Saturday, March 31, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.15: Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married

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.

Grade: 96 (A)

After years of commercial and critical disappointment, Jonathan Demme more or less retired from making commercial films. Besides, he loved making documentaries, and he found ways to make documentaries work without needing too much money. But when Jenny Lumet (daughter of the late director Sidney Lumet) sent Demme her script about two sisters- one an addict, one a bride-to-be- the director loved it too much to pass. 2008’s Rachel Getting Married was Demme’s best-reviewed film since The Silence of the Lambs, but the film feels more like a return to the classic, kooky humanism of Demme’s 80s comedies (Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, Married to the Mob). It mixes warmth, joy, sadness, and raucous fun as well as any film in recent memory. While there were plenty of great films from 2008 (WALL-E, The Dark Knight, Funny Games, Wendy and Lucy, Milk, Che, Man on Wire), no film quite captured what I love about film in 2008 like Rachel Getting Married.

Kym (Anne Hathaway) is a recovering drug addict let out of rehab for the wedding of her older sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Her family is warm, inviting, and constantly hovering over her. Her father Paul (Bill Irwin), a music producer, smothers her with attention. His ex-wife Abby (Debra Winger) seems distant from Kym. Rachel’s feelings for her troubled, often narcissistic sister oscillate from affection to resentment. And Kym’s troubled past can never quite stay buried even at an occasion as joyous as her sister’s wedding.

It sounds like a rather thin film, but the joy lies outside Lumet’s (still formidable) script and in the details. Demme’s compositions are, as always, beautifully busy, with something always going on in the foreground and in the background, whether it’s something of great importance or just musicians playing on the side. What separates Rachel Getting Married from many of Demme’s earlier works, however, is the difference in cinematography. Gone is the fluid, beautiful camerawork of longtime cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. Demme instead brings in remarkable digital photography from Declan Quinn for a messier hand-held style reminiscent of the Danish Dogme movement (Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, Lars von Trier’s The Idiots) and Demme’s own documentary work. The result is a more direct fly-on-the-wall feeling that meshes beautifully with Demme’s lively sensibility. The film isn’t completely removed from the look of Demme’s past films, however: the director makes extensive use of close-ups to highlight the joy and pain of its characters, using long, unbroken takes as characters confess what’s bothering them.
Demme also brings his love for kitsch Americana to Rachel Getting Married: the All-American home, the AA group meeting, and the melting pot of a wedding (black, white, and Middle Eastern garb is everywhere while the bride and bridesmaids are dressed in saris). It brings a wonderful liveliness missing from most American indie films these days.

If Rachel Getting Married sounds like a typical indie-dirge, Demme brings the film to life with lively scenes of partying and music-making. The film’s use of on-camera music is remarkable (and another carry-over from the Dogme movement). The fact that Rachel and Kym’s father is a music producer and Rachel’s fiancĂ©e Sidney a musician only gives excuse to have music happening all the time- the score is played not on the soundtrack, but in the background by talented musicians and composers Donald Harrison and Zafer Tawil. Characters compose music as a dedication to Rachel and Sidney’s wedding, and the composers subtly give appropriate themes for its two central characters (moody for Kym, hurt and heartfelt for Rachel). It doesn’t end there: Sidney’s wedding vow is an a-capella version of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” (a tie-in to Demme’s Young documentary Heart of Gold). Paul’s connection to the music business allows Demme-regulars Sister Carol and Robyn Hichcock (another subject of a Demme documentary, Storefront Hitchcock) to perform at the reception (Hitchcock’s new version of “America” is superior to the studio version). Demme even brings world music and hip hop into the wedding reception- it’s  a big party from an eclectic bunch, and no music is off-limits.

Demme’s 80s films in particular had a wonderful sense of both A. a “One World” philosophy where people of all ethnicities could mix without it being a big deal, and B. a sense that the side characters could take over the film at any moment. Rachel Getting Married has the best sense of this of any of Demme’s post-80s films. Supporting characters (Anna Deavere Smith as Kym’s stepmother, Mather Zickel as the best man/fellow recovering addict, Anisa George as Rachel’s best friend) bring great kindness and caring to the proceedings. Kym’s fellow addicts are more good people trying to take control of their lives (old, young, and what looks like an Elvis impersonator). Along with Robyn Hitchcock and Sister Carl East, the wedding guests include Demme-mentor Roger Corman (apparently as himself) and Demme’s own cousin Rev. Bobby Castle (of the documentary Cousin Bobby) as the priest. Sidney’s family is black, Rachel’s white, but it hardly matters- we can all love. Sidney himself is played by TV on the Radio-frontman Tunde Adebimpe in an impressive performance as a kind, patient man trying to deal with the craziness of Rachel’s family, and doing a pretty good job (his bond with Paul is particularly nice).

As a side note, because I can’t not mention it, the part of Sidney was initially  offered to Paul Thomas Anderson, a Demme-fanatic and my pick for the for being the finest filmmaker working today (Sydney/Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood). PTA had to turn it down, as he was busy with post-production for There Will Be Blood. While Adebimpe is fantastic and brings that “One World” philosophy Demme does so well into the film, I can’t help but want a peek into a world with an alternate, PTA co-starring Rachel Getting Married.
The film wouldn’t work without strong central characters, however, and everyone is up to task. Hathaway, DeWitt, Irwin and Winger are wholly believable as a loving but dysfunctional family. Hathaway had showed promise before (most notably in Brokeback Mountain), but her performance in Rachel Getting Married is a revelation, completely devoid of vanity or self-importance. It’s key that the Demme-style role of a strong woman trying to reinvent herself be cast right, and Hathaway nails Kym’s neuroses, narcissism, attitude and sarcasm. She loves her family but feels like they’re constantly judging her and watching her. She picks at her sister for not making her the maid of honor (although Rachel acquiesces) and at her father for constantly lingering over her. Yet for all of her problems, it’s impossible not to sympathize with her struggle to do good and to change. Hathaway was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, losing to Kate Winslet for The Reader. She was robbed.

