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I had no idea how much Jonathan Demme's work meant to me until I heard he was gone.
The director, who died today at 73, was unobtrusively spot-on nearly every time he stepped behind a camera. Even in the early exploitation flicks he made in the seventies, like "Caged Heat," and in cultural cash-ins like "Citizen's Band," which tapped the 1970s fascination with truckers and CB radios, you always got the sense that Demme was looking through the material, whether it was sturdy or shabby, to catch sparks of eccentric humanity in his characters and settings. It seems no accident that he made nearly as many documentaries as fiction films. He exhibited a journalist's eye for detail even when directing scripted features like "Something Wild" and "Married to the Mob," comedies that unreel across the screen with the exuberance of a child's flip book even when the characters are screwing and killing each other.
In a late near-classic, "Rachel Getting Married," Demme treats a self-dramatizing young woman's disruption of a wedding weekend as if it were a non-violent horror movie, or perhaps a very intimate disaster movie. When the heroine pulls focus away from her family and abases herself for attention, the movie shifts into a give-them-rope-and-watch-them-hang-themselves mode that evoked Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh at their most upsetting. And yet you can keep watching the movie straight-on rather than through splayed fingers because you sense the love that Demme feels for all of his characters, even the ones with few redeemable qualities, like Jason Robards' homophobic old moneybags in "Philadelphia" and his lawyer, played by Mary Steenburgen as if Nurse Ratched had a secret sister who graduated summa cum laude from Harvard Law. Demme doesn't pity them, exactly, nor does he write them off. He has no illusions about them but he always still seems to expect more of them, and want more from them, than they can reliably deliver. There always seems to be hope for every Demme character, an unacknowledged or unnoticed chance for redemption. It feels counterintuitively tragic when Demme's brutes and jerks fail to seize that chance, as Ray Liotta's cackling ex-convict fails to do in "Something Wild," and as Meryl Streep's conniving, incestuously smothering dragon-mama fails to do in "The Manchurian Candidate"—exploiting and ruining her only son, poor friendless, friendless Raymond (Liev Schrieber), in the process.
In "Melvin and Howard," an utterly ordinary screw-up named Melvin Dumar (Paul Le Mat) writes his own ticket to redemption early in the story, when he unknowingly plays good Samaritan to the old and deranged Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) and inspires the billionaire to name him as a beneficiary in his will. But the film's long middle section shows Melvin botching his own family's life so badly in pursuit of the American dream that subsequent charges that he forged Hughes' will make the initial miracle feel like a preemptive punishment for stupidity he hasn't indulged in yet.
"It says you can be anything you want to be if you'll just believe in yourself, and you believe in yourself," says Melvin's wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen), "it's just the believing hasn't been enough to let you become what you believe you can be." "Honey, they didn't burn down Rome in one day," Melvin replies. "You got to keep plugging!"
As a director, Demme was the auteur as utility infielder. He loved to blur lines rather than sharpen them. Both his stories and his frames contained more information and different details than you'd get if a mere craftsman had made the movie. You can see Demme's margin-doodling enthusiasm in the blithely multicultural casts and soundtracks of nearly all of his films (the barber shop in "Married to the Mob" is almost as diverse as the United Nations general assembly). And you can see it in the way Demme combines and even fuses genres. "Beloved" is part ghost story, part American holocaust epic, part domestic drama. "Something Wild" starts out as a sexy, romantic road flick about a free-spirited woman who lures a straitlaced man away from his boring middle-class life, then pivots two-thirds of the way through and becomes a thriller about stalking and domestic violence.
Demme's laid back brand of optimistic humanism wasn't always a great fit for Hollywood projects, though he applied his talents to them so conscientiously and inventively that he briefly became an A-list director anyhow. He was always a little bit funkier and more individualistic than any given assignment required. That's why even his most outwardly commercial pictures feel as idiosyncratic as the stuff he made for Roger Corman. As Vincent Canby noted in his otherwise mixed review of "Swing Shift," " ... Mr Demme has a special talent for locating the humor and pathos within the commonplace experiences of American life." Pauline Kael had similar sentiments for "Melvin and Howard," writing, "Demme shows perhaps a finer understanding of lower-middle-class life than any other American director."
