Thursday, March 22, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.10: Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. March’s director is the perpetually underrated Jonathan Demme.

Grade: 95 (A)

At first glance, Jonathan Demme might not have seemed like the perfect fit for The Silence of the Lambs, a bleak, disturbing psychological horror film in which an FBI trainee hunts down a serial killer with the help of another. Demme had certainly dealt with violence before (Something Wild, Married to the Mob), but often through the prism of a kooky, character-based comedy. Yet The Silence of the Lambs is the film Demme is most readily identified by despite its apparent dissimilarity to his typical work. The film won 5 Oscars, including Picture (the only horror film to do so), Actress, Actor, Screenplay, and Director for Demme, and it is widely seen as perhaps the finest horror film of the 1990s (only David Fincher’s somewhat similar Seven compares). But the film is hardly an anomaly in Demme’s catalogue; rather, it is that elusive Demme touch- warmth, humanity, lively composition, empathy- that makes the film work as well as it does.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is an FBI trainee at the top of her class. Her superior, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), enlists Starling to help with the search for a killer widely known as “Buffalo Bill”. Crawford sends Starling to interview former psychologist and  notorious serial killer Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to see if Lecter will help them catch the madman. Lecter agrees to help by giving a psychological profile on “Bill”, but only if Starling allows him to peer into her mind, see what makes her tick, and reveal secrets about herself that have shaped her whole life.

At surface level, The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t look like a Demme film, but much of what worked for the director in the past works here. Demme and longtime cinematographer Tak Fujimoto bring a fluidness to the cinematography that is recognizably similar to that of Demme’s earlier features. The only considerable difference is how it is used: the opening shot of the film shows a forest, covered in fog, as Starling slowly brings herself up a hill. The camera follows her as she runs through an obstacle course, sweating; this is our heroine, and we’re going to have to follow her through her trials and tribulations, so it’s important to see her early on as a character willing to push on past her physical limitations.

Demme and Fujimoto’s use of shadows and shafts of light to adjust mood recalls Hitchcock; their use of first-person perspective and extreme close-ups, often toyed with in previous films, has a decidedly Hitchcockian bent as well. Demme’s use of first-person perspective is not unlike John Carpenter’s use in Halloween, the biggest difference being that the camera functions primarily as Starling’s eyes rather than the villain's. The film is almost completely from her perspective, so it’s important to see the world as she sees it.

While the trinkets and kitsch of Demme’s earlier films aren’t exactly on display here in the same fashion, The Silence of the Lambs nonetheless uses familiar items and intricate production detail to its benefit. There are only a few scenes in middle American homes, but they’re highly effective at contrasting the horror-show on display, most notably in “Buffalo Bill’s” home, which is decked out in grime, grit, offensive imagery (including a Nazi poster), and newspaper clippings about his exploits. This contrasts further with the FBI’s newspaper clippings and photographs of “Bill’s” victims, used now in a anthropological sense rather than psychological. “Bill’s” home contrasts further still with Hannibal Lecter’s “lair” (so to speak), which, while hidden in the deepest recesses of a ward for the criminally insane (which seems to be modeled almost like a Medieval dungeon), nonetheless exhibits Lecter’s interest in art (his drawings), in literature, and in other fine arts. These locations and their decorations are specific to the point of giving a peek inside the mindset of their inhabitants, which is key to a film so concerned with psychology.

