It was with much sadness that I fielded a friend's text last Wednesday alerting me that one of my favorite '80s/'90s directors, Jonathan Demme, had passed away. Unlike Bill Paxton's recent demise, I didn't learn of this one via Twitter since I've been taking a much needed vacay from that onerous site. From now on, I think I prefer receiving all my director/actor death notices this way. Rather than scrolling through a series of bland insta-tribute tweets from movie clickbait sites ("Silence of the Lambs Director Dies At 73," etc.), I received a simple message: "R.I.P. Demme." 'Nuff said. I knew who the man was. I knew what his work meant to me. I knew what I had to do. I had to finish out the parts of his filmography I'd been meaning to get to ASAP.
This past weekend, I found myself in good company: three late '70s Demme pictures I'd never seen and three '80s Demme flicks that were already among my favorite films of all time. I was also in the company of a very bellicose feline (cat-sitting duties, don'tcha know). But that's a different post for a different obsolete website (Is CatshiersDeCinema.com taken?). Here's how I mourned the late, great Johnny D...
FIGHTING MAD (1976)
The last of Demme's Roger Corman School of Run-and-Gun Filmmaking efforts and, regrettably, the least. This one lacks the W-I-P sass of his directorial debut Caged Heat and the rag-tag rambunctiousness of his Corman/Cloris Leachman follow-up Crazy Mama. I'm guessing, for Demme, shooting movies in twelve days with a budget of two dollars in change was starting to grow a little tiresome by this point. It also could've been the script, a boilerplate "we gotta save the farm from encroaching land developers" melodrama with a slight vigilante twist. Peter Fonda plays the angry farmer's son with a grudge and a crossbow instead of the usual shotgun or Walking Tall baseball bat. He's got the "mad" part down, but there's very little "fighting" until the last ten minutes. When the avenging finally does come, it's not exactly with Rambo's mercenary finesse . The big problem here may be the general lack of women-folk in the cast. Demme tends to shine most brightly when his lens is trained on resourceful, whip smart females. A young Scott Glenn does show up briefly as Fonda's brother though. And that's good for somethin'.
CITIZENS BAND aka HANDLE WITH CARE (1977)
You know how all your single urban-dwelling friends (such as myself) complain about online dating? Well, transplant that same frustration to late '70s Texas and replace the Internetz with CB radio, and you've got a recipe for a spirited romp about the complexities of romantic love delivered via short wave signal. Potential suitors don't have clever usernames here; they have goofier "handles." Everybody is cattin' around with everybody else over the airwaves, sometimes atop air mattresses. Demme stalwart Paul Le Mat plays Spider, a CB repairman who lives with his elderly alcoholic father. He's had enough of the heavy breathers, the religious crackpots, the neo-Nazis and neighborhood kids exploiting the emergency channels with their frivolous transmissions. He decides to make it his one-man quest to "clean up the band." Little does he know his ex-fiancee Electra (Candy Clark) has just struck up a late-night CB chat affair with his older brother Blood (Bruce McGill).
It's all a fun down-home slice of Americana pie, but the best part is the Charles Napier love triangle. Napier's "Chrome Angel" is a long haul trucker who's been keeping multiple wives with multiple families on the DL in different parts of the state. When his wives get wise to his tricks and a new martial arrangement is put on the table for negotiation, this little CB radio movie from the late '70s almost seems in lock-step with the endlessly perplexing sapiosexual/heteroflexible OKCupid/Tinder digital dating age. If you're in the mood for something a little more old-fashioned, well then check out this Radio Shack Charles Napier commercial from 1977.
