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How Will Film Critics Remember Jonathan Demme? — Critics Survey

The news of Jonathan Demme's death was followed by an immense outpouring of love for the man and his movies. Critics reflect on his memory.

Jonathan Demme and David Byrne

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can typically be found at the end of this post.) This week, however, in light of Jonathan Demme’s death — and in reaction to the immense outpouring of love for the man and his movies that followed the news of his passing — we’ve decided to switch things up with a special mid-week edition of our usual survey. 

We asked our panel one simple question: How will you remember Jonathan Demme? The responses we received can be found below.

Mallory Andrews (@mallory_andrews) cléo

Though I only saw “Something Wild” for the first time this month, it somehow feels like it’s been with me for my entire filmgoing life. The scene where (my ideal man and my ideal woman) Charles and Lulu dance to David Bowie’s “Fame” by the Feelies is on constant replay in my house. It’s the last oasis before Ray Liotta arrives to shake things up, and pure distillation of Demme’s strength as a filmmaker: generous and warm. I love it.

Elena Lazic (@elazic), Freelance for Little White Lies, The Seventh Row

Though I’m not as familiar with Jonathan Demme’s work as I’d like to be, I knew he was a director to respect and love ever since I saw “The Silence of the Lambs” for the first time when I was a teenager, on my mother’s recommendation. As a young cinephile-in-the-making, what struck me the most about the film was not the elaborate cinematography or those famous shots where characters where breaking the fourth wall, but rather how weirdly comforting the film is to watch – as psychotic as that may sound.

It’s the story of this woman Clarice who, throughout the entire film, is only met with obstacles. There’s of course the incredible psychological pressure that she is put under by Hannibal Lecter, and the weight of the gruesome murders perpetrated by Buffalo Bill. But even more disheartening is the total lack of support she gets from quite literally all the men who work with her. She is completely alone, yet she rises up to the challenge, listening only to her gut, and saves this other woman who like her fought her way out and refused to become a victim. These two women’s courage to face up to everything, even though they’re on their own, is very inspiring. But what’s even more striking to me is the way we can feel, even in the most hopeless moments, that the movie is completely on their side. This makes the experience of watching it simultaneously extremely scary – Clarice is brave but also terrified – and weirdly reassuring.

This film alone should be reason enough to remember Demme and revere him as the cinema hero he was. But he also directed Stop Making Sense, which I probably saw in its entirety on Youtube, from clips and in the wrong order, during the most intense part of my Talking Heads phase. Just from seeing those films, but also “Philadelphia” and “JT + The Tennessee Kids,” I could already sense the generosity and empathy in his work that so many have already noted. But on a more personal note, I’ll remember him as the person behind two of the most thrilling and joyful concert movies I’ve ever seen, and the director of one of the first films I ever watched on repeat — and one of the first “scary” ones I truly enjoyed.

READ MORE: Jonathan Demme Remembered: Edgar Wright, Barry Jenkins, Ron Howard, And More Pay Tribute

Tomris Laffly (@TomiLaffly) Film Journal, Film School Rejects

I will always remember him by “Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia,” and “Rachel Getting Married.” But perhaps “Philadelphia” the most. As I said on Twitter yesterday, I see its many problems and shortcomings from today’s lens, but I was 15, living in a small town in Turkey when “Philadelphia” was released. I knew very little about the world and it was a revelation to me in that regard. Watched it many times that year, and after…

I actually just saw him a couple of months ago, when he attended a screening of his euphoric concert documentary “Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids” at the Film Society. I don’t think I ever saw him speak before that, and he struck me as a kind person, as well as someone fun to be around. The outpouring love on social media proves my instincts were correct. A great loss…

Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic), Freelance for Little White Lies, The Film Stage

Soon after the news of Jonathan Demme’s passing reached me, I realised how his films had accompanied me throughout my life. In my early teens, when I was just starting not to like films, but simply to discover what they were about, my mother suggested I watch “The Silence of the Lambs.” Although I was terrified by just the image of a gun on screen at the time, she kept recommending me gory films such as this one (see also: the “Carrie” box set she got me one Christmas). I suppose my curiosity eventually overpowered my fear, and I was so glad it did: I felt I could now tell what a “real movie” was, and fell in love with Jodie Foster, perhaps because she was the first powerful female protagonist I had ever seen in a film.

Then a few months ago, my best friend Simran and I found ourselves watching “Something Wild” for the first time and on 35mm, thanks to the Badlands Collective in London. We didn’t have any particular expectations, but as the film kept making the audience laugh, going in totally unexpected and absurd directions, and dipping into the romantic comedy then the thriller genre, we could feel each other’s glee vividly. After the screening, we quickly ran off to catch our train home: maybe selfishly, we didn’t want to discuss the film with anyone for fear of getting off the high it had given us.

