The God’s Eye View of Jonathan Demme

Josh Larsen

In movies, the term “God’s eye view” refers to an overhead shot, in which the camera looks down upon the landscape or characters. When applied to the films of Jonathan Demme, who died last month at the age of 73, the term takes on new meaning.

Demme was best known as the Oscar-winning director of The Silence of the Lambs, which was something of an anomaly in his filmography. Of course, you could somewhat say that about each of his 30-some pictures, considering the eclecticism of his career. Yet whether he was making low-budget comedies (Melvin and Howard), defining the concert documentary (Stop Making Sense), or polishing Hollywood prestige projects (Philadelphia), Demme’s camera always observed its subjects with uncommon compassion and understanding. His movies were patient and welcoming. They would often pause to listen to someone perform a song, and there was always room for one more character in the frame. It’s no coincidence that so many Demme movies included a lovely moment of communal celebration.

Might Demme's camera capture just a hint of what it means to be divinely seen?

In many of the recent appreciation pieces written about Demme, “humanism” is the word used to describe this quality, and that’s a fitting choice. Yet as I rewatched a few of his movies in the wake of his death, something else struck me about Demme’s work. In expressing this humanism—this deep recognition of the worth of human beings—I wonder if his movies also offer an echo of how God sees us. Might his camera capture just a hint of what it means to be divinely seen?

Psalm 139 expresses David’s desire to be recognized by God: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.” This deeply human yearning is acknowledged and answered elsewhere in the Bible. Isaiah promises that we are precious and honored in God’s sight. Matthew assures us that all of the hairs on our head are numbered. Think of the way Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus in that tree. (I can easily picture the dinner they shared that night having the welcoming, bohemian vibe of a Demme movie party.)

Whom do Demme’s movies see? Kym (Anne Hathaway), the recovering addict unsteadily attending her sister’s wedding in Rachel Getting Married. Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), the escaped slave literally haunted by her past in Beloved. A Demme film is always more interested in getting to know the characters better than in judging them for their deeds. (Which isn’t to say his films are free of consequence.) Often, Demme increases this sense of intimacy through the use of an extreme close-up, focusing as tightly on a character as possible—indeed, to the point of making direct eye contact. I think of a mesmerizing close-up in Something Wild, in which Ray, the sociopathic villain played by Ray Liotta, looks into the camera in a moment of extreme vulnerability. Darn it if the hoodlum isn’t, for that moment, pretty.

In The Road to Daybreak, Henri Nouwen offers this prayer:

I gradually realize that I want to be seen by you, to dwell under your caring gaze, and to grow strong and gentle in your sight. Lord, let me see what you see—the love of God and the suffering of people—so that my eyes may become more and more like yours, eyes that can heal wounded hearts.

Demme’s characters—even Ray in Something Wild, beneath his bluster—share this hope of being seen, and so often that hope is fulfilled by the movie. How comforting to know that outside of the theater, we all fall under a similar—if far more wonderful—gaze.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure