GOD’S LEFT INDEX FINGER: ON JONATHAN DEMME’S “THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS”

This entry was posted on April 24th, 2016
 L’Innocence (1893), by William Bouguereau

L’Innocence (1893), by William Bouguereau

 

By Victor Bruno

1.A Mistake to Be Corrected

Over the last few months—starting with the release of Ricki and the Flash (2015) on home video—I developed an interest in Jonathan Demme’s cinema. As I watched his films, I developed a few ideas and scratched some notes on them about his ideas, interests and general style. That, by coincidence, happened to coincide with shifts on ideas of my own. Some of these notes were abbreviated and became my entry on MUBI’s Notebook fantasy double-feature pool.[1]

It happens that in my contribution to that pool I may have made a mistake. I called Demme “a brilliant director,” an assertion that is potentially incorrect. Demme’s reputation, although some of his early efforts such as Citizens Band (1977) and the Roger Corman-produced films are championed in the independent circuit, basically relies on the results of two films: one being is one of the films reviewed on my MUBI entry about  Something Wild (1986). The other one, of course, is The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Demme made other interesting movies after Lambs. He made another great movie, Philadelphia (1993), unfortunately remembered only for being a film made on the early years of AIDS, though it is much more complex than that. The Manchurian Candidate (2004), also, while being not much than a trivia in his filmography, is also an interesting artifact of plain experimentalism. There Demme reaches the highest point of his person-to-camera aesthetics with scenes that last more than four minutes and are entirely enacted for the camera. While being a narrative failure, that picture should be well-regarded for its peremptory nature. Which director, besides Ang Lee with his Shakespearian Hulk (2003), was given $100 million to make an art film?

But The Silence of the Lambs is his greatest legacy. It haunts his work just as The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986) haunts Roland Joffé’s life. Demme never suffered as Joffé did, hitting the bottom of the well with the exploitation film Captivity (2007); Demme is versatile, he can transition from documentary to fiction with ease. Actually, being a politically engaged individual, I tend to believe that he is better at documentaries because of the very nature of this kind of film: as opposed with fiction, which is addressed to a universal watcher and can only reproduce a few separated events tied together around a synthetically produced plot, documentaries are enacted for the camera, although that we have as a result of this enacting process is an intellectually shifted presentation and interpretation from reality as it is… Besides, narrative is not so much of an issue in documentary filmmaking: it is known from the onset, since we are dealing with life as it appears to be (again, life can never be represented as it is in any artistic production).

But if you closely observe the considerations made above you will notice that we are still in the stage of notes and ponderations about a filmmaker and together they aren’t enough to write a full article on him—there are a lot of considerations, reconsiderations and unsolved issues. In short, we are on uncertain ground; it lacks a unifying subject which will mark out the tone and the unrolling of the text. Although I can certainly write a piece called “Jonathan Demme: Uncertain Filmmaker,” the tone of the article would be as uncertain as its subject.

But gladly Demme directed The Silence of the Lambs, which is a magnificent film and gives us plenty of room to ruminate on his cinema. It is the beginning and the end of his career. The beginning because nothing on his previous films—generally light-weighted comedies with stylish swoosh and a few experiments, such as American Playhouse’s episode “Who Am I This Time?” (1982) or, more famously, the live concert  Stop Making Sense (1984). Lambs has the experimental nature of “Who Am I,” the refined aesthetics of both Stop Making Sense and Citizens Band (something that proves that Demme is an aesthete: both films weren’t shot by his usual director of photography, but by the late Jordan Cronenweth, but yet they are visually coherent) and it has the surprisingly wacky nature of Married to the Mob (1988). But The Silence of the Lambs has something that neither Stop Making Sense, or Citizens Band, nor Married to the Mob nor any of his previous films had: the first is a very cohesive narrative development, something that will explode on the disturbing last act of the film and will justify the nerve-wrecking sequence of Buffalo Bill’s death. The second thing—and this is way more important—that non other of his previous films has is the touch of Grace.

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In his filmography, Demme was never worried with the narrative structure of his films. Perhaps an exception can be made to Something Wild, since the movie was born with a famous shift of tone in mind. Actually, you expect it to happen, since the picture seems to lead us nowhere. But this result is common in the independent world from where Jonathan Demme comes from. The Silence of the Lambs, however detached from the big studios, was nourished with the intention of being a box office hit, so the film plays safe with its structure.

