4/15/2007 - 4/19/2007. five movies by jonathan demme

john cribbs

In October 2006, Funderburg and Cribbs set out to watch at least 200 movies over the course of the next 200 days. They both watched a different slate of films and wrote about every single one; from epic high art masterpieces such as Jean-Pierre Melvile's Army of Shadows to half-forgotten oddities like I Bury the Living to quality-deficient garbage like Charles Band's Tourist Trap. The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the grueling experiment in cinematic endurance - due to the length of the essays, some of the entries such as Berlin Alexanderplatz and The War Lord will be broken out individually.


     4.15. Melvin and Howard.

At a waterhole in the desert stretch of Stonewell Pass, Nevada we meet Jason Robards as an old man. The movie does a good job of keeping things ambiguous, but we're meant to believe that he could be Howard Hughes, privately rebelling against his reputation as a broken billionaire by jumping dunes on a dirt bike in unbridled ecstasy, reliving some of the old thrill of being in the cockpit. He injures himself and is picked up late at night by Melvin, a blue collar worker who punches in nine to five but has secretly written a Christmas song called "Santa's Souped Up Sleigh" that he sings to his anonymous passenger like it was already a hit single. He scoffs when Robards tells him who he is, lends the old man fifty cents, drops him off in Vegas and picks up his life right where he left off, with wife Mary Steenburgen running out on him and taking his daughter, leaving Melvin alone in the trailer at the mercy of repo men. Melvin and Howard has always been my favorite Jonathan Demme movie, and it's good to see it still holds up. The first time I saw it, I was angry because I had heard the Melvin Dummar-Howard Hughes-will story and wanted to write a screenplay based on it until I learned of this movie's existence. But that ceased to be a problem when I saw the film and realized this is exactly how the story needed to be told, as a charming, eccentric folk song about the elusiveness of the American Dream. Especially considering the recent surge in cynical, mean-spirited movies about the same subject (I'm sick of bringing it up, but it was one of my least favorite movies of last year), Demme's film is a sweet, never sentimental story about the pitfalls of the average joe.

Paul LeMat's Melvin is not overly venerated in the narrative, nor is he treated condescendingly. Like anyone, he has huge flaws and surprising moments of inspiration: he's a nice guy, ambitious but lazy. He's always talking about wanting a fast car, the emblem of American materialism. His problem is that he doesn't appreciate what he's got and, in chasing petty acquisitive dreams, can't hold on to the things he has. Demme dramatizes the events of Melvin's life like a surreal slideshow, in strip clubs where the dancers go on stage wearing casts, on the glitzy "Easy $treet" game show where they reward anything but talent, at the quickie marriage chapel where he and Steenburgen pay for their wedding by serving as "kissing witnesses" for the rest of the day. By the film's end, Melvin's come to a place where he's finally able to get some perceptive on his life, and the declaration "I have been waiting for this moment and the moment is NOW" has become less an impulsive, paradoxical slogan and more a motivating maxim. Demme and screenwriter Bo Goldman had the right idea in not addressing the controversy of the Mormon Will's authenticity (I mean it's got to be fake, right?), instead making the film about Melvin and the people in his life. Mary Steenburgen has never been better, and Pamela Reed is adorable in the movie. Demme has had a varied career since, and it's hard to tell what his major failings are. With many of his films, it's a case of the director forcing his style and interests on the movie, but with something like Silence of the Lambs the problem is a lack of his personality. Neither problem applies at all to this film.


   4.16. Something Wild.

Sitting in a diner wearing her Lulu wig reading a book about Frida Kahlo, Melanie Griffith has been dolled up Demme-style, that is to say she's an assortment of post-punk New Wave arty lower east side hypersexual silent femme fatale and, personality-wise, a combination of all those free-spirited mentalities. She comes on to straight-laced businessman Jeff Daniels with an irresistible aura of mystery and worldliness, prepared to take him away from his grounded life as future junior vice president and family man on a whim of playful experimentation. She drives, steals and fucks like a person who sees the cultured world and its civilized rules as a recreational smorgasboard for nonconformity, and Daniels like the audience is taken in by her maverick lifestyle. The sad and disarming thing is that Griffith's Lulu is only allowed to mischievously exist in the first third of the film, after which she disappears and is replaced by a bashful blonde named Audrey. The screenplay takes a twist that could be seen as either unprecedented or lazy, and it turns out that Griffith had a plan all along in drawing Daniels out of his shell, relegating the groundwork of their previous relationship to harmless (if unconventional) flirting. This move resembles less of a slamming on the brakes than a violent veering into entirely new territory, and sets up a three-act arc in which each act is almost its own film. The movie makes a clunky transition from rebelliously offbeat to conservatively romantic, and it's this middle section that threatens to kill the buzz everything from the couple's initial meeting to their arrival at Griffith's childhood home has brilliantly set up.

