Sunday, June 12, 2011

Clarice in the Underworld

One of the things that really irks me about hanging out in horror fan spaces on the internet is the persistent question of whether or not The Silence of the Lambs (1991, directed by Jonathan Demme) is a horror movie. To which I say: Of course it is. The argument that it's "really more of a thriller" doesn't hold any water with me on multiple fronts, not least of which is the notion that movies that are "thrillers" aren't also horror movies. Even granting that dubious division, Silence passes the smell test, because if you think Hannibal Lector is a natural human murderer and not some unnameable creature from the outer dark, you are wrong. Not only does he possess abilities and insights that are beyond human ken, the movie tells you outright that he is some kind of more-than-human monster. "Never forget what he is," Jack Crawford tells Starling at the movie's outset, and the film cuts to Dr. Chilton answering the elided question with, "He's a monster." Later in the movie, Clarice is asked if Lecter is some kind of vampire. She replies: "There's not a word for what he is." What he IS is a conflation of every horror-movie mad scientist ever to stalk the silver screen. He's Dr. Caligari (a psychiatrist guiding the actions of his protege), he's Svengali (grooming his follower for success), he's Dr. Mabuse (ruling the world from his cell at the asylum), he's Dr. Jekyll (after Hyde has taken over completely). So let's dispense with the notion that Lecter is a presence that could exist outside the context of the horror movie, that he's not a creature of fantasy. That notion is absurd. But more than that: Buffalo Bill is based on Ed Gein, and by my lights, any movie that's based on Ed Gein is, de facto, a horror movie. We'll come back to Gein in a bit.

In any event, the previous paragraph is one of the reasons I've never really written about The Silence of the Lambs, despite a long familiarity with the movie (and the book). It's a discussion with which I have no patience. The other reason I've never really written about The Silence of the Lambs is because it's a movie that gives me all kinds of fits when it comes to the politics of its imagery, and writing about those politics--which for me are completely unavoidable--is going to make me sound like an apologist or (and) a scold. I don't intend this. We'll see how it goes.

The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most mythological of horror movies. I mean, most horror movies that are worth their salt are mythological in one way or another, whether they derive their mythic elements from fairy tale or urban legends, but The Silence of the Lambs is almost schematic about it. It's a hero's journey, of course, in which our heroine, Clarice Starling, is sent on a quest. In order to navigate the quest, she must first gain the blessing of a patron god (Lecter), and then descend into the underworld. This is a story as old as time. Clarice Starling is following in the footsteps of classical heroes like Theseus and Orpheus. Starling's patron, Lecter, is a chthonian god; her narrative is unusual in so far as she has to make more than one trip into the underworld to complete her quest. Buffalo Bill, in contrast with Lecter is a chthonian demon.

The deep mythic roots of The Silence of the Lambs go a long way toward explaining the enduring appeal of the movie. It resonates deep in the reptile brain where humans remember huddling in the dark listening to stories about the monsters beyond the firelight. It's an atavistic kind of pleasure.

Jonathan Demme and his collaborators build several important themes on top of this framework, not least of which is the film's depiction of misogyny, great and small. We get a foretaste of this early, in a couple of shots that tell you everything you need to know about Clarice Starling's place in the pecking order of the FBI:

The movie doesn't really need to comment on these shots, but it does anyway when Starling takes Crawford to task for using her status as an excuse to manipulate other men. "Manners," she says. It saves the horrors done to the bodies of women for after these two shots, creating an intensifying effect. By the time Clarice ends up descending into the belly of the beast, she's already been set up as a kind of feminist avenger. Bringing Buffalo Bill to justice isn't just part of her job as an FBI agent, it's a vindication of the rights of women. Though, at times, this all recedes into the background as Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling "romance" each other. "People will say we're in love," Lecter says to her. Their encounters are filmed in shockingly intimate close-ups, almost always centered on the screen, in which Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster are all that the audience has to look at. It's a technique that leaves its actors completely naked before the camera, and the reason that both actors walked off with Academy Awards for their performances is that their immersion into their characters is so complete that the camera does not detect any falsity to them. It's thrilling to watch.

