Married to the Memory – Filmmaker Jonathan Demme Honors Brian Hansen
by Louis Black in the Austin Chronicle around August, 1988
Late one afternoon during the Spring of 1981, director Jonathan Demme called the office at CinemaTexas, the graduate student-run film society at UT, where a number of us worked before the Chronicle started. He wanted to talk about Austin music.
Most of the CinemaTexas staff were Demme fans, and many of us had written on his extraordinary films, celebrating the perverse energy of Caged Heat, Crazy Mama, Fighting Madand Citizen’s Band. His most accomplished and acclaimed work to that date, Melvin and Howard, had recently been released to great critical response though tepid box office, which improved only slightly when it went on to win two Academy Awards. We had sent him a bundle of different pieces on his career that CinemaTexas staffers had written. Evidently they arrived at a propitious time, cheering him up during a bleak moment. So he called, fingering an Austin anthology tape which included songs by the Big Boys, the Boy Problems, the Re-Cords, the Huns and Radio Free Europe as he talked, he informed us. We discussed movies, music and why Raul’s had closed, a fact that disappointed him greatly. Said he was coming to Austin and we volunteered to pick him up at the airport. When we asked how we would recognize him he replied, “Easy, I’ll be the one wearing baby blue sunglasses.”
He was. Stopping in Austin for a few days while on his way to a script meeting in San Antonio, he went out, heard a lot of music, ate a lot of barbeque and Tex Mex, and did a lot of driving – we showed off the local sights from the Terminix Bug to Barton Srpings. Demme instantly fell in love with Austin. When he suggested what was to become Urggh! A Music War, a project he soon disassociated himself from, he envisioned it as a documentary featuring the best new American bands in their native habitat, definitely including groups like the Huns and Joe King Carrasco playing bars and dives around Austin.
Finally we suggested he might like to look at the work of some Austin filmmakers. He responded enthusiastically. On his last night in town we threaded up the projector and screened a good half dozen locally produced short films. By early the next afternoon, before he left town, the Center for Collective Cinema in New York had added a special season debut program to its forthcoming Autumn schedule, “Jonathan Demme Presents, Made in Texas, New Films From Austin.”
Demme’s two favorite films of that program had to be David Boone’s Invasion of the Aluminum People and Brian Hansen’sSpeed of Light. Demme not only presented the films but established long term relationships with both the filmmakers, sponsoring other showings of their work, including a screening of Speed of Light at the Walker Museum in Minneapolis and the New York City debut of Boone’sEveryman at the Collective. Bits of both these films can be glimpsed in Demme’s feature, Something Wild.
These relationships, both personal and professional, continued over the next eight years. During that time, Demme became accepted as a major American filmmaker, a talent to be reckoned with, one who had a genuine love and understanding of the culture and the unique ability to bring it to the screen. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Demme worked in a variety of forms; his passion is for communication and creation, not simply glamorous Hollywood power politics. His accomplishments over the past half decade or so includeSomething Wild, the concert film Stop Making Sense, a beautiful realization of Spaulding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia, and the PBS drama, Who Am I This Time?, plus a slew of videos, including ones for Sandra Bernhardt, Suzanne Vega, Fine Young Cannibals, UB40 and Chrissie Hynde, as well as the “Sun City” video of Artists United Against Aparthied. He also filmed Accumulation With Talking Plus Water Motor, a study of dancer Trisha Brown’s choreography, a PBS special written by Pulitzer Prize winner Beth Henley and co-starring his friend David Byrne, and, most recently, Haiti Dreams of Democracy, a critically successful documentary (which will be shown on KLRN this fall as part of Laguna Gloria’s Territory series).
Over the years he frequently visited with Austin filmmakers, consulting with them on their work whenever he could, giving advice and support. Hansen, who had begun as a scholar and a musician, in particular became more and more committed to filmmaking: he moved to the West coast, authored a number of scripts and worked at various jobs in the film industry. Hansen developed a screenplay with his Speed of Light collaborator Paul Cullum, and Demme helped them shop it around. Financing for that film was almost in place and then fell through more than once. While it was on hold, late last year it looked like Hansen was definitely going to be hired by one of the leading independent film companies to direct a film for them set in New Orleans.
Weeks before he was to move down to New Orleans and begin pre-production, Brian became ill. At first complaining of an earache and a flu, he was found passed out in a hallway by David Byrne, in whose loft he was living. He had meningitis, and never came out of the coma. On December 27, 1987 he died.
At the time, we wrote, “Brian was an artist, a thinker, a scholar, an original. He was a musician. His band Radio Free Europe was a Raul’s era legend, clearing the club out during live performances, earning, literally, an international reputation. Creating a music of noise, a noise of music. He was a filmmaker. Speed of Light, DNA, The Man Who Lost Himself. Speed of Light was his masterpiece, a red pop-culture nightmare scar across America’s post-Kennedy consciousness. The UT RTF department heads didn’t like it because it was too weird, too strange. Jonathan Demme loved it . . . he showed it to Bertolucci who raved about it. Filmmakers and scholars prize the film. It has been screened all across the United States, in Australia, elsewhere. Night Flight showed it. Art museums featured it regularly.”
A loss like this can barely be talked of. Because of his extraordinary accomplishments, we all knew that the best was to come, that Brian had the genius to establish himself as a major American artist. Demme was devastated. In an recent interview, talking about Brian he said, “I admired him enorrmously.” Working at the time on his new movie Married to the Mob, he decided to dedicate both the film and its soundtrack album to Brian. He aslo decided to set up a special screening of the film in Austin and to donate the proceeds toward establishing a scholarship in Brian Hansen’s name at the RTF Department at UT at Austin. On Wednesday, August 17  at 8 p.m., Married to the Mob will be shown at the Arbor Cinema. All monies will be donated toward the scholarship.
Appropriately to Hansen’s memory, the film is a street dance of an American comedy, a raucous, swift moving gangster tale about a Mafia hit man and his wife, who’s tired of “the life.” He is hit and she sets off on her own, only to find it isn’t that easy to leave. A colorful drama paced to a musical beat, Married to the Mob features Demme’s trademarks – explosive energy, numerous and fascinating characters, a great soundtrack with a score by David Byrne, and a dynamic street art style. Rich in color and detail, the film does well by Brian Hansen. Please come.
(Big Shadow, Kirk Hunter’s documentary on Brian Hansen, will be shown on channel 33 on Monday & Tuesday, August 15 – 16  at 10 p.m.]