We’re back! This week’s team effort started with a seasonally-appropriate question:
What are your favorite summer movies?
Original art by Andy Vanderbilt!
TRISTAN RISK: My favourite summer films are EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY and THE GREAT OUTDOORS. Strangely enough, because they both remind me of vacations with my parents. Don’t ask, I don’t get it, either. 😉
FREEMAN WILLIAMS: In the Summer of 1976, I had just graduated from high school. I was preparing to go to college (another horror story on its own), and was enjoying my last space as an unproductive member of society as best I could. And that was when HBO put DEATH RACE 2000 into heavy rotation.
Mind you, this was 1976. Drive-ins still existed, and we made use of our local twin-screen theater, especially when we found out about those magical R-rated movies. I already had a taste for garbage cinema, but movies like STUDENT TEACHERS introduced me to a whole new strata of film.
DEATH RACE 2000 has remained the gold standard for me, though – not only as an example of exploitation perfection — wit AND debauchery — but retaining that last whiff of freedom, when the atmosphere was full of possibilities and my own innate superiority.
JEREMY LOWE: My fondest summertime memories growing up were my “Rage Movie Nights.” Every Monday night, my father would go to his AA meeting and my mom would let me have friends over to watch movies, eat junk food, and drink soda. One of my favorites to show was Peter Jackson’s first film, and in my opinion, his best… BAD TASTE! It has blood, gore, splatter, crude humor, action, and adventure. Pretty much everything a teenage horror nerd wants out of a movie. To learn how long it took Mr. Jackson to make BAD TASTE, and that most of the brains and guts came from a slaughterhouse, just enticed me and my friends even more. Fuck, and the VHS cover art of the alien sticking up this middle finger –how punk rock is that shit!?!? There will never be another movie made on a micro-budget about aliens that come to earth for the new fast-food taste sensation of human flesh, and if there is, it will not be able to hold a candle to BAD TASTE.
MIKE VANDERBILT: Many of the movies I can quote verbatim and consider favorites are ones that were in constant rotation on cable TV in my formative years. You young bloods out there may not realize that we used to only have ONE HBO, and ONE Showtime. There was no On Demand, Netflix, or DVR… you simply watched what was on and the same movie would be repeated over and over again to the point where it was etched into your psyche. Joe Dante’s THE ‘BURBS was released theatrically in February of 1989, which means it probably hit home video that summer, and consequently played just about every day on HBO the summer of 1989. I would have been 10, and being on summer vacation, not driving yet, and too young to get a part-time job, myself and my friends ended up watching THE ‘BURBS just about every time it was on, when we weren’t running the streets.
For myself and my friends, THE ‘BURBS was everything we wanted in a film at 10 years old; slapstick, poop jokes, a little bit of horror (and there was nobody who could do that better in 1989 than Joe Dante) and the appropriate amount of cursing. Writer Dana Olsen wrote the script based on her experiences growing up in the suburbs, and the notion that “Mr. Flanagan down the street could turn out to be Jack The Ripper.” Olsen’s real-life knowledge of the outskirts of the city brings an authenticity to the piece. The film features a neighborhood of bored white people being too nosy for their own good when they begin to suspect that their new creepy new neighbors may have murdered a friendly old man on the block, Walter Seznick.
I grew up in the Beverly neighborhood of the south side of Chicago, which while part of the city, certainly felt like the Mayfield Place cul-de-sac in suburban Hinkley Hills. We being kids with nothing much else to do for three hot months out of the year (when our parents would kick us out of the house to “blow the stink off ya”), would begin to suspect that the quiet, older, or just plain weird neighbors on the block were up to no good, just like the bored characters in the film.
When we became adults, the characters in THE ‘BURBS spoke to myself and my friends (probably because they’re grown folk acting like children.) When I was a youngster, plenty of my wardrobe came from the Army/Navy surplus store in Hammond, Indiana so I thought Bruce Dern’s Rumsfeld was cool. Ric Ducommon’s Art was a perfect proxy for the kid that always got you in trouble everyone could relate to Tom Hanks’ every man, Ray.
