Jonathan Demme And The Simple Power Of The Close-Up
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Forget the fava beans.
The main reason Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs gets its hooks in you — and leaves you feeling vaguely distracted and discomfited long after it's over — isn't anything Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter says.
It's how he says it. And to whom.
In the reality of the film, of course, he's directing his consummate, artisanal brand of creepiness at Jodie Foster's FBI agent, Clarice Starling.
But Demme, who died this morning, was a filmmaker fascinated by the simple, unadorned power of the tight shot. And he trusted his actors so thoroughly that he took it one step further: Instead of having them pitch their performances slightly to camera left or camera right — a shot so ubiquitous to basic cinematic infrastructure that it barely registers with viewers — he has Hopkins stare down the barrel of the lens.
Straight at us.
It turns us into Lecter's subjects, butterflies pinned to his specimen board. We want to turn away from his steady wet unblinking gaze, but we can't. It fills the screen.
And it's not just Lecter. Throughout the film, Demme treats us to close-ups of his actors faces, staring directly at us. In many of the film's more mundane moments — Clarice discussing the case with her friend, back at the FBI — the conversation takes place with alternating close-ups of the actors' faces, gazing out at us flatly, like a challenge.
It's a deliberate choice that implicates us, and thus implicitly demands more of us, than Hollywood thrillers generally do. We might not register that it's happening the first time we see the film, but we sense that something is different, more intimate, more insistent.
Throughout his long career, Demme let his actors' facial expressions do the heavy lifting.
His first film, 1974's Caged Heat, directed under the auspices (well, "auspices") of producer/gleeful shlockmeister Roger Corman, is all about bodies, not faces: women's bodies, in prison, to be specific. But it lives in the worried, deer-in-the-headlights expression of Erica Gavin's Jacqueline, just as 1980's Melvin and Howard is powered by the crinkly smile of Jason Robards' Howard Hughes (and the dull-eyed squint of Paul Le Mat's Melvin).
In 1984, with Swing Shift, set in and around a WWII munitions factory, he was finally gifted two bonafide movie stars in Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell — and their giant, movie-star-sized melons. His camera found every angle of their impossibly symmetrical faces and coated them with period-appropriate glamour.
Something Wild, in 1986, found its edgy energy in Melanie Griffith's eyes darting out from under that manic pixie blunt bob, and in the many ways Jeff Daniels kept finding new ways to look flustered by them.
Demme's adaptation of Spalding Gray's staged monologue (1987's Swimming to Cambodia) packs a lot more punch than other filmed adaptations of Gray's work, largely because Demme wasn't distracted by the storyteller's vigorous full-body kinetics, as were other directors. Demme knew that it was Gray's protean facial expressions — his sly shifts between, say the character of the worried Gray and his South African, Mesistopheles-like tempter — that would provide that theatrical work a new and singularly cinematic power.
The dawning realization of Michelle Pfeiffer's mafia wife in Married to the Mob (1988). The swooning, deeply emotive and literally operatic breakdown of Tom Hanks' Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia (1993) and the level, inscrutable but somehow dangerous gaze of Thandie Newtown's malevolent presence in Beloved (1998).
I'm less familiar with Demme's more recent feature work, or many of his music documentaries, but the film of his I love most, and have seen most often, is his 1984 Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense.
It's a slow build: one by one, various members of the band — led by a gawky David Byrne, captured at Peak Gawk — come out on stage, building from something with a nearly Calvinist austerity to the full-on, sweaty, heedless joy of a tent-revival.
Given the demands of the form, Demme doesn't indulge his fondness for close-ups — this is a concert film, after all, and he is tasked with capturing the interplay between performers, and their gyrating, propulsive, athletic exertions. And when his camera does linger on Byrne's face, well: It's David Byrne. His gaze is distant, fixed, bird-like, downright Warholian in its eccentricity. It doesn't grab you and pull you in, it doesn't implicate or involve you. It pushes you gently but firmly away. Stand over there, please, thank you.
Which is maybe why, a bit into the film's final number, Demme does something he's rigorously refused to do up to that point. He points his camera at the audience.
And it's a revelation: we see, for the first time, the real power of this music. Oh, we've felt it all the way through, but now we see it having its effect: the audience is on its feet. They are dancing.
But it's Demme. We know what comes next. His camera cuts to a woman in the aisle, not quite in true close-up, but close enough to see her face. She is rapt, smiling — no.
We feel a pure, uncomplicated, visceral connection, not to the band, or even to the music, but to her. We are with that woman, in that aisle, in that moment.
Because that's what Demme is showing us. It's why he's waited so long to turn his camera to the crowd. He knows something about us, about what we need to see.
She turns to us. She looks at us.