Wednesday, June 8, 2011
June 8, 2011: Summer in the Cities
Extreme heat can amplify anything—the good things, like romantic connections or the simple joys of an iced beverage or ice cream; but also the bad, like anger or frustration or already existing divisions and hatreds. Since today was the hottest day of this nascent summer in Boston, and tomorrow supposed to be hotter still (and since I took the boys on an epic journey in that heat and so experienced summer in the city very fully), here are four AmericanStudies connections to that season:
1) Blue Summer: Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” (1958) seems pretty standard, another rock ‘n roll kiss-off to older generations who just don’t get my generation, against whom we gotta fight for our right to party, to whom we have to say that we’re not gonna take it, and so on. But look again at the date—1958, back when teenagers looked (in our popular consciousness, anyway) a lot more like Wally Cleaver than the kids at Woodstock a decade later. Yet as rockers like Cochran and Chuck Berry (as in 1957’s rebellious “School Days”) were making clear, underneath the suburban idylls of the late ‘50s was a counter-culture revolution on a increasingly rapid boil.
2) The Long Hot Summers: 1968 was a pivotal year for America in all kinds of ways, from domestic politics (the presidential election and Nixon’s victory) to international conflicts (the Tet Offensive and the real turn in Vietnam, and the corresponding protests and shifts on the home front), from national tragedies (the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy) to cultural divisions. And it was the last that produced the culmination of the so-called Long Hot Summer, the seemingly annual racially tinged urban riots that had blazed for each of the prior few years. It was King’s assassination that sparked this year’s first riots, but there were much deeper and more long-term issues behind all these summers of violence.
3) Summer Do: In the last few years, Spike Lee has perhaps become more famous for his own sake (as a Knicks fan, as a commentator on various issues) than as a filmmaker (although he did make, in the documentary When the Levees Broke ), one of the great American films of recent years). So it might be hard at times to recall just how impressive and powerful a filmmaker he can be—and never more so than in 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Against the backdrop of a sweltering New York summer, Lee brings together a number of unique and interesting Harlem residents (of all races and cultures), and raises many more hard questions about their identities and relationships than he answers. If that makes an audience sweat a bit, then he’s done his job.
4) Hot and Bothered: To be honest, I’ve never known exactly what to make of Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down (1993), set over one very long and hot Los Angeles day, and I think that’s at least in part because the film itself isn’t sure. Is Michael Douglas’s character (known only by his license plate, D-FENS) a hero, an everyman, a villain, or something else entirely? Does Robert Duvall’s unhappily retiring cop share more with Douglas than he is willing to admit, or are they fundamentally different? Should we cheer for Douglas’s scenes of anger and frustration (as in the link below), or find them troubling? The answer in each case seems to be all of the above, and while that is perhaps problematic in a film that grapples with so many controversial and divisive topics, it sure makes for a great conversation starter on a hot summer day.
PS. Five links to start with:
1) Cochran performing his song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeWC59FJqGc
2) Good overview of the long hot summers: http://www.ushistory.org/us/54g.asp
3) One of the most famous and complex sequences from Lee’s film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOxOR3x8FBQ
4) Great scene from Falling Down: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hM8qT9Xop5k
5) OPEN: Any summer connections you’d share?