Cooling It With Books and Films During the Big Heat
By Stuart Mitchner
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes…
—The Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun”
And here comes the air-conditioning. I’ve already got the ceiling fan going. We’ve had central air for 30 years now and we never take it for granted. I spent nine summers in New York without it. In the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” the back of your neck gets “dirty and gritty,” and “people looking half dead” are walking on a sidewalk “hotter than a match head.” The song says it’s a pity that city days can’t be like city nights, dancing away the heat. I say day or night, New York was never more grittily, intimately, crazily itself than in the hot, humid core of an un-airconditioned summer of reading and sweating, breathing it all in because it was part of being one with the city. And in your teens and early twenties New York summer nights were fine for walking down Greenwich Avenue for a midnight hamburger at the White Tower or all the way up Seventh or Sixth Avenue to wander around Times Square feeling the flash and crackle of the big signs, the back of your neck not hot and gritty but cool and sweaty damp, standing outside the Metropole watching Cozy Cole and his band blowing the blues away on the stand behind the bar.
Reading City Heat
Summer afternoons reading Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Salinger, pairing heat and fiction, I merged my sweet, sweltering city with the mid-1920s New York summer of The Great Gatsby, which I first read in a muggy second-floor room with windows open on Waverly Place. Jay Gatsby comes across cool and freshly conceived in contrast to the “deep summer” of the central chapter, where after referring to how in “this heat every extra gesture was an affront to the common store of life,” Fitzgerald offers a “room, shadowed well with awnings, … dark and cool,” where “Daisy and Jordan lay upon an enormous couch, like silver idols weighing down their own white dresses against the singing breeze of the fans.”
Years later in the front room of a second-floor brownstone oven on West 87th, when I wasn’t watching kids on the street below at play in the gush of the open fire hydrant, I was living in the post-war Manhattan summer of J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, where “the heat of the afternoon was, to say the least, oppressive,” as the cab carrying the missing groom’s brother Buddy Glass and the chain-smoking Matron of Honor (“I’m so hot I could die!”) moved west, “directly, as it were, into the open furnace of the late-afternoon sky.”
Cooling It with James
Future critic and Princeton resident R.P. Blackmur recalls stopping by the Cambridge Public Library on a “hot and
muggy” Massachusetts day, “so that from the card catalogue I selected as the most cooling title The Wings of the Dove, and on the following morning, a Sunday, even hotter and muggier, I began, and by the stifling midnight had finished my first elated reading of the novel. Long before the end I knew a master had laid his hands on me. The beauty of the book bore me up; I was both cool and waking; excited and effortless; nothing was any longer worthwhile and everything had become necessary. A little later, there came outside the patter and the cooling of a shower of rain and I was able to go to sleep, both confident and desperate in the force of art.”
I enjoy repeating that story even though the beauty of The Wings of the Dove, in spite of years of trying, in all types of weather, on and off the road, never bore me up, and the master never “laid hands on me,” until the summer I read Portrait of a Lady. Blackmur understands, modifying his enthusiasm with this coda, “Such are the advantages and energies of boyhood. By great luck I had been introduced simply and directly, and had responded in the same way, to what a vast number of people have thought an impossible novel by an impossible author. … In short, I was unimpeded.”
In an essay in This Quiet Dust, William Styron expands on the heat in William Faulkner’s fiction, “which is like a small, mean death itself. … It is a monumental heat, heat so desolating to the body and spirit as to have the quality of a half-remembered bad dream until one realizes that it has, indeed, been encountered before, in all those novels and stories of Faulkner through which this unholy weather — and other weather more benign — moves with an almost touchable reality.”
Not being able to think offhand of any specific moments of monumental heat, I find the most potent heat in Faulkner in the intensity of his monumental prose. Looking at random in Light in August, the first book within reach: “The organ strains come rich and resonant through the summer night, blended, sonorous, with that quality of abjectness and sublimation, as if the freed voices themselves were assuming the shapes and attitudes of crucifixions, ecstatic, solemn, and profound in gathering volume.”