Demme doesn’t use as many songs as he did in past efforts, but music plays a central role in his storytelling here as well. There are three key musical components in The Silence of the Lambs, above all else. The first, and the most glaring, is Howard Shore’s brooding, expressive, often mournful score, which plays like a more somber take on a Bernard Herrmann score (Hitchcock again). The score, like any, is a key storytelling device, but it often specifically reflects the mindset of “normal” characters in the film, specifically Clarice, the other FBI agents, the police, and the innocent bystanders, who often have no choice but to react in horror to the terrible things around them. The second key musical sequence is set to Tom Petty’s “American Girl”, which segues from a comment about “Buffalo Bill” searching for his next victim. The American girl in question is Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), a normal girl about to live a waking nightmare as she runs into “Buffalo Bill”. The song could be seen as too literal, but as with Demme’s use of “Wild Thing” in Something Wild, it rather uses a familiar song to immediately bring the viewer up to speed as to what the situation is and who this person is in the context of the film. The third and perhaps most famous musical sequence, set to the electronica song “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazzarus, has more to do with the central aspect of one of the main characters. More on that later.

The Silence of the Lambs is at no shortage of unique or oddball side characters to populate the film; they’re just not as overtly comic as they were in previous Demme films. Some of them, such as producer Kenneth Utt and Demme-mentor Roger Corman, are brought it to give familiarity and weight to their roles as FBI officials. Others, such as Demme-regular Charles Napier as police Lt. Boyle, bring both familiarity and warmth to their role so as to maximize the effect of their fate. Others, such as Anthony Heald as the smirking, creepy, pompous Dr. Chilton are brought in to illustrate the adversity Clarice faces in a male-dominated world; the always-dependable Scott Glenn brings an strong mixture of warm paternalism, professionalism, and slightly overprotectiveness to his role as Jack Crawford. And yet others still, most notable African American actors Frankie Faison (as the warmly humane guard Barney) and Kasi Williams (as Clarice’s best friend Ardelia) bring that signature Demme “One World” philosophy, where the color lines aren’t erased so much as they’re less of an obstacle, and people of different ethnicities can support each other (it’s no coincidence that the black characters are among the most supportive of Clarice in the film).

One of Demme’s greatest touches, aside from his decision to have much of the graphic violence off-screen (the power of suggestion is far more effective than relentless gore), is a scene that serves as both a portrait of the average American woman and as a meta-comment on the nature of the horror movie. In one sequence, kidnapped woman Catharine Martin’s mother, a senator from Tennessee, shows up on the news and pleads to “Bill” to let her daughter go, appealing to him with phrases like “you have the power” and showing picture of Catherine as a young girl. Clarice notes that it’s a smart move to humanize Catherine and show her as a human being- it makes it harder to kill her. This is true in any case, but here’s the brilliant touch: The Silence of the Lambs is a serial killer movie, but it is the class act in serial killer movies. While most of the strongest films in the slasher subgenre of the 70s and 80s (Halloween) showed empathy with the killer’s victims, too many Friday the 13ths and other such schlock pushed an often misogynistic view where the viewer delighted in seeing young co-eds get cut up because they were promiscuous alcohol and drug users (a rather prudish mindset for such an often exploitative work). With The Silence of the Lambs, Demme makes it impossible to wish the worst for the victims (unless you have no empathy whatsoever). Their deaths have real weight and tragedy. It is Demme’s warmly humanistic touch that separates The Silence of the Lambs from other serial killer movies (strong outings like Halloween and Seven aside).

Demme shows two primary influences in The Silence of the Lambs: Alfred Hitchcock and the “women’s pictures” genre he had so artfully explored in the past. Demme is hardly the first filmmaker to use Hitchcockian suspense to explore pet themes (see: De Palma, Brian), but he brings his own decidedly feminist viewpoint to the proceedings. Along with the early shot of Clarice in the woods, there’s several shots of lawmen looking clearly uncomfortable around a woman with similar power, or a shot of Foster in the elevator with a group of tall, burly men to show the challenges she faces, or a shot of several male trainees looking at Clarice and Ardelia’s asses as the two groups jog past one another. There are shots of Scott Glenn or Anthony Heald, seated behind a desk, showing a clear power structure of male over female.

