Sunday, March 18, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.7: Jonathan Demme's Something Wild

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: 97 (A)

With Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme rebounded from the professional and financial failure of Swing Shift, but his bad experiences on the Goldie Hawn vehicle made him question whether or not he was still interested in making narrative films. It wasn’t until he read a script by E. Max Frye that Demme found another project that suited his talents. The resulting film, 1986’s appropriately-titled Something Wild, was another sprawling slice of Americana like Handle with Care and Melvin and Howard, but it had a certain edge to it unique to Demme’s films. Something Wild is a masterpiece: truly original and unpredictable cross between screwball comedy, road trip, romance, and thriller that remains Demme’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker.

Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) is a nice yuppie guy with a nice yuppie job. He has a nice yuppie haircut and a nice yuppie suit, and he’s just been made vice-president at his company. One day, Charlie decides to leave a restaurant without paying his check, only to be caught by Lulu (Melanie Griffith), an oddly dressed girl who sees Charlie as a closet rebel waiting to be corrupted. What begins as a brief fling leads to something more as Lulu’s impulsive streak leads Charlie from New York to Pennsylvania, where she tries to pass him off as her husband to her mother and former classmates at her high school reunion. It’s a strange, kooky journey that goes to unexpected places.

Demme is in top form with Something Wild, a film which showcases his talents as an explorer of America, a genre-specialist, a music-lover, and a creator of idiosyncratic characters. Tak Fujimoto’s typically fluid camerawork photographs perfectly compliments Demme’s love to meander around side-characters and explore oddball settings. The photography also does a great job of getting inside Charlie’s head, with several extreme close-ups showing just how out of his element he is whenever Lulu throws him a curve-ball.

 Demme had shown fascination with the kitschy and the delightfully tacky in Melvin and Howard; here he outdoes himself- Griffith spends most of the film’s first half wearing African bracelets and necklaces along with an unnatural haircut. She drives around in a car with gaudy interiors and carries around maracas, a voodoo doll, and handcuffs (which she loves to use on Charlie). It’s great contrast to the clean-cut Charlie. Better still, when she goes back to her hometown she puts on a rather conservative sundress in order to impress the people she used to spend time with. The way Demme contrasts the cheap motels and delightfully odd New York locations with the plain-old American home and the goofy high-school reunion shows both Demme’s perceptiveness when it comes to America and his warmth for all walks of life.
Something Wild’s two main characters perfectly represent Demme’s favorite types of protagonists: the decent young man and the strong woman seeking to reinvent herself. Daniels is perfectly cast as Charlie, a square guy with repressed values and a dopey job, but a character with innate goodness and likability. He needs to lighten up and stop worrying so much, but he’s a good guy who wants to do the right thing. The wonderfully quirky Griffith is just as strong as the gonzo-character Lulu (real name Audrey), a woman with a traditional upbringing who discovered her wild side early in life. She’s clearly got some problems: she steals, she yanks Charlie around a bit too much, and there’s something she’s running away from, but she has nothing but the best intentions and only wants to let her friends know she didn’t screw up. Written and acted wrong, Charlie could have been an unlikable jerk and Lulu/Audrey a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but the characters have dreams, desires, and regrets, and they’re far more complicated than they appear to be.

Strong as the main characters are, however, a Demme film is nothing without its sidetracks and side characters. Aside from his warmth towards his characters, Demme is perhaps best known for his quirky Renoir-like diversions where the smallest characters can take over the screen for a minute or two. Something Wild exemplifies that better than any of his other films: a snooty liquor store owner; an irate chef (Demme-regular Charles Napier) who realizes Lulu and Charlie are trying to leave without paying their check; a motel-owner who tells a hungover Charlie that “it’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion”; legendary independent filmmaker John Sayles as a motorcycle-cop; trash-filmmaker John Waters as a friendly/sleazy used car salesman (“now we talkin’!”); Lulu/Audrey’s plain but disarmingly sweet mother. The list goes on.

What’s better still is that these side-characters fit into the storyline and Demme’s 60s “One World” philosophy where everyone from every class and race can break barriers and get along. Charlie might be a square, but he’s such a genuinely nice guy that he’s able to relate to almost every minor character in the movie, rich or poor, black or white, waitress or motel owner. This doesn’t seem like anything more than a delightful Demme touch at first, but as the film goes on these connections become more important. Rocky as the road gets for Charlie in the late-going, karma is favorable to him as people from all walks of life try to help him on his journey. Best of all is Steve Scales (who worked as a percussionist for the Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense) as gas-station clerk Nelson, who helps Charlie out in a moment of need (more on this later).

Demme’s use of music is superb, as always. The film opens up with a song by David Byrne of Talking Heads fame written especially for the film: “Loco De Amor”, a song with an upbeat reggae/world music feel that perfectly suits the unique stylings of the film. Demme’s interest in music of all genres shows up here: Lulu/Audrey listens to world music of all kinds, hip hop obsessed kids rap in the background (and show support for Charlie, no less!), Demme’s favorite band The Feelies plays at Lulu/Audrey’s high school reunion, and, of course, the classic song “Wild Thing” plays throughout the film. What’s even better is that Demme chooses very particular times to play certain types of music: the film’s light, kooky first half plays almost exclusively good-vibes world music where the film’s more raucous second half shifts to harder rock and roll (L.A. punk band X, for example).

