A Wet, Hot, Dry, Cool, American and French Summer Movie Assortment
Summer is really more of an idea than a reality. Most of us have never quite gotten over what it felt like to hear the bell ring for the last time, on the last day of school. We’re carrying in our bones memories of afternoons at the municipal pool, of bike tires popping bubbles of hot tar, of catching fireflies at dusk. We don’t cling as tightly to memories of sweating on a commute with a broken AC or of vacations when rain meant too many hours in a hotel room rather than at the beach.
No, most of us have an unreasonable, nostalgic love for the summer that might have been, when we were young – or of the summer that may be, still – this year! And nothing taps into that pining, romantic view of summer better than do summer themed movies. I don’t mean “summer movies”, mind you: the blockbusters and tent poles we’ve come to expect as the weather gets warm. I’m talking about the movies that are love poems to summer camps and summer vacations, to long lazy days out of school and fleeting oceanside romance. These are movies that make us believe that anything is possible, any dream might come true before that first bell of the first day of the school year rings and calls us out of our summer movie reveries.
Of course, it’s not all fun and games in summery cinema. Not every vacation ends well (Jaws, anyone? Deliverance?), and while Camp North Star sounds like fun, you probably want to skip Camp Arawak and Camp Crystal Lake. Sometimes, it’s just too darn hot and you wind up with Falling Down or Do the Right Thing. But for every grim Dog Day Afternoon you can find another movie with a band of boys coming of age in summer’s unsupervised glory (The Sandlot, Stand By Me, Kings of Summer); another group of teens are saying goodbye to high school (Dazed and Confused, Say Anything); the beaches and amusement parks coming to life again (Adventureland, The Way, Way Back, any movie featuring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello). Sometimes the summer magic even spreads to the grown ups, like a middle aged teacher finding love on her Venetian dream vacation in Summertime, or William Holden bringing the heat to a small town’s Labor Day Picnic. It’s a good season, summer – better sometimes in our memories than in our present realities. But it’s okay to escape into the elixer of nostalgia once in a while, as sweet as the Bomb Pops we used to buy off the ice cream truck, on those long summer afternoons.
– Sharon Autenrieth
Stay with us as we travel onward to cinematic destinations far away and closer to home. Some of what follows are established modern comedy classics, and then there’s a pair lesser known yet very worthwhile entries, hailing from France. It’s summer all over the world, and ZekeFilm is ready to hit the road and take in these sights, all new to the site contributors who are only now seeing them for the very first time!
National Lampoon’s Vacation
I was seven when National Lampoon’s Vacation hit theaters and with it’s rough language, nudity and innuendos it became a movie that was watched after we kids went to bed. There are a ton of movies that I missed in the 80’s because of an R rating, like Planes, Trains And Automobiles, Fast Times At Ridgemont High and The Terminator. But for some reason we could watch Octopussy?! Anywho… I’m surprised it took me this long to watch this classic comedic satire featuring some of my favorite funny people. Chevy Chase has always been a favorite and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a tradition in our home during the holidays. But you also have cameos from John Candy, a crazy young Eugene Levy and the big screen debut for Jane Krakowski. So with summer officially here I thought it would be great fun to watch an iconic 80’s comedy about a family’s dream vacation falling apart with every state line they cross.
This is such a relatable story and it’s no surprise that John Hughes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club, is the writer of N.L. Vacation. Everyone feels the optimism at the beginning of a big trip. All the planning and saving up and time off is going to lead to memories and a renewed bond with family and the Griswolds are no different. Clark Griswold (Chase) longs for a big road trip across America, eating at greasy spoons and stopping to see the world’s largest ball of twine. But a big trip like that, heck any trip with kids, is unpredictable and it’s not easy. And that’s where the comedy comes in. Falling asleep at the wheel, losing your credit cards, taking the wrong exit and ending up in a rough part of town, and uncomfortable situations with extended family are just a few of the Griswold’s woes. Director Harold Ramis, Caddyshack, Groundhog Day and beloved actor in Ghostbusters, weaves the comedy in with the tragedy with amped up performances from Chase, Beverly D’Angelo (Ellen Griswold) and the amazing Imogene Coca as the irritating Aunt Edna. In the end nothing goes as planned, someone dies and Wally World is closed. Sounds like a tragedy, right?
What do you remember about your family vacations? Think about the ones where you tried something different and everything seemed to fall apart. How do you talk about it with your family and friends now? The trips that seemed like a bust are the ones we remember and laugh about later. At the end of Vacation they show snapshots from the trip as the credits roll. These pictures show the family posing and smiling as the car is towed out of the desert and with crazy Uncle Eddie, the quirky Randy Quaid, who begs for all their money. No one wishes for a bad vacation but in the end quality time is spent, memories are made and the family is closer and that doesn’t sound like a tragedy at all. It’s just family. Rent National Lampoon’s Vacation and be inspired to have your own epic adventure this summer.
