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R.I.P. Jonathan Demme
A director who enhanced my perception of what a film can be.

I learned of Jonathan Demme’s death yesterday through a text from my best friend Webb.  It read, “Damn, Jonathan Demme! We’ve reached that terrible age when all of our heroes are dying.” Webb lives in the same area as Demme and had met him a few times at various film events. He’d seen him in the park just two weeks ago and thought about going up to reintroduce himself, but not wanting to intrude on what seemed to be a private moment—Demme was standing at the edge of the playground, watching the children he was with—Webb decided to wait until next time to say hello.  When I got his text I happened to be having lunch with our mutual friend and mentor (and hero) Roy Frumkes, who at seventy-three is the same age as Demme. Thankfully, Roy is still in excellent health, but reading the text while sitting across from him drove home Webb’s point all the more. Demme may not have been a universally known and beloved icon like so many of the stars we lost the previous year—David Bowie, Prince, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds (the 2016 list is painfully long)—but to film lovers born in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Demme’s career tracks our own cinematic development. 

The first Jonathan Demme movie I saw was Swimming to Cambodia (1987), Spalding Gray’s fascinating, dryly amusing monologue about his experiences acting in Roland Joffé’s drama The Killing Fields (1984), which is about Cambodia under the bloody Khmer Rouge regime. Swimming to Cambodia expanded my sixteen year-old mind to the scope of what a film could be. While this movie is a record of a theatrical presentation done in front of a live audience, it was different from any of the concert films, stand-up specials, live HBO events, or other televised or videotaped stage productions I’d ever seen. This was not a film of a performance; this was a “performance film.” For one thing it looked like a film. I’m not sure if it was shot in 16mm or 35mm, but it had the distinctive look of 1980s film stock. Secondly, Demme made the camera and the editing a vital part of the storytelling. He used shots and cuts that would feel jarring or intrusive in a traditional record of a live show, but here these choices integrated the cinematic experience with the theatrical performance. Most importantly, I had a subconscious sense that the director was shaping the story along with the author. This sensation never felt invasive, just like I was in good hands and ready to have my mind opened.

At the time I didn’t know anything about Grey or Demme—nor editor Carol Littleton and cinematographer John Bailey, nor Pol Pot and Cambodia in the 1970s—so I watched this movie countless times on VHS tying to understand it better. When I soon began to see Demme’s narrative features, I continued watching Swimming to Cambodia as well as Stop Making Sense, his mesmerizing 1984 performance film of the new wave rock band Talking Heads, and finding the fascinating parallels and similarities in these diverse movies.

Equally at home working in studio pictures and independent features; documentaries and performance films; comedies, dramas and thrillers; adaptations, remakes, and strikingly original screenplays, Demme was a chameleon-like filmmaker who nevertheless made movies that all felt unified by a distinctive sensibility and directorial vision. His Oscar winning mega-hit The Silence of the Lambs, based on Thomas Harris’s bestseller, was released in 1991 when I was still in film school studying with the aforementioned Roy Frumkes. That year, Roy screened another Harris adaptation for our class, Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) as a way of getting us to think about the auteur theory of film criticism. His claim was that pictures directed by Mann were unmistakably the work of the same artist—they had common stylistic and narrative elements, which could be viewed as a cohesive whole. In contrast, after rattling off a list of Jonathan Demme’s output to date, Roy asked if there was anything stylistically discernable that united Demme’s oeuvre. I cheekily, if inarticulately, responded that all Demme’s films were really good and ultimately isn’t that the only thing that matters about a movie or a body of work? 

Of course there are many discernable things about Demme’s stylist approach to directing. Most notable is his use of Subjective Camera, which he and his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, developed over the course of many features. The films of Demme’s most prolific and acclaimed period are all distinguished by their unusual use of Subjective Camera. This technique (showing exactly what a specific character sees at a certain moment) was best utilized by the studio master Alfred Hitchcock and the maverick independent Samuel Fuller to draw viewers into a character’s visual point of view and emotional mindset for brief, heightened moments. Demme boldly tried to tell as much as possible through Subjective Camera—not just major moments, but the entire story. In close-ups, his actors often look directly into the camera—not to address the audience but to act with it as if it is their scene partner. This method presents a difficult challenge that some actors can pull off better then others. The approach doesn’t always suit the material. I would argue the Subjective Camera actually distances viewers from the characters in Demme’s comedy Married to the Mob (1988) and his social drama Philadelphia (1993).

But it is this very technique that makes The Silence of the Lambs so arresting and effective. The movie centers on the intense conversations and equivocal connection between the novice FBI agent, Clarice Starling, and the brilliant but psychotic serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter.  Starling needs Lecter’s help to catch an active serial killer and save a kidnapped girl. The imprisoned Lecter will only help her if she lets him into her head, allowing him to seduce her intellectually, psychoanalyze her for his own pleasure, and assess if she is worthy of his assistance. The iconic scenes between Starling (Jodie Foster) and Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) still resonate today as some of the most memorable exchanges in film history. There are numerous factors that account for this—the skill of the two actors, both at the height of their powers, the vivid conception of the characters and situation created by Harris, and the excellent screenplay adaptation by Ted Tally. But Demme and Fujimoto’s by then perfected use of Subjective Camera is every bit as critical.

