Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.2: Jonathan Demme's Handle with Care (aka Citizen's Band)

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 is 1977’s Handle with Care/Citizen’s Band.

Grade: 93 (A)

After his early films under the tutelage of B-movie producer Roger Corman, Jonathan Demme finally got a chance to show what he could do with a great script, a great cast, and a purpose beyond B-movie cinemas. The film was commissioned to cash-in on the CB craze of the late 70s, but it wasn’t the violent action-comedy audiences expected. Released under the title Citizen’s Band (under which title it can currently be found on Netflix Instant), it bombed. When the film was championed by certain critics (including Pauline Kael) and was well-received at the New York Film Festival, it was re-released under the title Handle with Care; it bombed again. It’s a shame that Paramount Pictures didn’t quite know what to do with the film (and that audiences didn’t quite know what to make of it). Written by Paul Brickman (later the writer-director of the terrific, moody high school comedy Risky Business), Handle with Care is the first full expression of Demme’s aesthetic, an offbeat, kooky comedy full of warmth, eccentricity, and Americana.

The film centers around two love triangles in the town of Union, Oregon, and each character is more often known by their CB “handle” as a nickname. Blaine, aka “Spider” (Paul Le Mat), is a young man scraping by as a CB repair-man. His relationship with Pam (Candy Clark) ended after he decided he couldn’t leave his distant, depressed, drunk father Floyd, aka “Papa Thermodyne” (Roberts Blossom) for a better life. Pam is now dating his brother Dean (Bruce “D-Day of Animal House” McGill). Blaine recently saved Harold, aka “Chrome Angel” (the recently deceased Charles Napier) after he was pinned down beneath his own truck. Harold has a secret: he has two wives and two families. After his injury, his two wives Joyce, aka “Dallas Angel” (Ann Wedgeworth) and Connie, aka “Portland Angel”, travel to Union, only to find out Harold’s secret (not to mention that he takes up with prostitute Debbie, aka “Hot Coffee” (Alix Elias)). Meanwhile, Blaine barely saves an injured pilot after he can’t get through on the CB due to certain unauthorized handles jamming the airwaves. He makes it his personal mission to track down horndog “The Hustler” (Michael Mahler), devoutly religious “The Priest” (Ed Begley, Jr.), rambling old woman “Grandma Breaker” (Leila Smith), and Neo-Nazi “Red Baron” (Harry Northrup) , take their radios, and “clean up the band”.

With Handle with Care, Demme busted out of the exploitation ghetto and made a true original film. The film was the greatest showcase of his warmth, offbeat humor, kooky characters and environments, and fascination with Americana to date. It combines Demme’s influences of low-budget Corman films, the French New Wave, and New Hollywood. Its structure and loosy-goosey plot recalls New Hollywood films such as Robert Altman’s Nashville and George Lucas’ American Graffiti (also starring Paul Le Mat and Candy Clark); indeed, Handle with Care and Nashville could both be seen as precursors to the modern “hyperlink cinema” movement (Paul Thomas Anderson, who made his own versions with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, was greatly influenced by Altman and Demme), and it shares American Graffiti’s rocking soundtrack (“I’m Not In Love” and “You Are So Beautiful” comment on the action throughout). But the film keeps the low-budget B-movie feel of Demme’s first three films, in the best way possible. It’s a quick-moving, no-nonsense film with no wasted space that just happens to have a shaggy plot. The editing, meanwhile, is French New Wave-inspired through and through, with jump cuts and bizarre crosses between freeze-frames and fade-outs as scenes end.

Demme and cinematographer Jordan Cronenworth (also known for his work on Blade Runner and Cutter’s Way) make great use of tracking shots and static shots throughout the film, from the introduction of “Warlock” (Will Seltzer), a nerdy character who has a thing for the mysterious female handle “Electra”, to a reunion between Blaine and Pam in the film’s second act, where the camera pulls up to their bodies as they’re bathed in natural lighting so bright it looks heavenly. The film cuts to Dean, heartbroken over Pam’s lingering feelings for his brother, and a mirror-shot of Pam leaving Blaine, walking out of the room, and finally coming into the frame. Demme learned from Corman to “always have something happening in the frame”, and his compositions are lively and beautiful as a result.

There’s so much to look at in Handle with Care that it’s difficult to catch everything in one viewing. That Demme’s kooky humor is often in the background (Harold talking about how the cow would have to “shit sideways” to have it come out of the trailer as the cow does just that) insures that the film rewards repeat-viewings. Demme gets plenty of humor out of the editing as well, though- Harold tells Debbie that “nobody makes it” like her right after they’ve had sex, only to have the next shot reveal they were talking about coffee (then again, her handle is “Hot Coffee”); Debbie goes on the road with her new mobile home to hook up with truck drivers who can’t bother to stop for her business anymore (a mobile prostitute, if you will); Floyd constantly threatens to kill Blaine’s dog and tells him one night that their dinner is “dog meat”, only to reveal after Blaine’s frantic search that he didn’t hurt the dog after all. That Demme never makes jokes at the expense of the characters only makes Handle with Care a more wonderful experience- it’s too warm-hearted to judge anyone involved.

