By Tony Williams.
I can’t help but reflect that noir and neorealism, contemporary film movements, may exactly be opposite sides of the same coin. (Isn’t Open City a noir, and The Sound of Fury an alternate version of The Bicycle Thief?) The key traits that they have in common are `postwar’ and `originating in Europe,’ but the key difference that should be acknowledged at the outset is that `noir’ in this country wasn’t perceived as such when the films that we now identify as `noir’ in this country first appeared…So it’s a way of reinventing and reinterpreting the past, whereas Italian neorealism was perceived as such from the go-go. It also was fundamentally humanist whereas noir was closer to nihilism and cynicism, and its tendency towards political defeatism obviously has a lot to do with its contemporary appeal – absolving us of any responsibility for the messes we live in.” (1)
In a previous review, I hailed the significant status of Flicker Alley as providing its own version of an archaeology of cinema with frequent reissues of forgotten films and past technologies that presented new insights and avenues for further debates. Along with other companies, such as Kino-Lorber, Olive, and Eureka, it has become especially innovative.
Flicker Alley’s recent release of a forgotten American independent rural film shot in Ohio on a low budget with then Ohio State film professor Joseph Anderson and a group of students and unknown actors (though having theater experience, very much like those chosen by George A. Romero in his earlier films) again reveals their commitment to releasing innovative work. This 82-minute production, also co-produced by Anderson and his then graduate student Franklin Miller, presents a fascinating glimpse into one of the potential channels of rural independent films that offered a unique view either ignored by contemporary Hollywood or denigrated into stereotypical representation. However, following its rediscovery and availability, it also suggests one example of a possible merger between two competing films styles: film noir and neo-realism that Jonathan Rosenbaum has insightfully compared to being “two sides of the same coin.” His perspective is not unique since World Socialist Web Site critic David Walsh often prefers the term “American social realism” when discussing films usually assigned to the category of film noir. (2) Both critics see the relevance of these styles to the critical depiction of everyday life but they are also conscious of the manner in which they have both been either misrepresented or regarded as redundant. In citing several films that easily belong to the category of noir, Walsh has a particular emphasis in mind: “The realistic view of life and relations is quite intense and intriguing.”
These factors also characterize Spring Night Summer Night. Its publicity describes the film as “Italian neorealism meets the coal-mining country of southeast Ohio” or one having tragic rural Appalachian Shakespearean associations referred to by one commentator on the DVD extra features. However, I would best describe the film as a neo-realistic, independent reworking of the opening act of Wagner’s Die Walkure (1876) with its American hero and heroine, victims of a dysfunctional family situation that may or may not destroy them at the end. In contrast to many, I find the Ring Cycle less heroic but rather a chronicle of psychologically disturbed immortals and mortals who screw up everything in their lives. They anticipate most characters in classical film noir. My perspective thus differs radically from those of its original creators influenced by European New Wave films, such as Ermanno Olmi’s The Fiancés (1963) and low-budget American independent productions like The Little Fugitive (1953) and One, Potato, Two Potato (1964). Spring Night‘s director described the production as a “student film from its very execution” though the surviving production members at a panel during the 2016 Cleveland Cinematheque Panel disagreed. I also see it as much more.
Bumped from its scheduled New York Film Festival slot by John Cassavetes’s Faces (1967), the film went into limbo after its purchase and re-editing by a grindhouse producer before its fortunate rediscovery and restoration a few years ago. The story is simple: a love relationship between brother and sister within a dysfunctional family two decades or so after World War Two changes the lives of an older generation who returned to see industrial and rural decay affect their lives. The film is an American parallel to the title of Mike Leigh’s aptly titled Bleak Moments (1971) as well as The Bill Douglas Trilogy – My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home (1978). All of these feature characters living in emotional and material poverty. Spring Night’s characters are losers in the American dream but their plight is treated objectively (and in many ways, sympathetically) from most Hollywood types of representations.
Several of the scenes evoke low-budget techniques especially the stylistic noir night-for-night sequences in the middle and penultimate scenes of the film. Real-life locations and extras evoke standard techniques of Italian neo-realism. However, what stands out most in the film is the emotional devastation affecting all characters from the loss of the American Dream and the aftermath of World war Two. Father Virgil (John Crawford) never “had it so good” as when he was in the army as an affluent tomcat purchasing the services of grateful liberated and willing females in occupied zones. His monologue at the bar when he remembers the good old days is one of the films highlights. By contrast, his second wife, perfunctorily performing domestic duties at the farms, yearns for her version of her “good old days” while she worked in wartime Los Angeles. Others in the community remember erstwhile days when money once flowed, even in rural Ohio, as they now exist in an environment already subject to economic decline. They do not even have the closing night of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971).
The filmmakers discovered these historical associations by accident when they investigated the location but add a deeper resonance to the film that has associations with the post-war malaise of noir. A similar condition also affected the promise of Italian neo-realism that earlier attempted an elevation of the human condition but more than often could not overcome the dominant mood of post-war despair that overwhelmed audiences and drove them towards the narcotic pleasures of Hollywood entertainment. No cinema appears in the local community: only the bar and local blue grass music.
Opening on a dark spring night, the audiences views the bleak lives of an unhappy family at supper. Tensions occur between brother and sister leading to the former impregnating the latter. When he returns five months later after attempting to live in Columbus Ohio, he discovers her condition and struggles between abandoning her or taking her away. Since she refuses to name the father, he believes that if Virgil’s second wife conceived her by another man then they could be psychologically as well as physically free. This is never resolved and the enigmatic, open-ended closing of the film actually fulfils that lost avenue of noir, as Rosenbaum notes in the cited interview, as opposed to the escapist grim determinism of The Godfather trilogy:
I don’t find noir more realistic than 30s leftism. Au contraire, I find its defeatism and expressionism far more comforting. Closure, no matter how grim or grimy, is always more comforting than ellipsis and suspension –trajectories into possible futures.”
Hero and heroine move towards an unknown future in which anything is possible – whether freedom or guilt stemming from their “unholy union.” Anything is possible. When on location, the filmmakers were careful to conceal the incest theme in case it offended the local community. When one script became missing and was obviously read and disseminated before its return, the finder relieved the company by stating that the issue was no big deal because it happened there all the time. Truth is often stranger than standard fictional representation.
Nevertheless, the future remains unresolved in the film. The couple’s position on the bus in the final scene parallels an earlier cut scene (described on the disc’s extras) when the hero decides to return home. He sits next to an unknown female who looks skeptically at him, silently. Though this foreshadowing scene did not remain in the final cut, it stunningly anticipates the many questions that will be on the heroine’s mind immediately prior to the delivery and afterwards. The darkness of the final scene may echo the grim deterministic strand of film noir. However, the fact that the hero has returned, showed commitment to his lover, and decides to leave with her towards an unresolved future reveals a form of personal responsibility and commitment that may overcome a bleak future, though we have no guarantee that this will happen. Such is life. However, the conclusion does suggest a positive merging of opposites in so far as the hero does take responsibility for the mess he has created – to paraphrase Rosenbaum here.
This dual Blu-ray/DVD has a wealth of bonus material. Anderson and Miller’s 1961-63 short Bluegrass Trilogy contains now gimmicky elements such as speed motion photography for two items. Undeniable feminist implications appear in How Swived (1962) that opens in standard motion when a housewife bids husband farewell as he goes to work, then moves into rapid motion as she performs daily housework, returning to standard motion when the husband returns home. The second extra charts the course of the film from independent to re-edited grindhouse exploitation, where it was retitled Miss Jessica is Pregnant, and back to its original version. “I’m Going to Straitsville” depicts the return to the original locations while an audio-commentary accompanies 16mm Behind the Scenes Footage revealing many interesting scenes of how the production occurred. Interviews with surviving cast and crewmembers follow with a 47-minute Cleveland Cinemateque Presentation with those in the previous extra some 49 years after making the film. Accompanied by a very informative booklet containing several essays, the restoration and extras are remarkable achievements for which Flicker Alley deserves well-deserved thanks.
1 “The Chiseler Interviews Jonathan Rosenbuam.” The Chiseler. May 20, 2020. https://chisler.org/post/618397107948257280/
2 “A Conversation with Film Historian Max Alvarez” How the # Me Too Campaign Echoes the McCarthyite Witch Hunt of the 1940s and 1950s”. World Socialist Web Site. 8 February 2018. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/02/08/echo-f08.html
Tony Williams is an independent critic and Contributing Editor to Film International.