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The Silence of the Lambs (1991)


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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.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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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.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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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

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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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.

"You know...not EVERY story has to be interesting." -Gibby

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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

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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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

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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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

"There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic" - Vladimir Nabokov

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It should also be remembered that there is a suggestion that Buffalo Bill may have been a Vet.

He served in the Navy.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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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.

"There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic" - Vladimir Nabokov

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I can't remember. I know it comes out in the book at some point, and I can't remember whether or not the point is made in the film.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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  • 4 years later...

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 2 months later...
  • 5 years later...

I nominated this film for the 2020 A&F iteration of the Top 100.
Full disclosure: I have not gone back and read this thread yet.

There are, I sense, a handful of slots (I don't know how many but I would guess less than 10) on our Top 100 for films that are essentially commercial entertainments but attain the level of "spiritual significance" because of theme, cultural impact, or some other reason. I realize I am lobbying hard for those spots. 

I think The Silence of the Lambs belongs on our list because Clarice Starling is the greatest Christ-figure in the popular culture of my lifetime. I realize even using that phrase will set some people's teeth on edge and conjure up images of "Christian" criticism in its most primitive forms. But...

Given the ways the health and wealth gospel has permeated the American church and how American (maybe Western but I can't speak to that) evangelicalism has knelt at the the altars of power, there is something positively counter-cultural about seeing a hero(ine) who identifies with the victims by becoming a willing victim herself rather than just another example of the myth of redemptive violence.

If I wanted to be cheeky (and why the hell not?), I could say that Clarice, like Jesus is handed over by her "father" (in this case Crawford) to be abused in the hopes that she can save others. Add to that the fact that she must check her own ambitious longings for advancement and we get a portrait of a saint who is not immune from temptation but must overcome it.  Yes, the dialogue in this scene is expository, but Foster's delivery is so pitch perfect, so willingly vulnerable, that it chokes me up near every time. (There is something profound, too, in the detail that the lambs won't help her help them, won't even run away....about the isolation and loneliness of the prophet or the one who tries to do good only to be rejected or ignored by those for whom they sacrifice):
 


I have two big reservations about the film, which I am tempted to gloss over, but as this is a film about confronting painful truths, I'll go ahead and put them out there:

--I blame Silence of the Lambs for the rise/resurrection of the soul-killing woman-in-peril trope that has always been present but has grown almost pervasive in my lifetime. I get on an intellectual level that the elevated art work is not responsible for the crassness of the cheap knock off, that it is the very seriousness of the topic that makes mediocre representations of it so offensive, and this makes it harder for artists who want to examine those subjects to not get lumped in with an an understandable pox-on-all-your-houses.
--Hannibal (the book and the movie) is such a colossal misfire, such a betrayal of everything I love about this work, that it makes me question whether Harris really knew what he was about or just stumbled onto one great work amidst a career of other stuff. I might give the credit to Demme and Foster (Coppola elevates what is an almost unreadable novel in The Godfather; Spielberg does the same with Jaws) but most of the best scenes from Lambs are almost word for word from the novel. 

Finally, I think God takes no joy in the death of the wicked. There is a sadness rather than a thrilling uplift at the end of Silence of the Lambs because Bill is sick and everyone knows that. Clarice insists to Lecter that her uncle (who banishes her to the orphanage) was a "good man" whom she doesn't hold responsible for slaughtering the lambs. Bill is by no means a good man, but neither is he the monster that Lecter is. Clarice has to put him down, but she takes no relish in doing so; she does it in the same way and for the same reasons Atticus shoots the rabid dog in To Kill a Mockingbird. I apologize if that metaphor comes across at dehumanizing to transsexuals. The film does have Clarice offer the disclaimer that there is no clinical connection between transsexualism and violence...Bill is not a monster because he is transsexual. (The film actually seems to declare he is not.) So if anything, the film also overtly acknowledges that the cultural sexual hysteria that makes it easier to just demonize that which is not normative also makes it harder to distinguish between that which the culture has labelled aberrant and that which is truly, irrevocably, sick or broken. In all the rightful praise heaped on nearly every one of the performers (only Antholy Head's Chilton falls flat for me), I sometimes think that Ted Levine's is the most underrated.

