There are filmmakers who have spent their whole careers trying to nail down a vision of New York. As a result, New York is maybe the most iconicized, rhapsodized, and oversized city on film. But true to his affable reputation, the late Jonathan Demme avoided fixation. Demme was a Long Island kid who named his son Brooklyn once he had made his home in Upper Nyack, but despite his real-life fidelity, on film Demme’s New York was the New York of someone who lived in other places and liked them just fine too. His films lack the sticky sentimentality of Woody Allen, the fury of Spike Lee, the turmoil of Martin Scorsese. Instead, Demme’s New York was fun. Imagine!
Onscreen Demme’s New York period was brief, just three movies to close out the 1980’s: Something Wild, Swimming to Cambodia, and Married to the Mob. Along with his concert docs, these city movies made Demme a favorite of critics and art nerds. The period ended when Demme was offered the chance to direct the adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, and he became a favorite of Hollywood, guiding movies from his director’s chair to Oscars and millions at the box office. But the smooth hand that Demme showed when he worked with the studios is nowhere to be found in his New York movies. Jonathan Demme’s New York was jittery, bursting at the seams with energy — a playground, never a soundstage.
Demme was making his New York movies in the 1980s, at the peak of a crime wave, in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, long before the Disneyfication of the streets of Manhattan. But though Demme made dramas elsewhere in his career, the movies that came out of his New York period are buoyant. They’re romantic comedies, they’re adventures, they’re screwball delights. Demme’s greatest contribution to the canon of New York filmmaking was his democracy. The yellow brick road of Demme’s New York is lined with trash, and he treats the trash as if it were poppies.
The first of Demme’s New York trio, Something Wild, was a fairy tale about leaving New York — the purest of New York daydreams. Of course, with Jonathan Demme acting his best Brothers Grimm, it means the princess asleep inside her glass box has been replaced by a straitlaced Wall Street finance executive, and the kiss to break the boring spell comes from a mystery gal who loves handcuffs and a good wig. Demme’s other great fictional New York movie, Married to the Mob, dips into city fantasies, too, and the great thing about Demme is the open delight he brings to finding situations worthy of daydreams. There’s one New York where you might find Michelle Pfeiffer in a polka-dot party dress dancing at the Copacabana, and one New York where she has a bathtub in her kitchen and is late to pick up her son from the hole in the chain link fence at his playground. With Jonathan Demme, it’s hard to tell which vision is more romantic. Even black is filmed as if it were a pop of color.
Demme’s other New York movie, Swimming to Cambodia, came between Something Wild and Married to the Mob. At first, it seems that the documentary bears little resemblance to the worlds that Demme was busy bringing to life in his fiction. Gone are the candy colors of Demme’s fairy tales — they’ve been replaced by a black box theater, a desk, and a spotlight. Demme films his friend and New York performance art stalwart Spalding Gray as he performs a monologue about his travels in Asia. Gray invites the audience into his mind and his life, one run-on sentence at a time, and maybe it would be possible to feel taken in if you were only sitting in the room with Gray, but Demme’s camera holds the audience back. For all of Gray’s Performance Group mastery, it’s hard not to get distracted by the elements Demme catches that aren’t under Gray’s control: the veins that pop in his forehead, the spit that flies from his mouth. But strangest of all is the lost world that Gray seems to occupy that could produce all of these wild and fabulous stories. Even when Spalding Gray talks about Cambodia, the subtext is New York; an entire ethnography of an era is embedded in the way Gray rattles through his stories about neighbors who once worked for the man who defaced Guernica, who play Bob Dylan at all hours of the night, who won’t respond to a phone call except to say fuck you. Cambodia doesn’t seem nearly so exotic as the New York that Demme captured from inside The Performing Garage. Spalding Gray spoke as if the New York he lived in would never die. Jonathan Demme filmed him as if the apocalypse had already happened and Gray was the last New Yorker left standing, and 30 years later, it’s Demme’s vision that’s come true.
In mourning the loss of Jonathan Demme, we remember him as a pillar of the independent filmmaking community, but Demme was a pillar of a brick-and-mortar community too. His first break came when Melvin and Howard was selected to open the New York Film Festival. When he wasn’t making a rock star out of Meryl Streep, he was premiering his movies at the Tribeca Film Festival. With Demme’s death, a little part of the old city crumbles.