Friday, March 9, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.4: Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard

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 1980’s Melvin and Howard.

Grade: 96 (A)

Last Embrace is rightfully one of Jonathan Demme’s most forgotten movies. The real follow-up to his 1977 critical breakthrough Handle with Care was his next film, 1980’s Melvin and Howard. Like Handle with Care, Melvin and Howard struggled to make much of an impact with audiences, but it was warmly embraced by critics: the National Society of Film Critics named it the best film of 1980, the New York Film Critics Circle named Demme Best Director of the year, and Mary Steenburgen won multiple awards for her performance, including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. At first glance, Melvin and Howard seems less ambitious than Handle with Care, focusing mostly on one individual, his relationships, and his unlikely story. But in its short 94-minute runtime lies a sprawling piece of Americana and one of the greatest films ever made about the American Dream.

Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat) has never had much luck in life. He’s gone from one lousy job to another, he can never seem to provide enough for his family, his wife Lynda (Steenburgen) is constantly exasperated at his spendthrift nature, and any luck he does get manages to go away rather quickly. Nothing of great importance has happened to Melvin, although he does have one interesting story: in 1967, Melvin picked up a scraggly-bearded old man (Jason Robards) in the middle of the Nevada desert and drove him to Las Vegas; the man claimed to be reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, but Melvin didn’t think much of it until after Hughes’ death in 1976 when a much-contested will bequeathed him with one-sixteenth of Hughes’ fortune: $156 million.

The film is based loosely on the true story of Melvin Dummar, who did indeed attract attention when Hughes’ will supposedly gave him part of the man’s fortune, and Dummar did use the exact “I picked him up in the desert” story as an explanation. Dummar never saw that money: the Nevada court deemed it a fake and threw out Dummar’s claim to the fortune in 1978. The validity of the will has been much debated, but Demme and screenwriter Bo Goldman (who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) aren’t particularly interested in the veracity of the story. They opt for a “print the legend” approach to the actual Melvin and Howard section of the film, which only accounts for the movie’s first twenty minutes; the business of the will accounts for the film’s final twenty-five. In between is a beautifully realized story of an average man who never let the difficulty of American life get him down.

One of Demme’s great strengths as a director is his penchant for casting appropriately quirky actors in his film: Le Mat, an underrated actor whose post-70s career has been a strong case of “where are they now”, is an upright young man for the second time in one of Demme’s films, having previously given a strong performance in Handle with Care. Steenburgen has an enchanting folksy quality that combines no-nonsense attitude with soft features. The eternally crotchety Robards is perfectly cast as the initially taciturn Hughes who turns out to have far more warmth than anyone could have predicted. Demme casts even the smallest parts well, from Michael J. Pollard of Bonnie and Clyde fame as Melvin’s closest friend to the great character actor/frequent Demme player Charles Napier as the man who brings Melvin the will. Demme’s choice to put Napier in this particular role shows clear intelligence- we’ve seen Napier in previous Demme films (Handle with Care, Last Embrace), so his appearance brings clear indication that his brief role has a certain significance.

Demme’s influences from the French New Wave and the New Hollywood era carries over from Handle with Care to Melvin and Howard: he has the fluid camerawork (courtesy of regular cinematographer Tak Fujimoto) and relaxed, episodic story structure of these two movements. Demme uses fluid camera movements to give a sense of the sprawling nature of America- vast deserts, Las Vegas (quiet by morning, bustling and bright by night), strip joints, and lower-class homes- and to give a sense of the characters’ perspectives. When Demme introduces Hughes, he’s riding on a motorcycle through the Nevada desert, with a clear lust for life, and the camera gives a sense as to how gigantic the space truly is (and how much there is to explore). Demme often frames Melvin as a man overwhelmed by his situations, whether he’s trying to win back his wife (as the camera swirls around him in extreme close-up) or trying to deal with the significance of the will (Demme goes to a shaky first-person camera here). Perhaps best of all is how Demme shoots Steenburgen in a scene late in the film’s second act, when Melvin convinces Lynda to go on a game show and the camera goes to extreme close-up on her hopeful face- this is her chance to make her dreams come true, and the stakes are as high as they can get.

What Demme brings to the table, as always, is his warmth towards humanity, his offbeat sense of humor, his detailed, folksy compositions, and his unique perspective on American life. Melvin and Howard gets a lot of comedy out of Melvin’s day-to-day life as, at various points, a factory worker, a milk man, and a gas station attendant, but the humor is never broad slapstick or one-liner based gags. Rather, there’s great situational humor in Melvin dealing with the trials of everyday life (a boss who keeps charging him fees) or extraordinary events (Robards’ Howard really doesn’t want to hear Melvin sing).

