some of my favorite things #9: something wild (1986)

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“You sure you know what you’re doing?”

“No.”

It’s dangerous revisiting a movie you loved in your youth, but haven’t seen since then. If you’re prone to wallowing in the effluvia of solipsistic nostalgia, you may convince yourself that you can recapture the experience. The movie may be the same, but you aren’t. You can’t return to that original moment when you were first seduced.

One of my favorite movies from the 1980s was Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. When it came out in 1986, it was a refreshing alternative to pretty much everything else playing and it confirmed that Melanie Griffith was the “It girl” at that time. The movie also resurrected Demme’s career (which had run aground with Swing Shift a few years earlier) and gave us the showstopping feature film debut of Ray Liotta. It was a modest work, but it snapped and never wore out its welcome.

Something Wild–a mix of screwball comedy and crime–was sexy, stylistically hip and contemporary, and its tonal shift at the halfway point was startling at the time. When Liotta makes his first appearance at the school reunion sequence about an hour into the movie, we plunge down the narrative rabbit hole for good. It’s an invigorating feeling because the shift from neo-screwball comedy to the darker, violent material is so seamless. The movie wasn’t static in that first half. Demme and screenwriter E. Max Frye have been testing our footing continuously in little ways. Lulu (Griffith) comes on strong in the early scenes, like an earthy boozy dream girl, yet a softer more introspective side to her personality comes out when she arrives at her mother’s place. Jeff Daniels plays Charles, the ultimate vanilla rich yuppie, a character we should automatically hate, especially after viewing him duck out of a New York City diner without paying his bill in the first scene. What’s remarkable about the way Daniels plays the character and how he’s written, is that Charles is a rather likeable guy. He’s weak and adrift though. One of the great ways Demme and Frye convey this is by never having Charles drive in the first half. He’s always in the passenger seat. Only when he’s forced to take control of his destiny and chase down Ray (Liotta) and Lulu, does he get behind the wheel and take charge. It’s a sort of cinematic shorthand, showing us instead of telling, and it displays Demme’s visual literacy.

I have a weakness for the yuppie in hell storyline, which was quite prevalent back in the 1980s. Risky Business, Into the Night, After Hours, and Blue Velvet all delivered variations on that theme and I loved them all. Something Wild was the most unique for me, however, because Lulu never stayed a cliché. She never remained trapped in one persona or viewed only through Charles or Ray’s eyes. She never remained the fetishistic dream girl and that was significant then… maybe even more so now. She comes on like an uninhibited femme fatale you wanted to run away with, but there’s so much more to her than that. She not your dream girl. She belongs to herself.

Looking at the movie again last night (watching the Criterion Blu-ray), I was struck by how vibrant and fresh it still felt. It was even better than I remembered it being. Here are a few notes from this latest viewing:

1. Demme remarkably never condescends to his characters… or the audience. Whether we’re watching the early scenes of gritty, funky New York City, watching Charles and Lulu on the road playfully interacting with colorful characters, or watching Lulu awkwardly banter with old friends and acquaintances at the school reunion, Demme never cruelly mocks his characters. There’s real warmth in these scenes. It’s Capraesque by way of the Lower East Side, though free of the camp distance that Lynch employed in Blue Velvet with his view of small-town life.

2. The movie looks and feels like authentic America… not Hollywood America. This being a road movie too, we get many shots, courtesy of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, of open rural spaces, rickety motels, greasy spoon diners, and tourist traps. That’s not exactly fresh for movies, but Demme captures these locales with his characteristically light touch. Certain places, such as the squalid motel where Ray is staying, exude menace, but for the most part Demme keeps it low key. Compare these scenes with Scorsese’s hyperrealism in After Hours. Demme comes off as downright mannered in comparison. We also get a racially mixed America and one were elderly people actually exist and mingle with younger people. Demme’s codified America has vitality and is a telling contrast to the muscle-bound, paranoid, and psychotic Reagan-era fantasies that were the norm at the multiplex at that time.

3. Something Wild does have a dark side. Once Ray memorably appears at the reunion, the cracks begin to appear in the American dream. Liotta is a force of nature here–physical, charming, impulsive, dangerous. Intelligence flickers behind those icy blues eyes, but it’s reptilian. While prodding a clueless Charles about how he met Lulu/Audrey, he feigns camaraderie and amps up the laughter, lulling Charles into a false sense of male bonding. Ray is really laughing at Charles and setting him up for a beating. Perhaps the violence in Something Wild doesn’t have quite the same ferocity it did that first viewing, but it’s still vicious and Liotta’s performance remains threatening as much as it is captivating.

4. The use of color. Having previously only seen the movie on cable television and VHS tape, the look of it never really worked its way into me. The Criterion Blu-ray revealed a completely new aesthetic layer. Demme, Fujimoto, and the set/art/costume departments crowd the frame with hot colors in that first half, then dramatically strip it down for the second. I don’t usually think of Demme as a boldly visual director, but he’s intelligent and nuanced. When he moves the camera in a striking way, it’s for a good reason. Pay attention.

