Summer of Sam (1999)
Spike Lee is a New Yorker. That’s who he is. The city is the lens he uses to look at the world. In Summer of Sam he gives us a sweeping panorama of New York in the seventies. At the center of the movie is the series of murders committed by David Berkowitz, who called himself the Son of Sam, but this is really just the catalyst for the story that the director wants to tell. Lee uses the killings as a way to explore paranoia, pop culture, racial tension and sex. Especially sex.
Summer of Sam delves deep into the currents of sexual freedom and sexual repression that were roiling the country back in the seventies. The story revolves around two couples living in a working class Italian-American neighborhood. They all come from the same background, but they end up going in wildly different directions. The movie depicts their conflicts with the world around them, with each other, and within themselves.
The first couple, Vinny and Dionna, are married. He works as a hairdresser and she works as a waitress. Vinny loves his wife, but he can’t stop chasing women. What he wants is wild, nasty sex, and because he sees his wife as a “nice girl”, he can’t bring himself to ask her to do anything out of the ordinary. She even tries to get him to loosen up in bed, and it freaks him out. His Catholic upbringing tells him you’re not supposed to do those things with your wife.
There’s a key moment early on when Vinny takes his wife’s cousin home from a club. He makes crazy love to her in the back of the car, and after dropping her off he drives by a crime scene where he sees the Son of Sam’s latest victims. Vinny is deeply shaken. He’s convinced this is a message from God. The Catholic in him believes that God is telling him to stop messing around, or he’ll be next. In his mind it’s that simple.
At the other end of the spectrum we have Richie and Ruby. Richie comes from the same working class neighborhood as Vinny and Dionna, but he’s dying to escape. He feels irresistibly drawn to punk rock and the scene swirling around CBGB. Sporting a spiked collar and a bristling mohawk, Richie makes his money in Manhattan where he dances for men and turns tricks on the side. Even though they’re coming from the same place as Vinny and Dionna, Richie and Ruby let go of their hang-ups and live the way they want to.
But this doesn’t mean they live happily ever after. When they’re through partying in the city, they still have to go back to the same old neighborhood, and now Richie and Ruby are perceived as outsiders. Richie especially is seen as a freak to be avoided. If that were all, it might not be a big deal. But a pack of local losers have decided it’s their mission to catch the Son of Sam, and they gradually convince themselves that this weirdo with the spiky hair and the dog collar must be the killer.
The script, by Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli and Lee, uses these two couples to explore repression and freedom, fear and desire, weaving their stories into the larger fabric of life in New York in the seventies. Punk rock, disco, the Yankees, Italian mobsters, serial murders and Jimmy Breslin are all bound together in a volatile urban landscape where repressed desire is pulsing under the surface and fear drives a spiralling cycle of violence. On the surface it may seem like a chaotic mash-up, but the film is actually a beautifully structured collage. Overlapping layers of image and sound coming rushing at us, plunging us into this feverish, overheated world. In creating Summer of Sam‘s aggressive, abrasive style, the director was helped by numerous talented collaborators. Lee has often used a range of visual textures, and here Ellen Kuras gives him everything he needs, from brassy high-contrast to gritty, low-light images. Barry Alexander Brown’s editing gives the film pace and punch. The sound is amazing, capturing the screeching, scraping, rumbling, raging vibe of the city. Out of the huge crew that worked on this facet of the film, I’ll mention supervising sound editor Kevin Lee, sound designer Blake Leyh, sound re-recording mixer Tom Fleischman and foley editor Andrew Kris, though there are probably others that deserve to be named as well.
And I haven’t even gotten to the cast yet. John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino both seem to be living their roles from the inside out. Adrian Brody and Jennifer Esposito play their parts with a convincing mix of toughness and tenderness. But getting beyond the leads, the film has an incredible supporting cast. Bebe Neuwirth, Patti LuPone, Michael Rispoli and Ben Gazzara don’t even seem to be acting. You get the feeling they’ve been living in this neighborhood all their lives. And that same feeling extends to even the smallest supporting players. Casting director Aisha Coley deserves credit for filling the film with people who all seem to be a living part of the New York landscape.
But this film isn’t just about New York. It’s about people everywhere. As specific as Summer of Sam is to the time and place it’s set in, the conflicts these people are going through are universal. Wrestling with desire. Dealing with pressure from family and friends. And maybe most of all, searching for some kind of honesty. Once you get past the accents and the clothes and the music, you’ll find that Spike Lee isn’t just talking about New York in the seventies. He’s talking about all of us.