Subsumed Wildness: Underneath the films of Jonathan Demme

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 12/01/2017

In advance of our screening of Stop Making Sense, we invited our friend and officemate Doug Keller to share his admiration for the late Jonathan Demme, who directed the film. We’ve spent countless hours talking film with him (you’ll understand why after reading his entry), and his unabashed adoration for the medium is infectious.

Stop Making Sense starts with a cassette tape playing minimal drum loops, establishing a hypnotic bassline. When the camera pans up to a steely-eyed, stone-faced David Byrne howling “Psycho Killer” and convulsing like a madman disconnecting, the patient camera clings to his humanity underneath. As the film builds, bringing in the rest of the Heads – first the original foursome and then the new players – it manages to encompass both Byrne’s tightly wound, cracked Everyman and a big loose funk party. In this, the greatest of all concert films, that held tension is among many: between the raw 70s and shimmering 80s; punk abandon and angular polish; the whiteness of the original four Heads and the blackness of their new bandmates; art school pretensions and emotional release; steady bodies and swaying arms; fearful eyes and stiff upper lips; a scrawny body and a giant suit. Jonathan Demme was a master at holding these tensions, both in Stop Making Sense and his work beyond. His movies bring you in close but hold you on the edge, carefully examining slippery surfaces with the understanding that there’s always something true underneath, a subsumed wildness.

Demme’s astonishingly diverse 40-year career encompasses Roger Corman-produced “women-in-prison” exploitation films, documentaries starring Kenny Chesney and Spalding Gray, and Tom Hanks Oscar bait, but my favorite is the 1980s downtown off-beat cool of Stop Making Sense, Something Wild, Married to the Mob, and music videos like his static stunner for New Order, “Perfect Kiss.” In this era, Demme packed his frames to the corners with visual themes being explored in the artsier corners of the Reagan years: kitsch, multi-culturalism, Americana, minimalism, primary colors and bric-a-brac. Like an American Godard, Demme draped these themes over familiar plots and signifiers. What emerged was a soulful vision of our human heart, ever-oscillating between society and the individual.

In an exemplary jam-packed scene in Something Wild, my favorite Demme picture, Jeff Daniels’s Charlie Driggs, a big city square, is in hot pursuit of his lover and her dangerous kidnapper. At a gas station he sheds a recently-bloodied button-down for a “Virginia is for Lovers” convenience store t-shirt. The look, completed by a military ball cap and blue sunglasses with astronaut figurines attached on each side, is certified by the cheerful gas station attendant, who tells Charlie he looks beautiful. The moment isn’t just marked by an appreciation of the inessential objects of roadside Americana, but actually sees the adoption of this convenience store junk as a symbol for Charlie’s transition to his truer self, the wild rebel underneath. As Charlie comes to embrace self-expression, Melanie Griffith’s Lulu already has done so from the beginning of the film, wearing layers of necklaces, earrings, and bracelets from thrift stores and Lower Manhattan punk and African boutiques, driving a convertible with leopard-print seats. In these small details, Demme’s taste for the curious corners of American life are on display. Something Wild, like all of Demme’s films, is expansive, containing meandering moments and taut drama, creating a space where everything, and everyone, truly exists.

Demme’s 90s big studio movies like Philadelphia, Beloved, The Manchurian Candidate, and even the misfire The Truth About Charlie all display this democratic interest in people, their flaws and potential and diversity. They use the famed Demme close-up the same way his wilder early movies do, to illuminate the human underneath a troubled character, and our innate connection with them. In late-career public appearances, Demme spoke proudly of how he was able to zig and zag throughout his filmography. Looking at the big studio films and his quirkier late 70s and 80s work, alongside documentaries like The Agronomist (about a Haitian human rights activist), The Man From Plains (about Jimmy Carter’s book tour for Palestine Peace Not Apartheid), and I’m Carolyn Parker (about a big-hearted resident of New Orleans’s own 9th Ward) a humane vision emerges that exists to the left of mainstream both in culture and politics, and feels particularly relevant in 2017. Even Silence of the Lambs, his most famous film, derives its deepest power from the fact that it’s about, as Jodie Foster has said, a woman saving a woman from a bunch of male monsters. Even under the surface of a serial killer movie, Demme’s political consciousness is reaching out.

After Demme died earlier this year, remembrances centered not just on the quiet activism in his work, but in his life. In this post-Weinstein and #OscarsSoWhite moment, it’s refreshing to revisit these diverse movies and read stories about how Demme’s working style and casting ethics mimicked the big-hearted enthusiasm and inclusive vision within his films (for some sweet examples, check out the featured comments in his NYTimes obituary).

His love for people didn’t blind him to our troubles. He balanced his work on an adaptable tightrope between heavy and light. It’s just that his light bordered on the utopian. In 2008, Demme took the wild spirit of his 80s movies and the intimacy of his documentaries and reinvented himself with Rachel Getting Married. The film is about Anne Hathaway’s Kym, liable to explode into her pain and neuroses at any minute, trying to keep it together for her sister’s wedding. The wedding backdrop is notable for its deeply diverse guest list, the result of the coming together of a black man and a white woman, their families, and the extended community of a couple that met in the dynamic world of music. It is then, perhaps, that Rachel Getting Married is an ultimate exploration of Demme’s career-long interest both in internal tension in character and the embrace of a more inclusive world in mise-en-scène. It creates images that don’t exist elsewhere in cinema.

One such image: a cozy rehearsal dinner celebrating the pending nuptials, a long winding table with people of all ages and races and backgrounds sitting all around, and guests are sharing about the couple. One warm-eyed woman reminds them all that “this is what it’s like in heaven. Just like this.” The power of this moment is offset by the despair the movie is simultaneously exploring, a background of family tragedy that we know will eventually boil over.

All of Demme’s movies found ways to balance the possibility of both heaven and hell. People like Kym and Charlie are tested by anarchy – or in the case of David Byrne, by rhythm – often with the possibility of release, into real, messy ecstasy on the other side. “This ain’t no party / this ain’t no disco / this ain’t no fooling around,” the voices sing, falling just out of unison, and your feet are moving and you’re sweating and doing a weird jittery vibrating stompy thing and it’s not only because the music is barreling forward with urgency; it’s also that the film is bringing you closer and closer to the inside of the music. Much is made of the feeling that watching Stop Making Sense is like watching a Talking Heads show from the audience, but I think the real magic of the film is the feeling that you’re also on stage, cracked but loose, crosseyed and painless. Dancing is in you and you didn’t know until it arises out of your body into movement. It is a letting go of tension. I’ve bobbed my head and bounced my leg to many films, but it’s no wonder a Jonathan Demme film is the only one I’ve ever danced to.

Doug Keller is the co-founder and Executive Director of Big Class (soon to be 826 New Orleans), a nonprofit that aims to cultivate and support the voices of New Orleans’s young writers ages 6-18. In a past life he attended film school in Boston, where as a Sophomore he joined a roommate’s viewing of Stop Making Sense halfway through, and subsequently rented all of Jonathan Demme’s films from the now sadly defunct Mike’s Movies.

Shotgun Cinema presents Stop Making Sense takes place Saturday, December 2 at Court 13 Arts. See our screening page for more information.

Upcoming Screenings