I Found It At the Movies: 1980—Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme)


Inspired by Dave Hicks’ excellent blog, I have decided to write about my favorite film for each year from 1926-2008.

1980: Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme)

Heart. One of my cinephile buddies in Los Angeles often uses this word when he likes a film. He’ll say: “I really liked it. It had a lot of heart.” When we first started going to movies together, I really wasn’t sure what to make of this. Heart? I’m a damn formalist; who cares about heart?

But, slowly, I’ve come around. I think part of it is that I’ve started to realize how few humanists actually work in the medium. In the past, we had Renoir, De Sica, (arguably) Rossellini and (arguably) John Ford. Now we have Kiarostami, Kiarostami and… Kiarostami. That’s an exaggeration, but there honestly aren’t many. Yet I would have to put Jonathan Demme in the small group of humanists that do exist. Although I also really love Something Wild, I would have to say that Melvin and Howard is Demme’s most humanist film.

Like much of Demme’s work, this one is a little messy and rough around the edges. It also has that special zing of energy that characterizes much of his work from this period. Demme has always been too casual, and probably a little too inconsistent, to be mentioned among the greats. But when he’s on, he’s as good as anyone. God, does he make me feel for Melvin Dummar here!

This one does have a lot of heart. A tremendous amount of it, in fact. And coming out of one of the darkest periods of American film, it seems a most apt way to begin the next decade.

What moviemakers can learn: Often the moviemakers we consider the masters are those who exhibit the most control over every frame. However, control can also make movies feel more manufactured than alive. Watch Melvin and Howard and Something Wild to see examples of “vital moviemaking.”

Other contenders for 1980: I still have some titles to see from this year, including Mike Leigh’s Grown-ups and Alain Resnais’ Mon oncle d’Amérique. I need to revisit Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, as it’s one I’ve struggled with a little in the past. From this year, I really like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo and John Cassavetes’ Gloria. I love Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, William Friedkin’s Cruising, Maurice Pialat’s Loulou, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. And my closest runner-up is Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One.

After living in Los Angeles for seven years, Jeffrey Goodman returned to his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana to direct The Last Lullaby. Co-written by the creator of Road to Perdition, and starring Tom Sizemore and Sasha Alexander, The Last Lullaby was filmed entirely in and around Shreveport and financed by 48 local investors. Goodman is now at work raising money for his next feature, Peril.

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