David Berkowitz “Son of Sam”
SUMMER OF SAM B
USA (142 mi) 1999 d: Spike Lee
Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C. which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood. Hello from the sewers of N.Y.C. which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the sweeper trucks. Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of N.Y.C. and from the ants that dwell in these cracks and feed in the dried blood of the dead that has settled into the cracks. J.B., I’m just dropping you a line to let you know that I appreciate your interest in those recent and horrendous .44 killings. I also want to tell you that I read your column daily and I find it quite informative. Tell me Jim, what will you have for July twenty-ninth? You can forget about me if you like because I don’t care for publicity. However you must not forget Donna Lauria and you cannot let the people forget her either. She was a very, very sweet girl but Sam’s a thirsty lad and he won’t let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood. Mr. Breslin, sir, don't think that because you haven’t heard from me for a while that I went to sleep. No, rather, I am still here. Like a spirit roaming the night. Thirsty, hungry, seldom stopping to rest; anxious to please Sam. I love my work. Now, the void has been filled. Perhaps we shall meet face to face someday or perhaps I will be blown away by cops with smoking .38’s. Whatever, if I shall be fortunate enough to meet you I will tell you all about Sam if you like and I will introduce you to him. His name is “Sam the terrible.” Not knowing the what the future holds I shall say farewell and I will see you at the next job. Or should I say you will see my handiwork at the next job? Remember Ms. Lauria. Thank you. In their blood and from the gutter “Sam’s creation” .44 Here are some names to help you along. Forward them to the inspector for use by N.C.I.C: [sic] “The Duke of Death” “The Wicked King Wicker” “The Twenty Two Disciples of Hell” “John 'Wheaties” – Rapist and Suffocator of Young Girls. PS: Please inform all the detectives working the slaying to remain. P.S: [sic] JB, Please inform all the detectives working the case that I wish them the best of luck. “Keep ‘em digging, drive on, think positive, get off your butts, knock on coffins, etc.” Upon my capture I promise to buy all the guys working the case a new pair of shoes if I can get up the money. Son of Sam
─Handwritten letter received by The Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin on May 30, 1977
In many ways this feels like a Spike Lee response to Martin Scorsese’s Italian working-class neighborhoods in Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and Goodfellas (1990), gritty films shot on the streets of New York reflecting a daring authenticity, especially in the use of crude and profane language, where the word “fuck” is reputedly spoken 326 times, while the king of profanity, Joe Pesci, is nowhere to be seen in this film. While this could easily be seen as an extension of Do the Right Thing (1989), both shot in the sweltering heat of the summer, this is the first Spike Lee film to feature an all-white cast, delving into a distinctively Italian-American neighborhood in the South Bronx, interestingly set two years before 9/11 in the summer of 1977, a period of panic and distrust in New York City when David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz was going on his killing sprees. Eventually apprehended, Berkowitz was sentenced to 300 years in prison and remains behind bars. Ostensibly an exposé of a building paranoia where people end up being afraid to go outside, as entire neighborhoods are threatened, projecting their fear on outsiders, as the city comes under intense pressure to focus its attention on capturing a brazen, unseen killer that apparently lives in their midst. While Lee’s interest may have initially been upon the killer, whose violent outburst historically consumed so many people’s lives, where “Son of Sam” was the original working title, the script changed over time and focused more on the community, where Lee received plenty of negative feedback from the family members of several of the victims who were afraid of Lee’s overly sensationalized exploitation of such gruesome murders, thinking the movie might actually glorify the killer, while much of the actual production equipment was sabotaged during the shooting of the film with racist and anti-Spike Lee messages, where the community voiced their displeasure at being perceived in a negative light. All of this plays into a pervasive interactive mood of growing hostility where Lee interestingly combines the actual story of Berkowitz with fictional characters in order to recreate events that took place that summer, where the part of Berkowitz is a relatively minor character that is largely symbolic, who serves “mostly as a berserk metaphor for Lee’s view of the seventies as a period of amoral excess,” (Murray Pomerance, City That Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination), where apparently even Berkowitz has complained from prison about the film’s exploitation of “the ugliness of the past.” A companion to David Fincher’s ZODIAC (2007), the film’s underlying message appears to be a lynching parable, demonstrating how easy it is to erroneously rush to judgment, recreating a panicked lynch mob hysteria that recalls the Ken Burns documentary The Central Park Five (2012), but also earlier films, Stuart Heisler’s Among the Living (1941), William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), or even Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927). Roaming the streets for over a year seemingly at will, the serial killer only grew more brazen, leaving taunting notes for the police and press, triggering a fear and pandemonium in the city where people grew openly suspicious of anyone that was different.
Introduced by New York journalist Jimmy Breslin as one of the millions of stories in the city of New York, this adds a Walter Cronkite touch from You Are There (1953 – 57), a television news show that reenacted historical events, where the story of an unstoppable psychopath on the loose, played by Michael Badalucco, is interspersed in between newspaper headlines documenting one of the hottest heat waves the city has ever experienced, including citywide blackouts, riots, looting, and another Yankee pennant drive, with fingers of blame pointed in all directions, bringing the city to a standstill. Into this existing reality Lee introduces several fictional characters, including two couples from the same neighborhood, John Leguizamo as Vinny, a hairdresser with a roving eye towards the ladies, and Mia Sorvino as his beautiful but all-too-nice wife Dionna who works as a waitress in her father’s restaurant, both regulars in the local disco clubs, Summer of Sam Dance SceneThere But For The Grace of ... YouTube (1:20), the place to be seen on Saturday nights, where wide-collared shirts, bell-bottomed pants and lines of cocaine intersect in a temporary escape from the doldrums of everyday life. His best friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody) is something of a hustler, initially seen decked out in all-punk attire, even speaking with a phony British accent, but he’s just one of the guys from the corner with designs on becoming a punk musician, soon hooking up with Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), an attractive girl with a loose reputation in the neighborhood who seems to overlook his ventures as a male dancer in a male club, while also doing gay porno films on the side, thinking perhaps this brings him closer to the performing side of the music business, where the edgier and more off-the-wall the better. While Vinny chides Ritchie for wearing a dog collar around his neck, Ritchie caustically retorts, “You’re on a leash to a certain way of thinking.” While Vinny regularly cheats on his wife, his sexual needs are met elsewhere, especially with another hairdresser, Gloria (Bebe Neuwirth), afraid to get down and dirty with his own wife, feeling she is more of a saint for putting up with him. Like Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets, Vinny’s repentant moral conscience is continually challenged throughout by his unwavering unfaithful activity, where initially Lee intended for Ritchie to be the lead character, but Leguizamo’s improvisational interest captured his attention, as he seems to be the guy most affected by the developing hysteria. Add to this mix the rest of the neighborhood boys who comprise a kind of tragic Greek chorus, as they become the voice of an inner consciousness gone wrong, reflective of a racist Bensonhurst Italian-American mentality that typically hates blacks and all outsiders, basically anyone that does not look familiar, the site of an angry mob killing of Yusef Hawkins after initially assaulting him with baseball bats in the summer of 1989, the third racially-motivated killing of a black male by white mobs in New York City during the 1980’s, also including the Murder of Willie Turks in Brooklyn (1982) and Michael Griffith in Howard Beach (1986). Like Scorsese before him, or especially Do the Right Thing, Lee delves under the surface of a different neighborhood, conveying the agitated state of mind that might lead to repeated outbursts of senseless violence, where in the manner of Fritz Lang’s definitive masterwork M (1931), the bewildered police turn to the neighborhood crime boss (Ben Gazarra) for help in finding the serial killer.
Written by the director in collaboration with Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, who plays the part of Midnite, the gay club owner, the Son of Sam is initially seen alone at home in a frantic state, living in a dilapidated apartment, driven delirious by a barking neighborhood dog that he later believes is telling him to “Kill, Kill, Kill!,” shown in a mind-altering montage of hypersaturated colors with a surrealistic flourish, where it’s clear he’s been tainted by madness, narrating his disturbed thoughts as he prowls the neighborhood, killing unsuspecting couples that he catches necking in their cars, and then simply walks away, disgusted with the vile and revolting world he envisions around him, where he thinks of himself as a monster out of control, but he can’t stop himself, knowing he will kill again, leaving notes at the scene of the crime or writing letters to newspapers, taunting the police to make him stop. After a night drinking and dancing in the clubs where Vinny steps out briefly and cheats on his wife, they stumble upon a crime scene on the way home with two victims still in the car, their dead bodies untouched, where Vinny believes it’s a miracle it wasn’t him that was shot, as his little dirty business took place in a car nearby, where the killer could easily have gotten a good look at him. Believing God spared him this time, he vows to make the most of a second chance, promising to treat his wife better. Because the Son of Sam is known to target only brunettes, Vinny buys his wife a blond wig, which invariably turns him on and causes a sexual reaction where he is heard uttering the baffling words, “I feel like I’m cheating on you with you.” While it’s the era of the ultra chic and impossible-to-get-into Studio 54 and Plato's Retreat, a swinger’s sex club that catered to straight couples and bisexual women, Dionna goes along with the idea just to please Vinny, but he freaks out seeing her with someone else, blaming her for enjoying what was essentially his own guilty pleasure. She grows tired of his adolescent male tirades, incessantly blaming her for his own insecurity issues, eventually walking out on him. His own self-disgust parallels that of the killer, but in Vinny’s case, it sends him straight into the arms of the batshit guys on the corner, a bunch of knuckleheads ruled by rumor and innuendo who have witlessly been tabulating their own list of possible suspects from the neighborhood, which includes one of their own, Ritchie, whose deviant venture into punk rock and the squalid CBGB club is beyond their comprehension, deludedly thinking that he must be the killer, calling on Vinny to lure him out into the street. Driven into a state of frenzy by the nonstop media coverage, giving little thought to the idea that they could possibly be wrong, they instead roust incredulous suspects on the street with violent attacks, perpetrating their own brand of vigilante justice, as if they are ridding society of the bad elements, like a neighborhood watch group. Unfortunately they are driven by prejudice and hysteria, the preconceived venom that drives all lynch mobs, turning the end of the film into a bravura free-for-all led by the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” summer of sam (baba o riley) YouTube (4:04), which is itself a movie in miniature. Using rapid-fire cutting, slow motion, extreme close ups, oversaturated color, and overexposed film stock, Lee’s aesthetic draws attention to itself, where Ritchie performs a frenzied, diabolical ritual onstage, repeatedly stabbing a life-sized pillow dummy where the stuffing flies through the air in a maelstrom of confusion and mayhem, a visual mosaic that intermixes intoxicating scenes of New York, Reggie Jackson, and the killer himself, ultimately leading to a savagely grotesque beating that severely deviates from the jubilantly celebratory mood of the Yankees winning the World Series.
