Jonathan Demme, 1944 - 2017
The director of STOP MAKING SENSE and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was 73.
Jonathan Demme, director of arguably the greatest concert film of all time, Stop Making Sense (1984), and winner of the Academy Award for Best Director for The Silence of the Lambs (1991), has passed away at the age of 73, report IndieWire's Eric Kohn and Zack Sharf: "The cause was esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease, according to a source close to the family. He was originally treated for the disease in 2010, but suffered from a recurrence in 2015, and his condition deteriorated in recent weeks." "A director who knows his genres, Jonathan Demme has never been able to resist turning them inside out," wrote Amy Taubin for Criterion in 1998. "Starting in the film industry as a publicist, Demme was soon hired by Roger Corman as a scriptwriter and then as a director. Corman’s rules for filmmaking—which mandate either the revelation of some bit of bare torso or some show of physical violence for every three pages of dialogue—are as good a lesson in the misogynist aspect of voyeurism as Laura Mulvey’s pioneer essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (1975) and the flood of feminist film theory that followed it. Caged Heat (1974), Demme’s first directing effort for Corman, is a woman-in-prison flick that suggests that early on he was aware of the connection between genre bends and gender twists—the connection that is stunningly realized in The Silence of the Lambs." Keith Uhlich for Senses of Cinema in 2004: "Demme has acknowledged Corman as a significant teacher and mentor, and the sense in their relationship of strong familial bonding—of one good turn begetting another—is a key to the director’s presentation of a complex, multicultural American landscape." "Shambling yet delicate, Demme’s screwball tall tale gazes at TV contests and novelty ballads and sees not derisive kitsch but the warm connective tissue of human yearning," writes Fernando F. Croce of Melvin and Howard (1980).
In 2015, Paul Thomas Anderson talked with Demme about his work at the Austin Film Festival
David Thompson in 2011 for Criterion: "Something Wild (1986) keeps the audience guessing at every turn, as carefree, comic scenes can shift suddenly into menace and violence. Demme has said that, on first reading the script, 'I had no idea where the story was going… but I wanted to go along with it. And every time I thought I had figured it out, it veered off in another direction.'" Updates: "Demme won great reviews last year for his Netflix Justin Timberlake concert movie Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids (having also made four films with Neil Young across the 2000s)," writes Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist, "and his final work as director, an episode of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Fox drama Shots Fired, airs, in an eerie coincidence, tonight." "Following The Silence of the Lambs, Demme used his clout to make Philadelphia, one of the first major studio films to tackle the AIDS crisis and a movie that won Tom Hanks his first Oscar for playing a gay lawyer," note Carmel Dagan and Brent Lang in Variety. "Demme’s non-fiction work also dipped into politics and social issues, profiling the likes of Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela. He made two documentaries about Haiti, 1988’s Haiti Dreams of Democracy and 2003’s critically acclaimed The Agronomist." "My last encounter with him came when he was so gracious in a piece that looked back on the making of The Silence of the Lambs to commemorate its 25th anniversary," writes Deadline's Mike Fleming Jr. Look for that article to go up again later today. "His mainstream filmmaking took a dip in the 2000s, after the poorly received remake of Charade, The Truth About Charlie, and a new version of The Manchurian Candidate," writes the Guardian's Andrew Pulver, "but he restored his reputation with the wedding comedy-drama Rachel Getting Married and the likable girl-rocker film Ricki and the Flash." "Demme was the kind of filmmaker who commanded whatever genre he was working in at the time, continually jumping around from comedy to drama to horror, and even helming episodes of Saturday Night Live at one point," notes Erik Davis at Movies.com.
