My relationship to The Silence of the Lambs is strange.
I first read the novel as a teenager. My parents were strict on my viewing habits, but my reading habits were strangely unrestricted. I got into Stephen King in 6th grade, and was reading fairly adult airport novels throughout my tween adolescence.
I remember my mother buying Red Dragon while I was in elementary school because she had already read The Silence of the Lambs, and loved it. She didn’t care for Red Dragon as much, if I recall, and never went back to read Hannibal. And, so, the spectre of both Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs would sit on our bookshelf waiting for me to visit.
On one vacation when I was probably 11 or 12, The Silence of the Lambs was on HBO while I and my family were staying in a hotel. I was fascinated by it. But, we caught it midway through. IIRC, We started somewhere just before the airport scene, and finished the whole movie. My mother made my father change the channel during the transformation scene, because it was inappropriate, but that was the whole censoring that film recieved at that age.
Soon after, I read The Silence of the Lambs while on the last vacation I and my parents ever took together. Which would probably be around age 13. We were careening around Montana, driving along cliffs in the dead of night, while my mother was freaking out, my father, the driver, was exhausted, we were all hungry, and I was enthralled in the pulpy trashy words of Thomas Harris.
When I was finished reading the dimestore aesthetic that Harris achieved in The Silence of the Lambs, my parents finally relented and let me watch the movie in full, by myself.
As a teenager, I had a strange reaction to the movie. It was faithful to the novel, yet, there was something off. I couldn’t place my finger on what. Not having reread the novel since, I still can’t. It is totally faithful to the novel, but there was something that changed between the two.
I ended up not watching the movie again for years. I bought the now-OOP Criterion DVD, which was amazing de to the features, yet I didn’t know why. I knew I was supposed to love this movie, but I didn’t. And, yet, here I was buying an expensive DVD for a movie I had a shaky relationship with.
The thing is, to me, The Silence of the Lambs is not scary. The final sequence where Agent Starling is in a night vision haunted house with Buffalo Bill is tense as hell, but not frightening. The scenes with Catherine Martin in her pit of doom were creepy. But, both of these were incidental to my enjoyment of the film The Silence of the Lambs.
To me, the heart of The Silence of the Lambs lies not with the plot of the movie, but with the relationship between Agent Starling and Hannibal Lecter. For the longest time, the Buffalo Bill case was, to me, just a MacGuffin that really got in the way of the movie I wanted, a psychiatric cat and mouse headgame between an extremely intelligent, yet icily distant, man and an extremely intelligent, but emotionally fragile, woman. The relationship between Lecter and Starling is fascinating because it really isn’t about murder or horror, but largely almost like watching therapy, yet a very pointed game of therapy. Starling is all walls at the start of the film, and Lecter breaks down every single one of her walls to get at the tender meat within and help her grow as a person and a detective.
The Criterion commentary included on the DVD (leftover from the Laserdisc) is pieced together with sections by Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Jonathan Demme, Ted Tally (screenwriter) and John Douglas (FBI agent). The commentary is fascinating. Everybody chimes in with how they created their roles, and what they got out of the movie. Foster saw it as a bit of a feminist tract in that it is about a somewhat vulnerable woman trapped in a world surrounded by menacing men (Lecter, Buffalo Bill, Jack Crawford, Frederic Chilton, all the cops in Virginia, even the leering geek in the museum). Everybody is pointed at her and trying to reduce her (and women) in a way that serves their purpose (fascination, identity, fame, sex, power, love).
Meanwhile, Hopkins waxes philosophic on Lecter’s true purposes as a psychotic. But, Lecter is also a gentleman and presents a sort of father figure to a woman who lost her father when she was very young. Hopkins provides much insight into how he played Lecter, and it comes at odds with Foster’s ideas of the positions, which makes it even more fascinating on a deeper, meta level.
Jonathan Demme, with The Silence of the Lambs, made a cheap grindhousy picture that is reminiscent of his days working under Roger Corman. As an aside, will there ever be another Roger Corman type film producer? One that has a whole stable of directors working under him where he teaches them the ropes and then releases them into the world? That man was (still is) a goddamned boon to the cinematic world, and he still needs all the respect in the world. He also has a cameo in this film, bless Demme.
