Brief impression: “Summer of Sam”
July 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
If Spike Lee’s underrated (I would argue) ‘Summer of Sam’ is more concerned with the effect that the year-long Son of Sam killing season had on the general atmosphere in New York City during the summer of 1977, then I wonder about the scenes featuring Michael Badalucco as the titular figure; I wonder about the presence and the significance of these. Are they intended as periodic reminders of the ‘madman’ whose relatively simple acts had an entire city by the throat for twelve whole months, or are they part of a narrative device by which the concurrent ratcheting of tension in both the character-drama storyline and that of the crime-thriller feed into and feed off one another? Perhaps they are simply obligatory inclusions of an individual in a film whose overall existence is largely dependent on that very individual. Once the film comes to a conclusion though, it is clear that the explicit depiction of the true killer is a kind of dramatic irony: Adrien Brody’s Ritchie, one of the film’s key characters, is increasingly believed to be the Son of Sam by his ‘friends’ on account of his adopting the confronting dress code and lifestyle of the late 70s British Punk establishment (though anyone who knows the actual name of Son of Sam would realise that poor mohawked Ritchie is innocent,) with some fairly unfortunate consequences.
Each time Berkowitz is shown thrashing about in his morbidly lit abode, being tortured – presumably – by the voices chewing at his brain, or when Lee follows Son of Sam or his silhouette from behind as he stalks his human prey in the darkened streets and shrubs, there is almost undeniable deliberateness to the way his identity is concealed. Now while it is common practice to shroud dangerous and shadowy characters in mystery, either for purposes of suspense or to create a sense of otherness, the portrayal of the killer in this film highlights the frustration and tension inherent in his behaviour, or at the very least it seems that this is the case; that he is a wound-up, frustrated man with no other conceivable outlet but the barrel of a pistol. The strong sense I get is that this man is not so far removed from the ‘regular’ folk on whom he preys. Vinny, Ritchie, Ruby, Dionna, Joey and the rest of the cats that populate Throgs Neck, the section of the Bronx that serves as the film’s setting…these characters are all in some way trashing around their own personal hells, victims of their own personal demonic forces, their own 2000-year old black dog (an entity to which Berkowitz actually attributed his crimes): whether it’s Vinny and his irrepressible, wandering eye which finds him repeatedly cheating on his gorgeous wife Dionna, or Ritchie’s immersion in various subcultures that may or may not weigh on him but which certainly contribute to his being ostracised and viewed with undue suspicion, ‘Summer of Sam’ is bold enough to draw parallels between the psychic struggles of these characters and Berkowitz’s rage, confusion and enslavement to his violent urges.
Spike Lee has always been a filmmaker who appears obsessed with the psychological complexities – no, the schizophrenia – of the cultural broth that is New York City, the psychosocial inferno that is created when ethnicities, generations and disparate value systems not only co-exist but frequently clash. In ‘Summer of Sam,’ Berkowitz is less a character than he is a personification of a community’s state of mind at a particular time in its history. Now, whether or not this film successfully explores exactly what state of mind the city of New York was in during this period is a difficult assessment to make, but there is no shortage of first-hand testimony of the fact that the late-seventies saw New York going through a very rough period indeed. Perhaps Berkowitz’s reign of violence was simply one of several possible outcomes; maybe it was even somewhat ineviable. That being said, this film is not so much an exploration of his crimes as it is one which uses his crimes as a way in, a way into the soul of a little section of the Bronx in the summer of 1977.