Friday, February 15, 2008

"I Don't Love You Since You Ate My Dog."

Something Wild (1986, Jonathan Demme)

There's a remarkable moment roughly halfway through Jonathan Demme's Something Wild when the film shifts gears from a screwball road movie to a dark thriller.  For most films such a drastic change in tone would be a recipe for disaster, but in the capable hands of Demme, screenwriter E. Max Frye, and stars Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, and Ray Liotta, Something Wild is a work of art.  Of course, for 1986 audiences this aspect of the film was too troubling for it to achieve any sort of box-office success, but more than twenty years after its release, Something Wild looks like one of the best movies of the 1980s.  From its opening images of the New York skyline via the East River, set to David Byrne and Celia Cruz' joyous title song, "Loco De Amour," Something Wild casts a spell that's hard to shake off.

Prior to Something Wild, Demme had built up a solid directorial reputation from his beginnings with Roger Corman (Caged Heat, Crazy Mama, Fighting Mad) to critical favorites Handle With Care (aka Citizen's Band), Melvin and Howard, Last Embrace, and Stop Making Sense.  However, his most recent Hollywood outing, Swing Shift, had ended bitterly when he clashed with high-powered star and producer Goldie Hawn over creative differences.  He lost the right to final cut to Hawn and the finished film was a shell of Demme's original vision.  [You can read more about the Swing Shift saga here.] Following the failure of Swing Shift and the success of the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, Demme received the script by unknown E. Max Frye that would become Something Wild.

At the start of Something Wild, mild-mannered and recently divorced Charlie Driggs (Daniels) has just been promoted to Vice President at his Wall Street investment firm.  Eating lunch at a downtown diner, he doesn't realize he's been carefully watched by Lulu (Griffith), an impulsive East Village bohemian. After Charlie walks out without paying his check, Lulu confronts him and senses correctly that he is a "closet rebel."  Something about this odd couple clicks and soon they embark on a wild five-state road trip, which causes Charlie to re-evaluate his life and fall for Lulu, and which eventually leads both people into the clutches of Lulu's vengeful ex-con husband, Ray Sinclair (Liotta).

More than anything Something Wild is about the awakening of Charlie to the world outside his very limited comfort zone.  Through Charlie's eyes, the audience is given a tour of a diverse, strange, and often beautiful Americana that is rarely seen on film.  If Lulu, whose real name is Audrey, represents the sense of adventure and creativity missing from Charlie's life, Charlie offers the normalcy and stability that she craves.  Demme fills the film with images of a colorful back roads America filled with interesting people of all ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.  While watching, I was reminded at times of William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, with its emphasis on an America beyond the interstate.  All of this is evocatively filmed by Demme and his regular cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto.  

As for those aforementioned "interesting people," Demme has a knack for casting distinctive non-actors in small parts, people who make their presence felt even if they are not speaking. These are the kinds of oft-neglected people that Least Heat Moon focuses on, and I sense something similar here, even if they are peripheral to the main story and characters.  However, this element is something that elevates Something Wild to another level and sets it apart from other Hollywood films, and, I think, gets at the heart of what Demme does so well throughout his oeuvre.  I think, in particular, of Audrey's perceptive mother Peaches (Dana Preu) who provides the film with some of its most poignant moments.  And, the motel philosopher (Jim Roche) who wears the hilarious t-shirt inscribed with the message, "I don't love you since you ate my dog," and who provides Charlie with an anti-hangover concoction (for the short term) and the important credo he will adopt later on, "It's better to be a live dog than a dead lion."  There's the hitchhiking cowboy, guitarist, and kids who sing a rousing version of "Wild Thing" on the road with Charlie and Audrey.  I would be remiss if I did not mention the wonderful scene in the second-hand shop run by the two elderly women (the mothers of David Byrne and Demme) in which Audrey buys Charlie a new suit and sheds her New York threads for a more traditional summer dress. There are countless other such moments in the film, populated by friends and relatives of the filmmakers, other filmmakers (John Waters, John Sayles), and cult favorites (Charles Napier, Tracey Walter).  

