By Ola Zaltin
Buongiorno! It’s a balmy Italian 26 degrees C outside on the patio, the sun is shining and here I sit locked away indoors writing about summer and film (something viewed in cooled and darkened rooms) - a paradox if there ever was one. But let’s get to it.
In screenwriting, there’s a myriad of devices to help the writer structure his story, and the audience to follow the resulting plot. (I’m mixing genres and styles below at whim, because what I’m after is the stone-cold narrative device that drives the story - what makes the engine tick, and us watching.)
A road movie is a great vehicle (punny me) to get characters together in a cramped space and see what happens. Either you know where you’re going (Little Miss Sunshine: a beauty pageant) or not (Thelma and Louise: anywhere but home) but either way the road movie is a wonderful motor (oh stop it!) to get the weird and the fantastic happen, while the scenery changes outside the car windows.
Another way to spice things up is to tell the story of one day (the most important day) in the life of a character. Training day is a great example, or Speed. Both these are action flicks of course, and it serves the format well: a tight and condensed time frame where all can, and will, happen.
That being said, romantic films - and comedies - can benefit from this concept as well. Well-known examples are Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (romantic stories that use an even shorter time-frame) and Groundhog Day (comedy: one day - over and over again).
Other ways to hook people into a story ranges from the main character being chased by unknowns wanting the ‘MacGuffin’ they mistakenly think you possess (North by Northwest) - to chasing the similarly totally meaningless MacGuffin (now called the “Rabbit’s Foot” - yes, really) in Mission Impossible III.
The plot engine might be a moral dilemma: will she keep the baby or not (Juno). Or a mystery opening, pulling the audience into the flashback explanation of why there’s a man lying face down, drowned in the pool he admittedly always wanted (Sunset Boulevard)
So you got an engine: a narrative piece of neatness that will keep us glued till the end of the story, hankering to know if the boy will get the girl, the girl will keep the baby or the super-agent will find the, ahem, Rabbit’s Foot.
You’ve decided on a main character, his backstory, where he lives and what kind of world he inhabits. But what’s the weather like?
What I will here call “seasonal films” isn’t a genre, or even a thematic device. A seasonal film is when the season itself plays an integral part in the telling of the story. Using a season in film can be incredibly powerful and instrumental tool for setting not only the heat or chill factor, but also the general ambience of a story.
Winter films come in two main varieties. One is the brutally ice-cold as a polar bear’s ass meter- deep-snow-dark-all-24-hours of howling blizzard film. This is where winter is death, a setting connoting frozen souls and metaphorical ice-box hearts. The characters inhabit a tough, rough world where only the fittest survive. Films in this category would include for example Runaway Train, The Grey, Enemy at the Gates and Let the right one in (Låt den rätte komma in).
The polar (I said stop it!) opposite, but just as snowy, are the holiday films. They are almost without exception American, and come in the flavours Thanksgiving and Christmas. Generally speaking, Thanksgiving movies for some reason have a more complicated, character-driven drama feel to them; exploring the complexities of family get-togethers, generational differences and sibling rivalry, to name a few friction-inducing dramatic elements. Typical Thanksgiving movies are for example The Ice Storm, Nobody’s Fool (a largely forgotten gem of a film and a personal favourite) and Pieces of April.
Christmas movies are often more mushy, lovey-dovey, peace on earth and to all. For some reason. Maybe something to do with Baby Jesus being born. Or all the eggnog drunk. As opposed to the drama winter movies, where the protagonists battle against the elements outdoors to survive, the indoor Christmas movies are about cuddling up and looking out at all that absolutely just perfect looking snow, darling. These films are about giving, understanding what life is all about and becoming a better human being. The ur-story is of course Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and all the films in this genre hark back to that initial tale. The most famous ones are It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street and need I say it: A Muppet Christmas Carol.
The comedies, both Thanksgiving and Christmas, are legion and you’ve probably seen them all.
In the end, both these holidays give plenty of material to both drama and comedy writers. We all come to these family events with certain apprehensions, fears and hopes and it’s rich material to use for the screenwriters. The films’ popularity derives from the fact that we have all (more or less - we Europeans don’t know Thanksgiving per se, but family gatherings painfully well enough...) experienced these events, and so recognize many of the beats in the stories, and laugh (or cringe) with recognition. The drunk aunt, the belligerent uncle, the embarrassing gift, the sibling you want to kill, the cousin you wish you were - we know it all, and all the holiday movies do is magnify our commonly experienced lives.
