by Todd Walton, June 29, 2016
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” — Carl Rogers
We recently saw a French film made in 2008, Summer Hours, written and directed by Olivier Assayas and recommended to us by Louis Bedrock, the writer and translator. A beautifully made film set in present-day France, I immediately loved the sights and sounds, but found I was not connecting emotionally with the characters. About twenty minutes into the film, my lack of emotional connection with anyone in the movie almost made me stop watching, but then I surrendered to the flow of imagery and the unfolding story.
By the end of the movie, I was glad I’d watched the entirety, though I couldn’t elucidate why I was glad. I never came to care much about the individual people in the movie, but I could identify with what they were going through—the swift evolution of culture from one generation to the next.
The next day, I found myself remembering many of the scenes from Summer Hours and admiring how this tapestry of key moments in the lives of three siblings captures the reality of our modern era—the cultural paradigms defining French society and French art obliterated by new global and technological realities.
Two days after seeing the movie, I was at work on my latest novel, re-reading pages writ over the last few days, and came to the following reminiscence of one of my characters.
“When I was a young man, before I met Honey, I lived in San Francisco and was by turns a house painter, janitor, dishwasher, desk clerk in a cheap hotel, window washer, and dog walker. This was before the advent of computers when San Francisco was an affordable place to live for people of all walks of life, not just people with lots of money. Thus the city was full of artists and eccentrics and musicians and poets—hundreds of poets.”
Reading that reminiscence, I was put in mind of the ending of Summer Hours when dozens of teenagers descend upon the now-empty country home outside of Paris where much of the movie is set. At the beginning of the film we are introduced to this house as the home of an elderly woman dedicated to keeping alive the work of her uncle, a lesser-known Impressionist painter—the house full of rare and expensive furniture and glassware and artworks from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
After the long opening scene, we learn of this woman’s death, and watch as her three middle-aged children decide what to do with her house and valuable works of art—opting to sell everything and split the fortune three ways. And at last, we see the woman’s grandchildren and many of their friends and acquaintances partying and smoking dope in the shell of that ark that once contained artifacts from the epoch before the coming of television and computers and digitalized globalized everything.
While watching the young people take temporary possession of the old house, I felt anxious they might burn the place down, though there was nothing to suggest they would do much damage. They were having a party. They would stay for a day or two and then go back to their lives of scrabbling to make livings while trying to make sense of the fleeting images on their phones. Ere long, another wealthy person would take charge of the estate and fill the house with things.
These musings put me in mind of when I was twenty and had no fear about dropping out of college, despite my parents’ withdrawal of support, because there was a super-abundance of places to rent for next to nothing along with many part-time jobs to be had. After a few years of roaming around, I settled in Santa Cruz, circa 1972. My monthly rent for a big room in a lovely old house was thirty dollars, my monthly grocery bill about the same.
Imagine the artistic ferment today, if people knew they could survive perfectly well on a hundred dollars a month, or today’s equivalent, and there were plenty of jobs to be had.
The most valuable artifacts in the beautiful old house in Summer Hours are paintings by the landscape painter Corot, whose work is considered an important bridge between the Neo-Classical tradition and Impressionism. I was thinking about Corot when I wandered into the Oddfellows Hall in Mendocino to view the latest show of paintings by local artists. The term Post-Everything kept coming to mind as I wandered around that airy old building hunting for something to love.
And the idea of hunting for something to love put me in mind of the very last scene in Summer Hours. The granddaughter of the woman who owned those Corots, having invited her friends to invade the old manse before the new owners take possession, leaves the party, finds her boyfriend swimming in the pond, and leads him into the wilder lands of the estate.
When they come to a wall marking the boundary of her grandmother’s property, the granddaughter says to her boyfriend, “Come on, I don’t want them to find us.” Her boyfriend gallantly scales the wall by standing on the seat of an abandoned bicycle, helps his beloved over the wall, and she leads him into the unknown.
Having had a week now to digest the movie—thanks, Louis, for the recommendation—I feel more tenderly toward the young people I encounter in Mendocino, young people clutching their phones and looking away when I say Hello. And I feel more tenderly toward old people, older even than I, who remember the days before computers, the days of neighborhood barbecues and children playing games in the dusk, those days when societal change came more slowly than it does now, or so it seemed.
(Todd Walton’s website is UnderTheTableBooks.com.)