‘Who Am I This Time?’: before Jonathan Demme got serious

Nine years before “The Silence of the Lambs” turned Jonathan Demme into a Hollywood bigshot, the director made one of the most charming short films of the modern era, “Who Am I This Time?”

The 50-minute 1982 small-town comedy about the relationships within a community theater company pointed the way to my two favorite films by the director — “Something Wild” (1986) and “Married to the Mob” (1988) — which were filled with Demme’s love of roadside Americana and surprisingly complicated “simple people.”

It will be my pleasure to introduce the film Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Garden Cinemas in Norwalk for the debut of the second annual “Short Cuts” series celebrating the art of the short film.

The Demme film will be preceded by this year’s winner of the Academy Award for best animated short, the British film “The Lost Thing.”

We will also be showing Wes Anderson’s 2007 14-minute film “Hotel Chevalier” (below) which the cult director made as a prologue to his feature-length picture that year, “The Darjeeling Limited.”

Although many young directors have used the short film as way to show the industry what they can do, Demme had already been working on features for almost a decade when he made “Who Am I This Time?”

After creating a series of 1970s B-movies under the mentorship of drive-in film specialist Roger Corman, Demme broke through at the age of 36 with the 1980 bio-pic “Melvin and Howard” which was selected for the New York Film Festival and which won Mary Steenburgen an Oscar for best supporting actress.

Demme showed the same sort of love of quirky small-town folk in “Melvin and Howard” that he would display in “Who Am I This Time?” and then “Something Wild” and “Married to the Mob.”

Demme embraces characters other writers and directors might dismiss as “losers” or simply too eccentric to care about.

Actors love the freedom they are given by Demme and often come through with richer and funkier performances than they have given in any other director’s films — Melanie Griffith delivered the performance of her career in “Something Wild” and Michelle Pfeiffer has never been warmer or funnier than she was as the Mafia widow in “Married to the Mob.”

Susan Sarandon was just starting to emerge as a major film star when she worked with Demme in 1982 — that was the year she received her first Oscar nomination for her breakthrough performance in “Atlantic City” (above).

Sarandon plays a shy newcomer to the small town who is talked into joining the community theater as a way of meeting people. She falls in love with the actor (Christopher Walken) who is playing Stanley opposite her Stella in a production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

When the the young woman realizes her co-star is nothing like the man he becomes on stage, she devises an ingenious scheme to the keep the sparks flying after the run of the play ends.

It is fun to see a very young Christopher Walken play the withdrawn hardware store clerk who is only able to communicate with people through the characters he plays.

Derived from a Kurt Vonnegut short story, “Who Am I This Time?” explores the nature of  acting and theater in a provocatives but completely unpretentious manner, with a twist ending that verges on fantasy.

For more information and reservations, visit www.jibproductions.org or by call 203-293-8831.

Joe Meyers