Jonathan Demme, a Eulogy

Jonathan Demme’s film Swimming to Cambodia is one of a few I could use to explain who I am as a filmmaker. At first glance, particularly if you are not a filmmaker, it seems more like a document of a stage play, which to some extent it is. However, Spalding Gray’s play was 4 hours long. The film runs 85 minutes.

This gets to the heart of what film is, as an artform: distillation – whether it’s cutting down hours of documentary footage; conveying a complex, internal novel in a few telling sequences; selecting the best take; or simply imposing a frame to say: this is the important bit to look at, from here.

That’s why interactive film doesn’t work, or choose-your-own ending. I don’t think VR sandbox stuff will work either – at least not as a movie. Film is not theater, or a videogame. It’s not interactive. It doesn’t change when you go back.

And it’s why, even in an age of sprawling high-budget prestige television, TV does not feel like a movie. Television is expansive. Film contracts. The limits are the medium. (I’ll leave it to you to guess whether endless franchises like Marvel and Disney Star Wars strike me as films or very long commercials.)

Here’s to you, Jonathan Demme. You made very big things small enough to fit in my head; to stab me in the heart; to tap me on the shoulder in an empty room.