Monday, September 10, 2012

Dead But Dreaming

Who newly emerged in the US during the 80s as auspiscious personal filmmakers? It doesn't seem like there were many. Michael Mann, Tim Burton, John Hughes, Jim Jarmusch, (unofficially) Oliver Stone,  James Cameron, Tony Scott, Joel Schumacher, Rob Reiner, James L. Brooks, Lawrence Kasdan, Joel & Ethan Coen, Sam Raimi, Kathryn Bigelow, Susan Seidelman, Penelope Spheeris, Gus Van Sant, Hal Hartley, David Mamet, (barely making it) Steven Soderbergh and Cameron Crowe; and, Spike Lee are the only ones I can think of.

Impressively, it is Spike Lee that proved in the 90s to have the most prolific body of work, with 9 features and 2 documentaries. And they remain fascinating, varied and sometimes bordering on trivial, entertaining time capsules of 90s pop culture in a significant way.

Since it was over 10 years since I'd seen Summer of Sam (1999, Spike Lee), all I had been able to recall were a scene of a large black lab tormenting Berkowitz and the protests of a friend of mine in PDX who was aggravated and intolerant of the movie she continually renounced on the grounds of Mira Sorvino's character squeaking in Brooklyease, "I could taste her pussy juice all over your face," to her Leguizamo-played husband in one scene.

Interestingly, when I saw the film this past weekend those two scenes are still the ones that stand out most, and maybe even work best for me.

The two strongest elements supporting Summer of Sam are the self-destruction of Vinny (John Leguizamo) and Terence Blanchard's, umm, Harlem Renaissance-stately, Aaron Copeland-like, sweeping operatic swells contrasted against 70s punk rock--okay, I'm going to argue that as far as I've known The Who were never punk. Am I wrong?

The visual look is a kinetic frenzy closer to Oliver Stone than the suave rapture style found in Mo' Better Blues (1990, Lee) and Jungle Fever (1991, Lee). It starts with the classic Hollywood studio crane sweep of a cavernous set to evoke 70s disco glamor, but is one of so many similar sequences that even use the same music, like Boogie Nights (1997, Paul Thomas Anderson), The Last Days of Disco (1998, Whit Stillman) and Blow (2001, Ted Demme). Although the context of "Best of My Love" is sly here.

Lee's visual fever isn't as nauseating as Natural Born Killers (1994, Oliver Stone) because he's succeeded with something closer to the 90s MTV music video aesthetic, yet uses it strategically so as not to let it get stale. All of the Berkowitz cutaways are ghastly (the greens especially) in the distorted result of cross processing, and on top of that, he heaps a tilt shift on the lens. These moments are disturbing, and inserts within them like the homicidal messages misspelled with children's building blocks further enhance some of Lee's most ambitious stagings. And the plastic, commercial, store bought production design that's supposed to show Berkowitz's squalor looks like it's all brand new and they bought it at a Toys R Us--which I really enjoy.

The comedy fits well too. Lee again squares off two pressure keg factions in a Brooklyn neighborhood, and this time its an Italian-American civil beef. Ritchie (Adrien Brody) doing a Brit accent and taunting the rough and tumble heavy hitters in their dead end neighborhood is one of the main ingredients in this thriller, but those scenes are also often funny at the same time in the way some of the best scenes in movies can have you laughing one second, then recoiling in tension the next.

Ritchie is supposed to be some kid who would be prime trade at Warhol's factory, but as was the case with much of the 90s punk creations, looks like he bought all of his clothes at the mall brand new recently.

Vinny is not supposed to be Warren Beatty's character in Shampoo (1975, Hal Ashby), but he mostly is.

As most know, this film is about Vinny, Ritchie, their neighborhood, and incidentally the Son of Sam murders. The murders raise the tension, but I for one wondered why the film didn't bother to ever mention the victims' identities, any relevant details about them, or even the number of how many there were. The killings just kind of loom. Most of the film is dancing, sex, dancing in the sex industry, fighting about sex, fighting about where to dance, and people swearing. The first disco scene struck me as romantically special when the rest of the crowd disappear for a moment as Vinny and Dionna dance alone--yeah I eat that sugar up.

I find none of the ensemble grating, although I used to find Leguizamo really obnoxious. I think John Leguizamo is fantastic in Summer of Sam because by the end, he was what held it together--his plight was earned through its dramatic portrayal on the page and with his performance. And the escalating dementia of Vinny and Son of Sam parallel one another purposefully, to effective results.

While this film did a lot for me and I want to come back to it, by the end credits when I saw how the Brooklyn neighborhoods, New York Yankees, and other iconography seemed a perfect fit for Lee, I couldn't help being distracted thinking about what Fincher would do in SF 7 years later.

And one last thing I haven't checked: is that last beatdown scene copying the Rodney King beating? That's what it felt like. I thought if it was, that would be something to recognize the space and arrangement of those bodies and batons.


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