But what really matters here is the element of Grace. And what does it mean? A miracle? Perhaps, but then we would have to understand the nature of a miracle, what would take us time and, frankly, I don’t believe that this is the best place to make a theological discussion. We can name as Grace here the incredible convergence dissonant factors that, together, surprisingly work in perfect harmony: we have a comedy director working in an alien genre to him (the thriller) and a film starred by a cannibalistic psychopath helping an FBI trainee who is chasing a homosexual serial killer.

2. Images of America

Perhaps the first thing we can notice in The Silence of the Lambs is that it is embedded in a deeply American atmosphere. What I mean by American atmosphere is not patriotism, nor the conservation of “American values” (although it has some that, something very interesting for a left-wing filmmaker such as Jonathan Demme). It is something more subterranean, appearing to be on the outside of the screen while actually being under its surface. That America was born and is fascinated with violence is a well-known fact. But what kind of violence is that that attracts America? Many can say that it is senseless violence and will draw facts about homicide by fire-guns, American interventionism on Third World countries and perhaps will “remind” that 9/11 was the result of American interventions on Afghanistan and Iraq that ultimately was reversed back to the United States (maybe using Charlie Wilson’s War [2007] as an argument, as if it were one). It doesn’t matter, I’m not talking about politics here. I’m talking about something else. America has a very intimate relation with the nature of the individual and to the surroundings of this individual. The fact that Lambs open the woods somewhere “near Quantico, VA” has weight. Virginia, as does the entire interior of Northeastern region of the United States, has a mysterious temperate climate, with impenetrable woods and a diffuse light that kind of dictates the mood of its atmosphere and of its people. This is not to say that these woods are haunted. But they are haunting. Wasn’t it in these woods, those impenetrable woods, filled with mist and fog, with a seemingly perpetual autumnal weather, that M. Night Shyamalan created his masterpiece about human isolation and spiritual death called The Village (2004), a film that finally is getting its deserved attention? For what constitutes a culture isn’t the literature, the capability of creating books, paintings, poems or statues—the sacred signs of a people intellectual people. These are the final results of a real culture, which is a constitution crusted on the soil of its native land, developing and boiling on the mentality of the shepherd, the carpenter, the working lady and the hunter who walks through those words, finally flowering and culminating in the imaginative work, in the dialectics between reality and its interpretation, on the mind of the artist.[3] There can be no culture if the people don’t know where they inhabit and what kind of environment is surrounding them. This is true in the woods near Quantico, VA, in the desert of California, in the bog of Allen, Ireland, and in the floating world of Japan, as different as these cultures can get.

Jonathan Demme may not be the brilliant filmmaker I said he was in the Writers Pool of Notebook, but he is an American filmmaker, concerned with the characteristics and the elements of the American nature. Part of the success of Something Wild lies on his sensibility of captivating the essence of the places where we go through the film, and this is clearly something he consciously tried to develop during the first third of his career (Citizens Band is nothing else than an exercise on Americana’s aesthetics). The so-called “humanism” of his filmmaking is nothing but the sense of wonder of shooting the landscapes, highways, shotgun houses and the individual particles that form the United States. And without a director who can record the inner tensions of this complex country probably there wouldn’t be a Silence of the Lambs. How could it be if the picture is the interpolation of the coldness of the atmosphere in the weather and in the interior of the minds and souls of the protagonists? One may say that the film is marvelous thanks to the volleys of Demme’s direction, in particular the grandiosity of the scenes with Hannibal Lecter, and the unforgettable appearance of the “hockey mask” that protects him from biting on people in the airport scene. But Demme’s visual antics are the inner warmth in an otherwise cold film. They are the welcome contrast, perhaps the relief (but maybe the reminder) from a psychotic world. No: the true greatness of this film lies in the unison that is formed by the interior and exterior world. The exterior world is the type; the interior, the subterranean, is the antitype: Buffalo Bill lives in a rundown house in the suburbs. Buffalo Bill is a broken spirit; he is confused, angry. Hannibal Lecter lives inside a Plexiglas cell, immaculately clean, and so his manners, rhythm of speak and intelligence. But nevertheless, he inhabits an asylum, where violence comes from within, and from within comes his violence, and to within him goes the flesh of his victims.