Demme's video for New Order's "The Perfect Kiss"
"'Music was my first love, movies came second,' Mr. Demme once told the long-defunct New York newspaper The SoHo News," notes Bruce Weber in the New York Times. "The synchronization with music and narrative is most evident in Something Wild (1986), a 'really screwball' comedy, as Pauline Kael of the New Yorker described it, that 'breaks conventions and turns into a scary slapstick thriller.' The beginning, set in New York City, features a telling establishing shot, perfect for the time and place—the Reagan 80s, with its ostentatious masters of the universe and a teeming, disdainful underclass—in which the head of a young man with a boom box on his shoulder is held briefly but firmly in the frame before the camera moves. 'I can’t think of any other director who is so instinctively and democratically interested in everybody he shows you,' Kael wrote." "With the World War II-set Swing Shift (1984), he clashed with stars Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn over the tone of the film (they wanted a lighter one, and prevailed, but his darker director’s cut still exists)," writes David Sims in the Atlantic. "1988’s Married to the Mob is a superb mix of kitchen-sink drama and gangster lunacy, starring a luminous Michelle Pfeiffer and featuring an unhinged Dean Stockwell (who was Oscar-nominated) and Mercedes Ruehl. The ’80s also brought Stop Making Sense and Demme’s filming of Spalding Gray’s one-man monologue Swimming to Cambodia (1987). The latter is a mesmerizing work that demonstrates the power of Demme’s cinematic eye (he loved intense, direct-to-camera close-ups) in even the most inert setting (a man sitting behind a desk and talking to the audience)." The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw: "Demme was a talent who bears comparison with Spielberg and Scorsese; he came up the same way they did, in many respects, but he perhaps did not have an authorial signature like theirs. Paul Thomas Anderson was a film-maker who admired Demme, and the punch and the speed of his early 90s pictures Hard Eight and Boogie Nights have a lot of Demme in them. Demme was an artist as well as a craftsman, with a flair for grabbing the audience and not letting go." "Over the course of nearly 40 years in TV, Demme directed, wrote, and produced an impressive array of genres and worked with artists like Laura Dern, Peter Falk, Elliot Gould, Patrick Wilson, Aisha Hinds, and Helen Hunt." IndieWire surveys the television work—and on another page, contributors look back on their personal favorite highlights of an amazing career. The Directors Guild of America has issued a statement: "Jonathan was a constant presence at the DGA, mentoring, leading Q&As and co-hosting our annual New York dinner for feature film directors. At the most recent gathering last fall, he was the true life of the party, imbuing the evening with his wit and charm, even commandeering the mike at one point for an impassioned plea for the creative rights of directors. Watching his infectious enthusiasm while he huddled with Michael Apted, Steven Soderbergh, Mira Nair, Tom McCarthy and so many of his peers—is a memory we will always treasure." In his remembrance, David Byrne looks back on Stop Making Sense: "Jonathan’s skill was to see the show almost as a theatrical ensemble piece, in which the characters and their quirks would be introduced to the audience, and you’d get to know the band as people, each with their distinct personalities. They became your friends, in a sense. I was too focused on the music, the staging and the lighting to see how important his focus on character was—it made the movie something different and special."
John Douglas, Silence of the Lambs novelist Thomas Harris’s real-life model for FBI profiler Jack Crawford, on the three serial killers who inspired Harris to create Buffalo Bill
And from Jodie Foster: "I am heart-broken to lose a friend, a mentor, a guy so singular and dynamic you’d have to design a hurricane to contain him. Jonathan was as quirky as his comedies and as deep as his dramas. He was pure energy, the unstoppable cheerleader for anyone creative. Just as passionate about music as he was about art, he was and will always be a champion of the soul." "Demme’s was a protean career, marked less by a stylistic fingerprint than a pervading generosity of spirit and a great ear for music," writes Sam Adams for Slate. "Until The Silence of the Lambs, Demme’s artistic territory seemed easy to delineate, but that movie’s unexpected leap into Grand Guignol, not to mention its screen-filling close-ups of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins’ eyes, took even seasoned Demme fans by surprise—or at least those who’d forgotten that Demme started out making affectionate genre schlock for Roger Corman…. His talent knew no boundaries, and he didn’t see why anyone else’s should, either." The NYT's Mekado Murphy looks back on "Seven Career-Defining Movies," including Rachel Getting Married: "In the view of some critics, this drama both revived Mr. Demme’s career and served as a showcase for its lead, Anne Hathaway. The film was made independently and shot on video, on a budget much lower than the studio films Mr. Demme had been making. In his Times review, A.O. Scott wrote: 'The wonderful thing about Rachel Getting Married is how expansive it seems, in spite of the limits of its scope and the modesty of its ambitions. It’s a small movie, and in some ways a very sad one, but it has an undeniable and authentic vitality, an exuberance of spirit, that feels welcome and rare.'" As a tribute, Joe Leydon's posted his 1988 interview: "I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with him—I had pegged him as a promising director when I saw Fighting Mad (1976), and subsequently enjoyed seeing that promise fulfilled in Citizens Band (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980)." "He seemed nice, too, something you got from his films as well as from his affable interviews," adds David Cairns. "If Demme sometimes arguably compromised too much with audience tastes, squeamishly excluding any kissing from Philadelphia, for instance, he clearly did so in hopes of making his greater points as successfully as possible."
