Spring Night Summer Night

Like Quentin Tarantino, Nicolas Winding Refn is a film obsessive. Not only does he direct and produce films, he confesses to having ‘collector-mania’, possessing a huge quantity of movie-related artifacts from quad posters through to celluloid itself. He loves to promote obscurities that he especially admires, and many of these can be found on his site byNWR.com.

There you can see Jac Zacha’s 1970 psychedelic saga Walk the Walk; Orgy of the Dead, an erotic horror scripted by Ed Wood and Night Tide, a sometimes magical movie about Mora, a woman brought up to believe she’s descended from mermaids.

Then there’s Spring Night, Summer Night from 1967. This has been said to have brought Italian Neo-Realism to Appalachia, and had been selected to screen at the 1968 New York Film Festival only to be dumped late in the day and replaced by John Cassavetes’ Faces. Oouch.

Virgil and Jessie

It’s the tale of a dirt poor family living on a farm in rural Ohio. This is the kind of family often vilified as white trash or hillbillies by folk who would normally claim to be against stereotyping. The film, though, certainly does little to combat some of these common perceptions, albeit it’s never malicious about the community it depicts.

At its heart is Jessie (Larue Hall). Her life lacks glamour and freedom in equal measures. Her days mostly consist of cleaning and cooking for her mother Mae, stepfather Virgil, stepbrother Carl, four younger siblings and grandmother.

Directed by Joseph L. Anderson, Spring Night, Summer Night opens with the sound of gunfire. Carl (Ted Heim) is shooting at a bucket attached to a tree, before turning his attention to the wing mirror of a rusting tractor.

Carl’s a rebel, probably without much of a cause.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ Virgil demands to know. ‘You’ll pay for that,’ he continues before he receives an answer from son.

That night, a Saturday presumably in Spring, the family gather together to eat. They say grace before meals and then glower at each other across the kitchen table, the adults sucking every strand of tobacco from their ciggies. Mae moans about the food not having enough salt. Virgil barks out complaints about the lack of respect shown to him by his children.

Family Dinner in Spring Night Summer Night

Rather than taking his wife out to a local hootenanny, he declares that he’s taking his favourite bird to a cockfight. Yes, a cockfight. When Carl accidentally stumbles into the bathroom (or was it accidental?) his gaze lingers a little too long on his step-sister lying naked in the tub.

This is a film about a family that you likely wouldn’t want to watch with your own family.

Carl and Jessie head off to a bar. Spring Night Summer Night may have been shot as psychedelia was on the rise but believe me, Haight Ashbury this part of Ohio ain’t. Carl launches into a brawl with a boy dancing with Jessie. He then drags her out the hall. In the car he forcibly has sex with her – although she later says she could have stopped him.

He’s been talking of leaving for some time and the next morning he does so, hitching to nearby Columbus.

Miss Jessica is Pregnant

When he returns during the summer, Jessie is visibly pregnant and Virgil is unsuccessfully attempting to discover the identity of the father.

Carl tells Jessie he loves her, insisting that they should move away together. He speculates that they maybe aren’t even really related through a bloodline to one another. According to persistent local rumours, Mae hasn’t ever been the most faithful of wives and, when confronted, she finds it impossible to be sure who Jessie’s father was.

It’s easy to assume that this isn’t going to end happily.

Carl and Jessie in Spring Night Summer Night 1967

Made on a budget that didn’t even stretch to $30,000, with most of the crew being pupils of Anderson at Ohio University, Spring Night Summer Night can be a gruelling watch but it’s shot beautifully with a striking cinéma-vérité feel. Anderson particularly excels at capturing movement with a handheld camera, whether it’s the younger kids whirling around during impromptu games or Jessie running through the woods in a wet dress.

It’s like a cross between Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and the short stories of Breece D’J Pancake, a writer from West Virginia who has been called ‘the Hillbilly Hemingway’. And yes, Breece D’J Pancake was his real name.

Jessie in Spring Night Summer Night 1967

On its release, Spring Night, Summer Night was seldom shown beyond a handful of local screenings. Oblivion beckoned until some scheming distributors hit on the awful idea to re-cut the movie to play as the bottom half of a exploitation double bill on the grindhouse circuit where it would be renamed Miss Jessica is Pregnant. With no better options on the cards, Anderson obliged, shooting some new racier scenes to be shoehorned into his film.

Rediscovered in the 21st century, Spring Night Summer Night was eventually screened, in a restored version, at the New York Film Festival in 2018. It was belatedly greeted with much praise.

Okay, it’s not as good as Faces, but only a very small percentage of films are. I would guess that it’s far better than the majority of films chosen for the NYFF that year and I’d be surprised if any of the postponed blockbusters that were originally scheduled to playing now at our local multiplexes would be anywhere near as good.