Dog Days at the Movies
August is a month, in much of the northern hemisphere at least, when cities and towns are laid waste to in a leisurely fashion. The streets are emptied of people, who flee towards the coast or the nearest available large body of water; those that remain behind labour under the baking sun, their numbers feebly swelled by interloping tourists, attracted and then quickly repelled by the calmness of it all. In many European countries, small businesses shut up shop, figuring it’s probably not worth one’s while to minister to the reduced number of people that remains. August in the city is a gentle apocalypse, its landscape lonely, its streets dusty and its temperament a simmering sense of bewilderment at the prevailing civic paralysis. But the urban desert never lasts — by September everyone is back, and serious business, put on hold for the preceding month, resumes again.
You would expect filmmakers and those that work with them to take August off too but there is a significant number of films that make use of the quiet month to tell a story. Once again, this is more noticeable in the northern hemisphere; in the south, depending on one’s latitude, August means late winter, and weather that is at best mild and drizzly, at worst still in the thrall of sub-zero temperatures. I’m sure there are films from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina or Chile set in August but the significance of the month is necessarily different.
Some films just happen to be set in August, more by coincidence than anything else, though the laid-backness of the month can prove to be a foil to menace, such as in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem. The latter film, an adaptation of Borges’ story ‘Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’, takes place in a small Italian village, where a visiting man attempts to piece together the circumstances behind the death of his father, a martyred anti-Fascist hero. One of the first things that happens to him upon his descent from his train is to be punched out by a local, who assures him that ‘everyone is a friend’ here. It’s a scene that encapsulates perfectly the combination of leisurely calm and queasiness that hangs in the air on the streets of a strange town in August.
The Spider's Stratagem full film:
The Italians have made some good August films. One is Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso (‘the overtaking’ — translated into English and French equally differently as The Easy Life and Le fanfaron ‘the braggart’, respectively). Risi is strangely unknown in the English-speaking world but Il Sorpasso is a much-loved classic on the continent. An exuberant but ultimately melancholic comedy, it tells of the chance encounter between Bruno, a middle-aged lady’s man (Vittorio Gassmann) and Roberto, a bookish young law student, played by Jean-Marie Trintignant, one August afternoon. The date is the 15th of August — the Feast of the Assumption — a holiday in much of Catholic Europe (in Italy called Ferragosto), and the zero point of the month, when practically nothing is open. The motor of the plot is an attempt by Bruno to find a pack of cigarettes and a public phone; he then drags Roberto away from his studies, and the younger man seems thankful of the distraction. They then spend two days driving up the Lazio and Tuscan coasts, in a good-humoured road movie that recalls much of the more ‘serious’ Italian cinema of the day but has extra punch with a sparkling bravado performance from Gassmann.
Il Sorpasso trailer:
A more recent Ferragosto film is Mid-August Lunch (2008), in which a middle-aged man is stuck in Rome for the holidays, caring for his elderly mother, whom he lives with. He is given the opportunity to pay off a debt by taking two other elderly women into his care, while the son of one of them goes off on holiday. Nanni Moretti is also someone fond of staying behind during the hot days of August, as in Dear Diary, where he takes advantage of the empty streets to explore Rome on his Vespa and also take advantage of the air-conditioned cinemas, where he is horrified by the violence of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Moretti, the owner and programmer of a Roman arthouse cinema, also knows how difficult it is to get people in during the warm summer months. In his short film The Opening Day of Close-Up, he fields exasperated calls from members of the public, asking why he is showing an Iranian film and not The Lion King, which has just opened that afternoon.
Mid-August Lunch trailer:
Dear Diary trailer:
There are not too many films set away in the resorts people flock to in August, though Éric Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale is one, in which Melvil Poupaud goes on holiday to St-Malo on his own and contrives to have a couple of flings. It’s a charming film, even though it reminds you how few French films set in August there appear to be — strange, given how central a part of life August holidays are for many French people. The holidays are also a big thing for Portuguese people and Miguel Gomes’ hugely enjoyable Our Beloved Month of August takes an oblique look at Lisboetes holidaying in the sleepy north of the country, their peregrinations documented by a film crew. It’s a touching film, made largely with non-professionals, that is luxuriantly lazy, while always maintaining a keen sociological eye.
