In Summer of Sam, Spike Lee has made a small, shapely drama about two young Italian-American couples in the Bronx. While at it, he also made a social protest film on the dynamics of lynch mobs; a pop-music nostalgia piece; a documentary chronicle of New York City in mid-1977; a homage to early Scorsese; and (at one point) a Roger Corman horror movie, complete with bilious colors and a satanic dog who says "Kill!" You can't pack much more into a film without big chunks coming loose and crashing off the screen--as they sometimes do when Summer of Sam turns a corner.
How to account for this overloaded vehicle, which gives such an uneven but memorable ride? Let's begin with the writers.
Although Lee takes partial credit for the screenplay, Summer of Sam started out as a script by playwright Victor Colicchio and the extraordinary young actor Michael Imperioli (who has appeared in four of Lee's previous films and plays a small role in this one). Given the two men's Italian-American backgrounds--and considering Imperioli's credits in gay-themed films such as Postcards From America and I Shot Andy Warhol--I think it might have been these writers, rather than Lee, who put in the core stuff about Catholic sexual repression, the Madonna-whore complex and the tricks turned in the ladies' room at Male World.
Deep-voiced, nutcracker-faced Ritchie (Adrien Brody) is the character who turns the tricks, all the while insisting he's not gay. He believes he just wants to escape from the Bronx, where his former buddies hang out all day in front of a sign that says "Dead End." They don't know about Male World, of course; it's enough for them, or too much, that crazy Ritchie has bought a Fender guitar, done up his hair in spikes and put on a Sex Pistols accent. Of the Dead End boys, only Vinny (John Leguizamo) tolerates this punk-rock affectation, on the grounds that Ritchie may be weird enough to act as his confessor.
Vinny's sin: He can't resist perversions, such as oral sex. Since these practices would debase his wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), Vinny has no choice but to cheat on her, as often and as vigorously as possible. Never mind that she rises over him like a maypole beside a satyr; Vinny leaves her glum and confused. And yet, dimly aware of the mistake he's been making, Vinny begins to fret, wondering if the much-publicized murderer stalking the Bronx--the .44-Caliber Killer, Son of Sam--might be God's agent, sent to destroy him.
While Vinny pours out these woes, Ritchie is busy discovering his own confessor in a local girl named Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), better known on the street as Ruby the Skank. Clearly, she has reasons of her own to leave Dead End. Soon she joins Ritchie in a loving and supportive punk-rock alliance--providing a neat contrast to the hellward funnel of Dionna and Vinny's disco marriage.
You will notice that this central drama needn't have become a film. It could just as well have fit onto the stage, complete with Son of Sam references. I can imagine how talk of the killer might have run through the play as a metaphor--much as Ritchie's costume now provides the image for one of those speeches, more common in theater than film, that explain the meaning of it all. (Ritchie wears a dog collar. Society keeps everyone on a leash.) At moments in Summer of Sam, you can almost see two chairs in a bare, darkened box--all the setting that would be required for actors to shine in these dialogues.
But of course, Summer of Sam does not put you into the showcase of a low-budget playhouse, where sight becomes concentrated. Your eyes jump all over the place--because once Lee became the director and third screenwriter on this project, he took control of Colicchio and Imperioli's vehicle and made it careen.
Hey, there's Jimmy Breslin! (We almost hit him, running that light.) That's Phil Rizzuto's voice coming over the car radio, talking about Reggie Jackson! (Leave it to Lee to free-associate between Number 44 on the Yankees--New York's other famous hit man of the year--and the .44-Caliber Killer.) One minute we're at Male World in Times Square; the next, we've zoomed up to 125th Street, where people are looting the stores during the 1977 blackout; and right after that we're in the middle of Mean Streets, with mobsters gathering about a gourmandizing boss played by Ben Gazzara. Why not Mean Streets? Since Colicchio and Imperioli have provided an Italian-American atmosphere, Lee might as well revisit Scorsese's films. They're surprisingly apt. One year before Sam, his Taxi Driver brought us the urban-nightmare monologues of Travis Bickle--strange prefigurations of the messages that David Berkowitz, the .44-Caliber Killer, would send to the police and to Breslin at the Daily News. So here, as a walk-on character, is a Vietnam War veteran who drives a taxi; and here's Ritchie with a new hairstyle, seemingly modeled on Bickle's mohawk.
Or are those last details relevant only through my free associations? Summer of Sam, like the city itself, goes off in so many directions at once that you may begin to dream up mental itineraries of your own. And that's a large part of the pleasure. Maybe the events here don't coalesce into a climax, as they did in Lee's classic long-hot-summer movie, Do the Right Thing; nor does the messiness seem to come from an emotionally charged source, as it did in Crooklyn or He Got Game. This film feels more like a mannerist excursion. But, that said, there's a lot of wild scenery along the route; the performers are excellent company; and the experience, though jammed, keeps making room for your ideas.
To answer your final question: Yes, the movie is blood-spattered. You see--briefly--re-enactments of half a dozen of Berkowitz's murders. I don't feel these scenes are sensationalistic. I think the film, as a whole, is sensational. That's not the highest praise I can give; but so far, in the summer of 1999, no American film has been so invigorating as Summer of Sam.