5. The music. This has one of the best soundtracks of its era. “Wozani Mahipi” by South African group The Mahotella Queens, “Someone Like You” by The Knitters, and the substantial contribution from The Feelies during the high school reunion scenes all made big impressions. But the soundtrack as a whole is just great in how it’s utilized. Demme does give a nod to visually showing characters listening to music in their cars, the motel room, or in a liquor store. It’s realistically used, but the songs also color our impressions of who Lulu and the other characters are.

6. Last but not least, there’s sex. Characters fuck in Something Wild and it’s playful, slightly naughty, and served up refreshingly guilt-free. Lulu is obviously a sexual magnet, but Ray is as well, albeit in a more threatening way. When he preys on the naive gift shop girl, who is underage, it feels dangerous… but you also feel her excitement and attraction to the wolf. The scene also gives us a glimpse of how the now wise Audrey (Lulu’s real name) must have felt when she first encountered Ray years ago.

This one is coming to the desert island. For me, Jonathan Demme was never better than here.

great crack-ups #3

True love is a beautiful thing.  It’s beautiful because it’s rare… certainly not as common as Hollywood movies would have you think.  Despite that fact, the Hollywood studios have always sold that lie to the public and we eat it up because we want to believe that it’s true, we want to believe that out there in the cold, dark world there’s someone special waiting for us, and that romance is indeed possible.

You believe it.  I believe it.  We have to because the alternative is too painful to deal with.  No one wants to be lonely.  We all want to believe that Cary Grant or Irene Dunne is somewhere out there, although the older you get the more you realize that the romantic ideal, especially if you’re a misfit, just doesn’t happen like it does in the movies.

It never has.

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s deliriously romantic 2003 film Punch-Drunk Love, matters of the heart are as intoxicating as anything you’ll find in a vintage screwball comedy or its modern variation, but it’s a whole lot more scary, bewildering, and weird too.  Although on its surface the film is as outrageous and absurd as the most fantastical musical, it’s also… realistic in ways these kinds of movies never are.  It externalizes what we feel internally when we hover over the abyss that is true romance… it dares to plunge us into the wildness of pure drunken emotion.  And it warmly allows its two completely dysfunctional oddball lead characters a chance to shine in roles usually reserved for the personality-free mannequins that uniformly sleepwalk through these kinds of parts.

Punch-Drunk Love is a romantic comedy for people who know movies like this are bullshit.

Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a Southern California businessman specializing in cheap novelty items, is the kind of guy who doesn’t get a lot of excitement in his life.  He doesn’t want a lot of excitement in his life.  He’s a businessman and a professional.  That doesn’t mean he isn’t bored, however, or that he doesn’t yearn to meet that certain special someone.

He’s just a normal guy.

But Barry isn’t “normal.”  None of us really are.  Not like those people on television or in the movies.  If you are, or you think you are, then there’s something probably wrong with you.  Hidden.  It means that underneath the façade is a raging weirdo.  It means… you’re not comfortable in your real skin.

You’d never think that some people were weirdos underneath.  But they are.  Unlike Barry, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) is socially more adept and she hides her inner freak better.  She’s shy, though once you get to know her, once she allows you to get a little closer, her laughter and the way she smiles and the way she looks at you and the way she listens to you and the way she talks really gets under your skin.

She’s infectious.

And though that word… “infectious”… connotes joy as well as unpleasantness, Barry tries not to focus on the negative.  It’s a bad habit… something he does too much.  Because he’s lonely… because when he’s alone he realizes that he may be alone forever… that he’ll never find real love.  And when he’s lonely, which is most of the time, he does stupid things like call phone sex lines and tries to get to know the woman on the other end.  He does desperate things like trying to make friends with the lonely woman on the other end.  She is lonely, right?  If she wasn’t, why would she be working the phone line?

Luckily, Barry met Lena… a real person… a real opportunity… something real removed from the time wasted talking on the phone sex line.

Loneliness is the farthest thing from either of their minds tonight.  For the first time in a long while, neither Barry or Lena feel so alone.  For the first time in a long time, Barry and Lena both feel like they’re making a real connection with someone else.

It feels good.

It feels special.

It feels like the best thing ever.

It feels like something is blooming…

But things start to go haywire when Lena asks Barry about the “hammer incident”… a story she heard from one of his sisters.

Barry isn’t amused to be reminded about the hammer.

Not now.

Not like this.

Not from her.

Everything was going so well…

Maybe there’s still a way out of this though.

Maybe this terrible feeling will end soon.

Then everything will go back to normal.

Maybe they can then go back to having a great time.

Then they can believe again that love is possible and that it was the right thing to take a chance…

Instead of feeling like you’re all alone standing along the edge of the cliff… scrambling to hold on…

While the bloom that was once love…

Turns to rage within.

Maybe there’s still a chance to turn it back to something good.

Maybe he can fight his way out.

Or perhaps they should go to a different restaurant instead and try all over again.

The food wasn’t good here anyway.