There's a twinning effect to this--the shot, reverse shot, reverse shot structure of these scenes turns Clarice's discussions with Lecter into an exercise in gazing into a dark mirror--but it's not the only twinning going on in the movie. Lecter lives in a dungeon. He's well aware of the fact that he will spend the rest of his life in an oubliette, and the movie subtly contrasts this with the basement where Buffalo Bill keeps Catherine Martin. The movie makes an odd parallel between Lecter (the demon is in the oubliette) and Catherine Martin (the young woman is in the oubliette), perhaps marking the biggest difference between Lecter and Buffalo Bill and subtly getting the audience on Lecter's side in spite of his utter depavity. It carries the parallel forward in dual escape attempts, both predicated on a last meal. The movie also "twins" Crawford and Lecter. At least one of the shot sequences between Crawford and Clarice share the mirror effect of the scenes with Lecter. Crawford and Lecter are metaphorically the poles of Starling's potential as an FBI agent and as a human being.

Which brings me to Buffalo Bill. Bill is a kind of cipher. The movie does not explain his pathology, in spite of Lecter's pronouncements on motivations. The movie DOES revert to a type, however. The stereotype of the transsexual as psychopath is deeply entrenched in film culture and I'm of two minds about it. On the one hand, it's profoundly othering, and it DOES influence the public perception of transsexualism for all the complaints that it's all just a movie. On the other hand, Ed Gein was real. His horrifying variation on transvestism was real. Therefore, I can't really claim that this depiction is unjustified. The POLITICS of it, though, piss me off no end, because the way this is slanted, with its catalog of horrors perpetrated against women, and with its intent to examine those horrors in minute detail, one can't help but see in Buffalo Bill the transsexual boogeyman that so haunted Second Wave feminists like Janice Raymond or Mary Daly: To them, transsexuals are monstrous constructs designed by the dominant patriarchy to infiltrate women's spaces and destroy them. In The Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill literalizes this notion by destroying women so he can appropriate their femininity for himself. The movie doubles down on this by casting Jodie Foster--herself a lesbian--as the agent of vindication.

We can pretty much ignore the idea that The Silence of the Lambs, is an anti-gay movie, because it's totally not. It IS an anti-trans movie, though, and there is a real-world toll exacted from transsexuals for this kind of depiction. For myself, I don't give much of a shit if the movie goes out of its way to disclaim against Bill being a "real" transsexual, or if Jonathan Demme "apologized" to gays with Philadelphia (significantly, "apologizing" to gay men, who are NOT the audience wronged by The Silence of the Lambs), it doesn't make up for it. This is the image that's going to stick in the mind and it's an image that is prejudicial out of all proportion to what the movie might be saying by way of disclaimer:

The Silence of the Lambs is a legitimately great movie and I'd love to fully embrace it. It's certainly one of the GREAT horror movies. Unfortunately, it's a movie that needs a certain amount of apologia. Does that tarnish the film? Yeah. Actually, I think it does.


Mykal Banta said...

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.

J. Astro said...

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.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

I get the same exact crap when discussing this movie with just about anybody; "It's not a horror movie, it's a thriller!" I'm not even sure I buy "thriller" as being a genre. Most movies that are "thrillers" usually can also fall snuggly into other established genres. Most of the "It's not a horror movie" crowd seem to be people who look down upon the genre as a whole.

Caroline said...

If I have to come up with one thing that I treasure the most from this blogathon experience, it's the fact that it led me to your blog. No lie. This is a brilliant, refreshing, awe-inspiring essay, seriously. Thank you so much.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Caroline. Now I'm blushing. The feeling is reciprocated. I love Garbo Laughs. It's a terrific blog.

Grand Old Movies said...

Wow, terrific post! Your analysis of Lecter as a 'cthonic god' is spot-on. And I definitely see SOTL as a horror movie (I associate thriller more w/spy or espionage types of films, where the action is meant to "thrill"). One thing about SOTL is that I think Ted Levine's brilliant performance in the film's most controversial and difficult part was unjustly overlooked.

A fascinating essay could be written on the influence that Ed Gein has had on American culture - certainly in books and movies; aside from SOTL, there are Gein-based characters in Psycho & Deranged & Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Interesting to ponder why he's had such an impact...