Art by John Stephen Dwyer
Will Schube has stopped making sense.
We all have our favorite Jonathan Demme movie, we all have our favorite Jonathan Demme moment. Whether it’s Something Wild and the gas station scene—Jeff Daniels changing out of his bloody business clothes into a “Virginia Is For Lovers” t-shirt, looking for new sunglasses but convinced otherwise by the gas attendant who tells him he looks beautiful—or Melvin & Howard’s opening scene, a motorcycle intro PTA owes The Master’s iconic climax too, Demme’s films are little ecosystems from which moments both intimate and cosmic sprout. These moments linger with piercing intensity, not for their cinematic qualities, but their human ones. And this uniquely people-centric vision is more crucial now than ever before. With Demme’s death, we lose that.
Every time we lose an icon—Bowie, Prince, the list goes on—we tell ourselves we’ll do better. We’ll praise our heroes while they’re alive because we’re reminded time and again that when they die it’s too late. The posthumous blog posts aren’t enough. So what am I doing writing this now? Not only after Demme’s death but a week after it. Practically a year in blog time. Simply put, I’m writing this because Demme deserves (and deserved) to be written about. It’s fun to remember and conjure up the feelings that made me fall in love with his work the first time around. Demme is an artist so pure in intention and execution that a deep and true devotion to humanity is naturally elicited from the viewer. That’s just how his movies work.
With the human project at one of its lowest points to date, we could really use Demme’s films as a guiding light. The technical innovations are impressive, but the humanistic underpinnings scattered throughout his entire oeuvre offer valuable lessons in simple decency.
Paul Thomas Anderson was once asked to name the three directors most impactful on his work. His answer was simple: “Jonathan Demme. Jonathan Demme. Jonathan Demme.” The empathy and sympathy we so often attribute to Boogie Nights, Magnolia—practically all PTA films? That doesn’t happen without Demme. The deep appreciation of music as an active part of those same films? That’s all Demme, too. He gets the goddamn Feelies to play the prom band in Something Wild! It’s phenomenal.
It starts at the beginning with Caged Heat and Crazy Mama, Last Embrace and Melvin & Howard. Then Demme really caught a groove. Something Wild came in ‘86 and remains remarkably fresh for a movie almost entirely reliant on the playful whimsy of folksy Americana kitsch. Something Wild shouldn’t work. The characters are black and white. Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith: good, yet flawed. Ray Liotta: bad. But when Ray Liotta gets stabbed during the film’s last moments, and he stares—heartbroken—directly into the camera, his shirt impossibly red, we feel bad for the sociopath, the guy we’re supposed to hate. Demme could never help but to show the absolute best in all of his characters. And that red! Find me a bloodier red, I dare you. I’ve had many a bloody accident. Never has it looked as real as it does oozing from Liotta’s chest pressed against his white shirt.
Shortly before Something Wild Demme directed a few episodes of Saturday Night Live. Beside the point everybody’s used SNL to illustrate—that Demme’s filmography is insanely varied—I’m more fascinated by one of the episodes in particular, in which Harry Dean Stanton played host and The Replacements performed. This bizarre cultural moment framed perfectly by Demme, a director just about entering his prime if he hadn’t entered it already. I would pay every dollar I ever make for my entire life to have been backstage for that show. An aside: Keep in mind that for every film Demme made, there were various TV shows, TV movies, documentaries, shorts, and music videos scattered about. He directed 61 projects in 43 years. More than anything, Demme just loved to make films. If that’s not the most inspiring thing about him, I don’t know what is.
After Something Wild, Demme made an odd film—this is 1987—titled Swimming in Cambodia, which is essentially a Spalding Gray monologue about his time working on the movie The Killing Fields. It does a really nice job of interspersing aspects of the original film into Gray’s monologue, and there’s a strong argument to be made that Swimming, along with Errol Morris’ work and maybe a film like William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (along with tons more I’m casually passing over)—which came a whole twenty years before Swimming to Cambodia—paved a way for the prevalent trend in modern docs, i.e. the blending of fiction and fact to create a sort of capital-T Truth far more interesting than talking head monologues could ever produce. Swimming also serves as the starting point for one of Steven Soderbergh’s early narrative experiments, Gray’s Anatomy, it too a Spalding Gray monologue.
