Summer of Sam and more
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Mary Kay Bergman, Isaac Hayes, George Clooney, Eric Idle, Mike Judge
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 30 Jun 1999; 1999)
In an excerpt from his 1999 review, Roger Ebert advised, “After making South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had better move on. They’ve taken South Park as far as it can go, and beyond.” Ten years later, South Park has embarked on its thirteenth season, and is still skewering all of society’s sacred cows with a satirical fork that has grown sharper with age. When South Park premiered on Comedy Central in the autumn of 1997, it was seen as a cult, cable TV oddity, with throwaway gags involving Christmas Poo, Barbra Streisand as a tyrannical monster, and a mythic woodland creature with Patrick Duffy for a leg. With controversy and ratings subsiding, Parker and Stone unleashed South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut onto the summer movie season of 1999, and reignited a firestorm of outrage all over again. The film’s biting satire over censorship was ripe for a time when Columbine was still on everyone’s mind, yet a gang of animated, cardboard cut-outs with potty mouths were being accused of warping the minds of the nation’s youth. After all, as the conservative crusaders in the South Park world believe, graphic violence in the media is ok, as long as nobody uses any naughty words.
Controversy and agenda aside, the film is downright hilarious, opening with Stan Marsh’s sunny, musical tribute “Mountain Town”, which climaxes with the gang parading around town, singing, “Thank God we live in a quiet, little, redneck, Podunk, white-trash mountain town!” After the boys sneak into the very R-rated Canadian import, Terrence and Phillip in Asses of Fire! and learn a whole new repertoire of vulgarity, the town, in typical fashion, overreacts to the point of waging war on Canada for warping the minds of its youngsters. As war rages overhead, down in hell Satan and his lover Saddam Hussein prepare for a second coming of biblical proportions, while simultaneously balancing a rocky relationship. In one of the films most inspired moments, Satan launches into song, complete with R&B backing vocals, in which he dreams of living “Up There.” As he hits a note higher than Mariah Carey and looks up to earth, the true genius of making Satan a likeable, misunderstood creature while the earth dooms itself with warmongering and intolerance, sums up Trey and Matt’s outlook on society.
Throughout the movie, nearly every race, gender, sexuality and creed is lampooned. The pre-Bush war agenda is attacked, and in the film’s funniest moment, a gung-ho general informs a group of African American cadets that they will be the “human shield” that will protect the white soldiers in battle. When Chef, voiced by the inimitable Isaac Hayes, asks, “Haven’t you ever heard of the Emancipation Proclamation?” the General responds briskly, “I don’t listen to hip-hop!” It seems silly that even in those heady days at the end of the century, people would react to South Park with such vigor and venom. In the last three years, South Park the series has been attacked by scientologists, the Anti-Defamation League, and been censored by Comedy Central, who refused to run a scene featuring a cartoon depiction of the Muslin prophet Muhammad. You’d think that after ten years, we’d have a sense of humor. Haven’t we learned anything? Meanwhile, Satan and Saddam patiently plot their return. Drew Fortune
Summer of Sam
John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Badalucco
(Buena Vista; US theatrical: 2 Jul 1999 (General release); 1999)
Before Al-Qaeda and suicide bombers dominated the news, terror in the United States had names like the Zodiac Killer and the Boston Strangler. The presence of a psychotic serial-killer can still terrorize a city, driving citizens indoors and turning neighbors on one another. However, several decades ago, we knew of nothing more sinister or evil than the man with no conscience who randomly, or meticulously, sought out and slaughtered people no different than ourselves.
During the summer of 1977, the name of terror in New York City was Son of Sam, identified as David Berkowitz, who confessed to killing six people and wounding seven more. (Berkowitz later claimed he had only killed three, and that the others were killed by fellow members of a satanic cult.) Twenty-two years after the killings, director Spike Lee revisited the summer of ‘77 in NYC in Summer of Sam, a chilling look at how the threat of terror can affect a community.
Summer of Sam is not a typical “serial-killer vs. law enforcement” film, focusing its attention more on the citizenry of New York City than on the killer himself (eerily portrayed by Michael Badalucco). Certainly, Berkowitz’s claim that he was ordered to commit the murders by his neighbor Sam’s dog would make for a fascinating psychological study, but Lee chose to focus on the psychology of those affected by the Son of Sam’s actions.
Lee zeroes in on one particular neighborhood, an Italian-American part of town where macho posturing and tight friendships make anyone different suspect. Through the course of the film, we see how the horror of the murders affects the characters. For instance, waitress Dionna (Mira Sorvino) begins wearing a blond wig since the Son of Sam prefers brunettes. When Dionna and husband Vinny (John Lequizamo) fight, she drives off and leaves him stranded in a deserted area, screaming “I hope he fucking kills you.”
Despite a large canvas covering a variety of characters, Summer of Sam ultimately centers on the stories of Vinny and childhood friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who has embraced the emerging punk scene and begun working in gay porn. As Ritchie grows apart from his home community, suspicion of him grows, until his former friends beat him down. Only the news that the real Son of Sam has been caught saves Ritchie’s life.
Upon release, Summer of Sam was frequently compared with Lee’s ground-breaking Do the Right Thing; both films focus on a neighborhood in turmoil, with accusations flying and individuals lashing out in fear. Lee’s directing style in both makes clear this turmoil, with frequent changes of camera angles, sweeping and blurred shots, and the interweaving of multiple storylines being played out simultaneously. The similarity of the films’ style suggests that the threat of bigotry is a real of a threat as an actual killer.
For those alive in ‘77, the film is a reminder of the era, true to the disco, free-love and sex, cocaine-induced lifestyle embraced by so many young people. Further, though, it is a lesson in how suspicion and fear can alter and destroy relationships, even when the source of that fear is an unknown boogey-man. Those too young to remember the time can watch the film as a sociological study of how we react to the news and threat of danger.
In 1999, the boogey-man was still the thing we feared most. When he took human form, as with David Berkowitz, nothing paralyzed more. In Summer of Sam, Spike Lee showed us that the reaction to fear is sometimes more frightening than the action that caused the fear. Michael Abernethy