Sunday, April 29, 2012

Jonathan Demme's America

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

In the late Seventies and into the Eighties, film director Jonathan Demme gave us one of the most expansive portraits of American life, a sensibility that critic Pauline Kael called (in describing Demme's Melvin and Howard) "a cross between Jean Renoir and Preston Sturges." What Kevin Courrier found in Demme's Something Wild was a whole new genre - the screwball noir.

Screwball Noir: Criterion's DVD Release of Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (1986)

Of all the contemporary American directors, Jonathan Demme embodies most the open spirit of possibility. His best films, from the early Citizen's Band (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980) to the more recent Rachel Getting Married (2008), are inclusive quests into the binding promises held dear in the founding ideals of his country; a country filled not just with its known inhabitants, but also the unknown, the dispossessed, even the forgotten. Demme's America includes chance meetings between perceived nobodies like Melvin Dummar and legends such as Howard Hughes. For him, eccentrics and straights walk the same roads and breathe the same air. The libidinous pleasures of pop celebrated in the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (1984), or the wistful embracing of roads travelled and roots claimed in Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), are for Jonathan Demme all about keeping faith with his most cherished democratic principles. But if staying true to those democratic principles leads Demme to boldly erase the preconceived judgments made on rich and poor, black and white, good and bad, they also inspire him to further erase the boundaries imposed on storytelling by refusing to adhere to strictly defined genre rules. There was no better Jonathan Demme picture to accomplish this task than Something Wild (1986).

In Something Wild, which Criterion has just re-released today in a newly remastered regular and Blu-ray DVD, Demme (working from a boldly original script by E. Max Frye) creates the setting for a screwball comedy and then literally drives it into the forbidding land of film noir. The film opens with Tak Fujimoto's relaxed tracking shot down New York's East River as David Byrne and Celia Cruz set a seductively alluring tone with their lyrically spicy rendition of "Loco de Amor (Crazy for Love)," which cleverly incorporates The Troggs' comically enticing hit "Wild Thing." We finally settle into a local hash joint where Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels), a tax consultant recently turned vice-president, impulsively pockets his check without paying. He's spotted from across the room by Lulu (Melanie Griffith), a young woman decked out in macramé and metal jewelry while sporting a Louise Brooks bob, who pursues him out of the restaurant and confronts him for welshing on the lunch. After he mistakenly assumes her to be an employee, she defines him as a "closet rebel" and offers him a lift. But rather than taking Charlie back to the office, Lulu takes to the road. Once dispensing with his pocket calculator, she offers him some scotch, then later in New Jersey, rips off a liquor store, heads to a motel and sexually seduces him.

Melanie Griffith as Lulu.
While the opening moments of Something Wild traffics in the recognized world of the screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938) and You Can't Take it With You (1938), it's merely the starting point for something entirely new and appealingly different. Once Charlie is relaxed and open and firmly enjoying the booze and sex, Lulu takes him to a small Pennsylvania town where she once lived as a small-town girl named Audrey. Shedding her femme fatale disguise, she reveals herself to Charlie as this strawberry blonde suburban gal. But Charlie also has a secret self hidden behind his corporate yuppie blue suit, only he's less enthusiastic to reveal who he truly is. Ultimately though, he's forced to when they attend Audrey's high school reunion and encounter Audrey's husband Ray (Ray Liotta). (Audrey presumed he was still tucked away in prison doing time.) When Ray enters the picture, with his criminal underclass resentment of what Charlie has stolen from him, Charlie is forced not only to reveal himself, but he's also tested to see how willing he is to claim Audrey as his partner.

Jeff Daniels as Charlie.
Something Wild is something new, a boldy inspired hybrid, a screwball noir. Like the screwball comedy, film noir also takes place on America's long roads and highways, transforming the characters into people they never thought they were (or would ever be). Both genres offer up delectably sexy and alluring women who tempt men down those roads to perdition. In screwball comedies, though, men usually come out the better for the experience, while in noir, they usually pay for their sins with death. Something Wild bravely changes up the game. It doesn't just break rules, it eliminates their need. The picture allows the audience the freedom to breathe, to explore and examine both the highs of charging out into the wide open spaces, as well as confronting its limits. Demme re-invents characters as swiftly and as smoothly as he re-invents genres proving (if ever it needed to be proven) that a country based on an idea continually produces characters who create personas to live in. Something Wild even begins with recognizable personas and then shrewdly dissolves their masks.

