Jonathan Demme, 1944 – 2017


Among great film directors, there were none whose artistry was more humane than Jonathan Demme. Other filmmakers revel in the form, spinning visual wonders and engaging in dynamic editing in restless attempts to embed their personality on the screen. Demme wasn’t adverse to such creativity. His films were often striking in their novel use of technique, finessing the grammar of cinema until the shape of his storytelling was a another story itself, or at least another layer.

But Demme didn’t employ such maneuvering to call attention to his personal creativity. Those choices weren’t about him. Instead, they were about the characters. One of his best tricks involved giving a standard point of view shot a wandering movement that more accurately reflected how people look at the world. In Philadelphia, the audience sees Tom Hanks’s character, a gay lawyer ill with AIDS, from the perspective of Denzel Washington’s character, a fellow attorney being sought as representation in a court case alleging discrimination by a former employer.  The camera doesn’t stay put as Hanks talks, dutifully taking in the important dialogue. It flits around, scrutinizing the visible manifestations of his devastating ailment or pointedly catching the little gestures as Hanks touches items on the desk, a detail someone fearful of the spread of a disease might anxiously notice. Demme uses his technique to take the viewer deeper into the mind of the person whose sightline is being borrowed. There is purpose.

The commitment to the people in his films is the gratifying common denominator in a filmography that accepted no boundaries. Demme made measured documentaries and concert films, heavy dramas and loose, sprightly romps. He could travel in succession from the Spalding Gray performance piece Swimming to Cambodia to the vivid comedy Married to the Mob to the riveting thriller The Silence of the Lambs, with each film standing as an utterly distinct piece of work and yet simultaneously all clearly belonging to the same artist, an individual with a singular, compelling voice.

The Silence of the Lambs, adapted from a novel by Thomas Harris, won Demme his Best Directing Academy Award, and it may reasonably stand as his finest achievement on film (though I would not wage an argument against any who claimed the superlative is more accurately assigned to Melvin and Howard or Stop Making Sense). What could have been purely a genre exercise is instead resonant and true to Demme’s commitment to believe in the people he puts on film. The truth of that is perhaps best evidenced by the reasoning he gave for his aversion to participating in follow-up efforts.

”If you can be in love with fictional characters, I’m in love with Clarice Starling,” he told The New York Times. ”And I was really heartbroken to see what became of her during that passage of her life in Hannibal. I have a funny feeling that Tom Harris may feel like our culture has become so corrupt that someone with Clarice’s qualities is doomed to fall from grace. There was no way I could go along on that journey.”

That appreciation of people extended to Demme’s collaborators. He often talked about how much he loved actors and marveled at their craft. His charming and underrated The Truth About Charlie, a remake of Charade, was partially undertaken because he wanted to build a showcase for Thandie Newton, after being dazzled by her talent while making the uneven but fascinating Beloved. He didn’t exactly have a stock company like some other directors, but when major actors eventually cycled back into one of his casts (such as Melvin and Howard standouts Mary Steenburgen and Jason Robards showing up in Philadelphia, or Ted Levine, Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, nabbing a comic role in The Truth About Charlie) it inevitably felt like a warm gesture, another manifestation of the sweet camaraderie that was routinely cited as one of his most admirable personal qualities.

The undercurrents of those professional reunions were just one piece of the exuberance that could be found in his films. If the text of films themselves wasn’t necessarily joyful, they always had an inner spirit that reflected the pleasure in creation taken by the man behind the camera. Rachel Getting Married, his last truly great film, could have easily curdled in its litany of familial slights, disappointments, and grievances, even with the glum humor built right into Jenny Lumet’s screenplay. Demme had the ability to avert such tonal dangers through his persistent belief in the elevating power of honesty. He could be wry, but never cynical. There was always some amount of heart to be found.

My favorite single moment in any Demme film comes at the end of Stop Making Sense. After scrupulously avoiding the padding and safety of audience shots through the bulk of the Talking Heads concert performance, Demme closes with a montage of reveling crowds. Among the sequence is a shot of Demme standing by one of the cameras, boogieing to the music just like anyone else in the house. He was at work, but what a grand job he had.

