Franklin Miller III, the co-producer of Spring Night, Summer Night, a film that was recently shown at the New York Film Festival 50 years after it was unceremoniously bumped, watched his first movie in Rosse Hall when he was eight years old. When Miller was growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, Rosse Hall was a gymnasium, used once a week for screenings by Kenyon’s film club. “There’d be a film you’d never heard of,” said Miller, “possibly never see unless you went into Rosse Hall.”
When Miller was a senior at Oberlin College, his father Franklin Miller Jr., a celebrated professor of physics at Kenyon, received a grant from the National Science Foundation to produce “single concept films,” three-minute educational videos on scientific topics at Ohio State University.
“Here I am,” Miller said, “a senior at Oberlin with no film department to speak of, and my dad. . . is making movies at Ohio State.”
After graduating, Miller moved to Columbus to help his father film, earn his MA in sculpture and play bluegrass banjo at clubs in the city. It was there that Miller met his long-time collaborator, Joseph Anderson, who was working at the time as a filmmaker attached to OSU. Anderson needed a soundtrack for a stop-motion short film he had made of a football game at the university. “There’s a lot of running around in the film,” Miller said, “so I figured, why not bluegrass? It runs around too.”
The bluegrass, which was comically synchronized to the football players’ movements, became an integral aspect of the short film, which later won first prize at the American Film Festival.
“It was during those long days in the editing rooms while we were taking a break from matching up footage to music, that we started planning this movie,” Miller said, referring to “Spring Night, Summer Night.”
The story of an Appalachian couple who may or may not be siblings, “Spring Night, Summer Night” is set in southeastern Ohio. The film crew was headquartered in Athens, Ohio, a two-hour drive from Gambier. Miller co-wrote, co-produced, co-edited and made the soundtrack, appearing as a banjo player in a scene in the film, while Anderson directed. “You run out of credits to give yourselves,” Miller said.
Anderson was a key figure in the first conference of the New American Cinema movement in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which hoped to bring the social realism and regional specificity of the Italian neorealists to America.
“The idea [of neorealism] is that a movie should be 90 minutes out of someone’s life who’s never been in a movie before,” said Miller, “because then you don’t see the actor, you see the person.” As part of their research, they visited bars around Athens and spoke with locals. Two scenes in the movie are directly lifted from stories told to the pair by residents of Athens.
The film stars Ted Heimerdinger ’65, a recipient of the Paul Newman Trophy — awarded annually by the Department of Dance, Drama and Film to the best male actor of the year — along with his frequent scene partner Marj Johnson. Johnson, a Mount Vernon resident, was one of the local actresses who were frequently cast in Kenyon productions before the school became co-ed. The film was completed on a shoestring budget. The initial funds were raised by a now defunct tax policy which allowed investors to make money off of the losses of independent films. “Every way to make this happen, short of having a bake sale, was thoroughly explored,” said Miller.
The film had a troubled life after its completion in the beginning of 1967. It was shown at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) under the patronage of documentarian Willard Van Dyke, as well as at a film screening in Pesaro, Italy, attended by Jean-Luc Goddard among others. There, according to Joe Anderson, it was reviewed badly by the Italian Communist Party. In 1968 the New York Film Festival retroactively rejected the film to make room for “Faces,” the film that many believe launched director John Cassavetes’ career. The distribution rights to the film were contracted to Joseph E. Brenner Associates, who, despite warnings from a young Martin Scorsese, re-cut it into a shock exploitation movie titled “Miss Jessica is Pregnant.” Miller left the project and worked as a filmmaker at the University of Iowa, while Anderson stayed on for post-production.
The unaltered reel, which survived a hurricane and multiple relocations, was not publicly screened until the Rural Route Film Festival in 2005, which toured around the country. The film attracted the attention of Peter Conheim, a theatre owner and film restorer in Albuquerque, N.M. This connection with Peter Conheim resulted in the film’s two most recent public showings: the New York Film Festival’s 50th anniversary screening, and the film being featured on director Nicolas Winding Refn’s free streaming website for lost independent films, byNWR.com. On top of all this, the film is pending to be screened by Kenyon’s Department of Dance, Drama and Film this semester.
“Just to know that after all these years [the film] makes sense to the folks it makes sense to,” Miller said, “it’s the best thing ever, isn’t it?”