Sunday, March 4, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.1: Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat/Crazy Mama/Fighting Mad

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. March’s director is the perpetually underrated Jonathan Demme. Today’s entry covers his first three films: Caged Heat. Crazy Mama, and Fighting Mad.

When discussing the greatest directors to come out of the 70s, there’s a handful of names thrown in almost every time: Martin Scorsese. Steven Spielberg. Robert Altman. Woody Allen. Francis Ford Coppola. How many people mention Jonathan Demme? Demme has made a number of great, critically acclaimed films (Married to the Mob, Melvin and Howard, Stop Making Sense) and even won an Oscar for directing The Silence of the Lambs, yet his name is almost never mentioned among the all-time greats. Demme’s greatest fans (including writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson), however, maintain that the director’s films brim with liveliness and warmth, and that Demme’s importance should never be underestimated.

Caged Heat Grade: 77 (B+)

Like many filmmakers of his generation (Scorsese, Coppola, John Sayles, Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron), Jonathan Demme got his start working for legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman. Corman had a remarkable eye for talent, and he taught directors like Demme the basics of filmmaking- how to make a film quickly, with little cost, and come out with a solid product. The directors had to stick to a certain formula that would draw audiences looking for sex, violence, and nudity, but he allowed them to inject their personality into their films. Demme’s first directing assignment (after writing Angels as Hard as They Come and The Hot Box) was 1974’s Caged Heat, a modest entry into the “women in prison” exploitation subgenre, and yet a lively piece of filmmaking that showed that Demme’s talent as a filmmaker was evident from day one.

Jacqueline Wilson (Erica Gavin) is convicted on drug and assault charges and sent to prison. There, she meets a rowdy, motley crew of fellow convicts- hot-tempered Maggie (Juanita Brown), tough black girl Pandora (Ella Reid) and her friend Belle (Roberta Collins), sweet-natured Lavelle (Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith), and others. The women are systematically abused by creepy Dr. Randolph (Warren Miller) and clash with their uptight, wheelchair-bound warden McQueen (horror B-movie legend Barbara Steele). It’s a tough world where The Man tries to keep a girl down, but together they can fight back.

As with any women-in-prison movie, the first draw to Caged Heat is the promise of violence (shootouts, catfights, prison escapes) and nudity (it’s all around, trust me). Caged Heat is an exploitation film, no doubt, but Demme brings something different to the table that distinguishes it from most films of its type: warmth. One thing that’s clear in all of Demme’s films is that he genuinely loves people, and that he cares about his characters. This might not seem like much, but it elevates the trashy (if entertaining) subgenre to something resembling real art. From day one, Demme’s sympathies extend to the downtrodden more than anyone else. Leftist politics were everywhere in the exploitation subgenre, but Demme’s feel far more meaningful given his warmth for people and well-sketched characters.

It comes to no surprise, then, that Caged Heat, like many of Demme’s films, centers on women. Without ever seeming like a patronizing panderer, Demme argues that women, more than anyone else, can’t catch a break in a society run primarily by white men. Wilson is shifted around by an impersonal court system into a prison that takes advantage of its prisoners. As soon as she arrives, she and other women are forced to strip by Dr. Randolph (who also tells them to do some “light exercises” for him). Her crime was real, but that doesn’t apply to everyone: Lavelle shot and killed a rapist who picked her up while she was hitchhiking; when the man’s father turned out to be a powerful politician, she was thrown into prison for life. When Pandora is punished, she isn’t just thrown into solitary confinement- she’s also stripped naked. Even McQueen, the uptight warden responsible for much of the punishment, gets messed around by the system. She’s a small, meek person uncomfortable with sex, and she feels responsible for the inmates. When she asks Dr. Randolph if his “surgeries” on the women, she wants to make sure everything is humane and beneficial for them. The doctor lies to her, of course, forces consent for Belle to be drugged, and takes nude photographs of her while she’s out; this is before his planned lobotomy on Belle.

But through their plight, the women band together for form a microcosm of a family in prison, and they’re willing to go to extraordinary measures to keep this family together. Maggie and Jacqueline get into a fight, but they’re not willing to rat on each other to McQueen. When Pandora goes into solitary confinement, Belle manages to sneak in the ventilation system to get food for her friend in a handful of exhilarating sequences. When Maggie and Jacqueline bust out of prison, Lavelle helps the two even given the consequences of her being caught (nude solitary confinement). Jacqueline convinces Maggie and her aptly-named friend Crazy Alice (Cristyn Sinclaire) to bust back into prison and break Belle, Lavelle, and Pandora out. When Lavelle learns that Dr. Randolph abuses his patients/plans to lobotomize Belle, she and Pandora come together and help their friend, taking Randolph and McQueen hostage as they bust out together (and perfectly timed with the other group’s arrival). At the end, it’s a violent shoot-out, but everyone manages to escape relatively unscathed as the group rides towards freedom, a wounded McQueen and killed Randolph left behind. Even more interesting is that this group is multiracial, yet that fact is never made into a big Message moment- it just is what it is, and it’s ultimately a bunch of downtrodden people grouping together and helping each other, ethnicity be damned.

