In her time at The New Yorker, Pauline Kael reviewed two or three films a week, six months a year. In other words, she didn't review everything. In some cases (ie. Married to the Mob), she publicly stated her support for a Jonathan Demme film but didn't review it, in print. In total, she reviewed six of his films: Citizens Band, Melvin and Howard, Swing Shift, Stop Making Sense, Something Wild, and Swimming to Cambodia.
On this page you'll find capsule reviews, as they appeared in The New Yorker's "Goings on About Town" section (and, later, in a collection entitled 5001 Nights at the Movies). These are not complete reviews and, as any Kael fan will tell you, the glory of Kael's writing is not really evident in these abbreviated reviews. However, they do provide a sense of her enthusiasm for Jonathan Demme's work.
Citizens Band Also known as Handle With Care (1977) - A high-spirited, elegantly deadpan comedy, with a mellow, light touch. Paul Brickman, who wrote the screenplay, had an idea worthy of Preston Sturges: that the psychology of those who operate CB radio units might be like the psychology of crank phone callers and breathers and obscene phone callers, too - that as disembodied voices with identities borrowed from pop fantasies, and signal names to confirm their new self-image, people could live another life on the public airwaves. In the film, the CB users are secret celebrities, eloquent on the air, or, more often, aimlessly loquacious. But they dry up when they actually meet. Cb functions as an authorized madness; it allows the characters to release their inhibitions while keeping one foot on the ground. The story is about the people in a Southwestern town and the collisions of their free-floating ids. Paul Le Mat is the hero - a small-town Boy Scout who never grew up. Marcia Rodd is a trucker's hard-bitten wife, and Ann Wedgeworth is a trucker's softheaded wife; these two become a tearstained running gag when it turns out that they're both married to the same trucker. Jonathan Demme directed, in a soft, subdued style - the film is lyrical and wiggy at the same time. It has the consistent vision of a classic comedy; it undercuts the characters' illusion without a breath of ill will. With jutting-jawed Charles Napier as the impulsive, generous bigamist, Alix Elias as the plump, giggly hooker, whose CB name is Hot Coffee, Roberts Blossom as the hero's father, Candy Clark, Bruce McGill, Richard Bright, and Michael Rothman as Cochise, Harry Northup as the Red Baron, Leila Smith as Grandma Breaker, Ed Begley, Jr., as the Priest, and Will Seltzer as Warlock. Cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth; titles by Pablo Ferro; music by Bill Conti. Paramount, color. For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's books When the Lights Go Down and For Keeps.
Melvin and Howard (1980) - This lyrical comedy, directed by Jonathan Demme, from a script by Bo Goldman, is an almost flawless act of sympathetic imagination. Demme and Goldman have entered into the soul of American blue-collar suckerdom; they have taken for their hero a chucklehead who is hooked on TV game shows, and they have made us understand how it was that when something big - something legendary - touched his life, nobody could believe it. Paul Le Mat plays big, beefy Melvin Dummar, a sometime milkman, sometime worker at a magnesium plant, sometime gas-station operator, and hopeful songwriter - the representative debt-ridden American for whom game shows were created. Jason Robards plays Howard Hughes, who is lying in the freezing desert at night when Melvin spots him - a pile of rags and bones, with a dirty beard and scraggly long gray hair. Melvin, thinking him a desert rat, helps him into his pickup truck but is bothered by his mean expression; in order to cheer him up (and give himself some company), he insists that the old geezer sing with him or get out and walk. When Robards' Howard Hughes responds to Melvin's amiable prodding and begins to enjoy himself on a simple level and sings "Bye, Bye, Blackbird," it's a great moment. Hughes' eyes are an old man's eyes - faded into the past, shiny and glazed by recollections - yet intense. You feel that his grungy paranoia has melted away, that he has been healed. With Mary Steenburgen, who has a pearly aura as Melvin's go-go-dancer wife, Lynda; Pamela Reed as Melvin's down-to-earth second wife; Elizabeth Cheshire as the child Darcy; Jack Kehoe as the dairy foreman; and the real Melvin Dummar as the lunch counterman at the Reno bus depot. This picture has the same beautiful dippy warmth of its characters; it's what might have happened if Jean Renoir had directed a comedy script by Preston Sturges. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. Universal, color. For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's books Taking it All In and For Keeps.
