The most beautiful home movie ever made

I was sorry to hear, a fortnight ago, of the death of film director Jonathan Demme. The tweets and obits all namechecked the films he’s best known for: The Silence of the Lambs (1991, five Oscars), Philadelphia (1993, two Oscars), and (arguably the best concert film ever) Stop Making Sense (1984).

But my thoughts turned first to his 2008 film Rachel Getting Married. The film had a mixed reception from critics on its release. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars; another critic compared the film to a two-hour colonoscopy without anaesthetic (I can’t find the original link, but there’s a great piece in the Vancouver Sun from 2008 that refers to it, and – fascinatingly – to Demme and Anne Hathaway being pleased with the description). Hathaway was nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award (her first nominations for these awards) for her performance in Rachel Getting Married.

At least one obituary of Demme mentioned the film. The obituary in The Guardian gives Rachel… a paragraph (scroll 3/4 of the way down), including this:

Shot with hand-held cameras (camcorders were even placed in the hands of the extras playing wedding guests, and their footage spliced into the movie) and peppered with impromptu musical turns, it fulfilled Demme’s ambition to create “the most beautiful home movie ever made.”

Just that: “the most beautiful home movie ever made”.

Me, I loved it. I’ve thought about it a lot (and rewatched it once or twice) over the years since I first watched it. I love the film’s sense of celebration (with an unsettled undercurrent), random music, the complex family often together at table (and often in the kitchen). The film got under my skin, and became an early and important inspiration for my novel The Hope Fault.

I’ve been looking back at notes I wrote as I was writing The Hope Fault, and here are some references I found to Rachel Getting Married.

From my early notes about the role of celebration and ritual in The Hope Fault:

Set the main part of the novel, the here and now, in a tight time and place frame, and a time and place that are other (they are not HOME), and that involve ritual / celebration. Consider for example people who’ve gathered together for a wedding — a small, family wedding — think of the movie about wedding and music, Rachel Getting Married, directed by Jonathan Demme.

From very early notes, written December 2013, after writing what would become the first section of the chapter ‘All inside the house, now’ (p. 12, The Hope Fault), when I thought that a wedding might feature in the novel:

I want there to be music in this, a la Rachel Getting Married. Incidental music that is made by the people at the wedding.

From an early note, written April 2014, when I was trying to get a sense of the party that would happen during the novel:

Thinking of the film Rachel Getting Married, when the men and the women sang differently, the night before (weekend before?) the wedding. Women sang/chanted ‘Rachel’ and the men sang/chanted the groom’s name. It was very beautiful. Lots of different types of music, professional and otherwise. Harks back to the turns (the musical turns) that people would do at a party in my grandparents’ time. Still do in some families, perhaps.

And in my general notes folder, an early note (it’s undated, which is unusual for me; I almost always date notes) from when I was still trying to work out the logistics and focus (and everything, really) of the novel:

REFERENCE: Film Rachel Getting Married — the wedding weekend — the celebration — as a background for a story. Where the story is not the wedding; the story is something other. The main character is not the person getting married [the eponymous Rachel]. The main character is a “minor character” at the wedding, or an important but not central character at the wedding — not the bride, nor the groom, nor the mother or father of either. It is someone close to the bride or groom, but who is — or might be — ambivalent about the wedding. Not sure that Iris is ambivalent about the celebration that’s happening. Is it the coming together of everyone that makes it ambivalent? Problematic? This time when the novel is set is not a wedding — it’s the final fling at the house. Sort of impromptu (ebbs and flows).

It’s so interesting to me to look back at these early notes, and to think about the ways the final version of the novel reflects these early ideas, and how they evolved during the writing and revision of the novel.

One subject I hope my novel does share with the film is, as critic Roger Ebert observed in his review of the film, ‘what it has to observe about how the concept of “family” embraces others’. And I hope my novel reflects, on the page, some of the visual strategies of the film as Ebert observes them:

Some shots are dealt with in a traditional way (establishing, closeups, etc). More shots plunge right into the middle of the characters; some may be hand-held, or maybe not, but for me, they reproduce an experience we’ve all had. That’s when we wander through a party looking first here and then there, noticing who is where and why, connecting threads, savoring. Sometimes we walk outside and look through doorways and windows. This visual approach is how they populate the film with a large number of characters, establish them, familiarize us and don’t pause for redundant identifications. We don’t meet everyone at a wedding but we observe everyone.


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2 thoughts on “The most beautiful home movie ever made

    • Thanks, Valerie. There are so many little and large things that contribute to this novel, and I enjoy returning to them and recalling their part in the writing and the process.

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