Summertime: A Good Travelogue and a Bad Hepburn Film


Directed by David Lean

United Artists, 100 minutes, Not-rated.

★ ½




If you live in New England, sometime around mid-February you will probably start to get itchy for longer, warmer days with more sunshine. The seed catalogues will come out and even though spring has not yet arrived, no one will blame you for dreaming of summertime. Just don't dream of the 1955 film of that name!


If you've ever wondered if Katharine Hepburn has ever made a really bad movie, this one holds the answer. Hepburn. Romance. Venice. What could go wrong? Quite a lot, beginning with a very lame script. It’s hard to imagine that a director the likes of David Lean could serve up such rotten calamari, or that this movie actually garnered a few Oscar nominations. (The voters must have broken into the wine cellar and left no bottles uncorked.)


As a travelogue, Summertime is worth viewing, but with your favorite method of fast forwarding a movie close at hand. Summertime begins on the train crossing the Venice lagoon with Jane Hudson (Hepburn) hanging out the window of the train, movie camera in hand, and burning through filmstock like a crazed director determined not to miss a second of light. She is enthusiastic, but alone and forlorn, the film's major theme. She checks into the spectacular pensione run by Signora Fiorini (Isa Miranda) with views to die for. (Side note: Don't believe anyone who tells you that Venice is overrated, too smelly, or too touristy. It was then as it is today one of the most one of the Western world’s truly unique and spectacular cities.) But it's a place you want to share not make a documentary film no one but you will view.


Jane is a late 40s open (47 at the time) gal from Akron OH who has been unlucky at love her entire life. Not much has said about why this is the case, but we sense that she is a good girl who'd love to be a naughty one, or at least give it a try. She adores Venice, Signora Fiorini, and the pensione, though it’s also occupied by boorish, chauvinistic types once dubbed “ugly Americans.” There's Eddie Yeager (Darren McGavin) and his wife Phyl (Mari Aldon) two jet setters who aren't nearly as glamorous as they appear. But at least they're better than the insufferable Lloyd and Edith  McIllhenny (McDonald Parke and Jane Rose), she a motor mouth who sees Italy as a shopping mall; he a portly lout unafraid to blurt out that he doesn't like “wop food.”  Neither knows the first thing about Italy, though Edith is at least willing to be surprised and loudly tell everyone about those surprises.


Jane’s solo vigil gets an unexpected jolt when she spies a red goblet in a window shop, buys it, and is attracted to its owner, who she noticed staring at her in the Piazza San Marco.  Hitherto, her only male companion was Mauro (Gaetano Auticro), a seven-year-old street urchin who's a combination charmer and hustler. But as she begins to practically stalk the store owner Renato De Rossi (Rossano Brazzi), you know what's coming next. It’s just a matter of time until her goo-goo eyes lead to liaisons at the piazza. Jane tries to play Ohio good girl, but Renato convinces her that in Italy, pleasure is embraced and she should allow herself to indulge in it. Prego; a torrid affair. Prego; unexpected obstacles, like the fact that he's married. Que sera, sera. He says he and his wife don't live together and that's good enough for her. Cue the bittersweet ending.


Rossano Brazzi was in high demand when this film was made having just starred in English language films such as Three Coins in a Fountain and The Barefoot Contessa. He is indeed dashing as a middle-aged suitor/Lothario. Alas, Hepburn is grating. She plays her part like a 50-year-old going on 16. I wondered if she was having trouble finding roles. She was no longer young enough to play the brainy gal with killer legs, yet not yet old enough to take on the fearless matron roles that breathes new life into her career. See Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, and The Trojan Women.


I reiterate that summertime is a sumptuous look at Venice, a place everyone should visit before they shuffle off this mortal coil. But it doesn't commend the film to say that its major virtue is that it will prompt you to visit your travel agent.


Rob Weir


The Midcoast Exposes Maine's Contradictions



By Adam White

Hogarth Publications, 329 pages.





