Number One With a Bullet!

Extra! Extra! Bebe Neuwirth and John Leguizamo in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam

Whether you think they're premeditatedly controversial or just bold and incisive, Spike Lee's movies have a knack for inspiring both critics and ticketbuyers to react in ways that mirror the films' own themes. Most famously, the heated debates triggered by Jungle Fever and Do the Right Thing threw shade on the films' views of the gulf between black and white, yet even the poorly attended Crooklyn, Clockers, and Get on the Bus followed suit, earning a level of mainstream neglect that testified to their cultural specificity and cinematic sophistication. As Lee's new Summer of Sam deals with the media's hysterical (and hysteria-inducing) treatment of violence, it came as no surprise when one of the journalists who'd just seen the movie's world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival invoked the unjust "hysteria over violence in films" in a dual bid to flatter the auteur and get a rise out of him. But Lee wasn't having it.

"I would have to differ with your hypothesis," answered an impeccably calm Lee, sporting a bright orange, Japanese baseball cap for his meeting with the press in a spacious salon of the Cannes Noga Hilton, flanked by actors John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, and Mira Sorvino. "I don't think we're really trying to explore the roots of violence in this [movie]. I think we're looking at the effects of it. I don't think anyone could see this film and think we were trying to get inside the mind of David Berkowitz to explain why he did what he did"--that is, why the former postal worker (a.k.a. the Son of Sam) shot and killed six people, and wounded seven others, during a 1977 killing spree in New York. "This film is about the reverberations of his sickness--in the greatest city in the world, if I might say so."

That last point is hardly incidental. Less like Lee's Seven than his Saturday Night Fever, Summer of Sam is a bloody valentine to the Big Apple, set during the sweltering boogie nights of '77 in an Italian-American neighborhood of the Bronx where the "44-caliber killer" did his dirty work. Leguizamo leads the large ensemble cast in his role as Vinny, a philandering hairdresser who interprets his late-night brush with the murderer as a sign from God that he should quit screwing around on his waitress wife (Sorvino); and Brody plays a spiky-haired punk and gay sex-club performer whose unique interests become cause for suspicion among the phobic regular guys in his and Vinny's dead-end circle. Still, the film's real stars are its intoxicating period details, as the Son of Sam (Michael Badalucco) shares screen time with vintage tunes by ABBA and the Who; fetishistic re-creations of Studio 54 and CBGB; non-sequitur footage of Yankees highlights and looting in Harlem; a talking dog(!); an abundance of sex; and a palpable sense that, as the director put it in Cannes, "the heat was murder that summer."

"Spike Lee feels that murder is entertainment," according to the father of the killer's first victim, as quoted recently in the New York Times. Which is absolutely true. Indeed, when Lee sensationally matches the image of the killer drawing his .44 to the sound of a radio sportscaster's play-by-play report of a Yankees/Orioles game ("And here's the pitch..."--bang! bang!), the film punctuates its tabloid style with the point that baseball and homicide are spun with equal fervor in American reportage. Accordingly, Lee turned to blunt metaphor at Cannes when addressing the question of why the father's protest during a Bronx casting call didn't persuade him to suspend production. "The train had left the station," he said emphatically. "The boat had left the pier. The rocket ship had left Kennedy. We were gone." After the press finished giggling, Lee continued more soberly. "I felt very deeply for the families of the victims. At the same time, I'm an artist, and this is a story I wanted to tell. Even if I didn't make this film, that wasn't going to bring their daughters or sons back. They got murdered by a psychopath. And again, we do not feel this film is a glorification of David Berkowitz."

Still perfectly composed, Lee nonetheless asked to change the subject: "Can we have some questions for Mira and John and Adrien?" Immediately, a reporter obliged, and so did Sorvino ("It was wonderful to work with Spike..."). As a work of journalism itself, complete with an end-credit sequence in which the players' names appear as New York Post headlines to the tune of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York," Summer of Sam is considerably more hard-hitting. If the movie's voiceover renditions of the real Berkowitz's brutal Post letters uncannily recall Taxi Driver from '76 (cleaning the "scum off the streets" is a common theme), the true credit for authorship matters less than the fact that the Brody character's punk band ends up lyrically appropriating the Son of Sam's poetic filth during its CBGB show. Once again: Violence begets entertainment. Likewise, if Lee's movie seems to borrow the slasher-film method of intercutting sex and violence (one loving couple meet their maker while a car radio blares Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell in Love"), let's not call it plagiarism or exploitation but rather a case of history and fiction meeting in a shadowy cul-de-sac. After all, Halloween came out the following year.

In Lee's stark addition to the "newspaper movie" genre, it's fitting that the director should make his requisite cameo appearance as a TV journalist who gets the "darker perspective" on Son of Sam from black folks in Bed-Stuy, while the white-haired former Post columnist Jimmy Breslin appears as New York's voice of authority ("there are eight million stories in the naked city, and this is one of 'em"). Reporting is racial in Summer of Sam--an angle that, per usual for Lee's films, has already been borne out in the real world by charges that the director has stereotyped Italian Americans. In the press room at Cannes, I overheard a white journalist filing his fatuous radio review over the phone: "I think this film proves that Spike Lee knows more about black people than he knows about white people."

Is it any wonder that Lee's first movie without black actors in lead roles would come under such attack? At the film-festival press conference, a reporter from Boston posed the question in colorblind terms: Would this film have been as controversial if someone else had made it? "When I choose a story to make a film," Lee replied, "I'm not even thinking about whether it's going to be controversial. I make films that I would like to see." In other words: He makes controversial films.


Summer of Sam starts Friday at area theaters.

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