Jump ahead to 1991 and we get Demme’s masterpiece, and easily one of the great films ever made. Silence of the Lambs isn’t just a movie, it’s an institution that had and still has reverberating effects on the culture. Silence has so many unbelievable moments, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I’ll never be able to look at lotion again. Or baskets. Or hoses. Or small dogs for that matter. The children of government officials, too. It’s quite unfathomable that Buffalo Bill isn’t even the scariest villain in this film. There’s a freaking living human being at the bottom of a pit in this dude’s house and he calmly applies makeup while playing Q Lazzarus. Fun fact: There’s a ferociously awkward foot rub scene in Married to the Mob—the film Demme made before Silence of the Lambs—that also features “Goodbye Horses.” It takes some bravery to pull a do-over with the same song two films in a row, and improve upon the original usage by 100,000%. But back to the Silence scene. Bill’s just mumbling to himself, putting on eyeliner while Demme occasionally cuts back to Catherine Martin down in the bottom of the pit. The scene itself is remarkable, but with Demme, the perfection lies in the details. The way he muffles “Goodbye Horses” when he cuts to the pit, the song an active agent in the scene’s increasing tension. Buffalo Bill—how great is it that his name is Jame Gumb?? There’s a spelling error on his birth certificate!—is getting himself made up to this sultry ‘80s jam, meanwhile Catherine is summoning the powers of her little dog to rescue her. We get cross-cuts of desperation and nipple rings. Demme treats Buffalo Bill’s entire body like a face, the extreme close-ups piercing into jewelry, tattoos, and lips. When Bill turns his camcorder on, he seems possessed, horrifying in his performance, legs crossed to conceal his privates like a locker room prank. Silence of the Lambs is such a perfect movie, such a masterclass in filmmaking. Every scene is a workshop in and of itself.
From there Demme made Philadelphia and Beloved before entering his late era period with The Manchurian Candidate and Rachel Getting Married among others. His filmography is so expansive and so varied that I’ve gone this entire time without mentioning Stop Making Sense. This being a music website and all, a few words are probably a good idea. And where to start with this film? Demme made it as a huge fan. That much is clear. From both interviews he gave about the film and the way the film plays, it’s a devotion to the power of music and also probably to David Byrne’s suit.
There’s the boombox that begins as Byrne’s backing band. The backup singers. On and on and on. But perhaps my favorite part of the film is the way it serves as a proof of concept for Demme’s entire body of work. It’s a violent collision of music and film in a way that elevates both to previously unreached highs. It’s a showcase of collaboration, between artists and artistic mediums. Film and music aren’t separate entities after all, they’re different roots of the same tree. No one shows this better than Demme. It’s all over his work, in every scene of every movie he ever touched (every filmmaker he inspired, too). He made movies starring musicians, movies for musicians, and movies about musicians. Which brings me to a somewhat logical conclusion, the wedding scene in Rachel Getting Married.
Tunde Adebimpe, the frontman of TV On The Radio—perhaps my favorite band—playing Sidney, singing wedding vows to the Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) getting married. He begins, quietly breaking into Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend.” The sunglasses are goofy, excessive, and perfect, only rivaled by the lei around Adebimpe’s neck. Then come the words: “She used to work in a diner/Never saw a woman look finer,” the camera handheld, almost woozy from capturing such pitch-perfect beauty. The wedding guests are crying and it’s difficult to imagine much acting was necessary to conjure these tears. The song is perfect. It’s a Demme movie in and of itself.
The story: a small town girl, a Harley Davidson, a life of eventual parenthood, nostalgia, dreaming, and the way we never quite become the people we want. But there’s a deep love and a deep respect in the song, and that’s what Demme extracts from it. It’s about her love and beauty and simplicity and the way unfulfilled dreams can lead to dressing two kids—something equally worthwhile. It’s impossible to know whether this reading is Demme’s doing or Young’s. Regardless, it’s the perfect encapsulation of Demme as an artist and more importantly, a person. Strive to find the good in people and they’ll do the same for you. Demme did, and that’s what made each of his movies equally and unendingly important. In writing this, I’ve been reminded of his power and grace—the strength of his work—all over again. That’s why it’s important to celebrate the work you love while the ones making it are still alive. It’s not for them, it’s for us. Jonathan Demme was, above all, for us.