Monday, August 6, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Summer of Sam (1999)

Summer of Sam (1999)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Victor Colicchio & Michael Imperioli & Spike Lee.
Starring: John Leguizamo (Vinny), Adrien Brody (Ritchie), Mira Sorvino (Dionna), Jennifer Esposito (Ruby), Michael Rispoli (Joey T), Saverio Guerra (Woodstock), Brian Tarantina (Bobby Del Fiore), Al Palagonia (Anthony), Ken Garito (Brian), Bebe Neuwirth (Gloria), Patti LuPone (Helen), Mike Starr (Eddie), Anthony LaPaglia (Detective Lou Petrocelli), Roger Guenveur Smith (Detective Curt Atwater), Ben Gazzara (Luigi), Joe Lisi (Tony Olives), James Reno (Crony), Arthur Nascarella (Mario), John Savage (Simon), Jimmy Breslin (himself), Michael Badalucco (Son of Sam), Spike Lee (John Jeffries), Lucia Grillo (Chiara), Michael Imperioli (Midnite), John Turturro (Voice of Harvey the Dog).
10 years after Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, he made Summer of Sam – another film about a New York neighborhood, in the summer heat, where fear and violence thrum underneath the surface, just waiting to explode. This is a different neighborhood, in a different time period, and the reasons the violence is going to explode is different as well – but the feeling is the same, and Lee captures it all. Do the Right Thing is a rare perfect film – Summer of Sam is not. It is long and messy, and strikes out in many directions at once. That’s a major part of the reason why it works as well as it does.
This is the first film by Lee with no major black characters – the two black characters with the most screen time – Roger Guenveur Smith’s detective and Lee’s own roving reporter – are really only glimpsed in passing, although they are there to point out that even if this movie is not about race and racism per se – it’s still very much there below the surface. The film takes place in a working class neighborhood of the Bronx – where everything is Italian American. It is an insulated community, fearful of outsiders. It’s the summer of 1977, and the city is gripped in fear of the Son of Sam killer – a maniac with a .44 revolver who shoots couples in cars, and has been sending bizarre, terrifying letters to famed reporter Jimmy Breslin. The killer is seen throughout the film – normally in his dark apartment, most often from behind, as he wails in pain and frustration, and also occasionally on the streets, where violence erupts shortly after he arrives. In the film, he is a pathetic character - impressively played by Michael Badalucco – and that is kind of the point. The man who everyone so feared was this weak, pathetic shell of a man.
No one in this Bronx neighborhood knows that however. The men gather on the street and gossip about the killer – convinced that it is someone in their very own neighborhood. Of course, they come up with a list of suspects – and it’s all the strange people – those who do not fit in – that make the list. There’s the long haired Vietnam vet who drives a cab, maybe the priest. Then there’s Ritchie (Adrien Brody).
Ritchie is a neighborhood kid who moved to Manhattan a while ago, discovered punk, and has now returned with spiked hair, weird clothes and an affected British accent. In theory, everyone knows him – but they now look at him differently. Why would he want to look like that? He doesn’t help his reputation by starting to date Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), who is known as the neighborhood slut. But unlike the rest of the men around, Ritchie doesn’t use her – he genuinely cares about her, and the pair seem like perhaps a good match. He doesn’t much care about her past – that was before him after all. This is a modern attitude that the lunkheads in the neighborhood don’t seem capable of grasping.
The leader of the lunkheads, in some ways, is Vinny (John Leguizamo). He’s married to Dionna (Mira Sorvino) – but seemingly fucks every woman who isn’t Dionna – her cousin from Italy for example, or his boss at the beauty salon, Gloria (Bebe Neuwirth). He’s got the classic Catholic Madonna/Whore complex – he isn’t able to ask Dionna to do the types of things sexually that he wants because he would disappointed if she said yes. He cannot get it up with her anymore, but can with everyone else. They will end up at an orgy at one point – where Dionna does what she thinks her husband wants, who of course, will chastise her for it later, calling her a whore.
Vinny isn’t always there when the neighborhood guys do their gossiping – and unlike the others, he remains friends with Ritchie, even if he thinks he is weird. Still, the guys look to him for permission to single him out – as if they feel that unless everyone is unanimous on this, they cannot act. Spinning out of control on drugs, his failing marriage and desperation, Vinny eventually gives into the groupthink.
Summer of Sam doesn’t have a plot in a traditional sense – it’s like Do the Right Thing that way. It mainly focuses on Vinny and Ritchie, both together and separate, over the course of this summer of fear. It’s about Vinny becoming unglued, and losing his idea of himself, while Ritchie finds his own identity. Ritchie isn’t portrayed as a saint by any means – he is more than a little delusional about his “show business career” – but he’s trying to overcome the limitations of where he came from. But it’s about the neighborhood as well – the detectives who will go to the local mob boss (Ben Gazzara) because he has his fingers and everything, and may be able to help find the killer. We see TV reports, mostly by Lee’s John Jefferies, who is awkward on camera (this is Lee’s intention) – as he interviews mostly black people, who question why no one cares about all the black people being killed, and mock Jefferies himself (“What are you doing here? I thought you didn’t like black people”).
All of this is wrapped up in an overheated mixture of sex, violence, paranoia and fear that pulsates throughout the film. The plot is ragged and messy, but Lee excels at creating that overheated atmosphere in the film. Summer of Sam doesn’t get mentioned very often in relation to Lee’s best films – perhaps because it is overlong and messy, and has a few other problems (Lee doesn’t really solve his normal problem with female characters – although Sorvino does her best with the role, Esposito’s role is too underwritten). But every time I see it, I get wrapped back in its atmosphere of fear, paranoia, sex and violence. This is one of Lee’s best films – and perhaps his most underrated.

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