Lee himself makes an appearance in this film as John Jeffries, a black TV news journalist sent into the front lines of the looters and rioters, assembling his own Greek chorus, as we hear the voices of the Bedford Stuyvesant community offer their views on the serial killings, speaking directly into the video camera like a documentary film. The range of opinions includes those who believe more blacks are killed on any given weekend than the sum total killed by Sam, but in the modern world this is not considered a provocative enough subject, just what passes for the ordinary, while another “thanks God” that it is a white man killing white people instead of a black man killing white people, as otherwise there would be the biggest race riot in the history of New York City. This message is portrayed as a film within a film, offering an angered “darker perspective” that becomes a core reality, an underlying truth that remains hidden and out of sight from the traditional thinking of the white neighborhood boys, but the looting taking place before the cameras is an equally exaggerated and hysterical response to the citywide blackouts. The city itself fails to provide even the minimal standards of protection and service, allowing rampant crime and spontaneous mayhem to rule the various neighborhoods of the city, while the role of the media is simply to heighten the drama by creating a feeding frenzy, taking an already incendiary situation and fanning the flames. To his credit, Spike Lee shows New York as a collection of separate ethnic and racial enclaves set in close and uneasy relationships with one another, where an illusory peace exists only so long as they don’t tread or trespass onto each other’s turf. These unwritten lines of demarcation define how cities traditionally are formed, around racial and economic divides, creating skirmishes and border wars that escalate over time as racial groups vie for power and control. This is the same territory of Lee’s Do the Right Thing, now expanding into a different turf with much the same result, as there is a similar breakdown of social order, fed by intolerant views of bigotry and mistrust. Few urban filmmakers are even exploring the impact of these invisible divides, where the 70’s was an era of white flight from the inner cities, but Lee makes it clear both white and black communities can be destroyed from within by unwanted seeds of destruction. Just as Radio Raheem disrupts the unwritten rules of Sal’s pizzeria by refusing to turn the volume down on his boom box, leading to a spontaneous race riot, David Berkowitz shows a much more egregious disrespect for human life by perpetuating a series of killings in his own neighborhood, which also implodes in similar fashion with a volcanic eruption rising from within. Much of the scathing criticism for the film stems from Lee’s depiction of Italian-Americans as stereotypical caricatures, where they represent a collective mindset as opposed to carefully constructed real-life characters, but most everyone in the film, including Lee’s own portrayal of a fictional reporter, are caricatures. What gets lost is how this neighborhood group mentality reveals itself through expressions that inadvertently reveal their own short-sighted views, like “Bobby the fairy,” or “Billy the Jew,” where the heart of the film becomes this choreography of the effects of an insular, xenophobic Italian-American community in the Bronx. Lee's aesthetic could hardly be called realist, but the significance of his work is inspired by real-life events, which gives this film, even years later, a contemporary context. Like Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee depicts New York City as a melting pot ready to boil over, where the film is less concerned with the psychopath than his psychological effect on people living in New York City, especially the Bronx, where the majority of the murders took place. The lives examined have no direct ties to the killer or his activities, but they are all profoundly affected by them. Strands of neighborhood discontent can ferment over time, but the root of the problem, maintaining the racial and ethnic differences through continued geographical divides, where the overriding concern becomes keeping others out at all costs, as if that is a necessary condition for preserving the community, seems to have devastating consequences. “That’s one of the frailties of the human condition,” suggests Lee, where "People fear that which is not familiar.” How do we get past that? Like the historical moments of Selma (2014) and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), but also revelatory documentary exposé’s like The Central Park Five (2012) and The Trials of Darryl Hunt (2006), Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking 1959 Broadway premiere of A Raisin in the Sun suggests that the intimate details of black lives can have a profound effect upon overwhelmingly white Broadway audiences, so long as they are rendered with a voice of honesty and authenticity.
From Hansberry’s 1969 autobiographical book To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words:
25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation's ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.