Saturday, November 14, 2009
A Broken Nose Ain't Gonna Kill You
I’ve been feeling a little listless lately, wondering about a lot of things that I won’t go into here. With this in mind I happened to pop Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film SOMETHING WILD into the DVD player for my first full viewing in quite some time. It’s interesting how the opening title sequence consists of views of Manhattan—funkier, more low-level shots of the island than you’d get in most films (with the World Trade Center seen a few times) but it’s still surprising how little of the film actually takes place there since in memory it almost seems like one of the key New York films of the period. Maybe that’s my memory of seeing it and how it affected me at the time. One of the few lower Manhattan locations it actually uses, the small restaurant at the beginning, is located at an intersection that I can remember being right around where the old Film Forum, quickly visible in one shot, used to be. This really has nothing to do with SOMETHING WILD itself except that maybe everything about the film is a reminder of a time where there was a greater energy in the air, more of a sense of possibility. The thrill, the pop of walking down the streets of lower Manhattan in 1986, the notion that everything in the world could be right in front of you. The possibility that maybe you really would meet a girl all in black named Lulu with a Louise Brooks haircut. The idea of winding up with her in a cheap motel in Jersey just a little while later wasn’t really considered by me, but still. Looking back on it now, I’m sure that I didn’t know how good we had it in Manhattan way back then. It’s an energy that Jonathan Demme brought to his films at his best and it’s displayed here in a way as good as it ever was. It’s maybe something that was a recognizable element of films that came from Orion, one of the few byproducts of the dreaded 80s that really is missed, and its freewheeling nature could almost be as purely representative of any film which ever came from that studio. Let me put it this way: returning to it after a number of years, I found myself loving SOMETHING WILD and being extremely moved by its portrayal of possibilities, the idea of breaking off from your set routine. Maybe watching it again made me want to somehow will that feeling into existing once again.
When strait-laced financial advisor Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) suddenly skips out on his lunch check while leaving a funky café in lower Manhattan, he’s caught by free spirit Lulu (Melanie Griffith) who instantly pegs this boring looking guy as “a closet rebel” and whisks him away in her car, not back to work like she offers, but towards the Lincoln Tunnel and off to adventure. Things proceed in a manner that is unexpected but not disliked by Charlie, including a romp in a Jersey motel but then as they drive further away from the city towards Pennsylvania, secrets about each of them are gradually revealed not least of which is Lulu’s real identity as Audrey Hankel but also the sudden appearance of ex-husband Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta) who moves things in a direction Charlie never imagined.
With a screenplay by E. Max Frye which is continually surprising in all the right ways, the shock of SOMETHING WILD’S tone shift at the midway point could never be felt now the way it was back in ‘86, but it does certainly place it as coming after the previous year’s INTO THE NIGHT and AFTER HOURS, two other films about Reagan-era yuppies suddenly thrown into an expected darkly comic nightmare. Less surreal than AFTER HOURS, this film seems to be more merciless about the tone shift and completely acknowledging the danger at hand. This dark side was certainly comparable to David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET which had only opened six weeks before and the two could easily make an ideal double bill of the dark side hiding under Reagan’s America circa 1986. The freewheeling nature of the first half also feels more like a product of the seventies and it could easily be read as detailing how one era lead into the other—what was once innocent and not-so-innocent fun (even if it does include larceny and drunk driving) leads into something not too dissimilar (the hellish motel Ray is staying in compared with all others seen through the film), but still very nasty. But these things may only really matter on an academic level as time goes on. More important could be how the film fits in with Jonathan Demme’s continued growth as a director, fully taking control of his directorial style with a presentation of Americana, the sights and sounds that can be found on every corner, music which doesn’t represent the characters so much as this amazing world around them. Not to mention the bit players throughout that pop, many of whom certainly aren’t professional actors but they each bring such a level of humanity to their individual moments that the cumulative effect becomes rather beautiful. Almost no one is a joke in the film including Dana Preu as Audrey’s mother Peaches and familiar face Jack Gilpin as Charlie’s co-worker who takes what could be a stereotypical dweeb and makes him somehow decent (I also like how he quietly makes an appearance in the film long before actually being introduced).
