For those old enough to remember Jonathan Demme's career as a filmmaker, he started out making B pictures (CAGED HEAT, FIGHTING MAD, CRAZY MAMA) and when he graduated to A fare (CITIZENS BAND aka HANDLE WITH CARE, MELVIN AND HOWARD, SOMETHING WILD, MARRIED TO THE MOB, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), managed to create films that had a unfettered B sensibility in terms of humor and the kind of love of characters and actors not often found in most studio pictures of the 80s/early 90s.
Unfortunately, post-SILENCE, Demme lost his sense of humor and became fearfully politically correct (I remember the time he twittered in an interview over whether or not audiences would get The Wrong Impression from a shot of Dean Stockwell firing guns during a seriocomic fast-food restaurant shootout scene in MARRIED TO THE MOB). PHILADELPHIA and BELOVED had enough remnants of his earlier craftsmanship, although they were intended as Important Prestige Pictures. Demme's later work (namely the CHARADE remake THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE and the "redone for Denzel Washington's idea of a Denzel Washington movie" THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) showed increasing signs of artistic constipation and fearfulness of losing a sense of precious dignity.
I haven't seen all of Demme's documentaries, but his recent nonfiction work has involved seeking out people and lionizing them for having great Integrity. The Neil Young acoustic concert film HEART OF GOLD was drowsy, but saved by the music of Young, his band and guest vocalist Emmylou Harris.
Now, the nadir of Jonathan Demme's career has been reached. JIMMY CARTER: MAN FROM PLAINS is now available on DVD for those who can endure 126 minutes of hagiography about Carter as God's Lonely Man on a book tour for the controversial-in-2006 PALESTINE: PEACE NOT APARTHEID.
It makes me sad to write this because, for his faults [occasional bad temper and egotism, as well as an unwillingness to coalition-build which helped to end his Presidency after four years, not to mention the infamous incident of treating Americans like preschoolers--"The energy crisis is REAL"--half-shouted during the "malaise" Oval Office speech of 1979--plus the "damned when he negotiated, doomed when he resorted to military force" spectacle of the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-1981], Carter has done positive things with his ex-Presidency, starting with the Habitat for Humanity housing projects and continuing with the Carter Center.
But Demme seems to not know how to make the viewer appreciate (if not agree with) Carter's willingness to take a principled-but-controversial stand re the relations between Israel and Palestine. Instead, viewers are treated to barbecues, Sunday School lessons [the first two of these eating up almost the first half-hour of the film], book signings, Carter wanting to wander through the coach section of an airplanc for a quick ego-boost, two Jimmy-swims-in-hotel-pools setpieces and more than one cutaway from anything that might show Saint Jimmy in a less-than-favorable-to-him situation.
And after 126 minutes of this clumsy propaganda (as bad in its own way as the John Ford Vietnam documentary I discussed in the previous entry), one feels like shedding a tear for Jonathan Demme, God's Lonely Director, who now sees himself as too principled, responsible and high-minded to make the majority of his past films--and is intent on ostentatiously rectifying the errors of his ways at the expense of the dwindling audiences who see his films.