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Jonathan Demme

Review: Melvin and Howard

[originally published in The Weekly, November 5, 1980]

Middle of the night in the Nevada desert, a little ways off the Tonapah Highway. Melvin Dummar has left the main road to take a whiz. Decent young fella: even at this remove from civilization, he steps around to the blind side of his truck and looks both ways before undoing his fly. A moment later he’s back in the cab of his pickup, wheeling around to return to the highway, when his headlights sweep something. Sprawled in the dust is an old coot in a flying-jacket, with silver hair like a fright wig grown tired: a streak of dried blood below his left ear seems the natural complement of all the other stains upon his costume and person. He says he’s Howard Hughes.

Melvin and Howard is the title of this movie, and a fit and proper title it is. But the film is scarcely more “about” the putative relationship of the legendary billionaire and the gas-station operator who almost got a share of his estate than, say, All the President’s Men was about Richard Nixon and his helpmates. Less than a reel is taken up with Hughes and Dummar’s nocturnal passage to Las Vegas (where the old man asks to be dropped at the service entrance to the Sands Hotel, and bums his Good Samaritan’s last quarter); and only the last reel or so is devoted to Melvin’s receipt of “the Mormon will,” seven or eight years later, and the celebrity it brings.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 28

The new issue of cléo is organized around the theme of “soft,” realized by such diverse analyses as Mallory Andrews on the ingenious costuming choices of 9 to 5’s Ann Roth (“Each woman leaves the office early to commiserate at a local bar. Judy and Doralee have covered their outfits in matching cream jackets, and the lapels on Doralee match those of Violet’s blazer. Any earlier animosity has been pushed aside, the cream colours acting as a uniform for a three-woman army.”) and Veronica Fitzpatrick’s admiring take on Ex Machina’s ambiguity towards machines, women, and rape (“Much of Ex Machina’s criticism has hinged on whether it’s a feminist revenge parable or an objectifying robot fantasy, but both readings threaten to flatten the complexity that we, like Caleb, are asked to feel without explaining.”). Elsewhere, Jaime Chu highlights the dizzying tactility in Jane Campion’s filmography (“In her films, Campion reminds us of what hands do: they clasp, they rub, they catch, they soothe, they kill, they possess, they hurt, they hold, they remember.”); Justine Smith praises the tensions between repression and erotic arousal in nunsploitation (“Somehow, the fusion of pain and pleasure made “sinful” desires feel more acceptable—the punishment was built into the act itself.”); and Sophie Meyer cuts through metaphor to assess the films that break the phallocentric norm by celebrating soft cock (“While early reviews drew attention to the unprecedented sex acts of the opening minutes, it is in the closing minutes that the film enters truly new territory, of a tenderness that is also explicitly erotic and embodied….”)

“The film’s history is a drama in itself, part thriller, part tragedy. It involves an American Army base, the late-night pilfering of film canisters, a screening that left Mike Nichols in tears and a fatal review. The long final act ends in redemption at the hands of Martin Scorsese (among others) and includes the film’s long-delayed television premiere, on HBO2 on Monday, April 24. This is the story according to the 89-year-old Mr. Ophuls, anyway, and he tells it—by phone recently from his home in Southern France—very convincingly, with frequent bouts of wheezing laughter.” With Marcel Ophuls’s Memory of Justice receiving a long overdue rediscovery, Mike Hale recounts the film’s troubled production and disastrous reception.

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“Fighting Mad”: Peter Fonda is Jonathan Demme’s eco-warrior

Action Packed Double Feature: Fighting Mad/Moving Violation (Shout! Factory)

Jonathan Demme wrote and directed Fighting Mad (1976), his third feature, for producer Roger Corman but it was actually produced for 20th Century Fox, which makes the film his studio debut. It’s not his best film by far but this mix of vigilante/revenge movie and eco-conscious stand against corruption makes for an inspired twist on a familiar genre. Peter Fonda is an easy-going Arkansas framer who stands up to the corporate criminal who has his thugs intimidate, harass and murder local landowners who refuse to sell out to his strip-mining concern. They kill his brother (Scott Glenn, gone way too soon from a film that could use his understated strength) and pregnant sister-in-law and murder an inconvenient state judge who gets in the way of their agenda and the drawling sheriff seems to be in the back pocket of the corporation as he backs their rights to plunder the land of local farmer.

