In this week’s issue, J.R. Jones reviewed A Master Builder, the new movie by Jonathan Demme. Pauline Kael once wrote that “you have to feel your way through” a Demme movie, and that’s true. Visually, his films are rather plain, but they’re deceptively impressionistic, specifically in the way they evoke the emotions of their characters via competent and intentionally austere composition and staging. With Demme, he’s most profound when he’s at his least stylish, an intriguing paradox that occasionally results in some unremarkable films (Rachel Getting Married, Philadelphia, The Manchurian Candidate). His work focuses on people and relationships in highly specific ways, and his ability to so gracefully express his characters’ inner lives puts him in the same league as great humanist filmmakers like Jean Renoir and Hal Ashby. My five favorite Demme films are below.
5. Caged Heat (1974) This cheap women-in-prison film, which Demme made for B-movie maverick Roger Corman, is the director’s debut, and though it’s certainly rough around the edges, the earliest inclinations of his style are evident throughout. It’s possible to enjoy Caged Heat as nothing more than a rip-roaring exploitation romp, but serious ideas about feminism and patriarchal oppression simmer beneath the sleazy surface.
4. Stop Making Sense (1984) Among the greatest concert films ever made, this recording of three Talking Heads shows at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles is a pure celebration of live performance. The film’s lack of style is precisely what makes it so profound. Demme’s unfussy, straightforward framing captures the concert perfectly, from the biggest gestures down to the tiniest intricacies. In avoiding unnecessary artifice, Demme amplifies the heart of the material, a strategy he’s employed throughout his career.
3. Beloved (1998) Demme’s most poetic and spiritual film, a sort of adult fairytale that challenges notions of cinematic realism with mysterious, pointedly emotional imagery and mise en scene. It’s also one of the best examples of how deceptively powerful the director’s “soft touch” can be. The story is more conceptual and whimsical than those typical to Demme—the kind that might steer lesser filmmakers toward portentousness and overcompensation—but the director has a strong feel for the narrative’s symbolic implications. He never does any more or any less than he has to, an attribute held by the greatest directors.
2. Citizens Band [aka Handle with Care] (1977) In this curious and prescient comedy, his first truly great work, Demme borrowed Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the global village and applied it to the hyperspecific milieu of a small Nebraska town caught up in a CB-radio craze. The film toes a tricky line between humanist parable and didactic cautionary tale—with similar material, a lesser director might resort to ridicule and judgement, but Demme grants his bucolic characters their due dignity. The film has remarkable staying power, growing more and more profound as mobile communication becomes increasingly ubiquitous, and the lyrical denouement remains one of the director’s most inspired sequences.
1. Something Wild (1986) In his review for the Reader, Pat Graham wrote that Something Wild is “not the best film of its year (1986), but the best American one,” a truly apt distinction to grant this wily, multifaceted masterpiece. Demme’s survey of the eclectic milieus of American life—urban, suburban, rural, and even subrural—suggest a splintered zeitgeist, reflected in the film’s diverse characters, landscapes, and points of view. The film’s inconsistent tone—”A synthesis of the pop/sociological/exploitation strands of his earlier work,” according to Graham—is sure to frustrate those viewers who prefer a fixed thematic perspective, but the film’s variety of voices is among its strongest features.