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Summertime

1955, Loppert Films. Directed by David Lean. With Katharine Hepburn, Rossano Brazzi.


To prolong the glow of a recent trip to Italy, we rented Summertime this weekend. This exercise in nostalgia proved List-related when I noticed that the Katharine Hepburn character spends the first half of the film with an 8-mm movie camera in front of her face. I can't recommend Summertime enthusiastically except for those who want to wallow in memories of Venice (Hepburn is at her twitchiest in a tiresome role), and I don't want to belabor its modest self-referentiality, but it does raise the interesting issue of fiction film as travelogue.

Summertime begins as Hepburn, playing American Jane Hudson (no relation to "Baby Jane" Hudson, except for a certain sisterly tendency toward self-parody), arrives in Venice and ends as she departs. In between, she (and we) tour the city and she (but not we) gets seduced by handsome antiques dealer played by Rossano Brazzi. Jane, a middle-aged virgin, carries a small movie camera with her wherever she goes. We first meet her as she sets up a "welcome to Venice" shot and then films the approaching city from her train window. Her camera identifies her as a tourist, and also shows her emotional distance from her surroundings; she spends her time shooting rather than looking.

The camera's function as symbolic protection is clearly spelled out. When Jane finally capitulates to the handsome Signor Rocelli, the movie camera—her armour—vanishes. This happens in the famous scene where Jane falls into a canal while filming the outside of Rocelli's shop. The tumble into the canal seems to be her come-uppance for 1) apparently deciding not to pursue Rocelli further but merely to record the site of their meeting as a souvenir; and 2) not watching where she is going, i.e., looking through the lens instead of around her. The street urchin who has been guiding her around Venice grabs the camera just as Jane loses her balance and he waves it at her reassuringly as soon as she surfaces. He knows Jane's priorities. But that's the last we see of the movie camera; Rocelli shows up at Jane's hotel, penetrates her reserve, and she starts living rather than observing.

Jane's camera functions on a Movies-seivoM level too.Summertime, a movie about the glories of Venice, takes as its main character a woman who devotes herself to filming the glories of Venice. Jane's project reflects the movie's. On several occasions we see Jane raise the camera to her eye and begin shooting, then we see a montage of Venetian scenes, then we return to Jane and camera. It almost seems as though she has shot the travelogue footage we are enjoying.

So we have to ask, do our reservations about Jane's picture-taking apply to Summertime as well? Can we say that the movie, like Jane, looks at Venice through a viewfinder rather than becoming truly engaged? I don't want to push this too far, but in a sense I think that's true. Summertime is one of many movies of the late 40s and early 50s filmed on location in Europe. I can think offhand of Roman Holiday, A Foreign Affair, The Third Man, Stage Fright. Local actors get small parts; quaint customs are highlighted; the famous sights are admired anew by visiting Americans acting as our surrogates. Not shown, but certainly sensed, is the fact that a great capital has, in its defeat and post-war poverty, put itself at the disposal of an American film crew. These are we-won-the-war movies that appropriate European cities eons older than Hollywood as a backdrop for American fantasies of adventure.

Does David Lean, not an American, use Jane's filmmaking to reflect on his own? He does make fun of the provincialism of Jane and some of her fellow tourists. He has Jane eventually set her movie camera aside and surrenders to Venice. I'm not sure that Summertime does the same, but Venice ends up winning anyway. The story and characters are no longer interesting, but the beauty and mystery and sensuality of Venice—very well shot by Jack Hildyard—keep Summertime alive.

An interesting related issue arises here. When a fiction film is shot on location, you have that odd match of real-real and real-pretend that we've talked about here many times. While Hepburn and Brazzi recite lines, while the crowds of extras gesticulate on cue, Venice appears "as itself," implacable, unimpressed. It's a reminder that the camera records whatever is in front of it—fictional or actual or some combination of the two. This intersection of the documentary and the fictitious gives movies a lot of their energy, and would, I think, be an interesting topic to pursue.

(5/13/1996)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein