Making Out vs. Talking It Out

MOVIES

by David Denby

SUMMER OF ‘42 directed by Robert Mulligan Warner Brothers

SATURDAY MORNING directed by Kent Mackenzie Columbia Pictures

If we are honest with ourselves, our adolescent sex experiences are likely to appear in memory as pretty funny or at worst an awkward mess—no matter how intense or spiritual they may have seemed at the time. Screenwriter Herman Raucher’s recollection of himself and his friends at age fifteen, Summer of ‘42, is most fully alive when it is most explicit about the fantastic energy and humor of boys on the make: the physical problem of getting your hand around a girl’s shoulders at the movies and then on to her breast (and not her arm, for Christ’s sake!), the terrifying trip to the drugstore for contraceptives, and all the rest. But when Raucher tries to make poetry out of first love and the loss of male innocence (his own), he shows that he still thinks like an adolescent; the movie becomes both elevated in tone and incoherent in feeling, an exercise in soft-focus commercial nostalgia.

The male characters are sharply observed. At the center of the movie there is earnest little Hermie (Gary Grimes), the screenwriter-in-adolescence, a conventionally good-looking, all-American type of boy who falls recklessly in love with Dorothy (Jennifer O’Neill), the lovely twenty-twoyear-old “adult” whose husband goes off to fight in the Second World War. Transfixed by her perfect physical wholeness and beauty, Hermie courts her with manly courage and abashed formality, completely unsure of what he should be doing or what he wants to happen. Then there’s Oscy (beautifully played by Jerry Houser), the teen-age sexual entrepreneur: aggressive, affectionate, gregarious, Oscy turns the rites of sexual initiation into a vast comic game in which every event is to be celebrated and enjoyed. In pursuit of his “feels” and finally his “lay,” he becomes an entertainer and prod for his friends, inquiring after their progress and denouncing them as “homos” when they fail to act (not because he means it, but because the word functions as an all-purpose reproach for a friend who’s fallen into behavioral limbo). Girls, on the other hand, are not quite as real as friends; they are the others, the ones talked about and acted on, and are to be approached with put-on gallantry and a thorough knowledge of the illustrated marriage manual. Finally, there is Benjie (Oliver Conant), who is skinny and has glasses and is not ready for experience; he bolts at the first sign of a girl.

These three and their families are passing a dull summer together on an underpopulated island off the coast of New England; while brothers and husbands go off to fight, the boys struggle against boredom by staging raids on the Coast Guard station, picking fights with one another, prowling the island for girls, and spying on the beautiful war bride. Not only is the movie set in the forties, but it also has some of the feeling of a forties movie in its overall placidity, confidence, and emotional fullness. These teen-agers seem to have time to make mistakes, to have adventures, and to learn; as characters they are more attractive and believable than the contemporary kids in Frank and Eleanor Perry’s Last Summer (1969), who were seen moving toward a miserable, neurotic adulthood as rapidly as their creators’ hysteria could impel them.

The softness and evasiveness of the forties pictures are also evoked and kidded in the scene in which Hermie and Oscy go to the movies with two girls to see Now Voyager. The fancy manners and tactful passions (the second half of Now Voyager is devoted to the complicated reasons why the hero and the heroine cannot go to bed together) provide the perfect mood for some furious making out in the theater; in a wonderful piece of acting, the boys’ faces struggle to hold serious expressions, receptive to the stately evasions on screen, while their hands are groping in the dark for a soft landing.

Robert Mulligan, who directed To Kill a Mockingbird, Up the Down Staircase, and many other films, is known for his lyrical touch, and in Summer of ‘42 the lyricism works best when it is least studied. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie in which characters were moving so much of the time; as Mulligan keeps his camera in motion to stay up with those hyperenergetic boys, it takes in the shabby old houses and careless beauty of the seaside landscape in a continuous, unforced flow of space. Compare the casual beach sequences here, with their hazy, salty look, to those in Ryan’s Daughter, in which the camera spotted isolated figures from afar and then zoomed in across an immensity of gleaming white sand.

