Demme, Jonathan: Regional Folk Comedies (Citizens Band, Melvin and Howard, Something Wild)

Jonathan Demme is a popular entertainer who knows that a good, perceptive director can’t criticize culture unless he understands its meanings to people.

Demme has probed small-town America with the same intensity that Scorsese has applied to his explorations of “urban nightmares” (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, After Hours) or Woody Allen to his bitter-sweet portraits of New York (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters).

Demme’s trilogy of serio folk comedies, Citizens Band (aka Handle With Care (1977), Melvin and Howard (1980), and Something Wild (1986), portray the idiosyncratic varieties of American life. With the exception of Something Wild, which was released by Orion, they were studio movies, the kind that would never be made by Hollywood today.

Demme’s Authorial Vision

In his lyrical sketches of rural America, Demme used a relaxed, diffuse style to capture the innocent quality of American hopefulness. He provided uncondenscending insights into a working-class which, despite poverty, is still buoyed by dreams of striking it rich. Demme has shown intuitive feel for the texture of life outside the mainstream, suffusing his characters with warm acceptance devoid of criticism. Rich in commonplace detail and nonjudgmental humor, his approach combines the satirical percept of the very American Preston Sturges with the humanist compassion of the very French Jean Renoir.

The hallmark of Demme’s populism is his taste for kitsch, rummaging around the American landscape like an antique hound in a thrift store. Critic David Edelstein has described it as “The Moral Uses of Kitsch,” or how bad guys use kitsch to insulate their souls and good guys to liberate them. His movies are laden with tacky interiors and garishly tasteless costumes that reached their best expression in Married to the Mob (1988), in which working class gangsters live in a fake world, parading around in long white overcoats that serve as a mask for their lack of subtlety. Demme’s America is a colorful place, as in “dress-up and be what you want to be, but don’t think that clothes by themselves make the person.”

Handle With Care

Handle With Care explores the psychology of CB radio operators obsessed with talking on the airwaves. Radio is a medium that allows them to maintain anonymity and at the same time reinforces belongingness. The characters’ anonymous public names are all icons of pop culture: Spider, Electra, Warlock, Cochise, Chrome Angel, Smilin’ Jack. The movie illustrates how individuals can transform themselves–with CB radios–into close-knit communities.

Contrasting people’s unrepressed ids with their more socialized egos, the loose narrative shows how CB radios enable people to express their sexual fantasies to strangers in a manner they would never dare in personal interactions. The radio helps unleash their hidden, subconscious desires. In a quintessential scene, Electra, an otherwise ordinary girl named Pam, unleashes onto the airwaves such outrageous sexual profanities that an overly excited driver reaches orgasm in his truck.

Spider (named Blane), a mechanic running a CB repair shop, is a self-styled crusader cutting off the wavebands of those who violate the FCC regulations, parasites like a redneck obsessed with Communism, a priest who sees danger in America’s secularization. There is no communication between Spider and his retired, drunken father, who comes to life only when he uses the CB. Failing to wake his father, Spider walks to the other room and calls him on the radio–the old man wakes up immediately.

At the film’s climax, when an old man is lost in the woods during torrential rains, each member of this newfound community searches for him over their CB. This magical forest sequence recalls Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Holding hands, strangers participate in a collective, quasi-religious ritual.

The film’s eccentric characters are descendants of Preston Sturges, though Demme’s “touch” is lighter, less frenzied. Where else but in a Demme film can two women accidentally meet on a bus and realize they are married to the same man. The casting of Paul LeMat and Candy Clark, of American Graffiti’s fame, suggests some continuity between the two films, though defying genre conventions, Handle with Care is more original than Lucas’ film.

Melvin and Howard

Melvin and Goward provided one of the 1980s’ most perceptive looks at how the American Dream got tangled up in an obsession with jackpots and prizes–the last-ditch hope of the little people. More lyrical than Handle With Care, the film’s vision was described by critic Michael Sragow as “robust and generous as Walt Whitman’s.” The narrative begins with a bizarre meeting in the Nevada desert between one of America’s richest men, Howard Hughes (Jason Robards), and one of its poorest, Melvin Dummar (Paul LeMat). Melvin finds a white-haired, long-bearded Hughes on the ground, thrown from his motorcycle. Trying to cheer him up, Melvin sings “Santa’s Souped-up Sleigh,” and soon Hughes joins him with “Bye Bye Blackbird.” When Melvin expresses his dream of a better job at an airplane factory like Hughes, the old man says, “What a shame, I might have done something. I’m Howard Hughes.”

In Vegas, Melvin drops Hughes at the Sands Hotel and gives him all his money–a quarter. In this unlikely encounter, the two interact as equals and the media-created, monstrous Hughes emerges as a human being. The meeting reflects the American egalitarian, optimistic spirit–it’s still possible for people placed on the opposite side of the social spectrum to interact.
Melvin returns to his trailer-home in Gabbs, where he lives with Lynda (Mary Steenburgen) and their daughter Darcy.

