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Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Summer of Sam

I return briefly to the films of Spike Lee, as his 1999 film, Summer of Sam, has been sitting on my TV stand for a couple of months now. It is one of his better efforts, buzzing with intensity, as he nimbly captures the heat and insanity of the summer of 1977 in New York City.

Lee uses the "Son of Sam" murders as his metaphor. For those too young to remember, a crazed killer stalked lovers' lanes in New York from 1976 to 1977, ultimately killing six and wounding seven others. He was first dubbed the 44 Caliber Killer, but after leaving a note for police at one of his crimes, in which he claimed he was urged to kill by a dog named Harvey who belonged to his neighbor, Sam, he got a new nickname.

This is the backdrop for Lee's story, which mostly concerns Italian Americans in the Bronx (it's interesting that Lee often makes films about Italians). They are a stereotypical bunch, with John Leguizamo playing a bantam-sized Romeo who, though married to the sweet Mira Sorvino, continues to sleep around. His old pal, Adrien Brody, has returned to the neighborhood sporting a mohawk, deep into the punk scene, which baffles his old friends. He is so odd to them that they suspect he is the Son of Sam killer.

I remember that summer well, as it was the first I lived in the tri-state area and the story gripped the news media. Businesses took a hit that summer, especially nightclubs and discos, and girls dyed their hair blonde as the killer seemed to target brown-haired women. The killer wrote a letter to columnist Jimmy Breslin (who frames the film as a narrator), part of which is used as the lyric to a song performed by Brody's band at CBGB's. It was also the summer of the blackout, in which people took to the streets and looted, and it seemed as if New York was the new Gomorrah.

All that is in the film. I especially admired the way Lee captured the side-by-side existence of the disco phenomenon and the punk movement. Leguizamo and Sorvino pull up to CBGB and realize they are in a different world. They leave and try to get into Studio 54, and end up in Plato's Retreat, and those three nightspots nicely summarize New York at the time.

The film was co-written by Michael Imperioli, who plays a small part and of course was Christopher on The Sopranos, so I guess the image of Italians here has some authenticity. The guys hang out by a sign that reads "Dead End" and their amateur sleuthing, while amusing, is also scary, as on the night of the blackout they block bridges and beat anyone who tries to enter.

The Summer of Sam is a movie about a dying city and the paranoia that results. I admire it a great deal.

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