Dir. Jonathan Demme

I actually feel somewhat reticent about posting this because I have a slight hunch this is appearing in the FT Top 50 list (or else it already has and I’ve missed it), and it seems sorta gauche for me to intrude on it. But I will post, partially because I have what might or might not be an unusual excuse — I only just saw it for the first time the other day.

More than once I’ve surprised people — unintentionally — by what I have or haven’t seen (or heard or read), partially because I think there’s an understandable assumption that it’d be extremely odd for me in turn to ask why everyone hasn’t read Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, for instance. The scale between what is assumed to be known and shared and what isn’t does vary, after all. Still, as I’ve muttered elsewhere, assuming that *every* major thing in all artistic fields is equally known by all would be a bit much, wide cultural impact notwithstanding, and so it was that while I knew of the characters and the general sense of the story and the references to it — and even flat out lurved Silence! The Musical — I still hadn’t gotten around to actually seeing it yet. But then I stumbled across a used copy of the Criterion DVD last week for cheap (apparently it’s out of print and goes for major cash) and didn’t hesitate. Why not?

What it was about it that didn’t impel me to see it back in 1991 isn’t clear. I’m just not sure. Possibly the reports of ‘gross scenes’ or something, which my 1991 self was probably more squeamish about than my current one. Not that I like regularly seeing gore (horrible thought), but what is shown is quite literally more visceral than horrifying, rudely unsettling rather than vomitous. To my mind it’s telling, on some level I’m not sure about myself, that when I rewatched the film tonight to hear the commentary track, the one scene I didn’t want to see again directly was the one of Clarice Starling surrounded by the West Virginia cops in the funeral home. I think I can relate to feelings of awkwardness more intensely than other things, and that was a feeling of that plus condemnation and sneering and more, with the overarching implied sexism tying it all together — it’s captured brilliantly, and I hate that feeling, and couldn’t watch again, looking away until the scene was over.

In contrast the moments of corpse photos and the like could bear watching again, while in the meantime I could also appreciate more thoroughly how Demme balances that against not showing things and letting the implication be all — the photo the asylum director shows Starling, for instance. Or perhaps most clearly the corpse investigation scene, where the body is only revealed once in full, via the back — every other time, the shots are close, often unsettlingly so, sometimes out of focus. Perhaps the most disturbing element is the preternatural whine of the camera as shots are taken during Starling’s accounting of the condition of the body, it just sounds off.

Technology is another thing I think about when I see the film, in that what must have seemed not so much state of the art but simply how things are has changed so radically. I was honestly startled to see a scene start with a close-up on a fax machine, or to see Starling looking for information via newspapers on microfilm, or to see largish cordless phones and no cell phones at all. The film could be set now with a few updates on that front and not much need be changed, but I wonder — possibly very naively — what would have to be changed in the portrayal of institutional/societal sexism (that the film can comment so effectively on that, as well as issues of class, regionalism and even size is definitely one of its strengths, and makes me understand its reputation more clearly). More than a few things struck me as being the type of thing that people would now file lawsuits about (or else be aware of that enough NOT to say something that would cause that), but whether that reflects a sea change or whether I’m just talking from the obviously limited perspective that I’d never have to potentially deal with that anyway, as I’m not female, I don’t know.

The impact of the film on many different things is now more fully clear to me too — it was fascinating realizing how much of the nineties derived from the film’s popular impact. The X-Files suddenly had a very clear source of origin, The Blair Witch Project‘s ending wasn’t so far from Jame Gumb’s basement, plenty more could be mentioned. Literary efforts come to mind too — Caleb Carr’s confrontation between an investigator and a psychiatrist in The Alienist could have easily been a tribute to Thomas Harris’ original novel, I’m willing to bet, but something about the way Carr portrays the scene makes me think of the movie now. But just as interesting is the seventies roots of the film too — Demme’s own roots show, and I think the film is more of a bridge between that past and the strands of revival that followed thereafter than I ever would have guessed before seeing it. The camera shots, occasional sudden zooms, conscious demystifying (in part if not in whole)… Even the opening credits, for all their starkness on the screen, seem somehow…clunky, hand-carved, ‘real’ in a weird sense.

Perhaps the film’s closest parallel at the time would have been Twin Peaks, I’d guess — and while there’s murder and the FBI, what really suggests that is setting, which it parallels (for instance, in Lambs nothing is really set or seen in a ‘typical’ huge city outside of occasional DC tracking shots, and DC itself is that most atypical of modern American cities in that it lacks skyscrapers of any sort) but not equates. If Lynch and cohorts’ America was a lush green setting of mysteriousness, Demme’s America is this vast strange prison that’s at once familiar and astonishingly constricting. The suggestion of confinement and escape is set with Lecter’s confinement and Starling’s drive to break free, and through that lens the many locations of the film — none of which, aside from that Bahamas sequence right at the end, are set near the most direct border possible, the ocean (and notably Starling’s false offer of limited freedom to Lecter includes an island setting) — become this series of mostly rural, isolated sprawls or stand-alone buildings. Even the FBI Academy is hardly immune, set amid woods, and the predominant color is brown, not green. The regular though thankfully not scene-for-scene constant invoking of the American flag as symbol of inherent violence makes that Bahamas scene all the more of a difference, it’s like everything has been escaped, setting, country…state of mind? Not if Lecter has his way.

I could talk more about the strength of the performances and the wisdom in not letting Lecter become the main character and the effectiveness of how both source and soundtrack music are used but it’s been said and better and this is almost too long for an FT entry already. I’d say all those Oscars were well deserved, at least (and I will say that seeing Chris Isaak as ice cool SWAT team dude is really disconcerting, that I didn’t expect the ambulance part at all, and that the part where Gumb gropes near Starling in the dark is heart-in-throat for me). So two points to note in conclusion — the Jame Gumb genital-hiding dance sequence surely was taken by many as something either horrifying or weirdly comic or both, perhaps understandably so. Personally I just thought of the only character who combines both Lecter and Gumb, Frank N. Furter — in a film where the condemnation of and fascination with serial killers has the thinnest of lines separating it, damn if I didn’t sympathize a little with Gumb’s character then, the part of me that just wishes I was the prettiest thing on the planet (and had a good song to sing to boot).

And finally — getting back to a literally visceral moment — is there anything more unsettlingly beautiful than the cage death reveal sequence, a gutted cop strung up by flag banners, a true Angel in America, an angel of death? Expressionist cinema to the ultimate in a film that wants to be ‘realist,’ lights just so framing everything, the music swelling, a cage in a huge room, doom and a weird sort of life at once, camera pulling back quickly almost in horror but unable to look away? Astonishing.

And now Demme directs Manchurian Candidate remakes. Hmf.