Filmmakers and audiences have thought about violence for as long
as movies have existed, but lately the subject has been uncommonly
affected by real-life events.
News of a Georgia school shooting arrived here during the Cannes
Film Festival, where American moods were already sobered by the
Littleton, Colo., tragedy. Given such events, it's small wonder that
movies dealing with violence were scrutinized with special care by
One picture to plunge directly into this territory is Spike Lee's
new drama, Summer of Sam, inspired by the infamous 1977 murders
committed by a New York psychopath who used the name "Son of Sam" in
his twisted letters to the tabloid press.
The killer is only a minor character in Mr. Lee's movie, which
focuses less on lurid crimes than on the social hysteria they
generate. Lee's villains include the sensationalistic mass media,
for stirring up fears to boost their profits, and the xenophobic
notions that prompt a witch hunt by the main characters, a group of
Italian- American men who think the "44-caliber killer" might be
huddled in their own Bronx neighborhood.
Also at issue is the overall moral climate of the middle 1970s.
Lee pictures this as nearly anarchic, from the overt licentiousness
of a Manhattan sex club to the belligerently sexist behavior of his
By exposing the paranoid aggressiveness bred by their sadly
limited lives, and the way their self-serving ideas are reinforced
contemporary culture as a whole, Lee suggests deep links between the
public and private aspects of ethical decay. He also paints a
scathing portrait of a male-defined double standard that produces
weird combinations of promiscuity and puritanism, with women always
on the losing side of the equation.
"Summer of Sam" pulls no punches in displaying the dysfunction it
attacks, and some Cannes viewers were surprised to see the Disney
studio's Touchstone logo in the credits. It's a flawed movie, but it
shows a major American filmmaker thinking hard about his society's
penchant for mayhem.
The latest movie by Jim Jarmusch, another leader of American
independent film, contains an exploration of violence that's harder
to analyze in conventional terms. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
stars Forest Whitaker as an urban hit man who models his life on the
sword-wielding warriors, placing his safety and survival at the
service of a master who once saved his life.
On one level, "Ghost Dog" pays poetic tribute to the samurai code,
punctuating the story with long passages of traditional wisdom. On
another level, it's a hilarious spoof of old-fashioned samurai
movies, turning the hero's "master" into a lowbrow Mafia thug and
"apprentice" into a little girl who hangs around the local ice-