Monday, March 30, 2015

The Silence of the Lambs - Favorite of All Time

Jodie Foster
A sweaty, panting woman alone in the woods sets the tone.
Jodie Foster
The main tension begins.  Clarice Starling processing real world horror.
Buffalo Bill Crime Scene Photos and Newspaper Clippings
Startling images and headlines that cannot be dismissed.

The Silence of the Lambs was one of those forbidden films that my mom protested and dismissed when I was a kid.  Her Bank of America co-worker told her all about its shocking nature and that’s exactly what happened to her: shock.  I remember my first time watching much of the film, I was secretly watching it with the volume low while my parents were down the hallway in their bedroom.  Mom came out to check on me or, otherwise, say things occasionally, and I felt compelled to turn it off.  Then she would leave and I turned it back on.  For some reason, I couldn’t finish it that night.  Eventually, I would see the full film from beginning to end with my seventh grade friend, Jared, during a sleepover.  I was blown away.  I didn’t know then that it was going to be my favorite film ever, but I knew I’d been guided through a very special rabbit hole of cinema.  

Scott Glenn
Jack Crawford and the point-of-view urgency making us Clarice.
I remember one night buying a copy, in secret, with my allowance.  I was so nervous about this “contraband” being discovered that I deposited it in our back patio/yard (accessible from the outside) before entering the apartment.  I lied to my parents about spending my allowance, saying that I was saving my money.  Then when the coast was clear, I retrieved it and immersed myself in the FBI fairy tale all over again.  Yes, I see this material as being a fairy tale, the best there ever was.  I’ve been struck with the chills so many times while watching this movie.

Anthony Hopkins
It's kinda cool that Lecter is a finger-licking page-turner.

Tony Hopkins
A considerate wink.
There is so much status and history about this film.  It is one of the few films (I think it’s still only three) to have won all the major Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay).  Roger Ebert pointed out the feminist value of the film, the hardships and strengths of the protagonist.  Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal Lecter.  Anthony Perkins played Norman Bates.  The film has a well-known cameo by cult film-maker Roger Corman.  Gay awareness demonstrators protested the film outside the Oscars for its seemingly disparaging depiction of homosexuality (and other fringe sexual identities and behaviors).  It's on the AFI "100 Years ... 100 Thrills" countdown.  It’s one of the films that still gets regularly discussed today among younger people along with Pulp Fiction and other towering titles. 

Hannibal Lecter
Arch isn't always bad.
The Silence of the Lambs is the story of a female FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who wants to be an agent.  She wants to be taken seriously and listened to, not just leered at.  And when the case is presented to her by the Head of Behavioral Sciences, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), she wants to find and catch the bad guy and rescue the latest missing person/pending next murder victim.  These are straightforward goals for a business-like film.  However, the film presents us Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) as an abused and unappreciated protagonist.  He wants freedom.  That’s even more straightforward.

He detests physical labor
"He detests physical labor."  Oh brother, teach your secrets.

Senator's daughter, Kathleen
Always been irrationally disturbed by these shots..
Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), the real villain, has no charm but causes morbid laughter in many.  Ironically, his acting is probably the best in the film but he received no Oscar.  He was too good.  The kind of guy you want to block, to forget.  Without him, Hannibal Lecter is just a creep. 
In college, my Russian friend, the good Sergey (there was also the bad, Ukrainian Sergey), loved quoting the “lotion in the basket” line.  He generally loved evoking and making fun of Buffalo Bill.  Ever since, I have become prone to amusement at Bill too.  I once took him completely seriously but it’s more fun having some laughs.  The laughs don’t change the fact that we’re still appalled by what he does.

Buffalo Bill night vision
The point when mystery becomes suspense/thriller.
The other villain, Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), causes the audience to seethe as he scowls and leers and glares and smirks and threatens.  Chilton gives off a distinct chill.  Without him, Hannibal loses sympathy.  Humanizing Hannibal Lecter is a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.