Ray Liotta as Ray.
Jeff Daniels is ideally cast as Charlie because, as the late critic Jay Scott once pointed out, Daniels can sometimes take us deeper inside the complicated sadness of the shallow men. Charlie tries to take comfort hiding within his middle-class comforts, but as we come to discover, those comforts turn out to be illusive. But his liberation at the hands of Audrey is only validated when he has to confront the menace within Ray. Melanie Griffith manages the astonishing feat of creating a continuity of soul while discarding identities. (She's equally ravishing whether she's the cuddly small town gal, or in the dark disguise of Lulu hungrily mounting Charlie and handcuffing him to the bedposts.) Griffith shows us that Audrey's need to be Lulu is her means of testing the bounds of larcenous behaviour. She does so in order to finally lay claim to normalcy when Charlie isn't scared away by her daring. Ray Liotta, in his first film role, is remarkably skilled at showing us what makes Ray a frightening guy by also revealing how seductive he is. He manages the difficult job of creating an appealing charisma that also functions like a spider's web.

When Something Wild came out in 1986, Hollywood movies were mostly trapped in conventional formulas with few surprises. (At the press screening I attended then, one critic in front of me turned around midway through and enthusiastically asked, "Do you have any idea where this is going?" I answered, "Not a clue. Isn't that great?") As we discover in the interview with Demme on the DVD, he came to do Something Wild after having his work on the 1984 WW II romantic drama, Swing Shift, taken out of his hands and re-cut and re-shot into a bland and pasty artifact. (His work print cut, which has been circulating for years as a bootlegged cassette, reveals a beautifully rendered portrait of the shifting roles of men and women when the guys went off to war and their wives and girlfriends went to work.)

Melanie Griffith as Audrey.
Outside of Albert Brooks' wonderfully prickly comedy Lost in America (1985), nobody at that time had really made a critical film about yuppies as seen from inside the yuppie. Something Wild went pretty far into their world without a whisper of condescension. A product of the sixties, Demme deliberately connects the shifting values that took us into the eighties. The narcissism of the yuppie after all is a product of the blasted utopian hopes of the hippie. But Ray, who resembles rockabilly singer Robert Gordon after steroids, is a reminder of the delinquents of the fifties whose rebellion gave birth to the upheaval of the sixties. The high school reunion is also for the Class of 1976, the aftermath of sixties rebellion. But its significance also suggests something else to critic David Thompson. He writes in his insightful DVD essay that "[the reunion reveals] that in the cultural threads woven throughout the film, in its comfortable integration of characters from different backgrounds, we can find something of Demme's own vision of what American independence should mean."

John Waters.
That idea of American independence, which Demme also celebrates with his huge cast of characters who populate the outskirts of the movie's plot (film director John Waters turns up as a car salesman; John Sayles as a motorcycle cop; and long-standing Demme associates such as Kenneth Utt and Charles Napier briefly pop into the frame), asserts that, for him, freedom isn't license. It comes with obligations, loyalties and true responsibility. Something Wild takes into account how intrinsically valuable that appealing aspect of American independence is by including a vast cultural mix of characters and music (from Jimmy Cliff, Oingo Boingo to the riveting Sister Carol East doing her own reggae rendition of "Wild Thing.") that make up the fabric of the land.

Director Jonathan Demme.
To lay claim to that authentic voice is tough to sustain though - especially in a Hollywood climate driven by a fear of the original and its celebration of the safety of mediocrity. Demme's movies, in the nineties, such as his successful Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), were either obvious and impersonal (Lambs) or pious and preachy (Philadelphia). But he found his voice again in Rachel Getting Married (as David Churchill perceptively pointed out in an earlier Critics at Large post) when he allowed the material to once again dictate the style and substance of the story. In breaking free of the secure bounds of formula, Demme revels in the serendipitous wonders of discovery. Which is why, after all these years, Something Wild is still a wonder to behold.

**The Criterion DVD includes an absorbing and informative interview with Jonathan Demme, a revealing chat with screenwriter E. Max Frye (who tells the story of what inspired the idea), plus the smart review of Something Wild by critic David Thompson.

- originally published on May 10, 2011 in Critics at Large.

 -- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism

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