AND THEN THE EIGHTIES HAPPENED….(Jonathan Demme, R.I.P.)

…To all of us, alas.

Though he was most famous for his Oscar bait from the early nineties (The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia), Jonathan Demme did his best work in the eighties. He made two of that dreary, trend-setting decade’s best films (Melvin and Howard and Something Wild), both notable for their fluid, easy use of popular music. He had a knack for scoring small visual moments that worked to enlarge both the song and the scene, none more so than this one…

…though his use of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” in the much more pedestrian (fi still frightening) The┬áSilence of the Lambs was just as revelatory. The music Demme’s characters listened to in his films was the music his characters actually would have listened to if they’d been real people. That’s been such a rare gift in American cinema, that his losing it was as much a tragedy as us losing him.

Of course, in that same decade, he also made Stop Making Sense, one of the most acclaimed rock and roll concert films. Not being much of a Talking Heads’ fan, I’ve never seen the whole thing, but the clips I’ve caught over the years look astounding, so that’s an oversight I’ll have to rectify someday.

Something seemed to go out of him when he tried to remake Charade (as The Trouble With Charlie) and produced both a bloody mess and one of the worst films ever made. Coming on the heels of the eighties, the nineties were like that. They sucked the life out of everybody.

There was a key hiding in a line of a music video Demme directed. It’s of the only good record ever made by one of the ad hoc charity organizations that sprang up as we went about the world with our “terrible notions of duty.”** Turns out “Why are we always on the wrong side?” had an easy answer. In South Africa as elsewhere (where we’ve “helped” them into increasing their murder rate by a factor of a thousand, the victims being no longer worthy of any “charity” recordings by hot shot western superstars….or reporting by western media), there was no “right” side. Now there’s a tragedy for you.

But the power of seduction–of Pornographic Idealism–remains. We will insist on doing good until it hurts. And we will keep on insisting, no matter who it hurts. The Christian conscience nags, it seems, even when the Christ part is discarded.

And, therefore, “Sun City” is as good an epitaph for the unfulfilled promise of that very representative modern American, Jonathan Demme, as any.

**“We’re so prone to these things, with our terrible notions of duty.” (A.H. Clough)…from the famous epigram that begins Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American, from which we could have learned a thing or two, had we been less inclined to gag on our own hype.)

SEEING PSYCHO WITH THE NOVICES (Segue of the Day: 9/1/15)

VERAMILES1

So Psycho came to the local college theater (the big one with the stadium seating this time) and I had a chance to see it on a big screen, with an audience, for the second time since I started this blog.

I wrote about the first experience here and, just from a film school standpoint, everything was the same, only more so. Vera Miles still keeps the whole thing from dissolving with a flicker of the eyelid here, a sideways glance there, an occasional quaver of barely contained emotion appropriate to actual human responses bubbling up through the movie’s otherwise completely flat, almost robotic surfaces.

Anyway, the audience told the tale.

The main difference between the two viewings was that, this time around, I was clearly with kids who had mostly not seen it. That’s maybe another sign, perhaps a slightly surprising one, of how times have changed.

Last time I saw Psycho with a college audience was in the mid-eighties, with VHS players a recent phenomena and public screenings of classic film outside of major cities relatively rare.

Back then, people were competing to see who could recite the most dialog back to the screen. This time around, with opportunities to see popular classics having been in abundance for the entire lifetimes of most of the audience, even the most famous surprises were clearly surprises. Except, of course, for the one surprise almost nobody can avoid knowing about, which is the shower scene.

So the shower scene evoked relatively little response and the screams and shouts and warnings were all at the end, meaning the part real film buffs are always claiming they stop watching after they’ve seen the movie a time or two, because, well, the first part of the movie is where all the film buff stuff is at.

Look, Anthony Perkins’ performance is all that. He deserves every accolade he’s ever received. And Janet Leigh is fine, too. It’s a nicely nuanced turn.

But, as I intimated in the earlier piece, there’s no edge or shadow in her performance (or her persona, such as it was/is) that suggests her character is really the type to steal $40,000 for some reason other than to set a fever dream plot in motion. I suspect that’s why the shower scene has little emotional resonance with audiences these days, when the violence is no longer anywhere near the edge and the “shock” aspects have faded, especially for kids who barely know who Janet Leigh was and have no reason to think she won’t be killed by the sociopath at the Bates Motel just because she’s too big a star to die halfway through the movie.

All of that leaves the movie right where it really always was…with Miles to do the heavy lifting at the climax which, had it not worked so perfectly, would have left the movie a curio for the benighted to discuss among themselves, like Rope or Marnie, instead of, at one and the same time, in the conversation for the greatest horror film and the greatest noir.

Interestingly enough, it’s the end sequence, the foundational, “don’t go in the basement” moment, that is the most iconic. I have no idea if it’s the absolute first of its type, but that hardly matters because it was rare-to-unheard-of before Psycho and, unlike the inimitable shower scene, has been imitated four thousand times since.

All of which adds to my growing and now close to irreversible belief that Hitchcock either truly lost his nerve or let his vendetta against Miles (who had backed out of Vertigo because she was pregnant and refused to get an abortion) obscure his judgment. I love the movie as it is. It’s as great and disturbing as its reputation (something I concede about few Hitchcock movies, as much as I enjoy them).

But I’m convinced it would have been even greater and more disturbing if he had cast Miles in both parts.

And what, may you ask does any of that have to do with the Segue of the Day?

Absolutely nothing.

All the screening did was reinforce some of my already formed opinions (albeit under very different and illuminating circumstances).

Happens all the time.

What I don’t get to do enough of, these days, is smile.

Which is what hearing this…

and this…

on the sound system, while waiting for the lights to go down so I could watch Psycho with the twenty-year-olds made me do all over.