Buffalo Bill with dog
Hey, he likes dogs.  Has to be a good guy.  Lotion awareness here.
Something occurred to me during today’s viewing.  It was always there but today was the first time I fully recognized and acknowledged a pivotal turning point.  It’s the power of semen.  Semen breaks the case wide open.  Semen propels Hannibal into cooperation.  Semen saves the day.  Without Miggs’ semen assault on Clarice Starling, the Senator’s daughter would all but certainly be dead.  Miggs' semen paves the path for Clarice’s successes.  And for his bold contribution to the course of events, he loses his tongue to his own severe self-hating emotional state brought on by Lecter.  I should also point out that the masturbation/semen gag in the asylum first appeared in the film From Beyond.  If the tagline was honest it would read: One killer’s semen inspires another killer to help the FBI catch yet another killer.  Wow.

In college, during a break at my first job working at the dining commons, one of the cooks was discussing this true crime book with others.  He was talking about how it was the inspiration for The Silence of the Lambs.  I asked him about it and it turned out to be John Douglas’ Mindhunter.   John Douglas was one of the pioneering profilers in the FBI.  He did it when it was very unpopular and people dismissed it as mystical hogwash and a waste of time.  I listened to a library copy of the book-on-tape later in the year.  It was one of the most haunting experiences I’ve had to this day.  It was an eye-opener.  It’s one of those things that really matters.   John Douglas has gone on record stating that he does not like the term “Behavioral Sciences” as he prefers “Investigative Support Unit.”  John Douglas was also the FBI consultant for the film.  

Clarice Starling
Notice the pictures on the right (her left).  This visual detail reveals that Bill likes lap dances.
The Silence of the Lambs is the best structured film (credit goes to screenwriter Ted Tally) and, perhaps, novel (credit goes to author Thomas Harris), in my opinion.  There are three types of films in the Myster/Thriller genre continuum.  There’s the perfect mystery where the killer is not revealed until the end (Deep Red, Scream, and Blood Work).  There’s the perfect thriller where the killer is known throughout (Dirty Harry and The Terminator).  Then there’s the mystery that turns into a thriller along the way and that’s what The Silence of the Lambs is.  The first season of Dexter is another fine example of the guessing game turning into a pure thriller.  The dramatic irony of being ahead of the protagonist and anxiously hoping and waiting for them to catch up is arguably the most powerful experience the movies have to offer.  This is also known as suspense.

NAZI pinup in basement
Another intriguing detail from Bill's basement lair.     
In addition to the above and the simple and clear goals of the characters and set-up of the main tension, there is the double climax structure and two equally stunning misdirects/reveals.  Structurally, this is the film to beat.  Dexter also was exceedingly good at misdirects and reveals and climax stacking.  It’s all cohesive. 

Buffalo Bill Newspaper clippings
Visual poetry.  The main tension ends, visually, the way it began, with Buffalo Bill images and headlines.
Howard Shore’s musical score must be mentioned.  Bold and staggering statements by strings and brass accentuated by percussion such as gongs (or tam tams) mix with woodwind trills, tremolos, and ostinato arpeggios to create a swirling portal into the psyche of Starling and the soul of this world.  Shore imbues the film with a sonic timelessness and his music is the main reason I get the chills time and time again.  

Baffalo Bill and America
More details.  Bill's twisted patriotism.
Lastly, I must praise the rich visual details of the film.  The FBI Academy recreation, the Smithsonian details, the asylum, the storage facility, and every scene is pretty much crammed with convincing detail.  The best example has to be Buffalo Bill’s underground lair.  From mannequins to tanks to sewing machines to Nazi bedding, there is just so much to see and learn about the character.
Quite simply, the film got everything right.      

Closing Scene Ending Scene
My favorite kind of closing shot, where the camera pulls up and away to survey the scene.
Dirty Harry is another great example featuring the same kind of closing shot.  These shots are always so tantalizing.  Such small stories in such a big world to go on and we are left to wonder what comes next.  Sometimes we get to know, and when we do get to know sometimes we're satisfied.

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