There was a time

There was a time when it was very much within the bounds of human aspiration to have seen every movie that had ever been made. Certainly the task would’ve been a tricky one: keeping tabs on productions; monitoring the spread and availability of technology; watching out for projects springing up from disparate global territories. Extremely difficult, then, but feasible at a push. There was a point, however, when the collective hunger for cinema became too voracious. The sheer volume of movies being created (lovingly referred to in modern parlance as “content”) meant that it became logistically impossible for one person to retain a full, panoramic picture of the medium and its evolution. It was at this point where the canon – that vague collection of accepted cinematic masterworks – began to fray and fan out. If no-one has seen all the movies, how is it even possible to say which ones are the best?

Spring Night, Summer Night by Joseph L. Anderson feels like a movie that slid off the end of bar and got soaked up in the drip tray of history. On one hand it’s tremendously sad that an artist wasn’t able to find acceptance at the time of a work’s creation. On the other, the fact that this extraordinary film has resurfaced for the evaluation it justly deserves could be seen as a small miracle. It seems that with movies, the good will always out. While this film was rejected in its own time as an outlier, or deemed too arty or rugged for pre-Summer of Love audiences, with the gift of hindsight it can be seen as exactly what it is: a vital fragment of southern social history, a hushed topographic survey and an achingly tender look at troubled family life and inter-generational malaise.

One of the reasons why the film failed to connect in its own time was that its distributor insisted on re-packaging it as piece of softcore filler and releasing it under the notably unsexy title of Miss Jessica Is Pregnant. The original film explores questions of incest among the offspring of a dirt poor couple from Appalachian Ohio, yet its approach is a model of tempered, sensitive inquiry. The squalid bongo version of the film appears to invert this careful approach, instead latching on to a non-existent tabloid undertow and milking it for every shiny new penny. Miss Jessica arrived as the bottom half of a schlock double bill and then faded to obscurity – both it and Anderson’s original desiccated into celluloid dust.

Jessica (Larue Hall) is a faded wallflower who is browbeaten into a life of torrid drudgery. She waits on her family hand a foot, though is clearly upset at having been sublimated to such an extent. Her folks want her to marry, mainly as a tactic to push her out of their shack-like house and diminish the already-overstretched financial overheads. An opening dinner scene offers a vision of domestic hell, as the bellowing patriarch (John Crawford) crows and complains about anything and everything. His wife (Marj Johnson) sits, lightly slumped, across the table, sucking back suds from generic tins and rolls out splenetic missives fuelled by her mellow-buzz alcoholism. In the back, grandma sits in the dark watching the flicker of the TV and shovelling down stew from a dented canteen. In just a few simple shots, Anderson depicts this household as a crucible for light subversion, yet at the same time, refuses to rebuke his characters for the paths they eventually choose. Their pain and frustration is born of their situation.

Enter Carl, Jessica’s clingy, James Dean-like brother

Enter Carl (Ted Heim), Jessica’s clingy, James Dean-like brother. In the film’s prophetic opening shot he is seen unloading a shotgun into the rusting husk of a tractor before his father gallops over to berate him. Carl rolls his eyes as if he’s heard every insult in the book. He doesn’t fear his loud mouthed pop. He won’t be trod on by anyone. It soon transpires that his relationship with his sister runs deeper than society deems acceptable for two siblings. Their clammy closeness isn’t revealed for a while – Carl is seen jealously tussling with suitors at a bluegrass bar, using beer as a cover for his insidious passion. In a car outside, he and Jessica engage in a physical fight, though it’s uncertain whether this tactile embrace is born out of love or earnest rage.

From this point, the story forks off in two directions. On one side, Jessica and Carl question the acceptability of their bond. They can’t be together, but at the same time, they can’t be apart. Elsewhere, the gruff father has taken it on himself to turn detective and find the man who impregnated his daughter and force marriage upon him. This isn’t really out of any sense of honour, more as a path to economic sustainability. Through his ambling journey around gas stations, cafeterias and dive bars, we’re offered an ad-hoc inspection of the local landscape and its hangdog inhabitants.

As the film progresses, it becomes evident that the characters aren’t searching for a way to normalise their sins, but for a sense of identity – who they are and where they’ve come from. The harder they look, the less they really know. Jessica and Carl’s taboo situation is eventually revealed to be but a small blotch on the vast human comedy, and even a cursory look towards the roots of the family tree reveals that antisocial behaviour is something of a tradition. Anderson’s lightness of touch helps this most simple of narratives take on sublime levels of moral complexity. This film is a gift that’s been triumphantly surfaced from the cold, hard ground, and will now hopefully receive the dues it deserves.

David Jenkins is editor of Little White Lies magazine and freelance writer. He has worked in film for much of his adult life, and counts Time Out London, Sight & Sound and The Guardian among his bylines. He has edited the book What I Love About Movies, released by Faber and Faber, and the Little White Lies Guide to Making Your Own Movie with Laurence King Publishing.

Art by Jason Ngai