14 January 2009

Summer of Sam (1999)


Every few years it occurs to me that I should catch up on Spike Lee Joints. He is a filmmaker who has a very clich├ęd public persona that I know I should be ignoring and just pay attention to his films. I learn this lesson every few years when I catch up on his films. Summer of Sam from 1999 is no exception. In fact, it is quickly becoming one of my favorites.

For the purposes of this entry, we'll refer to Entertainment Weekly, Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, Us Weekly and all of those types of shows and publications as the "Entertainment Press". So, in the Entertainment Press, Spike Lee is always referred to as a Black Filmmaker. This notion seems funny to me since Steve Spielberg is never referred to as a White Filmmaker. By adding the race before the occupation, there is added baggage to think about. It's no longer just a film that a filmmaker made. The film is now first ranked within the cannon of "Black Films" or films about the Black Experience, not in the overall cannon of "Film" in general. Now, some of Spike Lee's films are obviously asking to be placed in the "Black Films" cannon (Malcolm X comes to mind immediately), but not all of them. Summer of Sam is one of these.

I read an interview with Spike Lee after he made Clockers that the part he enjoyed most in making that film was that he got to work with Martin Scorsese (he was a Producer on the film). Spike Lee had always admired his work and acknowledged that he had in fact "stolen" a lot from Martin Scorsese's films over the years. This was the quote that made me first seek out Spike Lee's films, as Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite working American directors. The similarities jumped right out as I watched older Spike Lee films; Joe's Bed-Sty Barber, She's Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing and most obvious of all Summer of Sam.

Without giving away too much of this film (it's box office numbers lead me to think that not too many people have seen it), the rock soundtrack, the varied types of film stock, the slow dollying camera, the flash cuts, the Italian-American neighborhood (and the larger setting of New York City) all could just as easily describe several Martin Scorsese films as well as Summer of Sam. However, this alone is not the reason so see the film. It is the acting. John Leguizamo, Adrian Brody, Mira Sorvino (daughter of Martin Scorsese regular Paul Sorvino) and Jennifer Esposito all turn in performances unlike anything they've done before. In addition, the plot amps up the tension as the film comes to a close as there is a crazed killer on the loose and everyone in the story has a legitimate reason why they thing they will be the next victim.

Also, it's one of those films that after you've seen it, you'll stop and watch the whole thing anytime you're flipping the channels and it's on.