By Don Simpson | May 6, 2011
Director: James Bruner
Writer: Norman Handelsman
Starring: Stuart Anderson, Valora Noland, John Kulhanek
The now famous cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, The Long Goodbye, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) was still a little moist behind the ears from his training at the Budapest Film Academy — where he studied alongside Laszlo Kovacs — when first-time director James Bruner recruited him to lens Summer Children. Bruner wanted to create an homage to the masters of Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave — and Raoul Coutard was probably too busy working with the highly-prolific Jean-Luc Godard — so he chose Zsigmond, a 35-year old devout student of European cinema.
Together, they created a visually magnificent film that, upon completion of production, lacked the appropriate financing for post-production publicity and distribution. Summer Children was placed in storage for over 40 years in several different Deluxe Laboratory Archival vaults in several states and countries. The fact that Summer Children‘s original Producer Jack Robinette and Restoration Producer Edie Robinette-Petrachi found all of the footage still in pristine quality (even the splices were in perfect condition) showcases the archival quality of the Kodak film Plus- X Film Stock. Once the footage was in Robinette and Robinette-Petrachi’s hands, they remastered the film with the assistance of Zsigmond.
Maybe the acting, dialogue, and narrative have not withstood the testaments of time, but Zsigmond’s luscious photography is still as startling beautiful as ever. The striking contrasts of the black and white film stock teamed with the noir-ish shadowing, shot primarily on location (including in the tight quarters of the “Mayflower” [a 130 foot sailing schooner] and Catalina Island), Summer Children plays like an academic lecture in visual composition. Zsigmond plays with the environments of the shooting locations — the constant motion of the water, the blowing of the wind, and the powerful rays from the sun — to give the scenes more life and depth. (One scene that truly stands out for its painterly quality is a night scene on the beach at Catalina that was actually photographed during the daytime.)
Visually, there is no doubt that Antonioni, Fellini, Truffaut, Godard, and Polanski (whose Knife in the Water seems a natural comparison piece) were all incredibly powerful influences on Summer Children. Obviously the American International Pictures beach party films play their part as well, though its difficult not to view Summer Children as a reaction to the sublime happiness — and cheery color palate — of Annette and Frankie’s world.
Notice it has taken me a while to get to the story… Well, chances are, if you are going to enjoy Summer Children, it will be for Zsigmond’s cinematography. The narrative certainly plays second fiddle…
West (Stuart Anderson) is a bit of an old fashioned romantic; he is a product of the sexually conservative past and is having a difficult time adjusting to the burgeoning sexual revolution in America. West’s friend, Frankie (John Kulhanek), though older, has no qualms about enjoying the promiscuity of the youth generation.
West is taking his father’s 130 foot sailing schooner out for a spin around the Pacific, and he invites Frankie and a few other friends along for the ride. The friend that West wants most in this whole wide, wicked, wonderful world is the elusive but magnetically beguiling, Diana (Valora Noland). West perceives Diana to be his date for the cruise, but Diana’s free-spirit has other plans. We do not know why Diana is playing hard to get when West makes his first couple passes — he is rich, handsome and obviously interested — but eventually she gives in to his wooing and courting. Unfortunately, West is not the only guy Diana gives in to, and West’s jealousy runs wild.
Summer Children is about the naiveté of youth and the harsh real world realities that all maturing adults must eventually face. Essentially, its message is the same as that old guy sitting next to you at the local dive bar, you know the one who is always reminiscing about how wonderful life was in the 1950s. The women were simple and accommodating; they were happy to settle down with a handsome, well-to-do man like West. It was not until the absurd notion of free love — like that ever-so-tempting apple in Eden — that ruined romance forever. Suddenly, women were not marrying the first man to offer to put a ring on their finger; they began to think silly thoughts about not wanting to settle down or waiting for someone better. Well, I typically zone out before that creepy curmudgeon gets anywhere near this point in his diatribe; and, to be honest, I also stopped paying attention to Summer Children‘s narrative after a while. (The scene in which Diana finally gives in to Frankie is especially painful to watch.) Did I mention how beautiful Zsigmond’s cinematography is?
Summer Children enjoyed its theatrical world premiere at Slamdance 2011; next, it will be screening at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles on May 10th with Vilmos Zsigmond in attendance for a Q&A. For information on theatrical screenings or the DVD release go to the Summer Children website.