These themes- strong women, unconventional families, leftist politics- would come up in Demme’s films throughout his career, combined with his signature warmth and wit. But what of Demme’s technical prowess? 
Corman taught Demme to always have something going on in the background to compliment what was happening in the foreground, and Demme’s films are alive and wonderfully composed as a result. Caged Heat marks Demme’s first collaboration with regular-cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who keeps the camera and the action moving as quickly as possible in the spry 83-minute runtime. Demme works within the Corman-exploitation mold, but even in his earliest works he throws in some of his French New Wave influences in the New Wave-editing, offbeat humor (including a bizarre, hilarious vaudeville show in which the prisoners mock male society), and strange dream sequences (sexual, and with blinding light).

Demme, like Scorsese before him, was greatly influenced by music as well as film. Rock and roll was Demme’s first love, and he paid tribute to his musical influences by hiring John Cale of The Velvet Underground to score Caged Heat. Cale’s score runs from folksy-blues numbers to unsettling, ambient music for the dream sequences. Demme would use contemporary music to great effect in later films, but Caged Heat shows his musical sensibilities from the get-go.

Crazy Mama Grade: 68 (B)

Music, French New Wave, exploitation and women’s pictures influenced Caged Heat, and they influence Demme’s second outing, 1975’s Crazy Mama, as well. Crazy Mama is the least successful of Demme’s first three features- it would have to be, considering that Demme got the assignment ten days before it was to start shooting after the original director left the project. Yet Crazy Mama is still an important work in Demme’s career- a film that shows Demme’s skill as a filmmaker advancing even given the limited amount of time he had to work on the project.

Melba Stokes (Cloris Leachman) has had a tough life. In Great Depression-era Arkansas, her father was killed trying to keep hold of his farm as it was repossessed. Now in 1958 her landlord is closing down her beauty parlor, and her teenaged daughter Cheryl (Linda Purl) is pregnant. Melba, Cheryl, and her mother Sheba (Ann Sothern) go on the road with Cheryl’s dorky boyfriend Shawn (Donny Most) to get their old farm back. Along the way, they band together with Melba’s new lover Jim Bob (Stuart Whitman), greaser Snake (Leachman’s son Bryan Englund), and birdlike old lady Bertha (Merie Earle). The group will get the farm back, even if they have to lie, cheat, and steal to do it.

As with Caged Heat, Crazy Mama primarily focuses on downtrodden women kicked around by privileged society. Melba’s father was killed by the wealthier members of the community, and now Melba and company can’t seem to get a break making an honest living. They’re doing wrong, but they’ve been forced to do it; they have no other choice if they want to become self-sufficient. It’s an odd group- a dreamer of a woman (Melba) and her irreverent mother (Sheba); a ditzy daughter (Cheryl) and her dorky boyfriend (Shawn); Cheryl’s second love interest, the wild but friendly Snake, an old lady who loves Snake (Bertha), and a kindly southerner willing to leave his wife for his new family. They bring each other up and support each other through the hardest times. This is America, damn it, and they can make it if they just work together.

Crazy Mama isn’t as tightly-plotted or well scripted as Caged Heat, but it allows Demme to explore his fascination with everyday Americana- dirt roads, Vegas casinos, the dream of owning a farm, and of course, early rock and roll (“Money (That’s What I Want”, “Lollipop”, “All I Have to Do Is Dream”), which provides a lively soundtrack to the proceedings. Demme finds beauty in the most mundane, even the kitschiest, side of America, and that quality made him unique among the filmmakers of his generation.

Fighting Mad Grade: 75 (B+)

Of all of Demme’s early features, 1976’s Fighting Mad is the most conventional. Demme doesn’t inject his irreverent sense of humor as much as he did with Caged Heat or Crazy Mama, nor does he do much of anything offbeat with the narrative. It’s a fairly straightforward revenge film in the style of a modern western. What Fighting Mad does have, however, is Demme’s finest cast yet, as well as proof that Demme could do a straightforward film and still give his signature look at Americana.

Tom Hunter (Peter Fonda) returns to his Arkansas hometown with his son after he splits up with his wife. Tom is welcomed with open arms by his father (John Douchette), brother (Scott Glenn), and old flame (Lynn Lowry), but the town is beset by a greedy real-estate developer (Philip Carey) whose strip-mining is destroying the countryside and whose dirty tactics to get the farmers’ land includes intimidation and murder. It doesn’t help that the law (including a sheriff played by Harry Northrup) is firmly on big business’s side. When a group of goons kill Tom’s brother and sister-in-law, Tom takes the law into his own hands until the battle over the small-town becomes a full-fledged war.

Peter Fonda never had the range of his father Henry or his sister Jane, but given the right role the man could be more than effective. He’s perfectly cast here as an everyman pushed too far by a bunch of country club-attending suits. The rich don’t care about the people they leave at the wayside, they just want development, and their senseless destruction of land and property registers as an ugly depiction of the dark side of capitalism. The police want law and order, and given that the rich let their dirty work go unseen, the poor largely get the blame for the conflict. When Fonda loses nearly everything- his brother, his father, his farm, his best friend, and the only judge willing to award damages to the farmers- he has no choice. He confronts his enemies with gun and bow-and-arrow, and he wreaks his revenge.

It’s a simple enough film, but Demme brings his fascination with everyday Americana to the forefront. Fonda and company never look more peaceful than when sharing company, working the farm, having dinner, and going to a country-western bar. Fighting Mad isn’t a sophisticated film, but with this, Crazy Mama, and Caged Heat, Jonathan Demme established himself as a force to reckoned with. He would fulfill his early promise with his next film: 1977’s Handle with Care.

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