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Emphatic and Abundant Love: The Work of Jonathan Demme

The world lost one of its best filmmakers this week with the death of Jonathan Demme. It's difficult to imagine a film writer who wasn't greatly influenced by his work and worldview. Matt Zoller Seitz penned our obituary, but we wanted to let other members of our staff share their thoughts on a filmmaking legend.


This may sound simple, but Jonathan Demme loved his characters. Clarice Starling, Audrey Hankel, Angela de Marco, the title characters of Ricki & Rachel—he loved them in spite of (or maybe because of) their flaws. It sometimes feels like a shocking number of filmmakers don't. But with Demme, it really felt like he became a filmmaker because of how much he loved people, and he longed to convey the passion he felt about the world through his craft. Whether it was the joyous way he captured musicians like David Byrne, Neil Young, and Justin Timberlake, or his array of unforgettable protagonists—many of them female—Demme's humanism was infectious. You left a Demme film on a high, buoyed not only by the incredible filmmaking on display but what it said about humanity. And then there's the range Demme showed. The man could segue from horror to documentary to drama with remarkable ease. Some of his best films, like "Something Wild" and "Married to Mob," contain multiple genres not only in the same film but in the same scene. Few filmmakers were more formative in the way I view feature films and what I expect from our greatest auteurs. He loved his characters, and they loved him back.


Jonathan Demme entered my consciousness as a filmmaker by my father drawing attention to the scene in “Philadelphia” where a dying Tom Hanks explains his favorite aria to Denzel Washington. It is a ravishing moment, full of beauty and sorrow both in Maria Callas’ voice on the soundtrack and Hanks and Washington’s faces as the cruelty of mortality wash over them.

And it was fitting that Demme’s introduction came by a family moment because families run through Demme’s incredible body of work. Whether by birth or circumstance his films often orbited around the communities that people make and the hurts they can wage on each other but also the solace they can bring. Even his excellent concert films, “Stop Making Sense” and “JT and the Tennessee Kids,” are variations on this theme as bands and touring on the road make families of musicians.

He was a uniquely humane filmmaker. Capable of finding the moments of quiet decency, like the mentor relationship between Jodie Foster and Scott Glenn, in the Grand Guignol of “Silence of the Lambs.” He could be very funny and achingly sad, sometimes within the same scene. His was a voice you don’t realize how much you’ll miss until it’s gone. But his films leave behind a legacy of party scenes washed in soft primary colors, with a soundtrack turned the world’s radio of pop, punk, and rock songs. And they are films full of fragile, silly, dangerous, recognizable people. He saw us, flaws and all and thought there was a story worth telling. That’s an incredible gift to lose too soon. 


Jonathan Demme inhabited an old-fashioned humanism that greatly appeals to me—the belief that every single person has worth and harbors a great story to their name. His films embodied that approach so consistently that they have the ability to break down even the sturdiest mental walls, reaching people on a primal level. “Stop Making Sense” captures the joy of live performance better than almost any film in history, reaching even my father, a man who’s not easily impressed, who said aloud, “This is incredible” as he watched Byrne’s legs rhythmically move like a marionette during “Life During Wartime.” “Something Wild” passionately argues that any person, whether a corporate rebel or a streetwise ingénue, must reconcile the darkness inside of them with their outward persona in order to achieve inner peace. “Citizen’s Band” documents an ensemble of isolated people, living out their wildest fantasies over the anonymous airwaves, who eventually come together to help one of their own. These are just three of Demme’s finest films and they all have a palpable beating heart at their center. “Empathy” is a word that gets thrown around far too often now, but Demme thoroughly embodies all aspects of that concept, extending a hand to its audience with each film and saying, “The world is an enormous tapestry, filled with joy and terror, but you are a part of it. You are a part of it.”


What distinguishes the work of Jonathan Demme is how it invites the audience to be a participant within the action. When the characters stare each other down in "The Silence of the Lambs," their gaze is aimed directly at us. The camera doesn't view the festivities from a passive perspective in "Rachel Getting Married," it is treated like one of the guests. Demme samples portions of every guest's speech around a dinner table before arriving at the monologue of his top-billed star, who is regarded as just another face in the crowd. The immersive nature of his art extended to his remarkable documentaries, including 2011's "I'm Carolyn Parker," about a New Orleans woman determined to rebuild her neon green house. My sister was working in the garden at Common Ground, the commune responsible for rebuilding the lower 9th ward, when she met Demme. She fondly recalls him telling her about building homes with sustainable material known as "cobb." If any man appeared to have been built out of sustainable material, it was surely Mr. Demme.


There are so many big things to say about Jonathan Demme, but today, as I consider his loss, I find myself thinking about the small things. I am remembering the guy who plays spoons in “Married to the Mob,” and the hairdresser who gives Michelle Pfeiffer’s character a job, and Oliver Platt’s cool handshake with his law enforcement partner Matthew Modine, and the two-timing waitress on the water bed and that drive-through fast food place frequented by the mob guys. I’m thinking about the dishwasher scene in “Rachel Getting Married,” and the way the music in that film was all native to the story, played by characters who were in the world of the film and not added as a score to sweeten the story for those of us in the audience. I’m thinking about the bride in the wedding at the end of “Rikki and the Flash” and Charlotte Rae as Meryl Streep’s former mother-in-law, and about the casting of Charles Napier as a judge in “Philadelphia,” and about the witness played by Anna Deavere Smith and Mary Steenburgen’s tap dance in “Melvin and Howard” and Marcia Rodd and Anne Wedgeworth talking to each other on a bus in “Handle With Care.” Demme’s deep humanity was evident throughout his films. His boundless appreciation for the distinctive aspects of personality and temperament is reflected in the specific details about even the most peripheral characters gives great richness to the stories he told. He never assigned random quirks to signify character. He showed us characters who lived in a fully populated word, and reminded us that we do as well.


Even with his first film—the Roger Corman-produced women’s prison exploitation flick “Caged Heat” (1974)—you can see many elements that would become staples in his career: Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto; a soundtrack by John Cale; Gary Goetzman among the producer credits; an entire scene of a stage performance; a female-centric storyline. He stayed loyal to many of his collaborators from the early days and assembled many more regulars throughout his career. He didn’t just film a Talking Heads concert and leave it at that. He cast many of the band members in bit parts later on, including David Byrne in one of the funniest, weirdest performances a rock star has ever given (a PBS show called “Trying Times.” Demme directed an episode that had a “Meet the Parents”-like storyline. Byrne played the boorish in-law, Byron. Here’s a scene from that episode). 

Demme was one of the most important filmmakers of my lifetime. He—along with Spielberg, Scorsese and Gilliam—helped expand my worldview of what a film could be. “Stop Making Sense” changed the way I listen to and watch music. “Something Wild” taught me that movies don’t have to adhere to a specific genre or formula. It certainly lived up to its title. “Swimming To Cambodia” showcased a director who could take 80 minutes of a man sitting at a desk, talking and turn it into great cinema. These films mean so much to me. He had the kind of career many other filmmakers envy, a "one for me, one for them" approach ("them" being the big studios) to his art that would become a template for other such pioneers as Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee. There are so many things to say. He’s responsible for a big chunk of my CD collection and was a significant part of my formative years as a film viewer. He will be greatly missed. 


There is a scene midway through "Rachel Getting Married" where some characters load a dishwasher. There is no activity more mundane, and yet Jonathon Demme films the scene with wit and energy. The unloading gets competitive—a race to see who can do it more efficiently—but the tone of the scene changes in an instant (one mug is a memento from a deceased loved one). Demme's instincts serve the material well, with his camera veering from frenzied handheld pans to a somber, more steady shot. The cumulative effect feels like a punch in the kidneys. No matter whether he filmed cannibals or rock stars, lawyers or master builders, Demme's instincts were always to find and celebrate what makes us unique. He will be missed.


Humor and humanity. What a powerful combo. Add to that a knack for unexpected plot twists, a talent for bringing out the best in his leading ladies and an innate sense of how to capture the magic of music in visual form, and you have Jonathan Demme. Who else but this distinctly American filmmaker  would have had  the forethought and the nerve to use a score by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale in his 1974 directing debut, a cheapo women’s prison exploitation flick titled “Caged Heat.” 

I distinctly recall being quite tickled by then-newcomer Mary Steenburgen’s unexpected game-show-winning tap-dance number in 1980’s “Melvin and Howard,” my first exposure to Demme’s storytelling prowess. In a film about an unlikely friendship between two men, the actress somehow won a Supporting Actress Oscar. “Something Wild” more than lived up to its name as Melanie Griffith’s kinky seductress with a knack for larceny is revealed to be an average Jill with an unfortunate psychopathic ex-husband. Taking Griffith seriously as a fine actress not just an ingénue would pay off immensely for her and Demme. Other women benefitting from Demme’s feminist mystique included “Grease 2” and “Scarface” grad Michelle Pfeiffer as a disillusioned Mafia wife in 1988’s “Married to the Mob,” Jodie Foster as a sharp-witted FBI trainee in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs” and Anne Hathaway as a recovering drug-addict black sheep in 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married.”

On a personal note, I had the pleasure of interviewing the gracious and thoughtful Demme on several occasions, including for “Lambs” back when it was originally released. The film’s Oscar-winning screenwriter Ted Tally probably provided the best insight about why he was the best person to pull off the only real horror movie to ever win a best-picture Oscar: “Demme is a gentle, sweet man. The reason why this film is so scary is because these things are scary and terrible to him. He gives the victims a sad dignity. Death is as real, pitiful and upsetting as in real life.”

Demme’s own death leaves a very large hole in the movie universe at a time when his understanding of humanity and its innate goodness seems to be dwindling given our contentious political climate. I will leave it to others to praise his music documentaries, including one of the best ever made (“Stop Making Sense”). But I will continue to return to his work again and again to revisit some of the best female performances ever put on a big screen. 


Like so many talented directors before him, Jonathan Demme got his start working in the low budget playground of Roger Corman, starting off with the women in cages film “Caged Heat.” It was a fitting start for Demme, proving himself at the lowest level of the Hollywood food chain with titillating genre fare. As his career progressed, Demme became a filmmaker that defied genre categorization, making among the best horror, comedy, drama, and documentaries of his era.

His crowning achievement was “Silence of the Lambs,” which has left a lasting impression on the pop culture landscape for over 25 years. Not only did the film take home all of the five major Oscars, it turned Hannibal Lecter into a cinematic icon in just under a half hour of screen time. Lecter had appeared in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter,” but it was Demme’s direction of Anthony Hopkins that turned the character into a phenomenon, one that has led to book sequels, movie sequels, a television series, and countless parodies and spoofs—none of which come close to matching Demme’s suspenseful masterwork.

I still recall my escalating heartbeat upon watching “Silence of the Lambs” for the first time on VHS as a young boy. Adopting the perspective of Buffalo Bill in his night vision goggles as he spies upon Clarice Starling flailing in the dark, Demme crafted one of the most intense cinematic experiences ever. When that movie was over, I didn’t have the lights off for weeks. 

And yet this director who scared the living daylights out of me brought forth a warmth and energy in what is likely the greatest concert film ever made, the Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense.” Here Demme has a rock band working at the top of their game and yet creates a movie that breathes new life into their material and their performances that has had more of a lasting impact on their image than all of their music videos and hit singles. I don’t know about you but when I think of the Talking Heads, my mind is filled with images of David Byrne in a big suit, flailing about or the low angled lighting that had the band playing their hits as larger than life silhouettes.

Just this past year, two of Demme classic documentaries were spoofed on the show “Documentary Now!” The comedy series feature Bill Hader and Fred Armisen crafted loving homages to Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” and “Swimming to Cambodia,” a feature film of Spaulding Gray’s monologue. It’s a testament to the talents of Demme that he was able to craft so many indelible images that could be tweaked comically, be it his work as a documentarian or the director of narrative features.  


For all of the films that I've seen by Jonathan Demme, one moment that will forever resonate with me is the dishwasher race in "Rachel Getting Married." As a director who made a distinct authorship out of giving the world real human beings, his usage of a stripped-down, Dogme 95 style for that family dysfunction film was a stroke of genius; the idea of basing one scene around a giddy wedding party making a game out of who can take the dishes out fast enough an example of his pure heart. Other directors would have cut that moment; to a Demme film it was essential and in turn, gorgeous. It is a moment of pure joy with the foremost narrative purpose of capturing real life at its fullest, as if it were one of Demme's concert movies, or documentaries about down-to-Earth people doing extraordinary things. 

Since his passing, you can hear so much from people who have met Demme that he wasn't just a great filmmaker, he was a famously nice, humble person. Imagine achieving what Demme did, influencing your field of work by creating something as classic "The Silence of the Lambs,” having the awards recognition to bolster any ego, but being known consistently as humble. That's the mark of a filmmaker I will keep admiring, whose definitive focus on compassion will always be inspiring. 


