All or Nothing... Jonathan Demme Pt. 1: The '70s Features
A couple of weeks back on The Cinema 4 Pylon, I wrote at length upon my devotion to filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who died in late April from complications involving esophageal cancer and heart disease, over the course of his career. While I invoked several of Demme’s films in the piece (which you can read here: https://cinema4pylon.blogspot.com/2017/05/this-week-in-rixflix-8-all-demme.html), I mainly sought to confirm that three of his films – Stop Making Sense, Something Wild, and The Silence of the Lambs – are always to be considered masterpieces in my personal canon, and that a fourth film, Melvin and Howard, was hugely influential on my development as a young film fan. With that film in 1980, my personal history with Demme began, and I naturally assumed in the remaining years that his work had not lessened in influence on me since.
As I worked my way through his filmography, however, I discovered that I may have been wrong in that assumption in at least one sense. While those films from 1980-1991 may have continued to capture my imagination and critical eye in the years since I first saw them, I started to get the feeling that perhaps much of Demme’s work, apart from the occasional film like Rachel Getting Married, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, or Storefront Hitchcock, had largely escaped my notice after Philadelphia came out in 1993. I realized that I had not been leaping at the chance to see the latest Demme film in all that time, waiting instead for me to locate a film or three once they reached video in an almost happenstance manner. The most glaring error was that I was also still missing out (again with a couple of exceptions) on having seen most of his earlier work throughout the 1970s before Melvin and Howard set him on my map. I had made sure to explore the early works of other major directors on my favorites list. So, why not Demme? Whatever was I going to do about this?
All or Nothing… Concept and Title
I had already been working on a new concept for the Pylon in recent months that involved a deeper dive into the works of directors or actors with whom I already had great familiarity, but still had a number of works to see before I had every possible title checked off their respective lists of films. Not a particular director or actor, mind you; it was meant to be a general concept that I could employ any time that wished. I had been working on the format for a couple of months, and had been researching and setting up entries for a number of filmmakers in that span. I had intended to begin with Wes Craven, as I had seen most of his films in my lifetime, but still had a couple of more obscure ones left. I was then planning to leap full body into the silent works of Alfred Hitchcock (for reasons that will become clearer this summer).
I was at the point where I had the template worked out for the articles, but still needed to figure out an actual title for the series. I had run through several, of course – one thing where I usually never lack for material is in titling things or nicknaming people – but I was hitting the wall with this one. I was too caught up in finding a clever pun or a truly odd title. In a nod to my buddy Robear, I almost called it Grouting with the Greats – as in “filling in the cracks” of their filmographies, but I was having trouble coming up with the proper grouting tool to employ in the logo, so I gave up on that one. I hadn't found the right name.
When Demme died, however, it absolutely became a must for me to begin this series with a sharp focus on his works. I wondered how many of his films I had seen, which naturally led to me wondering the opposite as well. How many was I missing? Pulling his name up on Letterboxd, a total of 35 titles popped up that directly have his name in the major line credits, and using one of the primary functions on the site – which allows you to determine the exact percentage of films you have seen on a particular list – it showed I had seen 40% of those films (at the time that I first checked Demme's oeuvre on there). This 40% distressed me, as I thought I had seen far more of his films overall. Since Letterboxd uses as its primary source of information a site called TMDb (The Movie Database) and not IMDb (to which they would likely have to pay a premium to connect), I knew that the number of Demme films actually had to be much higher than just 35 films. I also knew he had produced a good number of films as well, and had done non-directorial work on several others early in his career. So, I went to IMDb and used their full filmography to build a list on Letterboxd that not only included every possible film with a Demme credit that I could find, but also added notes for individual films and put them in loose chronological order (alphabetically by year of release, but not strictly in order of filming). The full list came out at 87 titles.
Whew! That is certainly a huge list of films, so the next question involved my commitment to seeing such a project through to completion. I am not sure where the inspiration came from at all, just that I heard someone say the phrase “All or nothing” sometime after building the list – I think it was on the news, or "fake news," as assholes trying to destroy our democracy call it – which then got an old favorite Small Faces song from 1966, All or Nothing, caught in my head for the first time in a good while. Suddenly, there was that tiny explosion of wonder and excitement in my noggin. Everything made sense to me, and especially made sense for the new series. It is to be called All or Nothing..., as in "I either see all of the films this person has done or I might as well have seen nothing." If I were a gambling man, it could have just as easily been called Going All In, but luckily, I am not that sort.