American society may be fascinated with violence, but this violence is a way to atone sin from within the environment. We can only identify American society if we understand that its mentality is clearly shaped by a clear division of good and evil—no matter if the “good” and “evil” elements are interchangeable. Evil sometimes assume the shape of good, and The Silence of the Lambs clearly depicts it by transforming Dr. Lecter in a sympathetic character, but never forgetting that Dr. Lecter is an incarnation of the Devil—a statement made by Anthony Hopkins in the 90s and more recently repeated by Mads Mikkelsen, Hannibal’s player in the homonym TV series. One may think that this assumption, or that of America’s mentality, is way too Manichean: Good and Evil, one may think, are relative and one is complimented by the other. While this is true that Good and Evil are coexisting forces on Earth, it is false to perceive them as complimentary forces, or as relative (there is nothing as hypocrite and false as saying “What is good for him may not be good for her”). Good is perfection, and Evil is an imbalance in this perfection. May be if one wants to break the auteur’s theory one could say that the strength of this picture comes not from Demme’s direction but by supplementary forces placed within the images of the film, lying just underneath the aesthetical façade. One of the problems that Cahiers du cinema brought with the auteur’s theory is that, as important and as good as it is (and I will not take the trouble of breaking it apart piece by piece right now) is that it is equally materialistic in some of its aspects, bringing everything to the visual world of a movie.

On the other hand, if someone else wanted to champion the theory, he could say that in the Silence of the Lambs these “meta-forces” I’m talking about are represented visually by Jonathan Demme.

3. The Everlasting Duel

The Silence of the Lambs may want to be perceived as realistic and gritty, but it is clearly inserted in the Biblical concept of Good against Evil. And here to capitalize the initials of these words is absolutely important, since Lecter is the Devil and acts through and according to diabolic principles. Clarice, on the other hand, is the epitome of the Holy Virgin, whose strength is born through passive suffering and waiting—that is, traumatic experiences, analogous to those that Mary experienced over the last 24 hours of the life of Christ. Modernity—secular, blind and deaf to spiritual teachings—relegated Mary to the status of an oppressed woman, framed in the stereotype of the frail and strengthless woman observing passively her male son be adored. This, of course, is to be oblivious the adoration Catholicism has to the Virgin; this is ignoring that actually Mary is a strong woman, merciful, who intercedes for humanity with her love.

But it isn’t just the Church who adores the Virgin. There is no greater believer in Mary, and in God, and in Jesus and in the Bible than the Devil. As C. S. Lewis showed in the Screwtape Letters, the Devil knows the Bible by heart. And the beauty of this film is to insert justly the diabolical workings of Evil in this very frame: Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter don’t want only to corrupt the world into something bad; true evil is to corrupt the world into evil’s vision of what is good and beautiful, which is naturally twisted. Buffalo Bill doesn’t kill and skin his victims because he is not good, he wants to transcend his (in his view) unfitting body into something beautiful, complete and, above all, made by himself, and not by nature, which is something he cannot control.

But near Lecter, this is insignificant. Lecter, as the Devil, wants nothing but to make a 180º change to the order of the world. But inside his Plexiglas cell he can’t do anything of this sort. Better, inside the world itself he can’t do nothing. He has the power of violence, but violence is no real power. He can count only with his cleverness and malice to do something and to aim for glory, which appears in the film as elegance and finesse. This glory—the epitome of Good—appears to him exactly when Clarice Starling enters in his den, and from this moment on he starts to work for her.

There are two ways to way to look to Starling and Lecter’s relationship in this film. One is the way the critics has chosen to look, and unfortunately the way Thomas Harris chose to look, too, in the film’s continuation Hannibal (2001). This, perhaps, explain why Ridley Scott’s take on this story is so grueling bad. One way may perceive Lecter’s affection for Starling because (1) she’s a woman and he has not seen a woman for many years; (2) because she looks fragile and he can reign over her with his charm; and (3) there is some interior force in her that he can use for his wills. The apparently cabal argument that emphatically proves that there is a sexual “thing” going on between both characters is the famous touch of fingers between them, as a manner of Lecter, being strapped in that straightjacket physically touching her object of desire.

