by Ashley Naftule
Jonathan Demme died today, at the age of 73, from complications from heart disease and esophageal cancer.
An Academy Award-winning career, Demme has had a long career as a filmmaker. Starting off in the Roger Corman grindhouse factory, he went on to direct gritty thrillers, prestige movies, music videos, concert films, documentaries, TV shows, and many other projects. The man’s body of work is incredibly diverse — his films vary so wildly in terms of style and content that it can be hard to pigeonhole him or define his identity as an auteur.
Considering just how much he’s done over the years, I wanted to focus on a trio of his films to see what commonalities they have and how they embody Demme’s best qualities as a filmmaker. Plus: all 3 films represent high water marks for their respective genres, and if you haven’t seen them yet, you are fucking up royally (as the kids would say).
Silence Of The Lambs (1984)
Let’s not kid ourselves: there was no way this film wouldn’t be at the top of any Demme-related list. This is the man’s legacy, a film that has been endlessly quoted and parodied and remade and riffed on. And it’s a film that still holds up as a cold, tightly paced thriller when you strip away all the cultural baggage that’s been piled on top of it.
In this film, you can see Demme putting together the tools that David Fincher would learn to master years later. Silence Of The Lambs is a master class in restraint, cold style, and procedural thrills. Compare it to all the other Hannibal projects that have arisen since its release: they all double down on Grand Guignol bloodbaths, histrionic scenery chewing, and Nine Inch Nails music video imagery (with the exception of the operatic Hannibal TV show, a show so gleefully over the top and artfully constructed that it almost tops Demme’s film as the best Thomas Harris adaptation ever).
Demme’s film is almost drab, compared to other Harris adaptations. There’s no glamor in the life or workplace of Clarice Starling. For a film that basically created the trope of FBI agents as heroes, Demme doesn’t make the job look any sexier than working for the DMV. And while most other films and properties would cram the good doctor down our throat, consider how sparingly Demme uses Hannibal Lecter- America’s sweetheart cannibal barely gets 20 minutes of screentime in the movie (and yet it feels like he’s in the WHOLE THING, doesn’t he?).
Silence Of The Lambs is a film that luxuriates in small, humanizing moments. The way Buffalo Bill sizes himself up in the mirror and dances to “Goodbye Horses”, the brief moment when Starling and Lecter’s fingers touch, Catherine rocking out to Tom Petty’s “American Girl” in her car in the moments leading up to her abduction. It’s a film that, while dealing with lurid subject matter, shows a lot of empathy. It isn’t a film that wants us to root for Buffalo Bill or take a vicarious thrill from watching people get killed. We want to see Catherine live through this, we want Clarice to take Bill down. The lives depicted onscreen aren’t just ciphers begging to be killed in brutally inventive ways.
In Silence, we see the hallmarks of what made Demme such an accomplished filmmaker: the man was a master at exercising restraint. We see only what we need to see onscreen; he doesn’t try to bowl us over with fancy camera tricks, effects, or dazzling editing techniques. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – it’s just refreshing to see someone who eschews style for style’s sake and tell a story in the most accomplished and straightforward way possible. He strikes a mood, sets up the stakes for the story, and lets it unfurl without feeling the need to pump the gas pedal.
Stop Making Sense (1987)
The best concert film of all time. If Demme had just filmed this Talking Heads show and done nothing else, his name would still be etched in marble after he died. The only film that’s come close to it, in terms of capturing the sheer magnetism and power of a live performer at their peak, is the concert sequences in Purple Rain.
What makes Stop Making Sense such an engrossing film is how it uses its pacing and structure to both create tension and illustrate the history of the band itself. Starting off with just David Byrne onstage, the film adds more and more band members onstage, slowly building up the ensemble from their skeletal CBGB’s trio to a quartet with Jerry Harrison until the entire extended Speaking In Tongues ensemble is assembled onstage. As the band grows in numbers, so does the eagerness of the viewer, knowing that the band is reaching the critical mass needed to unleash their world-conquering classics from Remain In Light and Speaking In Tongues.
The film also introduces Byrne’s iconic Big Suit. It also doesn’t add any pre or post show frills: we don’t get talking head interviews with Talking Heads, nor do we get any footage of them chilling backstage or getting ready to go out and perform. There’s no context offered apart from the performance itself. Demme’s wisdom as a filmmaker was realizing that a band at the peak of their powers like Talking Heads don’t need any spices or seasoning – they are perfect just as they are. All he had to was point a camera at them and let our eyes and ears feast on what they were cooking.
Swimming to Cambodia (1987)
If anything serves as a testament to Demme’s skills as a filmmaker, look no further than his deft filming of Spalding Gray’s one-man show. He tackles a project that couldn’t be less cinematic: a man sitting behind a table, armed only with a notepad and a glass of water & a pair of pull-down maps hanging from the ceiling. It’s the sort of static tableaux that works in a live theater setting but should be intolerable to watch for 85 minutes as a film.
Should be, but isn’t in the hands of Demme and monologist Spalding Gray. The two men craft a riveting film with these barebone elements. Aside from the opening portion of the film, where we see Gray walking to the theater (a convention you see all the time in standup comedy specials, with comics wandering around backstage like they’re Ray Liotta at the Copacabana in Goodfellas), and a few brief clips from The Killing Fields, it takes place entirely inside the theater. The only special effect is a back projection of a beach that springs up at one point.
The wry and eloquent Gray talks about his experiences working on the movie The Killing Fields, using his time on the project as a launching pad to talk about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. It’s a harrowing and hilarious story, shifting from personal fish-out-of-water narratives to bloodcurdling geopolitics.
It’s interesting to compare Demme’s approach to filming Gray to what fellow auteur Steven Soderbergh did when he filmed another Spalding story years later: Gray’s Anatomy. There’s no doubt that Soderbergh is a more talented filmmaker than Demme – few American filmmakers alive right now can beat Soderbergh when it comes to the man’s knowledge of cinematography, editing, and mise en scene. Even if you don’t care for his movies (and there are quite a few I don’t care for), you can’t deny the skill and expertise on display in them.
Still, all the powerhouse talent in the world doesn’t change the fact that Soderbergh’s Gray’s Anatomy pales in comparison to Demme’s effort. Demme understands how captivating a performer Gray can be – he lets the man do the talking and gives Gray the responsibility to propel the film forward, understanding he doesn’t need many bells and whistles to keep the audience engaged. Soderbergh seems more uncomfortable in trusting Gray to carry that load – he employs more cinematic effects and occasionally cuts to a series of B&W interviews where he interviews people about their experiences with eye problems and eye surgery. It creates a feeling where it feels like the film itself is nervous and ADD-afflicted, that the camera doesn’t have the focus or patience required to listen to Spalding without cutting to something more “interesting” every 10-15 minutes.
In that respect, we can see Demme’s great gift as a filmmaker: his ability to tailor his own skills and aesthetic to suit his collaborators. Like the best Golden Age studio auteurs, he’s able to shapeshift himself to fit the parameters of a project without losing his sense of identity. He can stay true to both himself and to the vision of the people’s he working with. That ability – to subsume your ego for the good of a project and not let it go on a rampage – is a rare quality in any industry. And now, with the passing of Demme, it’s a quality we’ll see even less of in modern cinema.
Other essential works by Demme:
Rachel Getting Married
New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss” video