Dark Summer

By Michael Dampier

dark-summer-charles-teton.jpgDark Summer, dir. Charles Teton

Dark Summer is more enjoyable on second viewing than on first. Initially one is disappointed by the slight story, and by performances which, though adequate, are neither particularly revealing nor particularly touching. Moreover the treatment of the break-up of the relationship between Jess and Abe, the young couple who are the film’s central protagonists, is too perfunctory to be moving or memorable. Thus when Abe, having discovered that Jess has left him, buries his head in his hands and asks ‘Why, Jess? Why me? Why me, Jess?’ the viewer is less likely to share his despair than to wonder at the introduction of a whole new set of psychological narrative and dramaturgical possibilities in the final shot of the film.

These are weaknesses which one suspects Charles Teton would to some extent acknowledge. Certainly he feels that one thing he learnt from making the film was the difficulty of combining the roles of cinematographer and director. It is, indeed, the look of the film, together with the rhythm of the cutting, which makes it more attractive and interesting on second viewing. Teton’s chosen editing strategy stirs memories of Ozu, in that it eschews camera movement, and sometimes makes use of what are effectively still life shots. However, when Ozu cuts in one of his characteristic series of still life compositions, much of the emotional resonance which results is derived from the viewer’s awareness of human absence or distance: the spaces shown are full of the traces of human activity, even when empty of human beings. Moreover, they are located as part of a rich filmic texture, and juxtaposed with passages which are full of complex dramatic interactions, albeit ones articulated with such subtlety and delicacy that even the slightest gesture is meaningful.

In Dark Summer, however, sequences in which Teton distances himself from the articulation of dramatic interaction dominate to such an extent that his still lives, though often beautifully composed, lack emotional resonance. Certainly Teton does have an eye for striking compositions, and on a purely visual level these work effectively with his style of editing. Moreover, his use of the CinemaScope frame is often compelling pictorially, justifying his assertion that a great city like Liverpool deserves the wider canvas provided by this format. Unfortunately, however, he is not consistently able to give a sense that his protagonists are really part of this city. Too often they seem to be placed alone in a guidebook composition rather than being revealed as part of the living texture and space of their urban world. Even when the location is bleak, the effect communicated tends often to be one of artifice rather than desolation.

It’s not just by using closer shots that characters are given depth and complexity, made dramatically interesting. It’s also by placing them in a living context, a social and emotional space in which their interactions can be acted out. This is something Teton seems to aspire to only occasionally.

Nevertheless Teton remains a courageous young film-maker whose meagre resources contributed, for good or ill, to many of his important production and aesthetic choices.

Michael Dampier is a film historian.