This isn’t really a DVD review, at least not in the traditional sense. Sure, I’m getting ready to write about a movie that’s out on DVD, but honestly, this is about something more than just a DVD. I’ve often said that an integral part of enjoying a movie is not so much the film itself as it is the experience and circumstances surrounding the film. For nearly every movie I’ve seen, there’s a story involved of where I saw it, who I saw it with, and what was going on at that point in my life. This week sees the Criterion Collection release of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, a film that stands up as one of the more memorable movie-going experiences of my life.
The Criterion release of Something Wild has been timed to coincide with the film’s 25th anniversary, which puts me in the uncomfortable position of admitting that I was 17 when the film came out. I was fresh out of high school, living in Dover, New Jersey, attending the infamous Joe Kubert School of Cartooning and Animation (or whatever the hell the name of that place is), and living life with more reckless abandon than I will ever fully admit. I lived in this huge run-down house called “The Mansion,” with more than twenty other guys all attending the same school. Our regular routine was lame—as is apt to happen when trapped in towns like Dover—and between going to school and doing homework, we all seemed to spend a ridiculous time at the mall and going to movies. I remember a group of us going to see a double feature of Aliens and Cronenberg’s The Fly, as well as going to see a midnight screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show, which seemed like an odd choice to be screening at a multiplex at a mall.
All of this brings me to Something Wild. My good friend Tom usually ditched everyone at the Mansion and headed home to Pennsylvania on the weekends, but for some reason he stayed in town this one particular weekend. A group of us piled into his car (a green Dodge Omni, if I recall), and headed to the mall to catch a movie. Other than Tom, I’m not sure who was with us, though I suspect Dan may have been there, and most likely Derryl (who sadly passed away about two years later). We had beers stuffed into our coats, and no clue what were going to see. My roommate had seen Something Wild a few days earlier, and had nothing to say about it other than “some chick takes her clothes off.” I suppose that was enough for us, as was the fact that I believe every other movie had already started.
So there we were, sitting at some movie theater in a mall in a town next to Dover that to this day I can’t remember the name of. I had cans of beer in my coat pockets and at least two hidden in one of my sleeves. And we all went in to see a movie that none of us knew a thing about. I remember the film broke, Tom started yelling at the screen, someone spilled their beer, and we all had a great time. None of it seemed significant in the moment, but it was just the right set of circumstances, and the right environment, and the right people, to make for one of those moments that sticks with you for a quarter of a century.
Something Wild was a great film, despite the fact that I was rowdy and drunk with my friends, and I’ve watched it many times since then, but only now do I really see the significance of it all. For one thing, I believe this was the first film I ever went to see knowing nothing about. We just went because we were looking for a place to kill time while we drank, and my roommate told us there was nudity in the film. But up until that point, I don’t think I had ever made a conscious decision to see a film that I knew absolutely nothing about. And I had never snuck in beers to a theatre, or gotten drunk during a movie or overly rowdy. And so more than anything, I think that Something Wild represents a sense of liberation—of doing some things for the first time—and just letting go and having a good time.
I sat back and watched the film again last night, and now with twenty-five years of my life having drifted away, the film has a different significance. Jeff Daniels stars as Charley, an uptight business man who meets the free spirited Lulu (Melanie Griffith), who takes him a on a whirlwind adventure fraught with sex and danger. The film starts out as a quirky comedy and then seamlessly transitions into something more dark and sinister when Ray (Ray Liota), a specter from Lulu’s past shows up. Brought into a world of sex and violence and deception, Charley goes through a transformation that will forever change his life.
When I watched Something Wild for the first time, I was a kid. I didn’t really understand what it was like to be living a lie, where your version of the American Dream has fallen apart, with your wife taking the kids and leaving you, and being trapped in a job that defines you more than you define yourself. Now I see the film from the other side of a bridge—the bridge that separates idealistic youth and cynical middle age. On one side of the bridge you look forward and see a future with limitless possibilities, and on the other side of the bridge you look back and see a journey of compromise, disappointment, waylaid ambitions and forgotten dreams. And none of that is to say that this is exactly how my life is, because it isn’t. But at the same time, the view from this side of bridge is a stark contrast to the view on the other side twenty-five years ago. Before, I thought Charley embarked on his adventure with Lulu because she was really hot. Now I see that he went with her because she offered a means of escape from a life that was not what he had hoped it would be.
As a film, Something Wild has stood the test of time, and endured as one of the better films of the 1980s. In an era that now seems best defined by the ascent of Tom Cruise’s career, it is more of a holdover form the great era of independent film that came a decade earlier, and it stands out as a cinematic anomaly—more reminiscent of Hal Ashby than Tony Scott. On a more personal note, Something Wild stands out as one of the great moments in my cinematic autobiography. And the fact that it holds its own as a movie even more than as a bit of personal nostalgia says a lot (at least to me).
Neither the film nor the experience of seeing it may mean as much to the people I saw it with, but both will be forever ingrained in my mind. When I think of Something Wild, I think of how the film broke, and when it was fixed Melanie Griffith’s hair was suddenly blonde and Tom yelled out, “I think we missed something important.” And this of course gets me to thinking about all the funny Tom stories, like how he carried an ax handle he had named The Equalizer in his car, and whenever someone cut him off in traffic, he would shake his fist and scream “I will equalize you!” And that leads me to thinking about the late, great Derryl Wright, who was fond of quoting both Death Wish II and J.D.’s Revenge. And all of these things are the part of the true magic of motion pictures. Films are created as works of entertainment, but they can transcend that to become something more. Under the right circumstances, any movie can become a part of our life, a backdrop for a chapter in our personal narratives that tells more than just the story unfolding on the screen.