Vive la diffirence

A melting pot of several stories, "Summer of Sam" is a sprawling urban epic from Brooklyn's native son.

Published June 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Spike Lee is the most ambitious filmmaker in America. And by ambitious, I
do not mean the most impeccable -- that is Martin Scorsese, who has exquisite
taste, a flawless sense of rhythm and a perfect ear for dialogue. By
ambitious I also do not mean bankable -- that's still Steven Spielberg; or
eccentric -- my money's still on David Lynch; or even the riskiest with his
resources -- I haven't given up on that gambler Francis Ford Coppola, and
neither should you. No, Spike Lee is the most ambitious because every time
he makes one movie, he actually makes 18: 18 stories, 18
complicated, often contradictory themes, 18 music videos, comedies,
tragedies, farces and docudramas. Eighteen story lines, locations, dialects
and moods. That is why watching his films, while worth it, can be so taxing.
If you watched 18 movies in one sitting, you'd be worn out, too.

Lee's latest, "Summer of Sam," which opens Friday, is an urban epic, a
noisy, swirling, flawed, hilarious, witty, tender, violent, questionable
train wreck. Maybe Lee took on too much in taking the summer of 1977 as his
subject, but taking on too much is his M.O. The film, organized around the
killings and capture of serial killer David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam,
hits on the heat wave, blackouts, Studio 54, punk rock and Reggie Jackson.
It's set in the Bronx, and its ensemble cast includes John Leguizamo as a philandering
husband, Mira Sorvino as his wife, Ben Gazzara as the neighborhood don, a
vocal cameo by Lee regular John Turturro as the voice of the dog ordering Son
of Sam to kill, and columnist Jimmy Breslin, who appealingly bookends the
action with commentary.

Sorvino especially shines here, acting as the movie's human center -- a good
dancer, good daughter, good wife, she keeps all the headline violence in
check. The most gut-wrenching moment is not one of the many pointless,
brutal shootings or the many pointless brawls. The most gut-wrenching
moment is watching the happiness drain from Sorvino's face as she kisses her
husband and tastes another woman on his lips.

Lee's ambitious approach is intensely democratic. His mosaic storytelling
impulse, aided by his talent and ability at choosing singular actors, feels
like what America is supposed to feel like. The citizens of his cities are not
faceless, nameless representatives of the masses. They are unique
individuals with personalities and quirks. That is why Lee's oeuvre sticks
with the viewer in specific scenes rather than story arcs, moments such as
Danny Aiello's bittersweet courting of the radiant Joie Lee in "Do the Right
Thing," or Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry's memorable performances as
crackheads in "Jungle Fever." This individualist collectivism is mirrored in
his process, epitomized by the loving production credit on his movies, "A
Spike Lee Joint," which means everything from operating independently to
hiring your dad to write the musical score.

Considering that heat, New York City and Italian food are characters as much
as the actors are, "Summer of Sam" plays like a companion piece to Lee's 1989
breakthrough, "Do the Right Thing." Of all Lee's characters over the years,
the filmmaker himself seems most identifiable with one from that film -- Mother
Sister as played by Ruby Dee. The elderly neighborhood matriarch sits in her window all day,
witnessing. A matronly Santa Claus, she knows who's been bad and who's been
good; omniscient, she's the director's double, the only figure in the
neighborhood who can keep track of all the stories around her -- everyone else
is too absorbed in his own little plot.