Back to the Guardian, where Ryan Gilbey adds that "the compassionate sensibility that lent his work its warmth and musicality was no put-on. Plainly put, he loved people…. His movies could be bewilderingly diverse… but they were united by their color and vim, as well as a deep-seated sense of conscientiousness and community. Demme cared deeply about what he put on the screen. 'That’s one of the joyful aspects of the work and I also feel it’s part of my responsibility as a filmmaker,' he said in 2004. 'You have to remember that the behavior you visualize on screen will be witnessed by thousands or millions of people, and will ultimately say something about us as a species.'" Updates, 4/27: "If you were someone who shared even a little of his artistic enthusiasm, and/or his overall love of people, which balanced a cockeyed optimism with can-do pragmatism, he’d make you feel like a part of his extended family on those occasions when your orbit intersected his," writes Glenn Kenny for Vanity Fair. His "first formal at-length meeting with Demme was an interview for Premiere magazine about a 1998 film that did not do nearly so well as those pictures: an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton. I will go to my own grave believing Beloved to be a severely underrated film (unless film culture gets smart and gives it a thorough reassessment in the interim); at the time of our meeting, a little prior to the movie’s unsuccessful theatrical release, I was convinced that Demme had made a great, or near-great, picture. Demme had too much innate modesty to go there, but he was clearly proud of his work." "Demme’s cinema is rife with brief encounters," writes Calum Marsh in the National Post. "And of course Demme’s Charade remake The Truth About Charlie had on its periphery a load of luminaries from the French New Wave: Anna Karina, Agnès Varda, Charles Aznavour. 'There seem to be no expendable characters in his films, no extras,' David Edelstein once wrote of Demme. 'Only characters from movies yet to be made.'" "As a director, Demme was the auteur as utility infielder," writes Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. "He always loved to blur lines rather than sharpen them. Both his stories and his frames contained more information and different details than you'd get if a mere craftsman had made the movie. You can see this margin-doodling enthusiasm in the blithely multicultural casts and soundtracks of nearly all of his films (the barber shop in Married to the Mob is nearly as diverse as the United Nations general assembly). And you can see it in the way Demme combines and even fuses genres. Beloved is part ghost story, part American holocaust epic, part domestic drama. Something Wild starts out as a sexy romantic road flick about a free-spirited woman who lures a straitlaced man away from his boring middle-class life, then pivots two-thirds of the way through and becomes a thriller about stalking and domestic violence…. I can think of no greater American filmmaker who was taken for granted for as many decades as Demme."