Andrew, the narrator of The Midcoast observes, “The vast majority of humans … never get all that close to the center of anything.” He grew up in Damariscotta, Maine, and dreamed of getting away as soon as he could. Though his father was the only orthopedic surgeon in the county, his parents’ divorce, an unrequited love, and processing lobsters for Ed Thatch reinforced his desire to leave and not look back. That's precisely what Andrew tried to do. He went to a fancy prep school, graduated from Amherst College (where he played lacrosse), married, moved to Boston, and fathered two children.


Then, he and his family found themselves in the center of something: the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. They vacated the area mere minutes before the bombs exploded. This prompted Andrew to move his family back to the safety of Damariscotta, a decided scaling back of big dreams. Instead of making big bucks, Andrew is an underpaid teacher at Lincoln High school. Ed, whom he considered to be raw-boned and dull-witted, has gone from lobstering to contracting and financial success. But the biggest shock was to find Ed married to Stephanie LeClair, the object of Andrew’s teenaged desire.


The Thatches have two children: EJ, a town policeman, and Allie, an ebullient lacrosse fanatic who hopes to enter Amherst. Ed doesn't know much about the sport or colleges and is keen to pick Andrew's brain on those subjects. He has fancy associates among the summer people but retains the social mindset of a lobsterman. Ed also fears that Stephanie is out of his league and scrambles to keep her in the manner in which he believes she prefers. She, in turn, obtained her bachelor's degree and became a later-in-life major player in local politics. In her heart of hearts, though, Allie’s plan is the life Steph thought should have been hers. Plus, she’s suspicious of Allie’s boyfriend. Oh dear! Do we think that a cast of people in roles they either didn't desire or don’t fit them will end well?


Damariscotta is often cited as the most beautiful town in Maine. If you know that area of Maine, you’re probably aware of the region’s stark contrasts. In his debut novel, author Adam White incisively captures this. Damariscotta lies on a tidal river and is 12 miles from the ocean. The further one gets from the coast, though, the more Vacationland–the slogan on Maine license plates–looks like a wood pulp version of the Southern Appalachians. It’s the world about which Carolyn Chute writes. Nearby Lewiston, where few people with higher aspirations wish to live, is just 41 miles from the ocean. Unlike Damariscotta, it’s a played-out manufacturing city with sketchy areas. Were it not its medical facilities and Bates College, Lewiston might have crumbled into scale by now.



White’s novel is a study in character contrasts as well as lifestyle departures. This is revealed through plot devices such as arrogance, failure to execute a promised task, looted yachts, drugs, crooked local officials, and a lobster bake gone terribly wrong. The Midcoast morphs into a crime novel, a good thing from a reader's perspective. The themes I've laid out might sound depressing, but the story is a compelling one made more so through the depth of those who populate it. Many detective and mystery novels employ stock figures who serve as foils for a protagonist we know will make things right. Those in The Midcoast affect us to a greater degree because they seem so real.


If you have paid attention to recent news, you know that well-to-do parents cut corners to obtain special privileges for their children. Of course, we also learn that ambition can motivate or destroy. Or, if you will, it’s a validation of the Tenth Commandment: Thou shalt not covet. White hooks us through other age-old scenarios. Did you ever wonder how life would have turned out had you taken Path B instead of Path A? On a less weighty and metaphorical note, the novel asks: How are you going to keep ‘em down on the lobster farm once they've seen the bright lights of Amherst and wealth?


Rob Weir





The Last Chairlift: John Irving's Farewell




By John Irving

Simon & Schuster, 889 pages



John Irving insists that The Last Chairlift, his 15th novel, will be his last. I have mixed feelings. Few writers have given me as much pleasure, but it’s objectively true that he recycles. A bear is one of few props he doesn’t reprise in The Last Chairlift. It is set in familiar places: New Hampshire, Vermont, Toronto, and (indirectly) Austria. You will also find Phillips Exeter Academy and wrestling, both Irving standards.