All that devotion to his craft surely made the disappointments sting more sharply. A graduate of Roger Corman’s informal school of low-budget moviemaking, Demme had one of his first real experiences with the Hollywood studio machinery on Swing Shift, a story of women entering the manufacturing workforce during World War II. Intended as a drama primarily about female friendship, the studio heads wanted to capitalize on the tabloid fodder burgeoning love affair between co-stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and turn the finished product into a more straightforward romance. It was essentially taken away from Demme.

Years later, the director was shooting Philadelphia in that city, frequenting the movie rental shop TLA Video in his spare time. Without any notice, the store managers found a handwritten note affixed to their copy of Swing Shift. It read: “There was a much better version of this picture before Warner Bros recut it, junked our score, and added some ridiculous new scenes, completely changing the whole thing. Thanks, Jonathan Demme.”

The note from Demme was taken off the video box and put in a more secure location in the store, though still clearly on display. An assistant manager explained the reasoning for that adjustment in placement with clear logic.

“We want to keep an eye on the note so nobody takes it and makes Jonathan Demme their own,” she said.

No one could blame those running the store from taking steps to prevent the note from becoming a random patron’s pilfered memento. Besides, anyone who tried to do so would be indulging in an unnecessary act of greed. Through his films, Demme had already expressed himself so generously that any who watched with the proper openness and attention could reasonably consider him their own.

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Posted in Film

My Misspent Youth: Doomsday by Marv Wolfman

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

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I can’t overstate how magical it was the first time I walked into a comic book shop. My age was barely into double-digits and it was an era when most comics were sold at supermarkets and drug stores, given plenty of real estate over by the magazines, so it was a strange notion, this whole storefront devoted to nothing but these colorful periodicals populated by super-powered beings.

Thrilling as it was to see the new comic books meticulous arranged alphabetically (as opposed to shoveled randomly into a spinner rack) and the piles upon piles of old issues, I think what impressed me most was the array of ancillary products decorated with popular superheroes. At the time, it was a humble lot. There were no bankbook-breaking statues or life-size replica character accouterments. Still, these were items that I’d never seen before and couldn’t imagine finding anywhere else.

On one of those first trips to the comic book shop, I picked up a slender and enticing paperback featuring my favorite characters: the Fantastic Four. It was part of the Marvel Novel Series, which gave some of the most prominent writers employed by the publisher an opportunity to try out some straight prose rendering of the wildly imaginative adventures that set the fictional universe churning. Written by Marv Wolfman, the book was entitled Doomsday. I can see with a slightly mortifying level of certainty that is the one novel that I have read repeatedly in my lifetime.


The story pitted Marvel’s first family against their chief adversary, the malevolent, megalomaniacal Victor Von Doom. The ruler of Latveria was known the world over by his shorter, more pointed moniker: Doctor Doom.

Wolfman’s tale was filled with details I loved from the Fantastic Four comics, including a pronounced sense of the shared fictional history (Doctor Doom’s staging of a college reunion figures into the plot, as does his fierce desire to retrieve his deceased mother from the netherworld) and a crackling commitment to the well-developed character, particular the familial foursome with a penchant for saving the planet from evildoers.


Wolfman was writing the Fantastic Four monthly title when this novel was published, in 1979. He structures the story with a welcome commitment to honoring who these characters are, teasing out what made them foundational to Marvel, even if they’d long since been overtaken in popularity by other denizens of the wondrous world.

As I noted, the Fantastic Four were my favorite characters, so the fully recognizable depiction of them was important to me. It gave me another avenue to connect with them, to revel in their heroics. And there was the added benefit that it was the written word rather than dialogue and narration layered atop drawn images. I’d get grouched at if I opened up a comic book in class, but this little paperback — simply by virtue of its format — represented acceptable recreational reading.

And read it I did. I lost count of the number of times I returned to the book, rereading and savoring every last bit of it. I eventually picked up other entries in the Marvel Novel Series from that same comic book shop, but none of the others commanded my attention — fully and repeatedly — like Doomsday.

back cover

The images for this post were found elsewhere and used with gratitude. 

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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2017 finish

My crafty clan of cohorts has a certain place in The World’s Largest Trivia ContestTM. For the second year in a row — and the third time in the past four years — my team, the Cakers, finished in fourteenth place in the fifty-four-hour exercise in mental mayhem. Considering this placement is among three-hundred sixty competing teams, it’s an accomplishment the stirs up a little bit of silly pride.

