Monday, May 25, 2015

Overcome by the Vapors

Film: Summer and Smoke
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

There’s a particular view of femininity that is almost perfectly captured by the work of Tennessee Williams. It’s primarily evident in works like A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, but that same idea stands front and center in Summer and Smoke as well. In fact, in terms of Tennessee Williams characters, Alma Winemiller is straight out of central casting.

The female idea—I hesitate to call it an “ideal”—is one of a feigned purity, of striving to attain an impossible goal of refinement and culture and of holding any and all in judgment who do not meet or strive to meet those same goals. That is Alma Winemiller (Geraldine Page) in a nutshell. Daughter of the local minister (Malcolm Atterbury), Alma is as close as possible to a spinster as we’re likely to find. She takes part in readings of edifying books, sings and gives voice lessons, and frequently puts on airs to hold herself above the common folk. She is also given to nervous fits and fainting spells, the sort of thing that might be termed “the vapors.”

The person that Alma really holds to this same standard is John Buchnan (Laurence Harvey), the son of the doctor (John McIntire) who lives next door. Alma has always loved John since the two of them were children. John has followed in his father’s footsteps in the medical field but in nowhere else. Rather than head straight home after medical school, John has taken a very long detour by way of a series of gambling binges. More seriously for the town gossips, when John does arrive home he takes up almost immediately with Rosa Zacharias (Rita Moreno), causing a massive scandal. After all, this is pre-World War I in the Deep South. Such interracial goings-on simply do not happen with nice people.

Alma, of course, sees John in a much different light and hopes that he will pull himself back from over that cliff. But for Alma, the only way she can do that is through completely non-physical means. Alma wants something ineffable, a sort of pure love ideal that probably never really existed. John, of course, is far more earthy. While Alma gives lectures about the soul and about Gothic cathedrals that reach toward something above and beyond, John deals with charts of human anatomy that fail to indicate the physical location of the soul.

Everything turns on a trio of scenes. The first comes when John takes Alma to a local casino and (how times have changed) takes her to a cockfight. Overcome, Alma leaves, followed by John, who attempts to seduce her. She, naturally, is not merely shocked by overcome with emotion, to which John naturally reacts with frustration and something like disgust. The second happens when John throws a party while his father is away working at a fever clinic. Thing get out of hand, particularly when Alma discovers that John intends to marry Rosa. She calls his father and tells him to return, only to see John’s father shot by Rosa’s father. Since it was she who called Dr. Buchanan back, it is she who John holds responsible for the man’s death.

The last critical scene comes at the end. I won’t spoil it, save to say that both Alma and John have made some realizations that lead to this final scene, and it ends in the way that one should expect from anything written by Tennessee Williams.

The one thing I haven’t mentioned up to this point is the presence of Alma’s mother (Una Merkel, who was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar). Mrs. Winemiller is clearly affected in some way as only a woman spent following that same weird ideal of Alma’s can end up. She’s daft and flighty and almost childlike, and endlessly teases Alma about her obvious love for John Buchanan. She’s not in the film much, but she makes a large and indelible impression on it.

One of the things that works very nicely here is that Alma Winemiller looks so much older than her age. We’re led to believe that she and John are of the same age, but she looks a good 10 or 15 years older than he does, almost as if her attitudes and beliefs have made her prematurely ancient while John’s ability to act on his desires without worrying about propriety have kept him young. In truth, Laurence Harvey was a couple of years younger than Geraldine Page, but the two of them look almost a generation different.

Summer and Smoke attempts in many ways to unite ideas of the soul and the body, and in some respects it succeeds. This is not a film or a story that I’ll say is an enjoyable one, but it’s certainly one that leaves a lot to think and talk about. For me, though, what I’ve never understood is why anyone would find this view of femininity attractive or interesting.

Why to watch Summer and Smoke: Tennessee Williams is famous for a reason.
Why not to watch: This doesn’t travel far from most of Williams’s plays.

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