(1979/Paramount Pictures/ d. Ivan Reitman)
by Jim Tudor
Let’s get one thing straight right now – the title is a lie! Nowhere in this humble 1970’s comedy – the major film debuts of Bill Murray and director Ivan Reitman – is there a cooked ball of meat to be found. In the narrow pantheon of movies with “Meatballs” in the title, even the ones that merely state “a Chance of Meatballs” have more meatballs.
But as you’re probably saying, who cares. That’s the least of this movie’s joyous little infractions. Meatballs may be the first studio efforts of Reitman and Murray (already a major comedy star thanks to Saturday Night Live), but you’d never know that by looking at it. Plotless and scrappy to say the least, the finished product has every evidence that it’s very making was the kind of free form summer camp-gone-sideways that the film itself depicts so ridiculously. One of its posters promises ninety-four minutes of “The Summer Camp That Makes You Untrustworthy, Disloyal, Unhelpful, Unfriendly, Discourteous, Unkind, Disobedient, and Very Hilarious”. Scout’s honor – in reverse.
Meatballs is the kind of slapdash quicky that no major studio today would bother with. Starless and stupid to a tee, it’s far too short on spectacle and way too long on tagline. The drive-ins it’s meant to occupy are mostly gone. Although plenty sexual in it’s pre-PG-13 PG rating, it lacks real raunch or glimpses of boobies, which one would come to expect in such fare. And really – do kids even go to summer camps anymore?
Alas, through 1992, there proved to be more than a chance of Meatballs at the movie theater. Three sequels were cooked up in that time, all sans the first film’s only great asset, the freewheeling Bill Murray. With the fourth entry starring Corey Feldman and the third being about the ghost of a dead porn star (both firmly R-rated affairs), it seems the only things on the ingredient mix of these raw cash-grabs are pandering and diminishing returns.
Considering the reputation of the original Meatballs, it does of course make sense that follow-ups would come. As a kid, Meatballs was one of those iffy sounding movies that hep kids with cool parents (the kind who let them watch anything) would go on and on about. Coming from a stricter home with no VCR or cable, I could only smile, nod and suppress jealousy at their laugh-filled recollections of the fat kid’s pants on the flagpole or the Camp Boss waking up with not only his bed, but also his nightstand, prankishly transported in the night so that he wakes up by stepping off a pier or falling out of a tree. In my own junior prudish mind, I’d lumped Meatballs in with the similarly unapproachable Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds, and most of the work of John Hughes.
To my own delight, upon finally seeing Meatballs, I sat with a goofy if relaxed grin across my face. I don’t know that I ever belly-laughed at anything, but Murray makes an enjoyably sardonic splash as only he can. Where most actors would grate, he’s magnetic. But, you likely knew that already. This film is prime evidence that this trademark quality was present from the start of his movie career. Not every gag Reitman and company attempt pans out (making a six-year-old who doesn’t realize his pet frog is dead the butt of a joke just seems kind of mean), but Meatballs, in its rough hewn late 1970s way, demonstrates that from his very outset, no one could break camp like Bill Murray.
Wet Hot American Summer
(2001, Eureka Pictures, dir. David Wain)
by Robert Hornak
The opening credits put you in 1980 via font and rock song, then the first ten minutes busily pit straight-up, broad parody against actual heartfelt sentimentality, forcing the two tones to wrestle for winner take all. Spoiler: they both eventually lose. Whereas Meatballs, which this movie has seen more than a hundred times, has goofbally but generally “real” people in both comic and sentimental scenarios, it never strays into parody – I suppose Reitman, Ramis, and Murray were too busy establishing the quasi-genre itself. Meatballs, though, is a riff on the experience of summer camp, exaggerating the tentpole moments of that youth ritual, but never a parody of movies – from that m.o. it can derive its sentimentality from a more real context. Here, there’s a self-imposed need to satisfy the experience of camp and camp movies, as well as live up to the burgeoning, somewhat stultifying needs of what comedy was becoming in 2001. This movie’s reveling in the wake of what American Pie started a couple of years before (the revival of taboo teen sex jokes and open sexism for laughs) and eventually becomes not much more than a neophyte version of that stammering, improv-based, adults-in-arrested-teenagerhood comedy that Will Ferrell and the like ran into the ground over the next decade. I realize many of the adults here are playing teenagers, but even that gimmick gets used up in the first half hour. By the end, I wanted to send this movie to its room to think about what it had done.
That said, I don’t think this is a terrible movie, and there are some genuinely sweet moments mixed in with some genuinely funny ones. But for the long haul (it feels longer than it is), I think it can only ever be good as a memory of a movie you saw with your friends in 2001, if maybe you were hanging around with the kind of people the movie makes fun of. It can never be a movie you see now, fresh, and ever think of as more than a half-written novelty knock-off that accidentally created a bunch of careers. Seeing it now, alone in my living room, at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning… it’s a really flat thing, a collection of the first jokes they came up with on that day of shooting.
