Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Little Something for Jonathan Demme

I'm still processing Jonathan Demme's death, as he seemed someone so alive, always working, exploring, changing, growing. So in the meantime I dug out this, the essay I did on Something Wild as part of my MA/W nonfiction prose thesis way back in 1988.


            At a recent screening of The Manchurian Candidate, my friends and I were horrified when, at the film’s conclusion, one audience member said, “Gee, that was a well-made film for 1962.” He might as well have said, “Boy, Ulysses was well-written for 1922,” that’s how indignantly angry we became. Having a few weeks to calm down, I now don’t blame the man at all; he had simply, baldly put what is all too much truth--films, even when considered historically, are misread by false codes: say, history as continuous progress. People are all too content to let Hollywood be a dream factory that has no connection to social, political, or economic events in the world. The classic case in point is Oliver!, the big budget, mushy musical of Dickens that won the Best Picture Oscar in 1969. It’s clear what side of the barricades Hollywood felt itself on.
            Film critics of all sorts can’t be excused from this myopia. The infamous Gene Siskel can mildly like Rambo III because, in his words, “It accomplishes what it sets out to do.” Questioning what it sets out to do is beyond his 19 inch mind. Beating up on television critics is about as easy as dismissing tv evangelists--they themselves become the product, while films and God just give them something to talk about. Serious critics have also painted themselves into corners by focusing on two prevalent critical approaches--the auteur theory and genre theory.  The danger is filmmakers, too, approach their art from these angles. It’s fine to want to make a Western in 1990. But it doesn’t mean what making a Western meant in 1956 or 1969--the difference between, say, The Searchers and Once Upon a Time in the West.  John Ford made a fine film by using the image of John Wayne to question our notions of the “real man pioneer”; Sergio Leone made a fine film by turning all the 1950s Western clichés on their ears, and by questioning our very need to mythologize a violent period of colonialism--it’s Henry “Tom Joad” Fonda who is his cold-blooded killer, after all.
            Another genre periodically dusted off is the screwball comedy. The classic update example is What’s Up Doc?, Peter Bogdanovich’s mildly entertaining remake of Bringing Up Baby. Yet what Doc? lacks, not to mention stars as great as Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (substituting them with Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand is like asking Bret Easton Ellis to rewrite Absalom! Absalom!), is a historical sense. The silly gamboling of the rich had much more of a place in a Depression-mired 1938, just as Hepburn’s dangerous, since reckless, sexuality had more of a place as a threat to the (to shift decade-jargon) unliberated Grant. Instead of ending with Hepburn dangling from Grant in a desperate love-clutch, a pile of prehistoric bones jumbled beneath them, Ryan can only end by debunking his earlier tear-jerker Love Story, thereby denigrating his own work and the people manipulated by it.
            Jonathan Demme attempts to do the screwball comedy genre right with Something Wild. All the usual markers are in place, even if the place is transposed to a very hip 1980s Lower Manhattan.  Charlie, a straight-as-an-arrow businessman, still gets bored with his life, and for a bit of a thrill, runs out on his lunch bills every now and then. We see him at a now, his eyes darting about the coffee shop filled with exotics. He’s out the door but a few steps when a woman stops him. She’s dressed in hip black, covered with multicolored necklaces and bracelets, topped with a Louise Brooks-do. After some gibing, it turns out she simply saw through his little game. She offers him a ride, and his initial attraction gets the best of him.  Before he knows it, they’re in the Holland Tunnel, Jersey bound.
            Charlie, uncomfortably, goes along with the game, particularly after Lulu slops a messy kiss on him; it’s as if her character, along with her lipstick, sticks to Charlie. Of all things, he plunks down his Christmas Club funds for a motel room, where Lulu continues to surprise, handcuffing him to the bed and ripping off his shirt, then hers. All of Charlie’s world disappears, his world of work and plans and preparation. Before sex, Lulu pours out the contents of her voluminous bag: a robot-shaped cassette deck playing reggae music, a witch doctor rattle she shakes over him while forcing a little, “Woo-oo.” She does call up something, a wildness their games cannot touch, for they are privileged to have games: Charlie really can duck out of the office on motel room at a moment’s notice, not that he ever has before.
            Meanwhile, the film is filled with people who have little room to act.  In almost every other scene we see African-Americans, not just an oddity because of Hollywood’s generally white casting. Instead, Demme goes out of his way to make us confront a culture the characters in the movie seem ignorant of. The film also moves to black music; the soundtrack is dominated with songs by Jimmy Cliff, Celia Cruz, UB40; Charlie stops at a gas station where a group of blacks perform an impromptu rap, bouncing about spider-like; and the film ends with Sister Carol, playing the waitress Charlie originally dashed from in the opening (it’s her bill he cannot pay), singing her own version of “Wild Thing” next to the credits. The end suggests that no matter how grungy the Troggs may have been, black music will finally reclaim itself--rock will escape not just the Pat Boones and Julee Cruises, but also the Elvis Presleys.
