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Oeuvre: Demme: Handle with Care

Oeuvre: Demme: Handle with Care

Jonathan Demme was perhaps the only person capable of turning an ill-conceived cash-in project on a short-lived CB fad into a commentary on such complex bonds.

Prior to its modern designation as the term of art for wide-scale radio-wave distribution, broadcasting indicated a method of seed dispersal, by which evenness and accuracy are sacrificed to cover larger swaths of land. The leap from this practical usage to a metaphorical descriptor for the seeding of information is a logical one, with kernels of sound flung out randomly into the ether, picked up by whichever individual receivers happen to catch the signal. Such diffusive technology has become even more central to our lives with the rise of the internet, which compounds the audio broadcasting platform to an infinite degree, interlacing the globe with a billion streams of dispersed, haphazardly projected data.

Years before the worldwide web was even considered as an invention, let alone the basis for a new model of populist communication, CB radio fanatics were forging a similar style of network in primitive form, carving out a linked community of far-flung operators. A passionate chronicler of the often eccentric intricacies of human connection, Jonathan Demme was perhaps the only person capable of turning an ill-conceived cash-in project on this short-lived CB fad into a commentary on such complex bonds. This is what he manages to pull off with Handle With Care, his first post-Corman, major-studio movie, which examines how the anonymity afforded by the open-wave format allows for the possibility of fantasy to flourish. It also takes into account the dark side, in which such obscurity is utilized to dispense hatred, hucksterism and deception.

A truly odd curio of late ‘70s cinema, this is the first Demme movie that feels aligned both in spirit and tone with his later work, finally landing on the pure expression of a set of themes he’d been circling around in his first three features. The system is corrupt, the odds are against most of us and the whole game is fixed, but by sticking together we can at least maintain some semblance of communal dignity, and maybe force the odds in our favor down the road. This hopeful treatment of downbeat material, along with the director’s insistence on digging into previously untold stories, links Handle With Care, at a time when trends were titling away from this kind of ragged, free-form expressiveness in favor of a growing mood of jaded surrender.

Befitting its dogged idealism, the film appropriately details one man’s efforts to maintain radio’s function as a connective tool within one small Nebraska community, where an expansive network of hobbyists spends their nights establishing a diverse set of alter egos. The central figure in this world of doubles is Spider (Paul LeMat), a man who insists on behaving the same in both real life and on the air, his lack of secrets pointing to his essential sincerity while refusing to function as a referendum on the creative liberties taken by other characters. Volunteering as an emergency channel dispatcher, Spider is both thrilled by the possibilities of the culture and disgusted by the amount of aural garbage that filters its way through his speakers. After such congestion leads to a frenzied scenario in which a small plane accidentally puts down on the highway, he swoops in to the rescue, then devotes himself to the larger task of cleaning up the airwaves.

His targets include a miscreant child, a priest trying to hock religious wares, and a virulent white supremacist, a gamut of bad behavior that highlights the ambitious scope of this otherwise sparely constructed work. Initially released under the superior name “Citizen’s Band,” the film’s original titular pun points to both the CB format and the rag-tag group of residents knit together by its ethereal pull, a group that functions as a reasonable cross-section of mid ‘70s rural America. Beyond on-air troublemakers, Spider has his hands full with issues related to his ex-trucker father, his part-time lover and his screw-up brother, all of whom adopt different personas through the airwaves, refracting these conflicts into distorted alternate forms. There’s also a roguish trucker and his two unassuming wives, whose gradual realization that they’re married to the same polygamous jerk is handled with a surprising level of care and attention.

This last bit at first seems like a throwaway subplot, but ultimately proves essential, a compressed version of the themes stretched out across Spider’s various storylines. In short; new information acts both as a disruptive force, demanding characters to reexamine their core relationships, and also provides the means for them to move beyond those seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Married to the same man, the two women initially seem to be at odds, but are actually experiencing a situation which benefits from forming a mutually empathetic, staunchly unified front. The type of networked story structure that Handle With Care employs has gotten a bad name of late, often exploited as an easy means of fudging actual characterization through lazy narrative shorthand and exploitative emotional tricks. Here, it’s less a case of corner cutting than of a world bursting at the seams with stories to tell, the paired nature and overflowing abundance of these interlinked tales providing a complex cinematic companion to the complicated richness of real life.

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