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Peter T Chattaway

Silence of the Lambs

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Jonathan Rosenbaum has re-posted his review of Silence of the Lambs from early 1991; it draws some explicit links between the popularity of that film and the initiation of the Gulf War, and makes some interesting psychological points as well:

As far as I’m concerned, this movie is moral enough (in the Gleiberman sense) as it is. From Psycho to Peeping Tom to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to The Silence of the Lambs, every slasher film is predicated in part on the audience’s half-repressed desire to see a woman get torn to pieces. Making the slasher charismatic or sympathetic in some way is invariably part of the routine, a part that critics invariably praise as “disturbing, complex irony,” and making the women who are potential slasher victims sympathetic is usually part of the formula as well. (This, too, is often given intellectual justification by being cited as proof that the filmmaker has a heart; presumably if the women were unsympathetic, they’d simply deserve what they got.) In Psycho, Peeping Tom, and Henry, we’re asked to feel sorry for the slasher, who’s just a poor, crazy mixed-up kid, an attitude that’s more or less extended to Buffalo Bill in Demme’s film. Lecter, on the other hand, represents a genuine innovation — the slasher as role model — and people who argue that this film is offering some special insight into evil deserve to have their brains washed out with soap. (I’m being rhetorical, of course, because the very project of a film like this one is to wash people’s brains out.) . . .

To be fascinated with individuals who kill without compunction — whether it’s the real Charles Manson during the last major war or the fictional Lecter during this one — is defensible, but only if we keep our sense of proportion and admit that we’re currently killing without compunction at a far greater rate than all the real serial killers in our midst combined. I suspect that there may be enough unconscious recognition of this fact — enough displaced guilt — to account for the runaway sales of gas masks in small towns in Ohio and Texas and to make a purely theatrical construction like Lecter seem profound and oddly satisfying; as long as the mass murderer remains wholly other, we can regard him with awe and even affection, thanks to some twisted form of unacknowledged narcissism. Consequently, the spiritual union between Lecter and Clarice is another version of the spiritual union between Lecter and ourselves. What is finally so obscene about The Silence of the Lambs, particularly in the context of the present moment, is that it invites us to feel smug and self-satisfied about that union — as if we’ve suddenly become privy to certain dark, occult religious secrets — without for a moment facing up to what it actually entails.

Links to our threads on the book and film versions of the prequel Hannibal Rising.

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Certainly, films can take so long to make that it is doubtful Operation Desert Shield, much less Operation Desert Storm, was on anyone's horizon when this film went into production; add to this the fact that the film was based on a novel that had come out a few years before, and there's all the more reason to be skeptical of the Gulf War link.

And yet... while the Gulf War may not have played any part in the CREATION of the film, I think it certainly could have played a part in how the film was RECEIVED. Would The Lord of the Rings have been quite as big a hit as it was, if the trilogy had not been released so soon after 9/11, at the outset of what many perceived to be an existential clash of civilizations? Would The China Syndrome be remembered anywhere near as much as it is today if the Three Mile Island accident had not happened within weeks of the film's release? Etc., etc. Rosenbaum's review is not just an evaluation of the film, but an evaluation of other critics and the zeitgeist of that period... so in principle, at least, I'd say it's valid to draw those kinds of links.

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Certainly, films can take so long to make that it is doubtful Operation Desert Shield, much less Operation Desert Storm, was on anyone's horizon when this film went into production; add to this the fact that the film was based on a novel that had come out a few years before, and there's all the more reason to be skeptical of the Gulf War link.

And yet... while the Gulf War may not have played any part in the CREATION of the film, I think it certainly could have played a part in how the film was RECEIVED. Would The Lord of the Rings have been quite as big a hit as it was, if the trilogy had not been released so soon after 9/11, at the outset of what many perceived to be an existential clash of civilizations? Would The China Syndrome be remembered anywhere near as much as it is today if the Three Mile Island accident had not happened within weeks of the film's release? Etc., etc. Rosenbaum's review is not just an evaluation of the film, but an evaluation of other critics and the zeitgeist of that period... so in principle, at least, I'd say it's valid to draw those kinds of links.

Oh, in principle what he's doing is fine. I'm just not sure that I actually buy the connection that he makes. Of course, I can't at all say for certain, but I tend to think that SILENCE OF THE LAMBS would have been as big an event had the Gulf War not occurred. Since Lecter's appeal extends beyond that immediate context without nearly any diminishment, SILENCE Of THE LAMB's success probably doesn't have too much to do with "displaced guilt." I honestly think it has more to do with envy.

Edited by Ryan H.

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I think I disagree with Rosenbaum almost completely. Or perhaps I should say that he disagrees with me, since he specifically says (rhetorically, of course) that I should have my brains washed out with soap.

Maybe I'm just too naive and po-faced to realize that Demme was asking me to sympathize with Buffalo Bill and regard him as a "poor, crazy mixed-up kid" -- let alone to regard Lecter as a "role model." I never felt that way at all (that I was being asked by Demme, I mean, never mind actually feeling that way about the characters).

Edited by SDG

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Maybe I'm just too naive and po-faced to realize that Demme was asking me to sympathize with Buffalo Bill and regard him as a "poor, crazy mixed-up kid" -- let alone to regard Lecter as a "role model." I never felt that way at all (that I was being asked by Demme, I mean, never mind actually feeling that way about the characters).