It is Hopkin’s piercing eyes staring directly at us as he questions Foster that make Lecter so scary. It is Foster’s refusal to break eye contact with him (us) that shows us her strength and resolve. Yet it is also this subjective POV that enables the viewer to see the vulnerability and fear Clarice Starling tries so desperately to conceal. We see Starling as Lecter sees her and we see Lecter as Starling sees him. This gives us a critical additional layer of insight into the characters beyond simply listening to what they say to each other and observing how they interact. Demme and Fujimoto shoot these close-ups with the narrowest depth of field possible, causing everything in the frame except the eyes to fall soft. This focal range not only gives us the perspective of the characters, it heightens the sense of being trapped in someone’s gaze. Demme’s approach to shooting this scene created incredible challenges for his two leads. In addition to blocking and other movement needing to be exact to the centimeter in order to maintain focus, it meant their most intimate and intense exchanges had to be delivered without the benefit of being able to look each other. Both actors had to employ exquisite, technical craft to make these scenes work and they were richly rewarded for their efforts. 

Demme ended up abandoning the Subjective Camera, as well as most other elements of classical cinema, later in his career when his documentary methods began to bleed into his approach to narrative. His excellent film Rachel Getting Married (2008) fully embraces the unblocked, unrehearsed, pseudo-naturalism that came into fashion in the late ‘90s and was championed by the directors of the DOGMA 95 movement. But there is still something powerfully subjective about Rachel Getting Married. Rather than placing us directly in the shoes of the main character Kym Buchman (Anne Hathaway) when she is released from a drug rehab to attend the wedding of her sister, we feel like guests at the party, awkwardly witnessing the proceedings from an uncomfortably intimate vantage point.

The ability to make audiences feel like part of the proceedings rather than just passive observers is also what makes Demme’s performance films so special. I’m not alone in thinking that the greatest concert movie ever made is Stop Making Sense (1984). Many factors account for the artistic success of this picture. The Talking Heads formed at art school and each member had unique artistic vision beyond their skills as musicians. Front man David Byrne designed the stage show, sets and lighting as a conceptual, almost cinematic experience. It was the first concert film made entirely using digital audio techniques that enabled, amongst other things, a freedom in mixing and intermingle recordings from multiple nights. Most critical is Demme’s approach to filming the show, which was the opposite of the quick-cut style popularized by MTV and the music videos of the era. Demme and editor Lisa Day hold cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s shots of the band for long stretches so we are able to see what each member is doing. This lingering in no way inhibits our visceral experience of the concert because the music is so powerful to begin with, and Byrne’s staging is so unorthodox and imaginative.

There are moments in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 concert film The Last Waltz, in which we really do feel like members of The Band. We get to see them in close-ups making eye contact with each other when they’re not entirely sure where a specific song or soloist is going to go.  Stop Making Sense never gets that intimate, but it also requires no previous knowledge of the band in order to enjoy the movie to its fullest.  You can come to this picture with no idea who the Talking Heads are and you will still be intrigued, moved, and entertained. Demme also never leaves the stage to talk to the band members (as Scorsese does to minimal effect) or the audience. In fact the audience is barely seen in Stop Making Sense. The film viewer is the audience, just as The Talking Heads are different characters in different songs – rather than the collection of personalities that make up a group.

The resourceful, innovative, and enlightened way Demme used music—especially rock and roll and its Caribbean Rock/Reggae/Salsa hybrids—is another vital aspect that unifies this director’s work. Whether music is the subject in films like Stop Making Sense, Storefront Hitchcock, and Neil Young: Heart of Gold; or a powerful tool to drive the narrative forward, like the dominant orchestral score by Howard Shore in The Silence of the Lambs; or an atmospheric layer that sets the tone and establishes the milieu in which a story takes place, as in Rachel Getting Married and Ricky and the Flash, the ways songs, scores, and singers function enhances every Demme picture.

In my view, Demme’s first great narrative feature, Something Wild (1986) provides the best showcase of how music can color and inform a movie without actually taking it over—as is often the case in films by Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and countless other contemporary directors. There are 49 songs featured in Something Wild. Most are not immediately recognizable, or at least the versions used are not the ones we’re familiar with. These songs transform the rather ordinary locations in which the movie takes place, into unusual, unsettling, sexy, scary, and unfamiliar settings. The songs help maintain the edge that makes the film so alive. I once showed Something Wild to my good friend Raj, as I knew he’d appreciate it on multiple levels. Of the song that underscores the movie’s opening credits (“Loco de Amor” by Talking Heads front man David Byrne), Raj observed, “that’s the type of song that should get an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, but never does.” Indeed, I can think of few opening songs that establish the tone and mood for a film as well as this one.

As I mentioned at the top, Demme’s career tracks development of my love for cinema and that of many of my friends. His ‘80s movies opened our eyes to the infinite possibilities of what a film could be. He reached the height of his success in the early ‘90s when I was studying film and was most excited about its future.  Like many great contemporary directors, he got his start working for Roger Corman in ultra-low budget exploitation pictures—the kind my contemporaries and I now celebrate through 35mm preservation, collection, and revival screenings. And, while he continued to make his own work until his death, Demme was also a champion of the generation of filmmakers coming up after him. I often lament the loss of 35mm and the degradation of mainstream Hollywood output into an endless stream of franchises, sequels, and adaptations of pre-existing properties. But when I see amazing work being done by new filmmakers with digital equipment, I often think about Demme, his low-budget innovations, and the way he revolutionized the language of cinema in his own modest, yet profound ways.

An apt example of how his influence affected my cinematic mindset occurred while screening the New York set romantic heist comedy GIMME THE LOOT (2012). Watching this little digital début feature I found myself transported back to the great small-scale films of my youth. As the movie ended, I thought that the director used music, ordinary locations, and low-budget versions of classic cinematic techniques in much the same way Demme did thirty years prior. It made me like the picture even more than I already had. I then discovered that Demme was an Executive Producer on the movie. Of course, he would be championing sharp creative filmmakers like this one. That’s a vital part of his legacy too.  He will be missed.