Crossing the Line: Jonathan Demme, 1944 – 2017

I only met Jonathan Demme once, on March 14, 1992.

The place was a ballroom at the United Nations. The occasion was the annual DGA Awards dinner, held that year concurrently in New York and Los Angeles. Demme was the only one of the five nominees in New York that night, and he won. How could he not? He was up for The Silence of the Lambs. In his humble acceptance speech, he observed that he was “the 44th white male to receive this award, which I have confused feelings about.” When I spoke to him afterwards, he was equally humble, gracious and encouraging.

I had recently studied his films in college, at Wesleyan University. In courses filled with movies from the likes of Hitchcock, Lang, Wilder and Minnelli, Jonathan Demme was the first modern, still-working moviemaker whose work was ever taught to me in a classroom setting. As a result, I realized that even movies being made “today” could be works of art, and it brought home the point that the classics I was seeing, loving and learning about had also once simply been popular commercial releases. They were all art and entertainment, craft and commerce.

When I heard about Demme’s death yesterday, I first thought of that night in New York, and then I realized that the last Demme film I had seen was Rachel Getting Married—a 2008 release! How was this possible? A check on his credits revealed almost 20 projects since then: features, documentaries, pilots, shorts and videos, with subjects ranging from a Hurricane Katrina survivor, a biologist and an Ibsen adaptation with Wallace Shawn, to (of course) plenty of music docs. Shame on me for not keeping up with his work more closely, I thought, but also—how beautiful that this artist and craftsman maintained his utter fascination with seemingly everything under the sun right up to the end, and never stopped going out and putting that fascination up on the screen, in whatever medium and format.

That sense of fascination leapt off the screen in the first Demme film I ever saw, Something Wild. It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I remember the color, the music, the off-kilter, dreamlike plot where anything can happen, and Melanie Griffith’s free-spirited performance. It’s like she was let loose to play and experiment in a manner only possible if the performer knows there is an intelligent, steadying hand at the helm—someone encouraging her to run riot but who won’t let her look foolish when it’s finally on the screen. The same effervescence inhabited Married to the Mob, Melvin and Howard and Citizen’s Band (a.k.a. Handle With Care)—the other films that were shown to me in film classes. Somehow, all these titles are today underappreciated, not screened enough, not as known as they should be.

They also prove how wide-ranging and diverse Demme’s interests were right from the get-go. Yet if there’s one steady element running through his career, it’s music. His consistent sense of how to present pop music cinematically, how to integrate songs into the movie such that they impact the images as much as the images impact the songs, is a profound talent perhaps rivaled only by Martin Scorsese. (Both artists also share an exquisite taste in music, both popular and obscure.) Something Wild and Married to the Mob brim with fantastic, unexpected tracks of pop, reggae, rock, soul, funk and more, and would not be movies without them. Stop Making Sense has always been my favorite concert film, not just because Talking Heads were my favorite band when I was growing up but because Demme’s quirky sensibility seemed so perfectly in tune with David Byrne’s. Moreover, Stop Making Sense wasn’t simply a “concert film”—it was storytelling. As David Byrne himself wrote in a heartfelt remembrance yesterday:

“Jonathan’s skill was to see the show almost as a theatrical ensemble piece, in which the characters and their quirks would be introduced to the audience, and you’d get to know the band as people, each with their distinct personalities. They became your friends, in a sense. I was too focused on the music, the staging and the lighting to see how important his focus on character was—it made the movie something different and special.”

Another Demme film that has become too forgotten is his brilliant Swimming to Cambodia. It stunned me when I saw it in 1987. Here was a film that for 99 percent of its 87 minutes showed a man sitting at a table, talking into the camera. On the table: a glass of water, a microphone, a notebook and a pointer used to indicate areas on a map on the wall. The man was Spalding Gray, and his monologue was a brilliant recounting of his work on The Killing Fields, his encounter with a sex-crazed navy officer in an Amtrak lounge car, his experiences with weed, Bangkok prostitutes and massage parlors, and his lifelong search for “the perfect moment.” Gray was fascinating, but Demme made him even more so in intensely cinematic terms, thanks to clever lighting, angles that serve as visual punctuation to the words, unpredictable editing and smart use of Laurie Anderson’s score. Those tools all underscore the emotions and shifting tones of the story and drive it forward, a story that otherwise only exists in Gray’s words.

Then there’s The Silence of the Lambs. It was a shock to see it when it came out because it was so different from Demme’s previous pictures. But of course it really wasn’t. Demme’s quirky humor had just shifted to adapt to new, grotesque proceedings. Hannibal Lecter is certainly one of the scariest human monsters ever put on screen, but he’s also funny. It’s part of his charm. Which in turn is one of the things that makes him so scary. The bottom line is that The Silence of the Lambs works brilliantly not just for its cinematic prowess (Demme completely fools the audience towards the end simply by playing with our knowledge and understanding of how establishing shots are “supposed” to work), but also because Demme focuses on characters above all else. Lecter and Clarice are fascinated by one another, and their desire to “look deep” into the other drives our own fascination with them. Once again, Demme’s own fascination with people rests front and center, and his craftsmanship enables him to translate that interest into sublime cinematic terms.

What did Demme do after Silence, a major Hollywood film that swept the Oscars and minted a mountain of money? A little documentary, Cousin Bobby. It was about Demme’s own cousin, a Harlem priest. Could there be a more unlikely follow-up to a Hollywood juggernaut? Demme didn’t care. Neither did I, when I saw it. It was a complete charmer and as compelling as anything else Demme ever made.

In fact, I want to see Cousin Bobby again now. But first, I need to get cracking on all that recent work I so carelessly missed. MM

Jeremy Arnold, a former contributor to MovieMaker, is the author of Turner Classic Movies’ The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter (2016).

Jonathan Demme at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, photographed by Sam Aronov / courtesy of Shutterstock.

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