Apr 26, 2017

Jonathan Demme: Handle With Care

It comes with great sadness to report that director Jonathan Demme passed away this morning at the age of 73. He won an Oscar as Best Director for 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, one notable title in an eclectic forty-year career of many interesting and unique films. Mr. Demme was a graduate of the Roger Corman school at New World Pictures in the 1970s, a time in which contemporaries such as Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese were similarly paying their dues before achieving mainstream success. From his first credit, as screenwriter for Angels Hard As They Come (of all things, a biker movie update of Rashomon), and onwards through the 70s, he would write and direct several quirky drive-in pictures that would subtly subvert exploitation movies, including Caged Heat (spoofing the women-in-prison genre) and Crazy Mama (an oddball spin on the rural crime pictures in vogue at the time).

And yet, when he answered the call to Hollywood, he continued to surprise us. He successfully balanced commercial mainstream projects (The Silence of the Lambs; Philadelphia) with documentaries (Cousin Bobby; Jimmy Carter The Man From The Plains). His filmography was further graced with several concert films (not least a few with Neil Young, Spalding Gray's performance piece Swimming To Cambodia, and the instant cult film Stop Making Sense, featuring Talking Heads).  In recent times he had made the comedy-drama Ricki and the Flash, followed by the rockumentary Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids. Through the years he had also done such quirky favourites as Melvin and Howard, Married To the Mob and Something Wild. Perhaps the latter film, which credibly veers from screwball comedy to violent melodrama, neatly summarizes Demme's career as a whole. You couldn't pigeonhole him into any formula: no matter what he took on, he usually did it well.

Out of the 60-plus films he has attached his name to in various capacities, my favourite of all those seen is Citizens Band (also released as Handle With Care). This 1977 sleeper is sort of a bridge between his drive-in exploitation days and future mainstream success. Out of tribute to Jonathan Demme, below is an edited piece on this film, from the Fall 2010 issue of ESR. Enjoy!

Rural Follies: An Appreciation of Citizens Band

Not all of our favourite films have to be those whispered in hushed admiration on Cinematheque Ontario’s ten best lists.  In fact, if a comet were to hurtle towards the Earth tomorrow, and we had to hurriedly grab pieces of our popped culture to take with us in the escape pod to preserve for our future existence beyond, Citizens Band (also known as Handle With Care) would be among those I’d ensure would be on the trip.  This 1977 gem is one of the very few films I’ve seen more than 20 times, and also one of the very few in which every new viewing feels as fresh as the first.

Paul LeMat as "Spider"
While Citizens Band (an early credit for director Jonathan Demme) was not a box office bonanza upon release (despite its commercial potential with its liberal use of CB radios which were all the rage in the day), it is one of those darling titles that seems to pop up on lists of sadly-neglected films.  It is an often hilarious and oddly touching slice of Americana, with rich and endearing characters, and has a pervasive charm and love of people.  This rural mosaic has several story threads, where the majority of characters, right down to the supporting players, have second lives on the CB radio waves.

Blaine (Paul LeMat), AKA- Spider, runs a CB repair station out on his junkyard, and an ad hoc rescue team for whenever there’s an emergency on Channel 9.  Spider is so fed up with the emergency channel being abused by such characters as The Hustler with their prattle, that he wages a war to shut down anyone who uses Channel 9 for anything other than a genuine emergency. Blaine lives on the junkyard with his estranged father (Roberts Blossom), who only ever utters one-word sentences to his son, except when he’s threatening to cook Ned the dog.  However, on the airlines, he is the engaging, motor-mouthed Papa Thermodyne.

"Spider" and Pam (Candy Clark)
Spider is still friendly with his ex-girlfriend Pam (Candy Clark), who broke up with him for not having the guts to leave the junkyard.   Adding insult to injury, she is now dating his estranged brother Dean (Bruce McGill)! In the opening of the film, Spider saves the life of a trucker (Charles Napier) who operates under the handle of Chrome Angel.  He’s laid up in this town for a few days with his friend Debbie, AKA- Hot Coffee (Alix Elias), a prostitute whose flagging business gets a boost when Chrome Angel helps her purchase a motor home, thereby bringing her business right to the rear fenders of her truckin’ customers.  He then calls both of his homes to tell his wives (!) about the accident.  Unexpectedly, both of his spouses, Dallas Angel (Ann Wedgeworth) and Portland Angel (Marcia Todd) travel to visit him.  Only on the bus to town, when the two women view each other’s photos do they first realize they’re married to the same man, and thus make plans to divorce him.

"Chrome Angel" (Charles Napier) and "Hot Coffee" (Alix Elias)
Paul Brickman’s hilarious and touching screenplay refreshingly portrays rural people free of the beer-swilling redneck stereotypes that permeated the hick flicks of the time.  Instead, every person is worth getting to know.  Each major character is forced to confront their current lots in life, and must decide how to change them.  Even the worst people in this film surprise us with their compassion.

