This Week in Rixflix #8: ALL-DEMME EDITION – April 29 to May 4, 2017
Director Jonathan Demme's death from esophageal cancer and heart disease at age 73 on Wednesday, April 26 hit Hollywood hard. There are relatively few major players in the industry today who hadn't crossed his path in some way, and the general consensus seems to have been that Demme was a truly nice guy who stuck by his friends, casting or working with them repeatedly over the course of his four-plus decade career. From the interviews I have seen or read with his collaborators and friends from across the span of his career, it is clear their grief is very real, and that his loss went beyond the usual lip service that many in the industry throw out automatically when asked for a sound bite.
I am not in the movie industry. I am a putz with a flailing film blog (or five) but I am also a putz who is simply too doggedly obsessed with film to really have a thought towards doing anything else with his time. I average 2-3 films a day throughout every year, and they take up the majority of my brainwave activity from the moment I wake up in the morning until bedtime. Even after lying down for sleep, my dreams often have me immersed in movie-rigged worlds, built from both popular imaginings and those of my own making. So, what did Demme's death mean to me?
Long before I really knew what the word meant, I had heard more than a few times that Demme's mark on film was that of bringing his own humanist sensibilities to the art form. Being much older now than when I first watched a Demme film, while embracing the word "humanist" to mostly define my personal philosophy at this stage of life, I have to say that I agree with such an analysis. (Certainly I had never met the man, so this conclusion is based solely on having seen a large portion of Demme's filmography.) The common factor in most of his major narratives (perhaps beginning with Citizens Band in 1977, as I have yet to see his 1976 feature, Fighting Mad) were that his characters, both good and bad, were mostly grounded in their finely delineated humanity and rarely reached for the divine for an easy solution, preferring instead to strive to better themselves or their situation (again, by either good or bad means, but in ways that were describable in purely human terms) or the situation of their fellow characters.
Acceptance and understanding of all other humans, regardless of race, color, or creed seems to be necessary to humanism's goals, but in my own case, I like to amend the concept of accepting all other humans to "accepting all other reasonable humans". Sometimes, in the words of the Cramps, "people ain't no good." You can still accept them, but they will prove to be tenacious little assholes despite your best efforts. There were exceptions in Demme's world as well, of course; in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter could only be called a humanist if you were turning the definition to that of someone who liked to murder and devour his fellow humans. Lecter's powers of observation, forethought, memory sense, and violence turn him into something that you really don't see elsewhere in the Demme oeuvre: a super-hero/super-villain, depending on your angle on the character. (Believe me, I have run into people who fully believe that Lecter is actually the hero of his books. I don't necessarily disagree with that theory.) Lambs was an adaptation of a book and rather an outlier in Demme's prime filmography, though Clarice Starling certainly would fit into the humanist mold. Unlike Lecter, who clearly worships himself as a godlike being, constructing his own theology and mythology (expounded on to much greater and eventually wearying detail in the later Thomas Harris books), Starling is, despite her ability to go toe-to-toe intellectually with her purely evil opposite, a woman of solid scientific training and deep rationality.
A decade later, we would see Demme tackle yet another adaptation, this time in 2004 remaking the 1962 political assassination thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (itself an adaptation of an earlier novel). Demme jolted the story from the Kennedy era (where it served to be partially prescient, and thus was vaulted away by rights owner/co-star Frank Sinatra for twenty years or so) and flung it into the middle of our then- and still-current situation in the Middle East. Both versions rely heavily on an over the top but frightening performance in the role of a truly terrible mother (first played by Angela Lansbury, and then Meryl Streep), who has turned her own son, a Vice-Presidential candidate nonetheless (through other machinations), into a potential assassin without his knowledge. The original film is an acknowledged classic of its time, but plays a little too broadly today despite its continuing excellence as an entertainment and a science-fictional warning. The new version, while nowhere near as successful a film, is helped immeasurably by Demme's trademark humanism, captured mostly in the earnest performance of Denzel Washington as the man, himself programmed as an assassin by the same super-science, who struggles to both prove and stop the insidious coup attempt.
