SPIKE LEE IS often maligned for his preachiness, his political naiveté and his sexism. Rightly so, no doubt, but these are not really aesthetic criteria, except perhaps for the first one.
What isn't mentioned enough in regard to Lee is his extreme visual talents, his capacity to use experimental technique to strong effect. He's kind of the anti-Oliver Stone. Stone throws in every trite camera trick in the book, never inventing but always borrowing his cinematic psychedelia, and never putting much thought into what technique goes where.
Lee, conversely, uses his tints, stutter shots, swirling handheld camera and jump cuts with precision and care, never overloading the film with unnecessary distractions.
In Summer of Sam, for example, the few, brief sequences that occur in serial killer David Berkowitz's apartment are all shot in green tint, with the camera moving ceaselessly about the room as Berkowitz screams senselessly into a pillow. At moments, the camera focuses on children's letter blocks which spell out, in jerky drop-frame, murderous messages.
If all the plot was cut out, and just the experimental camera work and music-video-style segments were left in, this would be one of the most entertaining films of the year. Not content with that, Lee dedicates most of the story of the goings-on in a Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn in the summer of '77, with occasionally brilliant, occasionally cumbersome results.
The Son of Sam serial killings are only one influence on the events of this summer, but they rise in prominence because of the way they affect all the other cultural triviata that goes into making up the social milieu of the insular Brooklyn community that forms the locus of the story.
The biggest effect on the neighborhood seems to come from the return of Ritchie, an old pal of a group of small-time hoods. Ritchie has been living in Manhattan, which, though only a subway stop away, might as well be on the moon. When he returns to his outer-borough home he's been transformed by the CBGB's punk scene into something that his old pals Joe, Bobby and Anthony think of as only barely human.
As frenzy over the Son of Sam murders grows, the discos empty, brunettes dye their hair blonde to fool the killer (who's shown a preference for the dark-haired) and suspicion rises. The hoods form a vigilante committee and put punker Ritchie on top of their list of potential .44 caliber killers.
But the plot is really second to the texture of the film, which is where Spike Lee excels. This may be the most accurate period film ever done, rivaling Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon in attention to detail.
There have been a lot of movies about the '70s in the last 10 years, but one thing they seem to have in common is an assumption that there was only one musical style during that period. In Summer of Sam the soundtrack ranges from disco to punk to Bernard Herrmann-style jazz. This isn't at all disruptive, but rather smoothly meshes to create the flavor of the era.
The costumes are period-perfect too, from the poofy hair to the tube tops and shiny Brooklyn-style disco shirts. Unlike other disco films, Summer of Sam understands the difference between Manhattan-style disco clothing (which was freakishly outrageous) and outer-borough disco clothing (which was closer to what John Travolta wore in Saturday Night Fever).
Even the backgrounds are pure '70s, from the unmentioned appearance of the iconic Panasonic Ball Radio, to the silver-foil, Peter Max print wallpaper in the neighborhood dance club.
There's also a subtlety to the political and interpersonal aspects of story, areas where director Lee is not known for his understatement. Without drawing much attention to it, Lee highlights the contrasting reactions of the neighborhood boys to their friend who turned out gay (which they belittle but basically accept) and their friend who turned out punk (something they have no basis to understand, and which leads them repeatedly towards violence). The hoodlum's common ethos, that the freak you've heard about and prepared a response to is better than the freak who doesn't fit your categories, is one which is rarely explored in the more black-and-white world of Hollywood cinema.
There are dozens of other small plot points which show that Lee is capable of producing finely shaded statements, and John Leguizamo's lead performance as Vinny is probably the best of his career, and offers some of the most compelling moments. Unfortunately, the film is trying to tell so many stories that the middle third bogs down, and in a film that's over two hours, that can be a long lag. Still, it picks up again in the end, becoming increasingly forceful, and leads to an anticipated but slyly effective ending.
While this is probably Spike Lee's best film since Do The Right Thing, its maturity and difference from his earlier work may signify that his best is yet to come.
Summer of Sam is playing at Catalina (881-0616), Century El Con (202-3343), Century Gateway (792-9000) and Foothills (742-6174) cinemas.