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Friday, August 5, 2016

Mark Thiedeman | Last Summer


the rhino and the bird
by Douglas Messerli

Mark Thiedeman (writer and director) Last Summer / 2013

By coincidence (there’s that word again; perhaps I mean, “by accidental association”) I watched Mark Thiedeman’s directorial debut, Last Summer of 2013, on the very day I finished reading Arnold Wesker’s working-class drama Roots, and I was struck by their similarities.

      

     Like Wesker’s play, Thiedeman’s movie deals with class differences—in this case not “social” ones, but intellectual differences, which will surely later lead to social ones. Two boys, Luke (Samuel Pettit) and Jonah (Sean Rose) have been close friends since they were 4, and over the years have become gay lovers, a relationship their Southern Arkansas community has seemed to have assimilated as easily, as Hollywood Reporter Stephen Farber describes it, as Native American communities embraced their gay shamans. And, in this sense, Thiedeman’s film is not really a gay film as much as it is a story about two people in love who must come to terms that they are not really good for one another.

       Jonah, as Luke quickly makes clear in the movie’s first scene where he is seen struggling through summer school, is gifted, while Luke—excellent in sports and other kinds of thinking—is intellectually challenged. His companion reads Emily Dickinson, Joseph Conrad, and Flannery O’Connor, is excellent in math, and plays Shubert on the piano, while Luke can merely offer some baseball tips to Jonah. This film languidly recounts their last few weeks together, as Jonah prepares to go off to college.
       Director Thiedeman represents their distress and fears not via dialogue or dramatic interchanges as in Roots, but primarily with aesthetically beautiful images, as if like Jonah, he were playing the role of a Southern photographer similar to William Christenberry or Walker Evans, his camera hovering over the boys’ entangled sneakers, the wood of rotting buildings, rain-splashed panes of glass, worrisome lips, and fields of long grass. And yes, this does have the feeling, at moments, of a Terrence Malick film, but fortunately without Malick’s pretentiousness. Thiedeman seems more interested in simple “artfulness” than in the grand sentiments and spiritual awakenings of Malick’s films.

      

     In fact, this film, once it’s expressed its simple premise, almost seems to lose interest in its characters, as it shifts to the pastoral world which Jonah will soon lose (as Luke puts it, “He’ll find other people who are much more interesting than me; and they will love him.”) and to which Luke will be doomed. Some people, as Luke once again perceives, feel so comfortable in once place they can’t imagine leaving, and others feel trapped in the exact same environment.
       Yet, like Wesker’s Beatie, Luke knows he’s being left behind in a culture in which he will have no significant future, just like his own parents and others who move in and out of Thiedeman’s frame. If this world is paradise, it is a very boring one, which challenges no one and in which very little happens. 
       Luke’s father defines love, in part, as “forgiving someone for being different,” and this is precisely what this young teenager does, refusing to ask Jonah, as Jonah challenges him, to stay. Yet if Luke were to demand that Jonah not move on, it would mean selfishness instead of the love he truly feels for his friend. 
      Early in the film, Luke—who despite his intellectual inabilities, seems always to be the one who best comprehends the emotional truths of this film—describes his intense relationship with Jonah as being, metaphorically speaking, like a bird on the back of a rhino. The bird, which helps the rhino to survive his daily existence, must eventually fly away, while the larger beast remains to wallow in the mud. 
      Yes, Thiedeman’s film, like Wesker’s drama, is a minor one; but I’d argue it nonetheless has more to say than hundreds of other grand love dramas. These two boys demonstrate their love through permitting the inevitable differences of their own beings. They sacrifice their love in order to give it as a gift in order to let each other survive in their natural identities. And in that act, it is film of incredible faith.

Los Angeles, August 5, 2016

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