Summer of Spam

Summer of Spam

Summer of Spam

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July 2 1999 9:00 PM

Summer of Spam

Spike Lee's urban sprawl.

Summer of Sam

Directed by Spike Lee
Buena Vista Pictures

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Spike Lee is a virtuoso filmmaker, a wizard at selling a sequence, but he'll never make an entirely coherent movie until he learns to go deeper into his subjects instead of wider with them. In Summer of Sam, the latest Spike Lee Joint, he substitutes panorama for point of view, piling on perspectives until the picture becomes a shambles--a Spike Lee Disjoint.

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The film, with its mostly white Italian characters, was drafted by actors Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli (the thickheaded nephew on HBO's The Sopranos) and then revised--and embellished and tarted-up--by Lee. Summer of Sam is consequently several movies in one. The thing that links them all is a time and place--New York in the summer of 1977. A hot one. And we know from this director's Do the Right Thing (1989) that during hot ones the essential self comes out--the essential self for Lee being hate-filled and destructive. Racist, too, but race is confined to the margins of this story. Here, men and women dress in polyester, line up to get into discos, snort cocaine, cheat on their spouses, and have sex with imperfect strangers. It's the most jittery of periods, both exhibitionistic and paranoid, and David Berkowitz--the self-proclaimed Son of Sam--emerges from the ocean of decadence like a toxic monster, a puritanical avenger.

What are the sundry strands in Summer of Sam? The whole mess is introduced by Jimmy Breslin, one-time recipient of Berkowitz's most hammily psychotic missives, who says, "There are 8 million stories in the Naked City, and this is one." Does Lee want us to giggle at this cliché-spouting hack or to feel nostalgic for an era in which tabloids were so unself-consciously purple? Probably both. For his part, Lee is self-consciously purple. In a garish, green- and crimson-lit hovel, Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) screams and writhes on his mattress while a neighbor's dog barks at eardrum-buckling volume. The dog later issues orders in the voice of John Turturro, the actor having evidently run out of human weirdos to impersonate. Son of Sam's subsequent killings are loud and splattery, photographed in the style of Halloween--which was filmed, maybe not so coincidentally, in 1977.

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T he opening makes you think that Summer of Sam will be a police procedural, a step-by-step hunt for a serial killer. It is, but only in tiny, widely spaced patches. As it turns out, Son of Sam himself is a kind of red herring. The real drama unfolds in the Bronx, a setting for several of the murders, where the combination of heat, terror of the .44-caliber killer, and a piggishly macho culture create a breeding ground for lynch-mob hysteria. It doesn't do much for marriages, either. The film's dim protagonist is an Italian stud hairdresser named Vinnie (the distractingly Latino-looking John Leguizamo), who skips out on his pretty, ingenuous wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), at a disco to have sordid sex in a car with her cousin. Driving home at the end of the evening, he passes the spot where he parked for his quickie and sees that it's surrounded by police cruisers and yellow crime-scene tape. A couple lie dead, their brains all over the dashboard. Spooked and stricken (that could have been him!), he staggers over to the car and touches the latest .44-caliber victims. (I kept waiting for the police to show up later at his door and announce that his fingerprints were on the bodies, but that touch must have been metaphorical.) Dear God, says Vinnie, I'll never cheat on my wife again. The problem is, he likes his sex rough and dirty, and good Italian Catholic boys can't have rough, dirty sex with their wives, for chrissake.

The core of Colicchio and Imperioli's original screenplay was likely Vinnie's Judas turn with Ritchie (Adrien Brody), his neighborhood buddy who returns after an absence with spiked hair and the news that he's playing with a punk band at CBGB's. Ritchie--who also dances at an all-male strip joint and turns tricks with middle-aged men--is meant to be the quintessential outsider, the inevitable receptacle of whatever ill will is in the air. As it happens, he's also the mildest, least threatening punk you'll ever see--and hetero, for all his gay experiences, taking up with Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), the 'hood's good-hearted slut. When a couple of police detectives ask a Mafia chieftain (Ben Gazzara) for help in their search for the serial killer, the local bully boys show a little too much fascist zeal, keeping tabs on people's movements and pulling strangers out of cars. They're looking funny at Ritchie, too. That hair: He's clearly in a satanic cult. And Son of Sam, he's clearly in a satanic cult, too. So one plus one equals ... duhhhh.

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In his last film, the lyric basketball saga He Got Game (1998), Lee composed his frames so that his characters had a weathered grandeur; they were African-American icons. This time, he keeps a queasy distance from the people on screen. He seems to loathe them all--and why shouldn't he? They're morons--Guidos. They think Willie Mays just got lucky. They're the kind of people who would have chased Lee out of their neighborhoods with baseball bats. A summer in which a crazy Jew goes around shooting Italians: To Lee this must feel like Shangri-La. He goes out of his way to show that white people deal drugs, too. He doubtless had to fight the urge to make Summer of Sam a whole-hog whitesploitation picture. Apart from Sorvino, who gives a tremulous and surprisingly soulful performance, the characters have zero stature, and Leguizamo has been stuck with one of the most thankless roles ever written: an oversexed yet essentially impotent loser--a guilty bystander.

The problem with these Bronx sequences is not conceptual. It's that they're crudely staged and written and that the men who conclude that the skinny, harmless Ritchie is Son of Sam seem like a gathering of village idiots. Even the neighborhood's queeny transvestite (Brian Tarantina)--until that point a target of harassment--joins the lynch mob, greedy to go after someone who's even more of an Other. The best reason to tell a story such as this would be to demonstrate that in the right circumstances, we could be infected by the same delusions and hunt for the same kinds of scapegoats. But Lee--whose treatment of violence in his other movies is considerably more equivocal--maintains a rare, moralistic distance. He adds a further layer of irony by taking his cameras to Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where a zombielike TV newsman (played by Lee) interviews African-Americans about Son of Sam for a feature called "The Dark Perspective." Says a woman who serves as the picture's lone voice of reason: "I thank God it is a white man who kills all of those white people. If it were a black man there would be a race riot." So much for empathy with the victims.

For the last decade, Lee has been attempting to craft a new kind of artfully slapdash film syntax--one that mixes jivey jump-cuts with Brechtian exhortations, that tries to build immense dramatic structures out of dissonance and opposition. His work in Summer of Sam is often formally thrilling. The bleached, posterized cinematography (by Ellen Kuras) makes the images seem cooked, even irradiated, and Lee brings out the eerie portents in the throbbing blandness of disco groups such as Abba. The pity is that when he does something well, he can't seem to control it and do it more selectively. Terence Blanchard's music strikes the same note of mournful counterpoint again and again, and the picture teems with conscious and unconscious echoes of Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976); it could have been called Summer of Scorsese. A sequence of punk thrashing and shooting-up set to The Who's "Baba O'Riley" brings the narrative to an embarrassing halt: It's just Spike flexing his cinematic muscles, showing how much montage he can bench press. Overambition in an artist is easy to forgive; what's less sufferable is grandiosity--the compulsive urge to dazzle us with omniscience. He doesn't seem to get that understanding is a byproduct of focus and not of how many connections you can make.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.