LAST EMBRACE (1979)
Demme riffs on Hitchcock to middling results. Roy Scheider plays a government spook who grows all sorts of paranoid after this wife is killed on an assignment in El Paso. He spends a scene or two in a sanitarium, grieves for a solid ten minutes of screen time before meeting the comely grad student Ellie (Janet Margolin) who sublet his NYC apartment while he was away. It doesn't take long before he's receiving odd Biblical death threats written in Hebrew and being tailed around the city by fellow agent Charles Napier (of course!). There's a fun chase/shootout with Napier and Scheider in a church bell tower, then a whole bunch of hokum about decades-old white slavery/prostitution rings which Scheider's grandfather was head of and Ellie's grandmother was victim to. Now Ellie wants revenge. Or something like that. The script by David Shaber is pretty preposterous. Imagine Marathon Man with less running, no invasive dentistry and half a brain. Demme does his best to milk suspense out of a few tourist trap locations. Niagara Falls looks majestic, but it's no Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest. For top-shelf Maid of the Mist intrigue, I'll stick to Superman II.
MELVIN AND HOWARD (1980)
I first saw this Demme comedy classic WAY back in the early HBO days before I knew who Howard Hughes was, much less what a director did. The opening scenes with Jason Robards' Hughes motorcycling manically in the desert and, later, being a cantankerous grump when Paul Le Mat's genial Melvin rescues him stuck with me over the years. Watching it again this weekend, I was struck by just how much Paul Thomas Anderson source material there is in Melvin and Howard. The desert motorcycle scenes in The Master. The game show mania in Magnolia. Punch Drunk Love's off-kilter romantic vibe. Fast dollies into faces. A sleazy Robert Ridgely. A ghostly Jason Robards. I knew PTA was heavily influenced by Demme, I just didn't realize how much. This is essential viewing for any Demme retrospective (or PTA retro for that matter), Silenced Lambs be damned. He takes the gentle American slice of life approach he adopted in Citizens Band and perfects it with an assist from a great Bo Goldman script.
STOP MAKING SENSE (1984)
I'm a Heads fan till the end, and I've seen their Demme-directed concert film a number of times. It may be my favorite concert film ever (sorry, Marty, I've only seen The Last Waltz once). I'd planned on just putting it on in the background while I did exercises (yes, film geeks exercise!). Don't you know it, I got so engrossed I skimped on the sit-ups and ended up watching large portions of SMS instead. The way I see it, young David Byrne did all the exercising for me. Dude really knows how to run laps around a stage and dance the tango with lighting fixtures. This movie has more energy than most action movies, and Demme's egalitarian lens gives the side musicians as much loving attention as The Man in The Big White Suit. Three days later, I'm still humming: "Heaven...heaven is a place...where nothing really happens..."
SOMETHING WILD (1986)
Not to harp on Silence of the Lambs again (which is a bona fide classic serial killer thriller indeed), but, for me, the apex of Jonathan Demme's long and illustrious career will always be Something Wild. This movie blew me away when I first saw it on VHS. I really didn't know what I was getting into when I wrenched that bulky black tape from the mammoth cardboard Erol's Video clamshell and kerchunked it into the deck. What starts out as meet-cute '80s rom-com quickly turns into an '70s crime film then a late '60s road movie then an old Hollywood style thriller before turning really dark and becoming a home invasion horror movie at the end. Something Wild hopscotches more genres than a meth addict flipping late-night satellite channels. It's got more Roger Corman DNA on it than a Motel 6 mattress!
Somehow, Demme manages to juggle all these wildly varying tones like an expert movie magician. The eclectic soundtrack is a mid-80s revelation (David Byrne, UB40, Oingo Boingo, Steve Jones, New Order, The Feelies, Sister Carol). Jeff Daniels is the best he's ever been. Melanie Griffith is the best she's ever been (yes, I had a mad kid-crush on her funky boho femme fatale Lulu...of course). And let's not forget that Something Wild is the movie that first gave us Ray Liotta and landed him the lead in Goodfellas. This is the movie responsible for all of my ill-advised late '80s dine-and-dashes from local Friendly's and Shoney's eating establishments. This is the movie that made me want to move to the East Village back in the day. This, in my humble opinion, is Jonathan Demme's best film and how I will always choose to remember him. In Lulu/Audrey's words, he, like Charlie Driggs, was one of Hollywood's great "closet rebels."