Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Fall and Rise of Jonathan Demme

Many fans of the works of Jonathan Demme think he made a major mistake when he directed his Academy-Award winning film The Silence of the Lambs (1981). Although the film was a huge hit and received critical acclaim, it was a step away from the type of funky, loose, music-filled films for which he had become known: Something Wild (1986), Married To The Mob (1988) and Melvin and Howard (1980), etc. Though I'm not among the naysayers (because I've always liked the picture), I appreciate their point of view. After Lambs' success, he got trapped in the world of 'prestige' pictures that seem aimed at garnering awards and attracting acclaim. Though a picture like the overly earnest Philadelphia (1993) won Oscars and was a hit at the box office, he went on to do the disastrous Beloved (1998) and the ridiculous remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004). By embracing this type of film, he seemed to have lost that light touch (even in darker material like Something Wild) that made his earlier pictures so appealing.

For me, the return to form began with a picture that most people dislike or barely know, but I thoroughly enjoy: The Truth About Charlie (2002), his remake of the frothy Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn film, Charade (1963). I submit that it is this picture that started his return to form because if he had not made this movie, with its jump cuts, use of different film stocks, fractured narrative and glorious music, his great film from 2008, Rachel Getting Married, would not have had the stylish visual touches that made it also so enjoyable. With The Truth About Charlie, he wanted to make a movie that was both a love letter to Paris and also a tribute to the French New Wave Films of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Demy. I freely admit that the welding together of the light entertainment of a Cary Grant pic to the French New Wave visual and aural ideas doesn't entirely work, but I love what he's TRYING to do. Charade was released in 1963. The year before, Truffaut made Jules et Jim; in 1963, Godard made Contempt and The Carabineers; Chabrol made Bluebeard and Lola; a year later Demy made his greatest picture, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The idea Demme was working through was that as the light, frothy Charade was being shot in Paris, all these other films that changed the way movies were made were also in production in the same city.

Demme even went so far as to cast people from those filmmakers' lives in small roles, such as Demy's widow, director Agnes Varda; Godard's early muse, actress Anna Karina; and singer Charles Aznavour (star of Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (1960)), in case anybody missed the point. Yes, the idea is forced, but I thoroughly enjoyed the journey (even though Mark Wahlberg or Thandie Newton are not in the same league as Grant and Hepburn). The music, the sights and sounds of Paris and the visual ideas are so breathtaking, that I can forgive the forced nature of the picture. As I said, it was only the start of his return to form, because he stumbled badly again with his next film, the aforementioned asinine The Manchurian Candidate and therefore wasn't yet out of the weeds. I still don't get the point of that film. By changing the conspiracy's true colours – as outlined in Richard Condon's 1959 novel and John Frankenheimer's 1962 film (another picture from the same era as the French New Wave) – it made the whole enterprise completely pointless. The only saving grace is, just barely, that the visual ideas he developed in Charlie that he continued to explore here. 

What finally saved Demme's filmic soul was his work on the documentary Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006). This wonderful, deceptively simple, beautifully filmed concert (at Ryman Auditorium, in Nashville), featuring Neil Young and friends in support of his Prairie Wind album, is a joyous marvel. It returns Demme to some of the things he truly loves: music and musicians (his Stop Making Sense (1984), a documentary record of one night on stage of The Talking Heads, is still one of the greatest concert films ever made). Look at any of his better fictional films (prior to Silence of the Lambs) and you will see that they too were filled with music and musicians. To watch a Demme film, you get the impression that he could not live without music, and that is what was missing from Lambs, Philadelphia, Manchurian and Beloved – music. Oh sure, they had a soundtrack, and Philadelphia even had new songs by Bruce Springsteen and Young, but these pictures just didn't, well, sing. Heart of Gold sings from the first few seconds to the end of the final credits as Young sits alone on the stage in front of an empty auditorium playing “The Old Laughing Lady.” Broken into two parts (easy to tell, because Young and the rest of the musicians are in different costumes and stand before a different backdrop), the first part is nothing but songs from Prairie Wind, including an incredibly moving, beautifully played song “When God Made Me”; the second half is filled with old hits, such as “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold,” “Needle and the Damage Done,” and others. I was never a huge fan of the Prairie Wind album, until I saw this picture. Demme films the concert in such a manner, you just don't notice the seamlessness of it. Between each song, he uses a simple blackout that doesn't jar, but gives you a second to absorb the one song before we move on to the next.

There's also a naughty playfulness at one point. I can't remember which song it was, but his backup singers (wife Pegi, session musician Diana DeWitt and Emmy Lou Harris) are beside him as he sings. Pegi has her back to him, but Diana DeWitt sure doesn't. As they sing the song, the look of love? desire? respect? lust? on DeWitt's face as she gazes upon Young is verging on the erotic. Without this picture, and The Truth About Charlie, we wouldn't have Rachel Getting Married, his Altman-inspired masterpiece in miniature.

Rachel Getting Married tells the story of a highly dysfunctional upper class Connecticut family as the oldest sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt – no relation to Diana) prepares to wed. Onto the scene comes the train wreck, fresh-out-of-rehab Kym (Anne Hathaway -- a great performance). During the course of the weekend, truths are told and mysteries of the fractured family (including the distant mother, expertly played in a welcome return by Debra Winger) are revealed. But that simple synopsis doesn't do justice to the power of this picture. From Charlie (and the French New Wave), Demme borrows the jump cutting, multiple film stock types and almost non-linear narrative; from Heart of Gold, he takes the music and musicians. In the picture, over the course of the weekend, the family is surrounded by artists and musicians. The music for the whole film was played live, not against a prerecorded playback, and it brings the picture vibrantly to life. There's one moment, though, when I couldn't agree more with irritable, hard-to-like Kym. As the family tear into each other over a mistake from the past, two or three musician friends play constantly in the background. At one point, Kym yells “Are they going to play ALL weekend long?” The father Paul (a masterful Bill Irwin who, on the surface anyway, is always trying to please everybody) leaps out of his seat and tells them to knock it off. How Kym felt at that tense moment was exactly as I felt. I loved the music, but man, could they just shut up for five minutes! (An interesting side note, that Demme revealed in the support material, is that Hathaway ad-libbed the moment and the “family” jumping out of their skins to get the musicians to stop was a real reaction – priceless.)

Now, what is really interesting about the family in this film is that, for me, they are such a bunch of either neurotic or touchy-feely gits, that on more than one occasion, I wanted to knock their heads together or slap some of them around. And yet, I enjoyed every second with them, because even within all their faults and self-indulgences, there was something appealing, touching and all too incredibly human about them (credit must be given for a fine screenplay written by Jenny Lumet, director Sidney Lumet's daughter). With Rachel Getting Married, the Demme I know and admire has completely returned. I just hope he stays back, because he, like the addicted Kym, has slipped before. And we all know that Hollywood is always full of temptations.

David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is about to launch his first novel, The Empire of Death, at an event in Toronto on Tuesday, October 19, 2010. Details to follow.

1 comment:

  1. I think I agree with you on almost every point. I'd been coming to the conclusion that I preferred Demme the documentarian over the fiction filmmaker for a while. I was basing this on the inclusion of two films you didn't mention; STOREFRONT HITCHCOCK (1998) and I'M CAROLYN PARKER (2011). Both playful as all get out. I'm liking these insights into his body of work and will incorporate them into my own. Thanks