' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Jonathan Demme

Friday, April 28, 2017

In Memoriam: Jonathan Demme


Jonathan Demme, who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 73 from complications with cancer, debuted with “Caged Heat” (1974), made under the umbrella of Roger Corman, and was a movie that I probably never would have seen had it not been for someone I worked with long ago at a movie theater who knew about movies liked “Caged Heat” and showed it to me. It is, I reckon, a movie readymade for declarations of It Is What Is except that it’s not what it is at all, it’s something else, an exploitation movie in which Demme exploited the movie itself by usurping the necessarily crude foundation with a liberal bent. Seeing it flashed me back to “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), Demme’s multi-Oscar winner, which is still sort of astounding, a movie that in someone else’s hands probably would have been dumped in late August and with parts, frankly, that still feel late August-y even as Demme wrangled something melancholy and moving from the plight of FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and generated serious tension with serious craft from her tete-a-tetes with Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).

That Demme managed to inject so much fresh air in such scuzzy pictures foreshadowed an entire career, one where he could ably slide into just about any genre, perhaps making it difficult to pinpoint A Demme Film in that same way you can pinpoint, say, A Tarantino Film, unless, of course, you decided to deem A Demme Film as being simply humanist. Though “Rachel Getting Married”, this blog’s favorite movie of 2008, turned on the re-appearance of Kym (Anne Hathaway) for her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding, Demme never let Kym’s oft-self-centered, monstrous behavior turn you off, inviting you in anyway by balancing that thread reminiscent of so many real life families where frustration and forgiveness go hand-in-hand. Indeed, the film’s most ravishing moment was the wedding ceremony itself, running longer than most filmmakers would dare, a multi-cultural celebration that decidedly did not cure all Kym’s woes, not in the least, nor solve the rest of her family’s problems, but still found, as if it was the dance in “Grapes of Wrath” for a hipster nation, peace in the moment.


It was a movie, as Demme himself said, that drew more from his documentarian side and it shows, with a constantly roving camera and a narrative more than willing to get off track and go take a look at something else for a little bit. It was also infused with music, from Tunde Adebimpe’s showstopping acapella Neil Young cover in the name of love to dee jay Anita Sarko (who passed away in 2015) in one breathless shot reaching for the sky as she drops the beat, which was no coincidence because Demme was quite taken with music, making concert films and directing music videos. He concocted the celebrated Talking Heads doc “Stop Making Sense” (1984) and he helmed a video for New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss”, ten minutes of bliss, rendered predominantly in barebones close-ups, as if we are privy to the song’s concoction, before Demme goes a little wider for the frenzied conclusion, tagging it with band members looking right into camera, as if they saying “that’s how it’s done.” You’re telling me.

The beginning of “Philadelphia” (1993) set to Bruce Springsteen’s spiritual-sounding “Streets of Philadelphia” is no commonplace scene-setter but an evocative delineation of stakes – this is Philly, birthplace of America, this is us, all of this is all of us. And even if what followed, a stuffy courtroom drama which was, unfortunately, one of the genres that Demme could not quite rise above, that opening still packs as much of a wallop in today’s world. Maybe the preeminent moment of the considerable Demme musical canon, however, is the Jeff Daniels/Melanie Griffith high school reunion boogie, of sorts, to The Feelies in “Something Wild” (1986). It’s the crux of the film, really, before it takes turn toward the dark, in the form of wild-eyed Ray Liotta sidling in as the dance winds down, and everything that comes after is still tied back to the go for it attitude of this interlude. It is the extraneous made essential


Maybe no Demme film sounds as extraneous as “Married to the Mob”, the 1988 rom com in which mafia wife Angela de Marco (Michelle Pfeiffer) is forced to go it alone when her connected spouse is offed, a seemingly broad screwball comedy with big names and big costumes and big hair that doesn’t so much overcome all that as gleefully embrace it and then tunnel down to extract genuine character anyway, reveling equally in absurdity and real emotion to amplify how those two truly, and more often than not, go hand-in-hand.

I only saw “Married to the Mob” for the first time four years ago and it blindsided me, reminding me what a deft filmmaker Jonathan Demme was and how no movie, no matter what or who it was about, seemed beneath him because even though his movies where so often sheer pleasure they were never merely pointless escapism; they were life.

3 comments:

Paul S said...

A fitting tribute. Very well written!

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you! I appreciate it. Wish it didn't have to be written...

Alex Withrow said...

Great work. I forgot how much you liked Rachel Getting Married. That one really changed me. It gave me perspective on things, which I will forever appreciate. I will also love much of Demme's work, but I think Rachel Getting Married will remain my favorite.