Seeing the film for the second time this past week, that was the aspect that struck me the most. In the previous week, I had watched Demme's earlier film with Washington – the Oscar-winning and groundbreaking Philadelphia – where Denzel played a lawyer who at first could not see past his longstanding but unthinkingly accepted homophobia and immediate revulsion in order to defend the AIDS-stricken and deeply wronged fellow lawyer essayed by Tom Hanks. Washington has to nurture his own sense of basic humanity to grow past his fears and make things right for his client. While Hanks has the Oscar-capturing part in the film, Washington is equally remarkable. Philadelphia's heavy, moral drama may make light years from the potboiler that Candidate is, any yet, Washington brings a similar gravitas to his role as a loyal but rather aloof soldier who accidentally discovers that he and his fellow unit members have been implanted with devices that make them susceptible to brainwashing. The switch here is that he has to struggle not to find his humanity, but to simply maintain it long enough to keep western civilization from being ripped asunder.
I find Demme's remake far more emotionally affecting, though not nearly as frightening, as the original, but then again, we are now in a time where the political reality is far more of a horror show than even the most scare-flecked film. And it is especially important in the massive political divide we have today to struggle to find acceptability or respect in some measure with those on the side opposite you, even if it is ridiculously strenuous to do so most of the time. (Believe me, against my better judgment, I have thrown cheap shots online every other day or so, but I regret most of them not long after when I consider that this divide has affected my own family as well. Sometimes I am more aggressive than progressive. It is a major failing on my part, but I hate being threatened by idiocy on a governmental scale.)
Swing Shift, Something Wild, Married to the Mob... as Demme established his trademark style through the 1980s, the common theme was his humanistic approach to his characters onscreen, giving them a depth you often did not find in other comedy-dramas of the period. Even in the wildest moments in his films, the characters feel lived in, and seem to have a real connection to the others that populate their homes, their neighborhoods, their worlds. But even in Demme's surprisingly large collection of documentary and concert features (he made nearly as many as he did narrative features), his humanist approach colors the concerts or monologues of his collaborators, such as Neil Young, Robyn Hitchcock, Spalding Gray, and most especially, David Byrne and Talking Heads, in the concert film to beat all others, Stop Making Sense in 1984. (I will discuss Stop Making Sense and reminisce my experience with the film at another time, but I certainly jumped to watching it last week.) Subsequent films only confirmed his distinct approach to the form: the stories of the citizenry of New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward; his cousin serving as a priest in Harlem; a radio station owner in Haiti battling (and eventually assassinated by) oppressive government forces; and a scientist going up against a large agricultural corporation that hired him after discovering their products caused frog mutations in the water. And, while I have yet to see the film myself (though I will very soon) is there any greater humanist subject for a documentary than former President Jimmy Carter in Demme's 2007 doc, Man from Plains?
My personal connection to Demme's work is vast, and it goes back to my teen years. While I had no real notion of the concept back in 1980, I can tell you that from the moment that I first watched his big breakthrough film, Melvin and Howard, what most delighted me about the story was its sharply realized humanity. I did not know his name beforehand, but with Melvin and Howard, Jonathan Demme became a living, breathing entity for me forever. But first, a little history and backstory...
I had a fascination with the cult of Howard Hughes since I was a child; my wife will tell you that my fascination for him continues to this day. Howard Hughes was in the news so much throughout the '70s (he died in 1976) and even had a posthumous TV mini-series about his life, starring Tommy Lee Jones. Of course, I completely devoured it. Through my exposure to his name on the news constantly, Hughes became "my billionaire" in the same way that Nixon became "my president": the bombardment made each one the first of either occupation to inhabit my mind, which meant of course, love them or hate them, that they were with me forever. As a teen, I read an "insider" bio about Hughes by his former business partner, Noah Dietrich (upon which the mini-series was based), and a couple of other quickie books capitalizing on the public's continuing fascination with the man. (I did not, however, read The Hoax, another tale of Hughes-based obsession involving author Clifford Irving, until much later.)
When I was 12, the chief reason Hughes was all over the news was first his death, and then the battle over his estate after Hughes died, a battle that somehow continued even up to a few years ago. The most largely contested component of this battle involves a gas station owner named Melvin Dummar (still living), who supposedly rescued the elderly Hughes in the Las Vegas desert back in 1967. The story goes (as Dummar tells it) that before Hughes died a decade later (and unbeknownst to the younger man), Hughes named Dummar as a recipient of 1/16th of his estate (which, for Dummar, would have been $156 million in 1977 dollars). A copy of the will that stated this notion was mysteriously dropped on the desk at Dummar's gas station while he was outside, supposedly by the Mormons, who were rumored to have been instrumental in Hughes' continued care and isolation from the world for the last major portion of his life. At least, this is how Dummar tells it. The court eventually found against him after the evidence that he may have drafted the will himself became overwhelming. A few years ago, a much older Melvin attempted to reassert his claim to the fortune and was further denied.
