He loved quirks, often more than people, befitting a director who got his start as the delightful Roger Corman aficionado of Caged Heat and Crazy Mama. The cross-eyed lepidopterologist in The Silence of the Lambs, Mary Steenburgen’s squeal of delight in Melvin and Howard, the cut of Dean Stockwell’s suit in Married to the Mob. But Jonathan Demme loved people too. Behavior fascinated him. If his work has a leitmotif, it’s the primacy of performance: choosing what faces to show others becomes a means, finally, of expressing a self. The titles of his two best movies, Stop Making Sense and Something Wild, are instructive: we never stop making sense because no matter how much we may look like Jeff Daniels’ Charlie Driggs, buttoned up in a suit to impress the boss, the possibility for something wild gnaws at us, ready to show itself with the right catalyst. Think David Byrne, bobbing his head in a chicken dance in Stop Making Sense, steadily losing himself to the euphoria of his band’s music until the last third when he suits up again – in a bigger suit! – and is nuttier than ever. What I’ll remember about Demme are bits like the cutaway to street dancers and singers at a rural gas station in Something Wild, and the intensity of the concentration that New Order show in the video for “Perfect Kiss,” as if terrified they’ll play a bum mote.
An example of success inhibiting a muse and putting sand in the vaseline, Demme never recovered from The Silence of the Lambs. The first (and last) film to sweep the top five Oscars since 1934’s It Happened One Night, this adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel has suffered from a backlash it never deserved; it was so damn omnipresent that it’s hard to remember how well Demme adjusted to suspense conventions. At its heart are a memorable performance and a remarkable one: Jodie Foster’s alert Clarice Starling, a heroine for the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill age, obligated to solve the mystery herself despite the predations of male townspeople and the polite disregard from the boss (Scott Glenn) who throws her into danger for his own amusement, in his own way more callous than Hannibal Lecter. As for Anthony Hopkins, playing the most famous screen villain since Norman Bates, if the performance looks camp now (and was then too), it’s not Demme’s fault and probably his intention: the psycho killer who quotes Marcus Aurelius and draws Florence’s Duomo from memory can only project his malevolent intelligence with prissy insouciance.
And that was that. For so long Demme had been a wonder – here was a filmmaker unparalyzed by that very American phenomenon of proving one’s seriousness of purpose. Until he summoned his powers for an excellent return to his earlier humanism called Rachel Getting Married (2008), the years after Silence constitute a ignominious record of prestige pictures (Philadelphia, Beloved) and stilted attempts at channeling the old manic energy (The Truth About Charlie, Ricki and the Flash). His documentary of Neil Young’s Prairie Wind tour has a mild, craggy charm. I was so disappointed in his career that I skipped his adaptation of Ibsen’s A Master Builder; I may watch it now, as well as give Swimming to Cambodia another shot – years ago I thought it got Spalding Grey’s tone but not much else; My Dinner with André‘s Wallace Shawn and André Gregory were more demented.