I panned "Philadelphia" when it came out; while recognizing its skill and confidence, I was troubled by its need to reassure straight audiences that its hero, AIDS-stricken lawyer Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), was likable, sweet, and thoroughly bourgeois, a Sidney Poitier character for the AIDS era—as if to comfort straight Americans who had no gay friends (represented by Denzel Washington's homophobic lawyer, who changes his tune eventually) that he wasn't one of those "bad" people who maybe didn't exactly "deserve" to contract HIV but who were, at that time, collectively believed to have been courting it. (The screenplay established that Andrew got HIV in a bathhouse, but took care to tell us that he wasn't a regular there.) That movie and its follow-up "Beloved," a three-hour, magical realist adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel about the aftermath of slavery, were seen by some as apologies for "The Silence of the Lambs," a hit that was criticized by anti-defamation activists as as homophobic (because the hero dressed in women's clothing and makeup and imagined himself without a penis). Some Demme fans worried that it was so grimmer and less democratic in spirit than his earlier work.
The Chicago Tribune's Dave Kehr said that "Lambs" " ... succumb[s] to the temptation of movie authoritarianism, making a film about domination that seeks itself to dominate its audience ... a power fantasy barely distinguishable from the crudest Arnold Schwarzenegger or Eddie Murphy vehicle, though aimed at a more knowing, more sophisticated public." But if indeed Demme followed "Lambs" with films that sought to atone for it—and it's hard for me to imagine that as his sole motivation for directing them—they were two of the freest and most surprising attempts at karmic redress in cinema history. At the very least, they were equal or superior to the stretches of other great directors' filmographies that likewise felt faintly apologetic, such as John Ford's "Sgt. Rutledge," "Cheyenne Autumn" and "7 Women" in the 1960s (films by a sentimental white reactionary that dealt with racism, genocide, and sexism), or that stretch in the 1980s when Steven Spielberg followed "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," a movie widely criticized as sexist, racist and pointlessly brutal, with the epic yet sensitive multicultural melodramas "The Color Purple" and "Empire of the Sun."
Upon re-watch, "Lambs" partly compensates for its queasiness about Jame Gumb's physical self-loathing by giving us one of '90s cinema's sharpest, least fussy portraits of workplace sexism. The story of Clarice Starling's professional ascent is about escaping, subverting and transcending patriarchy. This is subtly and not-so-subtly communicated throughout the story, in dialogue but also through images of Clarice penned into the frame by men who ignore her, leer at her, or talk over her. "Philadelphia" and "Beloved," too, are so precisely directed, and so attuned to the serendipitous and uncanny moments in life, that it seems intellectually dishonest to dismiss them as basic-minded liberal bromides about AIDS and slavery. "Philadelphia" was made to persuade, maybe more so than to enthrall; persuade it does, mostly through gestures, reaction shots, and music—i.e, through cinematic rather than literary values. When Beckett slow-dances with his IV stand, murmuring about the orchestration of the music playing on his stereo, the scene's true focus is Washington's lawyer, Joe Miller. He gazes at Andrew in astonishment, his face lit by firelight, his machismo melting away as his client describes, and then becomes, opera.
I can think of no greater American filmmaker who was taken for granted for as many decades as Demme. Even after his 1991 film version of "The Silence of the Lambs" captured Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay, and even after its follow-up "Philadelphia" got Best Picture and Best Director nominations and took home statuettes for Best Actor and Best Original Song, there was still, I believe, a tendency to underestimate how many modes that he could function in, and how many sides of his talent he could show us.
There was no reason to think that Demme could have directed one of the scariest movies ever made, "The Silence of the Lambs," until he did it. There was no reason to think that it was anything but a terrible idea to remake "The Manchurian Candidate," one of the finest political satires ever released in this country, until Demme did it in 2004. The movie drew clever connections between the paranoia and political divisions of the early Cold War era and the years following the Gulf War (which of course stood in for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that had only just started) and capturing the bleak, at times prankish sense of humor in John Frankenheimer's original. And it displayed the deep empathy that has always been Demme's trademark. More so than its predecessor, Demme's "Manchurian Candidate" shows what post-traumatic stress disorder does to the psyche of soldiers who passed through the hellscape of war, then were dropped back into civilian life without proper decompression or guidance. When Washington's ex-Army Major Bennett Marco looks at the journals of corporal Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright), where he's transcribed and illustrated his own nightmares, we are seeing transfigured Rorschach's from Marco's own subconscious, as well as the minds of all veterans who hide their pain for fear of being thought weak or crazy.
I believe Demme was at his purest when his films were the most stripped-down, when he was making documentaries or performance-driven nonfiction. Demme made 15 feature-length nonfiction films; seven were documentaries about musical performers, including his final directorial credit, “Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids”; his 1984 mainstream breakthrough “Stop Making Sense,” a Talking Heads concert film; and no less than three with Neil Young—four if you count his short film “The Complex Sessions.” He blurred lines in his nonfiction, too. The more you stare at his Neil Young movies and "Stop Making Sense," the more they seem like dramas in which introspection and change are expressed through music and choreographed motion. "The Agronomist," a film about Jean Leopold Dominique, owner of Radio Haiti-Inter, Haiti's first independent radio station, treats political speeches and debates as another form of music, and popular music as a continuation of politics.
"Swimming to Cambodia," his film of Spalding Gray's monologue, is a musical where the solo performer speaks rather than sings. Every shot, every cut, every camera move is choreographed to convey the emotional essence of Gray's narrative or else play against it or subvert it. Sometimes Demme goes high when Gray is in an emotional trough, or looks at him head-on when he's being evasive. They seem to be dancing with each other as well as looking at each other. The interplay between performer and director feels as intuitive and free-flowing as the interaction between a piano player and a saloon singer, even though they had to have planned every syllable in relation to every millimeter of camera movement to get that timing right. You can see this same dynamic at work in all of his films, but his musical documentaries especially. For my money, the masterworks are "Stop Making Sense" and "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," though with so many classics and near-classics on a single resume it's hard to choose.
He had a musical performer's spirit. It shone through all his movies, even when they weren’t officially about music. He never made an according-to-Hoyle musical where characters burst into song and dance, although he got reasonably close with the World War II romantic drama “Swing Shift,” about a riveter who falls in love with a musician, and 2015's "Ricki and the Flash," starring Meryl Streep as a rock and roller who abandoned her family to chase musical stardom. But there were points where all of his movies threatened to morph into musicals—even the nightmarish thriller “The Silence of the Lambs” and the earnest message picture “Philadelphia,” both of which feature scenes in which a leading character is seized by the spirit of the classical music he’s listening to and pretends to conduct it.
I think Demme saw the musicality in life. He must have heard music where other people heard murmured birds and traffic noise and ocean waves. I like to imagine that if you could have looked at the world through Demme's eyes, you would have seen a sweet flip-side version of the reality that's revealed when Rowdy Roddy Piper puts the sunglasses on in "They Live!" Rather than monsters glowering in black-and-white, we would see a colorful world lit by sunshine and neon, its air filled with notes and rests. (The title "The Silence of the Lambs" is about an auditory sensation: the shock of hearing the horrible presence of life suddenly replaced by absence.)
Simple speech did not seem to be enough for him. His movies sang even when the characters were just talking, and there were moments when they seemed to dance even when they were running, jumping, walking or standing still. When I hear his name, I picture musically ripe images: bloody-faced Hannibal Lecter closing his eyes and conducting “The Goldberg Variations” after slaughtering his jailers; Andrew Beckett conducting “La Mamma Morta” from Umberto Giordano’s 1896 opera “Andrea Chénier” in “Philadelphia”; Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels dancing to a cover of David Bowie’s “Fame” in front of an oversized American flag in “Something Wild"; Matthew Modine and Michelle Pfeiffer dancing on the steps of New York’s municipal courthouse in “Married to the Mob,” a film with a whopping 49 songs in its soundtrack, in a post-credits scene that Demme cut from the movie proper but couldn’t bear to lose entirely. We can't bear to lose him either. At least he left us with musical images to remember his musical soul.
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