In 1980, a young filmmaker named Jonathan Demme put together a ramshackle little comedy/drama built around the mythic meeting of Hughes and Dummar, and the aftermath of the billionaire's death and his contested will. Demme had directed six feature films previous to Melvin and Howard, some of them for producer and low budget pioneer/legend Roger Corman, who gave him his start in the industry in 1971 as a screenwriter. Most of his early films were pretty lowly affairs (naturally for Corman), but they did give him the raw materials from which to learn his trade and gradually develop his own style. There is a steady progression of talent growth and confidence through every feature he did through the '70s, and by the time of Melvin and Howard, he was ready to break through to the mainstream. The film did little at the box office, but the critical acclaim for the film was tremendous. In the end, Melvin and Howard was nominated for three Oscars, winning two of them: Best Supporting Actress for Mary Steenburgen and Best Original Screenplay for Bo Goldman. (Sadly, Jason Robards, playing Hughes, lost out for Supporting Actor, but he had won two Oscars already.)
As these things line up, Demme's little film that could was the first one that I saw in a theatre after I turned sixteen. Just as now, the two biggest things in my life at that time were music and film. Music-wise, I was just getting untracked from the AM pop radio dial along with the disco music that took me over for a couple of years as a callow 13-year-old who would actually write down the Top 40 as I listened to Casey Kasem and then pick out my five favorite records so I could go buy the 45s of each one. By 1980, thanks most especially to my long-lost cousin Brad who left his record collection with us, I was moving beyond all of that pop fluff and other music from my childhood (though I never let go of a certain fondness for every bit of it). I was tearing huge, meaty chunks out of rock 'n' roll by that time, and I never looked back. But at the same time that I was finally figuring out who was who, and who The Who were, I was devoting equal time to my other, slightly more developed passion: movies.
It was quite evident already where my focus rested. I was most avidly watching Siskel and Ebert on their original show Sneak Previews by 16, and after I heard the battling hosts' shared high praise for Melvin and Howard one evening on PBS, I just had to see the film for myself. While I have written on this website numerous times about my obsession with monster movies, animation, comics, Tarzan, Bugs Bunny, and the Marx Brothers (etc., etc.) going back to my youngest years, thanks to Siskel and Ebert and a lot of film history books from the local and school libraries, I was starting to widen that interest to fit my young adult status. I was then just really digging into auteur theory, which has a lot of fancy angles emanating from it detailing how directors are the true, primary authors of their films, but basically it comes down to this for the movie fan: absolute hero worship of the director. I don't necessarily buy into it as an all-encompassing (or even necessary) theory, but its presence has stuck with me my entire life. Hitchcock, Chaplin, and Welles were probably the first big names where I was able to apply auteur theory to the little of their catalogues that I had seen by that point. As I started to go to more films, and the addition of both cable television and videocassettes to my everyday life, I suddenly had more access to movies than ever before. Directors were as important as rock stars to me.
Which is where Demme comes into the picture. While I first picked up on his name from the reviews on Sneak Previews, once I saw Demme's name on the big screen, I never forgot it. Melvin and Howard, having been rated "R" for its nudity and language, was one of the more adult experiences of my life at that moment (not counting the XXX features we were sometimes sneak-watching on cable back then). I had seen Dirty Harry and The Sting in a double feature with my dad when I was fourteen (and it was astounding to me to see a strip scene that young, especially with my dad there with me). Likewise, I had seen more than a handful of "R" rated films on cable. This was different. This was being treated as an adult and not acting all self-conscious because nudity was on the screen and there were real adults around you. True to his nature, Demme's film was not leering at all in its pair of scenes where Steenburgen is awkwardly stripping to make some side money away from her husband Melvin (Paul Le Mat). The scene is totally sympathetic towards her as she battles a situation where she feels hopeless because she has no control but still manages to wrest dignity at the last second, even if she has to forego clothing to escape it. There was a very tangible, I will say it yet again, humanity to these scenes and the rest of the movie that I had rarely encountered by that point in my film travels.
Until then, film had been solely about spectacle to me: monsters, action heroes, pretty girls, cool cars, cartoon animals, chase scenes, gunplay, space battles, dinosaurs, aliens, kung fu, spaceships, sharks, apes, and lots of fist fights. And in my teen years, the thrill of female nudity, mostly of the leering, dirty variety. And I still love all of that stuff, unreservedly (except for the gun stuff), and always will. It's what powers this website. But my mind was growing up a little in 1980. My book obsessions had jumped from Tarzan, Conan, Huck Finn, and Sherlock Holmes in my pre-teen years towards a mix of hard science fiction, Robert Heinlein, Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, and Harlan Ellison. I was devouring Pauline Kael's collections of film reviews and learning about movies that I had not ever considered could have existed, let alone rate a review. I had zero focus on my school work and was a terrible student at every turn, but that was because I desperately needed a curriculum that was more suited to my way of learning, which was not of the norm at all.
