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The summer of Spike

David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer, sits repentant in his cell and says he wishes that Spike Lee would just let him alone. He does not approve of Lee's new film, "Summer Of Sam," which opens nationally on Friday. Berkowitz, who has not seen the film, no doubt assumes it is about him and his crimes. He may be surprised to discover he is a supporting character with just a couple of walk-ons, and a brief dialog scene in which a dog does most of the talking.

The emphasis in "Summer Of Sam" is on summer as much as on Sam. It's set in the summer of 1977, when Spike Lee was a sophomore who came home to Brooklyn from Morehouse College in Atlanta. It was the summer of a heat wave, the summer the Yankees led the league and won the Series, and the summer Spike Lee decided he wanted to be a movie director.

"I was 20," Lee told me. "I couldn't find any work, I'd gotten a Super 8 camera as a gift for Christmas, I picked up the camera, and I went out to shoot."

It was also the summer when the city was paralyzed by fear. A serial killer, at first called "The .44 Caliber Killer," was murdering couples on lovers' lanes, and sending notes to newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin and others, detailing his plans and promising more deaths. Whole neighborhoods shut down after dark. Discos closed early, or didn't open.

"It was mayhem, chaos," Lee remembered. "No going to bars at night. People were terrified. And the Post and the Daily News had the big headlines. Double-digit circulation gains. It was a feeding frenzy. New York City had never had a serial killer before."

Lee's film takes place in an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, and is about how the city-wide paranoia affected a small group of friends and neighbors. John Leguizamo, and Mira Sorvino star as a troubled young married couple, and Adrien Brody plays a neighborhood kid who suddenly develops a British accent and a punk look. There are many other characters, including a Mafia boss (Ben Gazzara) who gets an appeal from the police: Maybe his troops can find the killer. The film is introduced by the real Jimmy Breslin ("There are 8 million stories in the Naked City," he intones, as if he'd been waiting a long time for the chance to say those words in a movie). And soon the .44 Killer has a new name, "Son of Sam," which he how he signs his letters to Breslin and the newspapers.

"Summer Of Sam" is not a police procedural. It is not about the search for the killer. It is not about his crimes but about their effect. Its real subject is scapegoating--how the neighborhood is affected by the notion that it may be harboring a killer, and how everyone who acts even slightly out of the ordinary becomes a suspect.

From his jail cell, Berkowitz runs a home page ( that celebrates his status as a born-again Christian. He says he knows "without any doubt" that Jesus has forgiven him. "I am so sad about this," he says of Lee's movie, "and I know many old wounds will be opened. For those who have lost a loved one, they will have to relive the violent death of their family member over and over as the years go by."

He may be relieved to know that the real climax of the film is not the story of his capture, but the story of a witch-hunt that springs into being at about the same time. The movie "Summer Of Sam" most resembles is not a crime docudrama, but Lee's own "Do the Right Thing." Both films are about a tightly-knit neighborhood where tempers fray as the heat rises, and any differences (ethnic, racial, sexual, economic or lifestyle) are magnified.

Lee and I had lunch at Cannes a few days after his movie played in the Directors' Fortnight. He is a Cannes regular; the 1986 screening here of "She's Gotta Have It" launched his career, and the premiere of "Do the Right Thing" in 1989 remains the most electrifying memory I have from the festival. His films have all been primarily about African-American characters, until this one, which has only a few smaller roles for blacks.

At first, he said, he was planning only to produce it. The actor Michael Imperioli came to him with a script co-written by Victor Colicchio and based on memories of that summer. Lee said he would read it. "I loved the script," he said. "We sent it out, but nobody bit. This was during post-production on 'He Got Game' (1998), and the other project I was working on was not coming along so fast; I needed a film for the summer and so I took another look at this script, which was then called 'Anarchy in NYC,' and I decided to do it."

The result was the most exciting film I saw at Cannes this year, a fast-moving collage that shows an easy knowledge of New York neighborhood life, where the big city is made up of neighborhoods that sometimes feel too small. So focused on their own neighborhood are the characters, indeed, that they assume any city-wide story is really about them. If Son of Sam is found, they seem to feel, he will be found living on their block.

The press feeds their conviction. The Son of Sam killings created a new news genre. These days, when a high-profile crime occurs, it immediately gets a name ("Tragedy in the Rockies"), and the news channels give it a logo and a theme song. In 1977, news outlets covered crime, but they didn't turn it into "nonstop continuing coverage." The daily headlines about Son of Sam changed that. "Before Son of Sam," Lee said, "no one had ever used the term 'serial killer' before. At least he named himself 'Son of Sam.' The media only came up with .44 Killer. Then he wrote his letter to Breslin, and said he got instructions from a dog, and all."

That summer, Lee recalled, he backed into filmmaking. "My counselor at Morehouse told me I had to choose a major, so I chose Mass Communications. I was lucky that I found something I was passionate about. Very lucky. because up to that point, I had no idea what I was gonna do. That summer of '77 was pivotal because I was a young man in the world just trying to find my place; discovering who I was and asking, what am I gonna do? I remember the baseball season, I remember the songs, and I remember the way the whole city was fixated on the killings."

There were reports, I said, that "Summer Of Sam" ran into problems with the MPAA ratings board. That cuts were necessary to avoid an NC-17 rating.

"Yeah. There's a scene with John and Mira where originally you see his butt move, but now we have an optical way to slow-dissolve, so you don't."

They don't like the rhythmic movements?

"They count 'em. And there are a couple of shots in Plato's Retreat [a notorious sex club of the 1970s] that we had to take out, too. But they said nothing about the violence in the film. Just the sexual content." This is a movie, I said, where people are blasted away, and worried about....

"Those scenes never came up. If they'd asked me, I would have preferred to make a couple of changes in the violence rather than the sexual content."

David Berkowitz would probably agree.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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