Both "Do the Right Thing" and "Summer of Sam" deal with how the frequently
xenophobic village mindset of New York's neighborhoods butts against melting-pot realities. "Do the Right Thing," even more than his biopic about Malcolm
X, made Lee into a lightning rod on race issues, specifically because of its
climax, in which Mookie, the character played by Lee, ignites a street riot
when he throws a garbage can through the window of the Italian pizzeria. A
lot of reactionary punditry at the time feared the film's release because
such an image would supposedly fuel real-life riots that, of course, never
happened. In fact, watching that film 10 years later, it's only apparent
how subtle it is -- how Lee indicts certain characters instead of certain
races, how the most sympathetic character is Aiello's pizzeria owner, who is
broken-hearted that the business he built with his bare hands went up in
smoke, how only a few hours before the craziness of the altercation he'd been
waxing to his racist son of his pride in feeding the generations of (black)
people from the neighborhood. Lee was never an easy answer, famously ending
the film with contradictory quotes -- Martin Luther King Jr.
condemning violence and Malcolm X holding up certain forms of violence as
self-defense. You could see such a contradiction as a cop-out, as a refusal
to take a stand, but I like to think of it as the truth, which is to say as
storytelling. Ultimately, Lee's films are never going to be about any one
thing, race included. They're art, not politics, and the responsibility of
art is to the story, to the image, to whatever the artist himself cares about.

Sure, Lee is famous for taking on big subjects like race and class
and gender, but has anyone ever noticed how good he is at the metaphysics of
hair? Like the moment in "Do the Right Thing" in which
Sweet Dick Willie rolls his eyes when the goofily coiffed Buggin' Out
suggests they boycott Sal's Famous Pizzeria because it only displays pictures
of Italian-American icons on the wall. Says Willie, "What you ought to do is
boycott that goddamn barber that fucked up your head." It's hardly a
coincidence that such a cosmic cosmetologist as Lee assigned Leguizamo's
character the occupation of hairdresser, or that he chose as his subject the
Son of Sam himself, who targeted brunets with shoulder-length hair. When
the brunets of New York start chopping their locks and dyeing them blond,
Leguizamo's boss at the salon (Bebe Neuwirth) takes a stand: "Screw Son of
Sam. I'm not cuttin' my hair."

When hair makes a statement, it becomes dangerous. If Sorvino's sweet
Dionna (with whom her husband can only let down his hair when she dons a
blond wig --"I feel like I'm cheating on you with you," he confesses) is the film's human heart, the
punk rocker Richie (the charming Adrien Brody) is its moral compass. Forced
to move back in with his parents in the Bronx after he's been evicted from
his Manhattan apartment, the spiky-haired Richie, in a Union Jack T-shirt, is anathema to the neighborhood guys -- many of them minor mobsters -- he grew
up with. Ruby, the neighborhood whore and Richie's future girlfriend, is clearly
enthralled, asking him if he's been to London. "No," he replies in his best cockney accent, "but it's
all in the attitude." Richie's purpose in the film is not subtle. He is
different and as such is a symbol of difference. He gets the most
philosophical dialogue: When Leguizamo's character chides him for wearing a
dog collar around his neck, Richie retorts, "You're on a leash to a certain
way of thinking."

Son of Sam's mania is just a framework. Especially through the punk Richie,
Lee takes a stab at indicating the more mundane, daily varieties of violence
that ultimately take on a more evil cast than does the shooting spree of a madman.
"Summer of Sam" is ultimately about tolerance, but this being Spike Lee, the
topic isn't couched in touchy-feely treacle, but rather exposed through dark
humor. There are hilariously stupid moments involving the mobsters'
suspicion that Richie is the Son of Sam because he has weird hair -- like when the men of
respect squirm their way through CBGB's temple of punk, or the way one draws a
portentous Mohawk on the head of a Son of Sam police sketch featured on the front
page of the Daily News.

If all of the above sounds like 29 barely-held-together plots that
are so relentless the audience members exit the theater touching their foreheads
as if collectively appearing in an aspirin commercial, it is. I wouldn't schedule much afterwards,
because if your aprhs "Summer of Sam" dinner is anything like mine, everyone
at the table will be exhausted and argumentative, like temporary
residents of Spike Lee's New York. It is that immediate. I felt like I
wasn't watching it, I was in it. It was only later, like Mother Sister
sitting in her window taking it all in, that I was able to pull back and
absorb its scope, which is vast. Lee might make hard movies, even
exasperating movies. But -- and I admire this -- they're never small.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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