The Subjective Genius: Jonathan Demme (1944 - 2017)

We say goodbye to one of the great humanists cinema has ever been graced with.

“Everyone is trying to get to the bar / The name of the bar, the bar is called Heaven / The band in Heaven, they play my favorite song / Play it one more time / Play it all night long…” – The Talking Heads

If cinema really is an “empathy machine” (to paraphrase Roger Ebert), then Jonathan Demme may have been its greatest operator. Over the course of forty years, Demme curated one of the most varied and fascinating filmographies in history, journeying from low brow exploitation (Caged Heat) to Oscar-winning social justice melodramas (Philadelphia). His body of work reveals an artist obsessed with the human condition, and how each mortal being chooses to interact with their surroundings. When you’re watching a Demme picture, it quickly becomes clear that there are rarely any black & white villains, and when there are defined antagonists, they’re often shaded grey at the center. Like the artist himself, no person can fit into a categorized crate, as tiny fragments of experience are cobbled together to form a mosaic of existence.

Demme hailed from the finest class of American mavericks – those who studied within the Roger Corman B-Movie factory that saw its heyday during the '60s and '70s. Like Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and James Cameron, Demme paid his dues working on drive-in fare; writing biker films like Angels Hard as They Come, before helming Caged Heat, Crazy Mama and Fighting Mad. New World Pictures was a veritable film school, where he honed his chops and graduated to studio comedies such as Citizens Band (a/k/a Handle With Care), Melvin and Howard (where he helped guide Mary Steenburgen to an Academy Award), and Swing Shift (where Demme infamously clashed with stars Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, who had the picture taken away from him). That debacle drove the director back into independent filmmaking, resulting in the concert film masterwork, Stop Making Sense.

There’s a joyousness to Stop Making Sense that hadn’t yet existed in even the best of Demme’s already exemplary exploitation work. Working with Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, Demme’s camera becomes one with the motion occurring in front of it – not just the gyrating rhythms of David Byrne in that oversized suit, but the way the stage grows before both his and our eyes. A metronomic boom box keeps time, and a spartan set slowly fills with the rest of the Talking Heads, as if a dress rehearsal instantly spawned spectacle, allowing you to own that moment, these songs, those moves along with the performers. It’s an intimate magic trick Demme would perform again and again, as he interspersed these instances of captured tracks between features, serving as dream choreographer for the audience while Neil Young crooned in Heart of Gold and Justin Timberlake kicked it with the Tennessee Kids. The barrier between viewer and entertainer collapses completely, as you’re suddenly on stage with these giants, able to reach out and feel the fabric of their lavish threads and take the mic Byrne passes to you. You’re here now. This is happening.

This attention to subjectivity is part of what helped Demme become a transcendent feature filmmaker, as he revolutionized the usage of POV with the genre-defining serial killer opus, Silence of the Lambs. However, where we were sharing a stage with some of the best musicians and entertainers during his concert docs, with Silence the camera is placing us directly in the shoes of madmen and the woman who wants to catch them. Anthony Hopkins’ iconic Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter could’ve easily been another horror movie boogeyman in a lesser artist’s hands, but for Demme he becomes a tragic ally to FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), as the two reach a mutual understanding with one another and we, the audience, get closer to comprehending unknowable madness. For Demme, it made no difference whether Hannibal or Clarice’s quarry, the skin-suited Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), had committed atrocity; they still possessed layers of humanity that the auteur wanted to peel back and examine.

Demme’s humanist microscope wasn’t limited to the fictional characters he helped breathe life into, as he inadvertently turned it onto himself. Following accusations of homophobia regarding his depiction of Levine’s gender-confused murderer, Demme tackled Philadelphia. A real “walk a mile in another’s shoes” proposition, the story of a gay, AIDS-afflicted lawyer (Tom Hanks) in the city of brotherly love and the closed-minded ambulance chaser (Denzel Washington) who handles his wrongful termination suit sought to bring awareness about the disease to America’s Heartland. Some have criticized the picture for focusing too heavily on Denzel’s path to tolerance (not mention its somewhat conspicuous erasure of gay sexuality), but when taken in context with Demme’s career narrative, it resembles an overt act of big screen apologia. Demme denies any sort of grand cinematic gesture, stating in interviews that he was already working on Philadelphia before the protests regarding Silence’s representation opened his eyes to the dearth of positive homosexual roles in Hollywood films. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the two works on his CV is a coincidence too great not to be considered at least a little.

For this writer, Something Wild will always be the defining Demme work. Predating the irreverent comedic romanticism of Married to the Mob, Demme’s candy colored road trip with a milquetoast accounting VP (Jeff Daniels) and his punky grifter fling (Melanie Griffith) is easily one of the best (if not THE best) movies from the '80s. Encapsulating a cultural moment in which the American Dream was at least partially defined by a gaudily decorated corporate ladder climb away from individuality, Daniels and Griffith’s lovers strip away norms as they discover happiness in letting go of their respective visages, even if for a weekend. Writing about Something Wild last February:

“Remember, no matter what, it’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” This is a piece advice given to Charlie by a temporary neighbor at a dilapidated motel. At first, the beguiling statement seems to be nothing more than a sly slice of country wisdom, handed down along with a bottle of stomach-easing Pepto-Bismol. Yet this becomes the defining thesis of Something Wild. Charlie is the lion – regal in stature, and looked upon by colleagues and co-workers as a “real go-getter”, the type of nonsense accomplishment that amounts to nothing more than filler on a resume that will be shredded once you’re covered in your grave. However, with Audrey, he learns to be a dog, completely cool with being a little mangy and dangerous. He’s alive in a way he forgot was possible, thanks to being forced to confront his own lies along with his new partner’s. Because the burden of an identity holds nothing in comparison to finding out your heart can still be handcuffed to a wily outlaw. We should all hope to be dogs instead of lions.

In all honesty, Jonathan Demme was too goddamn brilliant to be properly memorialized by a blog obituary. You could write an entire dissertation on how he could abandon ego entirely and churn out stellar television on Enlightened or The Killing (his final piece of filmed entertainment will be an episode of Shots Fired). Or how he perfectly transmitted Spalding Gray’s Killing Fields recollections to film with Swimming to Cambodia. Or staged one of the most breathtaking marriage ceremonies ever committed to film (or digital, in this case) with the exquisitely melancholy Rachel Getting Married. Instead, I’ll leave you with a simple, fleeting image from his final narrative feature, Ricki and the Flash. A local shit-kicker walks into the California dive Ricki (Meryl Streep) and her band call home. The cover song they’re playing catches his ear, sending him to a stool with a nodding head and bounce to his step. This was the tune Demme was playing – one that could become yours if you let it, allowing you to float on air through the rest of your day thanks to a tiny jolt of great cinematic vibes. He sought to elevate and enlighten, but never acted like he was above anyone. Jonathan Demme was searching for truth with his consummately subjective lens, but didn’t want to horde it away from the light. His cinema was celebrating tiny understandings that even the most baroque or silly situations could teach us, making sure we saw as the camera did, without judgment and with open arms. Godspeed, sir. Your brand of explicit humanism was rare, and will be missed.