While The Silence of the Lambs is true grindhouse cinema, it also elevates themes constantly above and beyond where a normal grindhouse would have left them. Demme, in all his glory, admits that some of the touches in Lambs aren’t his, like the American flag draped over the car in the storage facility hinting at the violence in America’s past and ongoing identity battle with itself, and gives credit where credit is due. It became the third movie to win all five major Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay (adapted) – and was the first (and still only) horror movie to win the top prize. In no small part due to the deceptively complex structure the film has.
The Silence of the Lambs is 1/3 police procedural, 1/3 psycho killer, and 1/3 Therapy. Demme masterfully blends the three into one cohesive tonal whole where they don’t let each other really take over the movie. The police procedural is the vast majority of the film, but the big moments are from both the psycho killer and the therapy side of the film, keeping the whole thing balanced. And, at 118 minutes, the movie, in retrospect, always seems a little more languous than it is, but while watching the film, it never…ever…stops. The pacing is fairly demanding, though not relentless and it heeds to the weird mix that Demme created in the film.
There’s a major part to The Silence of the Lambs that I have neglected for the most part. Buffalo Bill. He’s the MacGuffin of the film, the reason the whole movie exists in the first place, but, in my mind, the least fascinating part. He’s an abused man with an identity problem who wants to become somebody he’s not in order to escape his pain. He’s problematic in that he was viewed as a trans person, but really, even in the movie, he’s identified as troubled and was rejected by sex reassignment clinics in the US due to mental health reasons. He’s fairly fascinating on the surface, but totally uninteresting deeper within.
Buffalo Bill presents one major theme to the movie and inverts another. The major theme Bill presents is that of transformation. Even in the Lambs parts that are only Agent Starling and Lecter, Starling is transforming into a better detective, becoming more in tune with her inner self, and generally turning into an adult. It’s a latter day coming of age story that started when she tried to rescue the lambs. The whole incident would cause her to gestate and transform into the accomplished woman she will become later.
The other theme is gender inversion. Lambs is about a female detective making it in a largely man’s world. Of all the cops and detectives and bosses and characters she runs into, there are only a handful of non-victim females. There is her black friend in the academy. There is Senator Martin. There’s the friend of the first victim, Stacy. There is Officer Jacobs in the museum. And, there’s a news caster. That’s all of the females in The Silence of the Lambs. 6 non-victim females in a rather sizable cast. And, all of them are making it in a man’s world. Clarice Starling is attempted to be manipulated by everybody. Senator Martin is being manipulated by the FBI agents. The black friend is under the same forces as Agent Starling. Office Jacobs is second to Officer Murray. The reporter is even numbered as 2nd Reporter.
In the world of Lambs, to be male is to be autonomous. And, to be female is to either be a victim, be controlled, or to fight your way to get some power. The world is set up so that a male controls, and a female is controlled. Agent Starling wants to have control. She wants to have autonomy. Even in her story about the lambs, she is trying to control the safety of the lambs. She has the strength to take control from the male farmer. Agent Starling wants to wield the masculine power the movie sets out for us, but in her own way. The inversion is, of course, Buffalo Bill, who is controlling women by starving them and killing them to make clothes…so that he can be a woman and relinquish his torment.
There is so much to say about The Silence of the Lambs, from the colors to the continued conversation of feminist cinema to the discussion of placebo dangerous father figures to the continued themes within The Silence of the Lambs that this is a movie one could write a novel about.
Instead, I’ll close out with a little bit more about the extras within the Criterion OOP DVD. Since this was only Spine #13, the image is only in matte (non-anamorphic) widescreen (thank god for magic televisions that will zoom in). Criterion also provided a couple of creepy extras, including a FBI Crime Classification manual and Voices of Death, which are statements from convicted serial killers. The last two extras are super strange and creepy, and provide a bit of depth to where John Douglas, Ted Tally, and Jonathan Demme were coming from in making the movie.