Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Home Viewer 10: August Personages

My monthly column for our local paper ran last week, just as the weather turned heavy with wet heat, dog days for sure. So for once my fortnight doodlings make some sense.

Sirius, the dog star, swims up there in the late-summer sky, innocent and unconcerned—but brings the dog days, hot and still, all kinds of bad mischief right below boiling point—or lazy, washed out, finished with all temper and fervor. Or one more: Can you hear Nat “King” Cole cheerfully sprinting through those lazy hazy crazy days of summer (“those days of soda and pretzels and beer”), the brutal heat forgiven in happy cornball song? So, before autumn slips in to steal away August, it’s doom or gloom or one last hurrah—and movies for each.


There’s an old Ray Bradbury story—“Touched by Fire”—that offers a theory: at ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit, people become homicidal. Almost forty years later, Spike Lee watches that same mercury rise in Do the Right Thing (1990). Everything in the movie is hot, from the colors to the characters, all of them impossible to touch without getting burned.

In Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007), the sun is dying—but he brings us close, and it pulses off the screen, too bright to look at, so big we can’t see the curve of its rim. And the closer you get, the more beautiful and dangerous it becomes, a fatally ecstatic summer whose end no one wants to see.

Speaking of locales with an endless summer, the list of desert movies can stretch from The Female of the Species (1912; a “A Psychological Tragedy” set amid the “purple sage”) and Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1925; its desert arriving in the finale, where the titular sin turns deadly in—where else?—Death Valley) to Sahara (1943), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and the bizarre The King Is Alive (2000), in which stranded bus passengers decide to pass what time they have left by staging King Lear; talk about your blasted heaths. But when I was nine years old, The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)—until it reached its feel-that-cool-breeze climax—knocked the breath out of me with its parched desperation, reducing life to some sand and wreckage, with a few sparks of hope not nearly as bright as the uncaring sun.


Despite the preceding, for most of us the phrase “dog days” is mainly about laying low, allowing August to blow its hot air while we half-slumber in the shade, too tired to do much, including complain. There is a kind of grandeur in laziness, as appreciated by “The Stranger” (Sam Elliott—and I’ll never get tired of his voice) in The Big Lebowski (1998), who acknowledges that “The Dude,” Jeffrey Lebowski (another perfectly sloppy Jeff Bridges performance), is not only a lazy man but “quite possibly the laziest in all of Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide.” Caught in a hardboiled thriller, The Dude shuffles along in his quest to restore his rug—because, man, “it really tied the room together”—and to bowl his way into the semifinals. The Dude abides.

The Big Lebowski is set in the early ‘90s, and if that half-decade taught Americans anything, it was how to slack off. And at the movies, the owner’s manual for slacking is, of course, Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), which meanders from one twentysomething to another as they amble and talk, semi-work and almost-think, content to let Austin’s heat beat down unnoticed, as they run into one another—although “run” is definitely too strong a term—and let everything slump to a halt. As one of them observes, “Who's ever written a great work about the immense effort required in order not to create?”

Last Hurrahs

Before September changes everything, the dog days offer one more chance to live it up. In his original review of The Endless Summer (1966), Roger Ebert calls it “91 minutes of wish fulfillment.” Filmmaker Bruce Brown and his two surfers (Mike Hynson and Robert August—I kid you not) decide one month is not enough, and bum around the world, looking for—and finding—the “perfect wave,” all the while passing through sublime landscapes with a gee-whiz jokiness that manages to catch like a wave the laid-back heart of surfing.

Of course, one really shouts a last hurrah when it seems there’s little time left. Last Holiday (2006; the 1950 Ealing Studios version with Alec Guinness is not available on DVD) offers the irresistible Queen Latifah setting off for the Grand Hotel Pupp near Prague to doll herself up, cook like a Food Network diva, and generally brighten everyone’s day. She brings enough honesty to the role that you barely notice that the movie’s a lightweight, and simply root for the Queen.

Well, I can’t leave the dog days without mentioning an actual dog—and my favorite is My Dog Skip (2000), an earnest evocation of the Good Old Days whose plot contrivances and aw-shucks dialogue are redeemed by the performances—Diane Lane and Kevin Bacon as the parents, Frankie Muniz as the lonely boy saved by his dog (with Luke Wilson as the feet-of-clay hometown hero), and of course Skip himself (played by numerous dogs, among them Moose, who was also Eddie on the TV series Frasier), a Jack Russell to the bone, eternally aware and eager. The affection he gives and receives is as fitting an end to August as we could ask, finite but lasting, socked away for next summer.

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