With that piece of personal reporting complete, I’ll get back to non-Trivia content tomorrow.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 52 – 50

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52. Primitives, “Crash”

Before the Primitives got around to recording their first album, they’d already decided that “Crash” was one of their less significant songs. “We wrote that very early on and then we dropped it from the set,” explained Paul Court, the band’s guitarist and chief songwriter. “We had a lot of songs like it, three chord style Ramones numbers, and then our producer Paul Sampson said it was a good song and that we should resurrect it.” That was only the beginning of Lazarus-like capacity for revival that the song had. It was definitely a college radio hit when it was released as the lead single from the Primitives’ debut album, Lovely, released in 1988, but it could have easily faded away. Then, several years later, it was included on the soundtrack for Dumb & Dumber, which was hardly the companion disc for Titanic in terms of record sales, but it did get the song in front of a whole new group of listeners. Even though it was discarded, Court says that he knew the pop gem was special shortly after they laid it down on tape. “I think when we recorded it it did stand out,” he said. “It had all those lovely elements to it, the melody, the three chords. I always thought it was special. I just had a feeling inside. I didn’t think it would get to where it did, though.”


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51. Wire, “Ahead”

When Wire released the album The Ideal Copy, in 1987, it was the band’s first full-length in almost a decade. That sort of revival was rare enough at the time, but Wire did something even more novel: they completely transformed their sound. In the last nineteen-seventies, Wire released fierce, pummeling records with punk energy and abrasive artiness. When they came back together, Wire committed to a stark, icy electronic music that was very much of the era but well-removed from their own musical history. “We got there in the end but it took us a couple of years,” Wire lead vocalist and chief songwriter Colin Newman later noted. “It felt strange as well, because in your twenties you have this insane confidence, like you rule your own world, but you don’t actually even rule your own sandwich. That starts to dissipate as you get into your thirties. You feel more vulnerable, and less like you have any control over how anything works.” For college programmers, Wire was tapping into something. “Ahead,” released as an advance single, proved that a band willing to embrace innovation was going to be welcomed back, regardless of the length of the layoff.


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50. Peter Gabriel, “Shock the Monkey”

Often, external interpretations of art default to the most obvious ideas. There are plenty of music fans who will still insist that Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey” is about shock therapy. He insists that is not the case. Instead, he sees it as a fairly basic love song, albeit one that has a darker twist to it. “It refers to jealousy as a trigger for an animal nature to surface,” he said. Released in 1982, as a single from Gabriel’s fourth solo release, the song represented a breakthrough for the artist in the United States, carrying him into the Billboard Top 40 for the first time. In fact, it was a bigger hit in the U.S. than in the U.K., another first for a Gabriel single. Like many other artists, Gabriel benefited from bringing a more complex sensibility to the music video crafted for the song. Issued at a time when MTV was still hungry for content, Gabriel’s dark, distinctive “Shock the Monkey” video took up prominent residence on the cable network’s playlists.


As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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Posted in Music

From the Archive: Flashback Friday – 1973


I’m a little too weary to elaborate, except to note that this was originally published in my former online home.

In 1973, I lived in a household that had a lot of records. There were so many, in fact, that they basically defined the decor. Entire walls were obliterated from view by the shelves of albums. There was even one wall that was basically nothing but albums, effectively extending the hallway by several feet just as capably as 2x4s and drywall. Obtaining every chunk of the unfolding evolution of rock ‘n’ roll was the obsession of my first stepfather (don’t ask), and I spent that chunk of my junior years literally engulfed in music. Despite the abundance of his available selection, there was one album that was such a regular on the turntable that, had flipping it over from time to time not been required, it may as well have been grafted on permanently. Similarly, the opened gatefold cover could have been mistaken for part of the coffee table (it was also always covered some sort of a strange, pungent dried greenery that looked like the herbs in my mother’s kitchen, but seemed a little different for some reason.) That album was Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.

The album wasn’t just a fixture in our house; it was a perpetual resident on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. It debuted there shortly after its release in the spring of 1973 and remained nestled somewhere within (and for a lone week, atop) those ten score albums for a record 741 consecutive weeks, finally slipping off the chart in the mid-eighties. At the time, the speculation was that Dark Side‘s streak ended in part because of the CD revolution lessening the need for hardcore fans to continually replace worn-out vinyl copies.