Dinner with Papa Thermodyne (Roberts Blossom). "He did it, he really did it."
It is certainly a plus to see this beautifully written ensemble realized by such a terrific cast.  Paul Le Mat is perhaps the definitive movie star for the underdog 70s- his well-intentioned, good-natured but under-achieving blue-collar characters, from American Graffiti to Melvin and Howard, epitomize the restlessness and aimlessness found in movie characters during the decade.  It is treat to see him paired with American Graffiti co-star Candy Clark, whose quirky energy is perfect for Pam’s confusion over her on-again, off-again relationship with Blaine, as she often frustratingly waits for the little boy in him to grow up.

Despite that Roberts Blossom could (and often did) play old coots that would just as soon shoot you as look at you, he arguably has his greatest role as Papa Thermodyne.  He is a marvel in doing much with little.  In the birthday party scene (shot in one single take, like many sequences in the film), when Spider reveals to his father that he plans to move out, Papa stares at the candles with a slight tremble in his jaw, and then utters a single word “Okay”- this deceptively simple moment is incredibly powerful.

Citizens Band is perhaps the bridge between director Jonathan Demme’s drive-in exploitation fare (Caged Heat; Crazy Mama), and his subsequent mainstream works (Stop Making Sense; Married To the Mob).  It carries the same twangy charm of the pictures he made back at the Roger Corman factory, yet it also has a maturity, depth and love of people that puts most Hollywood films to shame.  When Demme went mainstream, he still retained that same quirkiness for years to come.  Most interestingly, he would still take risks with non-commercial fare like Swimming To Cambodia (1987).

At the time, the lantern-jawed Charles Napier was mainly known for being part of drive-in king Russ Meyer’s stock company.  This film showed mainstream audiences that he could be a formidable Hollywood leading man, and play comedy.  He would eventually be part of Jonathan Demme’s stock company, appearing in his later films Last Embrace, Silence of the Lambs, and several others.

Many scenes (with woozy, flashy cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth) play in single takes.  While this may seem like an economic consideration in order to shoot this small film quickly, it is in fact a testament to Demme’s control, and the expertise of his cast.

This film is full of priceless little scenes, such as where the two vengeful wives compare notes on how their husband seduces them, or where Blaine and the reluctant Dean choose a birthday cake for their father- all deceptively simple in their execution, as the camera unobtrusively eavesdrops on their little dramas.  The superb cast makes the best out of a great screenplay—it all ends up feeling very natural, unrehearsed.

"Portland Angel" (Marcia Rodd), "Hot Coffee" and "Dallas Angel" (Ann Wedgeworth)
Citizens Band has countless hilarious moments.  The side-splitting "bigamist trucker" subplot culminates in a howler of a moment when Hot Coffee offers an unusual solution to the plight of the three spouses.  The scenes where Blaine destroys the CB equipment of Channel 9 abusers (including a Nazi, a priest and a 10-year old kid named The Hustler) are great sight gags.  And of course, there is the sequence where Blaine convinces Pam to join him and Papa Thermodyne for dinner, and dad quips that the stew is made of dog meat.  (“He did it, he really did it.”)

Yet underneath all of the humour is a lot of truth.  In the dinner scene, while Blaine is searching around the house to see whether or not Ned the Dog really did end up in the pot, Papa Thermodyne confesses his cruel joke to Pam, which he did to make Blaine feel the misery that he feels for being stuck at this junkyard.  (This is the only time we see Papa open up to another human being in the flesh.)  Blaine’s obsession with tearing down irresponsible CB transmitters is an excuse for him to avoid making any important life decisions.  During his mission, Spider is being threatened by a mysterious caller named Blood, whose motivations are also quite justifiable.

Spider and Dean (Bruce McGill) find a cake for Pop.
Long before people were able to assume alternate identities on Facebook or Second Life, wayward souls had CB radios with which to create a different world for themselves.  Many characters who have an alter ego on the radio waves seek solace with the surrogate friends on the bandwidth.  Even the vignette where the horny teenager Warlock has “phone sex” on the CB radio with a girl named Electra, is oddly moving, as these virtual strangers try to work out each other’s problems.  It would appear that everyone escapes to this imaginary aural world to escape what they can’t repair in their real lives.  Along the way, director Demme and screenwriter Brickman help these characters find their lost souls.

See the movie-
read the tie-in paperback!
All of these story threads combine into a climax that is a little bizarre, but not without logic.  When these disparate people track down Papa Thermodyne (after he has suddenly disappeared), not only has he found his true soul, but they have also found themselves in different ways.

This sweet film ends up being too moving for words.  It is so touching to see these characters with the virtue that we knew existed, even in the unlikable ones.  By the time the credits roll, when Larry Santos sings “You Heard The Song” over the soundtrack, as a single pan shot connects all of the wayward characters one last time before they move on to their next journeys in life, I am weeping.

Not only am I overcome with emotion for the honest portrayal of the people in this little epic, but also their genuine humanity.  Also, one is melancholy over the passage of time; Citizens Band hails from a time when there used to be a new masterpiece in theatres every few weeks.  It is a sad and beautiful reminder of how movies can be so entertaining and wise.