I might have bought it if we had been given insight into what really made Buffalo Bill...well, Buffalo Bill. But I think the film plays him much less sympathetically than Rosenbaum implies. And I am not opposed to sympathetic portrayals of villains on principal, but I don't think we were meant to see Buffalo Bill as a heart breaking tragedy in action, but a inhuman monster.

On the other side, making your monster sympathetic has dangers...if you make their background to tragic, it can blunt the impact. I felt Rob Zombie missed the point with Michael Myers when he gave the huge backstory, in which Michael is a kid with obvious psychological issues, but also coming from a pretty messed up home life. The horror of the original film is that from what little we see of young Michael Myer's home life it's pretty much a "regular life in the suburbs." Myers was scary because you couldn't seem to draw a line from nurture to his first killing... and that left the option that it was his nature. That's creepy.

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I might have bought it if we had been given insight into what really made Buffalo Bill...well, Buffalo Bill. But I think the film plays him much less sympathetically than Rosenbaum implies. And I am not opposed to sympathetic portrayals of villains on principal, but I don't think we were meant to see Buffalo Bill as a heart breaking tragedy in action, but a inhuman monster.

I don't know that developmental or psychological insight into a character's motives and outlook necessarily entails sympathy for that character (not that you were saying it did). It can entail the opposite: The more you understand a monster, the more you grasp how truly monstrous he is.

I think that's the case with the glimpses we get into Bill's psychology. Lecter tells us Bill's motive ("He covets"), and we learn something about Bill's sexual issues, so we know something about the need he's trying to fill, though his, um, dermatological (tannerological? what is the disciplinary term for skinning and treating skins, etc.?) approach to redressing what he sees as Nature's wrongs remains a psychological black box into which we have no insight.

Either way, the insights make him creepier, not less creepy.

Edited by SDG

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Maybe I'm just too naive and po-faced to realize that Demme was asking me to sympathize with Buffalo Bill and regard him as a "poor, crazy mixed-up kid" -- let alone to regard Lecter as a "role model." I never felt that way at all (that I was being asked by Demme, I mean, never mind actually feeling that way about the characters).

Harris poses Bill's interaction with Lester as a search for kinship and comradery. He wants someone other than his victims to share in the glory of his work. Initially, Bill seems to be attempting to persuade Lecter into this role by appealing to his pride - which turns out to be an emotion that Lecter is, like, so over. (I have always wondered whether or not Lecter actually comes to disdain Bill for this reason, which adds additional pleasure in the game that ensues.)

So, Rosenbaum is off on this point. Aren't there better Gulf War zeitgeist films out there?

"What is finally so obscene about The Silence of the Lambs, particularly in the context of the present moment, is that it invites us to feel smug and self-satisfied about that union — as if we’ve suddenly become privy to certain dark, occult religious secrets — without for a moment facing up to what it actually entails."

He may be a bit closer to the mark here, as Clarice externally accepts the teacher-student relationship that Lecter insists she adapts to. But Harris is great with internal dialogue, and the book seems to show Clarice actively fighting against being affected by Lecter's "insight" as she pragmatically strings him along to catch Bill. I think this conflict comes through in the movie pretty well. So, contrary to his point, the film doesn't invite us to feel smug about the connection, it invites us to see that the connection between us and pure evil exists, and we are tasked with demythologizing its power.

Granted, there was a lot of power mythologizing going on around the time of the Gulf War - so I guess I can see where he is coming from here even though I would state it far differently.

Edited by MLeary

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How did I miss this thread? 'Silence of the Lambs' is one of the few films that I can re-watch and not grow tired of. It's an incredibly subtle film, much more so than people give it credit for I think. In particular, Demme does a wonderful job of creating a very real and foreboding sense of space in the film - by that I mean that the (gendered) violence that Buffalo Bill is an exagerrated and compulsive incarnation of, is everywhere. Little Jodie Foster is dwarfed in the institutionalised (male) spaces throughout the film, and yet she's the only one that is able to find a solution to these crimes by mingling with the feminine spaces and seeing humanity in the victims, rather than a morbid objectification of them as buffalo bill's subjects.

Anyway, with respect to the original question about horror/war: it's entirely plausible. These parallels have regularly been drawn, and if you approach horror from the critical perspective of the uncanny (the repressed emerges its head in violent, ugly, and yet not unsurprising ways) then it makes perfect sense. It should also be remembered that there is a suggestion that Buffalo Bill may have been a Vet. Just after he is shot, there is a cut to an upside down helmet, an American flag, and a mobile that has butterflies on it which (perhaps reading too much into this) looks Asian. There is also a distinct fascination with weapons technology in this film: guns, helicopters figure prominently. So yeah, I would say that the idea of institutionalised power & violence is certainly a major theme of the film.

FInally - I recently saw an interesting paper that posited 'Saw' as a post-9/11 film. They made a really strong case for this, on paper at least. I haven't seen Saw, but it certainly stood up with the clips he showed.

Edit: 'seen saw' tihihihi!

Edited by gigi

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Aha. There we go. Ta MLeary. Is this a book or film reference, and if the latter, may I ask where it's referred to? I'm probably overlooking something reeeeeaaaaaally obvious, like Starling saying "he served in the navy". I have been known to be that much of a headcase in the past.

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