Quick thinking as he is, Spike Lee rarely shoots a boring scene or makes an entirely coherent movie. The details are worked out; the structure is unbalanced. Lee has more-better ideas and weaker follow-through than any director in Hollywood.
As feverishly disjunctive as they were, the early films, and even Malcolm X, promised a new sort of political rhetoric—a showboat didacticism founded less on social content than social conflict. But since Crooklyn, Lee’s movies have felt like brainstormed knockoffs. Whether low-budget miniatures or sweeping urban landscapes, they’re broad-stroke canvases in which the paint runs and the figures are barely drafted. They’re never less than must-see but very much less than fully achieved.
Summer of Sam, which is being rushed out for the Fourth of July weekend, is even more sprawling than Clockers or He Got Game—a tabloid epic that takes the terror reign of serial-killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz as a prism to refract the riotous disco-punk Sodom that was 1977 New York. From the moment that Jimmy Breslin, the then Daily News columnist to whom Berkowitz addressed his infamous missives, takes the screen to proclaim his ambivalent love for his hometown and swat the viewer with clichés, the movie rushes off in three separate—and frustratingly valid—directions.
Reworked by Lee from a screenplay by Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, Summer of Sam is at once a psycho-killer procedural in the tradition invented by Fritz Lang’s M; a panoramic and perversely nostalgic evocation of New York’s sleazy ’70s; and an analysis of mass hysteria—specifically, the projection of evil onto otherness. The last aspect is the most developed. A philandering Bronx hairdresser named Vinny (John Leguizamo), out cheating on his disco-queen wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino), barely escapes being Sam’s seventh victim.
From that moment on, the Son of Sam case is tied into the vagaries of Vinny’s libido and the prejudices of his insular Italian American neighborhood, particularly as both are provoked by the return of Vinny’s friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody). An aspiring punk rocker, and sometime porn actor, Ritchie rehabilitates the local bad girl (Jennifer Esposito) while picking up spare change by dancing naked—and hustling patrons—at a downtown dive called Male World. That the narrative ultimately coalesces into a modified Mean Streets—tightly wrapped Vinny as ambivalent neighborhood insider and Ritchie as his outcast buddy—is only one Scorsese echo.
Summer of Sam lacks Scorsese’s precise sense of place but there’s no doubt that this is his town. The 1977 anthem “New York, New York” is the movie’s final number and just about everyone lives in a Travis Bickle nightmare. The letters left by Son of Sam (Michael Badalucco) echo Travis’s diary and are themselves transformed
into Ritchie’s punk anthems.Meanwhile, Taxi Driver‘s overheated mélange of splattered brains, sexual disgust, and Forty Deuce expressionism are marshaled to represent the
period. Summer of Sam‘s look is
beyond lurid; at once bleached-out and oversaturated, the color has the quality of an 8mm porn loop.
A borderline cacophony—with Terence Blanchard’s score suavely percolating under everything from Abba and the Who to high-decibel domestic squabbles and Yankee play-by-play—Summer of Sam goes into overdrive when the killer shoots the demon dog that’s been driving him crazy to trigger a mad montage of murder, dope, prayer, and Male World prancing, mostly in mega close-up and set to “Baba O’Reilly.” Add to this the summer’s traumatic power outage and the director’s own jarringly affectless cameo as TV newsreporter John Jeffries. (To compound the joke, Lee goes for a “darker perspective,” doing an on-the-street interview with a giggling bystander played by his sister Joie.)
Although Lee ignores the fact that 1977 was also the summer of Star Wars, the result is a laundromat effect in which subplots and characters are mashed against the washing-machine glass and then recede into the swirl. Occasionally, the centrifugal motion slows down in a sodden tangle of exposition, as when Vinny and Dionna hop in one frenzied night from CBGB to Studio 54 to the orgy at Plato’s Retreat. By the time Vinny is driven to pretend to believe that his friend is the terror of the city, the old neighborhood isn’t the only thing out of control.
Twenty minutes too long (or two hours too short), Summer of Sam is a film in which many things seem to happen twice and others not at all. It’s an immersion in pungent urban detritus—not unlike combing Coney Island beach on a Monday morning. The elements are there but the movie isn’t.
Les Amants de Pont Neuf was three years in the making and, now known as The Lovers on the Bridge, has taken twice that long to get an American release. Written and directed by then enfant terrible Léos Carax, this wildly romantic anti-romance was attacked for its shameless extravagance and praised for more or less the same reason.
Cahiers du Cinema devoted an entire issue to Carax’s vision of lowlife l’amour fou. Lovers on the Bridge was included in the 1992 New York Film Festival (and, championed by Film Comment, has been shown several times at the Walter Reade) but, so far as presumptive distributors were concerned, it never recovered from Times critic Vincent Canby’s bemused assessment—”one of the most extravagant and delirious follies perpetrated on French soil since Marie Antoinette played the milkmaid at the Petit Trianon.”
True enough, but Lovers on the Bridge is as exalted as it is ridiculous—an outrageously contrived paean to freedom, a crazy mixture of scabby naturalism and rock-video mescaline staged on a movie set worthy of Stroheim. Carax expended most of his budget reconstructing a chunk of Paris—including the Pont Neuf, the quays along the Seine, the facade of the Samaritaine department store, and part of the Ile de la Cité—as the backdrop for the grand passion that consumes two of the world’s scruffiest lovers, the half-blind street-artist Michele (Juliette Binoche) and the alchoholic street-
performer Alex (Denis Lavant). Making their home on Paris’s oldest bridge, the couple create their own world and so does the movie. They embrace on the grass in the glare of whizzing headlights and stroll through a city lit only by the strobe of a subterranean disco.
In his most grandiose gesture, the filmmaker re-creates the fantastic fireworks display that marked the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution as, drunk and cackling, the lovers sprawl on the Pont Neuf, shooting at the sky with the revolver Michele keeps in her paintbox. The director’s trademark shot—let’s call it a Caraxysm—is a convulsive rock-scored lateral pan alongside his running, capering hero. Here, Alex and Michele cavort across the bridge, alone in an exploding world as the music switches from Franco rap to an ecstatic Strauss waltz. It’s a tremendous scene—one of the peak movie moments of the decade—and Carax manages to top it off with an inexplicable shot of Michele waterskiing on the Seine in a stolen powerboat.
Beatifying the lower depths, Carax reverses Chaplin’s City Lights. Here the tramp would rather have the woman he loves go blind than for her to leave him. (In another stunning image, Alex tries to set the world on fire.) But the movie, too, doesn’t go anywhere, being itself a sort of bridge. There’s no setup and, even invoking L’Atalante, Carax can’t conjure a closing to match the middle. Still, even suspended in mid-air, The Lovers on the Bridge remains a glorious binge—as half-cracked and heedless as its protagonists.