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Remembering filmmaker Johnathan Demme, who helped us make sense of the world

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Film critic J. Hoberman once called Demme a “master of clutter,” and the joy of his movies were in the details.
Smith Galtney

Last month, filmmaker Jonathan Demme died at the age of 73. As the director of Stop Making Sense (the world’s greatest concert movie) and The Silence of the Lambs (the only horror movie to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture) Demme’s accolades were impressive enough. But it was his love of music and how it shapes what we see that fine-tuned the eyes and ears of a generation. Once asked to name his three biggest influences, Paul Thomas Anderson responded, “Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme and Jonathan Demme.”

Throughout the 1970s, Demme cut his teeth under the tutelage of indie-film trailblazer Roger Corman, giving women-prison flicks, road movies and buddy comedies his own twist. The first film he produced, Angels Hard as They Come, was a biker flick loosely based on Rashomon. His first directing credit, Caged Heat, featured a score by Velvet Underground founder John Cale. After the comedy Melvin & Howard became a sleeper smash in 1980, Demme helmed his first Hollywood picture, Swing Shift, a production that was hijacked and ruined by its star, Goldie Hawn.

Retreating from Hollywood, Demme got back to basics and kicked off his golden period. From Sense in ’84 to Lambs in ’91, Demme was cinema’s equivalent of R.E.M., parlaying his underground aesthetic into mainstream success with the utmost integrity. Movies like Something Wild and Married to the Mob weren’t just fun, they were an education. Demme’s work introduced me to filmmakers (John Waters, John Sayles), bands (The Feelies, The Buzzcocks), even cinematographers (Tak Fujimoto!). In pre-Internet America, the man was a defining inspiration.

Film critic J. Hoberman once called Demme a “master of clutter,” and the joy of a movie like Something Wild is in the details: b-boys rapping in the corner of the frame, a gospel service glowing in the background, Melanie Griffith reading books about Frida Khalo and Winnie Mandela. At times Demme could overdo it (Rachel Getting Married’s parade of multi-culti quirk), but usually it was visual storytelling par excellence. The Nazi quilt, lovingly stitched with orange swastikas, that appears for a split-second in Silence says more about Buffalo Bill’s character than his bichon frise and his nipple ring combined.

Q. Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses,” the song to which Buffalo Bill dances, is a classic Demme touch. A lesser director would have gone for the obvious (“I Touch Myself,” perhaps?), but Demme chose something peculiar—a folk song with synth-pop beats, made by an unknown performer he met in a cab. Wherever Q. Lazzarus is, surely she’s okay that we’ll never hear her music without gyrating softly, applying air lipstick and mumbling, “Would you f*ck me? I’d f*ck me.” (If you’re feeling low, google “Goodbye Horses” and “Clerks II” and turn your life around.)

If Buffalo Bill is the hippest serial killer ever, he also marked a traumatic moment in Demme’s career. Gay activists like Larry Kramer cried “stereotype!” and charged Bill’s outrageousness as “virulently and insidiously homophobic.” Then they rightly accused Philadelphia, Demme’s next film—about a gay white lawyer living with AIDS—of being too straight-laced. But as Slate writer Jeffrey Bloomer recently noted, time has proved Buffalo Bill and even Hannibal Lecter to be more authentically gay than the thinly drawn Andrew Beckett. And when was the last time you heard anyone quote anything from Philadelphia?

In this era of finicky identity politics, this might be Demme’s most timely legacy: Don’t try to please the world. Just please yourself. The world will follow.

Tags: Culture, Film
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