THE EPOCHAL EVENT referred to in Peter Gessner and Tom Hurwitz’s Last Summer Won’t Happen—its syntactically bizarre title both negating the past and preempting the future—is the Summer of Love of 1967, a year marked by be-ins and youthquaking in the epicenters of the counterculture, San Francisco and New York. Filmed primarily in the Lower East Side after the March on the Pentagon in 1967 and before the bloody Democratic National Convention in August 1968, Last Summer tracks the beginnings of the shift from utopian visions to violence, despair, and nonsense among the stalwarts of the “movement.” The opening disclaimer of Last Summer proclaims this period as “a time of confrontation and contradiction”; similarly, Gessner and Hurwitz’s fifty-eight-minute documentary, a scattershot chronicle that flits from anonymous dope dealers and young escapees from suburbia to Yippie celebrities, is itself filled with incongruities.
Featuring a score by Country Joe and the Fish and Procol Harum, Last Summer was shown in September 1968 in a sidebar program at the New York Film Festival titled “New Film-makers on New Life-Styles.” Among the practitioners of alternative modes of living highlighted by Gessner and Hurwitz are teenage runaways; the filmmakers speak with a doe-eyed fifteen-year-old girl, a habitué of Saint Marks Place, who notes that if her parents ever track her down, “they’ll probably put me in a home for wayward girls.” (Like all the other subjects in the film, this teenager is never identified on-screen. Names and bios are provided as a DVD extra; she is listed as “ ‘Bobbie,’ last name and present whereabouts unknown.”)
Bobbie’s brief first-person narrative segues to Abbie Hoffman giving a talk on “Runaways: The Politics of Alienation” at the Workmen’s Circle to a mostly gray-haired crowd in folding chairs. (During this segment, it’s hard not to think of Milos Forman’s 1971 satire, Taking Off, and the film’s “Society for the Parents of Fugitive Children.”) Astonishingly, and to no apparent reaction from the senescent audience, Hoffman forms this queasy analogy about the mostly white, privileged, adolescent émigrés flooding into the East Village: “Runaways are political refugees. It’s as though they’re escaped slaves from the South and we have an Underground Railroad, and we’re gonna hide ’em.”
Hoffman’s skewed, offensive comparison typifies the missteps of what Renata Adler once referred to, in a withering 1967 piece for the New Yorker on the National New Politics Convention in Chicago, as “[a] radical movement born out of a corruption of the vocabulary of civil rights.” Though certainly much more sympathetic to the New Left than Adler ever was, Gessner and Hurwitz are not uncritical observers of this “time of confrontation and contradiction.” Last Summer later reveals Hoffman’s megalomania (“When I talk about the movement, I’m talking about myself”) and further episodes of twisted logic (“I have not been able to define whether shooting a cop is an act of love”).
Though filmed with a sense of urgency, Last Summer lacks a clear organizing principle; among its more haphazard sections is an obviously staged encounter between the baby-faced, besuited writer and artist Britt Wilkie and an editor. Yet this too-brief documentary serves as an important progenitor: The fissures in the New Left that Last Summer begins to trace would be epically, unforgettably explored seven years later by Robert Kramer (a former collaborator of Gessner’s) in Milestones.
Icarus Films Home Video releases Last Summer Won’t Happen on DVD and VOD April 23.