In Jodie Foster, Demme found the perfect combination of strength, intelligence, and vulnerability for Clarice (it’s Foster’s finest role). The wrong actress might have overemphasized one aspect of Clarice’s character in order to compensate for rejecting another. Clarice, however, is a classic horror-movie heroine with a twist: she’s the one hunting the killer, not the other way around. It’s like a reverse version of Jamie Lee Curtis’ character in Halloween: both characters are intelligent, strong, and vulnerable, but there’s a crucial difference in their world experience and age that differentiates them. Demme’s use of extreme close-ups puts a lot of emphasis on Foster’s face, but luckily she’s more than up to task. She reacts with subtly-wrought fear at the horrific displays of cruelty, violence, or other terrors: Lecter’s famous hiss sound, Bill’s victims, or mental-patient Miggs throwing semen into her face (something a man in her situation wouldn’t have to deal with). She shows frustration at the male-dominant view of her and her job: the creepy doctor Chilton hitting on her and condescending to her, Crawford excluding her from some of the gory details of “Bill’s” exploits, or at a colleague hitting on her as she tries to get information. Best of all is the empathy she shares with the victims of the killer- this is central to her character and to the film’s success.

Anthony Hopkins won a Best Actor Oscar for his signature role as Hannibal Lecter despite the fact that his role is a supporting performance that doesn’t have much more screen time than that of Scott Glenn as Crawford or Ted Levine as “Bill”. The key to the success of The Silence of the Lambs, and of the earlier Lecter film Manhunter (where Lecter was played rather well by Brian Cox), is that Lecter isn’t as central to the story as the protagonist. This is where later films such as Hannibal, Red Dragon (a remake of Manhunter without the artistry), and Hannibal Rising fail. Put Lecter out in the open, he loses his mystery and much of his power to scare (plus it gives free reign for Hopkins to ham it up).

All complaints aside, Hopkins is pretty much the perfect Lecter for this film (just as Cox was perfect for Manhunter; I don’t want to debate which one was superior). Hopkins at this point hadn’t shown the same frequent hamminess that has marred his later performances- his Lecter has a restrained creepiness, a combination of Katharine Hepburn and HAL 9000 that oozes sophistication, intelligence, and a sense of superiority. What is key to the role’s success is his desire to probe into the deepest recesses of the mind. Hannibal Lecter does some sick shit, no doubt, but his greatest role in the film, more than that of a boogeyman, is as a window into the mind and soul of two major characters: Clarice and “Buffalo Bill”.

Granted, though, Lecter does some sick shit. SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH Lecter’s infamous escape sequence is one of the tensest moments in the history of the horror film. When Demme shows Lecter’s new holding cell, one thing is clear: this guy has way too much room, and something is going to go wrong. It’s a classic case of Hitchcockian tension as the audience realizes what’s going to happen before the characters do: Lecter kills and disembowels Lt. Boyle. We only see the gruesome aftermath, but the frightening, almost blasphemous Christ-pose Lecter has hung him in (along with the hellish light design by Fujimoto) is enough. Then, in a great bait-and-switch, the audience realizes the mistake they’ve made, and the fatal mistake the characters have made. But it’s all too late.

Hopkins’ Lecter shows indignation towards most authority figures and clinical disinterest in most of humanity, but there’s something fascinating about Clarice’s honesty and vulnerability. He sees a human being who clearly needs to prove something (“with you cheap shoes”…”that accent you’ve tried to hide…”) and is running from previous torments. Lecter provides a perverted form of therapy: Clarice can now admit what made her join the FBI. It’s partly borne out of her murdered father’s life as a police officer, but it ultimately calls back to the film’s title and central metaphor: the silence of the lambs. Clarice’s failed attempt as a young girl to save a group of lambs from being slaughtered by a rancher has scarred her- she still wakes to hear their screaming. It’s a clear metaphor for how innocents (particularly women) are slaughtered by a cruel world that doesn’t think of them as important, but it’s delicately wrought by Demme, Foster, Hopkins, and screenwriter Ted Tally. The creative team behind the film recognizes that saving one lamb isn’t going to change things: it’s never going to be enough for Clarice, and the weight is “so heavy”. But try she must.

