Goddamn it, another one gone. I saw him at the BFI a decade or so ago, introducing his Jimmy Carter documentary, and he came across as a thoroughly committed and down to earth chap. Naturally all the memorials are leading with Silence Of The Lambs which is a terrific movie, and of course he directed what is arguably the best concert movie of all time, but I have a soft spot for the Hitchockian The Last Embrace which is an overlooked 1970’s paranoia picture;
EDIT – Ah, now this is more fitting, this is how you direct and cut an iconic scene ladies and gentlemen;
So, my first NFT Q&A of 2008. This was a last minute addition to the programme, flagged by the NFT’s new improved e-mail notification tool. I’ve even taken the time to fill in their on-line market research study ’cause they have some nifty prizes up for grabs such as NFT DVD’s, not to mention an all expenses VIP trip to LA for some film festival.
Jonathan Demme will no doubt go down in film history as the director of ‘The Silence of the Lambs‘ and guiding Tom Hanks to his first best actor Oscar in ‘Philadelphia’ but film nerds such as yours truly can also admire him for some of his earlier pictures such as the Hitchcock-lite ‘Last Embrace‘ which still turns up occasionally the late night BBC1 schedules, the seminal live concert film ‘Stop Making Sense’ and this curio with one of my favourite all time actors, Jason Robards. Demme is one of the guys who like Scorsese and Coppola cut his teeth with Roger Corman, earning his stripes on early exploitation pictures before being trusted with slightly larger budgets and more idiosyncratic projects.
The documentary reflects on the life and career of Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the good ole U S of A. It takes as its starting point a book tour that the 83 year old took in 2005 to promote his book ‘Palestine – Peace not Apartheid‘ which as you can imagine stirred a hornets nest of controversy in the states with charges anti-Semitism and supporting of Arabic terrorism being levelled at Carter because you know, if you so much as criticise Israel then the logical conclusion is that you’re an anti-Semite. Fucking ridiculous. On the other hand when appearing on Al-Jazeera he blasts the Palestinians for all acts of violence, in particular the cult of martyrdom that coalesces around suicide bombers.
I quite enjoyed the documentary – it’s a bit too long at two hours but is genuinely inspiring to see an American statesman using his prestige and influence to actually effect positive change, be it humanitarian efforts in Africa or building shelters in post Katrina New Orleans. There is one sequence which I think defines exactly who Carter is – some redneck loony calls in to a Radio debate that Carter is involved in and makes the quite absurd observation that it was Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis in the late 1970’s that has precipitated the current geo-political situation in the Middle East – being soft and not nuking the area has led to the murderous instability that currently afflicts the area. Carter, calmly and coolly responds by stating ‘Yes I negotiated with Iran. I could have used the most powerful weapons in the world and wiped that part of Iran off the map. But the 52 hostages would have been killed immediately and we would have killed 15,000 to 20,000 innocent Iranians. I got them back, got them all back unharmed and not one Iranian was killed’. Nuff said.
The other moving portion was how Carter brokered the peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978. The talks at Camp David had failed and both delegations were preparing to leave. Carter had his researchers find out the names of Sadat’s and Rabin’s grandchildren and he produced signed photographs of himself with a personal dedication to the grandchildren. That sounds quite clinical but I believe the man when he said it was a genuine, heartfelt gesture not emotional blackmail. After receiving the photos both delegates paused, returned to the table and agreed to the peace accords. I’m a cold hearted cynic at the best of times but that really affected me and the footage of the signing of the treaty is quite remarkable.
It really throws into sharp relief exactly what America can do when it is led by genuine statesmen with the will and passion to direct their influence and power on the world stage. As Demme depressingly said ‘It’s really unimaginable now isn’t it, that my country would do something as ‘bizarre’ as host a summit to progress a peace plan? We seem to have moved much further away from that…’ For me as well as a raging atheist it’s quite challenging to see someone like Carter who is a deeply religious man, someone who uses that faith and belief to drive his actions and directly help others without forcing his own ideology and opinions upon people.
The Q&A wasn’t particularly gripping unfortunately as it centred on Demme’s documentaries and live performance films. Demme was quite engaging, bursting with energy and passion but not a single word was mentioned about his movies more’s the pity. Still, it’s exceptionaly rare that I see a documentary on the big screen so it wasn’t a total waste of time.