Demme also captures the beauty of mundane American life (an elusive house after Melvin and Lynda spend most of their time in a trailer) or even the tackiest of situations (a Vegas wedding after the two decide to remarry). Demme captures each location and section of Melvin and Howard  so vividly that it’s easy to imagine any part of the film- Lynda’s stripper job, Melvin’s struggles as a milk man, the whole Howard Hughes case- being the subject of a whole movie rather than just an episode in the life of Melvin Dummar. It’s all part of a grander story of a man who wants it all but just can’t get it. Demme doesn’t condescend to lower-class Americans, but he doesn’t disingenuously hold it up as the end-all-be-all of American life, either.More modern American filmmakers could use that elusive Demme touch (and that’s why I strongly dislike Lars and the Real Girl, folks). The truly great American independent filmmakers (Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh) show the reach of Demme’s influence.

Even before film, Demme’s first love was music, and as always, his soundtrack choices are absolutely perfect. Bruce Langhorne’s score ranges from jubilant to folksy to melancholy to wistful, and just as he used songs to get inside the character of “Warlock” in Handle with Care, Demme uses modern music to serve as virtual theme songs for Melvin and company. As the opening credits roll, Melvin can be heard fiddling with the radio dial going from “Tennessee Stud” to “Amazing Grace”, foreshadowing the character’s restlessness.

As Melvin leaves behind Howard and act two opens, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” plays; for a band whose music too often is used as a cliché to set the scene for the ‘60s, their song is perfectly used here to serve as an ironic comment on Melvin’s contrast to Howard- he doesn’t have the untold billions Howard has, and we’re about to see why.

“Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones serves as Lynda’s theme, playing first when she works in a sleazy strip-joint and later as she tap dances on a game show. The song’s repeated cry of “I can’t get no/satisfaction” could be seen as a literal expression of Lynda’s frustrations, but it’s also significant that the song is by rock-and-roll’s foremost womanizers as Lynda dances for the pleasure of men.

Melvin even gets to sing his own song (written to another’s melody) about his blues as a milk man (the performance foreshadows future performance films by Demme). Best of all is the sing-along between Melvin and Howard in their car ride, first to Melvin’s goofy new Christmas song (“Santa’s Souped-Up Santa Sleigh”). Then, after Melvin insists Howard sing a song of his own, Howard leads Melvin in a longing take of “Bye Bye Blackbird” in a gorgeous shared moment between two vastly different men.

Melvin and Howard follows Handle with Care as a film filled with characters who are basically good people who nevertheless manage to hurt each other. Melvin and Lynda, like most Demme characters, strive for self-realization, but their ways of achieving it are in sharp contrast to each other. Melvin works lousy jobs in order to make a living, but the American Dream says that you can make cash quick, and Melvin both ascribes to this theory (his love for game shows) and spends his cash faster than he’s earned it. The film’s second act opens with Lynda leaving Melvin for reasons initially unclear, other than their difficult life and that Melvin’s truck has been repossessed. As it turns out, Melvin spends lots of money on things he doesn’t need because he feels he’s earned it through hard work. Lynda can’t take it anymore and takes their daughter to Vegas with her, where she gets a job as a stripper. Melvin’s encounter with Lynda at the strip club is heartbreaking: Demme doesn’t judge Lynda’s actions- she’s a woman down on her luck who needs a job- but her actions nonetheless hurt Melvin deeply, and while his attempt to bring her home is filled with nothing but good intentions, it’s clear that he’s misguided.

When the two do get back together, they get swindled by a Vegas wedding chapel where Melvin can’t say no to any of the extras that come with the wedding, much to the dismay of Lynda. Lynda unexpectedly wins $10,000 on a game show; she spends it on a house for better living for her family. Melvin spends money on an expensive car and boat that he always wanted, and it’s the last straw for Lynda. She doesn’t hate Melvin, and she wishes him the best (later scenes between the two after the divorce shows undeniable tenderness), but he is, sadly, a little bit of a loser, and he can’t reconcile his dreams with the fact that he’s poor.

Which brings it all back to the first and third acts of the film- Melvin’s encounter with Howard Hughes and the circus around Hughes’ will. Melvin’s story is unlikely, and that Howard gave so much of his fortune to a man he met only once is even unlikelier. The film takes no stance on whether or not the story is true, but the most convincing argument as to why it could possibly be true is this: Howard Hughes had everything. He had billions of dollars and barely anyone to share it with. He was reclusive, germaphobic, and had little connection to the outsider world in the latter days of his life. Melvin, on the other hand, is a nobody: some guy who couldn’t get a decent job, whose first marriage eventually failed (twice), and whose new relative stability when he gets the will is living in Utah with his new wife working a gas station. Howard remarks that Melvin’s difficult situation is “a shame”, and although he’s a prickly character, he and Melvin make a connection, however brief. Maybe this connection meant the world to Hughes. Maybe it was important that even as someone with so little, Melvin spared some change for Howard at the end of their ride together (Howard throws the change away after Melvin drives off). Maybe the little guy just deserved a reward for all his hard work and good nature. Or maybe not. Whatever the case, Melvin is ultimately OK with the fact that he’s not going to see any of that money, and that he’s going to live the way he does for the rest of his life. Howard Hughes sang him a song, and no one can take that away from him. Who cares if it really happened when the story is so great?

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1 comment:

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