“Three things in human life are important,” Henry James is said to have advised. “The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” The work of filmmaker Jonathan Demme — who passed away on April 26 after a bout with cancer — exuded just that sort of boundless empathy, an enthusiasm for kindness that should be evident to anyone who attends BAM Rose Cinemas’ wide-ranging tribute series, “Jonathan Demme: Heart of Gold,” beginning this Friday.
Most viewers know Demme for his controversial Academy Award-winning serial-killer thriller, The Silence of the Lambs (1991; August 12), along with its humanitarian-to-a-fault follow-up, Philadelphia (1993; August 6 and 16), the first Hollywood feature to deal directly with AIDS. Lambs remains an unerringly strange and stunning object. How this tale of green, coded-queer female FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who squares off with courtly cannibal Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), trans murderer Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb (Ted Levine), and a bevy of condescending patriarchal authority figures, won over both audiences and the Oscars is anyone’s guess. Perhaps there was just enough old-school trash horror for the masses and impeccable artistry for the West Coast elites to make the subversive elements palatable. Note the way Demme and frequent cinematographer Tak Fujimoto use their stare-into-the-lens subjective camerawork to complicate our sympathies for characters most other movies would make into clear-cut angels and devils.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, is something of a compromise. As Andrew Beckett, a lawyer seemingly fired by his firm for concealing his AIDS diagnosis, Tom Hanks goes shamelessly, Oscar-baitingly angelic. (His Maria Callas-scored confessional scene still kicks, though.) The more interesting character is Denzel Washington’s Joe Miller, a homophobic ambulance chaser who takes up Beckett’s civil suit and in the process learns to be a better man. The casting of one of the most prominent African-American actors in a role originally written (by gay screenwriter Ron Nyswaner) for Bill Murray or Robin Williams adds a subtle yet stimulating complexity to a film that’s ultimately concerned with more than one kind of injustice.
Demme honed both his crowd-pleasing and socially conscious instincts during a 1970s apprenticeship with independent producer extraordinaire Roger Corman. The Corman formula, as Demme described it in a 1994 interview, was for a picture to “have action, nudity, humor — and a little bit of social statement, preferably from a liberal perspective.” All three Corman-produced/Demme-directed features — the women-in-prison quickie Caged Heat (1974; August 15); the freewheeling farce Crazy Mama, produced by Julie Corman, Roger’s wife (1975; August 16); and the environmental revenger Fighting Mad (1976; August 15) — have their pleasures and provocations. But only Crazy Mama, a 1950s period piece in which down-on-her-luck Cloris Leachman leads a motley crew (among them brash Old Hollywood performer Ann Sothern and Happy Days’ Ralph Malph, Donny Most) on a bank-robbing tour of the American heartland, achieves true greatness. Imagine one of Robert Altman’s multi-character panoramas, but with an optimistic as opposed to a misanthropic edge.
The Corman films lay the groundwork for much of what followed in Demme’s career, particularly the sorely underseen CB radio satire Citizen’s Band (1977; August 6), where even a hate-spewing neo-Nazi proves redeemable, and the alternately sweet and skittish character study Melvin and Howard (1980; August 5 and 13), in which a ne’er-do-well Midwesterner (Paul Le Mat) shares an eventful nighttime ride with a disheveled man (Jason Robards) who claims to be the billionaire Howard Hughes. Both are shambling, quintessentially American burlesques that cast a compassionate, clear-eyed gaze on the Land of Opportunity. This is the vein Demme would mine throughout the Eighties, the gold standard reached with Something Wild (1986; August 4). This masterful comic thriller begins as a manic-pixie-dreamgirl fantasy, with Jeff Daniels’s yuppie nerd picked up by free-spirited, Louise Brooks-bobbed Melanie Griffith, then morphs, with the arrival of psycho ex-boyfriend Ray Liotta, into a sobering pay-the-piper referendum on the varying excesses of the Reagan era.
The party line is that Demme lost something after Silence of the Lambs (for which he took home a Best Director Oscar), morphing himself into a prestige filmmaker whose idiosyncratic character was dulled. Yet that’s to ignore something as achingly heartfelt as Beloved (1998; August 14) — a confrontational, uncompromising adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel about the literal ghost of slavery, starring a tremendous Oprah Winfrey — as well as the gleefully anarchic Franco-cinema valentine The Truth About Charlie (2002; August 9). In this feminized remake of the Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant vehicle Charade (1963), an effervescent Thandie Newton and a hilariously out-of-his-depth Mark Wahlberg — another of Demme’s lovestruck male goofballs, like Daniels in Something Wild or Matthew Modine’s Michelle Pfeiffer-smitten G-man in the splashy gangster film send-up Married to the Mob (1988; August 5) — succumb to the multicultural pleasures of modern-day Paris. It’s a place where danger, fine dining, and Agnès Varda lurk around every corner, while Charles Aznavour himself might provide an impromptu hotel room serenade.
There are also whole other strains of Demme’s oeuvre to explore, chief among them his so-called “performance films.” Demme effectively invented this genre after his 1984 WWII period piece, Swing Shift, was taken away from the director by antsy studio heads and a shots-calling Goldie Hawn. (Swing Shift screens August 11 in its bastardized version; the director’s superior workprint cut is available, shall we say, only via unofficial channels.) To relieve his distress, Demme turned his sights on art-punk rockers Talking Heads. The result was Stop Making Sense (1984; August 18-24), a concert doc that treats the onstage performances, led by the big-suited David Byrne, as their own blissful cinematic spectacles. Demme would apply the lessons learned here to everything from his four rapturous Neil Young concert films — Heart of Gold (2006; August 20), which the retrospective is named after, and Trunk Show (2009; August 20) are the can’t-misses — to quirkier concoctions like his recordings of a politically charged Spalding Gray monologue (1987’s Swimming to Cambodia; August 17) and a sublimely stream-of-consciousness Robyn Hitchcock recital (1998’s Storefront Hitchcock; August 19).
One of the great treasures of the retro, however, is a Music Videos Program (August 21) that surveys Demme’s eclectic work with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to niche New Jersey rockers the Feelies (who cameo as a high school reunion band in Something Wild). The jewel here is undoubtedly the eleven-minute video for New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss,” in which the camera (overseen by Henri Alekan, cinematographer of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 romantic fantasy Beauty and the Beast) mostly isolates each member of the group in lively, luscious close-ups while the song builds in electropop intensity. It leaves you, like so many of Demme’s films, with a euphoric, people-loving high.
Jonathan Demme: Heart of Gold
BAM Rose Cinemas, August 4-24