Yet the most significant — and yes, even cornier!!! — Demme memory I have dates from just over a month ago, and despite the short time that has passed since, I know it will remain important to me for the rest of my life. On a whim, I had bought plane tickets for Toronto to offer myself a much-needed holiday and see the friends I had been missing so much. The few days I spent there were some of the best of my life, in particular because of one person, Sophy. Our relationship had started on shaky grounds but had then evolved into a precious friendship, and I was finally spending time with her in person rather than online.

One night, the Hot Docs cinema on Bloor St. was showing Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” where it was specifically asked of the audience to feel free to stand up and dance to the Talking Heads’ performances. After dinner in Koreatown, Sophy and I and a huge group of friends took over 2 rows on the balcony of the cinema, two beers down and one in our hands. “Hi, I got a tape I wanna play” was all Sophy and I needed to hear to start dancing in the aisle by ourselves, David Byrne-style. Eventually our spastic moves and Demme’s entrancing filmmaking got more people to feel the music run through them and join us. One guy had brought glowing sticks and was giving them away. At some point, Sophy tripped in her excitement and 5 strangers helped her up. Everyone was screaming “IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE THAT NOTHING AT ALL COULD BE SO EXCITING, COULD BE THIS MUCH FUN” and meant it. And then, shouting in my ear, Sophy told me “I hope you move here!”

Surrounded by smiley strangers and loving friends, watching and dancing to the greatest music documentary of all time, I felt I was in a movie myself and kept thinking about the same lyrics: “this must be the place.”

READ MORE: David Byrne’s Moving Eulogy For His Friend And Collaborator Jonathan Demme

April Wolfe (@awolfeful), LA Weekly

I’ll remember Jonathan Demme with Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” I’m sure “The Silence of the Lambs” will get more than its share of love in memorials, but as a teenage girl watching Jodie Foster simultaneously convey vulnerability and strength as Clarice, I was a changed person. She was a hero, and in mainstream film, female characters like her were hard to find, especially ones that weren’t ultra-refined with perfect hair and clothes. But Demme had a way of seeing people that embraced how odd or uncomfortable they were. As an overachiever kid attempting to escape the fate of a crushing blue-collar living in the Midwest, I saw myself in Clarice, who was the most qualified person for the job, yet still self-conscious about her unsophisticated background.

Demme loved these characters because they didn’t fit in — Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter among them. The short scene of all those men in red shirts towering over a sweatshirt-clad Clarice in the FBI elevator said everything, and Demme let the camera linger there, every person’s face in focus, so we could see just how strange every regular human is when you really look at them. That Demme would use “American Girl” in this film is so fitting; it’s a song about wondering what’s out there in the world and trying to gather the courage to find your place in it.

Christopher L. Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail

For me, Jonathan Demme will always be inextricably linked to David Byrne and Talking Heads, with the band’s frontman coming out on stage with a boom box, dressed in white sneakers, white pants and a white seersucker jacket, at the opening of the seminal concert film that was “Stop Making Sense.” I am old enough to have seen the film in theaters (and danced in the aisles), but was not old enough at the time to have discovered Talking Heads on my own prior to watching the film. Thanks to Demme, who captured the essence of Talking Heads’ playful innovation with inventive lighting and brilliantly off-kilter camera angles, I have since been a lifelong lover of Byrne and his erstwhile group. I have also liked more Demme films than I have disliked, from “Something Wild” (1986), “Married to the Mob” (1988), “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), “Philadelphia” (1993), “The Agronomist” (2003), “Rachel Getting Married” (2008) and more. True, he also made a few pointless remakes, like “The Truth About Charlie” (2002, a redo of “Charade”) and “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004), but those misfires only serve to remind us of how great was the rest of his œuvre. A terrific director has passed; let us mourn him.

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for Nylon, Vulture, the Guardian

Back when I was living in New Orleans, a few friends and I went to a screening of “Stop Making Sense” in a warehouse in an out-of-the-way part of town. There were no chairs, just a bare-bones pop-up bar and a big, glorious projection on the wall. It was approximately a million degrees in there once things really got cooking, but I’d still probably name that as one of the best nights of my years spent in the city; beer was cheap, I was on drugs, ran into a girl I had a crush on and we spastically danced together during “Once In a Lifetime,” lost three pounds in sweat. Altogether, a red-letter evening.

I got the chance to sit down with Demme at TIFF last year, and he affirmed that this was just about the afterlife he intended for “Stop Making Sense,” that it should be a euphoric and communal experience. He seemed happy when I told him that his movie could still inspire people to near-religious displays of ecstasy by the hundreds. I think that’s how I’ll like to remember him.

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire

Hours before we learned that Jonathan Demme had died (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.

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