Underground Film Journal

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Movie Review: Summer of Sam

Last night on the train I stared at a blind woman because I knew she couldn’t catch me looking at her. I’m obsessed now with the concept of seeing thanks to this book I’ve been reading, A SEPARATE REALITY by Carlos Castaneda. It’s a true story of a Hispanic American, Carlos, who becomes an apprentice to a Mexican Indian shaman/sorcerer, don Juan. Carlos resists for a long time, but eventually commits himself to learn how to see.

The frustrating thing is that for the first half of the book Carlos begs and begs and begs don Juan to explain to him what seeing is like. Don Juan always gives him the same answer, that seeing is a way of perceiving the world that cannot be described by words. Only people who see can understand what seeing is like. Seeing is a mystical, indescribable understanding of the universe.

So, I was reading the book on the train, which is where I do most of my reading these days, travelling around the city and such, and I spotted the blind woman. It wasn’t obvious she was blind at first, but I saw her folded up cane in her lap and then she took off her sunglasses. The fact that she was wearing her sunglasses at night was NOT the first tip-off for me. I’m slow like that. She rubbed her right eye quite a bit and it was all read and teary-looking. She also appeared to talk to herself from time to time.

I was pleased that she was getting off the same stop I was. I was interested in studying her walking pattern, in what fashion she used her cane so that maybe I could understand her perception of the world, which would be so much different than mine.

At first I was a little nervous because I thought of the superhero Daredevil. When he was a kid, Daredevil was hit in the face with a radioactive canister which blinded him but also heightened his other senses to superhuman proportions and gave him a bat-like radar sense. I’ve heard that regular blind people have their other senses become much more acute, even without the use of radioactive waste. I didn’t know if this blind woman would be able to hear me walking behind her and get worried for her safety. I made sure to keep my distance.

She walked very slowly, and she didn’t tap her cane like I’ve seen other blind people do. The bottom of the cane never left the ground and she simply swished it back and forth in front of her. On the subway platform, as long as you’re far from the tracks there’s not much debris to watch out for. The only thing her cane alerted her to was a pay phone against the wall. When her cane briefly tapped it, her walking slowed down even more.

Eventually, she came to the steps leading down to the street. She tucked the cane under her arm and grabbed the handrail to guide her down. When she hit the bottom, I couldn’t tell if she had known if she had hit solid ground or not. I don’t know if this was her regular stop or not. If it was, I wondered if she knew exactly how many steps there are. Or does the sensation of hitting solid ground feel different than walking on a step? Plus, the ground is concrete and the steps are metal. Could she sense when she stepped onto a different material?

After the steps, there’s a turnstile. She was using her cane again, but I could have sworn she picked it up right before it hit the turnstile, as though she knew exactly how far it was from the steps to there. Because then, after the gate there’s a short hallway that branches out into a “T” and she seemed to know exactly how far down the hallway she had to walk before she had to make a left. Again, did she know when to turn because she could sense the wall on her left ending? Or did she just know how far the distance was from memory?

Unfortunately, I had to go right instead of left and I couldn’t follow her anymore. I was also starting to feel a bit creepy about what I was doing, so it was good to stop it. And I don’t know if I learned anything by following this stranger. It was kind of interesting, but it wasn’t allowing me any insights into perception. I couldn’t really accomplish much in two minutes.

SUMMER OF SAM was a pretty interesting flick, mostly because it had several simultaneous plotlines. John Leguizamo, who played a cheating, lying scumbag of a husband, but a likable guy, was pretty much the main character. He lived in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx where the stereotypical Italian guys are closed off in their own little way of living. They fear and resist change. So when one of the kids from the ‘hood, Ritchie, turns himself into a punk, complete with spiky hair, dog collar and faux English accent, he’s immediately treated like an outcast by everyone. Everyone except Leguizamo, who recognizes that Ritchie is the same good guy but only with a funny hair-do. Leguizamo is the only person who treats Ritchie like a human being, so that’s why I considered him likable even though he treated his wife like shit.

Anyone who’s seen more than one Spike Lee movie knows that Spike deals with the same themes and character-types over and over again. That’s just Spike’s thing. There’s always the innocent character (in this film, Ritchie), the nice guy who can’t stop himself from screwing up (Leguizamo) and then the rest of the cast is filled with generally obvious stereotypes, in this case they’re mostly Italian goombahs.

Spike did branch out a little bit with his fairly genuine depiction of the punk world. Just about all of Spike’s films are New York films, but this is an important part of the NYC scene he’s never dealt with before. He didn’t write the script for SAM, so that might account for him covering the new territory.

Critics of Spike claim he’s racist. I don’t want to sound pretentious because I live in “the big bad city” now, but Spike was born and raised in NYC. One way to describe the city is that it’s a big melting pot with all kinds of races living side-by-side. However, things are very segregated here. I live in an “Italian” neighborhood. There’s a big Polish community a couple blocks away. Hispanics have their sections. There are black communities. Asian sections. Of course there is some “crossing over” and mixing, but there are very clear racial lines all around. So when Spike deals with issues in racial terms, I think a lot of it has to do with where he’s lived his whole life. That’s his perception of the world. I know my perception is a little altered since I’ve moved here.

In A SEPARATE REALITY, the sorcerer teaches that one cannot see without the help of peyote and other hallucinogens. But that doesn’t mean that all people who don’t do the drugs share the same view of reality. We are all products of our environment and we choose to see what we want. The Italian goombahs are threatened by Ritchie’s spiked hair, so they immediately assume he must be a serial killer. Which is funny cause the goombahs are all a bunch of pot smokers and pill poppers, but their drugs don’t help them see anything. They’re a bunch of friggin’ idiots. Guess it depends on which drugs one does.