Getting Reel
What is a Summer Movie?
By Russell Brown
Jul 16, 2007

A few nights ago I went to see Transformers. As to be expected, it was fun and silly and entertaining; it was big and loud and eye-popping. The term “summer movie” has come to have this specific meaning: Big dollars, big stars and big effects. And people line up in droves to buy tickets to these extravaganzas that trade mostly on style with little substance. This movie has a particularly fetishistic relationship with technology -- both because the heroes are sexy, masculine robots and because the filmmaking is so brazen in its zest for effects and craft. It doesn’t concern itself with human emotions, but plays solely on the senses. For sure, there’s not an ounce of romance or wonder in it. But it does deliver on exactly what it's supposed to be: fun froth aimed mainly teenage male demographic.

And yet, as I strolled to my car after seeing the film, it suddenly seemed to me that, despite what the nomenclature has come to mean, there was nothing “summer”-ish about Transformers. In fact, it is the antithesis of what I find so beguiling about this time of year. This is not to say that Transformers is a bad movie, but it’s not really “in sync” with anything greater than itself. And so, while the pleasure was momentary, there was nothing to grab onto, no connection. And with all the joys of these few fleeting months, all I really want is connection -- to nature, to the moment, to the person sitting next to me.

One of my favorite annual rituals -- The Sound of Music Sing-a-Long at the Hollywood Bowl -- perfectly captures what I’m talking about. For the uninitiated, it’s not simply sitting outside watching a movie, but more an entire experience, a la Rocky Horror, with audience members showing up dressed as Mother Abbess or “the hills” or “a needle pulling thread”. As the movie plays, you are encouraged to hiss at the baroness as she tries to manipulate “that girl who will never be a nun” out of the picture, or shine a flashlight as the Nazis storm the Abbey, or pop a firecracker when the Captain and Maria first kiss. Moments in the film take on a life of their own, and being there with the audience and sharing the communal inside jokes is one of my favorite moviegoing pleasures.

One of the most moving scenes in the film is when the Captain stands at the Salzburg music festival and sings “Edelweiss” to his countrymen, all the while knowing that he is about to flee the country, and may never see his homeland again. At this particular moment, every year at the Bowl, thousands of cell phones appear and people sway back-and-forth with them, filling the night with what might otherwise appear to be thousands of fireflies. The concert is always sold out, so you have to imagine 17,000 different colored lights all glowing in the dark. It’s pretty magical. This year, there was a full moon and it was a particularly warm night, and I remember thinking to myself: “Does it get any better than this?”

I have lots of these summery, watching-a-movie-outside memories. Take, for instance, a screening of Night of the Hunter two years ago. Before it became the weekly meeting place of hipsters, the Hollywood cemetery was one of the best ways to enjoy a Saturday night from June to August. As the movie began, it seemed like it was always meant to be seen in this type of venue: The creepy, eerie horror of the film seemed to mesh perfectly with the surroundings. And as Lillian Gish worked her magic and protected the children against the evil Robert Mitchum, the warm night air enveloped the audience, bonding us all together in this fable of good versus evil. The setting complimented both moods at the same time.

Most movie fans are always talking about how the real experience of filmgoing can only be truly enjoyed in a theater. But to me, it’s often a personality-free, empty box where air is circulated and the guy behind you is talking and there’s something sticky on the floor. Sure, the movie theater is where people come together and that energy of watching a good story, and reacting emotionally together, can’t be beat. But, in my book, the greatest way to see a film is outside, under the stars, on the ground and on a blanket. It’s like a good dessert -- luxurious and elemental at the same time. It connects you to other things -- the movie is just a conduit for enjoying the best things the season has to offer.

And so, it seems to me, that loving seeing films outside is also a way of loving summer, and of loving life. Summer is about handmade things: ice cream churned, pies baked, barbecues carefully tended.  Fruit is at its best with bursting berries and perfect peaches. We prepare our picnics and head to the beach or the mountains -- anywhere to be outside and enjoy the bounty. Summer is also about playing music, singing with friends, and enjoying the long days. It’s about being together and being grateful for these few months where everything is designed for our pleasure. I realize this all borders on being pollyannaish, but isn’t it the time for such optimism? Like 17,000 cell phone fireflies swaying in unison? No matter how big they get, the summer blockbusters of today will probably not last the test of time -- they are summer movies for one year only. But films that capture the essence of summer -- the buoyancy and adventure, the youthfulness and vigor, heat and vitality, community and joy -- will be the ones that we remember as fall rolls around.

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