Melvin and Howard turned a corner for me. Movies started to be about a little bit more than mere spectacle. I started to understand that the breadth of storytelling using the medium of cinema was almost limitless given the individuals creating it. Sure, I still loved the big, stupid, high concept, blockbuster stuff, and I still do (I just saw the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie twice in a row) but my interests had broadened to accept smaller, quieter, more personal films.
A few weeks after the Demme film, I would see my first Woody Allen movie in a theatre: Stardust Memories. Of course, I had already encountered Woody in his "earlier, funnier movies" on TV and cable (Stardust Memories is indeed the film where that line is actually said, which made a great impression on me). I was especially enamored of Love and Death (1975), even though I got absolutely none of the Ingmar Bergman jokes (because I didn't even know who he was back then). Stardust Memories, no stranger to Bergman swipes itself (though I had begun to read books by then where Bergman became a talking point), was more adult in its surreal tone and dark comedy than I was probably ready for at the time, but I embraced it in the same manner as Melvin and Howard.(even if the styles and subject matter were worlds apart). I can still distinctly remember certain scenes as being tied to that first encounter in the movie theatre, and that first theatrical experience with a Woody Allen film has stuck with me far longer than many of his more famous and even more excellent and acclaimed films.
While I may adore Stop Making Sense, Something Wild (another one that I will get to in depth eventually), and The Silence of the Lambs even more, Melvin and Howard will always be the truly special one in Demme's filmography for me, just as Stardust Memories became the Woody film that I embraced. Both films were further marks of my maturation as a film fan, but Demme got to me just slightly ahead of the Woodman. And I will forever be a fan.
This week's feature-length film count: 18; only 8 first-time viewings and 10 repeats.
Non-Demme-related features seen: 4
Short music videos seen: 6
Highest rated feature-length films: The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Stop Making Sense (1984) – 9/9
Lowest rated feature film: The Devil's Dolls [aka Worry Dolls] (2015) – 4/9
Average films per day in April overall: 2.70
Average films per day in May thus far: 2.45
Average films per day in 2017 thus far: 3.03
Out of respect to a creator whom I respected immensely for his talent, his taste, and his compassion, I devoted the bulk of this past week to watching a grand mix of Jonathan Demme's work. I tried to grab a little bit of everything: features films, documentaries, music videos, documentary shorts, bits from collaborative efforts, theatrical adaptations, and of course, the concert films of which he was uniquely in his own category (well, at least in league with Martin Scorsese, no slouch himself).
Feature-wise, I tried also to make it a mix of films that I had both seen already and not seen yet. I also wished to include some films where Demme was not the director, but performed other functions, such as writer, producer, or even second unit director. I feel like I succeeded far more than I had expected to going into the week, but there is still a good chunk of his filmography that has remained both slightly out of reach or completely elusive. I will be launching a new series here on The Cinema 4 Pylon with the title, All or Nothing, where I will select a director or star and make my way through their list of films in a concentrated effort to check as many titles off as I possibly can. Look for the first installment, about Jonathan Demme of course, in the very near future.
Here is my full Demme viewing list from this week:
9 feature films directed by Demme that I have watched previously:
Crazy Mama (1975), Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984), Swing Shift (1984), Something Wild (1986), Swimming to Cambodia (1987), Married to the Mob (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and The Manchurian Candidate (2004).
Caged Heat (1974), Citizen's Band [aka Handle with Care] (1977), Neil Young: Journeys (2011), and Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016).
1 theatrical adaptation directed for PBS:
American Playhouse: Who Am I This Time? (1982)
8 short films and music videos by Demme that I watched this week:
Suburban Lawns: Gidget Goes to Hell (1980), New Order: The Perfect Kiss (1985), Artists United Against Apartheid: Sun City (1985), The Feelies: Away (1988), Bruce Springsteen: Streets of Philadelphia (1993), Bruce Springsteen: Murder Incorporated (1995), Subway Stories: Subway Car from Hell (1997), and What's Motivating Hayes (2015).
1 repeat feature film in which Demme played role other than director:
Black Mama White Mama [aka Hot, Hard and Mean] (1973) Dir.: Eddie Romero – original story with Joe Viola.