With his passing on Wednesday, I sat down to watch a couple of Jonathan Demme’s best films. Demme’s never been in the pantheon; he’s not one of the revered directors of his generation like Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola. But with films like Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, and his superb music docs on the likes of Neil Young, Talking Heads and Bruce Springsteen, he made an indelible mark on popular culture.
Demme was a master of intimacy. When you think of Silence of the Lambs, probably the first thing that enters your head (after that insane mask) is the harrowing conversations between Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins’ chilling Hannibal Lecter. Captured in ever tighter close-ups, Demme bores into those characters as they challenge each other, quid pro quo, secrets hinted at and revealed in a sinister dance. You feel these people, especially Clarice, struggling to best the monsters in her life. Even her own boss at the FBI is a calculating psychopath, dangling her like bait to lure Lecter into helping their investigation.
Demme’s gift is emotional immediacy, getting up close and then letting the powerful moments just happen. The pivotal pas de deux in Philadelphia between Denzel Washington’s Joe Miller and the enraptured Tom Hanks’ Andrew Beckett, is a showier set-piece. Over the operatic strains of La Mamma Morta, Demme’s camera swoops tightly as the light reddens and fluctuates, Andrew narrating the opera for Joe as the lawyer reaches past his discomfort with homosexuals to understand Andrew for the first time.
Demme’s smaller films all feature great characters in memorable moments. Something Wild is one of the most overlooked dark comedies of the eighties, with Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith and Ray Liotta in the unlikeliest of love triangles. Rachel Getting Married is a superb showcase for Anne Hathaway, capturing the train wreck of addiction and how it engulfs an entire family.
Even Demme’s music documentaries and videos thrive on intimate connection. Stop Making Sense is one of the best music docs ever made. Capturing Talking Heads at their creative peak in 1984, Demme has a host of cameras pick up every moment and nuance of the performance. It starts out with just David Byrne alone on stage with an acoustic guitar and a boombox, bashing out the frenetic stutter of “Psycho Killer.” Gradually the band members and other musicians join them, until there’s a nonet of brilliant musicians, five black, four white, bopping onstage to their own infectious, juddering rhythms. The show is both stripped down and stylized, and Demme seamlessly gets it all. Every cut is perfectly placed. Watching it today, I was instantly transported to that early eighties club, immersed in the excitement and tension of a culture white-knuckling the grip of its newfound speed. More powerful is the band’s giddy energy, the hope of a post-racial utopia dancing through the night.
Demme was also a deeply committed activist. He made videos to fight apartheid, and documentaries about the plight of Haiti and the challenges repairing Katrina’s aftermath. He was a passionate, compassionate guy, and in his best films that clear-eyed honesty still comes through. Some directors are intensely showy, their presence leering from behind the camera into every frame. Demme knew how to get out of the way, and let the characters and the action tell the story at hand. It’s ironic that for such a humanist craftsman, his best remembered film is the lauded horror of Silence of the Lambs. It works so well because every character has a moment where they become grounded and real, from Lecter and Starling to the grotesque Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) and his next victim Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith). Even for just a second, you grasp each person’s pain and motivation. That eye for nuance is Demme’s hallmark, and you’ll find it in all his best films. Check ’em out, with or without a nice chianti.