Demon Radio

Handle With Care directed by Jonathan Demme at the Orson Welles

RECENT SURVEYS REVEAL that each American family spends an average of six hours per night mesmerized by a television set, passively absorbing the fictional universe of stagnant soaps and muddled mysteries. Still, this mere spectator's role cannot satisfy the modern imagination, so it is easy to understand the surging popularity of Citizens' Band (CB) radio, which solicits audience participation in electronic media. A CB operator finds the radio a suitable stage for the enactment of daydreams. Serving as an outlet for the hidden personalities of its users, CB becomes either a creative or a destructive tool for individual fantasies.

This double-edged aspect of the CB revolution is the subject of Jonathan Demme's film, Handle With Care. In this movie, Demme sketches life in a small-town American community whose inhabitants share a fascination with CB. Employed equally well by a nihilistic Nazi, a proselytizing priest and a wizened whore, the radio connects persons of different vocations and avocations. Within the framework of CB, Demme and his script writer, Paul Brickman, weave a colorful but ultimately threadbare tapestry of rural America, in which the CB substitutes for drab reality. By showing the murky side of CB broadcasts, Demme implicitly criticizes an American ideology which necessitates the use of CB as an outlet for frustration and loneliness. Too bad Demme turns tragedy into melodrama so that his film succeeds only on the level of frivolous entertainment.

As a comedy, Handle With Care rivals a combination of Hollywood '30s movies and slapstick. Perhaps the funniest sequence traces the relationship between two women who discover that they are married to the same man, a trucker who conveniently spends most of his time away from his two homes. After sustaining the initial shock, Dallas Angel (Ann Wedgeworth) and Portland Angel (Marcia Rodd) compare their "mutual" husband's bedside manner over drinks--many, many drinks. Wedgeworth's naive and honest persona and Rodd's cool, assertive character play off each other perfectly; both actresses are accomplished in their timing and facial expression. Not since Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers in A Funny Thing... have a duo coordinated their deliveries so well.

Still another reliable comedienne is Alix Elias, a tubby hooker who adopts the handle "Hot Coffee," since she serves steaming cups of the brew to her clients as a special bonus. Elias's humor stems from her lack of timing; at one point, she interrupts a heated confrontation between the bigamist trucker and his wives to announce her purchase of Vienna Roast beans.

The acting falters, however, with some of the more serious characters. As Dean, a stereotypically sadistic gym coach, Bruce McGill relies too often upon a tough grimace and a raised voice to convey a roughness that is naturally underpinned by an inner softness. Of course, this brutal streak results from insecurity, which in turn stems from his belief that his parents neglected him. Dean's brother, Blaine (Paul LeMat) too often whines his good intentions, when he plays the hero with a mission to exorcise "garbage" from the airwaves. His girlfriend Pam (Candy Clark) also pouts and gestures too conventionally to merit serious attention as a lonely, depressed women who resorts to lurid sexuality through her CB.


ALL OF THE CHARACTERS in Handle With Care are simply cardboard caricatures. What is most surprising about this film is that such a stereotyping detracts little from the comic narrative; Demme provides just enough twists in the plot to sustain suspense despite these superficial characterizations. Like the television show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Demme uses stereotypes self-consciously, parodying them at the same time that he favors them to enact his story. Demme only occasionally falters on the tight-wire between moderation and excess, when he over-ambitiously turns on the small-town ideology of the American Dream. Stereotyping works well as a comic device; it becomes banal as a harbinger of a serious message. Summarizing Demme's position, Papa Thermodyne, a senile, retired trucker says: "This country promises everything. What does it give? Nothing." As he supports Papa Thermodyne with his camera, Demme continually focuses on emblems such as the American flag and the crucifix that Dallas Angel sports. It is clear that Demme continually focuses on emblems such as the American flag and the crucifix that Dallas Angel sports. It is clear that Demme denounces a society where the CB unavoidably becomes the vehicle of perversity, yet these issues cannot be compatibly explored within the rest of the film's comic frame. Demme reaches a formidable cul-de-sac, so he returns to highjinks, ending Handle With Care with Papa Thermodyne whooping it up by riding cattle.

Both visual and musical themes insist on stressing the contradictions of middle-American life. Through a contrast between day and night scenes, Demme unfolds the schizoid nature of CB use. Surfacing under a miasma of grays and blues, the CB becomes a sinister force in the town. Rain also showers the darkness, but it dirties as much as it cleanses, recalling Alain Resnais's evocation of the contaminated rain after a nuclear explosion in Hiroshima, Mon Amour. During the day, when the CB appropriates a docile mask, bright sunshine dominates the cinematographer's vision. The soundtrack, too, depicts both sides of the community. Basically low-keyed, the music alternates between clean but mournful acoustic guitar melodies and upbeat truck-driving ditties, echoing Demme's preoccupation with CB's comic and tragic elements.

In the end, as good triumphs over evil, humor dominates over pathos in Handle With Care. Perhaps Demme finds himself too acculturated by the optimistic American Dream that he earlier undercuts to end the film with a minor chord. Ultimately, comedy is Demme's real niche, as he whimsically traces his characters' efforts to gain a handle on their lives.

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