The sheriff’s position is supposed to be more complicated than that, which is one of the failings of the script and the direction. Fighting Mad manages to embrace a fairly radical hero (Fonda’s response to the corporate mafia violence has echoes of radical eco-warriors) and evoke resonant conflicts over land management and natural resource exploitation without really taking a stand. Demme switches up from the overheated melodrama and B-movie energy of his first films for the small town atmosphere of rural pace of life, which he isn’t always able to wrench into action-thriller tension, and Fonda plays his part somewhere between enlightened nature boy back from the big city and counterculture idealist with survivalist skills and no compunction about putting them to use. When they almost kill his gruffly lovable father (stalwart westerns veteran John Doucette), he goes after the coal syndicate with his hunting bow and goes all Leatherstocking on the corporate baddy’s bodyguard thugs. Fonda never dredges up a palpable fury to match his righteous indignation, but he does offer a different kind of moral spine in rural culture polluted by corruption. Cult actress Lynn Lowry plays the love interest in a film that sidesteps the issue of Fonda’s marriage status (maybe separated, certainly not divorced but acting very much the single father).

Demme and Corman, colleagues, friends and old hands at teaming up for commentary tracks, are joined for this newly-recorded commentary by Lynn Lowry and, about 118 minutes in, Peter Fonda. They don’t bother to introduce themselves (and it’s easy to tell them apart), they simply launch into production stories. Demme explains that it was Corman’s idea to make a “redneck revenge picture” (in the spirit of Walking Tall and Billy Jack) and suggested building it around the issue of strip mining, a reminder that Corman that was both politically left and business savvy, and points out that Monte Hellman helped out (uncredited) in the editing of a key sequence that plays out with a documentary quality.

The double-feature disc is paired with the 1976 Moving Violation, another thriller of small town corruption, this own starring Stephen McHattie as a drifter and Kay Lenz as a waitress who go on the run after witnessing the local lawmen murder someone. Will Geer and Eddie Albert co-star and the film features commentary by director Charles S. Dubin, producer Julie Corman, executive producer Roger Corman and star Stephen McHattie.

The Gangster Mamas (and Other Lady Outlaws) of Big Bad Corman – DVDs of the Week

Big Bad Mama / Big Bad Mama II Double Feature (Shout! Factory)
Crazy Mama / The Lady In Red Double Feature
(Shout! Factory)

One of the less recognized genres that director/producer/indie-exploitation movie mogul Roger Corman adopted as a minor specialty was the depression-era gangster movie. As a director he turned out Machine Gun Kelly (1958), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and (most importantly for the purposes of this piece) Bloody Mama (1970), his perversely Oedipal take on the Ma Barker story with Shelley Winters as the machine gun mama leading her sons through a bank-robbing spree and keeping them a little too close for comfort on their days off.

Angie Dickinson in the driver's seat of "Big Bad Mama"

Jump ahead a few years and Corman, now retired from directing to run his own independent studio, turns back to the period gangster thriller with a femme-centric twist (which proved so effective in Boxcar Bertha, the 1972 feature he produced for AIP and with an up-and-coming young filmmaker at the helm taking first shot at directing a real Hollywood film: Martin Scorsese). Bloody Mama and Boxcar Bertha are the two godmothers of the four films featured in a pair of double features from Shout! Factory, including three that carried on the legacy of Corman’s gangster Mamas: all previously available but newly remastered for posterity presented at good prices.