The news of the death of the great American filmmaker Jonathan Demme is devastating on almost too many levels to fully process. Before his name had any personal meaning, Jonathan Demme had a dramatic influence in shaping my manic movie passion. 

My earliest influences were Bruce Lee movies and blaxploitation flicks. The grindhouse theater in our South Shore neighborhood in Chicago had very permissive policies about allowing unaccompanied minors into R-rated movies. One notorious title my brother and I managed to get into was “The Hot Box,” a charged and to my eyes hypnotic genre movie about kidnapped nurses who foment a revolution. Of course, we were drawn there for obvious reasons. I was probably old enough to recognize it as trash, but I also loved the speed and crazy rhythm. For the first time I made a direct connection between sex and the movies.

I met Demme for the first time at a screening in Chicago of his documentary, “Haiti Dreams of Democracy.” It was obvious right away, Demme the person emotionally paralleled that of the artist. He was friendly, curious, open, spirited and loved to talk, subtly directing the conversation away from his own films towards others. His beautiful and radical humanism that for me, linked him with two of my favorite filmmakers, John Cassavetes and Jean Renoir, jumped out. 

Over an eight or nine-month period of his greatest power as a studio filmmaker, from about November 1990 to July 1991, Demme was just as generous, available and helpful for two long profiles I was working on that required a great deal of original reporting and research. The first was about the Chicago theater actor Ted Levine, who played the serial killer in “The Silence of the Lambs.” The other was on the Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick, a writer, poet and actor. Tony was a part of the loose and funky Demme company, with memorable parts in “Married to the Mob” and “Philadelphia.”

Demme’s observations, understanding and discussion of their art made both pieces immeasurably better. I realized why he was such a great director. He had a natural and intuitive ability with composition. He had a penchant for the lyrical and the vibrant. He was incredibly open to the possibilities and wonder of his collaborators, technically, his work with great cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, his editor Craig McKay and the production designer Kristi Zea.

Jonathan Demme was always either ahead of or out of his time. The industry never came close to reciprocating his art and method. The “Swing Shift” debacle is a travesty. I’d recommend tracking down Steve Vineberg’s superb piece in Sight & Sound for the most authoritative account. Demme’s cut (which I have had the privilege of seeing) is one of his greatest works. It is lyrical, bruising and streaked with a melancholy and anger at how these war-time American factory women were exploited. Christine Lahti’s performance, in this version, is extraordinary. There were rumors, after Demme won the best director Academy award, that Warners was going to release his version. That was scuttled after supposedly realized it would mean owing up to their original mistake.

Jonathan Demme was his own man, an artist who refused to be commodified or packaged. His films were unmistakably his, in their concerns and ideas, perspective and personality, and yet they were also products of those he met. Gray said that Demme’s extensive use of the close-up in “The Silence of the Lambs,” was connected to their work together on “Swimming to Cambodia.” Demme soaked up every artist, painter, musician, athlete, worker or writer he ever met and returned that emphatic and abundant love.


Few directors had a sense of expressing hope as vivaciously as Jonathan Demme. A filmmaker who felt as much of a humanist as an aesthete, Demme repeatedly focused on the basic conflict of ordinary people intersecting with the bizarre (or, um, “something wild”), the world forthwith opening for them in its sundry colors and backgrounds. His legacy is certainly tied to his approach to music, not just on the soundtrack, but in diegetic performance, his camera going on stage with unobstructed close-up intimacy with the Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense, or backstage with JT + the Tennessee Kids, and staying fixed in close-up on the members of New Order as they jam out to “The Perfect Kiss.” His sensibility addressed the space between us and the performers, but was also an invitation to optically rush the stage and transcending liminal spaces, us lowly worshippers becoming unextended from the shaman rocking out on the alter. A true liberal, Demme reached for the democracy promised by rock and roll.

That same dynamic of breaking boundaries is intrinsic to Demme’s dramas, going back to disparate characters communing over radio in the cult film "Citizens Band". With cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, Demme mastered the use of 180-degree reverse shot close-ups between his actors wherein, as he put it, “the world is reduced to their conflict”: how much is ordinary working stiff Jeff Daniels altered by shadowy Ray Liotta in "Something Wild" as he fatefully plunges in the knife? Elsewhere, our hearts melt when Mafia widow Michelle Pfeiffer asks two-faced FBI agent Matthew Modine out on a date in "Married to the Mob"; forensics investigator Jodie Foster and serial killer Anthony Hopkins are locked in an optical stand-off, struggling to excavate what’s behind the other’s eyes in "Silence of the Lambs"; lawyer Denzel Washington is forced to confront, along with naïve 1993 audiences, the reality of AIDS as Tom Hanks looks right back in "Philadelphia"; and buried trauma—historical and personal—unflinchingly stares at Oprah Winfrey in "Beloved," the camera doubling for her daughter’s restless ghost, played by Thandie Newton.

“Let your wives and children see you dance!” preaches a matriarch in a "Beloved" flashback, an admonition to break through the boundaries between subject and object locked in opposed, unrelenting gazes. Demme’s musical interludes break down duplicitous barriers so the fanciful charade of "Something Wild" becomes a deeply felt love story, or Pfeiffer and Modine flirtatiously dancing during "Married to the Mob"’s end credits. "Philadelphia"’s court procedural of serious close-ups is preternaturally interrupted by a high angle and red filter as Hanks becomes intoxicated by Maria Callas, proclaiming, “I am divine! I am oblivion! I am the god who comes down from the heavens to the earth and makes the earth – a heaven! I am love!” Even in "Silence of the Lambs," the fact that Hannibal Lecter has relented his daggered gaze from Clarice as she tells her gruesome childhood “lamb” story indicates an unexpected closeness: this psychopath actually cares and is participating in her trauma.

Demme’s late dramas with cinematographer Declan Quinn are ostensibly different in look, eliminating the tight 180-degree reverse shot, but they are even more significantly an exploration of boundaries between characters performing on their respective stages. "Rachel Getting Married" casts real musicians alongside actors during a wedding rehearsal, Demme and Quinn’s cameras undifferentiated from consumer grade camcorders dropping in. Everyone is performing, and even an intense argument between sisters Anne Hathaway and Rosemary DeWitt suddenly morphs into a happy pregnancy disclosure with customary applause and well-wishes from spectators. When Hathaway, playing someone with substance abuse problems, decides to break the performative mandate on the mic and begins talking about her own problems, the audience—ourselves along with the film’s characters—watch uncomfortably in pained expectation. But through this tension, as when dad Bill Irwin stops impressing guests with his prodigious dishwashing skills and becomes hopelessly caught in grievous arrest upon seeing a plate that belonged to his dead son, Demme generates more authentic human compassion and pathos in a matter of seconds than most directors can in their entire careers. And one of the film’s last moments, as Hathaway prepares to board the car back to rehab and pauses to glance at her worrisome and loving dad—limping through post-wedding morning slog—through a window and privately whispers “daddy,” is, I believe, probably the most affecting human moment I’ve seen in any film this century.

Demme’s last dramatic feature, "Rikki and the Flash," was a concert film that takes place both on and off stage, Rikki (Meryl Streep) offering stage banter at the dinner table when she’s reunited with the family she left behind, while she works through her romantic issues with Rick Springfield (who’s excellent) on stage with their band. The camera makes stage light glares feel like palpable objects, and Demme draws attention to affluent communities that are, like the stage, gated off to the public. But the heart of Demme’s cinema shines through like those Springsteen lyrics from “My Love Will Not Let You Down”: “I’m going to tear all your walls down.” Rikki surrenders her ego and, again like Beloved’s matriarch, the film becomes an admonition to reconcile in the ecstasy of dance, a wedding of release salving hurt between estranged family members, Demme’s American dream materializing with hands clasped between wedding guests young and old, black and white, gay and straight, liberal and conservative. Is it cheesy? Perhaps, on the surface. But as anyone whose heart is splashing in the music and swimming in dance floor rapture can attest, this is what surrendering to the music’s all about. Submitting to "Stop Making Sense" on the big screen, my soul is burning thousands of calories just by looking at David Byrne do his thing, and similarly in "Rikki," I’m caught up in unrestrained love and absolving gratitude that earlier was so guarded. “I am divine! I am oblivion! I am the god who comes down from the heavens to the earth and makes the earth – a heaven! I am love.” These films did that to me, repeatedly. Thank you and bless you forever, Jonathan Demme. 

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