So, here’s how we are going to do things moving forward with All or Nothing… It will concentrate only on the films that I had not yet seen by a filmmaker prior to watching each film for the series. My intent is to proceed through a filmmaker’s catalogue in order, but with the ability to break the films down into specific sections based on my own whim. In most cases involving directors, the first focus will be on films that were actually directed by the subject, and then if I wish to delve into films they wrote, produced, or on which they worked otherwise, that is up to my discretion. The main goal is for me to have seen every possible film they directed by the final chapter. That will be the “All or Nothing…” If there are smaller films that say, they executive produced and played no other part, once again, it is up to me if I wish to include them and eventually write about them. That will just be the gravy... if I feel the need to have gravy.
For Jonathan Demme, I looked at the films of his that I had yet to see, and broke them into handy categories. For Part 1 (this exact post) and its immediate follow-up (due to length), there were four films from the 1970s I had not seen (only three of which I could find; more on that later); after that, there were another four remaining feature-length narrative films which spanned the years 1998-2015. That will be Part 3. Then came the discovery that Demme had helmed nearly as many feature-length documentaries as he had narratives, but while there were more than a half dozen I had yet to see, I was able to track down only four films that were easy to locate in order to review them for the series. That will create Part 4. Finally, I have watched a few films that were outside of his directorial influence, but that he either wrote or did other work, so that should make a nice round Part 5. And if in the future, I happen to find that missing '70s flick (Fighting Mad) or the other documentaries (Cousin Bobby, etc.) then there may be a clean-up Part 6, but it could be years in the making for that one.
With all of the preliminary explanations and backstory out of the way, we are now ready to begin with the first official entry in the series:
All or Nothing… Jonathan Demme Pt. 1: The '70s Features...
Demme’s first professional credit in a film was as a music coordinator for a British production titled Eyewitness (aka Sudden Terror) in 1970. While still in England, he met Roger Corman, who was filming his Red Baron biopic, Von Richthofen and Brown, in Ireland. Demme ended up working as a publicist for that film. Corman and his brother Gene had recently started up a new production company called New World Pictures, and Demme turned in numerous scripts for the company. Corman had the most incredible knack for fostering talent in his “B” pictures; over the years, his films exposed the world to the early works of Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Allan Arkush, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, John Sayles, Curtis Hanson, Nicolas Roeg, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Kaplan, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, and James Cameron. (I won't even name the actors who cut their teeth on his films.) Demme had met the right man at the right time.
His early screenplays for Corman included a biker/hippie clash done Rashômon-style called Angels Hard As They Come, and a women’s prison picture titled The Hot Box. In 1973, Demme also delivered the story for another women’s prison flick for Eddie Romero at American-International (the Cormans’ old haunt) titled Black Mama, White Mama. During this period, Demme gained some early experience as both a second unit director and as a producer on some of these films and a couple of others. But, with his schooling almost behind him, Demme’s big break arose when Corman had him direct Caged Heat.
Caged Heat (1974) Dir.: Jonathan Demme – In 1974, Corman had Demme write and helm yet another women’s prison picture; the 1970s were rife with these things, and the reason was solely because they made for a solid investment. The films were perfect grindhouse and drive-in fodder for this very simple combination: "Guy" guys love T&A, they love women in some form of bondage or to be used badly or be in danger somehow, and they love lesbians, as long as they are of the lipstick variety, and as long as it is not in real life.
Caged Heat had been one of those titles that I had known about forever, but had always avoided for a few reasons. The first is that I really don’t like watching films that take place in prisons or prison camps, even though I have several personal favorites (Birdman of Alcatraz, A Man Escaped, Down by Law, Cool Hand Luke, Midnight Express, Papillon, Brute Force, Escape from Alcatraz… and The Shawshank Redemption, of course) that take place in such settings. It is just a matter of personal discomfort with what goes on inside them; it really is one of those “there but for the grace of a certain deity" situations.
