The Bronx is Burning: On Giving “Summer of Sam” a Chance

Summer of Sam Summer of Sam (Buena Vista Pictures)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For March, we celebrate the birthday (and the decades-long filmography) of one of America’s most pioneering Black filmmakers, Spike Lee. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Nobody does interesting failures quite like Spike Lee. Even bona fide clunkers like She Hate Me and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus are ambitious and fascinating. There’s nothing by the numbers about Lee’s filmmaking – even the movies that don’t really work show genuine effort and vision. 1999’s Summer of Sam is full of so much vision that it’s impossible to discern what he’s trying to say at times, but when it works, it’s one of his most gripping, visually compelling films.

Summer of Sam takes place in 1977, when New York City was at peak shithole. On top of an economic crisis, skyrocketing unemployment, and a 24 hour long blackout, the city was terrorized by a gun toting serial killer who claimed to take orders from his neighbor’s dog, the titular Sam. Interestingly, the movie is about none of these things, not directly, at least. David Berkowitz (played by Michael Badalucco) barely qualifies as a supporting character. He appears on screen a handful of times, but more often than not he’s the unseen boogeyman looming over everything. His presence is felt by the residents of a Bronx neighborhood, who alternate between going about business as usual and giving in to fear and paranoia.  

With its predominantly Italian-American characters (often portrayed so unflatteringly that Lee took some heat from critics for it), Summer of Sam feels like Scorsese pastiche. It is, to an extent, but it’s also like Saturday Night Fever, if Tony Manero came back to his neighborhood with his tail between his legs after failing to make it in the Big City. Lee’s version of Tony is Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who, after being away for some time, returns home with spiked hair and affecting an absurd British accent. We know almost nothing about Ritchie before he left, and he isn’t exactly welcomed back with open arms. Vinny (John Leguizamo), once his closest friend, now views him with distaste, and treats him as little more than a sounding board for his marital problems. He’s still a step above their other friends, who treat Ritchie with foreign invader hostility, like a punk rock Typhoid Mary. Other than his family, the only person entirely in Ritchie’s corner is Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), the neighborhood doorknob he treats with unexpected affection and respect.

Vinny is a chronically unfaithful hairdresser who refuses to do his long-suffering wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), a favor by leaving her because divorce, in his warped Catholic perspective, is “evil.” He has a close encounter with the Son of Sam killer while having sex in a car with Dionna’s cousin, an experience he believes is a sign from God that he should stop cheating. His renewed dedication to his marriage lasts maybe a day or two before he returns to sticking it in anyone who winks at him, while at the same time violently jealous when Dionna sleeps with another man. The Son of Sam seems a distant second to Vinny’s personal problems, while his friends are both fearful, and giddily excited at the opportunity to engage in vigilante police work.

Summer of Sam is full of so much vision that it’s impossible to discern what he’s trying to say at times, but when it works, it’s one of his most gripping, visually compelling films.

The interesting thing is that, despite the fact that all these characters want to do is hang out, fuck around, go to the clubs, pick fights, and call each other “f*ggot,” they’re not teenagers. They’re all in their late twenties and thirties. To call back to Saturday Night Fever, they’re exactly the kind of people the younger Tony Manero feared he’d turn into if he didn’t escape the neighborhood. Nobody seems to have jobs, except for Vinny (and Ritchie, who’s a sex worker and exotic dancer), and nobody seems to have goals or dreams. Their idea of being men is insulting the women around them and beating up people they perceive as different from them, under the excuse that maybe they’re the Son of Sam killer, though one gets the impression that they don’t really need an excuse.

That Lee, along with co-screenwriters Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, chose to focus a movie about the Son of Sam murders on a bunch of obnoxious mooks, rather than Berkowitz himself or even the police investigation, is fascinating. There are a lot of interesting choices made here, such as the hyperfocus on Vinny and Dionna’s sex life, one in which Vinny carefully delineates between what he’ll do with other women, and what he’ll do with her. Other than the erotically charged She’s Gotta Have It, Summer of Sam is Lee’s most sexual film, but in a way that’s sleazy and a little depressing. It often feels like Lee had ideas for two separate films, one a period piece and one about a rapidly failing marriage, mashing them together rather than fleshing them out individually. It’s often a mess, lacking both focus, and a satisfactory conclusion.

Nevertheless, quite a bit works in Summer of Sam, and works well. Lee, who was a teenager during the time the film takes place (albeit growing up in Brooklyn rather than the Bronx) perfectly captures an unglamorous period in New York’s history, when part of it was literally on fire. In the middle of July, when the weather is at its most unbearable, everything has a slick, shimmery grime to it. Everything is either too bright, or too dark, with no in between. You can almost smell the sweat, and the hot tar and dirt, as the air itself seems to thrum with unfocused anger.

Is it silly when David Berkowitz hallucinates that a dog talks to him in the voice of John Turturro? Absolutely, but it’s also kind of creepy too. There’s a lot of unsettling, dream-like imagery in Summer of Sam, such as shots of street signs reflecting washed out sunlight, a guitar slowly falling from a window, and a frenetic montage set to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” It’s a weird and unpredictable movie that perfectly encapsulates a weird and unpredictable time. I’d love to see what Spike Lee does with a film that takes place in these current very weird, very unpredictable times. He may be the best filmmaker to tell the story.

Summer of Sam Trailer:

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