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Heat wave movies

Tensions boil over during a heat wave in Brooklyn, in Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. Photo credit: Universal Pictures

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Welcome to Three Easy Pieces, where I examine a specific bit of pop culture, from its birth, to how it looks today. As summer looms, I prepare myself for a few months of living a life of quiet perspiration. Like an anti-Superman, I find myself weakened by Earth's yellow sun, especially as it persists in invading my personal space. Films have historically explored a similar breakdown in body and mind that comes with unrelenting heat, though, that typically comes in the form of a heat wave. This month, let's examine the toll that heat waves have taken on characters in the movies.

BIRTH: Rear Window (1954)

Honorable mention: 12 Angry MenDog Day AfternoonThe Seven Year Itch

Setting the template for heat waves in movies, Rear Window illustrates the truth that underlines basically all films where characters are beset by that terrible furnace in the sky: that our rational brains are the first things to go. Alfred Hitchcock's immaculately staged thriller centers on Jimmy Stewart's Jeff, a photographer who finds himself laid up in a wheelchair with a broken leg during a sweltering heat wave in Greenwich Village. With nothing much to do to pass the time, Jeff entertains himself by looking into the open windows of his neighbors across the apartment complex courtyard, and eventually witnesses what may have been a murder.

With the heat bearing down and cabin fever further clouding his mind, Jeff's suspicion blends with obsession and a manic desire to see this mystery resolved. This being a Hitchcock movie, though, the suggestion that the crime may have existed entirely in his head is floated, but the satisfaction of a firm resolution is too tempting to pass up. Still, anyone who's found themselves stuck in the misery of isolation and unbearable weather can identify with the predilection to let your mind wander to strange places.

DEVELOPMENT: Do the Right Thing (1989)

Honorable mention: Barton FinkFalling Down, Predator 2

Without a doubt the quintessential heat wave movie, Spike Lee's masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, follows the residents of a neighborhood in Brooklyn on an absolute scorcher. With a local DJ (Samuel L. Jackson) providing running commentary throughout the day, we watch as racial tensions that have been brewing for a long time come boiling to the surface. As formally inventive as it is deeply impassioned, Do the Right Thing watches as everyday hostilities that would normally pass without incident, flare up into an explosion of tragic violence.

Do the Right Thing has an almost Shakespearian feel, with a picaresque cast of characters painting a vibrant picture of life in that area, with tons of little stories and moments of comedy sprinkled throughout. All along, though, the movie has been barreling toward two breaking points -- one, which sends everything into chaos, and another, that tries to hit reset on the awful events that have transpired. Nearly 30 years later, Do the Right Thing feels as relevant as ever.

TODAY: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Honorable mention: Summer of SamSouthland TalesRango

In recent years, the amount of movies portraying a genuine heat wave as a plot device has drastically dwindled, for some strange reason. My leading theory, at this point, is that the steadily increasing temperatures of the planet have stripped heat waves of their novelty; this, combined with everyone just generally being on edge at all times, means that fictional heat waves have faded from our screens.

So, bereft of cinematic worlds where the sun can be combatted with sprinklers and popsicles, where do we turn? How about a world where the cooler months are never coming back, and insanity has made its home in the minds of the entire populace? How about Mad Max: Fury Road?

Easily the best in the Mad Max series, Fury Road is utter lunacy, a post-apocalyptic, two-hour car chase across unforgiving desert landscapes, in search of a place where sand, sun and death aren't the only options on offer. This is gonzo filmmaking at its finest, with tyrannical mutants, relentlessly daring stunts, and enough creativity for three movies. Have a beverage at your side, though, because just watching this movie makes you parched.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Box Office Disasters.

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