Appalachian Taboo: Joseph L. Anderson’s “Spring Night, Summer Night”
The character of backwoods America seems only the province of amateurs, unknowns, and documentarians. There’s something lost in the thick forests and leave-strewn hills of nowhere whenever money comes to town riding a camera mounted on a crane. You can’t recreate it faithfully, you have to meet it on its own terms. Joseph L. Anderson did just that. He spent two years getting to know the godforsaken corner of Ohio where his story of poisonous family ties unfolds. He knew the people and taught at a university in Ohio. Spring Night, Summer Night (1967) was only his second time directing, and this was his first feature, but his disquieting mix of elegant filmmaking and honestly shabby but non-judgmental direction of his actors and location suggests a man who’d spent his whole life thinking about how to make this movie.
Jessica (Larue Hall) and Carl (Ted Heimerdinger) are the oldest of the half-dozen kids in their family. Their dad’s (John Crawford) an angry and uncharitable drunk and rumors constantly swirl around their mother’s (Marjorie Johnson) infidelities. Carl’s old enough to drive and he’s been itching to leave town for a while now. If he goes, he leaves Jessica to deal with their erratic elders. One night, they go out dancing and Carl loses his mind watching another local boy get handsy with Jessica, so he beats up the guy and carries Jessica out of the hall kicking and screaming. They fight the whole drive back, violently, and after Carl exhausts, frightens, and nearly assaults her, they wind up having sex on the hill overlooking their home in the darkness. Carl leaves the next day.
Five months later, Carl returns and finds Jessica pregnant with his kid. Her mother and father don’t know what to do about the baby, as Jessica won’t reveal the father’s identity. Her dad has taken to shaking down the local boys he thinks knocked Jessica up. When Carl sees Jessica and learns what he did to her all those months ago, he asks her to leave town with him, a suggestion at which she naturally balks. They could run, but the derangement of their lot would follow them. They start asking around to see if any of the rumors about their mother leaving their father are true. It’d certainly be easier to explain the kid if it turned out they weren’t related. The final scenes provide the faintest glimmer of hope from inside the fog of amorality and hopelessness that blankets their lives.
With its tangle of drunk shadows and damaged psyches peering out from rough-hewn blank faces, Spring Night, Summer Night is probably the closest we’ve come to an organic American Ingmar Bergman movie. Bergman returned to the incest narrative because it defiles modern moral identity but is at the root of the human story, especially if one looks to the Bible. Bergman’s conversations with an absent god found resonance in their barren, isolated locations. Anderson’s busy Appalachian burg is far away from civilization, but even there the crime that Carl and Jessica commit wouldn’t be tolerated. Anderson plays a tricky game setting up the pregnancy, documenting Carl and Jessica’s act as all but identical to rape. Later, Jessica will take some of the blame herself when Carl returns to town, which is realistic and deeply sad. “I coulda stopped you,” she meekly offers, as if that were her responsibility to know that her brother was capable of such a thing. The film ends in a place of exhaustion, both children having fought physically with their depressed drunk of a father, seeing that if they stay put they’ll put themselves in danger of reliving the nightmarish marriage from which their parents still can’t extricate themselves. It’s the normalcy, the thicket of unavoidable sin that comes with settling down in a small town, that comes closest to seeming as dangerous as Carl’s assault on Jessica.
Anderson’s woozy handheld camera movements and sleek dolly shots keep his grasp firm on the dusty, dying place and its sad, confused denizens. The way he captures Jessica’s younger siblings’ ant-like movements over each other when at play and the whirr of dancing bodies mix fluidly with the empty barrooms and the silence of the hills at night. The place seems beyond the control of any movie. That Anderson makes it feel like something only he and his patient cinematography could know so intimately is a stupefying feet of directorial intelligence and empathy. He knows these people well and loves them, sin and all, because he also knows that sometimes a thing that seems horrible in daylight is second nature in the dark. If the film was destined to never become a classic, it’s because most people couldn’t possibly handle Anderson’s refusal to condemn any of his characters. They’re innocents and monsters, they do and don’t know what’s wrong. They’re us, and some people could never understand that without going mad.
A restored version of Joseph L. Anderson’s Spring Night, Summer Night played at the 56th New York Film Festival on October 2.