Somewhere on a desert highway
She rides a Harley-Davidson
Her long blond hair flyin' in the wind
She's been runnin' half her life
The chrome and steel she rides
Collidin' with the very air she breathes
The air she breathes
– "Unknown Legend," Neil Young
It is an American tale, it has to be, nothing else makes sense. It is rock & roll radio blasting out of a car racing down the highway through a long dark night. But the story ends abruptly with a great sadness before the dawn.
Jonathan Demme died this morning.
Rather than reading words, go watch his films, all his films, wildly dancing to them as though they were music because they are.
Sure, there is pain and memory, tears and laughter, phone calls and emails, but right now more than anything there is silence. In my head, around me, in the breathing and loving of so many, an overwhelming deep heavy quiet. Something is missing that was here yesterday, a loss beyond reason. One of the great soloist voices in the choir of American culture has gone silent. His work will shine forever but oh we will miss the man.
This story begins in a car because it should and because it did. Watching Caged Heat – Demme's first directorial effort, a women-in-prison genre film – at a South Austin drive-in theatre in 1977 literally changed my life.
In many ways it was a film I had long carried in my head without knowing it – a political action film both feminist and exploitative, both cinematically savvy and street-wise. This was a genre work and a Jean-Luc Godard tract, unapologetically and explicitly exploitation fare, stubbornly subversive, executed with stylistically intoxicating filmmaking. It worked on so many levels – narrative, acting, cinematic, musical, and political. Demme's talent seemed to promise the extraordinary. Ironically, over the years he lapped those expectations again and again and again.
Back then, before home video and cable, it was so difficult to actually find and watch the films. At CinemaTexas, the graduate-run film program of the RTF Department, we rented Crazy Mama, Demme's second film, claiming some very tenuous connection to a class being taught. Because we wanted to see the film. Which was a revelation.
Sometime later Ed Lowry and I, with two quarts of Coca-Cola and a bottle of rum at a Dallas drive-in, caught the remarkable Citizen's Band. Then later we saw Melvin and Howard.
Here was a director who loved his characters, cared about working people, cherished and championed a deeply American vision, filled with joy and decency, compassion and celebration.
We sent him a letter containing some of the pieces we had written about his work. Some time after he called to say he was coming to Austin; could we pick him up at the airport? Sure. How would we recognize him? "I'll be wearing baby blue sunglasses."
We listened to music, ate barbecue, and watched some locally produced short films. Demme then presented those films at the Collective for Living Cinema in NYC, changing the Austin film scene significantly and permanently.
In another car, three decades later, Demme and I drove across the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River heading to his house in Upper Nyack from the Jacob Burns Cinema in Pleasantville, N.Y. We had just presented Conrad Rooks' Chappaqua, a film we both loved, which at best is a minority position.
I remarked that his films were so positive, suggesting he was an optimistic director, a trait not generally shared by filmmakers.
He thought about this before carefully responding something along the lines of, "You can have a deep affection for your characters, you can feel that they have a future. Tomorrow has the possibility of being as good or even better than today. In their lives there is always the possibility as well as the reality of things getting better. There are, however, many other options for what might happen and how it might be perceived. This, then, is not 'optimistic,' which has to do with naively underestimating the terrible situations and dire circumstances that people confront every day. You can believe and hope without exactly being optimistic."
There's so much that's wrong in the world – so much horror, so much darkness – but Demme's work, while acknowledging this, in so many ways resists the idea of hopelessness. Demme is too fascinated by people and culture to entertain the all-too-commonly-held idea that the best of everything is in the past. Not just seriously excited by today, Demme's films always eagerly anticipated tomorrow. In a time of darkness, his films offer light; in a time of despair, hope; in a time of lamentation, they often celebrate joy.
This is not a career tribute. Instead it is personal – a sigh, a sob, a weary breath. God, Jonathan Demme loved. He loved family and friends, film and filmmakers, music and musicians, art and artists always feeding his outsize appetite by racing madly forward through the culture sucking everything in. Then pouring all this energy and grace into narratives and documentaries, music videos, performance and concert films, TV and movies. He loved until his heart was full, and loved still more because he cared not for boundaries, loved and loved until his full heart burst. Burst into his work, creating fantastic neon fireworks explosions across the world, still and forever.
But Jonathan is gone, life's rhythm has slowed a couple of beats, breathing is a little harder. Yet, as he would want, there is joy, we survivors though sad still forever blessed by the benedictions of a life so well lived and of films so beautifully made.
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