Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Filmmaker Next Door: Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

Filmmaker Jonathan Demme passed away last Wednesday, April 26, at the age of 73.

For a solid stretch of ten, maybe twelve years, Jonathan Demme had the distinction of being both the hippest and kindest film director in America. To appreciate the enormity of this accomplishment, it helps to concede that it’s somewhat paradoxical. There are no hard and fast rules for rating moviemakers according to their hipness, but the ones to whom the label sticks are likely to have an air of cultish exclusivity to them; interesting music choices help, but so does a challenging, threatening edge, a sense that, say, Jim Jarmusch or Alex Cox or Aki Kaurismaki is not from these parts, and may be talking over the heads of, or having a laugh at the expense of, those who do not get their work. Compared to them, Demme always had an open, smiling, corn-fed quality.

So did David Lynch, arguably the greatest and most original American director to cement his reputation in the 1980s, but after Blue Velvet hit, Lynch began to cultivate his own paradoxical public image as Captain Strange from Middle America. No doubt Lynch’s personality is his own – “authentically” his own, as the kids would say – but a man who unveils a movie as drenched in perverse sexuality and nihilistic violence as Wild at Heart at the Cannes Film Festival while releasing a press bio consisting of the four words “Eagle Scout Missoula Montana” is a man who knows that press attention helps to keep his career going and who has learned how to use what seems weird about him as a conversation starter. Demme never stopped seeming like the genuinely nice boy next door. He was just the boy next door who had more wide-ranging interests and better taste in music and movies than anyone you’d ever met.

Demme’s career in movies spanned more than forty years. (It began in 1971, when Roger Corman pulled him out of the publicity department to write biker and women’s-prison pictures, which led to his first directing job, the 1974 Caged Heat; he died last Wednesday morning, just hours before the broadcast of an episode of the TV series Shots Fired that he’d directed.) I wish it had been longer. But if I’m focused on his role in the movie culture of the 1980s, that’s because I think that was when he did most of his greatest work. It’s definitely the work that matters most to me, and it mattered a great deal to me at the time. If you were around during the Reagan years and felt at odds with the political culture and found the mainstream popular culture that went with it alienating and oppressive, Demme’s movies were like an oasis of sweet, entertaining sanity.

Veronica Geng once wrote that Preston Sturges “had a supreme gift for making people laugh without representing the world as better or worse than it is.” Demme had some of that, and it resulted in movies Citizens Band (1977), Melvin and Howard (1980), Something Wild (1986), and also his hour-long TV film Who Am I This Time? (1982) – that embraced the sort of people and values towards whom the American zeitgeist had grown proudly dismissive. Melvin and Howard, written by Bo Goldman and starring Paul Le Mat as Melvin Dummar, the working stiff who was mentioned as a beneficiary in what may have been the last will and testament of Howard Hughes, is a surpassingly beautiful comedy about blue-collar Americans who go from job to job, getting married and having kids and getting divorced and getting remarried and blending their families, dreaming of somehow making it big while yoked to whatever drudgery is enabling them to put food on the table and keep the lights on day by day. They’re the kind of people who were said to have voted for Donald Trump out of “economic anxiety” and whom the New York Times is always sending reporters after, to see if they have buyers’ remorse yet. Demme looks at them without a trace of condescension or sarcasm, even when Dummar’s first wife (Mary Steenburgen) is demonstrating her talents on a Let’s Make a Deal-type game show.

(from left) Elizabeth Cheshire, Mary Steenburgen and Paul Le Mat in Melvin and Howard (1980).
Melvin and Howard manages to use Melvin Dummar to convey the improvisational, semi-delusional messiness of many American lives, without ever reducing him to a symbol of capitalist oppression. He’s a living human character, even in the richly imagined meeting between him and Hughes (Jason Robards, in the performance of his movie career) – two people with nothing in common trapped in the cab of a truck all night. Robards’s Hughes is poisonous and burned out, and he’s been coddled too long to even try to conceal his instant contempt for the bozo who’s found him in the desert after Hughes has crashed his motorcycle and courteously agreed to give this shaggy-haired old derelict a ride into town. Melvin, the very picture of simple, unconditional decency, tries to inject some of his own natural friendliness into the hostile buzzard; he wants some company, but he also seems to genuinely want to teach this palpably unhappy man how to be a little happier in the face of his problems.

He demands that he sing, and after Hughes has gone too far and insulted the godawful Christmas song Melvin has written, he stands his ground and demands to be treated with a measure of respect, as a working man performing a kindness for a stranger. When Hughes breaks down and sings “Bye Bye Blackbird” – “No one here can love or understand me / Oh, what hard-luck stories they all hand me” – Robards shows you a man encased in cynicism and paranoia sneaking up on, and experiencing, the relief of being able to reveal himself to someone who doesn’t want anything from him and can do nothing to him. Demme never romanticizes Melvin or asks the audience to weep for him. In the course of the movie, he shows you his long string of sputtering attempts to get his life together and make a better life for himself and his family (and getting himself further and further in hock), and you can see why, when the news about the will made him a public figure, he looked like a disreputable joke. But it brings you close enough to see that he was something more.