We watched THE ‘BURBS a lot, and it’s interesting, looking back, that while at 9 or 10 years old you don’t give a terrific amount of thought to writers and directors and the films that you will end up loving as an adult, it was with THE ‘BURBS (and picking up Fangoria monthly) that I figured out how much I loved Joe Dante. It’s also worth noting that THE ‘BURBS — a comedy, albeit a very black one — has a more interesting, and rousing score (by Jerry Goldsmith) than most big-budget action and fantasy flicks do. There are plenty of films that offer nothing more than a nostalgic rush, but THE ‘BURBS is one that actually gets better as you get older and start to “get” its sly parody of the suburban lifestyle.
MATT WEDGE: I grew up in the middle of nowhere on a dairy farm. My only real connection to the world and culture beyond the farm and the tiny town that was seven miles away came from books and television. When I was eight or nine-years-old, my horizons were expanded beyond anything my still developing brain could possibly comprehend when my family purchased a satellite dish. This was the early ‘80s, so it was one of those giant monstrosities that used to pop up in rural yards with no access to cable. Suddenly going from three channels to literally hundreds was mind-blowing. The viewing options were seemingly unlimited. So what did I do? I watched RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK approximately two hundred times.
Back in the early ‘80s, cable channels had yet to start scrambling their signals, so that massive dish in the backyard pulled in HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, Showtime, TBS (back when they showed every Western in the MGM library), the Cubs on WGN, and a channel out of Boston that showed surprisingly well-curated movie selections (where I first saw THE TERMINATOR). While I took advantage of this huge selection, I eventually realized that many of the channels that showed movies largely rotated the same hundred or so titles. That said, I didn’t complain because that meant I got to watch RAIDERS over and over and over again.
At the time, I just thought it was a blast to watch. I loved everything a kid at that time should love (the narrow escapes, the chase scenes, the wisecracks) and was freaked out by everything a kid should be freaked out about (the snakes, the face melting, the snakes, the creepy Nazi with the weird laugh, the snakes). But looking back, what I could consider wasting my time by repeatedly watching the same movie, was actually the beginning of my film education. I was learning about visual storytelling, efficient exposition, iconography, and how to build suspense using performance, music, and editing. I absorbed all of these things without realizing it—and this was years before I understood that much of the film was simply homage to much older films, serials, and adventure novels. RAIDERS was a masterclass in years of filmmaking and storytelling techniques that was being taught to me by one of the greatest directors of the past forty years.
But all I cared about at the time was how purely exhilarating the movie was. It was not only my summer movie, it was my year-round movie. I still watch it probably at least once a year and each time it fills me with that same exhilaration.
PATRICK SMITH: Thinking about it, I can’t really think of any specific movies I watched during summer in my formative years. I mean sure, I could mention JAWS, EVIL DEAD 2, FRIDAY THE 13th: THE FINAL CHAPTER, or RESERVOIR DOGS, but let’s be real here, I was watching those the rest of the year too. However, if we’re talking about a movie that that brings about a full-blown nostalgic transportive experience, few movies hit me harder than Linklater’s DAZED AND CONFUSED.
I only saw this flick for the first time about a year ago, and I was not expecting it to affect it me as much as it did. For one thing, there are a lot of similarities between central Texas and central New Jersey, where I grew up, and despite taking place a good decade before I was even born, there’s that universal quality that all good coming-of-age stories have.
If I get right down to it all, I remember about my summers from ages 14 to 18 was driving with my friends (probably listing to WMMR) around our boring town in the pursuit of beer, drugs, sex, or a party where we might be able to get all three — all while trying not to get jumped by whatever asshole we managed to piss off that week. Ask me for details and I wouldn’t be able to provide many. My brain isn’t wired like Karl Ove Knausgaard. I won’t ever be able to write out a detailed account of my youth, but I remember snippets and vibes and most importantly, who I used to be.
