Will I remember what this post was about in the morning?, or, stray musings on cultural memory and people who do more than one thing well

My timing is impeccable. As soon as I note the decline of Armond White’s film criticism, in part because he favors broad assertions over detailed examination and sweeping denunciations over arguments supported by details, here he comes with a small gem on Jonathan Demme’s Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains. I saw most of this documentary on Jimmy Carter in Toronto, in the lovely fairie-world Wintergarden Theatre but had to bolt 75 minutes into it to catch another movie I’d scheduled. (Besides, I saw Carter get introduced by Demme, then get a standing ovation from the audience, and then give a short speech before the movie. I was satisfied.) I had seen enough, however, to know that I would revisit the movie. Now it’s out in limited release, so I may get my chance. In his essay, White marries his always-forceful rhetoric with, for once, actual content:

On one level, Man from Plains can be watched for biographical information; flashbacks to the late-1970s Iran hostage crisis provide evidence of Carter’s personality as key to his performance in office, which presaged such post-White House activities as his hands-on work with Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Center, his public policy institute in Atlanta. But Demme’s mobile camera, scanning tight spaces as well as airport lobbies and the areas around post-Katrina Louisiana and Carter’s Georgia home, keeps situating the former president in the always-spinning world.

The information age makes it impossible to create Presidential legends like Washington’s and Lincoln’s, but Demme creates a folk narrative that uses the irrefutable evidence of the photographic image to accomplish something approximate to a Davy Crockett ballad—but better. Scenes of Carter facing his critics and defending his position aren’t hagiographic but proof of character in action. The iconic shot is Carter looking out a car window as the world moves by, but Demme’s peripatetic crew keeps expanding the locales, thrusting into new situations. Visible facts counter denigrating rumor.

As prosaic as that car window footage might seem on the page, White is right—the shots are quite resonant within the movie. It’s a quick visual metaphor to shows that Carter is always on-the-go, always in physical and mental motion. At age 83, he’s more plugged in, and moving more briskly, than most people half his age.

For that matter, so is Demme. He’s not as high-profile as he was in the late-1980s and early 1990s, when Married to the Mob (1988) made him well-known, and the one-two punch of Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993) made him (briefly) a box-office draw. But his most recent fiction features, The Truth about Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate, are both remakes. He’s been working with lower budgets and lower-wattage stars in this decade.

If you look deeper, however, it’s easy to see that he’s as prolific as always. In-between the hits and the would-be blockbusters (Beloved), he directs music videos, odd shorts, and full-length documentaries. What’s extraordinary is how much Demme’s low-budget, on-the-fly documentaries look like his feature films. The director’s ongoing interest in Caribbean politics, music, and culture—seen in The Agronomist, his documentary portrait of assassinated Haitian radio journalist/activist Jean Dominique—seeps into practically all of his features. Caribbean and African pop music jumps out of the screen in his knockabout comedies (Something Wild) and remakes (The Truth about Charlie essentially Africanizes Charade), along with his documentaries. Pop music is always present in Demme’s work—the radio’s always on. He’s directed at least three concert documentaries, including the definitive Talking Heads movie (1984’s awesome Stop Making Sense) and a live performance of Spalding Gray’s monologue Swimming to Cambodia. (Way back in 1977, Handle with Care heralded CB radio.) The restless framing and hurtling-forward camerawork of Man from Plains, which plunges the viewer into his chaotic, over-stimulated world, full of overlapping dialogue and the backs of heads and compositions that catch details on the sly, but only if your eyes and ears are fully tuned in.

Man from Plains follows President Carter on a 2006 book tour promoting—and arguing about—his then-new Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The media maelstrom—talking heads, crowds, Secret Service detail, TV screen broadcasting in close-up what we see in the distance, screens and technicians and mikes everywhere—is well-suited to Demme’s aesthetic. When I thought the movie was getting repetitious, Demme would pull us back into Carter’s other work—and he’s got lots of it.

Along with all this, Demme’s devoted a documentary to his minister/activist cousin (Cousin Bobby), and he’s working on little documentaries about Katrina and its aftermath. Despite all the fiction features, it’s this pop-hearted, politically motivated, nonfiction aesthetic that resonates most strongly in Demme’s filmmaking.