And Jonathan Demme clearly loves his two leads, he loves them for all their immense quirks and foibles and it’s a credit to the script as well how it reveals their layers and what they’re willing to do, how far they’re willing to break away from what’s expected (like Charlie’s gradually changing relationship with his credit cards) more as it goes on. Demme’s perfectly happy to stop the whole film midway through for a few minutes just to let them dance and enjoy themselves as The Feelies perform Bowie’s “Fame” in a kind of peak moment, just before things suddenly change right in the middle of a shot. But more than that the film still has a relevance to me, to what the idea of being an individual can mean in the world at large. You can say you’re a rebel but what really matters is what happens when somebody calls you on it and in that you can discover how much of that rebel, that individual, you truly have in you. Ray is in many ways the opposite number of Charlie, his submerged dark half come to life in a way he never imagined (“You’re like me,” said Frank Booth to Jeffrey Beaumont in that other Fall ’86 film), just as Audrey seems to be an opposite of Lulu. She’s someone who when the truth about Charlie (to use the name of a later, lesser Demme work) comes out it reveals itself to be as much of a lie as her Lulu persona and she doesn’t like it. Of course, that doesn’t put her into the clear and even up to the end the impression given is that you never really fully get her…but as I’ve learned over the years with certain women that’s par for the course anyway. Keeping all this in mind with how we ultimately feel about Audrey/Lulu in the end, I freely admit that I’m still not entirely sure how to feel about the implications of the final shot (not counting the part involving Sister Carol, of course). Do we want Lulu back? After everything that’s happened, can we even get Lulu back?
I’ve been light on discussing the plot here, but if you’ve never seen the film it deserves to be experienced as fresh as possible. Coming in the year when TOP GUN was the biggest box-office hit, SOMETHING WILD remains a work about individuals, an act of defiance in the middle of a decade where things were beginning to get away from that concept a little too fast. It doesn’t seem to have all the answers and it does fall short of perfection—the director’s staging of the climax isn’t as expert as he might have pulled it off a few years later and that final beat involving the lead characters comes close to being a letdown, but by this point the film has done so many things right that these feel like minor points. Watching it again not only made me happy, it made me feel a little hope, a desire to wish for the possibilities that don’t always seem to be out there. I’m not sure if it’s the best film Jonathan Demme has ever made (of course, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS looms large) but it may very well be the most purely Demme of all of them, the one that is most in love with not only the idea of getting this film made, but the hope and pleasure of what could still be out there to discover.
Under Demme’s direction, the two leads do what remains some of their best work. Daniels gets you to believe that his guy in a suit really would drop everything in his life to take off for the weekend and Griffith fully sells both sides of her character—at least, the two sides that we actually get to see. Liotta is dynamite, taking control of everything around him the minute he interrupts the movie right in the middle of an extended shot of the leads dancing at the reunion. He comes off not only as genuinely dangerous, he manages to make his cackling question, “You don’t want me to tell Charlie how you spend your free periods, do you?” sound shockingly filthy. Margaret Colin is provocative and looks great in her dress as Ray’s date at the reunion, musician Su Tissue in her only acting appearance as Gilpin’s wife Peggy makes me wonder what exactly her high school memories of Ray Sinclair are and the always interesting Anna Levine from DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN and UNFORGIVEN is The Girl In 3F. Demme regulars such as Robert Ridgely, Charles Napier and Tracey Walter are in there as well as John Waters and John Sayles. ‘Sister’ Carol East makes an appearance near the end that once you’ve seen you’ll remember for the rest of your days with a smile.
The world may not still be as enjoyable funky as it is presented here but very little that’s seen actually dates it (well, maybe those Baby on Board tags). I still love much of the music throughout and even the wardrobe choices throughout haven’t dated all that much, with the exception of something Daniels is seen wearing near the end—and hey, I know that if I saw a girl looking like Lulu on the street, she’d definitely catch my eye. It might be a product of its decade, but SOMETHING WILD has held up beautifully and in a strange sort of way I found revisiting it rather moving. More than anything this was because of the cumulative effect it gave off in displaying how those possibilities might still be out there, how in realizing that ‘it’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion’ you really do need to keep moving, to maintain the willingness to be at least a little wild.