You talk to anybody about this film, and inevitably the conversation of which character you relate to the most will come up. Not who’s your favorite (Wooderson), but who reminds you the most of you. Linklater might have been hedging his bets, but he knew that different people would take away different things, and nobody would be wrong. Speaking for myself, I identify with Adam Goldberg’s Mike more than I would like (although I would never punch someone on the back of the head like a chump), but that’s also something that’s uniquely mine.
I would never call high school the best years of my life, and honestly, thinking about how much effort I put into pursuing those aforementioned things is mind-boggling to me now, but they were about as definitive an experience as I could have hoped for. I’m grateful DAZED AND CONFUSED allowed me to contextualize it for me, because I’m able to appreciate my past as well as that of a whole generation separate from my own.
JON ZILLA: Strictly by the metric of blockbusters released during the summer season, my honest-to-goodness favorite summer movie would have to be GHOSTBUSTERS, only because I’ve seen it more often than any other, although I didn’t see it until it hit cable a year later so I don’t think of it as a summer movie, really. Also, I usually don’t revisit that movie until September or October nowadays. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a scarily tight runner-up by those standards. I never saw either one in theaters upon their initial releases, and I think that makes a difference.
The scholars tend to agree that JAWS and STAR WARS kicked off the summer blockbuster trend as we know it. For me, the notion of “summer movies” sank in during that five-year stretch where I started getting out to the movies on my own. I have such vivid memories of seeing movies like BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN, INDIANA JONES 3, GHOSTBUSTERS 2, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, ARACHNOPHOBIA, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, TERMINATOR 2, JURASSIC PARK, and BATMAN RETURNS in theaters for the first time. Some of those titles I may reflect on more fondly than others, but that’s not the point I’m making.
Over the course of the 1990s, the big-budget franchise business solidified and so did my movie-going habits, in both parallel and perpendicular trajectories. Bolstered by that flush of meager-but-just-enough summer-job money in 1996, I made it my insane mission to see more than forty new movies on the big screen that summer. And I did it.
And while it makes perfect sense to me today that I’d have seen ESCAPE FROM L.A. and INDEPENDENCE DAY and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and THE ROCK and KINGPIN and CABLE GUY (all more than once by the way), I have equally vivid memories of seeing DRAGONHEART and TWISTER and THE PHANTOM and SPY HARD and BORDELLO OF BLOOD and motherfucking PHENOMENON, all of which indicate to me an obsessiveness as much as genuine passion. And since reckless devotion and enthusiasm laced with mania have seemingly become the hallmark of the method by which I now ingest movies as a sort-of adult, I’d say this has been a fairly revealing question.
JAMIE RIGHETTI: STAND BY ME is one of those quintessential summer films that can make you ache for childhood: the stifling heat of summer, long stretches of lazy afternoons, friendships long forgotten, that lost sense of adventure, but most of all, the beauty of innocence. Despite being a Stephen King adaptation, the pervading darkness in the film comes not from the dead body, but instead from the insecurities each boy faces due to a troubled home life. It’s a coming-of-age story that’s different than most. When Gordie sees the dead body, he’s not horrified by the rotting corpse so much as he is by the indifference of death; he truly believes that he should be dead instead because his father has told him repeatedly that he is worthless. It’s a heavy moment for a ten year old and it takes the intervention of Chris, superbly played by River Phoenix, to make him realize that his life is special. As an older Gordie then reflects on his career as a successful writer, he remembers his friend who, despite turning his life around, was killed trying to stop a fight. Once again, like the dead boy in their childhood, death remained indifferent and cold. It’s a particularly poignant turn, especially considering the untimely death of Phoenix who, like Chris, remains forever young in our memories, clad in dirty blue jeans and a buzzcut, etched in summer sunlight, eternally cool.
“I’ll see ya.”
“Not if I see you first.”
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