When I was a kid, I just knew the album, the inevitable result of it reverberating through our little house as I huddled on the floor with my Tonka trucks. I was especially fond of “Money,” maybe because the use of cash register noises and other sound effect signifiers of ongoing commerce had an odd similarity to some of the silly, noisy songs that could be found on the Sesame Street records stacked next to the little plastic turntable in my bedroom. That was the one I know I used to sing along with, much to the amusement of the adults in the room. I’ve often wondered if I actually used to sing the lines “Don’t give me that/Do goody good bullshit.” I may have. Ours wasn’t exactly a wash-out-the-mouth-with-soap kind of home.

Though I don’t hear it invoked in this way much, Dark Side must sit somewhere near The Catcher in the Rye on the shelf of perpetual touchstones of moody teen existence. By the time I got to high school, the album was about a decade old and yet my peers adored it, finding some relevnt expression of their own angst in the angry lyrics and David Gilmour’s lushly extravagant guitar work. Even today it seems like an awful lot of kids I see arriving at college show up with that familiar prismatic triangle somewhere amongst their belongings. So at least one thing I sometimes thought back then may yet prove to be true. The Dark Side of the Moon will never stop playing.

Posted in Music

One for Friday: School of Fish, “3 Strange Days”

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I’ve probably tapped out enough words about The World’s Largest Trivia ContestTM this week. In recent years, I’ve used this Friday feature to share a lovely cover of my team’s theme song that was recorded by my friend Mollie Donihe. I still strongly recommend that particular track.

For today, though, I’m going to opt for a song that another friend of mine insists should have an official place somewhere on the official Trivia playlist. I absolutely agree.

For three strange days
I had no obligations
My mind was a blur
I did not know what to do

As the saying goes around these here parts, let’s play some Trivia, Fast Eddie.

Listen or download –> School of Fish, “3 Strange Days”

(Disclaimer: I’m not aware of the status of this song. Maybe it’s in print. Maybe it’s not. I’m going to look up enough stuff this weekend. I’m letting that bit of research go. I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Trivia Answer of the Day: North Oconomowoc Ocelots

This coming weekend, I’ll participate in The World’s Largest Trivia ContestTM. As per tradition, this week is filled with idle reminiscing about memorable answers in past years. Or rather, in past year. Every one of these answers figured in the 2016 edition of the contest.


There are times when participating in the The World’s Largest Trivia ContestTM may call upon an individual to consume media they might otherwise avoid — or perhaps to which they’d be entirely oblivious. Those ventures might include the woolier reaches of television scheduled pitched at those craving entertainment after a hard week of middle school. Usually, I’ve personally approached those program options with only glancing attention. There is an exception, though — a program that I have watched with uncommon devotion. I am prepared to confess that I have seen every last second of Liv and Maddie.

Why would I tune in religious to exploits of twins Olivia and Madison Rooney, both played by Dove Cameron? The answer is simple: it is improbably set in Steven Point, Wisconsin, the small, Midwestern college town that is home of the radio station and Trivia. Surely, this show was destined to have questions asked from it.

For many years during its recently-completed four season run, Liv and Maddie did not feature in the contest, to my aching frustration. And yet I kept watching, dutifully recording information and becoming far more well-versed in the romantic travails of these young women who are sisters by chance but friends by choice, as well as the misfit adventures of the entire Rooney clan.

The drought ended last year, as my extensive Liv and Maddie learning finally came into play. I’m hardly the only Trivia player to figure out that the Disney Channel program required attention, so there were not rafts of points to be had for noting that it was the North Oconomowoc Ocelots who were defeated by the Ridgewood High girls basketball team in the Wisconsin state championships. It didn’t matter. No matter the value of the question, asked late in the fifty-four-hour contest, it was a glorious moment. And the triumph was, as the song says, better in stereo.


More info about 90FM’s Trivia can be found at its official website or at the radio station’s online home. There’s also a feature documentary about the contest, but it’s fairly hard to come by these days. To see how my team is faring over the weekend, Twitter is probably the best bet.

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April 2017
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