Friday, March 30, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.14: Jonathan Demme's Documentaries

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. This week’s entry covers five documentaries directed by Demme between 1990 and 2010.

Cousin Bobby Grade: 82 (A-)

After his Oscar win for The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme’s career as a feature filmmaker seemed to wane. Philadelphia was a deserving commercial and critical hit, but Demme was taken to disappear from narrative filmmaker for years at a time, resurfacing only to critical and commercial disappointments like Beloved and The Truth About Charlie (The Manchurian Candidate was well reviewed but a disappointment at the box office). And while many of these films have their merits, none of them captured the imagination like Demme’s earlier work. Where was the hipster filmmaker with an offbeat sense of humor and a warmly humane view of the world? Those looking only to his Hollywood movies were bound to be disappointed, but remember, Demme is also a skillful documentarian, and his documentaries of this period brim with the life and vitality of his best work. They show his generous, giving nature and willingness to let his subjects take over the film without surrendering his personality.

Demme’s first post-Lambs film, 1992’s Cousin Bobby, is perhaps his most personal work (his opening credit reads “A Film by Cousin Jonathan”). His first non-performance oriented documentary, it follows his cousin, the Episcopalian Reverend Bob Castle. Castle is a sixty-something year old white man, but he lives and preaches in Harlem to a mostly black and Hispanic congregation. Castle preaches as a religious man and as a community activist seeking to correct racial and social injustice, and he also has a background as a civil rights activist in the 1960s and 70s (including ties to the Black Panther Party).

Demme’s cousin Bobby is perhaps the ultimate Demme subject- warmly humane, socially conscious, politically active, loving towards his family (including three kids), and accepting towards all faiths and ethnicities. He’s the embodiment of Demme’s “One World” philosophy (and a welcome reminder that there’s more people like Demme out there)- he invites people of Jewish and Islamic faith to preach alongside him both on the streets and in his church. He believes in God and Jesus, but he believes in a God that’s accepting of all people and all faiths. He’s a deeply religious man, but he’s never sanctimonious.

Demme uses simple, hand held camerawork to photograph moments so intimate they sometimes feel like particularly compelling home movies. Sometimes they are: Bobby’s 60th birthday serves as a Demme/Castle family reunion where relatives who haven’t seen each other for 30-40 years get together like no time has passed at all (and for the first time, we really get to see Demme!). They share colorful anecdotes of Bobby’s father “Uncle Willy” bowling a 300 game or Bob’s strange birth. Demme and Bobby revisit  the last place they spent time together as kids. In a deeply moving moment, they visit the grave of Bobby, Jr., who drowned as a child. It’s a family so warm and inviting that it instantly reveals how people as good as Demme and Bobby could come out, go into completely separate fields, and still have common ground as far as their lives went.

Of course, the film is more focused on Bobby’s work as a religious man and as a social activist. One notable scene involves a mass/protest in the streets, where Bobby talks about the need for a stoplight at a dangerous intersection and for a year-old pothole to be filled in. No one from up in the rich side of New York cares, so they need to make some noise. They need to keep their kids away from drugs and gangsters. A member of the church says how he doesn’t want the local shop to play adult videos where there kids can see them (though “whatever they do in their own homes is OK”). They need to keep a pediatric center in Harlem so the poor kids can stay healthy. They need to repair a broken down apartment building that recently suffered a fire.

Bobby is a man of great compassion- he cries out that institutional racism is sewed within the fabric of the nation. “We’re here because we care…they’ve stolen, ripped off, and raped this community, and they owe us.” Demme’s films often stress the positive effects of community, but rarely has he found a subject that so perfectly fits his view of social justice and community ties together so well. Bobby doesn’t want to romanticize the civil rights movement or the Black Panthers, but he stresses that the man he knew best fought so hard against drug dealers in his community that they murdered him, and that he cared so much about his people that he often wept for the fate of the children.

Cousin Bobby is a loose film that feels a bit slight at barely 70 minutes, but it’s vital filmmaking and perhaps Demme’s best look at racial injustice (Beloved doesn’t work nearly as well). The film ends with shocking footage of riots and racial injustice as the song “Edutainment” by socially conscious rapper KRS-One’s group Boogie Down Productions. Bobby’s been fighting for what’s right- what’s keeping everyone else?

