May 8, 2013

Best Shot: Summertime

When I watched David Lean’s Summertime for the first time last night to prepare for this post, I had a feeling it was the worst film Nathaniel had picked for this series over the years. To be fair, the standard of films we've watched so far is so high that “worst” doesn't necessarily entail a bad film, per se, but Summertime was just not my cup of tea. So I started writing my article about the film and its best shot, which opened with the following paragraph:
Maybe I’m jealous of Katherine Hepburn for spending her summer in Venice when I have to be in Toronto. Maybe I’m not the target demographic of this film. Maybe I’m not in the mood for summer yet even though it’s sunny and bright and beautiful outside. Maybe it’s because it’s sunny and bright and beautiful that I don’t like to be sitting inside watching a tepid romantic drama with little substance beneath a splendid façade. Or, most likely, I had sky-high expectations of a David Lean film because of the man’s otherwise stellar filmography.
You can see where I was going with that. Now, that’s not to say the film is entirely without its pleasures. For one thing, its absolutely picturesque photography makes it a perfect candidate for a series like this. The entire film reminded me of the opening scene of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, where postcard-perfect pictures of Paris are shown back to back. Substitute Paris with Venice and extend the sequence to a feature-length film and you have the cinematography of Summertime. There are moments of great chemistry between Katherine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi that play beautifully into the film as well. But overall, this film can’t touch the best work of either Hepburn or Lean’s career with a ten foot pole.

So I woke up in the morning, went to work and came back home to edit my post and lo and behold, I felt like discarding the whole thing. Having slept on the film and spent some time with it in the back of my head – because let’s be honest, we all think about films even when we're at work – I like it a lot more than I did this time last night. Not that I think its skin-deep treatment of middle-aged romance is any more substantial than it was last night or that its depiction of Venice as the backdrop for this story amounts to anything more than an excuse for culturally stereotyping, Euro-themed banter and a sightseeing tour. (For a much superior example of both middle-aged romance and geography as thematic centerpiece, refer to Abbas Kiarostami’s Italy-set Certified Copy.) I still maintain that the film suffers deeply from those issues but, in retrospect, I enjoyed it quite a bit too. Maybe it’s a film I’ll remember more fondly than I thought I would as I was watching it. Maybe under different conditions, I’ll give it another try and examine it in more detail.

Anyway, my about face on the film didn't affect my choice for its best shot, which comes really early in the film and has very little significance in the narrative. But, as some of the older readers may remember, I’m an architecture enthusiast and if the film is so intent on showing off Venice’s unique, exemplary architectural sphere, the only logical choice for me is to take advantage of that.

When Katherine Hepburn’s Jane Hudson arrives in Venice, having notified us earlier that the city is completely unfamiliar turf to her, she seems overwhelmed by the city, its inhabitants and its structural pizzazz. Once she gets off her “bus” and finds a guide to the hotel, we see her walk into a seemingly narrow alley following her guide. She looks upward with a look of bewildered admiration in her eyes while her helper remains nonchalantly unmoved. It’s a moment that completely captures my own sensations of every instance where I encountered new architectural types on trips, and the reaction of blasé locals to my excitement is always identical to the Italian man in this scene.

After we see shadows overtaking Hepburn's figure completely, the scene cuts to her perspective and we see for the first time what she’s looking at: an incredibly long strip of buildings on either side of this narrow walkway that seem to be closing in on her, and us. The shot lasts 13 seconds as the camera moves forward and the alley only seems to get narrower and narrower between these intricately designed buildings and their delicate decorations. The reverse shot then shows Hepburn again, this time her wonderment justified for the audience. Needless to say, the guide remains unenthusiastic. Whereas the rest of Summertime highlights Venice’s architecture with grandiose palettes, beautiful long shots and open spaces, the underplayed beauty of this sequence captures a more grounded element of Venetian architecture but an integral one. It's a rich thematic introduction to Hepburn's ensuing loneliness in the city as well. She's intimated and overtaken, as if she would remain in captivity if she doesn't find what she's really there to find.


  1. And this is why I don't think people should review movies the second they walk out of the theaters. And why test screenings are not always good for films. Instant reactions are different than next day reactions. Or at least they are with 50% of movies or if you're a thoughtful person.

    I considered this shot as well but it didn't have any personal pull to me -- not an architecture person -- though it did for a split second remind me of how vertical everything felt in NYC when I first arrived.

  2. Normally I'd say "SEE IT AGAIN AMIR" but certainly "Summertime" is unlike the archetype of Lean films. But I'm surprised you find the film guilty of cultural stereotyping, I felt that one of its (for me, many) pluses was how it managed to justify Jane's childish infatuation of the city without fetishising it.

    I love your shot, though, because like almost every shot of her in the film it show's this almost divergent pull. Katharine Hepburn we know as strong and powerful, but then Jane from every physical movement is so hesitant and nervous. The way she looks up in wonder is such a key entrance into understanding this woman.

  3. I love this shot, too. Reminds me of all the tourists standing around in Grand Central at rush hour taking pictures of the ceiling and how I just want to yell at them to GET OUT OF MY WAY so I can catch my train home - but then I remember the first time I stepped off the train into Grand Central and stared at that ceiling, and I realize I can't be too mad, and get a little angry with myself for letting such beauty pass me by on a daily basis.

  4. Andrew- It didn't fetishize her infatuation, but it did make countless jokes about how the French are awful and how Americans are always clueless in Italy and Italians are loud and animated and...

    Daniel: I plead guilty to being one of those tourists!

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