Summer of Sam
No one making films today can match Spike Lee for visceral, kinetic power. There's hardly a frame that doesn't seethe with rage, hidden or open. Actors who work with him are forced to expose themselves in their roles, more perhaps than they've ever done before in their careers. From "Malcolm X" to "Do the Right Thing" to "He Got Game" to the new "Summer of Sam" Lee's films almost literally break apart our barriers, forcing us to open our hearts and confront ourselves without our usual defenses. He goes through the conventional like a knife through butter, not bothering to waste time on easy sentiment.. A great fire seems to leap out of the screen at his audiences. It's his genius, and the reason Lee is the premier independent filmmaker working today.
"Summer of Sam" carries us through the infamous time in 1977 when New York City curled up like a frightened child before the triple onslaughts of unbearable heat, a citywide power outage, and the murders of young women and couples by the serial killer David Berkowitz, who called himself the Son of Sam. Lee's protagonists are Bronx hairdresser Vinnie (John Leguizamo), a compulsive cocksman who treats his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino) like a madonna, and his endless conquests like whores; and his best and oldest friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who now plays guitar in a punk band -- the Late Term Abortions --at CBGB's, and, in violation of every rule of their Italian Catholic upbringing, is surprised to find himself as gay.
Lee confronts us in every scene with these multiple tensions. Vinnie and Dionna's fracturing marriage takes them from discos to bedroom fights to an explosive evening at Plato's Retreat, where every fantasy is explored, and every fear exposed. At the same time we follow the end-of-the-line group (who hang out literally at the end of the street where the East River meets Long Island Sound), Vinnie's and Ritchie's friends, hangers-around who vie for Vinnie's attention and look constantly for a good scapegoat.
The local Mafia don (Ben Gazzara) is an occasional presence as Lee ratchets up the threat of Son of Sam, whose murders seem to come closer and closer to the neighborhood. Like the dons of Little Italy, he is expected to protect his people.
The city gets hotter, the blackout comes, there are riots in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem. The newspapers print police sketches of the killer, and now it seems to the group as though Ritchie might look a lot like the murderer. The propulsive motion of the film grabs us and doesn't let go. Who will break first? The editing, as always with Lee, is exquisitely deranged, built in montage after montage that leave us gasping for air. The use of songs -- disco, punk, the Who -- reflect the fragmentation of loves, the disintegration of the neighborhood. And Lee periodically cuts back to the Son of Sam himself (David Badalucco, in an eerily sad and frightening performance) as Vinnie himself acts out the fear and rage and shame that he and his friends bring on themselves. In a film of two hours and twenty minutes, Lee has made us feel the agony of a dozen people as they try to salvage their lives.
The film was written by Lee and Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli (of 'The Sopranos'), and if there is a weakness it lies in the script. Vinnie is too thinly conceived to be worthy of our own love or concern. Lee obviously doesn't want him to be redeemed in the film, and pays the price by losing whatever identification we might feel. It's not Leguizamo's fault; in a brilliant performance, he plays the role as if born to it, though, like Denzel Washington in "He Got Game," he is likely to be forgotten at Oscar time next year. Brody, as Ritchie, has an arc of growth through the film, from sponger at home to freedom and independence, and he too is remarkable. We come closer to identifying with Ritchie than with anyone else in the film.
The cinematography, by Ellen Kuras, strikes us with electrifying lights and colors in almost every scene, yet holds the tension of the film together. The editing, a monstrously difficult job, is solved beautifully by Barry Alexander Brown. Another great piece of work by Lee's gang of artists.
The years go by, and Spike Lee's work stays bolder and more powerful and more fully realized than that of any other American filmmaker. We're lucky to be living, and going to movies, in his era.