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“they were screaming”: Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs

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(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)

The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 8

6. The Silence of the Lambs, dir. Jonathan Demme

For years I wrote this movie off. “It’s not really ‘horror,'” I argued, “it’s just a thriller.” Thrillers are about cat-and-mouse games and things jumping out at you and (in my opinion, mere) suspense, not the genuine dread and hopelessness and irreversible transgressiveness and awful certainty of true horror. Horror was the stuff of nightmares; thrillers were detective work. Bo-ring. I saw the movie once back in high school and quickly forgot about it.

Then the nascent Film Society at Yale got hold of a print and had a screening. I thought it might be fun to give it another viewing, knowing what I’d by then learned of filmmaking. Also, it was a good excuse to get high and sit in the dark in a theatre and watch an ostensibly scary movie with one of my roommates. So that’s what we did. And this time I realized that something was going on here. Seen in the proper aspect ration on a big screen in the dark, the intelligence of Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography became far more apparent than it ever did on a little TV screen in my basement. Sucked into the world of the film in the way that only stoned college kids can be, I quickly noticed that the conversations between Jodie Foster’s Agent Starling and Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter, Lecter’s face was always framed much tighter, allowing him to nearly fill the screen and dwarfing Starling by comparison. Some more thought had gone into this, I realized, than just working out the business of whodunit.

The final step in this film’s path to rehabilitation in my eyes took place about a year and a half ago. This is back when The Missus and I were engaged and still living separately. She has to get up hours earlier than me for work, so after saying goodnight to her the night was still young for me. Usually what I’d do is rent a movie, grab some fast food (I tended not to eat dinner till after 11), go home, and eat and watch. One night I decided to give The Silence of the Lambs one more go. (Actually, it was a bit of a hassle–I had to go back to Blockbuster when I discovered the DVD I’d rented was fullscreen. “Didn’t you check before you rented it?” the clerk asked. “Why on Earth would I assume a DVD is fullscreen? What the hell is the point of a DVD that isn’t widescreen? If a DVD is fullscreen it should be in great big block letters like a Surgeon General’s warning!” I got to exchange it for a widescreen version for free.) So, biting into my Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, I cued up the movie.

I ended up doing this every night for about a month.

(Granted, people seem split on what aspect of this is more horrifying–the fact that I watched The Silence of the Lamb every night for weeks, the fact that I ate McDonald’s or Taco Bell with similar regularity, or the fact that I did both these things at the same time. But I digress.)

Even to this day, I literally cannot believe how good this movie is. That’s not meant to be hyperbole, you know–it’s just an accurate description of how I feel about this film. Watching it today, I found myself near tears twice, not even by anything particularly heart-wrenching or tear-jerking, but just by how well the film portrays a world that is thoroughly sad, sad down to the air and the water and the soil. If there’s a more effective depiction of the horror of living on film than this one, I’ve yet to see it.

My guess is that a plot recap is not necessary, so I’ll just say that this movie is about how miserable it is to be a woman in a man’s world. No, honestly, listen: Watch the way Demme and his cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto (who also worked on Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and Signs) frame the close-ups of the men who come in contact with Clarice: Agent Crawford, Dr. Chilton, Barney the guard, her fellow agents during combat training, the cops at the funeral parlor, the SWAT team lieutenant, and especially Hannibal Lecter himself–they all stare directly into the camera, making the viewer as aware of the power of their gazes as is Clarice herself. Eyes are weapons in this world; witness the night-vision goggles that give Buffalo Bill both a practical advantage and a psychological feeling of super-poweredness, goggles that are employed in one of the most terrifying audience-identification sequences since Halloween, or even Psycho. The threatening nature of the looks Clarice receives are brought home when compared to the gazes she does not find threatening: of all the looking-directly-into-the-camera/at-Clarice closeups we see, only her friend Ardelia (a woman) is stared directly back at by Clarice herself. They’re on the same level, and we as the viewers are permitted to join them as, in their carved-out safe haven (Clarice is even wearing pajamas), they unravel the clue that cracks the case. There’s also the two goofy entymologists Clarice comes to for help–like many of the other men in the film, they clearly desire her, one even going so far as to admit he’s hitting on her, but this time Clarice takes it in stride. The explanation is visible: one wears coke-bottle glasses, and the other has a lazy eye. Their threat is thereby neutered. After all, as Dr. Lecter points out in his explanation of Buffalo Bill’s pathology, he kills because he covets, and “we covet what we see.” Seeing is not believing–it is destroying.

If I’m making this all sound like some hamfisted attempt to adapt Laura Mulvey’s theories on the male gaze whole-cloth, I’m doing something wrong. The points being made here are specific ones, tied into the plot, and not just reflexive pseudofeminist wonkery. Clarice Starling is a woman in a governmental agency dominated almost entirely by men. The very first time we see her, she’s climbing uphill; and before long we discover that she’s running an obstacle course. Her boss slights her in order to curry favor with local authorities; a psychiatrist hits on her, then dismisses her reason for being sent in to see Lecter as simply “to turn him on.” Meanwhile, Buffalo Bill, though on the surface a transsexual, is (as Lecter assures us) nothing of the sort; rather, he began killing women because he apparently couldn’t have the one he wanted. His behavior is littered with signs of pathological misogyny and homophobia. Those who criticized the movie as homophobic itself apparently missed the fact that his lisping limp-wristed routine is a mockery of gays, that as a serial killer of women he can reliably be presumed to be a heterosexuality, that there are even pictures on his wall of him cavorting with strippers. Lecter spots these manifestations of misogyny and works them for all they’re worth, repeatedly suggesting that the men in Starling’s life have sexual designs on her, and ruthlessly mocking the maternal actions (and power suit) of Senator Martin, the mother of Buffalo Bill’s latest kidnap victim. The thorough contempt for women is made plainest by Bill himself, when he mocks the screams of his victim, pulling at his shirt to simulate breasts. To me, this is as grotesque as the famous scene in which Bill tucks his penis between his legs to ape the body of a woman. In both cases, what’s being condemned by the filmmakers is not inappropriately feminine behavior, but raw hatred of women–which is nothing more or less than a socially acceptable form of hatred itself.

If I seem to be ignoring the most commonly discussed aspects of this film–the thrills and the performances–I apologize, because in both cases it’s as good as everyone says. The garage sequence, the escape sequence, and of course the big switcheroo and visit to Bill’s basement at the end of the film are as riveting and pulse-pounding as thrillers can get. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins simply disappear into their roles. Foster gives a performance of excruciating melancholy. Hopkins delivers each line so well one can hardly imagine them being spoken any other way–if his subsequent scenery devouring in movie after movie were to put him on the path to thespian Hell, this role insures he won’t go any lower than Purgatory, methinks. And please don’t forget the criminally overlooked Ted Levine, whose pathetic mania is both skin-crawling and, in a weird way, heartbreaking.

I think that the greatness of this movie is often lost in the minds of the public–lost amidst the thrills and chills, or the countless “Greatest Villains of All Time” hype about Hannibal Lecter and the concomitant overemphasis of the fava beans bit and the gag at the movie’s end. But this is a real horror movie, about real horror. It’s scary and haunting and so, so sad, all ruined towns and wasted lives and regret. That’s what I realized when I watched it over and over again–I think it makes us scream so that we don’t end up crying.

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About Sean T. Collins

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Wow, this is a really thoughtful and worthwhile analysis of the movie.

  • jadester

    it is indeed, scary. That bit near the end, in the basement…