At the center of the film is the unlikely love story between two seemingly diametrically opposed people: straight-arrow Charlie and wild-thing Lulu. It’s the classic meet-cute made famous by old screwball comedies where a wild character turns the more reserved person’s life upside down only for the two to meet somewhere in the middle and fall in love. Charlie and Lulu’s relationship starts out as a fun little fling, but as the two grow closer Charlie starts to show more tenderness towards Lulu. There’s a particularly nice moment in a morning after where Charlie helps Lulu out with her hangover. This shows that there might be something more to their relationship than sex- there’s an unexpected emotional connection.

The film does have Demme’s ironic, subversive style of humor that grew more prominent in the 80s, however: Charlie seems on the straight and narrow, but he’s easily seduced and is more than willing to go along with Lulu’s plans. When Charlie gets particularly exasperated with Lulu at the end of the first half, he condescends to her by telling her she has “great potential”. Lulu compliments Charlie on being a “pretty good liar when he wants to be”, but it backfires when she finds out that Charlie lied about being married with children; his wife left him months ago and took the kids. She feels betrayed, but she has left him twisting in the wind more than a few times, and some of her wilder decisions have been pretty reckless.

How reckless Lulu can be, however, doesn’t become clear until the second half of the film. Something Wild is one of the films that master-filmmaker and Demme devotee Paul Thomas Anderson has referred to as a “gearshift movie” in that it starts out as one kind of movie only to “stop, turn on a dime, and veer off into radically different territory”. Anderson’s own Boogie Nights can be seen as a tribute to gearshift movies like Something Wild and Goodfellas. Some audience members were thrown off by Something Wild’s gearshift, and not without reason, but to be fair, the shift is hinted at throughout the first half of the film.

Lulu steals, drinks heavily (often while driving), and leaves restaurants without paying. She’s fond of using handcuffs during sex and generally acting unpredictable and reckless in ways that turn Charlie’s world upside down. At first, it doesn’t seem particularly dangerous for a movie. When Charlie and Lulu wake up with a hangover, it’s a sign that maybe they’re partying too hard, but it isn’t until Charlie visits Lulu’s mother and finds a newspaper clipping detailing a man jailed for armed robbery that the audience really gets a hint that there’s something sinister lurking around the corner of Lulu’s delightfully corny high school reunion  (theme: Bicentennial Revisited!). Fair warning: SPOILERS AHEAD for anyone who doesn’t want the gearshift ruined for them.

That something that kicks Something Wild into another gear is Ray (a perfectly cast Ray Liotta in his film debut), Lulu’s ex-con husband who unexpectedly shows up at their high school reunion hoping to reunite with Lulu. With Ray’s introduction Demme shifts to a dark-blue light filter at the high-school reunion and the Feelies launch into their eerie song “Loveless Love”. Immediately the audience knows that something’s not right. In fact, everyone knows that Ray is bad news when he arrives…except for the now more easygoing Charlie, who doesn’t pick up on the roughness beneath Ray’s charm and charisma. It becomes an excruciating waiting game as Charlie slowly realizes that something’s not right: first Ray starts talking dirty about Lulu, and then he robs a gas station and breaks Charlie’s nose. 

Now we’re in hell, and the violent shift echoes the unexpectedly disturbing shift in another subversive comedy/thriller from 1986: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Both films feature square protagonists with hidden wild streaks pursuing exotic women, only to clash with the violent pasts of those women, both films show subversive sides the more conservative Reagan 80s, and both films were polarizing and controversial upon their release (well, Something Wild a little less so). It should come to no surprise, then, that both films are among the very best of their decade.

At this point, Something Wild becomes a darker (if still often comedic) thriller where the likable hero has to rescue his kooky girl from the violent bad guy with nothing but contempt for and false warmth towards normal values (as opposed to the genuine warmth of Charlie, Lulu, and director Demme). The aforementioned scene involving gas station attendant Nelson, the greatest of the small characters who gives support to Charlie’s heroic quest. Charlie is beaten up and battered, and he sticks out like a sore thumb in his bloodied suit. Nelson gives him a new, quirkier wardrobe to rescue his quirky girl: shorts, a baseball cap, a “Virginia is for Lovers” t-shirt, and a Hawaiian shirt to go with the goofy sunglasses he kept from Lulu. It’s a moment of sheer exuberance between two men who barely know each other as the hero’s journey gets darker.

Charlie does rescue Lulu, but he has to fight for her and regain her trust after lying about his past. The situation hits its peak in a violent finale where Charlie has to defend Lulu from Ray. The scene’s violence is ugly, matter-of-fact, and non-glorified in the same fashion as the violence in Scorsese’s Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. People complained about how horrible it was. Of course it’s horrible. Demme believes that violence is a terrible thing with real consequences, and seeing someone die just because they’re the villain shouldn’t be celebrated. Only after the peak does the film go back to the One World grooviness of the first half: Charlie quits his dumb job and learns to lighten up as Jimmy Cliff’s “You Don’t Have to Cry” plays, Lulu straightens out a bit, the two reconnect in the same place they met while a waitress played by Jamaican reggae/hip hop artist Sister Carol gives her own funky rendition of “Wild Thing” straight to the camera. How else could a Demme film end but with wonderful, quirky music?

Demme is, to my mind, one of the finest filmmakers of his generation, and his underrated status is based largely on A. his decreased output of narrative films after The Silence of the Lambs/Philadelphia, and B. the fact that most of his films are not available on quality DVD. Something Wild’s recent re-release on Criterion should hopefully start to change that. The film perfectly represents everything Demme does well: unpredictable moments, liveliness, warmth, scene-stealing small characters, good-natured heroes, use of music and performance, a groovy One World philosophy, and handling the consequences of his character’s actions with great care. It is one of the best films of the 1980s, and damn it, it’s time for it to be treated as such.

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