As I rushed, reluctantly, out of the theater to catch John Sayles’ Honeydripper, I dealt with an onrush of overlapping thoughts that I haven’t quite sorted out. (Demme, apparently, followed me out of the Wintergarden.) Essentially, the question that kept circling me is this: When Demme’s time is done, will he be remembered more for his documentaries or his features? Silence of the Lambs is absolutely an iconic, defining work of the 1990s—so much so that it’s the last film that won the big-four Oscars: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Actor. But Stop Making Sense is, for all intents and purposes, the Last Waltz of the 1980s, a film that redefined what the concert movie could be. While Silence and Philadelphia share aspects of Demme’s documentary work, it’s the looser nonfiction work and later fiction films where his style blooms in full. Despite the preponderance of lesser (and gorier) serial-killer movies that followed Silence, it’s arguable that Demme’s nonfiction style—always poppy, always restless, always attuned to his specific vision of the world—is the more influential of his methods.

(Spike Lee’s recent career, for one, has clearly followed in Demme’s footsteps. Like Demme, Lee mixes idiosyncratic and political documentaries (When the Levees Broke, 4 Little Girls, Jim Brown: All-American) and live-performance recordings (A Huey P. Newton Story, The Original Kings of Comedy) with feature films.)

So, running towards the Ryerson Auditorium, I thought about others with divergent artistic careers. Up until Annie Hall, Woody Allen was thought of as a wildly successful, influential stand-up comedian and TV writer who had somehow wandered into filmmaking. Now, how many people under 30 know about his stand-up or, for that matter, his three best-selling books of humor pieces? John Updike is almost as prolific a book critic as he is a novelist. Right now, it’s the Rabbit series that’s cemented his reputation; will it be Hugging the Shore in 50 years? More than one person thinks it’s possible. The same issue applies to William H. Gass, whose novels and short stories gave him the designation of the priest of postmodernism—never mind that he didn’t buy it or want the role. But there’s a gap of nearly 30 years between his groundbreaking In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and 1995’s The Tunnel. The gap is filled, however, with four collections of essays and a philosophical meditation. He continues to publish more nonfiction than fiction, and it’s possible that he’s a better, and more influential essayist than a fiction writer. Manny Farber’s lasting influence, right now, is as a film critic, but he essentially gave that up in the late 1970s to pursue his true love: painting. He’s well-regarded as an artist, and he painted throughout his three decades as a critic. In 50 years, will anyone remember that Clint Eastwood used to act rather than direct? (The iconic Eastwood persona, carved seemingly in stone in westerns, might be fading, just as the western film had faded from our consciousness.) Which will survive in our ever-spotty cultural memory?

Cultural memory—that’s really what I was worrying about on my way to Honeydripper. Rick James’s life ended as a punchline (“Cocaine is a hell of a drug”) rather than as a legacy of fusing funk and rock. I hope my generation knows Julie Andrews beyond starring in Mary Poppins, but I’ve got my doubts. People like C.L.R. James—historian, novelist, activist, political theorist, sportswriter—did so much that I worry that spectators won’t be able to get a handle on any aspect of his life, and he’s be altogether lost to the relentless here-and-now.

We’ve got so little control over cultural memory, over making sure that artists and intellectuals are remembered for more than that single touchstone that captured everyone’s attention that one time, way back when. Walking through downtown Toronto, I wondered casually, and then not so casually, what it would look like in 75 years. Would anyone recognize it? Would anyone care what it smelled like, what it sounded like, what the hordes of beautiful and fashionable women were wearing, what graffiti was on what building?

Over anything else, it’s the multifaceted nature of experience that I worried about losing, the sense that a person could work in more than one mode in a life, and sometimes at the same time. It’s not advantageous right now to be a Renaissance man/woman; genre and formal compartmentalization is the order of the day. In Man from Plains, Jonathan Demme shows us an ex-president who resists this trend, who pushes into a plethora of cultural and spiritual arenas, who wants to know (and remember) it all. The film—what I saw of it, anyway—encourages us to think broadly, to accept and to keep in mind the many sides of its subject, its filmmaker, and our lives.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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