Tribute

Watch: Jonathan Demme, the Hollywood director who ‘could do anything’

Among other things, Jonathan Demme (1944-2017) directed ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, the Oscar winner that transcended its literary roots.

Jonathan Demme (February 22, 1944-April 26, 2017) has died at the age of 73 from cancer and heart disease. He meant different things to different people. He made documentaries on bands and singers (Talking Heads, Neil Young, Justin Timberlake) and music videos; he directed movies that carried his distinctive stamp (Something Wild, Rachel Getting Married); he made Oscar-winning features that continue to play on television (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia); he laboured on Hollywood productions with mixed results (The Manchurian Candidate, Ricki and the Flash).

Over the years, Demme emerged as somebody who, in director Edgar Wright’s words, “could do anything”.

Demme was a movie critic before he cut his teeth on exploitation specialist Roger Corman’s productions. His debut was Caged Heat (1974), about a group of female prisoners who rise up against a cruel prison warden.

Play
Caged Heat (1973).

Demme’s personal style emerged in Melvin and Howard (1980), a comedy about a man who claims he is the heir of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes’s fortune. New York Times critic Vincent Canby said about the director, “Mr. Demme is a lyrical film maker for whom there is purpose in style. When, early in the film, the camera appears to loosen its moorings to float upwards to give a broad view of Melvin’s camper set in the middle of a junkyard, within a desolate desert landscape, the film is considering the nature of the fantasy even as it is relating it.”

Play
Melvin and Howard (1980).

Stop Making Sense, a Talking Heads concert film made in 1984, inaugurated an abiding interest in music performances. Shot over three live shows, the documentary further endeared Demme to critics for his ability to capture the energy of the band’s performance. In an interview, Demme told LA Weekly about why he didn’t use any visual effects gimmicks in the documentary: “I thought that any special cinematic effects would intrude on the richness of the pure performance. Therefore I didn’t want to get into that, and didn’t.”

Play
Stop Making Sense (1984).

Demme was on a roll in the 1980s. Something Wild (1986), starring Jeff Daniels, Ray Liotta, and Melanie Griffith in one of her finest performances, is a screwball comedy about the unusual relationship between a banker and a waitress with a violent boyfriend. The cameos include independent filmmakers John Sayles and John Waters.

Play
Something Wild (1986).

Demme was renowned for giving Hollywood actresses meaty roles to explore their talent. Michelle Pfeiffer delivered one of her finest performances in Married to the Mob (1988), a comedy about a gangster’s widow who falls for a police officer assigned to investigate her (Mathew Modine).

Play
Married to the Mob (1988).

In 1991 came the film that Demme is best known for: The Silence of the Lambs. Ted Tally’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s bestseller of the same name has been beautifully filmed by Demme. The director’s stunning use of full-frame close-ups and rich colours and tones and unerring ability to create tension without sensationalising the lurid material resulted in Oscar wins in the top five categories, including best picture, best director, and best actress for Jodie Foster – a feat shared only by Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).

Among Demme’s contributions to the source novel is the suggestion that Federal Bureau of Investigation recruit Clarice Starling (Foster) shares sexual tension with her boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), which develops as she tracks down a serial killer with the help of institutionalised psychopath and cannibal Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). A video by Jacob T Swinney analyses the singular use of close-ups in Demme’s films, including in The Silence of the Lambs.

Play
Jonathan Demme’s use of close-ups, by Jacob T Swinney.

Demme wooed the Oscar juries again with his next movie Philadelphia (1993), a rare mainstream Hollywood production that explores homosexuality and AIDS. Tom Hanks plays an HIV positive gay man who is sacked from his job and persuades a lawyer (Denzel Washington) to represent him in court.

Play
Philadelphia (1993).

A string of lesser films followed, including remakes of Charade and The Manchurian Candidate. The Truth About Charlie (2002) was shafted by critics and flopped, while The Manchurian Candidate (2004) had its admirers, especially of Meryl Streep’s performance.

Demme continued to work in television and direct documentaries, including the concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006), Man From Plains (2007), about former American president Jimmy Carter’s book tour, and two more films on Young.

A late-career gem was Rachel Getting Married, written by director Sidney Lumet’s daughter Jenny Lumet. A portrait of a recovering drug addict (Anne Hathaway) who attends her sister’s Indian-themed wedding (the guests wear saris, there’s a powder blue elephant-shaped cake) while wrestling with her demons is shot in a documentary and improvisational style by Declan Quinn (who also lensed Monsoon Wedding, a clear influence). Rachel Getting Married was an arthouse hit and hailed as a return to form for Demme.

Play
Rachel Getting Married (2008).

Demme’s last feature Ricki and the Flash (2015) reunited him with Meryl Streep and music. The drama stars Streep as an aging rock singer who tries to make amends for having neglected her children by attending her son’s wedding.

In 2016, Demme directed his final concert film Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids.

Play
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016).

Demme is survived by three children and his second wife, Evelyn Purcell. His family asked that instead of flowers, mourners should send donations to the legal advocacy group Americans for Immigrant Justice.

Jodie Foster said in a statement to Entertainment Weekly, “I am heart-broken to lose a friend, a mentor, a guy so singular and dynamic you’d have to design a hurricane to contain him. Jonathan was as quirky as his comedies and as deep as his dramas. He was pure energy, the unstoppable cheerleader for anyone creative.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

Play

During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.