The second reason is that I had seen other women’s prison flicks and found out that I am just not one of those guys who loves to watch them. Whatever discomfort I feel in the films featuring guys seem to amplify when women are involved. I believe the cause of this is the too frequent extreme violence involving women that surrounds such scenes, which I am apparently fine with if the movie is about a rampaging monster or a slasher killer. (We are all hypocrites in some such way, if not a great many ways. Accept that this be one of mine.) Finally, the third and most important reason: I find the genre so deadly dull.
|No real relation...|
As for the real Caged Heat, it turns out I had never actually seen it before; I had merely tricked myself into believing it. Outside of a few clips in documentaries about Roger Corman or about “B” movies in general, Caged Heat was wholly new to me when I finally watched it recently, even if the film does bear an unsurprising similarity to most other women-in-cages flicks produced during the time period. There were reasons the genre was growing popular with grindhouse crowds, and Demme and Corman largely stick to that formula. The plot is little different from most other WIP pics – a bunch of women who have been thrown in the slammer together experience physical and mental abuse at the hands of their captors, headed by a sadistic warden, and finally (mostly) decide to stop fighting amongst themselves and attempt to escape from their tormentors. Caged Heat has some lesbian overtones (but mostly downplays them in favor of friendship), nude showers, and S/M torture by prison officials sequences so prevalent in the genre throughout its history.
But – and this is likely where Demme’s touch, even early on in his directorial career, comes to the fore – there are some stylistic touches that distinguish it from the competition, albeit slight. Part of this is applicable to the crew behind the scenes on the picture. John Cale of the Velvet Underground contributes a score that begins like we are in for 83 minutes of down-home bluesy harmonica runs and accompanying guitar (which is not credited to Mike Bloomfield, but I have seen him cited as providing it), but suddenly becomes surprisingly daring in its abrupt switches in mood, and even fairly haunting during the film’s darker sequences. Tak Fujimoto, the Emmy-winning cinematographer of the John Adams miniseries on HBO, may be near the start of his own career behind the camera here but he still lends Caged Heat – the first of ten features he would lens for director Demme – at least a far more inventive eye than we often see in these affairs. Fujimoto would progress far beyond this, culminating in his work on The Silence of the Lambs (though sadly unrecognized by the Academy throughout his career - not even nominated once, even in a film that won all of the major awards).
|Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, looking sad...|
I said Smith had the oddest character, but the strangest performance goes to horror vet and longtime scream queen Barbara Steele, in the role of the cruel, fascistic, wheelchair-bound warden. Steele’s character is highly sexually repressed, and if you couldn’t tell it at first from the way her blouse is buttoned up to her neck, her eyeglasses, and the tightly pulled bun in her hair, then maybe this will do the trick for ya: Accidentally turned on by the prisoners while they perform in a skit onstage, she closes her eyes and rubs her hands sensually across the blanket that drapes her legs in her wheelchair. (And she does this sitting in full view of every prisoner in the audience around her.) I understand the drive towards casting Steele in such a role; even as she aged, she remained voluptuous and sensual in her appeal. But I am really not sure what Steele is doing with the part at times. Her line readings and mannerisms seem off-kilter, and while she practically whispers much of her dialogue in most scenes, this is not to say she is underplaying at all. You could say that Steele’s always unearthly looks make it impossible for her to underplay anything, and this film may make the case for that. I love Steele in most cases and in all manner of parts, but she threatens to blow the film apart in almost any scene in which she appears, because the remainder of the cast seem to have gotten their notes on how to play things, but she may have eaten hers. And the scenery with it. Still, I would rather the film had her in it than not, and that may be exactly why she thrived so long on the fringes of the “B”.
As for the plot, Erica Gavin’s character is busted by the cops, ostensibly for drugs but I think it is actually for pairing horrible red knee socks with some truly unforgivable footwear. (They almost look orthopedic in nature.) The early scenes in the film see Gavin thrown into this nightmare world (though she is hardly an innocent) where the prison’s mad doctor (Warren Miller) immediately takes advantage of his position to abuse the new girls during their check-in physicals. Gavin’s character becomes our witness to the usual trappings of a prison flick: prisoners facing off against each other for dominance, shower scenes, and female bonding. (Luckily, Multiple Miggs is not around to flick spent jizz in her hair.) Gavin herself does battle against Juanita Brown (possibly the harshest and least sympathetic of the main actresses, and once more, I do not like her acting either) but eventually, they will come to grudgingly accept each other in pursuit of a unifying factor: escape.