But this is a poor reading of the scene and of the dramatic universe of this film. Olavo de Carvalho in his study of The Silence of the Lambs correctly characterized a much-forgotten character, Crawford, as a version of The Tempest’s Prospero, “someone who manipulates the dark elements and, beating the odds, is able to bring everything to a happy ending with the victory of the good and of the light.”[4] Crawford is an all-knowing character: he knows Lecter from long ago, he knows his flaws and longings. He offers Lecter the sight of a woman and later makes an offer, through Starling, that he may be transferred to a more pleasant asylum. Crawford, in short, “makes the evil works for him,”[5] but only unknowingly—Lecter’s greatest flaw is not his inner evilness, but the sin of vanity. He must think he controls, somehow, Starling; he must think he is corrupting her.

But evil can never do that, because darkness at the end of the night is always hit by the light of the Sun. As I was saying, to interpret the touch of fingers between Starling and Dr. Lecter is a mistake because the Evil doesn’t desire to suppress, or to be united in any shape or form with Good. The Evil wants to be Good. Evil wants to invert the order of things, to change the meaning of words, of mentalities, of life as it is on Earth. But by the time Lecter touches Starling’s finger he knows very well what he did, he knew he was helping Starling to deter another devil, to stop ugliness on the streets of the country because he knew Starling was a much superior force than he thought. Again recurring to Carvalho’s study on the film, he asserts that this image may be a reference to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, the famous fresco where we see God’s right hand index finger touching Adam’s left hand index finger (fig. 2&3). Dr. Lecter may not be a god, but at least he may have his moment as one[6] because at the end of the day all that is allowed to him is to adore Starling, his true master, and to paint her as an angel holding a lamb on her arms with three crosses at the background of the scene.

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4. The Flow of the Water

As I said, The Silence of the Lamb is quite a miracle on Earth, bringing into work a director with little or no experience in the genre of thriller, an unknown playwright and two graceful players in tone. The problem with Jonathan Demme is that there wasn’t a film since that embraced his passions a filmmaker as organically as this film. There is a natural tendency in his films to look for the “abnormal” side of life, which is way more interesting, because this is the side that gives life this sense of wonder we sometimes feel when we are in a strange situation. At first, because Demme, as Sufjan Stevens would say, is in love with the place, he threw a soft light on his characters, as is the case with Citizens Band. So strong and so many are the prerogatives for the success of a Jonathan Demme picture that is truly a miracle that The Silence of the Lambs even got to be made: there must be an elastic nature in them, which may be explain why his documentaries are his best efforts, and the Silence has no place for elasticity. They appear to be experimental “performances films,” but if you watch them closely you will find that there is nothing experimental neither with Storefront Hitchcock (1998) or with Stop Making Sense, movies that are taken as experimental because of the lacking of a formal narrative and because of the hysterical nerve that runs from beginning to end in them dictated by the rhythm of the music. Stop Making Sense, perhaps on account of its title and of David Byrne’s frantic behavior on the stage that spills over on his bandmates, on the public and on the screen, more obviously than any other documentary is anchored in this concept of experimentalism: Talking Head’s post-urban paranoia is translated on the ever changing lightning of the stage, photographed with great method by Demme and Jordan Cronenweth (the greatest example being the stationary filming of “Once in a Lifetime,” a song that happens to be the best of the picture).

I believe there is no other way to capture life’s constant shifting actions if not with a certain amount of rigidity. In a famous interview with Werner Herzog from 2008, Jonathan Demme complains that although he has watched Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) time and again since its release he could never achieve in his cinema the same kind of magic Herzog achieved in the opening sequence of that film.[7] If we remember that opening scene, we will remind that we are dealing with a sequence of extended shots, often described as the march of little ants through a mountain.

