Thursday, April 1, 2010

1980: Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme)

1980: Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme)
Heart.  One of my cinephile buddies in Los Angeles often uses this word when he likes a film.  He'll say, "I really liked it.  It had a lot of heart." When we first started going to movies together, I really wasn't sure what to make of it.  Heart, I'm a damn formalist.  Heart, who cares? Heart, heart?

But I've slowly come around.  I think part of it is I've started to realize how few humanists actually work in the medium.  In the past, we had Renoir, De Sica, arguably Rossellini, and arguably John Ford.  Now we have Kiarostami, ...Kiarostami, and ...Kiarostami.  No, but honestly there aren't many.  Yet I would have to put Jonathan Demme in the small group of humanists that do exist.  And although I also really love Something Wild, I would have to say that Melvin and Howard is Demme's most humanist film.  

Like much of Demme's work, this one is a little messy and rough around the edges.  It also has that special zing and energy that characterizes much of Demme's work from this period.  Demme has always been too casual, and probably a little too inconsistent, to be mentioned among the greats.  But when he's on, he's as good as anyone.  God does he make me feel for Melvin Dummar here!        

This one does have a lot of heart, a tremendous amount of it in fact. And coming out of one of the darkest periods of American film, it seems a most apt way to begin the next decade.  

Other contenders for 1980: I still have some titles to see from this year.  These include: Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha, Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing, Eric Rohmer's The Aviator's Wife, John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday, Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin-Alexanderplatz, Mike Leigh's Grown-ups, Alain Resnais' Mon oncle d'Amerique, and Daniel Petrie's Resurrection.  I need to revisit Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull as it's one I've struggled with a little in the past.  But from this year, I really like Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, Paul Schrader's American Gigolo, and John Cassavetes' Gloria.  I love Louis Malle's Atlantic City, William Friedkin's Cruising, Maurice Pialat's Loulou, David Lynch's The Elephant Man, and Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill.  And my closest runner-up is Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One.

3/21/16 I watched Jean-Luc Godard's Sauve qui peut (la vie).  Godard returns after a twelve or so year departure from "traditional" narrative cinema with this absolute scorcher of a film.  I was surprised, although I do not know why since Godard remains perhaps my favorite of all, by its beauty, its playfulness, its ability yet again to tap into the zeitgeist of its time.  It is Godard as post-punk and it is up there with his extraordinary work from the sixties.  If anyone thinks Godard's importance ended with Week End, have a look.  

7/23/16 I watched Woody Allen's Stardust Memories.  I have never been a huge fan of Fellini so when Woody starts doing his 8 1/2 I find myself struggling as well.

10/29/18 I watched Frederick Wiseman's Model.  Not as enthralling as some of Wiseman's other work.  It just does not seem to pulse like some of his greatest films.  But there are plenty of remarkable moments to be had, of course.
9/30/20 I watched Marie-Claude Treilhou's Simone Barbes or Virtue.  One of the most remarkable aspects of it is how unique it feels among French films.  It feels like this unusual concoction of part Jeanne Dielman, part Michael Mann's Thief, part Boy Meets Girl and what a filmic version of Tricky's Maxinquaye might look like.  It's not always a terribly entertaining watch but it is a completely fascinating film.  
11/28/21 I watched William Klein's The Little Richard Story.  Klein takes an interesting stylistic approach for giving us a feel for Little Richard but I never was engaged as much as I wanted to be.
12/5/21 I watched Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue.  I should have seen this way before now.  It is a key film in the American New Wave and makes a case for being the final film of the cycle as much as any.  I never thought of Easy Rider, Hopper's first feature as director, as being much from an aesthetic point of view.  But this film possesses an incredible style - specifically its location work,  its graceful movements of the camera, its complex editing rhythms, and its sensitive use of sound.  Dark and disturbing like a David Lynch film but also with echoes of some of the seventies' stronger character work like Five Easy Pieces.    
12/12/21 I watched King Vidor's The Metaphor.  It is a warm encounter as two artists meet for the first time and discuss process and Vidor's influence on Wyeth.   
1/26/22 I watched Alain Resnais' Mon oncle d'Amerique.  Resnais' films are difficult.  They have a similar density to the work of Godard but without the same level of lyricism or sense of playfulness.  Although I feel like there were many things I failed to comprehend, from best I gathered Resnais was exploring the fine line in our lives between reality and fiction and actual memories and imagination.  In this work, he also seems quite interested in not only the human animal but in our relation to all of the other animals that surround us. 


  1. Yes Jeffrey, Demme is a card carrying humanist, and MELVIN AND HOWARD, which I saw originally in the theatre upon release, is an independent treasure and for me a strong runner-up for the top spot this year. I applaud you're honoring it here.

    My #1 Film of 1980:

    Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder; Germany)


    Raging Bull (Scosese; USA)
    Atlantic City (Malle; France)
    The Elephant Man (Lynch; USA)
    The Great Santini (Carlino; USA)
    Resurrection (Petrie; USA)
    The Shining (Kubrick; USA/UK)
    Kagemusha (Kurosawa; Japan)
    Lou Lou (Fassbinder; Germany)
    Airplane! (Zucker/Abrams; USA)
    Gregory's Girl (Forsythe; UK)
    Melvin and Howard (Demme; USA)
    Mon Oncle D'Amerique (Resnais; France)
    Ordinary People (Redford; USA)

  2. I haven't seen your pick, Jeffrey, and really haven't seen much Demme in general... I'll see what I can do to fix that. My #1 has to be RAGING BULL, which I rank as the greatest sports film ever made. It's impeccably made and superbly acted. The combination of De Niro and Pesci in these roles is still amazing. My closest runner-up would be Louis Malle's ATLANTIC CITY. I love Burt Lancaster in that one.

  3. Jeffrey, I haven't seen Melvin and Howard and have no way to account for that fact. For now, I'll recommend Kagemusha from your to-do list. It ranks behind The Shining and Atlantic City on my own list, which includes an at-your-own-risk recommendation of Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, as stark a morality play (albeit told in some immoral terms) as you'll ever see.

  4. Sam, good to hear that you're also a fan of the Demme film. I love what you say about it, too!

    Thanks, Sam. Always great having you here!

  5. Dave, I definitely owe RAGING BULL another look. I will make that happen sometime soon, as I know I'm in a massive minority position on that one.

    Love ATLANTIC CITY, too, and agree that Lancaster is amazing in it.

    Thanks, Dave. Always awesome having you here!

  6. Samuel, I know that MELVIN AND HOWARD is one that's a little off the radar. Along with SOMETHING WILD though, it is my favorite of all Demme's work. I look forward to you seeing it.

    I will add CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST to my list of things to see. Thanks for the heads-up on that one.

    Always great having you here. Thanks, Samuel!

  7. Jeffrey, Excellent essay! "Melvin and Howard" is a film that has alluded me, though certainly one I need to see (I am a big fan of Demme's "Something Wild" too). My own # 1 choice is Scorsese's "Raging Bull," arguably his best film though "Taxi Driver" can give it a run for the money. I am also a big fan of DePalma and his "Dressed to Kill" is probably my favorite of his works.

    #1 Raging Bull

    Runner Ups..

    The Elephant Man
    The Shining
    The Long Good Friday
    The Big Red One
    Dressed to Kill
    The Stunt Man

  8. John, thanks so much for the kind words! So glad to hear that you also love SOMETHING WILD and DRESSED TO KILL. Both among my very favorites. I'll be interested to hear how MELVIN AND HOWARD treats you.

    Thanks, John. Always great having you here!