California Literary Review

The Fourth Wall

A Film and Television Blog

Heat Wave: Movies that make us feel

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June 23rd, 2010 at 5:43 pm

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Dreamy, steamy summertime: Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicides.

I’ve no idea how the rest of the country is faring, but in the southeast and Midwest, it’s as if the pits of hell have opened up, spewing forth temperatures and humidity levels that’ll knock you flat. It’s not even July yet, and already thermometers are hovering above 90 and weather.com is recommending staying indoors during the midday hours. This, after the kind of winter the whole country had. (Thanks, global warming.) Further, HBO’s fantastic supernatural dramedy “True Blood” has returned for a third season, transporting us deep into the dirty, sweaty, debauched South. (Oh, and this season looks to be so good.)

Scientists posit that our sense of smell triggers memories more effectively than our other senses. And it’s true: I have visceral reactions to smells, from the original Herbal Essences shampoo I used during in high school, to exes’ colognes wafting to me from men on the street. In the same way, music brings me back to walking through snowy, wooded areas of campus after film screenings in college (Modest Mouse’s “The Moon and Antarctica”) and driving around aimlessly through southern Indiana cornfields (Mirah’s “Advisory Committee”).

But for me, the medium most capable of causing sudden flashbacks, surprising bodily sensations, is of course film. From glee to misery, from nausea to uncontrollable laughter, good film (and really bad film for that matter) makes audiences feel. So in the midst of this massive, miserable heat wave, I’ve been thinking of the films that make me feel summer–films that, even when watched in a dark, cool cave of a theater, make you want to take off your sweater, buy an Icee, and bask in the sun. These are among the films that scream summer to me:

The Virgin Suicides (dir. Sofia Coppola, 1999)

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Sofia Coppola’s first film is based on a book by Jeffrey Eugenides. The book and movie are told from the perspective of a group of teenage boys who watch as five sisters spend a ’70s Michigan summer descending into their own personal hell. A soundtrack from ethereal French pop band Air and ’70s classics from Electric Light Orchestra, Heart, and Todd Rundgren provide grace notes. Coppola established herself as a brilliant director with this atmospheric, gorgeous film. From close-ups on Kirsten Dunst’s sweaty face to peach schnapps-fueled encounters under the bleachers, the movie transports you into its world of angst, impotence, and hot teenage summers.

Eve’s Bayou (dir. Kasi Lemmons, 1997)

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Eve’s Bayou, set in 1962 Louisiana, is the history of the Baptiste family, mostly seen through the eyes of 11-year-old Eve (Jurnee Smollett, “Friday Night Lights”). A fantastic cast including Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson lead us through a dark, twining story that involves moonlit affairs, voodoo, possible incest, and the strength of a family’s bonds. The film’s sweaty, sexy version of the South is enchanting enough without the insanity, but add it all together and you have a movie that means “summer.”

The Gift (dir. Sam Raimi, 2000)

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Sam Raimi is, of course, best known for the Spider-Man movies, but his underrated supernatural drama The Gift is another deep south mystery with a wonderful cast. Cate Blanchett plays Annie Wilson, a psychic who has to unravel a mystery after a local woman (Katie Holmes) is killed. Beautiful cypress groves, swamplands, weeping willows, and sweaty, sexy summer nights abound.

A Walk on the Moon (dir. Tony Goldwyn, 1999)

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A Walk on the Moon takes place in the summer of ’69. A couple drag their children, including pouty teenage daughter Alison (Anna Paquin) to a Jewish family retreat in upstate New York. Can you see where this is going yet? Mother Pearl (Diane Lane) becomes bored while her husband is stuck in the city during the Woodstock festival, and of course she ends up at the festival with another man (Viggo Mortenson). Sex under waterfalls, intense drug experiences, she relives her lost childhood while Alison tries to experience hers for the first time. Crickets, darkened cabins, beachfront evenings, skinny-dipping hippies, and the allure of, well, 1969, complete the experience.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are films that make me feel chilled to the bone, whether it’s summer or winter. Horror novels and books often stick their protagonists in frozen landscapes. Humans aren’t actually built to survive in those environs, making snowdrifts and icicles inherently spooky, and isolation and harsh temperatures would make anyone a dull boy.

The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982)

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If necessary, skip to about the 2:00 mark and tell me the ambient wind, gorgeous snowscapes, and Morriccone’s music don’t just make you feel chilly.

30 Days of Night (dir. David Slade, 2007)

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Ditto isolation, frozen landscapes, horrifying monsters, etc. It’s hard to believe that before the graphic novel, so few had thought of the fact that parts of Alaska have no sunlight for months on end–I mean, duh. Ben Foster’s role in 30 Days of Night is pitch-perfect, and Danny Huston and his fellow vampires are some of the most frightening in film history. Director David Slade made next week’s release, the third in the Twilight series, Eclipse (watch for the review here on CLR!). No offense, Cullens, but these vamps could kick your asses. For that matter, so could Eric Northman or Bill Compton of “True Blood.” Hm.

The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

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If you don’t already know how Kubrick’s The Shining ends, don’t watch this clip. Otherwise, watch it, especially if you’re in need of a cool-off after a long day. Cerulean saturation, snow-covered hedge maze, and frostbitten beards and toes make this one an obvious choice for wintry movies.

What are your favorite visceral movies? The ones that make you feel summer, winter, or anything in between?

  • Matt

    Interesting to note… all your summer films come from your high school years, yeah?

    I do wonder if there’s something to that.

  • Julia Rhodes

    Matt, yes, I noticed that too, and I think there’s something there…those movies are reminiscent of a) the kind of summers where I worked, but didn’t have to pay bills and had a freedom I don’t anymore, and b) the time where I was becoming really interested in film. I tried to think of others that made me feel summery, ones from earlier, but I couldn’t! Which is why hopefully commenters will contribute some good ones.

  • missey

    Angela Basset does not play in Eve’s Bayou. I assume you were talking about Eve’s mother….Lynn Whitfield plays that role. And Eve is 10 in the movie not 11. Sorry to nit pick but it’s my all time favorite film…gota get the facts right!

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