Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme / U.S., 1980):

"Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you," says Whitman. The prologue is pure, suspended grace: Jonathan Demmeís camera cranes back to reveal a distant speck zipping across the Nevada desert, panning left and right to follow the lone, racing motorcycle, the lenses bending a ray of sunshine with each movement. Then complete darkness, the road at night illuminated precariously by headlights and radio chatter. The ensuing drive to Las Vegas with a genial jackass (Paul Le Mat) warbling about a turbo-charged Christmas sleigh and an irritable hermit (Jason Robards) claiming to be Howard Hughes is an instant of transient sublimity, their interplay positing an egalitarian bond in a void filmed through a proto-Kiarostami windshield. ("Nothing like the smell of the desert after the rain," sighs the old man at dawn.) The landscape here is one of flaky appetites and ebullient impermanence: tract homes and strip clubs, families breaking up and getting back together and breaking up again, thrifty wedding chapels followed by slot-machines and roulettes. Shooting for the "Milkman of the Month" award or stumbling around a roadside gas station, the songwriter muddles through, "broke but not poor." His wife (Mary Steenburgen) tap-dances on a raucous game show for a fat paycheck thatís promptly turned into a fancy boat stranded on the front lawn. A mogulís will dropped on his desk adduces a fine note from Preston Sturges -- could that grouch in the pick-up truck actually have been Hughes? Shambling yet delicate, Demmeís screwball tall tale gazes at TV contests and novelty ballads and sees not derisive kitsch but the warm connective tissue of human yearning. The protagonist loses millions but attains the Nirvana of sleeping in perfect trust by a friendís side, a vision of universal interaction over capitalist compensation thatís a fragile pipe dream for a land on the verge of the Reagan years. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. With Elizabeth Cheshire, Pamela Reed, Michael J. Pollard, Denise Galick, Gloria Grahame, Chip Taylor, Robert Ridgely, Charles Napier, John Glover, and Dabney Coleman.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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