Melvin and Howard got great reviews and won Mary Steenburgen an Academy Award, but it was a washout commercially. Demme’s earlier Citizens Band, which starred Le Mat as a small-town CB radio aficionado and full-time amateur do-gooder, played in the sticks (with a newspaper ad showing overheated men connecting, via CB, with babes in bikinis) before it opened in New York, in the fall of 1977, under the title Handle with Care. (For those of you unfamiliar with CB terminology, that’s a pun.) In both cases, Demme was a victim of a black hole built into American movie culture: he had made very smart, very funny, but sensitively nuanced films about people the art house audience doesn’t expect to see treated respectfully in movies, and who have been conditioned to only expect to see themselves in bucolic movies in which they race cars and brew ‘shine. And Demme’s next feature film, Swing Shift (1984), was taken away from him and trashed on the orders of its star and co-producer, Goldie Hawn. Demme’s version has acquired a legendary rep based on a bootleg VHS tape that fell into the hands of a few lucky critics – Steve Vineberg’s article about it can be found in his collection No Surprises, Please  – but the reception of the release version was another (richly deserved) nail in Hawn’s cursed career and another hurdle for Demme to overcome.

Salvation, or at least a fresh direction, arrived in the form of Demme’s “favorite band,” Talking Heads, stars of his exuberant concert movie Stop Making Sense. Like his later music films with Robyn Hitchcock, Neil Young, and Justin Timberlake, as well as the Spalding Gray showcase Swimming to Cambodia, Stop Making Sense is a fan’s exemplary act of collaboration, a case of a master filmmaker recording a performance and using his skills to augment it and transform it into a strong movie experience without ever calling attention to his own mastery. (Demme pulled the same trick in some of his music videos, most notably the 11-minute clip for New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss.”) And seeing the interplay between the racially and sexually mixed group of musicians and the Downtown smarty-pants graphics of their show inspired Demme to up his game in terms of visual style and turn his next two movies, Something Wild and Married to the Mob, into an overflowing tribute to the aesthetic and spiritual advantages of life in the melting pot.

Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels in Something Wild (1986).

Melvin and Howard may be Demme’s greatest movie, and I have a special love for it personally; as a white working-class kid from the sticks myself, it did more than anything I can think of to exorcise my own class shame. Maybe because of that, I can’t bear to watch it too often. But Something Wild is Demme’s most endlessly rewatchable narrative movie. The first half, with Melanie Griffith as a bohemian girl with a Louise Brooks haircut who shanghais a Yuppie, Charlie (Jeff Daniels) for a road trip, complete with daytime drinking, great never-ending road music (a Demme staple), handcuff sex, and a destination point at her high school reunion, is the platonic version of the generic story about the nerdy guy liberated by the wild gal, except funnier and sexier than usual. It’s also a set-up for a mother of a tonal shift; Demme uses the thrills of Charlie’s wild weekend to suck him and the audience in, so that everyone is rocked backwards when Griffith’s ex (Ray Liotta, in a performance that he’s been trying to follow up on for thirty years) appears and drives Charlie’s vacation from reality straight into a ditch. (Without Charlie realizing it, the movie shifts gears audibly, when the music of the band at the high school reunion – the Feelies – darkens just as Liotta heaves into view on the dance floor.)

Part of what’s nightmarish in Something Wild is the unsettling way that the smallest bursts of violence – Liotta yelling and kicking his boot through a wall, blood from Charlie’s broken nose staining his face and his shirt – tear an irreparable hole in the world the movie created in its first half, a carefree one where outlaw behavior has no serious consequences and nobody means any real harm. (Even Griffith lying to her mother about her relationship to Charlie has no consequences; Mom is onto her daughter’s tricks but just indulges her in them.) This is consistent with the way death finally enters the picture: in the midst of a horrific three-way explosion, no one deals a flamboyant final blow; somebody just misjudges his next move and runs into a knife. By comparison, the very entertaining Married to the Mob, starring Michelle Pfeiffer as a Mafia widow trying to make a new start, is a live-action cartoon with shootouts that cost nothing: the culmination of the side of Demme that got its start in Roger Corman exploitation pictures, it’s full of what Demme himself knowingly called “fun violence.” (There was another sort of culmination in 1990 with Miami Blues, starring Fred Ward as Charles Willeford’s grungy detective Hoke Mosely and Alec Baldwin as his nemesis Junior Fringer; it had a raft of producers that included Demme and his usual producer Kennet Utt, and was directed fellow Roger Corman mentee George Armitage in a style that might be called Demme Lite.)

Demme’s career really began anew with the success of The Silence of the Lambs, which won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. The violence in that serial-killer movie isn’t “fun,” but it doesn’t rise to the level of poetic horror, either. It’s “well-executed,” in a way that clearly rang the bells of a great many people but doesn’t offer any of the pleasures that fans had come to associate with Demme’s movies. Basically, except for the concert films and some of the other documentaries he continued to make on the side (Cousin Bobby, The Agronomist), Demme stopped making movies that provided those pleasures when he became a respectable member of the Establishment. I don’t think he “sold out,” and I don’t begrudge him his success, or the fact that the big, well-meaning prestigious pictures he made in the wake of Silence of the Lambs Philadelphia, Beloved – feel comparatively hollow to me. He had gone a long, long time making movies he cared deeply about for an audience he must have craved and had scarcely had a big mainstream hit, certainty not one commensurate with his talent. I’m happy he got to the top of the pyramid. It just frustrates me that the director who created such a wide-open vision of America, one in which the smallest bit player standing in for the least remarkable member of society can have a role to play and get a chance to spark up the movie, has been fixed in many people’s minds as the guy who always shot exchanges between actors delivering their lines straight to the camera, their faces pinned in tight close-ups.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

No comments:

Post a Comment