Variety's Owen Gleiberman: "What defined a Demme film was the open-eyed flow of its humanity, the way his camera drank in everyone on screen—it didn’t matter whether the character was a goofy truck driver, a derelict billionaire, the troubled wife of a mobster, a new wave rock ‘n’ roller, or a serial killer—and took the full measure of their life and spirit. For Demme, the magic of movies resided in uncovering the tantalizing mystery of who each of these people were. He wanted to know them, and he wanted you to know them, to be awed by how deeply they could move and surprise you, by how much they could mirror the depth of your own dreams and experience. That’s why, no matter how hard you look for it, the defining quality of a Demme film was—and is—invisible. You can’t quite see it. But oh, how you can feel it." "It should be easy to say goodbye to a filmmaker who achieved so much," writes Time's Stephanie Zacharek. "But it’s not. There are plenty of modern-day directors who are cool, as Demme was, and some who perhaps have as much heart. But no one has shown such perfectly balanced proportions of both." In the NYT, Joe Coscarelli considers Demme's "Finest Musical Moments." Rolling Stone contributors offer their thoughts on the "20 Most Essential Jonathan Demme Movies." And Keith Uhlich has indexed all his writing on Demme. Updates, 4/28: "An early supporter of the filmmaker, Film Comment pays tribute to Demme with excerpts from articles and interviews across his multiple-decade career." The Talkhouse Film collects remembrances from filmmakers Charlie McDowell, Allison Anders, John Krokidas, Joe Lynch, Patrick Brice, Stephen Cone, Keith Maitland and Lucky McKee. "When I heard the news that Jonathan Demme had passed away, I felt a piece of my entire being wither," writes filmmaker Rebecca Eskreis for the Hollywood Reporter. "And yet, in my profound sorrow at the loss of this great man, my former boss and mentor, I also experienced an intense feeling of déjà vu. I’d felt this way before: Venice, Italy, August 2015. Let me explain." And not one, not two, but three stories follow. At the AV Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky tells another story, this one about what's behind "'A Luta Continua,' the Portuguese-language political slogan that appears at the very end of the credits" of four of Demme's films. At the Ringer, contributors write about their favorites and Adam Nayman, walking us through the oeuvre, arrives at Rachel Getting Married:
I could talk about Anne Hathaway’s amazing, still-career-best performance as the self-destructive, 12-Stepping protagonist, or the naturalism of Jenny Lumet’s screenplay, or how the scene where Bill Irwin’s patriarch engages in a good-natured dishwasher-loading competition with his prospective son-in-law punctures macho bonding rituals. But what sticks with me is a song performed near the end of the film, during the endless (in a good way) wedding ceremony, by Robyn Hitchcock, the English musician who Demme profiled in 1998’s Storefront Hitchcock. The melody is light and airy—a throwaway—but the refrain is as apt a summation of Jonathan Demme’s filmmaking as one could ever hope for: “We’re up to our necks in love.”
And for Variety, Chris Willman talks with Hitchcock about that film and his friendship with Demme.
"It’s hard to imagine New York or the world or the movies without Demme in the house. How do you eulogize someone whose overriding aspect is aliveness?" David Edelstein looks back on his past appreciations of Demme's work. "From the first time we met in 1977 at the New York Film Festival, where he premiered the uproarious Citizens Band (retitled Handle With Care), to our last phone exchange about a year ago, his temperament was consistently rosy," writes Carrie Rickey at Uproxx. "In the entitled Hollywood universe, nearly every conversation with this supremely unassuming mensch (born and based in New York) touched upon his gratitude to be a working director, one who worked in every genre from comedy to musical to horror, without ever repeating himself." David Ehrlich has gathered tributes from more critics at IndieWire: "We asked our panel one simple question: How will you remember Jonathan Demme?" And at RogerEbert.com, contributors share their thoughts. You might think you won't need another list of "10 Essential Jonathan Demme Films," but this one's from Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. "Something Wild (1986) in particular resonated with me," writes José Arroyo. "I took a look at it again yesterday, part-nostalgia, part-commemoration, and by the end of the opening credits I was once again reminded of all that made me love his work." Click his name to watch them. Listening (28'27"). TIFF Long Take hosts Rob Kraszewski and Geoff Macnaughton revisit the interview they conducted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016. Updates, 5/1: "With the death of Demme, American cinema loses one of its greatest humanists," writes Bilge Ebiri in the Voice. "His work didn't simply glow with a generosity of spirit. You got the sense that he understood people—that he understood us…. The standard line on Demme's career was that he went from buoyant oddball indie comedies to prestige pictures and more mainstream studio fare after the epochal success of Silence of the Lambs (1991). The reality is that he just worked, making documentaries and concert movies and following ideas and paths that sometimes took years to come to fruition." "When was the last time you watched The Silence of the Lambs?" asks Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. "It’s a terrifically accomplished potboiler, very different from the other interesting Thomas Harris adaptations (Michael Mann’s Manhunter, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal) in that it’s specifically about evil." The film's "Lecter is a Pandora’s box of absolute evil opened in the hope of thwarting a lesser evil, Buffalo Bill. It’s all very Fritz Lang. So much of what makes the movie so rich is coded in: its evocative but subdued expressionist flourishes, the fairy-tale figures of Howard Shore’s eerie score, the conflict between pathology and the irrational, and, of course, all that stuff about eyes."
