And yet, when he answered the call to Hollywood, he continued to surprise us. He successfully balanced commercial mainstream projects (The Silence of the Lambs; Philadelphia) with documentaries (Cousin Bobby; Jimmy Carter The Man From The Plains). His filmography was further graced with several concert films (not least a few with Neil Young, Spalding Gray's performance piece Swimming To Cambodia, and the instant cult film Stop Making Sense, featuring Talking Heads). In recent times he had made the comedy-drama Ricki and the Flash, followed by the rockumentary Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids. Through the years he had also done such quirky favourites as Melvin and Howard, Married To the Mob and Something Wild. Perhaps the latter film, which credibly veers from screwball comedy to violent melodrama, neatly summarizes Demme's career as a whole. You couldn't pigeonhole him into any formula: no matter what he took on, he usually did it well.
Out of the 60-plus films he has attached his name to in various capacities, my favourite of all those seen is Citizens Band (also released as Handle With Care). This 1977 sleeper is sort of a bridge between his drive-in exploitation days and future mainstream success. Out of tribute to Jonathan Demme, below is an edited piece on this film, from the Fall 2010 issue of ESR. Enjoy!
Rural Follies: An Appreciation of Citizens Band
Not all of our favourite films have to be those whispered in hushed admiration on Cinematheque Ontario’s ten best lists. In fact, if a comet were to hurtle towards the Earth tomorrow, and we had to hurriedly grab pieces of our popped culture to take with us in the escape pod to preserve for our future existence beyond, Citizens Band (also known as Handle With Care) would be among those I’d ensure would be on the trip. This 1977 gem is one of the very few films I’ve seen more than 20 times, and also one of the very few in which every new viewing feels as fresh as the first.
|Paul LeMat as "Spider"|
Blaine (Paul LeMat), AKA- Spider, runs a CB repair station out on his junkyard, and an ad hoc rescue team for whenever there’s an emergency on Channel 9. Spider is so fed up with the emergency channel being abused by such characters as The Hustler with their prattle, that he wages a war to shut down anyone who uses Channel 9 for anything other than a genuine emergency. Blaine lives on the junkyard with his estranged father (Roberts Blossom), who only ever utters one-word sentences to his son, except when he’s threatening to cook Ned the dog. However, on the airlines, he is the engaging, motor-mouthed Papa Thermodyne.
|"Spider" and Pam (Candy Clark)|
|"Chrome Angel" (Charles Napier) and "Hot Coffee" (Alix Elias)|
|Dinner with Papa Thermodyne (Roberts Blossom). "He did it, he really did it."|
Despite that Roberts Blossom could (and often did) play old coots that would just as soon shoot you as look at you, he arguably has his greatest role as Papa Thermodyne. He is a marvel in doing much with little. In the birthday party scene (shot in one single take, like many sequences in the film), when Spider reveals to his father that he plans to move out, Papa stares at the candles with a slight tremble in his jaw, and then utters a single word “Okay”- this deceptively simple moment is incredibly powerful.
Citizens Band is perhaps the bridge between director Jonathan Demme’s drive-in exploitation fare (Caged Heat; Crazy Mama), and his subsequent mainstream works (Stop Making Sense; Married To the Mob). It carries the same twangy charm of the pictures he made back at the Roger Corman factory, yet it also has a maturity, depth and love of people that puts most Hollywood films to shame. When Demme went mainstream, he still retained that same quirkiness for years to come. Most interestingly, he would still take risks with non-commercial fare like Swimming To Cambodia (1987).
At the time, the lantern-jawed Charles Napier was mainly known for being part of drive-in king Russ Meyer’s stock company. This film showed mainstream audiences that he could be a formidable Hollywood leading man, and play comedy. He would eventually be part of Jonathan Demme’s stock company, appearing in his later films Last Embrace, Silence of the Lambs, and several others.
Many scenes (with woozy, flashy cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth) play in single takes. While this may seem like an economic consideration in order to shoot this small film quickly, it is in fact a testament to Demme’s control, and the expertise of his cast.
This film is full of priceless little scenes, such as where the two vengeful wives compare notes on how their husband seduces them, or where Blaine and the reluctant Dean choose a birthday cake for their father- all deceptively simple in their execution, as the camera unobtrusively eavesdrops on their little dramas. The superb cast makes the best out of a great screenplay—it all ends up feeling very natural, unrehearsed.
|"Portland Angel" (Marcia Rodd), "Hot Coffee" and "Dallas Angel" (Ann Wedgeworth)|
Yet underneath all of the humour is a lot of truth. In the dinner scene, while Blaine is searching around the house to see whether or not Ned the Dog really did end up in the pot, Papa Thermodyne confesses his cruel joke to Pam, which he did to make Blaine feel the misery that he feels for being stuck at this junkyard. (This is the only time we see Papa open up to another human being in the flesh.) Blaine’s obsession with tearing down irresponsible CB transmitters is an excuse for him to avoid making any important life decisions. During his mission, Spider is being threatened by a mysterious caller named Blood, whose motivations are also quite justifiable.
|Spider and Dean (Bruce McGill) find a cake for Pop.|
|See the movie-|
read the tie-in paperback!
This sweet film ends up being too moving for words. It is so touching to see these characters with the virtue that we knew existed, even in the unlikable ones. By the time the credits roll, when Larry Santos sings “You Heard The Song” over the soundtrack, as a single pan shot connects all of the wayward characters one last time before they move on to their next journeys in life, I am weeping.
Not only am I overcome with emotion for the honest portrayal of the people in this little epic, but also their genuine humanity. Also, one is melancholy over the passage of time; Citizens Band hails from a time when there used to be a new masterpiece in theatres every few weeks. It is a sad and beautiful reminder of how movies can be so entertaining and wise.