Tuesday, June 14, 2011

More Noise about Silence

My answers to a couple of the comments on yesterday's Silence of the Lambs post seem like they deserve a post of their own. So here it is.

Mykal (of the excellent Radiation Cinema--you should seriously check it out), writes:

"Vulnavia: Wonderful analysis. I agree. Lector is a monster, pure and simple, and a great one. Thus, a horror movie. I can’t agree with your reservations about grading this film as great as I find your prism too specific, if completely valid (that is to say, it didn’t occur to me but probably should have). For my part, I reserve "great" status because I find it too easily entertaining. Hopkins himself said that Lector was one of the easiest parts he ever played. Once he got the voice, the rest was like falling off a log. It’s basically a softball waiting to get lashed out of the park. I would happily watch it anytime and never feel the slightest challenge, and there certainly isn’t a thing wrong with that. It just keeps it from reaching the upper strata.

Another great post - always challenging."

Hi, Mykal,

This is one of the reasons I try not to "rate" movies. Is The Silence of the Lambs a great movie? Absolutely. Does it have less-great things about it? Let me give you another example outside of my specific prism: After the FBI bursts into the wrong house near the end of the movie, Crawford gets that one moment where he goes "Clarice!" This moment is utterly stupid. I mean, there's nothing to give any indication that she's in any danger at that moment. This DOES establish Crawford as some kind of patriarchal "protector" who has somehow failed. It's kind of galling, actually, given the way the movie is sending Clarice out as a kind of knight errant.

The way this sequence is crosscut is interesting, too, so permit me a non-sequitur: Demme's subversion of the conventions of cinema in this sequence is brilliant. When the caption on the exterior shots says "Calumet City," and then the interior--without attribution--is in Pennsylvania, the director is having fun screwing with the audience's mind.

That being said, "perfect" movies are boring. There's nothing to write about. Give me flawed masterpieces every time.

J. Astro, who runs the Screen Grab blog, writes:

"I didn't, even as a youngster when I read the book, necessarily assume that Buffalo Bill was any sort of overall representation of the transgender set. I just viewed him as another wonderful cog in this well-crafted story. As I grew older and learned to appreciate films more on different levels, I've actually become entranced with Ted Levine's portrayal of the character and I like him more than the widely-loved Lecter.

This may be just be my mis-reading this, and if so lemme know, but it seems you kinda resent the Bill character out of the assumption that he is meant to be a scary shorthand for all transgender personalities. Did you feel the same way about Norman Bates when you watched PSYCHO? (although not strictly "transgender" by definition, Bates was the closest thing that era would've come to depicting a Bill-like character in that day)... Just curious."

Hi, Astro,

This particular objection is a quagmire for me. As I say in my second paragraph, it's one of the reasons I've held off writing about the film. There are some differences between Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill. For what it's worth, I love Ted Levine in the movie and the character is certainly indelible. But...

The transgender psychopath is a cliche, and a pretty harmful one at that. It's one of the four dominant depictions of transgender identities. The others are "the pathetic, the prostitute, and the punchline. These are collectively the four "P"s. The trans person as psycho has its origins in the Gein story, natch, and it WASN'T a cliche in Psycho, which was the first film to exploit it. And Norman doesn't necessarily "read" as transgender because the image of him in Mom drag is so patently absurd. He's not fooling anyone. I'm more troubled by the daughters of Psycho in movies like Homicidal or Dressed to Kill or Stripped to Kill, et al., because these films have a vested interest in deceiving the audience in a way that suggests that trans identities are inherently deceptive. But that's another argument. In the case of Buffalo Bill, the depiction exists in a more specific political context, which I enumerated in my post. It also does some very particular things that I chose not to write about. I'll cover some of those now:

First, it fetishizes the exterior. Bill doesn't seem trans when he's not dressing the part. It suggests that the trans identity (which, of course, the movie claims he doesn't actually have) is all about the surface. The fetishistic nature of Bill's crossdressing feeds my second point: The Silence of the Lambs sexualizes trans identities. When Bill is done up in his human-scalp wig and his frou-frou, he mouths at the camera "Would you like to fuck me?" He gets off on dressing up, and on the image of himself as a woman, and here's where the movie becomes inextricably entangled with trans identities in spite of its best intentions. Bill is exhibiting a paraphilia, and it's one that has been used to categorize transsexuals in the DSM until VERY recently. He also exhibits a condition called "autogynephilia", which is a quack science description of why transsexuals do what they do. The fetishistic sexualization at work here feeds the public discourse on the rights of transgender people, because it feeds the moralizing tendency of opponents of trans rights. If it's done for sexual pleasure, then it must be sinful, ipso facto, it must be okay to sanction this in the public sphere. Now, I'm well aware of the fact that as a matter of ethics and as a matter of law, it is and should be illegal to legislate from this position, but that doesn't stop people.

While it's easy for me to rationalize all of this as a depiction of a specific character in a specific movie with a specific pathology, my eyes tell me that this just isn't so. One of the first depictions of transsexuals I ever saw was John Davidson on a 1974 episode of The Streets of San Francisco who was as close to Buffalo Bill as 1970s television would allow. So if I resent Buffalo Bill, it's only because he's the most prominent incarnation of this archetype of the last 25 years. It's because the specter of the transgender psycho is so strong in the popular mind that it's used as an argument to bar people like me from the public restroom that is appropriate to my gender or prevent me from adopting kids or teaching school, it's hard for me to turn a blind eye.

Anyway, thanks to both of you for commenting.


Mykal said...

Vulnavia: Your "prism," narrow or otherwise, is why I read your blog. You see movies in a light that is your own, which is a rare thing. Seeing things from your perspective is always a unique experience. In a blogosphere of movie critic language, your voice is your own.

Of course, I sometimes disagree. In fact, those are the posts I enjoy the most, as your writing in such cases makes me clarify my thinking (a process of increasing difficulty). For example, Crawford's fatherly protection of Clarice I found one of the most human and touching aspects of the film. You are correct. She has been set up as a highly competent knight errant, not needing Crawford's protection. But that is what makes the moment so sweet. Crawford becomes vulnerable in the moment, not Agent Starling.

Blog on!!

cinemarchaeologist said...

Hey, Doc, do you have an email address? I have a query for you (totally unrelated to the Silence of the Lambs).

Vulnavia Morbius said...

It's archaeopterxy_wtw at yahoo dot com. (And that's a deliberate misspelling, btw).

Caroline said...

"It's because the specter of the transgender psycho is so strong in the popular mind that it's used as an argument to bar people like me from the public restroom that is appropriate to my gender or prevent me from adopting kids or teaching school, it's hard for me to turn a blind eye."

I hate to harp on your "narrow prism," as some might call it, but this is exactly why voices like yours are so important. You bring a humanity to these issues which non-queer people don't usually give a passing thought, and you articulate them beautifully.