Early on, Collins and Reid (whom I do quite like in the film) perform in a skit during a talent show that upsets the warden (that whole repression thing makes her leave the room in disgust, mainly with her reaction to it). The warden puts the prison on lockdown, and eventually, will go so far as to have Miller’s doctor torture Gavin (and other women) with electroshock therapy. (Eventually, the doctor will formulate a plan to cure Smith’s character of the suicidal thoughts and nightmares that plague her by drilling into her brain for completely illegal corrective surgery.) Gavin and Brown make it outside and seek out help, committing small crimes along the way. The film gets an added charge in the latter half by the inclusion of yet another veteran of ‘70s “B” flicks, Crystin Sinclaire, here playing Crazy Alice, a hooker who is paid to wrestle her johns (in her scant underwear) into submission. (The film almost threatens to go hardcore at that point but never does.) Gavin, Brown and Sinclaire then plot the film’s second escape plan: to rescue the rest of their friends from the clutches of the evil warden and doctor.
Violent, rough, touching at times, even tongue in cheek in a few scenes, Caged Heat is also graced by small character scenes that surely prove Demme was a young filmmaker looking to make his mark in tweaking an already established genre where its most common aspect is being content with feeding low-hanging fruit to the drooling masses. Demme seeks to do a little more, and you can noticeably feel him attempting to make fun of the proceedings almost as much as he embraces them to make his boss happy by reaching the bottom line. Most successful are Roberta Collins and Cheryl Smith; while not necessarily fine actresses, they do acquit themselves admirably, with Smith definitely having the tougher role to pull off convincingly. Where the acting (and casting) fails most for me is the inclusion of Gavin, who remains a cipher throughout and seems to have been hired only for those all-important shower scenes. Yes, she is physically impressive, but making her character the linchpin for building our interest in the life of the prison was probably a misstep. (I think Collins would have been the more natural choice.) From the outset, Gavin’s character is noticeably involved with committing a crime involving drug dealers, and acts illogically throughout the film. It is hard for me to engender any emotions at all for her. (Plus, her shoes really are a goddamned crime.)
Despite the excellence of certain elements and actors, the film never quite shakes its budget or low-rent look. Demme does the best he can with what he was given, but it is still hard believing in a prison, especially one that is as supposedly draconian as this one is, that doesn’t have a standard prison uniform; the girls all wear pretty much what they had on the outside (presumably), and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were what the actresses wore to their auditions (once again, presuming they went to an audition). Likewise, the prison transport truck is simply a moving van. These elements and others (such as the generally poor, hollow sound and lack of lighting) take away from the film as much as the good parts elevate it.
As I have already said, the Women in Prison genre is really not my bag, but Caged Heat is just good enough where I understand how proponents of the genre (which I perceive to be mostly pervy guys who are into naked shower scenes and hot, non-lesbian actresses making out together… not that there’s anything wrong with that) hoist this film up as one of the handful of shining examples of the type. (The Big Bird Cage, The Big Doll House, and Chained Heat are often mentioned as well.) I do enjoy the film in this sense and readily agree with such an assessment, and I think as a time capsule film of where Demme started out as a director in order to contrast it with the remainder of his spectacular career, it is a “must see”. But at most, I can only give Caged Heat a rating of 5/9, which is above much other genre fare but just below calling it a genuinely “good” film. Perhaps with more time, I will come around; perhaps if I had first seen 25 years ago in my early adult years, I would have more regard for it by now. – TC4P Rating: 5/9
Note: Demme’s second directorial feature, Fighting Mad, is proving elusive to find. A 1976 film which has Peter Fonda fighting corrupt land developers (or, more simply, just land developers), it is not available on DVD or anywhere online that I have found. Making things confusing is a 1978 Cirio H. Santiago film also called Fighting Mad, a kung fu revenge flick which I have seen on TCM Underground under the title Death Force. That one is all over the internet and available for purchase, but many places that claim to have the Demme film actually have the Santiago instead. If you notice a legal version pop up, please let me know.
There are two more films to cover in the next part of All or Nothing... Jonathan Demme: Citizen's Band [aka Handle with Care] (1977) and Last Embrace (1980). Stay tuned...