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Remembering Jonathan Demme: Why He Was One of the Great Filmmakers of Our Time

Jonathan Demme never made the same movie twice. He was one of the great and most eclectic directors of our time.

The Silence of the Lambs

Orion Pictures

His Films Were Tightly Edited, But They Lived Forever

Last night, hours before Jonathan Demme’s death (before I even knew that he had been sick), I randomly tweeted a clip of the scene from “Rachel Getting Married” where Tunde Adebimpe stands at the altar across from Rosemarie DeWitt and fills the slimmest of silences with a heart-stopping a cappella rendition of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend.” It’s a porcelain moment, fragile enough to drape a movie theater with the hush of a concert hall, beautiful enough to both define that movie and also survive beyond it. I didn’t need a good reason to want to share it. His movies lived with you like that; they’re tightly edited, but they never end. Demme made bigger films than “Rachel Getting Married,” and maybe even better films (though I’d go to the mattresses defending this scrappy, culturally Pangean fairy tale about family and forgiveness), but, for me, nothing else so perfectly distills what made Demme special. He found music in everything, and everything in music. And his best movies — which are really most of his movies, if we’re being honest — helped form the soundtracks of our lives. – David Ehrlich

Demme Made One of the Best Directed Films Ever Made

Watching “The Silence of the Lambs” for the first time is one of those movie experiences you just never forget. Every shot is so carefully considered, blocked and timed that the film is just as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying. The famous interplay scenes between Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling turn a conventional shot-reverse-shot dynamic into primal psychological fear. Demme’s close-ups have a rising tension so palpable it’s impossible not to tremble. I’ll never forget that sensation. Neither will millions of cinephiles. “The Silence of the Lambs” is one of the best-directed movies of all time. No question. – Zack Sharf

He Brought New Queer Cinema Into the Mainstream

The first mainstream film to portray gay life, “Philadelphia” was and remains safer stylistically than many of Demme’s films, a fact ameliorated by a subject matter that was in 1994 still highly taboo: The AIDS epidemic. The first of what would come to be known as “the queer prestige film,” “Philadelphia” marked a shift from the indie-dominated New Queer Cinema to the mainstream gay issue film. (Think “Dallas Buyers Club,” or “Boys Don’t Cry”). Tom Hanks earned an Oscar for his performance as the vulnerable but tenacious lawyer Andrew Beckett, who sues his law firm for wrongful termination. In an effort to appeal to straight audiences, Denzel Washington plays a homophobic lawyer who represents Andrew despite his obvious discomfort. For many gay people, including this one, “Philadelphia” was one of the first windows into contemporary gay life they ever had, albeit a harrowing one. But Andrew’s demand for justice mirrored the community’s demand to be seen, heard, and acknowledged. The success of “Philadelphia” paved the way for studios to take risks on lighter gay fare such as “The Birdcage” and “In & Out.” The queer film community has not only lost a celebrated auteur, but a brave and early ally. – Jude Dry

He Was A Kindred Spirit to His Subjects

Jonathan Demme’s passion for filmmaking is evident in the sheer volume of his output, coupled with the diversity of topics: From the women-in-prison exploitation film that started his career to a Jimmy Carter documentary and everything in between, Demme was always searching for unique inspiration. His adoration for music inspired me the most: from the unquestionably brilliant Talking Heads doc “Stop Making Sense” to his heartfelt Meryl Streep vehicle “Ricki and the Flash,” music fueled his drive. Perhaps his biggest muse through the years was one of my favorite artists, Neil Young. Demme directed three separate Young documentaries — 2006’s “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” 2009’s “Neil Young Trunk Show,” and 2012’s “Neil Young Journeys” — as well as a 1994 short called “The Complex Sessions.” I love both artists, and it makes sense why they would be kindred spirits: Young’s journeyman view of the world and how to make it better mirrored Demme’s spirit of wanting to both entertain and educate, and both explored many shades of their art through lifelong careers. The idea of these two legends sitting down and talking between filming, just having a beer and shooting the shit, fills me with joy. – Bill Earl

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