Something Wild

November 14, 2012

Hollywood can treat its biggest talents in strange ways. When Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard appeared in 1980, he suddenly looked like the hottest young filmmaker around, and with good reason. That screwball film, which copped the National Society of Film Critics award, had everything: humor, heart, hipness, tenderness.

Since 1980, however, Demme has had a peculiar time of it. He was a good choice to direct Swing Shift, an originally ambitious Goldie Hawn movie, but he clashed with the star and finally lost control of the movie. Then he made the Talking Heads’ scorching concert film, Stop Making Sense, and turned it into the best music film in recent memory. Still, it was an oddball project, and one wondered when Demme would get back to his bread and butter.

He’s cooking again, and Something Wild is his latest concoction. In it, Demme takes an absolutely familiar story and makes something fresh and funky out of it.

The script, by first-timer E. Max Frye, uses the classic situation of the straight-laced guy changed for the better by a wild encounter with a kooky girl. This situation has been a fruitful one in films since the first time Katharine Hepburn dazzled Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby; this variant is decidedly modern, with some new rules, and also some unprecedented seriousness.

This one begins with an up-and-coming tax consultant (Jeff Daniels) casually walking out of a small New York deli without paying his check. He’s been spotted by a young woman (Melanie Griffith) who’s made up to look like silent star Louise Brooks—in fact, she calls herself Lulu, the Brooks character who lured men to their deaths in Pandora’s Box.

Lulu identifies the man, Charles, as a “closet rebel,” a basically good guy who has almost been lost to yuppiedom. She takes him on a nutty ride through a memorably lost weekend that brings out his free-spirit streak.

The first hour of this ride is a wonderfully funny trip, from a motel in New Jersey to Lulu’s mother’s house in Pennsylvania, where she introduces Charles as her new husband. He goes along with it all, because the mysterious Lulu (not her real name, naturally) is so utterly bewitching, and because he’s feeling the thrill of irresponsibility.

Nobody captures this sort of thing better than Demme: the romance of the road, the crazy tourist shops, the fabulous décor of motel rooms.

Then, when the couple drop in at her high-school reunion, they meet a strange, violent man (Ray Liotta, a former soap-opera actor in a striking film debut) from her past. The film veers into some surprisingly serious business, as this dark figure seems intent on reclaiming his old flame.

Some of this is jarring, and it’s certainly startling; but Demme does as well as anyone could with making some of the unevenness fit.

One of the delightful things about the film, and there are many, is the sight of two good actors really breaking through. Griffith, the daughter of Tippi Hedren, has been stalled in sexy nymphet roles (Body Double), but this opens up something new for her. She’ll never quite manage normal roles, I guess, but she certainly fills out her niche here.

Daniels is terrific; he’s the dubious fellow from Terms of Endearment and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Never have his comically flat voice and improbably straight jaw been used to better effect. His absurd habit of referring to waitresses and garage mechanics by the names on their nametags becomes a goofy, friendly, silly catalog of his outlook on life. It’s a lot like the film’s outlook, which is why Something Wild is so much fun to be around.

First published in the Herald, November 1986

I like the movie. Did Melanie Griffith go normal? I suppose so. But here, she filled her niche, so there.

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Swing Shift

July 20, 2012

Have you ever found yourself sitting on the edge of your seat watching a movie—not because the movie is exciting, but because you’re waiting for it to start? Even when you’re still waiting for it to start after it’s been running for an hour or two?

Somehow, if you lean forward, you can have the feeling you’re going to help the film get in gear. I have found, however, that it doesn’t work that way. The actors might be amiable, the situation might be intriguing, the locations might be beautiful. But, lean all you want, the film just won’t click.

I was doing a lot of leaning during Swing Shift. Here’s a movie with a lot to recommend it: watchable onscreen people, a talented young director, and a potentially rich milieu. But something went wrong with Swing Shift. It suffers from a fundamental lack of focus. There’s no clear answer to the question: What is this movie about?

In simple plot terms, it’s about a meek wife (Goldie Hawn) left behind during World War II. Hubby (Ed Harris) is serving in the Pacific, so Goldie takes a job at the local airplane factory, along with her next-door neighbor (Christine Lahti). Also working there is a trumpet player (Kurt Russell) with whom Goldie will have an affair.

What the movie really consists of is a rather shapeless series of episodes in the lives of the three workers. Part of it is about Goldie’s consciousness-raising. Part of it is about the romance. Part of it is about the friendship between the two women. Part of it is about the women gaining respect in the male-dominated workplace.