But in the scenes of Hermie’s infatuation with the older girl, Raucher’s script trails off into moony vagueness, and Mulligan begins working in a conventionally “sensitive” style. When the boys spy on Dorothy and her husband from a distance, she is indeed a vision of loveliness, and we can believe that Hermie is struck dumb, but then Mulligan switches to slow motion as the husband carries her into the house. This combination is repeated when the boys witness the husband going off to war: Hermie, emotional over what he sees, is again silent, and Dorothy is slowed down as she sadly walks away. Well, girls are pretty in ordinary motion, too, and that staring, silent boy isn’t conveying much to the audience. The intimate scenes between these two are purposely awkward, but the awkwardness lacks tension; Raucher hasn’t really created a character in Dorothy (as if he felt that giving her any distinct personality would reduce her loveliness), and Hermie’s stumbling importunacy meets a rather blank response. She seems like a boy’s fantasy of a real sweet lady, but the rest of the movie is told from the vantage point of adulthood, not adolescence. There’s certainly no hint in these scenes of the complexity that would account for what Dorothy does later. In her struggle to find the right emphasis in an unwritten part, Jennifer O’Neill turns out to be a nervous, well-meaning young actress who winds up creating a little pocket of embarrassment around her whenever she appears.

The movie itself gets rather tongue-tied in these moments, and when Dorothy finally takes Hermie into bed, it becomes as evasive as anything from the sentimental forties. Is anyone really initiated this way? The woman is older but still young, beautiful, freshly crying from the news of her husband’s death, in need of consolation. The boy doesn’t have to do anything or say a word. Shadows loom over the characters so we can’t see what they might be feeling (Mulligan may have wanted to protect his inexperienced actors here), breezes sweetly blow, and in darkness and silence the moment unfolds, blessed by tears.

Afterwards, Raucher’s narration takes over: “For everything that we take with us, we leave something behind. In a very special way I lost Hermie forever.” But what is the “very special way”? Since Hermie doesn’t say a single word for the rest of the movie, we don’t know whether he’s appalled or thrilled or crushed by this first “adult” experience of life. He won’t answer Oscy’s questions or ours, and once again we’re left with that staring boy (but we know that sex did not silence Raucher forever). The whole lively stream of detailed, funny, idiosyncratic reactions to experience which on balance make this a good movie suddenly runs dry, an inhibition which suggests that Raucher hasn’t come to terms with that particular event even to this day. Hermie’s silence represents not the maturity of his new consciousness, but the author’s inability to relinquish a fond, foolish fancy.

The teen-agers in Kent Mackenzie’s new documentary, Saturday Morning, are also getting involved in sex, but they appear to be devoting so much energy to forming their attitudes toward their experiences in advance of having any, that one wonders if it’s going to be much of an adventure for them. The film is a record of a six-day marathon groupencounter session held last year in Southern California. Although the movie isn’t of any importance in itself, it marks the beginning of a new genre (group-therapy porno, shot in the nude, is expected immediately, but additional serious films will undoubtedly follow); and it also shows what the ethos of group therapy may be doing to some of the people who believe in it.

The group consists of twenty teenagers selected from more than 400 interviewed by the director. Almost all of them are very intelligent and attractive, and they sound quite healthy; the movie is not a display of neuroses, but of normal teen-age problems dramatized and wept over in public. In their discussions of sex a recurring theme for a while is their delight in sexual play and their unwillingness to go any further, but then a chicano boy, who is older in experience, makes the accurate and rather cruel observation that by advancing ethical and spiritual reasons for their reluctance, they are attempting to disguise their fear of sex itself. The differences between him and the others, who are white and black middle-class kids, suggests a lot about the class and cultural determinants of behavior. We can see that in his insistence on sex first, love later, he is a realist, believes in accepting pleasure when it is available, and is possibly more adult than they; and yet we may also wonder why the others should not get involved in sex at whatever speed they want. The only strength of group therapy as a public dramatic form is that it occasionally allows us to respond in this way to the ambiguity of experience. At other times, it seems to take experience by the neck and squeeze it until dead; there is, for example, a scene in which the chicano boy is asked to demonstrate his seduction techniques on one of the girls, and then the boy and girl tell each other their feelings about what happened, and then the group asks them what they felt about it and also asks another girl what she felt when the boy rubbed her stomach earlier, then her answer is discussed, and so on.

