Friday, April 28, 2017

Jonathan Demme | Lefsetz Letter

It’s the unexpected that gets you.

Once upon a time, there was a television movie review show known as “Siskel & Ebert,” or “At The Movies” or something like that, they kept changing it as they moved from PBS to Disney and gained more fame and you might be snickering saying OF COURSE but I was skiing with an educated 42 year old last week and he had no idea who Don Kirshner was so…

There used to be movie reviewers on TV, can you imagine it? They argued about what was up on screen, something no one even bothers to anymore. We analyze grosses, but what’s actually projected is not worth discussion. Hell, if you went to college in the last century one of the enticing departments was film, you started with the French classics and moved your way up through early Warren Beatty stuff like “Mickey One” but now I think people would rather study social networks and prepare for a job than expand their minds and this is all to say that way back when movies meant something different, especially in the seventies, before “Jaws,” before “Star Wars,” when we could all quote that sandwich scene from “Five Easy Pieces” while at the same time noting the film was flawed but Bob Rafelson’s sensibility was genius.

And movies were the national discussion. Not everybody cared about football and baseball was already starting to fade, putting the games on ever later in search of ratings, when you go for the money your image suffers and you ultimately pay a price, never forget it, but there wasn’t a soul who wasn’t interested in the movies. And despite all the hoopla about “Citizen Kane” and “Gone With The Wind” I’ll argue the best film of all time was made in the seventies, “Godfather II,” not that “I” was so shabby, but all of this is to say we were hooked on story, hooked on the experience, and the newspapers didn’t even publish the box office scores, those were for insiders only.

So one Sunday night I’m watching Siskel & Ebert on tape, I watched nothing in real time, burning out multiple VCRs in the process, it was 1986, and they were talking about this movie “Something Wild.” And neither raved, but there was something that was said that intrigued me, so I went to a nearly eleven o’clock show and was wowed.

Now at this time Jonathan Demme was most famous for “Handle With Care,” with Paul LeMat and Candy Clark, which critics raved about but no one had seen. Remember when there used to be critics’ favorites? Now the critics are irrelevant, disrespecting personages doing it for the access and the perks. We used to be addicted to Pauline Kael, she changed the discourse, now not only are critics irrelevant, they’ve mostly been canned, and most work cannot even get noticed, even if championed by those in the know.

I’d seen “Handle With Care” and loved the sweetness, but was not moved, and “Melvin and Howard” never lived up to the hype, and yes, Demme did “Stop Making Sense,” but we always attribute music documentary success to the act, not the director, and we gave credit to David Byrne for the big suit, ultimately followed up by Pee-wee’s big shoes in his “Adventure” movie that broke both Tim Burton and Danny Elfman and the point is those behind the scenes are recognized last, and my motivation to go see “Something Wild” had nothing to do with its director.

And going to the movies was like going on an airplane. Crowded at peak times, empty the rest. You could go and luxuriate alone, get a first class experience for under five bucks. Enjoying the coming attractions when you were still interested in those, not overwhelmed by by movie hype, that was a product of the nineties, when Thursday night television would collapse without studio commercials, and then slid back into your seat to enjoy the main event.

I had no idea where “Something Wild” was going. Now you know the whole flick before you go, even though in most instances you don’t, only a couple of times a year at most. The theatre is for old people, really old, the parents of baby boomers who survive, and the youngsters who need to act badly out of the purview of their parents. We’ve got Jeff Daniels, who was known for the weepie “Terms of Endearment,” which would now be a Lifetime movie, you wouldn’t even be able to sell it to Netflix, and “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” the Woody Allen special effects film. Daniels was a breezy likable, barely three-dimensional guy.

As for Melanie Griffith… I’d seen her debut in “Night Moves” and had been unimpressed, her tour-de-force in “Working Girl” was a few years off, and to be honest I liked her most in API’s “Joyride,” where the children of the famous went off to Alaska in search of trouble. Some of the best pictures were B flicks. Scorsese with “Boxcar Bertha,” and Demme started off there too.

So, when Griffith accosts Daniels outside the restaurant for not paying…

Like Jeff you’ve got no idea what is happening and where this is going.

She’s just messing with him.

We all want a woman to mess with us.

That’s what’s wrong with popular culture, it’s wrong. We hear all about strong men manipulating women when the truth is most men are weak and are manipulated by women. Men are easily led and want to be. Lead a man on an adventure, surprise him, and he’ll be yours for life.

So they end up in a hotel room where Griffith ultimately chains Daniels to the bed and that’s when you realize we’re not in Kansas anymore, that something more sinister is going on, that Griffith is not to be trusted.

That’s right, you can lead us along, but you can push us over the edge. Has happened to me. When physical violence is imposed upon one, when you no longer have any control…

Well, ultimately Daniels does not turn out to be who he seems and the two of them go to Griffith’s hometown, where she’s got the sweetest mother and the baddest ex and all you can do is hold on.

And I’m not talking one of today’s roller coaster rides. I’m talking a book, but it’s a movie, where you’re not sure what is happening but you’re damn sure you want to find out, knowing the conclusion is less important than the ride.

And the bottom line is “Something Wild” is flawed. It’s two movies in one, light and heavy, but that does not mean when I exited the theatre my jaw had not dropped. I’d tell you I wanted to tell everybody about it but that would be wrong. What I really wanted to do, like in “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” was to climb into the screen and meet these people, hang out in this movie, belong.

That’s what our art used to be.

Now the music is to dance in the club. Who’d want to sit in with thirty writers and Swedes as they painstakingly construct this crap?

And the movies literally don’t star people, but superheroes.

And let’s be clear, TV is good, but that old experience of sitting in the vast theatre in the dark, that’s gone.

But we were all addicted, and we needed people to feed our habit, like Jonathan Demme.

He waxed and he waned, he won and he lost. “Married to the Mob” did not live up to the hype, turned out Michelle Pfeiffer was beautiful, but could not carry a movie.

But “Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia” were huge successes, deservedly so, but straightforward filmmaking that could have been executed decades before by someone else. All about story, and tension and…

The last Demme flick I loved was “Rachel Getting Married,” which stiffed, when did we decide that gross determined quality? Featuring Anne Hathaway this was not a star-driven film so much as an explication of the horrors of being a member of a family, where there’s always one outsider/disrupter, who illuminates the fact that you’re all related but you have so much trouble getting along, that you’re born into this inferno that might consume you if you don’t escape.

Should you see it?

Depends what you’re looking for. They tell us no one is looking for truth, even though we live it every day, that we all want escape. But what we’re really looking for is identification. Like Jeff Daniels in “Something Wild,” lying about who he really is but willing to do the right thing when pressed.

And of course there was the documentary work, like Spalding Gray’s “Swimming To Cambodia,” could a guy like Spaldeen even exist today? We’ve got liars like Mike Daisey looking to become famous, but Gray was a neurotic iconoclast who developed his own format and got noticed for it, back when that type intrigued us, back before everybody was self-promoting 24/7.
Which is all to say that Jonathan Demme was a product of a different era. When movies were king. When being a studio head was more important than running a bank. When culture oozed out of Hollywood and we were all addicted.

And Demme never took cheap shots, he always tried to test the limits, no matter what he was doing.

But he was not a party of one but a member of a legion, who believed what what was up on screen could not only change our lives, but society.

And the great thing about being an artist is when done right the work lives on, ready to infect others along the way.

But then there are people like me, who can tell you exactly where I saw “Something Wild” on a weekday night and how it changed my sensibility and my life.

That’s what art is all about.

Jonathan Demme was an artist.


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