P.S. I moderated the first post (Peter's) to add the word "The" to the film title. 

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Your comments on Clarice Starling are remarkable. This gets at many of the reasons I do not like most "Christ Figure in Cinema" conversations, as they tend to focus on neatly packaged redemptive underdog narratives or revel in the psychological gratification of seeing the vindication of the moral figure in a drama. In these cases, the "Jesus" cipher is coded within a narrative arc that confirms a range of cherished western Christ motifs, so many of which are self-congratulatory or provide a religious vibe for an existing ideology.

I like your idea here that the willingness of Clarice to become a victim triggers a theological speculation within the film. This is certainly the case for Harris' novel and the essence of the TV version of Hannibal. Shouldn't there be an element of scandal to any Christ figure? Shouldn't this transposition always feel a bit unbelievable, or even unreliable? If we take Mark as our cue, the story of Jesus is confrontational at every point of access.

But as you point out, something happened to Harris as a writer between Silence (1988) and Hannibal (1999). We lose all this nuance in the books.

Edited by M. Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Thanks for that Mike. 
I thought I had added, but I will add now, to my point about Lecter being twice the monster Bill is, there an exchange earlier in that scene where he cruelly praises Clarice for the lie about Anthrax Island and then twists the knife to sadistically drink her suffering: "That was goooood....Pity about poor Catherine, though. Tick tock."

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I'm grateful for this conversation. At several points while putting together my top 25 I tried to decide which Demme film to include and ended up with none because I couldn't settle on one that fit my concept of the list. I'll happily throw some points at Silence of the Lambs, which is both a great film and also an important one in my own development as a cinephile. It's the first film I remember paying my own money to see multiple times in the theater.

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39 minutes ago, M. Leary said:

But as you point out, something happened to Harris as a writer between Silence (1988) and Hannibal (1999). We lose all this nuance in the books.

My major struggle is whether or not that *something* was already latent in Harris's writing. It seems to me that each Lecter book has the Chilton-Krenzler-reporter whose name I forget in Red Dragon that practically begs the audience to enjoy sadistic violence so long as it is directed at the right target. I think Silence of the Lambs belongs on our list, but if it misses out, I will console myself that I can understand some of the reasons why. That being said, I think the good outweighs the troublesome. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

I briefly considered nominating The Silence of the Lambs, so I'm really glad you did, Ken, and I think your points about Clarice as a Christ-figure make it a great fit.

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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On 4/9/2020 at 1:21 PM, kenmorefield said:

I think The Silence of the Lambs belongs on our list because Clarice Starling is the greatest Christ-figure in the popular culture of my lifetime.

Since I just made some comments on Christ-figures on some other threads, I thought I'd add that I thought that this is a stretch. But I think Ken makes some good points in defense of this, though, and I can certainly accept the designation of Clarice as a Christ-figure to that extent. I think her position as a woman in very male dominated settings (getting harassed and belittled over and over) resonates along these lines as well. 

On 4/11/2020 at 12:11 PM, M. Leary said:

Your comments on Clarice Starling are remarkable. This gets at many of the reasons I do not like most "Christ Figure in Cinema" conversations, as they tend to focus on neatly packaged redemptive underdog narratives or revel in the psychological gratification of seeing the vindication of the moral figure in a drama. In these cases, the "Jesus" cipher is coded within a narrative arc that confirms a range of cherished western Christ motifs, so many of which are self-congratulatory or provide a religious vibe for an existing ideology.

Points very well made and well taken. Nevertheless, it's a powerful narrative and set of motifs, and can be done well. Just to clarify, is this about the films themselves that use the "Christ figure" cheaply, or about the conversations about films that (mis-)employ the Christ figure as an interpretive tool?

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