Swing Shift (1984) - This film about the home front during the Second World War was a tragedy for its director, Jonathan Demme. A bootleg cassette of his original cut reveals a delicate masterpiece. But what was released was a re-edited, rescored, and reshot botch. The studio version has glazed lyricism; the performers look stuffed and posed, as if they were consciously trying to re-create themselves in the images of the shiny-faced teen-age servicemen and girls-next-door in old movies and the 40's issues of Life. The film's nostalgic fixation on the ambiance of the war years seems to exclude any real interest in the lives of the women workers; this feminist fairy tale sees the characters as precursors of the women's movement of the 60s and 70s rather than as people. As the cuddlebug housewife who becomes a riveter in a Santa Monica aircraft factory and learns to be a competent person, Goldie Hawn dampens the picture; she's trying to make herself simple and passive and ordinary - she thinks that she will become typical by flattening herself out. The insubstantiality of the film may make you feel as if you were dozing. The scenes rarely last more than 20 seconds. They don't quite come to anything; they abort - with a sometimes audible pop - and you sit there wondering what nothing is going to happen next. As the heroine's pal, Christine Lahti delivers a few wisecracks and gives the picture whatever spark and intensity it has. With Kurt Russell, Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Holly Hunter, and also Lisa Pelikan, Sudie Bond, Charles Napier, Belinda Carlisle, and Roger Corman as the head of the factory and Beth Henley in a bit part. The writing credit went to the pseudonymous Rob Morton; the writers who were listed before and during production were initially Nancy Dowd, then Bo Goldman, then Ron Nyswaner, and there was also last-minute patch-up work by Robert Towne. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. Warners, color. For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.
Stop Making Sense (1984) - Directed by Jonathan Demme, this concert film by the New York New Wave rock band Talking Heads is a continuous rock experience that keeps building, becoming ever more intense and euphoric. In its own terms, the movie is close to perfection. The lead singer, David Byrne, is a stupefying performer who gives the group its modernism - the undertone of repressed hysteria, which he somehow blends with freshness and adventurousness and a driving beat. He designed the stage lighting and the elegantly plain performance-art environment (three screens used for backlit slide projections); there's no glitter, no sleaze. The sound seems better than live sound: it is better - it has been filtered and mixed and fussed over, so that it achieves ideal clarity. The movie was shot during three performances at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, in December, 1983: the cinematography is by Jordan Cronenweth. Cinecom, color. For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's books State of the Art and For Keeps.
Something Wild (1986) - Jonathan Demme's romantic screwball comedy isn't just about a carefree cook (Melanie Griffith) and a pompous man from Wall Street (Jeff Daniels). The script - a first by E. Max Frye - is like the working out of a young man's fantasy of the pleasures and punishments of shucking off middle-class behavior patterns. The movie is about getting high on anarchic, larcenous behavior and then being confronted with ruthless, sadistic criminality. This rough-edged comedy turns into a scary slapstick thriller. Demme weaves the stylization of rock videos into the fabric of the movie. Starting with David Byrne and Celia Cruz singing Byrne's "Loco De Amor" during the opening credits, and ending with a reprise of Chip Taylor's "Wild Thing" by the reggae singer Sister Carol East, who appears on half of the screen while the final credits run on the other half, there are almost 50 songs (or parts of songs), several of them performed onscreen by the Feelies. The score - it was put together by John Cale and Laurie Anderson - has a life of its own that gives the movie a buzzing vitality. This is a party movie with both a dark and light side. With Ray Liotta as the dangerous, menacing Ray; Dana Preu as the kook's gloriously bland mother; and Margaret Colin as bitchy Irene. Also with Jack Giplin, Su Tissue, and Demme's co-producer Kenneth Utt, and, tucked among the many performers, John Waters and John Sayles. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. Orion, color. For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art. For a longer excerpt, see For Keeps.
Swimming to Cambodia (1987) - Jonathan Demme directed this concert film of Spalding Gray's stage performance; it was shot before live audiences during three consecutive evenings (and one day) in November 1986, at the Performing Garage, in lower Manhattan. Working on a minimalist basis, with nothing but Gray and his props, Demme uses the lighting and shifts in camera angles and a musical score by Laurie Anderson to virtuoso rhythmic effect. The result is an apetheosis of Gray, who calls himself a "poetic reporter." (He gives you old news as if it were the subject of an investigative report; it's new to him.) Cagey in his use of his naivete, Gray presents a droll, vaguely stream-of-consciousness report of his life as an actor, and of how he happened to be cast in the small role of an American diplomat in The Killing Fields. Some of his material (his firsthand observations, his voice mimicry) is legitimitely effective. But the high point of his monologue comes when he hears about our secret bombing of Cambodia, and what the Khmer Rouge did to the Cambodian people in 1975, driving them out of the cities and to their deaths. He's incredulous and horrified as he describes the exodus; he's an actor who has discovered strong material, and he builds the tension - his words come faster, his voice gets louder. He thinks like an actor; he doesn't know that heating up his piddling stage act by an account of the Cambodian misery is about the most squalid thing anyone could do. Color. For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.