What Demme doesn’t notice is that he is ignoring a great deal of his own filmic output. He may be right when he says that he never could achieve what Werner Herzog achieved in his fictional features—but who did? Demme, I believe, is truly a student of Herzog’s pictures. Not a brilliant one, sure, but a faithful one: both filmmakers use music as a preponderant part of the dramatic and narrative constructions of their pictures. Trouble is—and a say it knowing that I may am being arbitrary—Herzog knows what music represents in the dramatic building of a film. Demme doesn’t. For the better part of time, music in a Jonathan Demme picture is a way he finds to remind the public of his tastes as a filmmaker. But, on the other hand, both filmmakers know the value of human face, of temporal elation. When I said Demme doesn’t quite care for narrative this is what I meant: Demme captures things in real life, and real life is expressed not by the depth of frame or by the harmonic arrangements of things in the frame, but by the sudden shift of an eyebrow or by the dropping of a jaw. This is the beauty of, say, a work like I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad & the Beautiful (2011), a film that unfolds in real time through a digital camera, poorly filmed but full of the milk of human kindness. This is hard to reproduce in a—whether if we like it or not—media so rigorous as fictional cinema. And I say “whether if we like it or not” because all the filmmakers we say we like, like Ford, Hawks, Manoel de Oliveira, Eastwood etc., are filmmakers who worked inside or around the rigor of this media—especially the last two. Demme, disgracefully, has no tack for it, and sometimes he gets confused if he wants to break or follow this rigor, and even if he makes a choice he will sometimes fail in the execution. Even, actually, when he is successful he will jeopardize it (take the “Better Things” sequence from The Manchurian Candidate as an example[8]).

But there was a time when a miracle happened on this Earth and an unstable filmmaker who never made a hit before in his career made a spectacular film that gained him fame and fortune. In his film he closely achieved what Aristotle labeled as the duty of Greek tragedy: “to inspire terror and piety.”[9] If he never repeats this? Hell, it is better to have water flowing underground once in a lifetime than never at all.

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Notes

[1] V. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/notebook-s-8th-writers-poll-fantasy-double-features-of-2015#bruno

[2] This may be conflicting with previous assertions I made, especially with my piece on Brian De Palma’s pictures (see my article “Obsessively Double Body,” desistfilm, March 13th, 2015, http://desistfilm.com/obsessively-double-body-brian-de-palmas-symmetry/). But it is all a matter of interpretation: while Demme is an aesthete, his aesthetics are not the essence of his filmmaking, while De Palma is a filmmaker who creates his world and the situations that happen in then in an exclusively graphic manner. If we remind, his lesser efforts (1987’s The Untouchables, 1978’s The Fury) are those that their center of gravity are based on the script (and the two films I cited are justly some of those in which De Palma had no direct input on the screenplay) and not freely on their mise en scène, even if it plays an important role on their development, especially on the latter. That is, to reuse an example made on the quoted article: When De Palma frames two characters playing different actions at the same time but divided by a wall, or when, through a split diopter lens attached to the camera, a characters walks unknowing on the right side of the screen while a mysterious assassin hides a knife on the left side, De Palma is representing how the world is a mish-mash of separated actions and that these actions—even if they somehow rhyming acts of violence, or at least of violence in potential—and that life happens on the spot, hitting us incessantly through kill moves, sometimes stabbing us behind our backs, and sometimes stopped through other separated, unforeseen happenings, that protects us while we are not paying attention. De Palma’s dilemma is that we are never paying enough attention. Only his camera is, but only because it is not a living body. If it were, perhaps it would be killed, too.

While we can draw it all from the mise en scène, one can notice that I am not making here a purely formalist analysis, nor I believe it can be made. We have here a convergence between the types and symbols found in De Palma’s cinema with their correspondences in reality.

[3] Christopher Dawson, Progress & Religion: An Historical Inquiry (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 45.

[4] Olavo de Carvalho, Símbolos e Mitos no Filme “O Silêncio dos Inocentes,” in A Dialética Simbólica: Estudos Reunidos, 2.ª ed. (Campinas: Vide Editorial, 2015), pt. 2, 1, 3, MOBI edition.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “God creates man from the darkness of nothing and insufflates in him, with a touch of the index finger, the light of intelligence. This the Devil can’t do. But he can create a simulacrum, a copy of the world in miniature, artificially assembling a chain of enigmatic obscurities for man to struggle in there. Then, with a touch of hand that suddenly brings everything to light, he releases him. The ordering intuition is, mutatis mutandis, a recreation of the world. Lecter plays being God, bringing from darkness the light in Clarice’s mind.” Ibid., pt. 2, 1, appx. 3.

[7] Werner Herzog interviwed by Jonathan Demme Moving Image Source, June 5th, 2008, http://www.movingimagesource.us/files/dialogues/3/91116_programs_transcript_pdf_304.pdf, page 3.

[8] I wrote a short piece on Demme where I briefly talk about this sequence on my blog. V. https://ablogbyvictorbruno.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/thoughts-on-demme/.

[9] Carvalho, op. cit., pt. 1, 1.