            The end also suggests that music may be the only escape for the under-privileged. They don’t have the luxury a Lulu or Charlie (or a Grant or Hepburn) has, for just surviving is enough of a worry. Demme lets Something Wild show the shoulders a screwball comedy must stand on.
            Many viewers complain about the film’s severe swing from lighthearted comedy to suddenly serious revenge-play, complete with very graphic and gruesome violence. Yet the movie has no choice. Its interest is to have the screwball genre while debunking it, to devour from within. While the characters never consciously associate the world they dominate to the suffering they cause, they do learn the danger of game-playing, of the great freedoms they possess. Things take a dark turn with the introduction of Ray at Lulu’s (now Audrey--and peroxide blonde and sweet after a visit with her mom) high school reunion. Ray, too, has a role--he’s a rebel with a cause, a smalltime hood fed on dreams of one big score, of the one girl with a slightly black heart who will love you just the same, maybe all the more. We discover Ray and Audrey are married.
            Ray does more than slip out on a bill, he knocks over a convenience store with Charlie and Audrey in tow. But first he talks Charlie into giving a speech to the store’s video protection system; it’s Charlie’s play-acting image (he’s mid-sentence about his recent promotion) that Ray shoots out when he fires into the screen Charlie plays to. It’s the first sign the performing we all do might be dangerous: Ray’s act does Charlie’s in; Ray even gets to cap the hold-up in high hood style, with Demme’s help--he grabs the pack of cigarettes he initially asked for from the counter and gracefully flips them in the air, a move Demme slows down and thereby turns to pure style.
            Charlie and Ray finally have it out in Charlie’s home in suburban Long Island. The climactic battle occurs in the bathroom--stunningly white--a veritable temple to colorlessness, the void, particularly in light of what bathrooms are for. A busted pipe sprays, the two white men battle on a white floor between white walls, the fluorescent lighting brightening their t-shirts to a glow. It’s ugly violence--something entirely separate from acting, from the complementary illusions both have chased--steel-toed boots and handcuffs as garrotes. Finally, Ray’s knife flashes, the two share some embrace, lifting up as if eager to leave the ground, the knife drops. Both seem dead, the only sound the knife clattering on the tile. Ray walks over, stares into the mirror, runs a bloody hand through his hair--it’s not what he should see. The image, the game, has gone wrong.
            It’s the danger of letting play become more, become life, and necessarily death. He dies in a moment of cool--he might be Belmondo in Breathless--but he’s just as dead. He’s learned what it’s like to have only life and death choices, which sounds dramatic, but isn’t if you’re hungry, or homeless, or unemployed.
            It’s telling how in a film filled with cameos by the famous, Demme wisely chooses their roles. John Waters, king of sleazo movies, plays a used car salesman; John Sayles, king of moral, problem pictures, plays a motorcycle cop. Then there’s also Steve Scales, a percussionist most famous for his work with Talking Heads. Scales works at a highway rest area’s gift shop. Scales is black, and busy at his minimum wage work, selling Charlie tons of “Virginia Is For Lovers” goods and telling him how wonderful it all looks on him. It’s the longest cameo--Demme’s way of balancing the scales (no pun intended)--but it’s also the most menial, a perfect emblem for the screwball comedy world. It’s a genre that disregards any race but the white, for it disregards anyone without money, anyone without freedom to pretend.
            The high school reunion slyly reinforces the point. The theme is “Spirit of ‘76,” and the bunting is appropriately red, white, and blue. The tacky band is played by the Feelies, looking as bored and as uncomfortable as they do when performing as themselves. They play only covers, the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” and David Bowie’s “Fame,” which is fitting in this film of trying on others’ roles. These songs say volumes about the Spirit of ‘76, the spirit of America that insists any person can do anything; that any actor can become the president if he has enough self-impetus. It’s the hopeful spirit that damns America from ever becoming truly equal. The Monkees, created from nothing, were tv darlings made stars by our desire for stars; like rock and roll Tinkerbells, they grew on applause. By becoming what they had to they proved exactly how easy role-playing is, and how we must be careful not to take our roles too seriously. The same is true for Bowie, who has developed so many Bowies to be that he only has to change his clothes and hair--from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke--and he’s new again. Fame, and any form of personality, is something willed, as it were. For those with room to be willful.
            Up to this essay I’ve remained critical of Demme’s ending, in which, after much running about, Charlie finally runs into Audrey again, and the world seems righted. But now I feel differently, because of that huge seems. Leaving the theater, I don’t remember their reunion, can’t even recall if we last see them kiss. But I do remember Sister Carol, full of life and what they’ve left behind. They’ve still ignored her world; Audrey even has a classic car, gotten from who knows where, to drive off in.
            Then there’s Ray, the casualty of the film for he plays the wrong role. In the 1930s he’d merely be Ralph Bellamy, and only lose the girl, usually gracefully, sometimes pathetically. In the 1980s the genre has to show more, has to tell on itself.  Where else could we last see him, but at the mirror, attending to his own show, puzzled beyond words, running the blood on his hand up through his hair, staring and waiting, waiting for a change.

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