The Agronomist Grade: 82 (A-)

Cousin Bobby wasn’t Demme’s first politically minded documentary, however. The director visited and fell in love with Haiti in the late 80s. He had planned to make a documentary about the social unrest in the country, but the hour long film Haiti: Dreams for Democracy wasn’t exactly what PBS had in mind when they agreed to broadcast it. Still, something came out of the whole ordeal: Demme became acquainted with Jean Dominque, the owner of Radio Haiti and a social activist fighting for democracy for his country. Through the many trials and tribulations the nation faced, Dominque often fled to New York and waited for better times, but his support for his home never waivered. Demme met with Dominque many times between 1986 and 2000, frequently interviewing him and developing a friendship with the man. When Dominique was assassinated in 2000, Demme made it his mission to put the existing footage together as tribute to the man. The resulting film, 2003’s The Agronomist, is a badly-titled but compelling film about the struggle one man and a nation endured for the right to be free.

Demme brings the same intimate hand-held camerawork to The Agronomist that he did with Cousin Bobby, but his personality also comes through with terrific sound design (sound of gunshots when showing the bullet holes in the Radio Haiti building) and music. Always one with a fascination in world music, Demme includes Creole music, most notably a score and soundtrack by Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean, a refugee from his home whose hip hop group The Fugees released the fantastic album The Fugees (and whose solo album The Carnival is also an essential). In the final song, Jean raps exclusively in French Creole as a throwback to his home and a tribute to a fascinating character. Demme himself is so committed to making this Dominique’s story that he eschews any narration (his voice only pops up a few times in interviews with Dominique).

Dominque was an agronomist (genetic plant breeder), an aspiring filmmaker (he brought films as diverse as The Third Man and La Strada to Haiti and started the short-lived Haitian filmmaking scene), and finally a radio personality who used the medium to promote ideals of freedom and democracy for Haiti. “You cannot kill truth, you cannot kill justice”, Dominque tells Demme, and he makes people believe it through sheer force of personality. Demme covers Dominique’s personal relationships with wife/fellow activist Michele Montas and their daughter, but above all else he covers Dominique and Montas’ connection to the Haitian community, particularly the downtrodden peasant class.

Dominique opposes the oppressive Duvalier regime despite constant death threats and repression. He recounts stories of improved human rights records in Haiti following Jimmy Carter’s election, only to have hopes dashed after a “cowboy” like Ronald Reagan takes over and stops support for the Haitians’ plight. When Jean-Bertrand Aristide becomes the first democratically elected president of Haiti, Dominique grows hopeful. When Aristide is overthrown, Dominique flees. As President Clinton gives support to Haiti, Dominique gains hope again even after learning that the CIA supported the Duvaliers and other oppressive leaders for fear of leftist regimes in Haiti. Through all the ups and downs, Dominique never stops fighting for social justice or gives up hope.  When Dominique is assassinated, the people of Haiti come together and pay tribute to him in a moving funeral procession. Dominique’s wife insists on the radio that Dominique is “not really dead”, and that his memory lives with the nation. Montas would eventually be forced to flee from Haiti, but her dedication has not faltered, and Demme’s respect and affection for her and her late husband is undeniable.

Man from Plains Grade: 55 (B-)

I’ll reveal my bias: former president Jimmy Carter was one of the last truly decent men in the White House, a man who had too much on his plate and just couldn’t get it all done to the satisfaction of the American public. He knew the struggle would be difficult and wasn’t willing to sell false easy answers to a people who had spent two decades in turmoil (Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was plenty willing). And Carter’s mission to promote diplomacy and understanding in the late-2000s, during the Bush administration’s intellectually incurious, ineffective “don’t talk to the people we don’t like” policies rampaged across the globe. Carter’s controversial book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid caused unfair accusations of an Anti-Israel bias (and often even more unwarranted charges of Anti-Semitism).

2007’s Man from Plains shows Carter on a book tour arguing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more complicated than “Israel good, Palestine bad” and that the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinian rights has been questionable (although he also stresses that the role of terrorism to exasperate the situation shouldn’t be minimized). He raises points that the U.S. is far more reluctant to criticize Israel than Israeli citizens are, and that a dialogue needs to be started between Israel and Palestine in order to promote peace and understanding above all else. Carter’s mission is admirable, and Demme clearly considers it a worthy subject for a documentary. The problem is that while Carter is a good man promoting a worthwhile cause, he isn’t a terribly dynamic figure in the sense that Jean Dominique and Reverend Bobby Castle are. Demme’s film shows the same concerns for community, political awareness, and “One World” philosophy that his earlier documentaries do, but the film is too long at 2 hours and too shapeless, and it comes awfully close to hero worship. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s not terribly compelling film either.

