Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.5: Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift

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: 36 (C-)

It didn’t have to be this way. Jonathan Demme’s first major studio film, 1984’s Swing Shift, had plenty of potential to be one more in a long line of wonderful Jonathan Demme films. It had a strong feminist take on a male-dominated era (World War II). It had a talented cast of stars (Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell), character actors (Christine Lahti, Fred Ward), and up-and-comers (Ed Harris, Holly Hunter). It was a sprawling yet swift-moving tale of Americana. It had that Demme touch. But Hawn and Warner Bros. were unsatisfied with Demme’s cut, feeling that Hawn’s character was too unsympathetic, the film was more ensemble-driven than star-driven (Demme’s forte), and that the film wasn’t light-hearted enough. Demme fought for his cut, but the studio and Hawn ultimately re-shot much of the film, leading to what Demme has described as the “worst experience of my life”.

Kay Walsh (Hawn) is the reserved, doting wife of Jack (Harris). Their next-door neighbor Hazel (Lahti) is a tough singer whose boyfriend “Biscuits” (Ward) is a cheating louse. When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, Jack, like many other men, enlists in the navy, leaving Kay behind to take care of herself. Kay, Hazel, and many other women start work at an armaments factory, where Kay and Hazel develop a deep friendship. Kay also begins a reluctant affair with “Lucky” Lockhart (Russell), a good-natured factory worker whose true ambition is the trumpet.

There are stray signs that once upon a time Swing Shift was a Jonathan Demme film. Tak Fujimoto’s fluid cinematography and the film’s meticulous production design are ultimately harmed by the editing, but they are visible. The film has a certain appreciation for kitsch that marks many Demme films. Demme’s strength in casting plays well to a certain extent- Holly Hunter, Patty Maloney, Charles Napier, and Roger Corman show up and give off the expectation that Demme’s signature oddball sense of humor and characters are on the way. Ward and Harris are well cast as a huckster and an All-American walking Apple Pie, respectively (they had previously played similar parts in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff). And butchered as it might be, Demme’s attempt to make an old-fashioned “woman’s picture” with a modern feminist take shines through the cracks, mostly whenever Lahti’s often brassy but warm-hearted supporting character appears (Lahti would be nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress).

The problem is that while Swing Shift shows Demme-like signs, they’re all to a much diminished effect. Fujimoto’s camerawork  and Demme’s storytelling aren’t supported by the choppy editing. The film’s pacing is lumpy as a result, in polar opposite to their work on Melvin and Howard. Where their earlier work had clear shifts in time and place, Swing Shift is often confusing and arbitrary. Years pass without any registered change in anyone’s demeanor, relationship, or worldview. The film just doesn’t move forward without feeling forced. What’s worse, Demme’s usual gift for displaying American kitsch with warmth is obliterated by the editing, giving a gooey, unearned sentimentality in its place.

Hunter, Napier, and others send signals that Swing Shift will feature Demme-like detours from the main story where it feels like anyone could take over the picture at any time. It’s hard not to believe that at one point, these detours were featured rather than hinted at. It’s rather frustrating to see great actors like Napier and Hunter given nothing to do. It’s even more frustrating to see Patty Maloney, an actress with dwarfism, given nothing to do, given that Demme’s original cut almost certainly gave her an actual role in the film beyond “background character”. Without those detours, Demme’s oddball sense of humor doesn’t often show.

Also missing: Demme’s usual gift for handling music. This is no doubt entirely the fault of the studio’s cut: Russell’s performances with a swing band had to have had more significance than they do here, and it’s unlikely that a sappy score (bookended by terrible Carly Simon songs in the opening and closing credits) were featured in Demme’s cut. It’s insane that a director with a natural feel for handling music in film wouldn’t have control over this aspect.

The film was originally more of an ensemble piece focusing on Hawn, Lahti, Russell and Harris. Hawn and company reedited it to make it primarily a love story between Russell and herself. Swing Shift is primarily remembered today for starting the long-lasting relationship between the two, so it’s astonishing that their relationship has so little passion. The romance is contrived: Hawn is too nice (in a rather boring way), and Russell’s role is ill-defined. He doesn’t seem to be there for any reason other than to be a love interest while Harris is away. Their flirtation is corny and antiseptic, with none of the passion of Paul Le Mat’s relationships in Handle with Care/Citizen’s Band or Melvin and Howard. When the two make love, it is without passion. When the two fight, it is without motivation. Apparently Hawn forgot that relationships in old screwball comedies were hardly squeaky-clean, and when they were…well, who remembers those? The romance in Hawn’s film is formulaic and dull. It leaves no impression.

Worst of all, Demme’s subversive woman’s picture is all but neutered of its feminist message. Certainly the girls do the work, but their impact is never felt, and the significance of their contributions becomes generalized. Whenever Demme’s ironic depiction of events threatens to take over, Hawn’s tendency towards broad humor and cornball romance quickly snatches the film back. Any sense that these events mattered or that they affected the attitudes of the men or women involved is absent.

Demme and Hawn’s versions both run 100 minutes, but when bootleg copies of Demme’s director’s cut showed up, the films couldn’t have been any more different. The film had the same sweeping, ironic, idiosyncratic feel of Demme’s earlier outings. The smaller roles had significance (Hunter as a widow whose tragedy is exploited by Uncle Sam, Maloney as a woman whose stature has limited what she can achieve), and the central love story was darker and full of passion. Hawn, Lahti, Harris, and Russell’s relationships with each other gave the film more definition. Scenes that had no impact in the original cut were given different placement to greater effect. In the end, Demme’s warmly humane vision of America won out. It was a film inspired in equal parts by Renoir and Cukor, by Preston Sturges and Rosie the Riveter, by the French New Wave and the Woman’s Picture.

Any hope that the film might resurface in its original form is slim, however: it has never been released on DVD, and Demme has said that assembling a director’s cut today would be “impossible”. Swing Shift is another case against studio interference in a great filmmaker’s project (see also: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America). Where many of the other great directors saw their vision restored (Leone, Scott) or released under damaged but still compelling forms (Huston, Welles), Demme’s Swing Shift is permanently lost, barring unforeseen luck.

It speaks well of Demme that he avoids discussing the film rather than trashing those involved. The director has stated that good people just couldn’t see eye-to-eye, and that it soured him on conflict rather than the movie business itself. But Swing Shift did a number on the director, and for some time he considered giving up filmmaking altogether. Thank goodness it wasn’t to be: Demme had left the project during post-production in 1983 and chose a simpler project that would be a purely joyful experience. The result, released only a few weeks later, was Stop Making Sense.

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