right Thing, shows what happens when the boiling point is reached such heat cannot be mitigated. (Finally, if more evidence of the uselessness of the Oscars is needed, look up the films that were nominated, and the film that won, the year that Do the Right Thing was eligible.)
"Little Children" (2006) - Directed by Todd Field
I actually see this film as a sort of companion to Jaws. Both are set in New England, and both ironically rely on a warmly inviting New England summer. In Jaws the sun invites us to the beach only to be shocked by lurking monster. In Little Children, summer invites us to the chlorinated public swimming pools and grassy rest areas only to be frightened by the presence of a sex offender. Jackie Earle Haley's scene at the swimming pool, in which everyone vacates, afraid of this "monster," seems like a direct response to Jaws. Yet Haley's presence is not the only threat, or event the biggest one. Rather the larger danger in this seemingly sunny suburban utopia is the dysfunction of marriage and relationships. The swimming pool acts as the site where the infidelity of Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson can fester. (Indeed, many things that are unpleasant can fester in a public swimming pool.) Todd Field does a wonderful job of rendering all the scenes visually pleasing. The interior scenes are as lush and well lit as the exterior scenes. Yet all the while, this sunny appearance hides darker secrets.