Heat as Accessory
In Albert Camus’s The Stranger, blazing sun and blinding heat are accessories to the shooting at the existential center of the story: “By now the sun was overpowering. It shattered into little pieces on the sand and water. … The blazing sand looked red to me … the whole beach, throbbing in the sun, was pressing on my back. … The sun was starting to burn my cheeks, and I could feel drops of sweat gathering in my eyebrows … my forehead especially was hurting me, all the veins in it throbbing under the skin. It was this burning, which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made me move forward. … All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my fore-head and, indistinctly, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me. The scorching blade slashed at my eyelashes and stabbed at my stinging eyes …. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.”
In my reading memory that moment on the beach at Algiers stood out, the essence of the merciless power of heat and sun, but I never realized until I put the pieces together that the enemy attacking Meursault wasn’t the Arab so much as the stabbing, flashing, crashing, dazzling, stinging of the sun.
When Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly was previewed in America in 1968, audiences, including certain reviewers, found “the desert scenes too long,” something Leone “lamented” in Christopher Frayling’s biography. “With Morricone’s music,” the desert sequence, where Tuco (Eli Wallach) forces “Blondie” (Clint Eastwood) on a death march, was slowed to “an almost hallucinatory pace.” Frayling points out that Leone was understandably “keen to defend the desert sequences. The shots of Tuco riding behind a parched and blistered Blondie, clutching a pink, frilly parasol to protect himself from the sun” particularly appealed to him. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli photographed it all, Leone thought, “in a way that was worthy of the great surrealist painters.”
It’s possible the desert scenes seemed too long to those who were in the grip of the film, vicariously attached to Eastwood, at the mercy of sun and cinema. Finally collapsing, his face seared raw, a horror movie of sunflayed flesh, he’s done for, Tuco’s about to finish him off, when Morricone’s stirring score comes to the rescue, trumpets on high as the “Carriage of the Spirits, La Carrozza Dei Fantasm,” stuffed with dead Confederate soldiers, gallops into view. It’s more than the most improbable of rescues, it’s Leone in his glory, music, imagery, emotion, all one, Eastwood is saved, you’re saved, almost as if you’ve been suffering a thirst that’s now been miraculously quenched. And when a dying soldier whispers the secret of the treasure in the cemetery into Blondie’s ear, the secret at the motive heart of the film, you can already hear the fanfare of Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold” finale. Of course there’s no way not to know what’s coming when you’ve seen the film at least a dozen times, both butchered and whole, dubbed and subtitled.
I don’t know what privations Leone’s cast and crew had to endure for the filming of the desert sequences (outside Almeria, in Spain), but they were nothing compared to what Erich von Stroheim subjected his crew to when filming the finale of Greed in 1924 (the image shown here is from that sequence). He was told that such a scene could be shot on the dunes at Oxnard, near Los Angeles. Instead, the production spent two midsummer months in 91-123F heat of Death Valley at von Stroheim’s insistence, with as many as a dozen crew members having to be sent back to Los Angeles suffering from heat exhaustion.
High Heat in the UK
With the recent triple-digit temperatures recorded in England, some of the world’s favorite songs have taken on an ironic ambiance. Even “Here Comes the Sun” risks losing the inspirational edge that made it a cheering anthem for people who survived the pandemic. “Rain” says “When it rains and shines,” it’s “just a state of mind…” — except maybe when the heat’s breaking records. “I Am the Walrus” is big and mad enough to see you through to the other side of that brilliant moment, “Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun” and “if the sun don’t come you get a tan from standing in the English rain.”
Oh for some English rain, any kind of rain, right now. Maybe today?
Note: The passage about reading Henry James is from R.P. Blackmur’s Studies in Henry James (New Directions 1983).
Christopher Frayling’s Something To Do With Death (Faber and Faber 2000) provided the quotes from Leone.