When repossession men haul away his truck and his new motorcycle, Lynda leaves him, with help from her friend Taylor. Deserted by Taylor in a low-rent motel, she struggles through a procession of nowhere jobs, like dancing in a sleazy Reno club, or waitressing in a topless joint. Melvin gets impatient, files for divorce and is granted custody of their daughter. Ultimately, Lynda and Melvin reconcile, and remarry in a $39 Vegas wedding chapel. But when Melvin recklessly buys a Cadillac and a huge motorboat (which he parks on the ground), Lynda leaves him again. Listening to her farewell speech, Melvin protests only when she says they are poor, “Broke maybe, but not poor.”

The most illuminating scene is a TV game show, which captures the American obsession with winning. What’s left of the elusive American Dream of hard work is the urge to share the national spotlight and appear on TV–if only for a few seconds. Modeled after “Let’s Make a Deal,” the film’s “Easy Street” has a smooth host, Wally (Mr. Love) Williams, with a soothing voice that fits his function as a pastor in another collective ritual.

Demme doesn’t criticize TV as an impersonal medium–for Melvin (and his likes) TV game shows offer a bond with millions of anonymous strangers, united by their love of TV and their fantasy of winning. A modern version of Capra’s “little people,” without the latter’s sentimentality, Melvin is a quintessential American hero: innocent, kind-hearted and generous. Genuinely happy for those who win, he hopes that the next time will be his turn.

Demme shows a sharp eye for the offbeat in rural America, the subjective perceptions of the American Dream. The movie shows the attempt to rise above one’s limitations–the characters are not fully aware of their class and don’t see their background as obstacle. Despite one crisis after another, they continue to be hopeful, always landing on their feet–Melvin is selected “Milkman of the Month,” and after a second divorce from Lynda, he finds happiness with another woman. Melvin and Howard was billed as a romantic comedy, “a fiction based on fact,” but writer Bo Goldman was not concerned whether Melvin was telling the truth (according to the film, Hughes’s will was left at Melvin’s gas station). For him, the film is about “what if Melvin was telling the truth.”

Something Wild

Continuing his exploration of a culture addicted to fantasy and escapism, Something Wild employed a prevalent 1980s type:the Yuppie. At the center, once again, is an unlikely pair: Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels), an uptight Wall-Street tax accountant, and Lulu Hankel (Melanie Griffith), a recklessly sexual woman. They meet in a downtown Manhattan luncheonette, when Lulu spots Charlie beating a check. Charlie, a vice-president at a consultant firm, claims that he has meetings to attend, reports to write, a wife and children waiting in their suburban house. Ignoring his objections, Lulu takes him to a New Jersey motel, handcuffs him to the bedpost, and makes love to him in ways he has never before experienced.

Like other “Yuppie Angst” movies (Desperately Seeking Susan, Lost in America, Blue Velvet, Into the Night) Something Wild suggests that appearances are deceptive, that no one should be trusted for their look or verbal expressions. Though seemingly opposites, Lulu and Charlie turn out to be kindred souls. Charlie starts out as a conservative starched-shirt, a 1980s version of “The Man with the Gray Flannel Suit,” and becomes more nonconformist as the story progresses, whereas Lulu’s transformation moves in the opposite direction.

Demme’s film, like Blue Velvet, was inspired by a popular song, and also like Lynch’s movie concerns the delicate balance between the normal and abnormal. As in Blue Velvet, role reversal is a key element: a sexually aggressive female initiating an innocent white male. Lulu’s sexual practices and transgressive desires shock the Yuppie in much the same way that Dorothy’s shocked Jeffrey. More significantly, in both films the women are restored by the end to more traditional, domestic roles. In Blue Velvet, Dorothy is revealed to be a good mother, and by the end of Something Wild Lulu shows signs of domesticity.

Sporting a kinky black outfit, Lulu dons a Louise Brooks pag-boy wig. Her real name, Audrey, also seems to be drawn from movie lore, perhaps Audrey Hepburn whose role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s she slightly resembles. In this and other aspects, Demme reveals how pop culture as America’s secular religion, permeating every aspect of our lives.

Lulu drags Charlie to her mother’s Virginia home, then off to a tenth high school reunion, a joyful occasion that turns into a nightmare when Audrey’s psychotic ex-husband shows up. Abruptly changing gears, the film turns into a violent drama with the two men vying for Audrey. Like Blue Velvet, the sequence asserts that crime is no longer the exclusive territory of urban America. Despite a disquieting melange of genres, the movie plays like a modern version of a Depression screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, in reverse. Instead of Clark Gable’s aggressive, boozy, self-centered newspaperman, there’s Audrey, the unemployed, sexual aggressor. And instead of traveling from Florida to New York City, Demme’s couple drives from the city to the country.

The movie also shares thematic similarities with After Hours–it’s like a rural counterpart to Scorsese’s nightmarish view of Soho. In both films, the hero is a square upright and uptight professional, but unlike After Hours, wherein the hero goes back to “normal life” at the end of the ordeal, Charlie undergoes a more radical transformation and his future is uncertain.

A multi-racial skew in Something Wild stood out in the landscape of 1980s movies. While the leads are white, Demme populates the background with black musicians, waiters, and gas attendants. Their conspicuous presence offered an ironic commentary on Reagan’s separatist ideology of “white supremacy.” They reminded viewers that ethnic minorities are still at the bottom of the hierarchy, though it would take another decade for African-Americans to assume centerstage in their own movies.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press)