There is much to enjoy in all of these parts, thanks to the likability of the actors and director Jonathan Demme’s feeling for the material. One of Demme’s strengths, in films such as Handle with Care and Melvin and Howard, is in taking a bittersweet, generous view of humankind by looking at ordinary people in a deceptively loose, no-sweat style.

Swing Shift, although it takes place over four years, should have a leaner, straighter shape than, say, Melvin and Howard. But the movie seems disjointed and fuzzily-conceived.

Take Lahti’s boyfriend (Fred Ward), for instance. The character drifts in and out of the movie, but we haven’t really gotten to know him enough to care about his enigmatic leave-takings.

For that matter, Goldie’s entry into self-awareness is achieved somewhat abruptly. We see a montage of her beginning to hold her own at the factory, and suddenly she’s working her way up the managerial ladder. Some of the jumps in narrative make you suspect that perhaps a portion of the film ended up on the cutting-room floor. Maybe it’s part of the explanation for the film’s odd shape.

The much-publicized behind-the-scenes romance between Hawn and Russell doesn’t really spice up the love scenes, although both players are in good form. It’s Christine Lahti who really walks away with the movie, as the smart, sexy, sympathetic best friend. A combination of intelligence and high cheekbones, Lahti seems very much due for a starring vehicle of her own.

First published in the Herald, April 1984

There seems to be some debate about whether Demme’s original cut (he was involved in the re-shoots, too) survives and is watchable. But the release version certainly goes flat.


Stop Making Sense

February 11, 2011

“I’m an ordinary guy,” sings David Byrne in the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.” Audiences being exposed to Byrne’s vulture-eyed, bone-rattling, and utterly mesmerizing presence may be forgiven for questioning the truth of his lyric; he’s truly one of the most bizarre and dynamic rock figures ever captured on film. He’s the lead singer, songwriter, and guiding force of the Talking Heads, and he also directed their 1983 stage shows, of which Stop Making Sense is the cinematic record. The film has another director, Jonathan Demme (of Melvin and Howard), whose cinematic conception of this concert—and it’s all music, no interviews or backstage hijinks—harmonizes exactly with Byrne’s vision.

I can’t tell you how good it is to see a concert done justice by film; as a rule, this is the deadliest of film genres. It’s been widely noted that Demme has gone in for lengthier camera takes, rather than the usual cut-cut-cut of most concert movies. True enough, but how does this make Stop Making Sense a superior concert film? For one thing, it lays the burden of interest squarely on the performers; they have to sink or swim without fancy editorial tricks to distract the viewers. The band must build its performance from within; there’s a strong sense of the music growing internally (rather than being a series of songs laid end to end). That’s especially important here, because the music is designed in complicated, circular rhythms that irresistibly draw you in. (This style also fits the shape of the concert: Byrne starts out alone onstage with a guitar and a ghetto-blaster, and is gradually joined by other band members as the group grows into a nine-person band—even mutating into the Tom Tom Club for a delightful “Genius of Love”—and the music gets increasingly hotter.)

Demme’s camera seems to work its way into the flow of the concert; it’s as though we understand it from inside. During the song “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” Demme’s camera watches drummer Chris Frantz, who has just come onstage, and Byrne, playing guitar in front of him. Demme lets the shot run for a while as the two pound through the song. Then the camera drifts straight back, just a bit, and we see the other person on stage: bassist Tina Weymouth, happily frugging away to Byrne’s left. You know she’s been there the whole time, and somehow the camera’s adjustment to include her is gratifying—it’s an acknowledgment that the concert has a life of its own, outside of the film frame.

Demme’s objective is not to adapt the concert into a film, but to integrate film into the concert. I’m not sure that’s been done successfully before. The ecstatic high point of this fusion between the movement of the concert and the style of the film comes during “Girlfriend is Better,” as the band shouts the words “Stop Making Sense.” Byrne waves the microphone at the light man who has come onstage, and the man leans in for a chorus. On the next beat, Byrne pivots and finds…us. He’s looking into the camera, and—what the hey—he waves the mike our way for a moment. Movie and concert really have become one. I don’t see a lot of concert films, because they’re usually a sorry bunch. So, although I can’t claim to be an expert on the disreputable subject, Stop Making Sense is certainly the best concert movie I’ve ever seen.

First published in The Informer, November 1984

A very good moment in music-movie history. The movie played a nice long run at the Market Theatre in Seattle, and its arrival seemed to suggest an interesting life slithering into existence in the same world inhabited by Stranger Than Paradise and Repo Man and other such titles. I’m not sure anything ever quite developed from that (maybe it came to fruition in the 1990s), but it was nice while it lasted.