Writing for Slate, Jeffrey Bloomer revisits the controversy Lambs kicked up in the early 90s: "Although today the objection to the movie has been recast as concerns about transphobia, at the time, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and gay critics were actually protesting homophobia." "Demme was a man for small towns and back roads," writes the New Yorker's Anthony Lane. "He liked those pockets of America where there was fun to be had, at a bargain price, and weakness to be gently laid bare. Hence his penchant for Melvin [in Melvin and Howard], a near-loser with a wish list of hopes, and for the tallness of Melvin’s tale…. The stories that we tell, in other words, may not always be true, and yet they are true of us, and that will have to do. The loss of Jonathan Demme is a sad surprise, for the films that he bequeaths to us remain, to an uncommon degree, the work of a good man." "While we may not have another film to look forward to from Demme," writes Adam Cook, "what we do have is a remarkable filmography to dive into and, in some cases, uncover. Upon closer inspection, it may not be so hard after all to find qualities linking his films, be it a fascination with performance, sensitivity to race and class, or his always present humanist curiosity and compassion from behind the camera. For those looking to explore Jonathan Demme’s lesser-known work, here are some suggested starting points." Also in the TIFF Review, Thom Powers: "Over the fall [last year], I showed six of his documentaries for a mini-retrospective at New York’s IFC Center. Normally, I’d expect a filmmaker to slip out of the screening and just show up for the Q&A. But nearly every Tuesday, Jonathan would watch the whole film with the audience and speak afterwards, only once excusing himself to fulfill another obligation. Drawing upon our conversations, here are nuggets I took away about his documentaries." Film Quarterly editor B. Ruby Rich introduces two articles that have appeared in the journal, one by Lucy Fischer from 1982, the other by Thomas Doherty from 1985. "Many of the posters for Demme’s films are as well known as the films themselves," writes Adrian Curry, introducing a gallery in the Notebook. "But the posters for Demme’s early films, and the films themselves, are less well known." Update, 5/2: Rosanna Arquette stars in A Family Tree, "a pitch-black anti-sitcom about an anxious young woman whose desire to belong leads her—perhaps in a nod to Stop Making Sense—to literally burn down the house," writes Dan Piepenbring, who's found this one-off that Demme directed for PBS in 1987. "Fittingly, David Byrne himself is there to watch the flames go up, enjoying an imperious turn as a cigar-puffing, pie-hiding, reptile-obsessed brother-in-law." Watch it at the New Yorker. Update, 5/4: On Slate's Culture Gabfest, Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner each talk about a Demme film they've recently rewatched or seen for the first time (59'43"). Updates, 5/5: Writing for Slate, Laura R. Wagner notes that Demme "promoted the rights of people in Haiti and of Haitian refugees and detainees in the United States, working with groups including the National Coalition for Haitian Rights and Americans for Immigrant Justice, whose director, Cheryl Little, last week recalled that he 'didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk.' Demme did this work with humility, openness, and wonder, without fanfare or ego. But Demme, an avid collector of Haitian art, knew and loved Haiti beyond the headlines, beyond human rights abuses and crisis. He promoted Haitian talent—Haitian directors, actors, writers, musicians, visual artists, and journalists." The Film Society of Lincoln Center's posted a 2012 conversation with Demme about Citizen’s Band and Melvin and Howard (59'11").