The Greatest American Films Part 4: #8 The Silence of the Academy

(I did not realize that I still had 2 blogs active on the old Blogger format, this is a post from about 7 years ago that I found on there, I’m going to rip a few of those old posts and place them here then deactivate my old blog, I can’t say I still stand by this post in particular but maybe I will finally finish my series analyzing each of these films)

For my third entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen The Silence of the Lambs.

I feel like my last entry was boring, to say the least. Not because Schindler’s List is boring, simply because The List is such an excellent film and I don’t really think it rocked anybody’s world to see it put on another top anything list. I’m not trying to shake things up, I’m trying to be honest but honesty is always a dish best served…controversially. I think my current writing topic has such flair.

There are only three films that have won the big five at the Academy Awards since the honorific’s inception. Those films are It Happened One Night (1934), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). For those of you that have actual lives with brains filled with useful information the Big Five are the five most prestigious awards the Academy offers every year. They are the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo. Unless you’re not going on a Safari and happen to live in the United States. In that case they are Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). Now being nominated for all Five is a pretty big feat in itself. That group of films is a rather exclusive one as well. But as I said before only three have won the big five. But even after this The Silence of the Lambs distinguished itself further by being the only thriller to have won Best Picture. Given that the Academy has been so incredibly biased towards dramas for several decades now that is quite impressive. Another singular event happened that same year which is also worth mentioning. Beauty and the Beast was the first and only animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture. I guess the Academy was feeling open-minded. And there is another special distinction that Lambs alone possesses. Anthony Hopkins’ performance was only 17 minutes of screen time. That makes him the record holder for the shortest Best Actor Oscar ever.

The Academy Awards are one of those things that matter when you want them to and don’t matter when you don’t want them to. In other words we praise films that deserve the awards and deride films that don’t. I praise the Academy for giving Lambs the Big Five. The reason is simple: it deserved every single one of those awards. Lambs is the only truly feminist film on my top ten list. Many of you may gawk at that label. Go ahead. Keep gawking I’m not taking it back. Few films give the setup for their movie with such subtle visual and musical economy. Even from the credits we are being told what this film is: menacing. The opening credits are shoddy black with menacing mysterious symphonic chords playing against them. Then we see our heroine. A little, delicate, beautiful, sweaty, tough, lady. She is exercising at the FBI academy all alone.

Feminism is one of those words that creates completely unnecessary polarizations. Liberals can’t think of a higher superlative than feminist pros, and conservatives can’t think of a worse one. But to be a feminist all you have to be is pro woman. Not pro woman over man, not anti man, not anti babies or children. You just have to value women. Which we should all do without exception. Now given this definition of feminism many of you are gawking even more. That is because you probably don’t understand what The Silence of the Lambs is about. It is about a woman fighting for another woman in a world controlled by men. Not necessarily evil men, simply people that don’t share the particular female point of view. We are plunged into this world immediately. Demme hired extremely tall males extras for the introductory scenes. Jodie Foster is a tiny woman anyway. But once she enters the FBI headquarters after her workout we see the male world she lives in. These giant extras tower over her tiny frame making her seem even more diminutive. Then in what is a devilishly clever shot she gets into an elevator filled with these huge extras and almost seems to shrink before our eyes, but her stature never grows smaller just her size. Needless to say this is very good visual storytelling. The point is made to the viewer without any words just pictures and some music.

But the most important and interesting thing about this film isn’t Hopkins’ or Foster’s excellent performances; it’s not even really the grotesque subject matter. The most important thing about this movie is that it is a face movie. It is a movie about faces. Most of the scenes involve either extreme close ups or directly frontal shots of the actors’ visages. Whatever this film is it is inherently about persons. It never lets you forget that the characters who inhabit this story are in fact people.

But the most unforgettable face is of the demented psychologist who most people believe is the true antagonist of the picture. Don’t get me wrong Lecter is a villain but his role in the events that unfold is more similar to that of Obi-Wan than Bates. During the course of the film Lecter actually enables Starling to become a better person and a better FBI operative. The true villain is Buffalo Bill, who isn’t even truly evil. His role is more like the Shark from Jaws or the giant pen…I mean the Alien from Alien. Bill is truly sick. His actions are evil but he is not completely responsible for what he does. He needs help. So we have an antagonist that isn’t free or completely evil and a mentor who is deeply evil and completely free. I mean Lecter actually puts Clarice through a kind of abbreviated therapy during the course of the film, hence the name. He helps her silence the screaming lambs of her past. Which is what makes the poster so brilliant. The crimes of Bill are silencing her mouth, silenced her screaming.

Roger Ebert thinks that we accept Lecter because all the evil things he does are just part of his nature. This is terribly poor reasoning. I pick on Ebert a lot because he is well known, I respect him, and he should know better. We don’t “accept” the alien in Alien, or the shark in Jaws, or Pazuzu in The Exorcist. That’s why they’re villains, they are villains by nature. But we do find Lecter attractive. Because he is honorable and charming. Throughout the course of the film we actually don’t see Lecter do very many things that we can truly classify as unjustified. They maybe wrong but they are not without reason. I am not saying Lecter is not vile, he is, he truly is evil. But his character forces the truth in our faces. He is not the devil; I think he actually represents the id. Much has been made of how Clarice has to descend so far into the asylum to reach Lecter and how that represents his villainy. He is like the devil because she has to descend to reach him. She has to make a deal with the devil in order to catch Bill. This is overly simplistic. The descent represents a descent into madness. She is in an asylum, Lecter is a psychiatrist, she is trying to find a psychopath. It is a very deep mythological motif, the descent. But in this case it doesn’t have anything to do with good and evil. Good and evil are not nearly as important concerns to the characters in this film as psychology. Clarice is fighting evil but she is also fighting herself. Facing Lecter is like facing the pure id. She has to face him in order to stop Bill. She has to face herself. The film is full of faces. She has to descend several times to talk to Lecter. Faces, descent, Bill’s victims are in a pit trying to crawl their way out. This film is about facing insanity and being able to walk away a better person. But when the id is released, not kept in check by the restraints of society it wreaks terrible havoc. I will now leave you with Hannibal’s explanation for Bill’s insanity. It is simple and common, yet it caused Bill to become a terrible monster.

“We begin by coveting what we see every day.”

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