Angie Dickinson takes the driver’s seat in the getaway car of Big Bad Mama (1974) and powers the low-rent Bonnie and Clyde as the feisty Wilma McClatchie, a sexy and strong-willed depression-era widow with two teenage daughters blossoming into sexual creatures. Angry, outspoken and determined to take back her share (and a little more) from the fat cats and corrupt authority figures that took everything from her, she puts a stop to her daughter’s wedding with a rabble-rousing speech about social injustice and then hits the road with a fun-loving bootlegger on the run from the Feds (one of them played by Corman familiar Dick Miller). It’s the just beginning of her outlaw education on the road to bigger and better crimes, from small-time robberies and race track heist to high society capers, with two new partners: rough and ready bank robber Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) who literally has his bank robbery hijacked by Wilma and smirking con man William Baxter (William Shatner) who seduces Wilma right out of Fred’s arms. Her girls, Billy Jean (Susan Sennett) and Polly (Robbie Lee), are quick to fill the void in Fred’s bed. He’s nothing if not adaptable.

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Review: Hollywood’s Wild Angel

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

I’ve never had the opportunity to see Allan Arkush and Joe Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard;on the other hand, I suspect that I saw a fair portion of it in Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel,Christian Blackwood’s genial film dossier on Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures released the movie. From what we see, and from what Arkush and Dante gleefully confess to Blackwood’s camera and microphone, Hollywood Boulevardis an outrageous, pell-mell celebration/put-on of low-budget, high-energy exploitation filmmaking. A couple of wild’n’crazy kids with a movie camera rip off every cinematic opportunity in sight to produce a zany compendium of Z-movie sex’n’violence; the surrounding environment and not a few of its inhabitants get trashed in the process, but no big deal. Arkush and Dante, a pair of sweet-faced loons who would not look out of place at a freshman smoker, did the same thing in a slightly less destructive key—for instance, taking pictures of a few honeys firing submachine guns in Griffith Park, and splicing these in with borrowed Philippine footage of soldiers biting the dust—and then they showed the results to Roger Corman who said, Very funny, here’s the money for the lab costs, I’ll buy it. One always hoped things like that happened in Roger Corman’s neighborhood, and among the many pleasures of Blackwood’s 58-minute documentary is that that hope gets confirmed again and again.

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Jonathan Demme on “Rachel Getting Married” – “As long as we are born into families, it’s going to be a big deal”

Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married may look like your basic Sundance/Slamdance indie feature, with its wandering handheld camerawork and ensemble riffing through the collisions and confrontations of a dysfunctional family reunion, but in his hands the familiar conflicts and clashes are invigorated by an authenticity and, dare I say it, a sense of rediscovery. The one-time underdog auteur who traded his small termite art movies of American eccentrics and their distinctive communities (Melvin and Howard and Something Wild) for the Hollywood respectability of films like Philadelphia and Beloved is back doing what he does best. Demme brings an inclusiveness and a sense of community to the film. He gives characters we may only meet once a lived-in quality and makes music a defining part of the community with a soundtrack played live by the wedding guests (a roster that includes Robyn Hitchcock and Sister Carol East, among others). Rachel Getting Married is both warmly generous and uncomfortably honest and it’s one of the best American movies of the year.

the sisters of "Rachel Getting Married"
Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt: the sisters of “Rachel Getting Married”

My phone interview with Jonathan Demme started almost 45 minutes late. Once we started talking, it became obvious how such a thing could happen. I was supposed to have a 15-minute interview, but the time flew so easily that when the publicist broke in to pull him away for the next interview, we’d been talking for over half an hour. Demme speaks with an excitement and passion that I rarely hear in people discussing their work; reading his words doesn’t begin to capture the enthusiasm or expressiveness of the interview. He doesn’t just say the words “reluctantly,” he transforms it into an expression of the epic struggle within himself the way he pronounces it: “relllll-UC-tantly.” And his love of film and filmmaking is matched by his respect for collaborators and his excitement over the magic that arises out of collaboration.

How did this project come your way?

Sidney Lumet called me up on the telephone and said, ‘My daughter, Jenny, has written a wonderful screenplay and Jonathan, you should direct it.’

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