Brett Story’s The Hottest August is atmospheric filmmaking at its best. Its shots of the New York skies and rooftops are lyrical, yet what hangs memorably thick in its air is the prospect of the planet finally reckoning with the politics of capitalism and endlessly deferred consequences. Director Brett Story takes us on a journey, as lightly humorous as it is steeped with foreboding, through New York’s five boroughs, surveying the population on changes to the city and their thoughts of the future. With an ear for anecdote and a delight in humanity’s tics, she chats with a cross-section of residents, from skaters in the projects to ‘20s jazz revivalists to a fitness instructor and a retired policeman.
Racism rears its head not infrequently, even before news footage on a television in a laundromat shows the 2017 white supremacist car attack in Charlottesville. One man atop a bar stool says he prefers to term racism as «resentment». In a blue-collar area that was once prominently Irish and Italian, a middle-aged couple sitting in their driveway are more amiably circumspect, but unease simmers in their references to the heightened insecurity they perceive more recent immigrants as having brought, and their belief that «everybody wants a job, but nobody wants to work». Economic anxiety and precarity also pervade the interviews. Some Manhattanites seem born to thrive in this psychic territory. One risk analyst is gripped by exhilaration when waxing lyrical on the strange maths of buying property for less than it is worth. Finding a niche is, for others, a struggle. A college valedictorian we meet building a sandcastle says she is stuck boarding dogs at home for a living, which she did at college «for fun». She can’t get a job in her field, as it’s a bad time to go into environmentalism. This is «for political reasons», she adds. It’s almost an aside, but the spectre of Trumpism looms large, even more insidious in its contrast to the beach setting that would normally augur carefree days.
A loaded word
«Normal» is a loaded word in The Hottest August, as hints abound that our current times are anything but. A female voice-over adds to the elegiac tone of the film, in which every frame seems to capture a world soon to be gone. Quoting writer Zadie Smith, she reflects that people in mourning tend to use euphemisms, and so it is that what we have lost due to climate change — the assurance of chilly April showers, and the way season followed season — has been replaced by what we, fearing the drastic abjection of the word «abnormal», prefer to allude to as the «new normal». They reassure each other that «at least August is reliably ablaze». Though as the title suggests, 2017, in which the film was shot, was one of New York’s most oppressively hot summers on record.
anomalies and catastrophic incidents suggest, like alarm bells, dark tendencies for the future
Two women discuss the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, unprecedented in its extremity, which severely damaged their homes. But they are reluctant to admit that it might indicate a dangerous shift from nature’s pattern of hundred-year storms. This unease recurs throughout: anomalies and catastrophic incidents suggest, like alarm bells, dark tendencies for the future, but to read them as such would feed a dread many New Yorkers find too overwhelming to fully, consciously register. Some have experienced a shocking incident that has woken them up to prepare. One such woman witnessed, when out with her baby, a woman in a hijab being verbally abused by a drunken bigot in the street. Horrified that she did not intervene, she is now taking classes to be better able to respond as a more vigilantly caring citizen to such aggression in the future. A young woman at the beach says that she does not plan to have children, for fear that, due to global warming, they will not live out their full lives, a consideration not uncommon amongst her peers. A runaway umbrella at the beach, buoyed by the wind, is comical in a slapstick sort of way, yet here is yet another blip of impending chaos: even the tools and furnishings of daily life are no match for weather more unpredictable by the minute.
A fleeting reality
The city portrait is far from uncommon in cinema. But rather than just an ode to New York and its vibrant, multi-faceted life (though it is, quite charmingly, that too), The Hottest August obliquely, but insistently, hits on the reality that all cities, even one as iconic, and endlessly reproduced in cinema as the Big Apple, are fleeting compared to the awesome power of nature, which civilisation can only deny and hold off for so long. It’s a vivid survey that is far from prescriptive in steps to ward off climate apocalypse, but all the more quietly powerful in its preference for mood and anecdote over didacticism. An answer is not so easy, the film seems to acknowledge, as the planet finally calls our bluff after humanity’s vast history of complacent disregard for the damage it is wreaking through a reckless capitalism that holds material profit as the only gauge. Yet its call to attention is undeniably urgent.