Saturday, January 30, 2010

Jonathan Demme Loves American Music

Something Wild(1986)Directed By Jonathan Demme

"You can take the handcuffs off your free now"-Melanie Griffith"Maybe I don't want to be free."-Jeff DanielsI may be mistaken, because I haven't seen all of his films, or even most of them, but it feels like Jonathan Demme put off trying to have this much fun in a movie again until the party sequences in "Rachel Getting Married". A light rom-com beginning where uptight yuppie Jeff Daniels meets punky "free-spirit" Melanie Griffitih, who does incredibly cliche things like throwing his pager out of the window, so he can stop living by the man's rules. The crazy wish-fulfilment scenario of the impish, erotic, impulsive woman only increases, with stealing, skipping out on checks, binge drinking, and lots of sex (left mostly off camera), all in the first few hours of meeting. Halfway through Ray Liotta enters and the movie switched into a kind of brutal thriller, and still works almost flawlessly. Instead of just making a movie that happens to be set in the 80's Demme fully embraces the period, music, dress, and small sub cultures at the peripheral, punks, bikers, early hip hop, reggae, indie rock bands, etc, and films them with a sincere fascination and not just an interest in trendy exploitation. He crafts a great soundtrack here and puts it to perfect use especially in the Reunion sequence when "The Feelies" do a bunch of fantastic cover songs. Cameos from John Waters and Sussie Tissue of "Suburban Lawns" were disappointingly brief, but that's not really a complaint. The unlikely scenario develops and changes, and we lean so much about the characters as the film goes on when it does become full of suspense it's easy to get dragged into their predicament even if you've seen it in a thousand other 80's movies. John Cale of "The Velvet Underground" is responsible for the score, and David Byrne (of the Talking Heads) does the opening song, both of which seem perfect matches for the material here. Demme's love of music is what makes all of his best films shine. I couldnt imagine "Silence Of The Lambs" without Buffalo Bill's dance in front of his mirror. It's this understanding of how to appropriate pop music and perhaps pop culture in general into cinematic terms which "Something Wild's" more than it's romantic odd couple comedy, road movie, and relationship drama origins would suggest. Armond White used the phrase "multicultural heaven" to describe "Rachel Getting Married", and through "Beloved", "Philedalphia", and his various documentaries we see Demme deal with varying levels of success with cultural clashes and struggles, but in this early film like later in RGM he gives into his more Utopian impulses, and creates a diverse patchwork looking America. "Something Wild" appears on screen as America would sound from listening to it's catchiest songs (the one's you secretly howl in the shower or when no one is around). For the most part it is reminiscent of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" in it's incredible unlikeliness, but more natural, sympathetic, and less juvenile, or like a more emotional less paranoid variation on Martin Scorcesse's "After Hours". All of the characters down to the most minor are sympathetic from Melanie Griffith's mild American prototype Mom who is not ignorant of her daughter's wildness but not judgemental either. Similarly Ray Liotta's sociopathtic husband is not a cardboard barbarian, but the kind of guy you could spend a few hours with, always a little uneasy as to whether they are gonna put an arm around your shoulder or a flick a cigarette into your face. Before Liotta appears on screen the camera fades to black for a second, cuing the film's sea change in tone, which I didn't notice at first, but is a clever device. In many ways this is a standard American romantic comedy from it's time, but in the ways that are most important it's fun, unique and endearing. As the Ebert says, "The accomplishment of Demme and the writer, E. Max Frye, is to think their characters through before the very first scene. They know all about Charlie and Lulu, and so what happens after the meeting outside that restaurant is almost inevitable, given who they are and how they look at each other. This is one of those rare movies where the plot seems surprised at what the characters do." Lots of movies are entertaining, and a good few are intelligent and emotional griping, but this movie just made me happy, from start to finish, which is even rarer. A friend of mine once told me I seemed like "The Violent Femmes type", since we were friends I accepted her slight insult and implication of twee dorkishness. While watching the Something Wild, especially during the Feelies performance, I was flashing to the Violent Femmes music video for "American Music", and remembering how charming and delightful it was. Some may find this "sensibility" annoying or a ploy, to distract from more serious issues or important themes. Such an inability to accept well developed style is not inarguable, I have been a curmudgeon for content over style many times myself. But so much of American popular music is slight, sexual, humorous, and waifash, that I feel it's a significant aspect of our culture worth enjoying on it's own terms. "It's better to be a live dog, than a dead lion"-Daniels. There is nothing wrong with enjoying popcorn-art from time to time. Every honest person enjoys some candy. It's just that one can't live on candy alone. Then again maybe I'm still reeling from Demme's sugar rush tactics here, but basically the movie feels like this extended for an hour and a half:

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