Spike Lee: Summer of Sam (1999) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: Summer of Sam (1999)

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In 1977 the Son of Sam killer is roaming the streets of New York City with his .44 caliber handgun while an unprecedented heat wave strikes the terrified citizens.  The police struggle to find the killer, members of organized crime start protecting the city in their own way, and citizens start to turn a suspicious eye toward anyone who looks like they "don't belong".  Spike Lee directs Summer of Sam from a script written by Spike, Victor Colicchio, and Michael Imperioli, which stars John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, and Jennifer Esposito.

I want you to kill Whatever critical luster Spike Lee had in the years prior, it fell off almost entirely by the time Summer of Sam was released.  Reviews were split right down the middle with critics either embracing the sprawling narrative and heavy styling of Summer of Sam or thinking that the film is evidence that Spike was giving way to bloat and his creative ambition was starting to suffer for it.  This is my third go-around with Summer of Sam and while I'm more confident in my feelings for it now, Spike's take on the summer when the .44 killer struck was one confounding experience for me some 15 years ago.

I didn't know whether to laugh, if I was supposed to be scared, or whether it was worth getting invested in the life of such a conflicted man like Vinny, played by John Leguizamo.  It didn't help that Leguizamo's own approach to performing was loud, prone to shift at any second to different emotional planes, and filmed in nauseating and sweaty close-ups by the end.  But when I watched Summer of Sam a few years later I was surprised by the amount of laughter coming out of my mouth.  This was slightly before I started getting serious about film and I wondered how anyone could think that the sight of a dog screaming at a chubby man in his underwear to, "Kill!  Kill!  Kiiiiiiillllllllllll!" was anything less than hilarious.

More time, distance, and a heap of knowledge led me to this third viewing of Summer of Sam where I'm nearly convinced that, aside from one romantic subplot, this is Spike most hilarious and critical film of the white gaze.  It's not as openly about race as any of his other films, but by focusing on a set of white characters and their increasingly violent paranoia about those freaks it shows the racism imbedded in America's general failure to understand other cultures and how that bakes into our systems of authority.  Spike even addresses some of his gender criticisms of the past and creates a complicated protagonist which lets Spike speak to the sexism in his films.  Summer of Sam is just a tad bloated, and the rest of it is some of the greatest material Spike has put to the screen.

Now, I was similarly excited about He Got Game, though not quite to the same extent as Summer of Sam, so I want to stop and give you the opportunity to hit me with a reality check before we dig further into Summer of Sam.‏Sharp-edged seductionI actually thought Summer of Sam—in a spotty, not totally consistent way—had some of Lee's best work yet. You get the same construction of a neighborhood, often out in the streets or in stores, dominated by all these different voices, that he loves to play with in previous films, but here it feels more like a grand analogy—setting all of this against the Son of Sam killings gives all the characters a specific story, and a specific cultivated fear, to react to. On one hand I feel like if Lee could have trimmed some of this down a little, he'd have a truly great film—on the other, some of the joy of the movie comes from the way it meanders throughout the summer, focusing for a bit on the killings, then veering off into the personal lives of the characters, then back to a point where they intersect.

The acting is outstanding here as well. Adrien Brody is probably the strongest performance in the film as basically a scared kid who desperately wants to be anyone else, but Leguizamo probably has the hardest job. His character is basically a cliche'—he cheats because he can't help it, but he feels bad because he cheats. He feels like he'll probably be punished for all of this, one day. Poor guy.