Our Beloved Month of August trailer:
British summers are not so reliable as those further south but that doesn’t stop British filmmakers making of them what they can, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love being cases in point, where ten days of sun are stretched out almost nostalgically to last a whole season. There are also some for whom August is not so leisurely at all — farmers, who are busied as ever attending to everyday tasks as well as anticipating the coming harvest. That doesn’t mean some R&R can’t be fitted in, as in the Basque film Ander, where an appropriately taciturn farmer, still living with his mother, falls for the young Peruvian farmhand he has hired for the summer.
The end of the month is often associated with renewal, and for French people, resolutions are apt to be made at this time rather than at New Year’s. And with this renewal is the sense that an old order is dying. One of Olivier Assayas’ better films is Late August, Early September. Its title is reminiscent of one of Assayas’ heroes, Yasujiro Ozu (who himself finished his career with a couple of Autumn-set films) and the film follows a group of friends over the course of a summer, in which they are confronted by sudden death and decisions to be made over their future. Not surprisingly, the film ends with a rupture, an unavoidable break to allow the film’s characters to move on with their lives. Similarly elegiac is Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31, which recounts a thirty-something junkie’s day of parole from his rehab centre to attend a job interview. He calls on old friends and girlfriends, all of whom have settled into new routines that he scorns and envies in equal measure. The film is shot through with wistful nostalgia, with old archive footage of Oslo life interspersed throughout, and the beautiful, late August nordic light is a poignant distillation of summer’s last hurrah. Not surprisingly, the film was given a Norwegian release on the very date contained in its title.
Oslo, 31 August trailer:
In the United States, with its parsimonious holiday allocations, August does not have quite the resonance of a locked-down, temporarily suspended no man’s land, as it does in Europe. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen though, and August in American movies tends to be a prison of sorts, as people trapped in the stifling humidity of their urban locations simmer dangerously, usually spilling over into open confrontation. The classic example is Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, in which Al Pacino and friends’ bank heist quickly becomes more complicated than expected and is drawn out into a long stand-off in the sweltering New York heat, drawing anti-establishment protesters into the loop too. Based on a real-life incident in the early 1970s, Dog Day Afternoon set the template for the botched bank job film, and took its very title from the proverbial name for the stifling non-days of August (later borrowed by the Austrian Ulrich Seidl for his unremittingly misanthropic Dog Days [Hundstagen]). The frustrations of August, its inertia and suffocating climate, underwrite Pacino’s doomed enterprise, which is intended to fund his lover’s (played by Chris Sarandon) sex change. It’s a touching attempt to strike out for liberty, and the hopes remain alive for much of the film, but August alone is a formidable foe that may crush them.
Dog Day Afternoon trailer:
The frustrations can also be the result of people stuck in their neighbourhood — the urban poor who can’t afford to get away for two or three weeks in the summer. (Neither is this confined to the US — only last week, urban anomie in August caused riots in the northern French city of Amiens). Two films by Spike Lee are set in August, both carrying the imprint of New York’s recent history and imbued with the city’s stifling humidity. Do the Right Thing tells of a race riot that breaks out when the uneasy co-existence of an Italian-American pizzeria owner, Sal, (Danny Aiello) and his mainly black clientele flares up into something more serious when police kill a young black man and Sal’s African-American employee Mookie (played by Lee himself) appears to turn on him. Once again, it is the weather, rather than the month of August itself, that is significant but there is the sense of the dog days of August keeping its characters in a further bind beyond the sclerotic race relations in the Brooklyn neighbourhood.
Do the Right Thing trailer:
In Lee’s 1999 film Summer of Sam, there is a further bind still, the real-life serial killer David Berkowitz — known as ‘Son of Sam’ — who terrorised New Yorkers in the summer of 1977. The film focusses on an Italian-American community in The Bronx, who are convinced the killer lurks among them and come close to meting out vigilante justice on more than one occasion. It’s a summer where people, particularly young people, avoid staying out after a number of couples are shot dead and Berkowitz issues his deranged missives to the media. The film is pretty uneven, but has the energy of Scorsese’s better films, and, like Do the Right Thing and Dog Day Afternoon, it does heat and discomfort very well, with the textures of a sticky New York summer rendered in the finest of detail. The terror is finally lifted when Berkowitz is arrested (on the 10th of August, to be exact) and New Yorkers can get on with their lives. It’s not exactly an end to the mugginess — there are still three weeks of the month to run after all — but one lethal constraint has been lifted, leaving the films characters to grapple with the temperatures and their community’s own, near-deadly insularity.
Summer of Sam trailer: