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Summer of Sam assaults your senses and holds you hostage in its searing, hot grip. Directed by Spike Lee, it mercilessly pulls us into its feverish recreation of New York City in 1977. Every second is a highly-charged heartbeat. Pulsating music pours out of the soundtrack. On screen, naked bodies thrash in sweat-soaked beds. And blood sprays directly into the camera when serial killer David Berkowitz (a.k.a. Son of Sam) strikes again. New York City during the summer of ’77 is like Ancient Rome in its decline: depravity, violence, and fear are the only rulers.
Despite its title, the movie is not about Berkowitz. Nor is it about Vinny (John Leguizamo), a twenty-something Bronx local who must balance his failing marriage to Dionna (Mira Sorvino), a waitress, with his chaotic friendship to Brit-wannabe punk rocker Ritchie (Adrien Brody). The movie is about New York at a specific time, at a specific place. The people who populate it are supporting players in a larger panorama of sites, sounds, and smells. Spike Lee is drawing on a big canvas here, in the spirit of Robert Altman. Like an Altman film, Summer of Sam revolves around several moods or atmospheres: paranoia, heat, rough sex, and disco. These are the four horsemen who usher in the city’s most memorable apocalypse.
Lee, who masterfully created the feeling of heat in Do The Right Thing, succeeds again at pressure cooking his audience. The movie’s colors, photographed by Ellen Kuras, bleed into each other, as if the print had been left overnight in a hot car trunk somewhere in the Bronx. The characters always look sweaty and oily. Even the air around them appears deliberately grainy, as if heavy with moisture--or perhaps fear. The jumpy editing, by Barry Alexander Brown, throws us into the middle of coked-up frenzies where the energy level raises the temperature by several degrees.
This is Lee’s most sexually graphic movie, but the sex often looks uncomfortable, awkward, or messy. The participants aren’t having fun. In one scene, Vinny tries to have "normal" sex with Dionna, but it’s too boring for him. They decide to go for something kinkier: Dionna dons a blonde wig, red underwear, and gives Vinny a blow-job. But this is too dirty for Vinny who thinks husband-wife sex should somehow be more pure. Stymied at home, he seeks and finds empty sex almost everywhere else.
Sexual frustration is exacerbated by paranoia over the .44 caliber killer. A witch-hunt develops as a local mob launches its own hunt for the killer, implicating everyone from Reggie Jackson to the neighborhood priest. Soon, everyone in the neighborhood is pointing fingers. The city is spiraling out of control, and Lee summarizes this feeling in a truly original close-up of Leguizamo. Focused tightly on his face, the camera does a complete 180 degree turn, stops, and does another 180 degree turn in the opposite direction.
Fueling the almost non-stop tension are interludes of funky disco and glimpses of what will eventually become '80s heavy metal. Like Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee uses rock music to evoke an era. Without question, Summer of Sam has the best '70s soundtrack since Casino. Watching Vinny and Dionna argue savagely while Thelma Houston belts out "Don’t Leave Me This Way" has a kind of energy that is nearly inexplicable.
The best scenes, however, are the ones that combine the disparate atmospheres of disco, paranoia, heat, and raunchy sex into a confluence of '70s grooviness. When Vinny and Dionna are driving home from Plato’s Retreat, he accuses her of enjoying sex with other men. In response, Dionna accuses him of sleeping with her cousin. They pull over to let their anger vent at full blast. Dionna threatens to walk home. Vinny begs her to get back in, fearing the wrath of the Son of Sam. All the while, Abba’s "Dancing Queen" plays at full volume over the car radio. The scene is one of the best of Lee’s career because the four different atmospheres seem to close in on the characters, suffocating them, strangling them in the delirium of the summer.
With no central protagonist, Summer of Sam still reaches remarkable depths of character development. Ritchie the punk sports a blond mohawk, wears a spiked dog collar, and performs at gay sex clubs. Adrien Brody, an excellent actor, somehow instills Ritchie with, of all things, innocence. When he sees his parents having sex, he is reduced to an embarrassed, whimpering child. There is also the local mafioso Luigi, played by Ben Gazarra, who is on screen for only a few minutes, but who has the movie’s best line: "Con Ed don’t know nothing." Berkowitz is also on screen briefly, but we never forget his presence. Like the sleaze that infuses Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Berkowitz’s absence allows him to ooze invisibly through every scene.
Summer of Sam culminates in the arrest of Berkowitz and the simultaneous beating of an innocent suspect. It recalls the climactic riot scene in Do The Right Thing when all the characters experience a collective catharsis. The climax in Summer of Sam is less conclusive than it needs to be, but how else could Lee have ended this enormous and disjointed story? Summer of Sam is a messy masterpiece, in the spirit of Nashville and Goodfellas, that evokes America’s most beautifully obscene moments.