IT IS NO SURPRISE (FOR ME, AT LEAST) THAT SPIKE Lee's new film, Summer of Sam, is not at all about a mad killer who terrorizes New York City in the summer of 1977, but is instead about a marriage that collapses during that very turbulent New York summer. Here, as often happens when Spike Lee tries to achieve a movie with significant social import, he accidentally comes up with something else, something more personal, tragic, and brilliant. This was clearly the case in Jungle Fever, where the Big Story was about how and why a black man (a professional) and a white woman (working class) became sexually involved, while the real and more important story was actually about how a middle-class African American family was disgraced and destroyed by their crack-addicted son.

Nor is it a surprise that Spike Lee is making a film with a largely white cast, when you think about it. In Spike Lee's dozen or so feature films, Italian Americans are the only group he has attempted to meaningfully realize and create a productive dialogue with. While Puerto Ricans are seamlessly stitched into his 'hood-view, the roles of Korean Americans (Do the Right Thing, Girl 6) or Jewish Americans (Mo' Better Blues) have only amounted to grotesque caricatures in his films, always on the periphery of his radar; he has no trouble poking openly racist fun at them. The growing participation and visibility of Italian Americans in Lee's films, on the other hand, has been clear and consistent: Do the Right Thing (strong Italian American presence), then Jungle Fever (major Italian American presence), and now Summer of Sam (total Italian American presence).

The Big Story of Summer of Sam is the condition of New York City in the late-'70s--the extreme anxiety which permeated the entire megalopolis. The economy was in turmoil, the inner city was abandoned by middle-class whites, and an apocalyptic race war seemed imminent. The inner city became the true heart of darkness (a sentiment which found its most hysterical expression in John Carpenter's Escape from New York, where the government gave up on New York City and turned it into a giant prison).

The killer, Son of Sam, embodied all of the city's anxieties: His random acts of violence represented the general feeling that the city was perpetually dangerous. Lee deliberately (and somewhat unnecessarily) tries to juxtapose this old New York City with our new, more stable New York, now celebrating a booming economy and a murder rate that's lower than it was in the '60s. But this Big Story is not the real story. The real story is about something else entirely, about a husband and wife who are trying to figure out the complex game of marital sex.

This plot goes as follows: A husband, named Vinny (John Leguizamo), sleeps around. He does things with other women that he could never do with his wife, Donna (for example, anal sex), because he sees Donna as angelic, virgin-like; a mother worthy of only missionary sex in the dark. His wife (played by Mira Sorvino), however, wants to experiment, wants to have nasty sex, but fails to convince her husband that she is a freak, not the doll or lady he imagines her to be.

One night when they are out on the town, they end up at a steamy, drug-saturated orgy, and the husband finally comes to realize that his wife is actually a freak, and that she wants more than missionary sex. Unable to match his ideal with her needs, he completely freaks out and dissolves into a mess of contradictions. Their marriage collapses. This story is great, and could easily have stood on its own, with or without minor subplots concerning the husband's relationship with neighborhood buddies (the scenes of the Italian American drug dealer bantering with his buddies on the corner of a dead-end street is pure Spike Lee), or the wife's relationship with her hard-working, Mafia-affiliated family.

Spike Lee's art is always more productive (and seductive) when dealing with sex rather than race, which is why Summer of Sam is one of his stronger films, and Girl 6 is his best. But Lee has some serious limitations even in this arena: He can only construct with compassion the dynamics of heterosexuality, and treats homosexuality in the same grotesque manner that he treats Korean Americans and Jewish Americans.

For example, in Summer of Sam there are two revealing dance sequences. One is a session of disco dancing between Vinny and Donna, which is graceful, sensual, intricate, and mesmerizing, celebrating the beauty and eloquence of heterosexuality. On the other hand, there is a dance performed by the aspiring punk Ritchie (Adrien Brody) in a dank, gay porn theater: It's a vulgar, violent, graceless, goonish dance sequence, and the theater is filled with the most hideous and criminal-looking gay patrons in all of New York. Clearly Lee can only picture homosexuality as a sick joke (or worse, as the mystery of all mysteries). Ultimately, if Spike Lee made a film with fully dimensional homosexual characters instead of working-class Italian Americans (which is too easy for him), then I would be really surprised, no matter what Big Story he put them in.

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