You need not have read previous works to enjoy Last Chairlift, but if you’re pondering how Irving gets away with repeated tropes, it’s because he’s a spellbinding storyteller rightly mentioned in the same breath as Dickens and Hawthorne. Irving did not know his father and neither does Adam Brewster, the son of ski instructor and former competitor Rachel, known as Ray or “Little” Ray, the latter why she never finished close to the podium in races. Little people are omnipresent: Ray, Adam, and 4'9” Phillips Exeter English instructor Elliot Barlow, whom Ray impulsively weds. All are spin-offs from Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.


The Brewsters are an odd family. Ray has two older sisters, Abigail and Martha, for whom the term harridan applies. Luckily their respective husbands Martin and Johan are guffawing good-time boys with the sense not to pay serious attention to them. The putative head of the Brewster clan is Lewis—his wife actually orchestrated matters—was said to have headed Phillips Exeter. He’s now mute and in such a diminished state he is nicknamed “diaper man.” The Brewsters, including Abigail's lesbian daughter Nora, also see ghosts. Last Chairlift is indeed partly a ghost novel, one linked to Aspen's Hotel Jerome. It also has numerous gay and transgender characters, themes Irving explored in works such as The World According to Garp and In One Person.


Quirkiness abounds. Adam sleeps with his mother long after the age in which that's socially acceptable. Like Jenny in Garp, Ray is a protective mother not an incestuous predator. Her marriage notwithstanding, Ray is in a long-term relationship with ski patroller Molly–who is analogous to Roberta in Garp–and both Adam and Elliot are fine with that. Elliot loves Dickens (!), shares Adam’s disdain for skiing, and is dubbed “the snowshoer.” He instructs Adam in that art and is also a wrestling coach. That sounds absurd, but Elliot has hands so strong he can disable bullies many times his size. Adam views him as the best “dad” he could ever have, one who encourages him to become a writer. (Writer main characters are found in many Irving novels, from early works like Garp through A Widow for One Year and Twisted River.)


Unusual characters proliferate in Last Chairlift: crossdressers, a psychotic wannabe Marine, a B-movie actor who becomes A-list, Nora's miming girlfriend and comedy partner Em, a paraplegic former ski champ, fanatics similar to the Ellen Jamesians in Garp, and a string of Adam’s inappropriate girlfriends with nicknames like “the strong one on crutches,” “the tall one with her arm in a cast,” and “the bleeder.”


Even death is unorthodox, as we see in the demise of Lewis Brewster, Adam's uncles, the actor's wife, Elliot’s parents, and others. Of course, in a ghost novel, not all of them disappear. The Hotel Jerome has many, including miners from an old photograph, a cowboy, and a Mexican-born woman who once lived there.


Finding one’s identity and voice, literally and figuratively, is another theme in Last Chairlift. In a roundabout way, it’s also the story of Adam’s voice as he grows up, marries badly, becomes a father, finds his soulmate in a truly odd relationship, and moves to Toronto. Happy endings aren’t Irving’s forte, so let's call it compromised contentment.


It depends on your perspective whether you call The Last Chairlift masterful, self-plagiarizing, creative autobiography, or a big mess. It runs 889 pages and I can't in good conscience say it needs to be that long. There is a lot of repetition, sometimes using exactly the same language. Several of Adam’s screenplays appear within the novel. They link to the narrative, but are limp enough to be called filler. The book could use a stiff edit, but a writer of Irving's stature can call his shots. Does the novel need to be as scatological as it is? Does it need to have such twisted views of sex? Are digs at reviewers and interviewers gratuitous?


These are again individual calls. John Irving has given me enough reading pleasure that I'll call The Last Chairlift the culmination of his career. Should he find another novel in him, though, he needs to ski (a theme first broached in The Water-Method Man) ungroomed trails.



Rob Weir