a tribute to

Last week, our long-time professional acquaintance Jonathan Demme passed away. Not only was he one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, he was a genuinely good person who seemed to be adored by everyone he came into contact with (a quality even rarer than filmmaking genius.)

In The New Yorker magazine, Terrence Rafferty wrote of him, "Of the major American directors, he's the least erratic, the most consistently good company, because he has interests rather than obsessions" - Demme joins a lineage of auteurs like Jean Renoir & Louis Malle defined not by their stylstic grip or devotion to a genre, but by their warm humanism; filmmakers whose deep compassion and boundless curosity on the subject of humanity were their essential characteristics.

All week long we'll be paying tribute to Demme by remembering some of our favorite scenes, characters and moments from his body of work.

{the DEMME TRIBUTE index}

Clarice rides the elevator.

jonathan demme, 1991.

~ by eric pfriender ~

In a film filled with macabre imagery, Demme’s greatest contribution in shaping The Silence of the Lambs might well be his decision to use the film to reveal the horrors faced by young women entering the workforce. Yes, Clarice is manipulated by one serial killer, sexually assaulted by another, and is stalked through a basement filled with moths and decomposing bodies by a third, but her true antagonist is the non-homicidal members of the opposite gender. She is hit on at every turn, ignored by men who should be following her orders, treated with kid gloves around sensitive situations, and is told that she was brought onto an assignment because she is a “pretty young thing” rather than the (over)qualified young woman she is. Just to make sure we get the point, she literally has semen flung at her while walking past Multiple Miggs’ cell.

At no point is she seen as simply an FBI trainee, she is always a sexual object first, a professional second. Even her relationship with Jack Crawford, ostensibly one of the good guys who treats her with the respect she deserves, is complicated by some level of sexual tension, resolved at the film’s end with a pointed and deliberate handshake. She’s got to do twice as much work as the men around her: saving the girl and killing the bad guy while fighting off unwanted sexual advances from everyone she encounters. It would almost be funny if the film weren't so relentlessly grim.

A less sensitive director might have missed the subtext completely, and a less skilled one might have overplayed it. Luckily, the film was directed by the late, great, and already much-missed Jonathan Demme, so what we get is pitch-perfect. The film is filled with Demme’s signature close-up shots of two characters in conversation, each filling the frame while looking nearly directly into the lens. The shots dare you to empathize with each character, putting the audience in the position of the character listening to the other. Here, they also allow the audience to feel the weight of the male gaze. When Chilton asks Clarice out for a night on the town in Baltimore, he is also asking us, and Christ Almighty it is gross. There’s also a beautifully filmed moment when Clarice is left alone in a roomful of State Troopers, all men, and the camera just pans around them, all staring directly at her (us) that’s as discomforting as anything in the film.

Demme announces his motif early in the film, just after the opening credit sequence. Clarice has been pulled off the Quantico training course to meet with Jack Crawford. On her way to his office, she steps into an elevator to find herself surrounded by men nearly twice her size. The camera doesn’t linger or make a big deal, the doors close almost before we realize what we are looking at: a woman alone in a boxful of men, shrugging it off on her way up. Its the story of the entire film in a single, wordless image. There are a lot of things we will miss about Jonathan Demme, but his ability to empathize, to really put himself in a character’s shoes and imagine what they are feeling then translate that to the audience in imagery is something the world needs more of, not less. Because in our post-factual era of knee-jerk reactions, Facebook thought bubbles, and pussy-grabbing statesmen, empathy is in dangerously short supply.

~ MAY 3, 2017 ~