The versatile American writer/director, Jonathan Demme, passed away today from cancer at 73. Thankfully, his soft spoken and gentle demeanor are forever etched in each of his works. The rain outside seems only to color further the grayness of today.
Beginning in such humble surroundings with Roger Corman’s low budget studio efforts, Demme rose to prominence in the eighties starting with the critical darling “Melvin & Howard” , a small film with a big heart. His sensitive direction and eye for composition soon caught the eyes of Hollywood and the music industry. Demme’s career ranged from comedies, dramas, documentaries, television, music videos, with never seeming to repeat himself in style or content. The one consistent theme throughout his work could be the abundant enthusiasm for his subjects.
The eighties saw such a wealth of screen work in films such as “Swing Shift” , “Stop Making Sense” , “Something Wild” , “Swimming To Cambodia” , “Married To The Mob” . Each of these films displayed a talent for mixing stylistic choices into different mediums that were currently stagnant in repetition and riddled with cliches. “Something Wild” is a film I consider one of Demme’s very best work and incorporates all his themes and ideas into a richly funny, yet very dangerous story.
Then in February 1991, Demme released his most influential hit, “The Silence Of The Lambs”, which the following year won big at the Academy Awards. The film is miraculous in that he never really wanted to approach the material because of a distaste for violence on screen that has no intrinsic value except for sheer excitement. When assured that he could tackle the themes of Thomas Harris’ original novel in his own way, Demme ended up producing a work both shocking and thought provoking which audiences immediately recognized as something different. One can see Demme’s influence such as tightly focusing on the character Clarice Starling’s face amidst the horror surrounding her in many scenes. There are far more hints of violence, than actual visual depictions of it. Watch how the camera seems to chase Starling from behind in the woods sequence at the beginning, only to discover she is actually on a training exercise with the FBI. The position of Starling as the outsider in situations, making her appearance small in stature and hemmed in by the walls of Dr. Lecter’s holding cell or surrounded by those tall local policeman at the funeral home.
One cinematic masterstroke (and evidence of Demme’s dislike of violence) comes by way of the climatic ending with Buffalo Bill and Starling. When all seems lost in the dark for Starling, she turns and shoots at the hunted serial killer, striking him in the chest several times. When all other filmmakers would show the “hero” in their moment of triumph over adversity, Demme chooses instead to focus on the repercussions of such a violent act with Buffalo Bill lying on the floor bloodied and wheezing the last few breaths of his fading life. We never see Starling’s heroic face in relief, we only see the aftermath of violence in all its ugliness. This is a master filmmaker completely in tune with his materials and his personal vision.
After the huge success of “The Silence Of The Lambs”, the turn toward more serious films consumed his career. “Philadelphia”  focused on the current AIDS crisis and another Academy Award winner. “Beloved”  was a strange and wonderful ghost story during the aftermath of Deep South slavery. “The Manchurian Candidate”  was a worthy revisionist take on the Frankenheimer classic. Two other films were molded on the comedy genre, most notably “Rachel Getting Married”  is a joy of a film and most overlooked. Within these years Demme worked on documentaries with Neil Young, President Jimmy Carter, and also directed some superb television work. Before his death today, he was in preproduction for another film. Working right up to the end.
Jonathan Demme was (is) an American original. To watch one of his films is to see a compassion for human frailties, mistakes, and a yearning for something greater. Melvin’s need for meaning, Starling’s need for acceptance, Drigg’s need for excitement, Beckett’s need for understanding. All of these characters have real basic human flaws, which Demme loved and cherished. The term sensitive direction does a disservice to Demme’s films. He was an artist able to channel his own ideas of how the world works in a variety of adjectives too numerous to list. It is sad to think we will no longer be treated to a new Jonathan Demme film. No longer will we see his smiling face and enthusiastic passion shining a light on what makes us human. Goodnight, Mr. Demme and thank you for sharing with us.
[Jonathan Demme 1944-2017]
“Everything I’ve made – it doesn’t mean they’ve all been good – but everything I’ve made so far, big or little, fiction or documentary, has been something that I’ve been really enthusiastic about.”