How Jonathan Demme Put Humanity Into His Films: From The Silence of the Lambs to Stop Making Sense

“My friend, the direc­tor Jonathan Demme, passed last night,” wrote Talk­ing Heads’ David Byrne on his blog yes­ter­day. “I met Jonathan in the ‘80s when Talk­ing Heads were tour­ing a show that he would even­tu­al­ly film and turn into Stop Mak­ing Sense,” the famous — and in the minds of many, still the very best — con­cert movie. “I loved his films Melvin and Howard and Cit­i­zens Band (AKA Han­dle With Care). From those movies alone, one could sense his love of ordi­nary peo­ple. That love sur­faces and is man­i­fest over and over through­out his career.” Read just a few of the many oth­er trib­utes to Demme made so far, and you’ll encounter the same words over and over again: love, empa­thy, com­pas­sion.

Few film­mak­ers man­age to get those qual­i­ties onscreen as con­sis­tent­ly as Demme did, and even few­er do it at his lev­el of tech­ni­cal mas­tery. The two video essays here exam­ine his cin­e­mat­ic tech­nique, espe­cial­ly as seen in one of his best-known films: 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, the sec­ond in the ongo­ing series fea­tur­ing refined career can­ni­bal Han­ni­bal Lecter. The brief episode of Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Paint­ing at the top of the post breaks down how Demme han­dles the ques­tion of who “wins” the inter­ac­tion in the first con­ver­sa­tion between Antho­ny Hop­kins’ Lecter and Jodie Fos­ter’s young FBI trainee Clarice Star­ling — two char­ac­ters who enter into this and all their sub­se­quent inter­ac­tions with their own shift­ing moti­va­tions, goals, and sen­si­tiv­i­ties.

In this and oth­er scenes through­out his career, Demme made strong and influ­en­tial use of close-up shots, to the point where Jacob T. Swin­ney could ded­i­cate a super­cut to “The Jonathan Demme Close-Up.” While “most film­mak­ers choose to employ the close-up shot dur­ing scenes of cru­cial dia­logue,” Swin­ney writes, “Demme prefers to line up his char­ac­ters in the cen­ter of the frame and have them look direct­ly into the lens of the cam­era.” And so “when Dr. Han­ni­bal Lecter hiss­es at Agent Clarice Star­ling, we feel equal­ly vic­tim­ized,” or in Philadel­phia “as Andrew Beck­ett suc­cumbs to AIDS, we feel an over­whelm­ing sen­sa­tion of sym­pa­thy. These char­ac­ters seem to be look­ing at us, and we there­fore con­nect on a deep­er lev­el.”

While Demme used his sig­na­ture close-ups and oth­er emo­tion­al­ly charged shots in all his fea­tures, from his ear­ly days work­ing for leg­endary B‑movie pro­duc­er Roger Cor­man on, he brought his human­is­tic style to his var­i­ous doc­u­men­tary and con­cert film projects as well. “Stop Mak­ing Sense was char­ac­ter dri­ven too,” writes Byrne. “Jonathan’s skill was to see the show almost as a the­atri­cal ensem­ble piece, in which the char­ac­ters and their quirks would be intro­duced to the audi­ence, and you’d get to know the band as peo­ple, each with their dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties. They became your friends, in a sense. I was too focused on the music, the stag­ing and the light­ing to see how impor­tant his focus on char­ac­ter was — it made the movies some­thing dif­fer­ent and spe­cial.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Every Frame a Paint­ing Explains the Film­mak­ing Tech­niques of Mar­tin Scors­ese, Jack­ie Chan, and Even Michael Bay

David Byrne Plays Sev­en Char­ac­ters & Inter­views Him­self in Fun­ny Pro­mo for Stop Mak­ing Sense

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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