One deadly summer

The heat was intense. Power cuts plunged entire boroughs into darkness. The city was cracking up. It could have been New York today. But this was 1977, and roaming the streets was a man called David Berkowitz. He gave himself the name `Son of Sam'. They called him by a new name: `serial killer'
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Wasn't it enough that the "heat index", that strange measure beloved of American forecasters, was pushing 115 degrees in New York last weekend? Or that, not so far away in the Midwest, a white supremacist madman was on the loose, mowing down non-whites with a gun poked through his car window? Not for the film-maker Spike Lee, who expected us, on top of all that, to spend more than two hours watching his latest feature, Summer of Sam (which will arrive in the UK later this year).

Thanks, Spike. Your timing is uncanny. What better - or what less appropriate - moment could there be to transport America back to the even hotter New York summer of 1977, when things happened in this city to drive it to a collective nervous breakdown? It was the summer of terrible heat, of the power cuts that darkened whole boroughs and triggered mass looting and 3,000 arrests; when the city was gripped by Yankee fever as the team made its march to eventual triumph in the World Series. And when Elvis Presley died.

It was also the summer of the "Son of Sam", aka David Berkowitz, a demented postal worker who for 12 months, until his arrest on 10 August that year, stalked brunettes and necking couples, killing six and wounding 12 others. The term "serial killer" was invented for him. He visited not just death but also paranoia on the city, taunting it in letters to Jimmy Breslin, a columnist on the Daily News. He told Breslin that he was driven to evil by Sam, a Satan figure, speaking to him through a neighbour's black Labrador.

"Don't think that because you haven't heard from me for a while that I went to sleep," he wrote. "No, rather, I am still here, like a spirit roaming the night. Thirsty, hungry, seldom stopping to rest; anxious to please Sam."

For this, his 12th film in 13 years, Lee has come under furious attack. Some say, simply, that it is bad. Always a polarising figure, Lee, 46, is worshipped by some for reviving African-American film-making, and wittily probing racial prejudice. But just as many despise him for arrogance and pomposity. With this work, there is a more serious complaint: that this is a piece of urban history that is too raw, too fresh, for re-creation on the silver screen. Parents of the dead victims have spoken out, accusing Lee of exploiting their own personal tragedies. Mike Lauria's daughter, Donna, was Berkowitz's first victim.

On the night of 29 July, he blew her away with one blast of a .44-calibre handgun. Lauria's anger at Lee for making this film is intense. "Spike Lee is a racist runt," he fumed, adding that the director made no effort to make contact with him or anyone else who lost loved ones to the Son of Sam. "I don't wish any ill on his family, and God forbid anything happened to him, but how would he feel if someone said, `your tragedy is art, it is history'?"

Another one to speak out against Spike Lee's movie - and this might almost be funny, except that it isn't - is Berkowitz himself, now an inmate at upstate New York's Sullivan Correctional Center. It was because of his purported outrage that Berkowitz agreed to speak about the film in an interview two weeks ago with The New York Times. The ensuing piece reportedly enraged Lee, who thought it overly respectful of a man who in prison has become a born-again Christian, but who remains none the less New York's most notorious homicidal monster. On meeting the reporter, Berkowitz wept. "This madness, the ugliness of the past, is resurfacing again - all because some people want to make some money," he lamented. "I am just so sorry that this movie is coming out. I am so sorry that, you know, this pain doesn't seem to end. I am disappointed in Hollywood and the Walt Disney Company." He added, eerily, that he was avidly following all news reports about Spike Lee, his work and his private life.

For some things, even Lee cannot be held responsible. Not for the frightful heat that returned to Gotham on the weekend of the film's opening, which triggered blackouts all over again above 155th Street. Nor, indeed, for the horror perpetrated on this year's Fourth of July holiday by a white extremist in Chicago. Nor could he have foreseen events at a high school in Littleton, Colorado, two months ago, which have ensured that any film offering vivid depictions of death by gunfire is automatically labelled as a cause, not a reflection, of the violence in American society.

But Lee must now defend himself. The irony of his predicament is that Summer of Sam focuses only briefly on the killings. Rather, it concentrates on the fever of fear they engendered in the sun-baked city and on a cast of American-Italian dimwits in the Bronx. By turns bloody, pornographic and hilarious, the film above all is about a libidinous hairdresser, Vinny, played brilliantly by John Leguizamo, who cannot reconcile his repetitive infidelity syndrome with his Catholic devotion to his wife (Mira Sorvino).