But the character works more often than not because Leguizamo plays him as pathetic as he is—his inner conflict(s) demonstrate more about how he feels about the women in his life than anything else, even when he's trying to convince Richie (Brody) and himself that he's all tore up about everything. By the end, when he's stuck in a personal downward spiral that mirrors the descent into paranoia and fear of the vigilante mob that forms in the neighborhood outside, he's acting on-screen as the visual representation of their collective mindset. By putting his sweaty, scared, quivering image right next to the faux-bravery and boldness of those trying to take justice into their own hands, Lee makes a really powerful statement about both.‏Trapped between memoriesNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThe gradual escalation of that mob mentality makes for a good juxtaposition to the scenes where we see "Sam" (later revealed to be mild-mannered postman David Berkowitz) losing his mind in the dilapidated apartment.  Figuring out exactly whose perspective each scene belongs to is a lot of fun, because those moments with Sam are clearly an exaggerated after-the-fact construction by the mistaken mob.  It reminded me a lot of the party scenes in Oliver Stone's JFK in the way they project a set of desires on someone who may not have fit that role.  I love how David is all at once the perfect embodiment of evil by living in a place with Satanic symbols everywhere, but is also a pathetic child who has no control over his actions.  It makes for a convenient bogeyman for those who want to find an excuse for their bigoted behavior, they can just say Satan made them do it.

On the performances, I'm not quite sold on Brody being the best of the bunch.  He's definitely effective, especially later in the film where he's teetering between innocent fun and rage at being outed for his hooking, but his role is straightforward.  Leguizamo has the meatier scenes to work with, but look at the insane range he shows in them.  The gradually escalating confrontations between him and Mira Sorvino are the meaty center of the Summer of Sam and Leguizamo takes each one in an unpredictable direction.  Look at his face as his pleasure turns to rage, confusion, and disgust at the orgy, or his unstable apology at the end.  That last moment may be the greatest acting in any of Spike's films as Leguizamo pleads, gets on his knees, tries physical affection, modulates his voice, body, eyes - anything so that he can get his way and ends on a Jesus Christ pose against the wall.  He's absolutely stunning and such a perfect fit for Spike's films that I'm depressed they never worked together again.

That last scene also showcases something that we've had complaints about in the past, the way Spike integrates music in his films.  Summer of Sam hardly has a scene where some popular song isn't blaring away but the emotions run so high and the music so well used that it finally shows that the sound mixing in Spike's films can be a huge boon.  In the final Sorvino / Leguizamo confrontation "Don't Leave Me This Way" is playing in the background, itself maybe a too broad choice, but it's muffled to the point where only the high emotional points of the song come through and even then are barely understood.  It's the perfect companion to their fight as they imperfectly push their own emotions out into the open, and the rest of the film shows Spike having fun with music in ways that continue to suit the action well.  The sequence where Brody is finally with someone who accepts him is great for The Who's "Baba O'Riley", but juxtaposing Brody's pleasure with a gay man being beaten by the increasingly violent mob is the bitter counterpoint.‏

Tiny Kyle CommentaryMichael Badalucco as Berkowitz is one of the points I'm back and forth on. He works best for me when he's off-screen giving voice-over—like the scenes where he reads letters while spelling “murder” in ABC blocks, or when he's spinning a story about the devil living in a hole in his wall—and not so well when he's relegated to rocking back and forth in front of the camera while screaming hysterically into mattresses. If the movie pushed itself over into a totally ridiculous mode, as when a the dog literally speaks to him, those scenes would have worked better as an obvious construction of the scared public.  I see what Spike's doing there, but draws almost too effectively on the conventions of true crime stories and gruesome serial-killer fiction in some of the early scenes with Berkowitz, so that by the later scenes when things start to get almost silly in their depiction of his insanity, I had the same sort of “what is going on here” reaction you described the first time you watched the movie.

One other point relating to the killings I'm curious to get your take on—Spike has frequently used montage and (sometimes simulated) real-life photos in the opening credits of his films as a technique for setting a historical and social context for the stories that follow, and here we see a version of that technique used to view the murders themselves. Following the killings, which are typically brief, Spike loves to linger on the aftermath of the violence, specifically the young women viewed in still frames. This is working differently than in Clockers (though is reminiscent of that movie's opening sequences), where the crime-scene images and recreations work to emphasize the damage such violence has done to the community.

