' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Summer of Sam

Monday, July 01, 2024

Some Drivel On...Summer of Sam

Spike Lee’s oeuvre is so extensive and varied that it’s impossible to drill down to his most essential work. That’s why over the years I have come to think of “Do the Right Thing” as the best Lee movie, and “He Got Game” (1998) as my favorite Lee movie, and “Summer of Sam” (1999) as the most Lee movie. When I say the most, first, I mean it as a compliment, and second, mean to say that it seems to me the exemplar of his preference for exaggerated emotion and aesthetic, a movie made his way, no one else’s. Even if Lee’s halting and mannered acting in a handful of brief appearances as a television reporter is kind of terrible, his presence is right. He is a true auteur in so much as he rarely vanishes from his own movies, imprinting them with his personal taste, distinctly coming across as their author. When the sun glints off a Dead End sign around which some characters congregate, it’s as if Spike himself is winking at you; when a couple breaks up, it is underscored with Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” like a sentence with two exclamation points; he even copies the “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” Phil Rizzuto breakdown to score one of Son of Sam’s killings. Anything goes.

Rotten Tomatoes might be a suspect tool for considering movies, but I still find “Summer of Sam’s” current grade of 50% to be apropos, split right down the middle, echoing its divisiveness. From the moment Lee’s movie debuted at Cannes, it was mired in controversy with people attacking its ostensible reverse racism and its graphic violence, exploiting the Son of Sam murders for profit, the latter accusation lobbed by the supposedly reformed Berkowitz himself from prison. It’s a molten movie, that’s for sure, as Lee generally knows no other way, but if Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” literally and figuratively evoked one scorching hot summer day than “Summer of Sam” literally and figuratively evokes one scorching hot summer, not just a city block but a whole city driven to madness, put into perspective right away as Lee segues from a recreation of one of .44 Caliber killings to a dance club, its denizens coping beneath gleaming disco balls. Indeed, though we see Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) throughout, he is a peripheral character much more than the main one, a sinister version of the moon in “Moonstruck,” sending everybody over the edge. 

The nexus of this effect becomes Vinny (John Leguizamo), a Bronx hairdresser who is habitually unfaithful to his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino) and navigating the unexpected return of his childhood friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody). The latter shows up after a period of time away affecting a British accent and sporting wild Liberty spikes, suggesting the punk rock version of “Mean Streets” Johnny Boy to Vinny’s Charlie Cappa. In reality, though, it turns out to be the other way around. Epitomizing his melodramatic tendencies, Lee never quite sees these characters beyond one dimension, boiled down to their dueling punk and disco preferences, but the filmmaking intensity and Brody and Leguizamo’s commitment to the bit means it works on an emotional level anyway.

If “Summer of Sam’s” explicit violence got everybody in a huff, so, too, did its explicit sex, much of it tying back to Vinny’s serial philandering on account of a classic Madonna-whore complex, struggling to satisfy his libidinous cravings in a would-be faithful relationship. Aside from a scene or two, this is all seen from Vinny’s perspective, but even in her own limited role, Sorvino imbues a distinct presence, someone who loves this idiot in spite of herself, and in spite of his failings, but also begins to see the writing on the wall. In one heartbreaking scene, she is even forced to consult with the promiscuous Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) about her own husband’s desires. Ruby winds up in an unlikely relationship with Ritchie, kind of a punk version of Pygmalion in which she trades disco glam for anti-fashion. Their relationship becomes a moving contrast to Vinny and Dionna, turned on by one another’s likes and desires, even filming an adult movie, which when cast against the other couple’s failing marriage is weirdly tender and true. Come to think of it, deep down in places they don’t talk about at parties that might have gotten the prudes in a tizzy more than the imagery.

Ritchie’s sense of self makes him an outsider in his own neighborhood and subsequently causes him to be fingered as the .44 Caliber Killer. Not by the detectives working the case (Anthony LaPaglia and Roger Guenveur Smith), mind you, nor even by the local mafioso Luigi (Ben Gazzara) who agrees to aid the hunt. No, the real murder investigation in “Summer of Sam” is a fake one conducted by Ritchie’s ostensible friends, the wastoids who gather around that Dead End sign day after day, lorded over by Joey T (Michael Rispoli), adults who never advanced beyond the teenage wasteland of “Baba O’Riley,” The Who’s anthem that scores a mid-movie montage functioning as Lee’s emotional thesis. Vinny reluctantly falls in with them as his life gradually falls apart, the portrait of a weak man subsumed by mob rule. So cocky and magnetic in the early going, by the end, Leguizamo has reduced his character to a ghostly husk. And if “Do the Right Thing” concluded with everything just sort of going back to normal, “Summer of Sam” ends with Sam in the back of a cop car but everything else up for grabs. 

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