Luckily Demme has an ace up his sleeve in the form of Ray Liotta, who revitalizes the movie and takes it to yet another place in one of Hollywood's most virtuoso coup de tats. His Ray Sinclar brings to the film a menace that invigorates the proceedings with the volatility of sudden danger, just as Lulu introduced an attractive allure before transforming into the relatively safe (and victimized) Audrey: the introduction of similar wild cards has been used to great effect from Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet to Timothy Olyphant in The Girl Next Door. The tonal shifts of the film aren't helped by Jeff Daniels' manic slapstick approach and his character is never really convincing or sympathetically put upon, although the final early morning return to his home and confrontation with Ray have a remarkably nightmarish texture. For all its flaws, it's hard to discredit Something Wild's unique quirks and the vibrant sub-reality Demme creates in its best scenes, like the hotel room Hong Kong Handshake, running out on the restaurant tab, the goofy appearances of Johns Sayles and Waters, a rap group Greek chorus and the gas station robbery. There's no denying that it's a rare film that takes risks, but instead of reminding me how boring it is inside the box the "normal" scenes that threaten to weigh down Demme's whimsical madness as arty, sexual and dangerous as Lula first appears seem more like reassuring reminders that it's all in good fun, don't try this at home: a striking contradiction, as arcane as how a former Corman exploitation director could go on to develop a style obsessed with humanism and spiritual freedom.


    4.17. Swimming to Cambodia.

It's impossible now to watch this film and not be effected by Spalding Gray describing his extraction of anxiety in the Indian Ocean, when the calm waters nearly carry him away so realized is his serenity, and not think of how he ultimately would let the waters, those of the Hudson River, take him away. It's hard to think of this beat poet master of the "talking cure" shutting off permanently, especially by his own hand, the same one that reaches for a drink of water only at intervals between long descriptions, clever asides and thoughtful ruminations in his trademark edge-of-existential-meltdown mode colored with optimistic phrases such as "I can still see and walk." Like Stop Making Sense, Cambodia is essentially Demme finding the artist and interpreting performance though the film's construction and it helps that, like the Talking Heads concert, he's capturing it at the artist's peak. In relating his involvement with the shooting of Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (he had a supporting role), Gray digresses into subjects as seemingly diverse as life on the lower east side, Cambodia Year Zero, the evil of Pol Pot, his drug experimentation and relationship with his girlfriend, whorehouses in Bangkok, his obsession with the number 3 (like Tesla), the experience of acting in a big budget movie with whirling helicopters and local extras, cultural displacement, the Cold War, the super Ego, Operation Menu and the sound a banana makes when it hits the wall, all peppered with the occasional witticism.

Gray's talent as a speaker lies in his ability to move from frantic free-styling that sounds like the desperate cries of a man locked inside a burning car to serene reaffirmation of our comfortable lace and time, sitting in a chair listening to him talk rather than being fired at by the Khmer Rouge. His internal crisis becomes synonymous with the external crisis of his characters, so it makes sense that the most intense description in the monologue is his run-in with the angry Naval soldier on the train, which involves an internal and external predicament that he's experiencing firsthand simultaneously. For his part, Demme provides backlit projection, clips from Joffe's film, special lighting and sound effects and a score by Laurie Anderson that's really great if a bit distracting. Without actually providing a visual narrative to Gray's words (except showing scenes from the movie to illustrate how easy it is to forget the amount of production that goes into preparing a shot simply of two guys running to a car), Demme finds the angles and tracking shots to intensify the anxiety, almost to the point of inducing seizures in the audience, but also restores the barren stage to a secure point of tranquil stasis, matching the ebb and flow of Gray's intonations in his search for the "perfect moment."


    4.18. Married to the Mob.

This film made me realize something about Demme, something I'm not sure is heavily attributed to him: he's much more exploratory and experimental with female characters. Considering the heroines of Mob, Swing Shift, Something Wild, Silence of the Lambs, Beloved and The Truth About Charlie (not to mention the effeminate performance of Tom Cruise in Philadelphia) and the interesting supporting women of Handle with Care, Melvin and Howard and The Manchurian Candidate, he seems more willing to go out of boundaries to follow their stories. And when women are largely absent in the movie, he comes up with empty exploitive fare like Fighting Mad (Caged Heat, the female version, is much more interesting.) Although he appears comfortable with real-life male subjects David Byrne, Spalding Gray and Jean Dominique the lead male characters in Demme's films are usually underdeveloped (Swing Shift, Something Wild, Charlie) or exaggerated to camp levels (Silence of the Lambs.) In Married to the Mob, Matthew Modine's undercover fed is a perfect example of the director's apparent disinterest and displays aspects of both, overbaked conceptually and underdeveloped as a character. Going over the top is something that works for Demme's supporting men, especially when they're villains like Liotta's Ray, Ted Levine's Buffalo Bill and Dean Stockwell's highly entertaining Tony "The Tiger" Russo, but Modine's introduction his inflated method of waking up, getting dressed and feeding his cats does not sync with the rest of his bumbling character.