This brings us to Lecter’s (and, by turns, the film’s) psychological profile on “Buffalo Bill”, real name Jame Gumb. Brilliantly played by Ted Levine, Gumb is arguably far more important to the narrative than Lecter. He’s not only the main antagonist- he’s the reason the film stands out among all other serial killer movies. Several of Lambs’ successors (Suspect Zero, Taking Lives, Generic Thriller Title) show emphasize the horrific crimes of a serial killer without giving context as to what they mean. This film knows it all too well, and it’s not just the realistic touches inspired by real monsters such as Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer (or his tendency to hide his own name with too obvious similar names like John Grant and Jack Gordon). There’s basic information in the FBI’s profile, but Lecter gets to the heart of the matters:

Gumb is a reject. He has faced a lifetime of intense emotional cruelty in the form psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Several gay rights groups protested the film’s portrayal of a homosexual/transsexual serial killer, but Lecter makes a key point: he’s not a homosexual, and he’s not a transsexual. He just thinks he is. He has a tattoo that reads “LOVE” on his hand, but he never had any, and therefore he shows no sympathy to the plight of others. When Gumb adopts an effeminate speaking pattern for the famous “It puts the lotion on its skin” line, it’s an act. That’s not his natural voice, his natural mannerism, or his natural behavior. When he snaps and yells “put the fucking lotion in the basket”, actor Levine’s naturally deep voice surfaces. He can’t hide who he really is. This is a character who hates his identity to the point that he wants to be anything else, and in this case anything else is his idea of a woman (despite his lack of sympathy for them). It’s why he sticks a butterfly cocoon into the corpses of the girls: it’s a sign that he’s transforming (an idea also featured in Manhunter). His killing is borne out of a need to fulfill his transformation. It’s why the deeply disturbing dance he does to “Goodbye Horses” isn’t just another freakshow: he’s playing dress-up, and the “would you fuck me? I would” business is sad, frightening portrait into the mind of a deeply disturbed individual who hates his very existence. When he yells at Catharine “you don’t know what pain is!”, he’s not just threatening her. He’s emphasizing that she doesn’t hate herself the same way he does after his miserable life. It doesn’t change that he’s a monstrous character, but this understanding is key to making him more human, more real, and more tragic.

ENDING SPOILERS IN THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS: The film’s final set-piece, in which Clarice accidentally stumbles onto Gumb’s home, is another masterful, tense sequence of Hitchcockian tension. By now, everything comes together: Demme’s use of bait-and-switch to mislead the audience, the first-person perspective as Clarice tours through the hellish abyss of Gumb’s home, and a crucial shift in perspective as the lights cut out and we see Clarice through Gumb’s eyes (he’s wearing night vision goggles). He has a final chance to toy with her, and his underestimation and lack of understanding of a woman is his undoing: Clarice shoots and kills him. The film maintains fidelity to it’s empathy towards humanity: Gumb’s final retches before he dies are horrific, not triumphant. This was a damaged human being, and his death shouldn’t be simplified as a boogeyman being toppled.

Of course, Clarice has achieved great things: she’s proven herself, she’s been made a full agent, and she managed to save an innocent. But when Jack Crawford congratulates he with a “your father would have been proud”, it isn’t a fully satisfying moment. She still lives in a patriarchal society, and there’s still plenty of monsters and victims out there. Case in point: Lecter, who gives her one last call to assure her he won’t touch her. But not everyone will be safe, and even if it is a slimeball like Dr. Chilton that Lecter is going after right now, there’s still uneasiness in the air. But it’s too late: Lecter is gone, in Haiti (a throwback to Demme’s world interests), and he’s going to blend in with the crowd, walk into the distance, until he’s indistinguishable to the naked eye.

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1 comment:

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