Handle with Care deals with an antiquated technology, but the obsolete CB communicators could easily stand-in for the modern world’s dependence on cell phones or the internet. Demme uses this to explore his favorite themes- the uniqueness of America, the importance of community, and the power of love- with Brickman’s brilliantly interwoven stories serving as the framework and his terrific cast as tools. The film opens with white noise, radio babble, and close-ups on the inside of the radios and wires- it’s important to establish the technology and its workings before the characters are introduced, as most of the people in Handle with Care are incapable of relating to each other outside of the radio. They’re failures at life, and only under their aliases can they pretend to be “someone they’re not”.

Take the “Angels”, for example. When Connie and Joyce meet, they’re friendly with each other and are eager to share pictures of their family. The only problem is that they’ve got the same husband. They don’t blame each other, but they can’t help but be upset with Harold. And why not? He deceived them, he cheated on them, and he’s taken up with another woman still (on whether or not he could have more families: “I don’t see how, there’s only so much a man can do with a heart murmur”). As always, Demme sides with his female characters, who never come off as shrill or more demanding than they need to be (even Debbie is a warm and affectionate person). What’s remarkable is that Demme and Brickman don’t paint Harold as a louse: he’s a decent man, and he means no harm to anyone, but he yearns for “the soft touch of a woman’s skin” while he’s on the road. His vice, if anything, is that he loves too much. He truly cares for both of his wives and for Debbie, but he manages to hurt everyone with his thoughtless actions nonetheless. It’s a theme that echoed in Demme’s most recent narrative feature, 2008’s Rachel Getting Married: groups of people who are basically decent and have only good intentions, but who can’t help but hurt each other. Are they “angels” after all? Maybe not, but they’re hardly bad people.

And what of Blaine, whose handle “Spider” is appropriate considering his central location at Union’s CB web. Paul can’t function in regular life- his mother is dead, his father is reticent, his family scattered (one brother in jail, one in Alaska), his relationship with his closest brother is strained, and his reluctance to move forward in life caused Pam to end their relationship. Blaine tries to reach his father, but “Papa Thermodyne” runs hot and cold, only heating up and reaching out when someone tries to communicate with him over the radio. He worked his whole life as a trucker, and he has nothing but a rusty junkyard to show for it. His favorite son is in prison, and only one of his children still speaks to him (Dean claims Pop never cared for him). Blaine reaches out to his father, to his grouch of a brother, and to his girlfriend, with whom he maintains a friendly but wistful relationship. She’s right, in the end, but it’s difficult for him to accept it.

Given Blaine’s difficult personal life, it’s no surprise that he wants order in at least one area of his life- he decides to “clean up the band” before he cleans up his personal life. This is his surrogate family, and he needs to protect them. He’s one of Demme’s upright young men (see also: Jeff Daniels in Something Wild), and his ass-kicking crusade against unauthorized CB-handles is a rousing series of events- he smashes radios, cuts wires, and takes down towers as Bill Conti’s heroic score swells.

Eventually, though, Blaine has to focus on his personal life, just as the Angels have to clear up their business (their solution? A thirty-day trial in a duplex). Blaine ultimately can’t be satisfied by CB life (MODERN INTERNET PARALLEL HERE), and he tries to clean up his personal life. He and Pam reconnect, but when he finds out that she’s “Electra”, the sultry-voiced girl who talks dirty over the airwaves, he feels betrayed (never mind that he gave her a CB-radio and told her to “have fun”). Worse, he starts getting threatening messages from “Blood”, who turns out to be his jealous brother Dean (blood as in kin, blood as in threats, and blood as in “bad blood”), and Floyd doesn’t take his news that he’s leaving very well. It’s all a mess, and it culminates as Floyd goes missing one night.

Far from it for Demme to condemn this unique slice of Americana, though- “all searchers meet” as Dean, Pam, the Angels, Warlock, Priest, and even Red Baron come together to help Blaine find Papa Thermodyne, and find him they do, riding Harold’s missing cows (who Joyce and Connie had let out as revenge for his hidden polygamy). The day is saved as Pam whispers “Electra’s” tag line into Blaine’s ear- “There’s a lot of voices, but yours is different. I like it”. The film ends in true Demme fashion in a celebration as the two get married in the only way CB-ers should- on the road, driving, with everyone coming together at the crossroads for them. In the end, technology can separate us or bring us together- it’s all about how you use it.

True, Handle with Care flopped at the box office, and it hasn’t caught on with non-Demme die-hards. That makes it one of the most underrated films of the 1970s, and the first in a long line of idiosyncratic comedies from Demme (continued with Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, and Married to the Mob). If ever a film deserved to be rediscovered by film fans everywhere, this is certainly it.

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1 comment:

  1. I was an extra in this film with a few lines that were cut as many of the basketball scenes were edited out at some point. Wonder if there is a director's cut out there