Combustible Celluloid
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With: Larue Hall, Ted Heimerdinger, Marjorie Johnson, John Crawford
Written by: J.L. Anderson, Franklin Miller, Doug Rapp
Directed by: J.L. Anderson
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 82
Date: 06/02/2020

Spring Night, Summer Night (1967)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sis and Tell

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This one-of-a-kind piece of Americana, considered by many to be an American slice of Italian Neorealism, has finally been rescued from its long period of obscurity. A professor of film at the University of Ohio, Joseph L. Anderson (credited as "J.L." and no relation to me) directed this one and only feature film, with help from his former student Franklin Miller, who shared writing, producing, and editing credits. Made for something like $29,000 and with non-professional actors, the movie feels low-budget — the sound is sometimes not quite synced — and it reminded me of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Kent MacKenzie's The Exiles (1961). But at the same time, it artfully captures a sense of place and a simmering sensation of stagnation, life as a dead end.

Spring Night, Summer Night tells the story of Carl (Ted Heimerdinger, credited as "Ted Heim") and Jess (Larue Hall), half-siblings in a house full of kids, a surly father (John Crawford) and his second wife (Marjorie Johnson, credited as "Marj"). A family dinner is angrily chaotic, as various family members criticize the cooking (asking for salt), chastise one another for swearing, and storming away from the table. The mother wants to go out dancing ("it's Saturday night!") but the father announces he's going to take the rooster to win some money. Meanwhile Carl spies Jess in the bathtub, and after an altercation at the bar (is Carl jealous?), they spend an ambiguous time together.

Months later, Jess is pregnant, and Carl has disappeared, gone to Columbus to try to find work. He returns, defeated, to find that his dad is angrily demanding each and every day that Jess reveal the identity of the child's father. She refuses, intending to raise it and continue her life of numbing chores. But Carl wants to get married, and that depends on just how related they actually are.

With starkly-lit black-and-white cinematography, Anderson poetically suggests the feeling of broken dreams only in the edges of the movie, and in its asides. Before establishing the characters interacting in the local bar, he spends a few moments observing the others there, taking solace in their beer, or in dancing to the bluegrass music, trying to forget that these are the only moments they have that come even close to joy. Not even the promise of a baby offers a happy ending. The final shot, foreshadowing The Graduate (1967), is uncertain. Spring Night, Summer Night is, unlike most ordinary movies, a snapshot of what the American Dream really looks like.

Flicker Alley released the film on a two-disc DVD and Blu-ray set, with a gorgeous new transfer, and optional subtitles. Bonus features include "The Bluegrass Trilogy," three early short films from Anderson and Miller: Football As It Is Played Today (1961), How Swived (1962), and Cheers (1963); over an hour of behind-the-scenes 16mm footage, with optional commentary; "In the Middle of the Nights: From Arthouse to Grindhouse and Back Again," an interesting featurette about the movie's transformation into a recut exploitation film called Miss Jessica Is Pregnant; a visit to the film's locations fifty years later; and an overall look at the film and its legacy fifty years later, plus a photo gallery. The liner notes booklet contains several essays.

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