Here these images seem more focused on the blood and gore—the horrific quality of the killings. Is Spike just giving these to us as another way to replicate the public's own repeated encountering of such images? These scenes struck me as obviously very significant, and yet I couldn't ever fit them into the overall experience of the film in a way that made total sense. They cause a kind of disjointed reaction (which is maybe the point).‏No more loveNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThe way those moments are presented struck me right from the beginning with the way Spike lit the streets to have a baked-in look of blood and menace.  Associating it with your point, it definitely fits in with the escalation of the public's dread about the killings.  But focusing on the women's reaction fits in with the threatening other that's the public is trying to destroy.  One of the most common fears of the other is that they're coming to take our women.  Almost all the women who die and are threatened look very similar to one another.  So the other, who the mobs take as the punks, gays, and undesirables of the neighborhood, is coming to take the women, who are this singular entity of brunettes who are freaking out when they're not dying.  It fuels the mobs desire to protect "their" women, even though the threat is coming from someone the mob would consider "one of us."

With that, I want to get your thoughts on the scenes that troubled me most throughout the film.  Spike is a sort of postmodern diagetic character within Summer of Sam, playing a news anchor who's not named Spike Lee, but leading a camera crew to gather footage of the black communities response to these crimes.  He's literally directing people to pay attention to the one community whose voice is not represented within the main narrative of Summer of Sam, which is a deliberate callback to his career at large.  But he's also presenting a red meat of sorts to the kind of bigoted people who want an excuse to call the other animals who can be killed as needed when they get out of line.

My discomfort hit critical mass when Spike interviews an old woman who says that it's a good thing a white person is killing these white people, because if the murderer was black then New York would see a large race riot.  These scenes treaded a fine line between humoring his critics who think he "only talks about race" and giving them exactly what they want in his films, an antagonistic black man leading his community toward riots.  Given the way the collective white stance in America over the last couple of years is growing increasingly militant towards blacks and Muslim communities facing the same threats around the world, this seemed to be the most relevant scene to our current state and the most easily misunderstood.‏

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI had kind of forgotten about those scenes actually—they do seem at a disconnect from the rest of the movie. On one hand, I wonder if we're supposed to take those in line/reaction with what one of Ben Gazzara's guys says to Roger Guenveur Smith when the two detectives are asking the older mob boss to help them track down the killer—something to the effect that many more black people are being killed in “their neighborhoods” each week than the Son of Sam is killing, driven by the attitude that violence must just be inherent to the black neighborhoods, whereas the .44 killings are an anomaly worthy of attention.

Lee's character in that context is kind of an embodiment of this dismissive, out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude toward the black community. That the black reporter is sent to the predominantly ignored (except when the image of a primitive other is needed) black community to get thoughts on all the white people getting killed acts as an illustration of a clueless media culture—and Lee's nonplussed look and delivery in all these scenes underlines that.

I'm with you—I don't like some of the muddled implications present, but it seems to me like how those scenes are intended to function to some extent.‏You know who will be blamedNewer Andrew cutout commentaryIt's not that I dislike those scenes, and they're part of why Summer of Sam is so good, but more an expression of sadness at how easy it is to turned a tricky and nuanced look at race in media and turn it around into something ugly.  That realization is helping me figure out why Spike's cultural cache started to lose its pull around this time.  It's easier to put Spike's earlier films in a specific context whether it's entirely true to the spirit of the product or not.  School Daze is a look at changing black culture on school campuses, Jungle Fever relationships across race and how media responds, Get on the Bus the shifting terrain of black masculinity on a suddenly national stage...and so on.

If you want to watch those films in that exact context you'll have a consistent experience.  But because Summer of Sam deals with a whole community and tries to adapt its stylistic approach accordingly it becomes more difficult to pin down.  I know that Spike's films to come, Bamboozled and 25th Hour especially, tread some nuanced ground in what we're supposed to feel during their narratives.  Much like Jungle Fever was a turning point in his early career, I'll be keeping Summer of Sam in mind as we approach this next decade.

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Posted by Andrew

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