Daniels is superb as Charlie, injecting his performance with a combination of vulnerability and goofiness at the beginning, strength and conviction when the film veers toward noir territory. Griffith turns in perhaps her strongest performance as Lulu/Audrey.  Her Lulu is appropriately sexy and reckless, and with her distinctive Louise Brooks bob hairstyle, she is aptly named. When she takes Charlie back to her Pennsylvania hometown to meet her mother and go to her high school reunion, she becomes a new character, Audrey, and displays a heretofore unseen sensitivity and sadness.  Though it is not touched upon in most other reviews, the underlying sadness of both Charlie and Audrey is palpable throughout the film, even its comedic sections, and it is an aspect of the film that I think is more resonant upon further viewings.

The reunion is the dividing line of the film.  Where the first half of the film is rife with humorous moments, kinky sex, and delightfully offbeat characters, the film literally turns dark at the reunion.  After Charlie and Audrey dance to a faithfully funky version of David Bowie's "Fame" by reunion band the Feelies (performing as the Willies), the lights go out, and the band launches into the decidedly more haunting, guitar-driven original "Loveless Love."  While Charlie and Audrey dance in a close embrace and kiss passionately, Ray literally swoops in and disrupts the close bond that they have formed.  Liotta is a revelation as Ray, his performance here every bit the equal of his more celebrated turn in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.  Liotta singlehandedly provides the menace and energy which kicks the film into its harrowing final act.  He is crudely funny and despicable, but it is a credit to the screenplay and Liotta's performance that Ray is also shown to be smart and even given a modicum of sympathy.  This is no two-dimensional villain.  We can understand why Ray might be angry given that his wife did not visit him in the joint and is now with another man. 

One cannot talk about Something Wild or most of Demme's career, for that matter, without mentioning its brilliant soundtrack, carefully compiled by Demme who is clearly something of an aficionado of smart, under-the-radar music.  The soundtrack is filled with an eclectic, in the best sense, melange of underground rock, reggae, dance, and pop tracks.  While many are heard for just a few seconds, their presence is not there for the sake of selling soundtracks or promoting a record label's new acts.  No, the great majority of these tunes do not appear on the official soundtrack released by MCA Records and, of those unreleased tracks, many are nearly impossible to find in any format.  Artists include David Byrne y Celia Cruz, New Order, UB40, Jimmy Cliff, X, Timbuk 3, the Motels, the Feelies, Jerry Harrison, Yellowman, Big Youth, Steve Jones, the Go-Betweens, Fine Young Cannibals, the Troggs, Oingo Boingo, Big Audio Dynamite, the Knitters, Jean-Michel Jarre, Sister Carol, and the elusive Q. Lazzarus. The effective, minimalist score is by art rock icons, John Cale and Laurie Anderson, which also remains unreleased.

In addition to the aforementioned performers, the film's stellar supporting cast includes Jack Gilpin (as Charlie's admiring co-worker, Larry), former Suburban Lawns front woman Su Tissue (as Larry's amusingly dour pregnant wife), former Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club touring musician Steve Scales (as the gas station attendant), the late Robert Ridgely (as Charlie's boss), Margaret Colin (as Ray's "date," Irene), and reggae performer Sister Carol (as the waitress, Dottie). 

One last note, for the location buffs, the diner where Charlie and Lulu meet can be found at the intersection of Watts Street and 6th Avenue in New York.  It's now Lupe's East LA Kitchen.


Jeremy Richey said...

Excellent look at one of my favorite films from the eighties. The funny thing is, is that I have been plannig a Demme themed week at Moon In The Gutter and couldn't decide whether to focus on this or Married to the Mob. Looks like the Mob it is for me as this is a splendid piece on a special film that I couldn't top...

Ned Merrill said...

Thanks for the kind words, Jeremy. I look forward to your upcoming Demme special.

Donna Bruno said...

I have that same T-shirt I don't love you since you ate my dog"! I bought it around 1982 on South Street in Philly at Zipperhead. Too funny... and Yes I still have it!

Ned Merrill said...

That is awesome, Donna! Thanks for sharing and visiting! I went to Zipperhead a few times when I was a kid in the ' place.