DVD Review - Last Summer

The movie is evidence that filmmaker Mark Thiedeman is less a storyteller and more a beautiful photographer. The proof is that this feature's, short run-time is dedicated to still images and not to any kind of incidents that move things in any kind of direction. The opening in fact is an overture not unlike the one in Doctor Zhivago where it's just a series of still images of objects but mostly surfaces like wood-paneling, a brick wall and even glass. However, those surfaces are shot in extreme close-up and out of focus or rack-focus, as initially to obscure what they are. These still images are slowly rolled out with Classical music rolling underneath. As the movie progresses, Thiedeman presents more still images atop Classical music that paint a great portrait of life in this rural, Midwestern area.

With the lack of plot or driving narrative, the use of voice-over and the entire piece being like a slow-moving montage, it aides in film critic Stephen Farber's comparison to Terrence Malick. Yet, there is a literalness to Thiedeman that is more overriding. He's more observational and objective than he is purposeful, which Malick is. The examples of Thiedeman's literalness come toward the end.

Thiedeman seems to be a fan of close-ups. This movie is comprised almost entirely of them, one after the other. There's at most only three or four wide-shots and no establishing shots at all. The first face in close up we see is Samuel Pettit who plays Luke, an average teen boy in Arkansas summer school. He's good at athletics like baseball but bad at academics and art. Another face in close-up is Sean Rose who plays Jonah, the boyfriend of Luke who is not the average teen boy. He's opposite to Luke though in that he isn't good at athletics but he excels at academics like math. Jonah is even good at painting and piano-playing.

Thiedeman lingers on an extreme close-up of Jonah's rosy cheeks. He also lingers on extreme close-ups of Luke and Jonah's various body parts like their hands and feet and seems intent on making the audience intimately aware of every freckle and every pore on the boys' skin. Yet, because Jonah is an artist, the extreme close-ups of his rosy cheeks are inter-cut with close-ups of Jonah's water painting, which is flesh tone or slightly red-soaked in color, and that's all I can tell.

It's Thiedeman being literal. It's not metaphor because Thiedeman never pulls back and perhaps shows us what Jonah's painting is or means, or how Jonah feels about it other than through the heavy piano on the soundtrack, so the inter-cut ultimately doesn't mean anything. In the penultimate scene, Thiedeman has Jonah playing "Child Falling Asleep," the 12th movement of German composer Robert Schumann's opus. The writer-director and editor then cuts to a shot of Luke actually falling asleep. Again, it's Thiedeman being literal.

The narration leading up to that moment is nothing deeper than "opposites attract," but there's no context that goes beneath the surface of Jonah's rosy cheeks. The only thing that's explored with any depth is the dichotomy or contradiction of wanting to stay and at the same time wanting to leave. It bubbles inside Jonah but Luke is resigned that he's stuck where he is in some respects but he doesn't mind because he likes where he is. He's also not possessive of Jonah, so he can easily let him go.

Luke isn't an artist but he seems to be Thiedeman's proxy in that Luke is a photographer. Luke carries what looks like an actual film camera. Luke's eye then is revealed to be the eye of Thiedeman and the eye that both want the audience to have, and that's the eye of wonder and appreciation of the rural surroundings. The large number of close-ups is both wanting us to look closer and see the beauty that one might not think is there.

To that effect, every shot here is meticulously well-composed and well-lit, whether capturing natural light or not, and each of Thiedeman's frames are so rich and gorgeous that each could hang in a museum or art gallery forever. Thiedeman's movie simply isn't rich in story or characterization. It's mostly banality. Whatever point or theme that's meant to be conveyed isn't developed. It's merely floated pass the screen. The screen is so pretty that you forgive it.

Rose gives the better performance, probably because his character is given some dramatic conflict. Pettit's character has everything decided at the beginning and doesn't change or waiver. Rose's character Jonah at least has questions and concerns. He's upset by certain things. Therefore, he's slightly more exciting to watch, whereas Pettit's character Luke is boring.

Luke is somewhat interesting in that he's utterly unafraid and not hindered at all by homophobia. He's gay and has no bones about it. Neither does anyone else either. It's odd though that Thiedeman's movie is highly lacking in its depictions of said gayness. The two boys lie naked next to each other and cuddle. The intimations are enough, but their cuddling is never in a wide or medium-enough shot that anything other than platonic physicality is seen happening. At no point do we see them kiss for example.

This movie has gotten quite a bit of praise. It was ranked # 9 out of 99 films that went undistributed in 2013, according to the Village Voice Film Critics Poll. The special features on the DVD specifically spotlight still images, which are this movie's strength, as well as a 7-minute director's interview.

Four Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for general audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 13 mins.


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