Philadelphia pairs from Jonathan Demme

We watched Philadelphia (1993) last night for the first time in awhile. I’m just writing this to call attention to a pattern I think I’ve observed in the work of director Jonathan Demme.

I haven’t seen all of his films, but did devour several upon their appearance, notably Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993) and more recently Rachel Getting Married (2008).

The concept I keep grabbing onto with Demme is pairs.

In Philadelphia I’d point to the juxtaposition of two lawyers you see on the film’s poster and the cover of the video, who are at the heart of the story, namely Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) and Joe Miller (Denzel Washington).

Near the beginning of the film there’s a great scene shot with the two in an elevator with a third person between them, a shot with such symmetrical composition as to be worthy of that compulsive symmetrist (is there such a word?) Wes Anderson.

Beckett has AIDS, has been fired from his firm and will die before the end of the film. Miller is a black man who also faces discrimination even as he utters some of the same homophobic bigotry as the partners in Beckett’s firm. After initially rejecting the case Miller agrees to represent Beckett.

We are seeing displays of loving kindness from two different families, both Beckett’s extended family, (all of whom are supportive of Andrew’s ordeals) and Miller’s family, that has just recently enjoyed the arrival of a new baby. One of the most magical oppositions is set up when we first see Hanks’ response to the Maria Callas aria as he speaks of love, then the same music underscoring Miller’s return home to his sleeping baby, whom he seems to embrace with a new appreciation of mortality, a new level to his love. While much was made of Hanks’ performance (winning an Oscar) I am as impressed with Denzel’s nuanced portrayal of a man whose character arc begins with bigotry and a rejection of homosexuality, growing towards something like acceptance.

The other pair I’d like to point to in this film is musical. Demme frames the movie with a pair of songs.
We open the film with Bruce Springsteen’s Oscar winning song “Streets of Philadelphia”, a song I’ve struggled to hear in the multiple times I’ve seen the film.

Okay! This little blog is as much about me deciding, hey let’s look at those lyrics! This song opens the film with a series of shots of people in various settings.

I was bruised and battered
I couldn’t tell what I felt
I was unrecognizable to myself
Saw my reflection in a window
And didn’t know my own face
Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away
On the streets of Philadelphia?
I walked the avenue, ’til my legs felt like stone
I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone
At night I could hear the blood in my veins
Just as black and whispering as the rain
On the streets of Philadelphia
Ain’t no angel gonna greet me
It’s just you and I my friend
And my clothes don’t fit me no more
A thousand miles just to slip this skin
The night has fallen, I’m lyin’ awake
I can feel myself fading away
So receive me brother with your faithless kiss
Or will we leave each other alone like this
On the streets of Philadelphia?

I find this first song perhaps a better composition than the other one, a perfect creation that stands alone. Yet it’s the other song, Neil Young’s Philadelphia, that always stays in my head, that usually reduces me to a wet lump of tears and sobs, and for days afterwards has me running the song and scenes of the film through my head.

Sometimes I think that I know
What love’s all about
And when I see the light
I know I’ll be all right.

I’ve got my friends in the world,
I had my friends
When we were boys and girls
And the secrets came unfurled

City of brotherly love
Place I call home
Don’t turn your back on me
I don’t want to be alone
Love lasts forever.

Someone is talking to me,
Calling my name
Tell me I’m not to blame
I won’t be ashamed of love

City of brotherly love.
Brotherly love

Sometimes I think that I know
What love’s all about
And when I see the light
I know I’ll be all right.

I have to ask, is that academy award for “best song” to be understood as best song in some absolute musical sense? or the best song in the dramaturgical sense of how it functions in the film? Because for me the first song, good as it is, has little connection for me to the film, the second one however completes the movie for me, one of the most perfect endings I’ve ever seen to a film. Howard Shore, who composed the film’s score might deserve some credit for this as well, as he segues smoothly from the song to the music in the credits. Indeed I think Shore’s score was written with this song in his head, a very accomplished and under-rated piece of work.

Young’s song hits me in combination with the home movies of children playing at the film’s conclusion, the words sounding as though we were hearing from the protagonist. Oh it’s absurd really, Neil Young doesn’t sound like Tom Hanks, but he does sound like a child full of questions. What does Andrew feel after death, as all these loved ones celebrate his life? I feel the song speaks as though Andrew is between lives, contemplating the meaning of the life that’s to come (meaning in that future from the old films, of growing up to become the adult Andrew) and perhaps looking back after this life asking what it all meant.

Neil Young’s child-like delivery plays into this, seemingly struggling to understand the meaning of love and life.

It gets me every time I see it, which might be why I don’t see this film too often. I don’t want this song to lose its power to move me.

That pattern of pairs that I think I see may strike you as overly reductive. But I see it in other Demme films. In Something Wild there’s a kind of walk on the wild side by both of the protagonists, although the significance is different for each, as each one confronts their identity. In Married to the Mob too, we can’t help noticing the crooks who wear guises and the police too who pretend to be something they are not. In Silence of the Lambs we watch a criminal held in jail assist the police to catch another criminal, even as the incarcerated criminal gets away and causes more mayhem himself.

Maybe Demme was interested in pairs because he was born February 22, 1944, or in other words 22-2-44.

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