In appreciation of Jonathan Demme, the calculated artist
Director Jonathan Demme, 73, has died of cancer and complications from heart disease. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
The 1984 Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense, directed by the American filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who died Wednesday morning at 73 from esophageal cancer and complications resulting from heart disease, notably distinguishes itself from other rock movies in one, obvious way: we never see the crowd until the film’s very end.
In doing this, Demme ditched one of the cheapest tricks of concert movies, which tend to serve up plenty of swooping, panoramic shots of ravenous, smiling, singing, fist-pumping crowds, as a way of providing a point of identification, something to latch on to. But instead of encouraging viewers to identify with the audience, Demme did something radically different. He asked them to identity with the band itself, feeding off the anxious, herky-jerky energy of the Talking Heads, and especially frontman David Byrne. The experience is immediate and almost unmediated. It’s a cliché of concert movies, but nevertheless: watching Stop Making Sense, you feel like you’re there. It’s as if the band, and Demme himself, are playing directly to the audience.
As a writer, producer, director, and stage-manager of highish-brow Hollywood spectacle, Demme knew his audiences and precisely how to work them – and work them up. His Academy Award-winning 1993 drama, Philadelphia, a major studio confrontation with HIV/AIDS and homophobia in America, was critiqued by some at the time for being too soft, for cutting out more intimate scenes between two male lovers (Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas) and targeting the film, as it was put at the time, “to the malls.” But that was precisely Demme’s point. As he told Rolling Stone magazine around the time of Philadelphia’s release, “We wanted to reach people who don’t know people with AIDS, who look down on people with AIDS … We were calculated about it. We calculated what audience we aspired to.”
This word – “calculation” – may sound awfully cynical. But it speaks to the kind of filmmaker Demme was. He wanted people to see his films. What good was a message-movie if it was directed at people who already agreed with the message? Yet it’s not as if Demme was just slinging watered-down pablum to broad, mass audiences. He was challenging them, and he was doing so without totally alienating them. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine even Hollywood’s most legendary showmen (Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis) managing to make a pulpy novel about a shrewd, diabolically clever cannibal serial killer, 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, into a huge Hollywood hit.
Like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, John Sayles, Peter Bogdanovich, Monte Hellman, and many others of the “film brat” generation’s greatest talents, Demme was a protege of exploitation-cinema legend Roger Corman. At Corman’s New World Pictures, Demme worked on motorcycle movies (Angels As Hard as they Come), women-in-prison pictures (Black Mama White Mama, Caged Heat), and hard-nailed actioners (the Peter Fonda thriller Fighting Mad). Corman himself would pop up in cameos in a number of Demme’s later films.
A run of films in the 1980s, from 1980’s Melvin and Howard through to Stop Making Sense, Something Wild (1986) and Married to the Mob (1988), would see Demme developing a distinct directorial style and working through a consistent set of preoccupations: the commingling of film genres (Something Wild set the stage for the pop violence of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez), a fascination with the ruddy bric-a-brac of everyday Americana (Formica-top diners, blindingly lit-up Reno strip clubs, bucolic countryside churches, shopping cart-clogged supermarket aisles), and a winking acknowledgment of the film-making process itself.
Stop Making Sense opens on an unadorned stage that is gradually filled in as the concert proceeds. Something Wild’s climatic fight scene between Jeff Daniels and Ray Liotta is shot with plenty of direct eye-line closeups which, again, draw the viewer directly into the violence. The success of these funny, offbeat, pleasantly quirky features would lead Demme to bigger projects, including his award-winning adaptation of Thomas Harris’s 1988 novel Silence of the Lambs.
While Silence was a mainstream commercial and critical success, it retained a number of Demme’s hallmarks: those uncomfortable close-ups, the almost fetishistic use of pop music. (See: the killer Buffalo Bill twirling around to Q Lazzarus’s minor new wave number Goodbye Horses in front of his vanity mirror). The film, and in particular the characterization of Ted Levine’s psychotic transsexual murderer, drew plenty of criticism from feminist and LGBTQ groups for its unblinking depictions of female bodies in physical distress and its suggestion that trans people are mentally disturbed. Where many filmmakers might shrug off such critiques (especially when the film in question pretty much sweeps the Academy Awards), Demme took them seriously, with the outcry leading him directly to Philadelphia. “I got woke up,” he told the New York Times in 1993. “I came to realize that, in fact, there is a tremendous absence of positive gay characters in movies.”
Subsequent films, such as 1998’s Beloved (based on Toni Morrison’s novel), the 2000 Truffaut homage The Truth About Charlie and his 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, never quite reached the critical and commercial heights of Silence of the Lambs or Philadelphia. Later features such as Rachel Getting Married and Ricki and the Flash saw him returning to the smaller-scale, offbeat human dramas of his 1980s work, with pleasant, mostly agreeable, entertaining results. But it was in his later career that Demme committed more fully to what had been an obvious passion: music. Just last year, he released Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, a lavish Las Vegas concert spectacle. Between 2006 and 2011, Demme helmed a triptych of Neil Young documentaries.
In 2011, I was fortunate to catch one of the mesmerizing, unforgettable concerts recorded for the film Neil Young Journeys. Before the concert began, Demme stepped on stage at Toronto’s Massey Hall before a packed crowd. As he emerged, many began hooting and hollering, mistaking the shadowy figure stalking across the stage for Young himself. Demme quickly calmed the crowd, explained that he’d be filming the show for a concert film, politely asking that nobody yell out requests, or otherwise disturb the sparse, carefully constructed minimalist set-up he had envisioned. Shockingly, instead of more hoots, hollers, or jeers from a rowdy rock crowd eager to see a stone-cold legend, the house applauded and, more or less, complied.
Jonathan Demme, as ever, held the audience in the palm of his hand.