' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973)

"You've got your whole life ahead of you." Seriously. Seriously. When do people stop espousing this pseudo-philosophy? I heard it in my teens and I heard it in my twenties and I've heard it here in my thirties. I can only imagine I'll still hear it up into my forties and fifties for the simple fact that late in "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams" middle-aged Harry Walden (Martin Balsam) recites those words to his middle-aged wife Rita (Joanne Woodward). Bless Rita's heart, however, because although she does not vocally tell off her spouse we can easily tell she is mentally calling shenanigans. This whole film, in fact, is about Rita standing at the dividing line......strike that!......reaching the realization that she has already long since passed the dividing line of the point when your whole life is ahead of you. Most of her life is now behind her - summer wishes have shriveled up, winter dreams have died. (And a Merry Christmas to you too!!!)


As the film opens we find Rita and Harry sleeping in the same room but in separate beds. I shook my head and thought, “Oh, cinema, you and your whimsical innocence.” But then I remembered this wasn’t the Thirties. This was the Seventies. The Swinging Sixties had already happened. “Last Tango In Paris” had been released a year earlier. They’re sleeping in those separate beds for a reason! Even so, if ever a movie was meant for the Seventies it was “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams.” That washed out look that seems to strangle out sunlight, prevalent in so many films of the era, provides a perfect undertone to the film’s purposeful oppressiveness. Their home, so spacious and ornate is nonetheless made to look like a dank, if well-designed, dungeon. “When did it get so dark in here?” Rita wonders aloud.

Woodward would have merely been 43 at the time of the film’s release but manages to play at least 10 years older, skillfully creating an advancing spinster with a whiny voice that often seeks to nag even in the most gentle of situations. (Listening to her pick away at her spouse when he’s in the midst of a mini-breakdown at Bastogne is cringe-inducing.) We see this is hereditary when her mother comes to visit. Her mother is played by Silvia Sidney in a performance that evokes Elaine Stritch on “30 Rock” – just less comedic and more harsh. Mother and Daughter attend a showing of Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.” Mother has a heart attack and dies. Having a heart attack at a showing of “Wild Strawberries” threatens to make the Symbolicometer go haywire, but despite this and a few sensationalist dream sequences the film still manages to keep its wits.

Her mother’s death, of course, prompts a life re-evaluation, but that evaluation is more a downward spiral than a victory march. She clings to an old farmhouse as a means to cling to her past. She has long since lost contact with her son who apparently went gay and lives with a man. The film never quite goes so far as to say Rita not only disapproves but is disgusted by her son’s life choice, but the ever-fearless Woodward quietly hints in that direction. We initially suspect her husband is the standard uninspiring cipher who only exists to provide our female protagonist a reason for being so wrapped up in herself. Ah, but the script slowly unearths a sweet, patient man more in love with his wife than she is with him.

The film, in fact, sort of becomes as much as his as hers late in the second act when they take that aforementioned trip to Bastogne where he fought in WWII. There he re-connects with his past, and his re-connection aids in her kinda, sorta enlightenment. Decisions are made, steps taken, perhaps “you can see them coming”, but perhaps there are all sorts of decisions we can see coming in old age that we desperately try to stave off making because to make them means we have to cut significant emotional chords to which we have long clung. And maybe that’s why Harry tells Rita she has her whole life ahead of her, and why people keep telling me I have my whole life ahead of me even though I see so much of my life in a rearview mirror I sometimes wish I could just blend into.

Days get shorter. Years go faster. The world closes in. Rita's closing line - "I want to moved into a smaller apartment" - is, I reckon, meant as a rejection of the dark, empty representation of her current living space. I wondered if maybe it signaled she was ready to just slip into a Manhattan cocoon and hibernate in old age.

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