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Celebrating Demme, a director for our times

Jonathan Demme will receive the Coolidge Award this week. Jonathan Demme will receive the Coolidge Award this week.
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / February 28, 2010

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For the last seven years, the Coolidge Corner Theatre has been inviting film artists to Brookline to accept its Coolidge Award. Depending on the recipient, the spirit of the event falls somewhere between the Kennedy Center Honors and Comedy Central’s broadcast of the New York Friars Club Roast. The evening for Meryl Streep, in 2005, was both a little sacred and a little profane. When Jonathan Demme comes to town this week to accept his prize, it’s fair to expect a party not unlike the wedding reception that ends his “Rachel Getting Married.’’

Demme has one of American movies’ less predictable careers. Like a lot of filmmakers, he started with Roger Corman, directing the women’s prison action-drama “Caged Heat.’’ But he went on to make movies about Howard Hughes, suburban mobsters, and cannibals; and in collaboration with Talking Heads, Spalding Gray, Robyn Hitchcock, and Neil Young, the second of which, “Neil Young Trunk Show,’’ is scheduled to open later this year.

But Demme’s humanism might distinguish him most of all. He’s made documentaries about former president Carter and Haiti (two of them, years before the earthquake). His sense of compassion includes a seriousness about multiculturalism. Since he won his Oscar for “The Silence of the Lambs,’’ his films have focused on social issues (AIDS and homophobia in “Philadelphia,’’ for example), featured black stars (Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey, and Thandie Newton) and, in “The Truth About Charlie ’’ and “Rachel Getting Married,’’ insisted on the frictionless merging of races and cultures.

These social priorities have not necessarily brought out the best in his filmmaking. But the progressive point of view can be powerfully sincere. “Beloved,’’ adapted from the Toni Morrison novel in 1998, remains underrated.

In a telephone exchange the other morning, the day after his 66th birthday, Demme spoke about race, liberalism, and coming to the Coolidge. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q. Happy birthday.

A. Thank you!

Q. How was it?

A. My favorite part was helping my daughter with her homework.

Q. We have to keep the children educated.

A. That’s true. But it’s also a great opportunity to be in their presence.

Q. I’m imagining that you’re gone a lot for work.

A. No. It’s not that. Do you have kids?

Q. I don’t.

A. Ah. The older they get the less time they want to spend with you, the more time they want to be with their friends. This is reasonable. So you tend to really cherish more and more those moments where you get to justifiably be in their presence. My birthday was one of them.

Q. Do you have any plans for the Coolidge ceremony?

A. No. I’m just going to show up and go with the flow. I think there might be a little music. At some point, it looked like the Feelies were going to come up and do one of their rare appearances, but that didn’t work out. And I hear that Sister Carol might be coming.

Q. Is there a part you’re really looking forward to?

A. I’m looking forward to the whole thing. The Coolidge Award is a very top-quality event, and I’m proud to be getting on the list. I’ve decided that I’m really going to enjoy this. I mean, they’re flying [the cinematographer] Tak Fujimoto into Boston! And I haven’t seen Tak in three or four years. I’m looking forward to seeing the movies, too. It’s going to be a moving event.

Q. The Coolidge is showing “The Agronomist,’’ your documentary about the Haitian activist Jean Dominique. I’m assuming the earthquake in Haiti has affected your life, too.

A. Yes. I have many friends who live in Haiti and Haitian friends who live in America with relatives down there. Even I know people who were lost in the quake.

Q. Are you planning to go back?

A. I’m planning to go in June for a little while. I’m going to go down there and see six months later what areas have emerged as needing help. Obviously, I’m moved by the outpouring of support toward Haiti since the quake. It’s going to be very important to see what’s the status six months from now. And I might try to do some filming and talk to some people about that.

Q. You started making B-movies for Roger Corman. Are you surprised by the humanistic direction your career has taken?

A. My biggest surprise is that I have a quote-unquote career, and that all these years later, that’s what I wound up doing in my work life. I consider myself so lucky. I really love filmmaking. Making documentaries really captured me, and I seem to do as much if not more these days in the documentary realm. Filmmakers are, I think, for better and for worse, a certain kind of anthropologist. We bear witness to what’s going on in the world. The documentary thing is a great privilege and opportunity as a filmmaker to bear witness and try to fashion a film from what went on in front of your cameras.

I’ve been going down to New Orleans every three months since January ’06 because I’d heard about this group of pioneer people who had, despite enormous obstacles that we all know about, gone back to the neighborhoods and reclaimed their property and were refusing to give up on their homes. So I’ve started visiting those people, with [the writer] Daniel Wolff. I’ve now got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of film that amount to memoirs of these great New Orleanians. But it’s funny. If I put a lot of energy over time into the documentary stuff, I find myself jonesing for fiction. “Rachel Getting Married’’ was fiction, and we chose to do it as though we were making a documentary.

It’s all fun. I love filmmaking, and I’m a people person, so I guess that’s reflected in what you characterize as being “humanist.’’ I’d rather film the best in us than the worst in us. Although whatever I mean by that, I’m also a sucker for horror movies. Gosh, that’s a long-winded response to a straightforward question.

Q. Not really. With “The Truth About Charlie’’ you turned a simple remake into a movie alive with the hyper-eclectic side streets of Paris. That’s not on the page. That’s a documentary impulse.

A. For sure. I think we live in a world that demands, for the sake of survival, aggressive inclusion. Like America, France is so wildly multi-everything - multiracial, multi-spiritual - and the film seemed like an opportunity to visualize that.

Q. American movies just don’t look like that. They don’t feel like that.

A. I grew up on all-white movies, for years and years and years. And I still can like that, but, man, it bores me. I just love to see movies that reflect diversity. God, I sound corny.

Q. No you don’t. You sound exasperated. I watch seven movies a week, where almost everybody looks the same and acts the same and has the same problems. No one is gay or poor or not white. I get your boredom.

A. I’m convinced that moviegoers are far more ready for accurate diversity of the kind you describe than filmmakers realize. With “Rachel Getting Married,’’ when we showed it in Italy before it opened up here, at the press conference, people said, [in an amusingly bad accent] “Is this some idealized vision of the way you’d like things to be?’’ No. It’s the way things are!

Q. Your political consciousness seems hard to repress.

A. This was my 66th birthday. So that brands me as an American of a certain generation. I’m a hippie who had my eyes opened by things like “Soul on Ice’’ and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.’’ So at a young age, I got that.

Q. It’s hilarious to say this, but “Caged Heat’’ suggests that.

A. Roger Corman insisted on a degree of diversity. For a while race was considered thinking outside the box. We could either do a gender flip or a race flip. Or a gender slash race flip. Call sheets would come, even from an African-American second-assistant director, and the extra allocation would come up and I would say, There’s so many more white extras. And that’s just an ingrained math that I think is getting [better]. You see more movies than I do. But I really think there’s been progress.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

2010 Coolidge Award schedule

Monday
1 p.m.: "The Agronomist (introduced by Coolidge Award winner Jonathan Demme, who will take questions after screening)

8 p.m.: "Neil Young Trunk Show"

Tuesday
Noon: "Melvin and Howard" (followed by panel featuring Demme and associates)

8 p.m.: Award presentation

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