DeWitt is equally impressive as Rachel, who clearly loves her sister but who has had to live in the shadow of her troubles. She has fought for Kym in the past, and now as Kym threatens to take over the wedding (Kym makes the 12-Step Program’s “amends” step in a completely inappropriate situation). Sometimes it’s impossible for Rachel to extend any warmth towards her sister, particularly after a particularly nasty revelation in the film’s second act. But through thick and thin, they’re sisters, and when Kym comes home after yet another fuck-up, Rachel takes the time before her wedding to bathe her sister and clean her wounds.

Winger has a smaller but crucial role as Kym and Rachel’s distant mother. Winger’s history as an actress is important: a big star in the past, Winger retreated from film in the late-90s. The “where have you been” feeling informs her presence here: Abby and Paul divorced after a traumatic event involving Kym tore them apart, and she’s been less involved in the sisters’ lives since the divorce. She’s not a bad person, but she doesn’t deal with loss well.

The secret hero of Rachel Getting Married, however, is Bill Irwin, a theatre-actor and clown (yes, really) whose natural expressiveness and warmth helps make Paul one of my favorite characters in recent film. His joy when he learns of Rachel’s pregnancy is one of the most infectious moments I’ve ever seen on film, where his pain as things start to go south is absolutely heartbreaking. He’s a grown-up version of Demme’s moral young man, someone who’s trying his hardest to keep everyone happy and who truly loves his family. He exemplifies the family in this film, which is a group of people with nothing but the best intentions who can’t help but hurting each other (Demme does this well in Melvin and Howard and Something Wild as well).

There’s nothing about Rachel Getting Married that I don’t absolutely love, and I could go on about the film forever, but there are two set-pieces that best demonstrate the film’s terrific mix of joy and sorrow. The first can only be described as “the dishwasher scene”, in which Paul and Sidney compete to see who’s the master of loading the dishwasher (a mundane activity made beautiful and joyful). The two shoot mocking barbs at each other (“You’re a wonderful young man, but you don’t know shit about loading a dishwasher”- “The mantle has passed”- “All you young people who just applauded should go fuck yourselves, now I’m going to open up a can of whoop-ass on this young man!”), compete…and then something happens that calls back to a past trauma and Paul can no longer compete.

Better still? The entire third act, in which a hurt Kym joins in the raucous, joyful wedding ceremony where everyone is welcome and everyone is having fun. It’s honestly the best wedding on film I can think of (yes, including The Godfather). It’s so full of life and joy that it’s damn near impossible to not get swept away. Very little new plot points happen in the third act- it’s all celebration, with a hint of sadness as Kym tries to avoid her mother, with whom she had a hurtful confrontation with each other. Robyn Hitchcock sings the shoulda-been-nominated-for-best-song “Up to Our Nex”, the key line being “forgive yourself, and maybe you’ll forgive me”. This is a film filled with complicated characters with difficult pasts and more difficult futures, but there’s hope that everything is going to be OK.

And that’s what’s beautiful about a Jonathan Demme film- the sense that after all that pain and all that hurt, it’s all going to be Ok. The sense that a film can be as unpredictable as life. The sense that people, for all of their flaws, are basically good. The sense that we can all live together and love together, all to the soundtrack of incredible music of all sorts. Demme isn’t as lauded or as successful as Scorsese or Spielberg or as cultishly adored as David Lynch or David Cronenberg. It doesn’t matter- he’s a filmmaker like no other, and those who have taken something away from his films- Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh- are among the very best filmmakers working today. This has been a labor of love for me: Demme is one of my personal heroes when it comes to film, and that in his 60s he can make a film as beautiful and unique as Rachel Getting Married is inspiring. He’s making documentaries (I’m Carolyn Parker is still looking for distribution), Hollywood films (an adaptation of Stephen King’s acclaimed novel 11/22/63) and personal projects (Zeitoun, which promises to be as experimental and as unique as any of his films), and I’m excited for and optimistic about all of them. Given his track record, how could I not be?

With that, the Director’s Spotlight on Jonathan Demme is done. A few orders of business:

1.    -The name of the feature is now “Director Spotlight”- it flows better.
     -New feature starting this month, “Genre Spotlight” will look at a genre in a certain time and place and see how it reflects the time period. There will also be an attempt to compare it with the director of the month. This month’s genre: 70s political thrillers.
     -The next director: Brian De Palma, master of the macabre, director of unforgettable thrillers (Sisters, Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, Femme Fatale), horror movies (Carrie), crime movies (Scarface, Carlito’s Way), comedies (Greetings, Hi Mom!) and even a few blockbusters (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible).

Tentative April Schedule:

April 1: Murder a la Mod, Greetings/Hi Mom!
April 2: Get to Know Your Rabbit, The Day of the Jackal
April 3: Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise
April 4: Obsession, Pakula thrillers
April 5: Carrie
April 6: The Fury, Home Movies
April 7: Dressed to Kill
April 8: Blow Out, Blowup/The Conversation
April 9: Scarface
April 10: Body Double
April 11: Wise Guys, Three Days of the Condor
April 12: The Untouchables
April 13: Casualties of War, Marathon Man
April 17: The Bonfire of the Vanities
April 18: Raising Cain
April 19: Carlito’s Way
April 20: Mission Impossible
April 21: Snake Eyes
April 22: Mission to Mars
April 23: Femme Fatale
April 24: The Black Dahlia
April 25: Redacted, Winter Kills

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