The whole approach by actor and director is severely wrongheaded and distracting, very similar to the Jeff Daniels problem in Something Wild, which leaves us with Michelle Pfeiffer's Mafia housewife. Like the women in Swing Shift and Wild, she's searching for an identity, a "brand new you," that to her means setting out on her own away from the influence and affluence of her tacky, sweatsuit-loving crime family. Pfeiffer's never been a particularly good actress, but a Billy Wilder-style romp is the right place for her brand of emotive overacting, and because Demme obviously cares more about her than Modine there are actually effecting moments of subtle tenderness between the full-on hijinx. Beyond the problems with the lead male, Mob's zany energy is sapped by overlong sequences set in Pfeiffer's New York apartment, one of the most painfully naked soundstage sets of all time. And that same zany energy tends to get pushed a little too far, like the movie is forcing the audience to have as good a time as its actors and crew. That aside, the film isn't without its rewarding moments: the manipulative editing of Alec Baldwin's death scene, Tak Fujimoto's beautifully-lit bedroom spotlight, Stockwell's recognition of Modine at the hotel, and the Burger World hit with Chris Isaak's clown, one of Demme's greatest scenes, plus the usual line-up of great character actors like David Johansen, Trey Wilson and Joe Spinell. The weird credit sequence features alternative takes and shots from deleted scenes, including one in which Pfeiffer appears to break her skull.


    4.19. The Truth About Charlie.

The trouble with The Trouble with Charlie is akin to one of Married to the Mob's major difficulties: Demme and company really force the "fun" and "romance" on their audience. Problem is, the fun and romance is all disastrously one-way. Demme has stated that he made the movie as a vehicle for Thandie Newton, and that much is apparent from the way every character in the movie (including two women) falls in love with her. The director's attempts to bedazzle viewers with the actress and, by proxy, the movie itself is sabotaged by Newton's charm-free heavy handling of the material. Newton is an actress who is naturally stunning, but the instant she tries to register anything beyond effortless grace on her visage it all crumbles away. I demand she vacate her gorgeous body and hand it over to a more talented actress, because I see in her the cinematic beauty that Demme is trying to sell to the world: unfortunately, the acting chops simply aren't there.

A remake of Stanley Donen's already kinda-overrated Charade, Charlie is at its best a dress rehearsal for Demme's Manchurian Candidate, at worst an overlong Bourne movie with badly staged action and awkward comedy. It's a classic case of director on autopilot, and whether he truly did just give up and sabotage the movie as protest against the studio casting of Mark "Remake King" Wahlberg is left ambiguous throughout the commentary track, but at very least it's clear that at some point Demme became totally uninterested in the actual story and turned the film into an impromptu love letter to the French New Wave (though not a stylistic one.) Anna Karina, Agnes Varda and Charles Azanavour, whose surreal appearance singing in Newton's hotel room reminded me of Burt Bacharach turning up in Austin Powers, make appearances, and a clip from Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player also turns up, all forced upon the film in an uncharacteristic act of laziness on the director's part. Demme specializes at integrating his interests into film, not creating a film around his interests, and as a result the abandoned plot stalls perpetually. Wahlberg and Newton continue on with uncalled-for thespian bravado while other members of the neglected international cast stand around looking as if they're waiting to be directed. Only Tim Robbins, a man notoriously entertaining in some pretty awful movies, seems to understand what's going on and takes full advantage of his more-dopey-than-evil villain. This little bit of fun being had is not enough to share with the audience, but Demme persists in treating every scene like a roller coaster ride even when nobody's in line. At the end of the day, he's a brilliant technical director with a loose style that's always threatening to take over, and here he just loses it, though it must have been a sobering experience because his concentrated handling of follow-up remake The Manchurian Candidate is solid, and that movie's kind of great. Very weird (and unintentional, if you believe the commentary) visual reference to his own Silence of the Lambs at the end of the film makes for a great parody of the famous "introducing Hannibal Lector" shot and is the only self-conscious approach that works: sadly, it comes while the credits are already rolling.


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