rocketman (dexter fletcher, 2019)
bushwick bill

losing it at the movies: something wild (jonathan demme, 1986)

According to Wikipedia, the Quad Cinema is "New York City's first small four-screen multiplex theater". Opened in 1972, the Quad specializes in foreign and independent films. I live on the opposite coast from the Quad, so I can't make it there, which is too bad, because they are in the middle of a two-week festival, Losing It at the Movies: Pauline Kael at 100. Quoting from the Quad website, "The Quad celebrates Kael’s centennial—it would have been her 100th birthday this June 19—with 25 movies that she championed as well as a few that she dismissed, reviving debates that she stoked… and still can."

I'm on this. I've written here about eleven of those films:

Now it's time to take on the other 14. So I've started a new, semi-regular feature, "Losing It at the Movies". One of these days, there will finally be a general release of What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, a documentary on Kael I've been looking forward to. In the meantime, I begin with Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Kael wrote:

Jonathan Demme’s romantic screwball comedy isn’t just about a carefree kook (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 roll 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 a 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 Gilpin, Su Tissue, and Demme’s co-producer Kenneth Utt, and, tucked among the many performers, John Waters and John Sayles. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto.

Jonathan Demme had risen from the Roger Corman factory, directing the Talking Heads concert movie, Stop Making Sense, in 1984. Melanie Griffith, 29 when the film was released, had been in movies for more than a decade, most notably in the 1984 Brian De Palma film Body Double. She was also known as the on again/off again wife of Don Johnson (they are the parents of Dakota Johnson), and as the daughter of Tippi Hedren. Jeff Daniels, 31 when the film was released, had broken out the year before as the male lead in The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Meanwhile, Ray Liotta, a bit older than Daniels, had made his movie debut in 1983 in the notoriously awful The Lonely Lady. He doesn't show up in Something Wild until around 50 minutes have passed, but when he does, the film takes a turn from which it never returns. Liotta is magnetic as an ex-con who easily slips between a creepy smile and a frightening demeanor. Something Wild is fine before Liotta arrives ... Griffith and Daniels are good ... but Liotta takes over the movie. I remember seeing this when it came out, and my brother-in-law said he felt it was like watching two movies. He was referring to pre-and-post Ray Liotta.

Daniels' Wall Street man is the one who experiences something wild, and that wildness comes in two forms: the breezy, devil-may-care of Griffith's daredevil, and the sadistic menace of Liotta's con. Liotta changes the movie, but it isn't as jarring as my brother-in-law thought. Liotta isn't from a different movie, he is a different wild.

In this scene, the tables are turned:

I can't go without mentioning the appearance of the great band The Feelies, who turn up as The Willies, a band playing a high-school reunion. The following scene is also when Liotta makes his first appearance:

Finally, just because ... a video of The Feelies, directed by Jonathan Demme:


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