Sunday, November 9, 2014

Summer of Sam Movie Review

I can’t say with any certainty what it was like to live through the summer of 1977 in New York City because I wasn’t born yet, but Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam tries to capture it, or at least some stylized and possibly fantasy version of it. It was one of the hottest summers ever in the city with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, leading to brown-outs and an eventual blackout. There was a serial killer on the prowl, gunning people down as they sat in their cars at night. Lee’s movie makes it seem like all the killings happened during those few months, but in reality they started a year earlier and were well spread out chronologically with only a couple of the shootings occurring that summer, although Lee includes recreations of nearly all of them scattered throughout the film.


The film’s title is a play on what the killer, David Berkowitz, identified himself as. It’s meant to establish the way Berkowitz held the city hostage to fear to the point that they remained inside and that women dyed their hair blonde because he favored brunettes as targets. As such, Summer of Sam is only peripherally about Berkowitz, the killings, and the investigation. It’s about the people affected, the average New Yorkers going about their complicated lives and thinking they can exert some measure of control over events. So in the neighborhood of Throgs Neck in the Bronx, Vinny (John Leguizamo) and his friends talk about the killings and speculate over the identity of the killer. After the detectives implore the aid of Luigi (Ben Gazzara) to use the neighborhood to assist in capturing the killer, Vinny’s friends start making a list. The list consists of anyone in the neighborhood they view as an oddball. So the Vietnam vet who drives a cab at night? On the list. The neighborhood kid who has a affinity for the burgeoning punk movement complete with UK flag T-shirt, spiked hairstyle, and phony English accent? On the list. This character is Ritchie (Adrien Brody, in one of his first leading roles). Like so many other men of his age, Ritchie is confused about his identity. He works in a porn theater, making movies, dancing, and turning tricks for cash. He’s anti-establishment, which is why he goes out of his way to be the opposite of the Italian-Americans he grew up with, including Vinny, who remains a confidant even while the other guys are ready to discard him to the trash heap.

Lee takes the occasional time out to show us Berkowitz (played by Michael Badalucco) in the act of killing or in his apartment going mad from the sound of a barking dog below his window. These scenes are the closest Lee has ever come to horror movie territory. They are shot and processed with a grainy texture making them look almost like old home movies. Terrence Blanchard’s score builds to terrifying crescendos and tension compared to the work he does in other parts of the film (his scoring of scenes of romantic intimacy between Vinny and his wife is really quite elegant and beautiful) shows fantastic diversity.

In some ways Ritchie as a psychological case within the narrative is a parallel with Berkowitz. They both see something terribly wrong with the way the people of the city live. The difference is that Ritchei thinks everyone is a sheep being herded around with no sense of purpose. He’s disgusted by phoniness while Berkowitz is driven to insane acts by what he sees as evil and depravity in the city. And certainly NYC was known in the 70s as a dirty and rancid city with establishments like the one where Ritchie works being more commonplace than anyone should be comfortable with.

And sex is certainly at the forefront of thought for most of these characters. It is at the core of the depravity that sickens Berkowitz and it’s also what drives Vinny. He can’t stop himself from cheating on Dionna (Mira Sorvino). He is stymied in his marriage from enjoying what he views as deviant sexual acts because of that age old sexist view that your wife has to be a Virgin Madonna. So he goes outside the marriage for other kinds of sexual interaction. And then he hates himself for it because he thinks oral and anal sex are terrible sins against God, who will seek to punish him by sending Son of Sam, who views himself as a cleanser.

This is one of the most sprawling narratives Lee eve tried to cover. Do the Right Thing covers major themes that are more universally applicable, but confined it to a tiny neighborhood street in Brooklyn. Summer of Sam stretches out more. Written with gusto by Lee, Michael Imperioli, and Victor Colicchio, it’s ambitious, perhaps a bit too much for its own good, but still a damn fine attempt. I think the build toward a city-wide denouement encompasses too many characters to get as intimate as it should with a few. Think about how much more could be done with the Luigi character and his relationship with the detective played by Anthony Lapaglia, a kid from the neighborhood who escaped organized crime. Ritchie’s relationships feel truncated as well, both that with his mother (Patti Lupone) and his new girlfriend Gloria (Jennifer Esposito), whom he entices into his seedy underworld of sex and debauchery.

The character depth may be a little too shallow, but what the screenplay lacks in developing fully-formed people, Lee makes up fro in dynamic direction. There’s a clear through line from Martin Scorsese (certainly no stranger to the lives of New York’s Italian-American communities) to Do the Right Thing and on to Summer of Sam. The editing is sharp and there’s an element of theatrical artificiality to some of the neighborhood characters’ interactions that reminded me of Do the Right Thing. But there’s drama that is as powerful as anything in He Got Game, one of my favorite of Lee’s films.

Like the best of Lee’s films, Summer of Sam captures the City of New York at a specific time, harnessing something essential about life in the Big Apple that I think only a filmmaker with New York in his bones can pull off. There’s a lot going on here not in terms of creating nostalgia for a lost time and place, but in getting at the heart of living on top of one another in a densely populated metropolis and the paranoia that can come along with it. The New York of Summer of Sam is one  gripped by that paranoia and paralyzed by fear, encouraging everyone in it to abandon reason in favor of giving themselves some peace of mind. On a smaller scale, Vinny uses that paranoia to fuel his own personal issues. His buddies use it as an excuse to mar someone who makes them feel uncomfortable. Luigi uses it to help maintain his clenched fist of control over a neighborhood. Even Berkowitz uses his own paranoia as a diabolical excuse to murder. This isn’t the city we know today and it is hardly reminiscent of the city we want to remember with love, but it is part of New York’s history and helped shape what it is today.

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