Storefront Hitchcock Grade: 83 (A-)

But the socially conscious documentary is hardly the only type, nor the most effective. Demme’s first documentary, the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, is still the definitive rock and roll film, while his underrated Spalding Grey performance film Swimming to Cambodia shows his strength at making a show as simple as one man talking fascinating. Demme’s criminally underseen 1998 film Storefront Hitchcock combines the two: it’s a concert/performance film of English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, a quirky musician given to breaking up songs with trange onstage monologues and one-liners (“This is the most upbeat song I’ve ever written; it’s about death and cancer”) that fit his surreal lyrics and jangly guitar playing.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to Storefront Hitchcock. Demme takes a lot from Stop Making Sense cameras from the frame and uses long takes to build up an almost narrative momentum to the show. He doesn’t show the audience (much smaller than that of Stop Making Sense) so as to keep the focus on the performer. There’s some odd props and stage changes during the show. Above all else, though, it’s just one guy up there with his guitar and harmonica (with a few notable exceptions as two side musicians come up for a few songs) in an average shop in New York (passersby occasionally stop and look into the window). The result is a more stripped down and spare concert film (and a less expansive one at 77 minutes), but it’s an exciting film nonetheless.

Hitchcock is another fascinating Demme “character”- odd looking, lanky, big-nosed, quirky, and with an ironic sense of humor. They range from exciting (“Devil’s Radio”) to mournful (“1974”, which mourns the inevitable death of the hippy dream), from low-key (“Glass Hotel”) to frenetic (“Freeze”), from past favorites (“Airscape”) to otherwise unreleased (“Let’s Go Thundering”). He’s a fascinating individual, a unique songwriter, and an exciting performer. His songs are melodic yet offbeat- they’re perfect for a Demme film. (EDIT: Side note, this film is available on Netflix Instant. Definitely check it out).

Heart of Gold Grade: 91 (A)

Demme’s best documentary of the period is yet another concert film, this time about another singer-songwriter: influential 60s/70s icon Neil Young. The title Heart of Gold comes from the classic song of the same name, but the concert’s material follows Young’s career from the beginning to the near-end. Young’s father had recently died, and he faced death himself with a brain aneurysm. His 2005 album Prairie Wind is a beautiful reflection on his life, growing old, his experiences with death, and the passage of time. Demme’s 2006 film documents the premiere concert performance of the album in Nashville, plus a handful of old tunes Young had recorded in the city over the years. The film is without a doubt the most moving documentary in Demme’s filmography.

Pre-show interviews show Young and his backing band of close friends discussing Young’s life “flashing before his eyes” and the sense that certain elements of their past might be forgotten after they’re gone. When they hit stage, though, there’s no time to waste. They’re old guys, but they’re hardly doddering. The music fills them with life, and while it’s a quiet, more intimate show than Young sometimes gives, that quietness should not be mistaken for lack of vitality. Young says he just “wants to play a show with my friends…give the best show that I can…”, and Demme captures it in all of it’s glory (bonus Demme points: it’s a multiracial band featuring both men and women).

The film has the best narrative drive of any Demme documentary since Stop Making Sense: the first half of the concert covers the Prairie Wind album, with songs about growing old (“The Painter”), frustration with the Bush administration (“No Wonder”), the possibility of dying (“Falling Off the Face of the Earth”) or being forgotten (the beautiful “It’s a Dream”). There’s tributes to his father (“Far From Home”, “Prairie Wind”) and his college-aged daughter (“Here For You”). It’s all gorgeously performed by a man not afraid to show his vulnerability before a crowd of people- he feels accepted in Nashville, and that it’s more accepting than many might give it credit.

The second half of the film is a retrospective on Young’s interests over time: racial harmony (Buffalo Springfield-era song “I Am a Child”), love (the delicate “Harvest Moon”), friends lost to drugs (“The Needle and the Damage Done”), and even a favorite song from his childhood (“Four Strong Winds” by Ian Tyson). Three songs highlight what it’s all about: the final song “One of These Days”, in which Young recognizes people he’s drifted apart from who matter to him; the credit song “The Old Laughing Lady”, a song from his first album almost certainly about the inevitability of death (with the credit “For Daddy” popping up at the end); and the Neil Young theme song, “Heart of Gold”, a song which highlights the similarities between the folksy Young and the quirky Demme.

The line “keep me searching for a heart of gold/when I’m getting old” showed youthful concern that Young would stop caring about what’s right when he gets old. But Young and Demme are too good to stop caring. The two would team up again for the respectably received Neil Young Trunk Show, a film which documents a louder, rowdier Young concert. But it’s hard to follow-up what’s the finest concert film in recent memory, even from a man who knows how make a concert film better than anyone else.

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