Summer of Sam, Arlington Road

by Gary Gordon
(published in the L.A. Free Press, August '99)

     An ad for the new Austin Powers movie suggested, "if you see only one movie this summer, see Star Wars. If you see more than one, see Austin Powers The Spy Who Shagged Me."
     Allow me to steer you away from those "blockbusters" and to paraphrase the ad: If you see only one major motion picture this summer, see Summer of Sam; if you see two, see Arlington Road.
     Why? Well, in part, because, unlike The Phantom Menace, Summer of Sam is the real event. That is, it's a fine movie, but it's larger than the movie.
     Perhaps it's because it includes the actions of a deranged serial killer, perhaps because it's set in a primarily Italian-American neighborhood, but most likely because it's a Spike Lee film, Summer of Sam has stirred up the shitstorm with everyone weighing in with their damnfool questions and opinions: is it accurate? is it historical? is Spike a racist? why didn't he consult the families of the victims?
     Well, here's my damnfool questions and opinions starting with this question: Why on earth was it helpful, necessary, important or informative to interview David Berkowitz and ask what he thought of the movie (as some cretin-who-calls-himself-a-journalist did)? And why report the interview (as many cretins did)?
     But let's step back a moment, to 1977 (and for those of you who aren't old enough, play along).
     My memories, which may or may not be as accurate as yours, include the hideous prevalence of disco music, the never-ending discussion of whether Jimmy Carter (a former southern governor) was up to the job of being President, and, personally, enjoying a new progressive magazine called Mother Jones, playing non-disco music in lounges and bars, and generally trying to enjoy as much of the sexual revolution as I could, blissfully unaware it would be over all too soon. Actually, it was the summer I gave up groupies and began to settle down. And, oh yes, there was a guy in New York City killing couples in the back seats of cars who was a nut who called himself Son of Sam. It wasn't until years later, when my hometown found itself in the grip of a serial killer that I realized how pervasive the fear could be.
     Lee captures the time so well that he makes relevant my memories and yours, and that is part of the nature of a fine film (as with fine literature), where an adventure is enjoyed and a dialogue between the artist and the viewer takes place. Lee goes beyond capturing the time, he evokes the time.
     Mostly, I remember 1977 as a time when people were searching for the new lines to draw. New identities to claim. Vietnam was over. The economy was shaky. Nuclear power wasn't quite yet a national issue; neither was Nicaragua or apartheid. Massage interested many people. So did acquiring income property. Some Yippies became Yuppies. Some liberals became neo-liberals. Some people drew lines around music ("Disco sucks" was a popular rallying cry.) There is, after all, always us and them; always we and the Other.
     Spike Lee's film is a profound look at behavior, values, traditions, the drawing of lines, the Other, and the effect fear has on these qualities, attributes, shortcomings; how fear can bring out the insanity and the little monsters in all of us.
     Summer of Sam is not a film about race or racism, it is not a film about Berkowitz, and it's not a film about the people Berkowitz shot. It's not a film that should have lead some "reporter" to interview Berkowitz on his opinions about anything, it's not a film that required the film-maker talk to the victim's families, and it's not a film that exploits the tragedy.
     It is a film about that summer; about music, sex, people, relationships, choices. The writing and acting are superb. So is the directing.
     It asks the most disturbing question a film-maker can ask: who are you and what would you have done in these situations?
     These questions, among others, are also asked by the film-makers of Arlington Road. This movie is stunning, and I can't and won't go into much detail because I don't want to give it away. The basics are covered in the previews: Jeff Bridges and his son live in suburbia; he teaches at George Washington University-a class on terrorism. Tim Robbins and his wife, Joan Cusack, and their children live across the street. And there may be a bomb.
     The movie has been called "nasty" by one critic, "mean-spirited" by another. The pace of the first half of the movie has been criticized. Well, folks, it's a drama, a suspenseful drama. Compared to Raiders of the Lost Ark (to name a fun movie) or Wild Wild West (to name a silly movie), it does move slowly at the beginning. But it is purposeful, well-crafted, well-written and well-acted (thanks to Bridges, Robbins and Cusack, all of whom deserve this quality of script and depth of character all the time).
     And there are critics who say there are plot-holes. Amazingly, these are the same critics who overlook gaping holes in star-driven or less ambitious "vehicles" (movies as vehicles, not as literature-- that's another column).
     And there are critics who blast it because it's about conspiracy. It always amazes me when people want to insist that groups of men getting together secretly to plan on changing things is the unusual or preposterous explanation for events (as if the Sons of Liberty, the men who shot Lincoln etc. etc. didn't exist).
     Ultimately, Arlington Road is about terrorism. And that's unsettling. One person's terrorist may be another person's hero. Are revolutionaries only revolutionaries if they win? Is everything fair in war? Is everyone who isn't part of the solution part of the problem? Is anyone innocent? Where is the line between a just war (St. Augustin?) and an unjust act of violence? And must the choice be limited to the armed militia or the armed DEA? Is it David Koresh or Janet Reno? Randy Weaver? Matt Hale? Gary Bauer? The IRA or the SAS? Black September or the Irgun? Isn't there another side?
     In Summer of Sam there is the Other who looks like the Other; in Arlington Road there is the Other who looks... like us.
     To paraphrase Rod Serling, at the intersection of your Main Street and Arlington Road, on your calendar during summer, there's a place where the Other may surface, and tough questions are asked, and it's not the Twilight Zone.