The earlier part of the marathon (and the movie), where the kids talk about sex and act out their hostilities to their parents, is just a warm-up for what occurs at the end—the tearful breakdowns and confessions of emotional inadequacy and guilt. The leader of the group, who encourages such emotional outbursts, seems like a very bright, sensitive man, and although I felt that in most circumstances I would trust him as a person, I am wary of accepting the role he plays here. Group therapists have really got the country by the tail: they have a jargon, a method, and they offer us paradise; like traveling evangelists, they have the power to evoke confessions and furious selfaccusations; they can dispel old illusions of spiritual safety and create new ones in their place. In several cases the emotions of the confessors in Saturday Morning seemed way out of proportion to the seriousness of the problem described, so one thinks that the real cause of the tears remains unconscious or that the group pressures are themselves responsible, regardless of what the person says is bothering him. No one could argue against the value of letting down defenses and getting to the root of things with friends or lovers or a professional who knows how to handle all that emotion, but what can the group do with the tempests it stirs up? Usually it rushes forward to congratulate the distraught person for being such a wonderful human being; but does that have any long-range effect on his problem? One boy seems aware of this when he suggests a crying girl not be smothered in support, that she be “allowed her pain,” but the others don’t understand what he means.

For me the most appalling moment in the film comes when one of the boys breaks down and confesses that he has never been able to give anyone his love, and as a consequence has never received any. Even as an infant, he insists, he was unable to love his parents. But if this is true, it couldn’t possibly be his fault; it is something that was done to him, and he needn’t feel guilty about it. A powerful sense of unworthiness will produce a confession; here is a boy who has discovered in himself the closest thing to original sin that our culture has to offer—an innate inability to love; but there is a way out. The previous night, he says, he asked first one of the group leaders and then one of the girls to love him. They each agreed to do it, and he declared himself to them in turn; they embraced, and he experienced the emotion of love for the first time. A friend of mine who is in group therapy says that the effort of bringing out something so painful produces a feeling of awe in the other participants; I was left awestruck myself by the extent of this boy’s confusion and vulnerability, by his ignorance of what love is, by the difficulties he was yet to experience in the world outside group therapy. And yet this illusory “breakthrough” is used by the film-makers as the climax of the movie.

Earlier generations of teen-agers were pressured to be good, or chaste, or to go out and make money; in the new orthodoxy, teen-agers of the upper middle class are pressured by popular culture, by the therapeutic ethos, and by their peers to be generally open and loving (as if love were not a response to particular people and qualities). I’m sure the guilt that results from the inevitable failure to honor such a commandment is more severe than older forms of guilt. The older failures could at least be excused by the weakness of human nature; but failing to love is bound to be seen among these kids as a fact against nature. When the boy who made the remark about pain protests against the blotting out of individuality in the group and against the banality of “love” as a solution to every problem, he is made to feel so bad by the others that he finally drops his head and says. “I guess the trouble with me is that I think too much.”

As a movie subject, group therapy is quite embarrassing, but I watched it with fascination. If we think of the group for a moment as a collection of people performing for cameras, the possibility arises that they are offering us this competition in anguished sensitivity as a form of protest against the deadness and externality of most public communication— think of those dreadful “personal” interviews with celebrities on the talk shows or of a public official “feeling deeply” about something in a television speech. In our new genre, the participant-actors voluntarily sacrifice their privacy in order to produce examples of personal revelation and authentic emotion; some of them, the real troupers, struggle through confessions despite a storm of tears. But this is probably too cynical. If I consider them as they want to be considered, simply as human beings, I am left with this: Oscy, the old-style teen-age boy in Summer of '42, probably turned out to be a fairly crazy man—a thundering male chauvinist, at the least; yet I think he is more energetic, more adventurous, more attractive in every way than the sensitized, rather sickly communicants of Saturday Morning.