Completing the triangle is his childhood friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who has scorned disco and Travolta for the new punk rock wave

crossing from Britain. To capture the madness of that time, for which Berkowitz was the prime catalyst, Lee explores the chemistry of that summer as it percolates in his cast of characters. He shows us the corrosion of friendships and of marriage, the blooming of numbskull bigotry and, in the final hour, the targeting of Mohican-haired Ritchie by one-time buddies who convince themselves that he, in fact, is the Son of Sam.

There is an inescapable sense of nostalgia to the film. A possible message may be that this is the way it used to be in New York but that nowadays things are different, thanks to plunging violent crime rates and the sanitising reign of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Breslin himself frames the whole piece in nostalgic terms, with book-end appearances.

"It wasn't always like this," he intones at the opening. "This film is about a different time, a different place, the good old days, the hot, blistering summer of 1977." That year (when in Britain we were simultaneously celebrating the Queen's Jubilee and the first album by the Sex Pistols) also saw the last spasms of the pre-Aids sex revolution. And to that Lee also pays tribute. Scenes include a visit - and its disastrous consequences - by Vinny and Donna to an orgy at New York's debauched Plato's Retreat; Ritchie leads a parallel life as a gay stripper.

You find yourself forced to ask whether these are times that we are meant to miss. Breslin apparently does, even though it was a time when young women who were brunettes, traumatised by fear of Berkowitz, were dyeing their hair blonde. Lovers' lanes were deserted, women were afraid to go out and discos were forced to close. Even Breslin took police protection and sent his teenage daughter to safety on Long Island.

But it was also haymaking time for the New York tabloids and their editors. Circulation on the News and the New York Post shot up by more than 100,000 copies, thanks to Berkowitz. Dennis Hamill, who in 1977 was a Village Voice reporter, recalled the atmosphere at the time in this week's Time Out New York. He calls that summer a "coked-up freak-out".

"Everyone has alternated between being scared out of their minds and entertaining themselves trying to guess the identity of the killer. Breslin is running around joking to friends that the culprit is a nutty Assemblyman, Andrew Stein. And now a lightning storm has literally and figuratively hit, blowing all circuits of the spark-throwing city."

There is, in fact, a deep personal resonance in the work for Lee. It was not his project originally. The first draft, entitled "Anarchy in NYC", came to him originally from the pens of Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, two actors from the TV series, The Sopranos, an HBO hit here last winter that will soon be on small screens in Britain. Lee meant at first to produce it. But when he could not find a director to take the script, he agreed last year to make it himself. He found it captivating for the simplest of reasons: the summer of 1977 was not only vividly etched on his memory, but it was the time in his life, during the long break from college in Atlanta, when he caught the film-making bug.

"That was the summer I decided that I wanted to be a film-maker," he told the Daily News of Los Angeles. "I had just finished my sophomore year at Morehouse College, came home to Brooklyn and couldn't find a job. So I spent the summer shooting my Super 8 film. I remember disco music, Reggie Jackson (of the Yankees), the heat, and the Son of Sam. People were scared out of their minds, so much so that they'd cut their hair, dye their hair, would not go out. I mean, it was crazy."

Just as there are two schools of thought about Lee, so America's film critics last week divided in half in assessing Summer of Sam. The New York Times critic called it "furiously enthralling". The Washington Post dismissed it as "melodrama".

Lee's answer is simple: "I'm an artist, and this is a story I wanted to tell."

What of this summer? Is there a new Spike Lee wandering the streets today with his or her camera - a palmcorder instead of a Super 8 - shooting stories in the city? The material of 1999 has surely been rich. We have had the shooting of an unarmed black immigrant by four white police officers, which triggered mass protests in the spring, and the conviction last month of another police officer for sodomising a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, with a wooden handle. And then last week's heat wave plunged all of Washington Heights into darkness for 19 hours. These events and others have put communities on edge.

Still, it is hard to imagine a film emerging in 22 years' time about 1999, with the same ferocity of Spike Lee's Summer of Sam. These days, New York sometimes simmers, but it has none of the craziness and paranoia that reigned in 1977. Call it nostalgia, or call it a film-maker's fascination for a time that was and may never be repeated - that indeed we hope will never be repeated.