But now I’m just sounding like a curmudgeon. I promise I love comedy. I even love stupid comedy. But what I don’t love is boring, repetitive comedy – actors gamely and earnestly staying in character, but doing the same thing every time they show up, with only the setting stringing it all together, instead of a story. This movie, to me, from my vantage, is a wasted opportunity, and all the “oh look at that future famous person”s in the world won’t make it better. Better jokes would’ve done the trick.
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
(1953, Discina Film, dir. Jacques Tati)
by Sharon Autenrieth
I have not been properly trained to appreciate the comedy stylings of Jacques Tati. I hear that a movie is “slapstick” and expect comic disaster and pratfalls, or at the very least some slapping in my slapstick. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday does, in fact, have a slap but it’s delivered straight and seems to not particularly rattle the recipient. In this beloved French comedy, most things are delivered straight, and gently. Mishaps are irritating, but not outrageous. Jokes are left open, without any need for a big pay off. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is understated and less hilarious than amusing. And yet, somehow, it enchants. Jacques Tati was a comic in the silent tradition, and this is very nearly a silent film. Sound effects like a thumping door are more important then the bits of murmured dialogue. Mr. Hulot is a gangly man in holiday clothes, enjoying a vacation in seaside Brittany. He has a bland, pleasant face, but not one that we ever really get to know. The film is not interested in us really knowing Mr. Hulot. He is simply present, receiving the world around him with a serenity like that of Peter Seller’s Chance in Being There. But Mr. Hulot is not the only character in this movie. Other vacationers become familiar as the days by the ocean pass by, warm and breezy. There is a young blonde woman (Nathalie Pascaud) who receives chivalrous attentions from Mr. Hulot; an elderly couple who take long, observant walks (with the husband always a few paces behind); wait staff with faces like thunder clouds; grubby children, enjoying ice cream cones and mischief.
There are a few amazing “bits” in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, particularly one in which Mr. Hulot paints his kayak, oblivious to the role that the tide is playing in his task. That scene is a marvel: how did they get the ocean to cooperate like that? But much of what is distinctive and amusing is very understated. The gap between Mr. Hulot’s earnest courtesies and his clueless impoliteness, for instance (watch, particularly a dinner scene in which he reaches for and then returns the salt). And then there’s the way that Mr. Hulot walks, a strange, loping perambulation, as if he’s trying not to let his feet touch the ground any more than is absolutely necessary. Stairs produce an even more elaborate gait. Mr. Hulot is a one man Ministry of Silly Walks.
As for the summery-ness of this movie, it’s about a 9/10 on the seasonal scale. Even in black and white the movie is positively sun soaked and I would definitely go to this mid-century locale (if such were possible) to enjoy the sand, the sea, and the gentle silliness of Mr. Hulot.
(2008, France, dir. Olivier Assayas)
by Justin Mory
Summer Hours is a film we may have all lived at one point or another: an older relative dies, and his/her descendants are left to figure out how to disperse/divide/dispose of the older relative’s possessions. Growing up, I was introduced to the situation quite early, as I had several grand-, great-, and even great-great-relatives who lived to very ripe old ages, but who, in at least two cases, left behind large, two-story houses packed from basement to attic – and, in many rooms, from floorboards to rafters – with a lifetime of accumulation. Whatever the circumstances, though, it always comes down to a similar question: what to do with all that stuff?
The French family in Summer Hours have that same problem, only compounded by the added consideration that the furniture and fixtures, the cabinets, dressers, tables, tea sets, vases adorning their recently deceased mother’s country villa – but, most of all, the paintings and sculptures – are of lasting cultural and artistic value. The mother’s uncle was a semi-renowned painter with exquisitely appointed taste, and though he had died over thirty years before, his devoted niece, up to the time of her death, preserved his studio and living space as a virtual shrine to his memory and legacy. Which begs the next question posited by this added dimension: how will the generations that follow best preserve their own heritage?
Made in cooperation with the Musée d’Orsay, the objets de art appearing in Summer Hours are entirely genuine, even if the family and their famous forbear are fictional. Dramatizing the connection between a family and its history through the passing of the seasons and years – along with the more tangible disposition of the objects and heirlooms passed down through generations – the moment when the oldest son comments on the oddity of a desk he had sat at since childhood on display in a museum is echoed by his daughter, having a party with her teenage friends on the last day the house is in the family’s ownership, who remembers her late grandmother telling her how the artist uncle had once painted the niece as a small child in the very field she and her friend are now standing in one summer morning long ago. Objects are sold, houses are broken up, and families move on, but memories persist.
Thus ends our trip through our most egregiously heretofore unseen movies about summer! Hope you enjoyed it, and feel free to chime with your own summer movie memories and recommendations on our Facebook Discussion Group. With that, Film Admissions will take a vacation of its own, returning in July. See you then!
In the meantime, do not miss Dean Treadway’s great list of twenty movies about summer you won’t want to miss!