Monday, February 22, 2010

Underrated Movie #43: Summer of Sam

A week of movie by black folks about white folks, and movies by white folks about black folks.
Title: Summer of Sam
Year: 1999
Director: Spike Lee
Writers: Victor Coliccio, Michael Imperioli (Christopher from “The Sopranos”), and Spike Lee
Stars: John Leguizamo, Adrian Body, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito

The Story: Young Italian-Americans in 1977 New York grapple with a serial killer on the loose, a heat wave and a blackout, but the real threats come from their own fears and flaws.

How it Came to be Underrated: To be honest. I have no idea why this movie wasn’t a bigger hit. Lee never stops exploring, and, as a result, he’s had some misfires along the way. The consequence is that has to re-build his reputation from scratch every five years or so, but he eventually comes back every time.

Why It’s Great:

  1. As soon as Lee burst out of the gate with She’s Gotta Have It, he came under a lot of pressure to start making movies about white people, but he held off. Do the Right Thing showed that he could understand and sympathize with white folks, but they still weren’t his point-of-view characters, which only got his critics hotter under the collar. That made Summer of Sam all the more shocking and fun when it rolled around ten years later. Working from a script by two Italian-American actors, Lee finds the same universe of hopes and fears in the Bronx that he’d already explored in his own Bed-Stuy.
  2. This is the ultimate antidote to the corrosive clich├ęs of most serial-killer stories. Having seen too many movies, every fear-addled New Yorker decides they can solve these crimes on their own by “getting inside the brain of the killer,” but the real killer isn’t driven to kill because he’s a crazed vet, or a priest, or gay, or a punk. He’s doing it because his dog told him to. Everybody wants to see the killer as a judgment for society’s failings, but he’s not. He's just crazy. Lee caught a lot of flak for showing the title character talking, but that’s the whole point. If your dog told you to, you’d do it too.
  3. This movie is brazenly kinky. Everybody unconsciously fetishizes their own fears, feeding off the thrill of mass hysteria. It’s easy to make sleeping around look like a lot of fun, and it’s also easy to demonize it. You can even do both at the same time—Just check out every Lifetime movie. What’s hard is to make a darkly honest movie like this that doesn’t let us admire or condemn the misdirected sexual appetites of its flawed heroes.
  4. The musical montages are absolutely electric, especially two explosions of hysteria cut to the Who songs “Baba O’Reilly” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Lee has more raw kinetic power than any other working American filmmaker.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Like Werner Herzog, Lee is one of those rare filmmakers who can do equally great work on both fiction films and documentaries. Two of his best docs are Four Little Girls and When the Levees Broke.

How Available Is It?: There’s a barely adequate non-anamorphic dvd. Let’s see this brilliant Ellen Kuras cinematography on a nicer disc!

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Lick Your Weight in Wildcats!

3 comments:

stphen said...

well very nice post. spike has really come in a great fashion.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

This is sometimes my favorite Spike Lee film, and I like a lot of them. Right on about the killer, too. It took real nerve to portray a serial killer the way serial killers mostly are---sweaty, weird, and crazy---rather than the slick charmers most movies waste our time with. And oh christ, that first dance number!

Anonymous said...

Eh--it's been a long time, but I remember hating this movie. The scene where John Leguizamo is raging about anal sex was truly embarrassing. Like your blog, though.