P.s. I forgot to mention Die Hard. Yes, it is: “I have a machine-gun. Ho ho ho.” (And then there’s Fargo, which comes into a category all its own.)
Spring and Autumn films are, in my humble opinion, not as many and as explicit about their seasons as winter and summer films. Sure, there’s a number of autumnal movies, often with Fall or Autumn plus something in the title. People being introspective walking through parks and kicking through heaps of leaves wondering why their girlfriend left, and so on. But the season itself often doesn’t stand out as a force in the story as in summer and winter films. Characters don’t generally grapple with the weather as much. Which brings us to...
...Summer films. Now. According to me, summer films come in two distinct flavours. Heat films and Nostalgic films. Let’s start with Heat. Films where high temperatures are prevalent make for stories of great tension and high stress levels. Can you imagine, for example, Dog Day Afternoon taking place on a chilly November day? No, I didn’t think so. Do the Right Thing wouldn’t even be possible in a December sub-zero NYC; the soaring temperatures is why the whole story gets started in the first place. The blazingly hot Brooklyn weather sets off the characters like live ammo thrown into a fireplace. Typical Heat films are Rear Window, Falling Down and Barton Fink. Although of different genres and different ages, these films all take place in a pressure cooker that make things go horribly awry in different ways. Incidentally, the film Heat has nothing to do with high temperatures as such, although I should go on to mention The Hot Spot, a much neglected but excellent southern noir directed by the late Dennis Hopper with a superb Don Johnson in the lead role.
The second category, Nostalgic summer films uses summer as a backdrop for fond reminiscing about summers past, often slightly photoshopped and ajaxed by way of memory’s amazing ability to toss out the shit and keep the shinola. Stand by Me is a classic example in the nostalgic variety of summer films. It’s told in flashback, with the grown up writer book-ending the film, telling the greatest adventure of his youth. Just as with the holiday films, we connect strongly to these kind of stories, as they again hook into our own lives. We’ve all gone on a hiking trip as adolescents (Moonrise Kingdom), had a first kiss (My Girl), been scared by the bogeyman (I know what you did last summer), and heard tall tales from eccentric grandpas (Secondhand Lions). And, yes, we’ve had shit summers with rainy days and quarrelling parents in too small summer houses with damp cots and outdoor loos - but that’s just why we love the funny sunny films of the slightly sanitized and spruced up variety.
American Graffiti doesn’t use flashback as a narrative tool, because the whole film is a flashback to a gentler, more naive era in America. It also uses the limited time period as a contrivance; in Sweden the film was aptly named “The last night with the gang” which while not overly poetic, describes the storyline pretty well. Though set in the present, On Golden Pond explores a long marriage, a wobbly father-daughter relationship and the budding friendship between an old man and an adolescent boy - among other things. Like many Holiday films, it sets a family in a place - a summerhouse - where memories are stored, and awakened. Sometimes with pain, sometimes with relish - often both in the same beat. The main motor at work here is our wish for mutual understanding, respect and ultimately reconciliation between the characters. Perhaps not always possible in life, but then where, if not in the movies?
Finally in this category of nostalgic and sweet summer films is one that is much harsher but all the more honest. Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället) Bergman’s summer road-movie is both an inner journey for the main character Dr. Borg, reminiscing about his family and life choices, as well as the actual journey south through Sweden in all its resplendent summer glory. Today not many have seen it, but let’s just say that The Remains of the Day owes a huge debt of gratitude to Bergman’s film.
So is the genre dead, has everything been done? Not by far. There’s always a new twist, a new take on the summer film (or, if you will, the seasonal film.) Two recent British films both use summer to great effect. In James Watkins’ Eden Lake a young couple trying to escape civilization for a weekend, experience horrors in the woods unspeakable, whilst Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers takes a pitch black (and incredibly funny and refreshing) comedic look at modern British camping. Again, they take experiences most of us know of or have lived through first hand, then twist these commonly shared moments into pitch black evil fun with aplomb.
But to be able to write about summer, you have to go out there and experience summer. Which is what I am about to do right now. Ciao!