Tuesday, August 29, 2006

I'm Having an Old Friend for Dinner

by Jackrabbit Slim

As I am in a self-reflective, navel-gazing mode (a habit of writers) I’ve been thinking about the year 1991, and my Netflix queue is made up of the key films from that year. Since it’s been pretty quiet around here lately, I thought I’d share my reflections on these films as I watch them again, most of them for the first time since I saw them in theaters way back when. I realize that most of you guys were in junior high fifteen years ago, and probably didn’t see these films in theaters when they were released, so I’d be interested how you came to them.

I begin my trip back to 1991 with the Oscar-winning Best Picture of that year, Silence of the Lambs. It’s one of the few times I agree with the Academy, as it was my favorite film of that year as well. I own the DVD (unfortunately, the first release, not the Criterion Collection), and looked at it again the other day, so I have at seen it at least three times. The first time I saw it was on a cold, sunny February day at Loews Astor Plaza on Times Square, which was one of the few large houses left in Manhattan (I think it has been since carved up or done away with completely). I was with a girl whose response to scary movies was to bury her head into my arm; by the end of this film she was practically in my lap.

I regard Silence of the Lambs as a classic of its genre, and in fact, a film that rises above its genre. Even on my third viewing, it manages to create tension and suspense, and the performance by Anthony Hopkins will endure as one of the great depictions of evil in cinema history. He does this, intriguingly, by making Hannibal Lecter, dare I say, likeable. He’s witty, sophisticated, and even has a splinter of humanity, as his affection for Clarice Starling is evident. As Roger Ebert points out in his review, you’d love to have him as a dinner companion, as long as he didn’t eat you.

The credit can be spread around liberally. Jonathan Demme, who hasn’t made nearly as good a film since then, masterfully creates a sense of dread almost from the very beginning, and Ted Tally’s screenplay is economical without being dumbed down (I have not read the source novel). The editing is particularly brilliant, as the film contains one of the great head-fakes I’ve ever seen (the scene involving the ringing of doorbells at two different houses).

As for Jodie Foster as Starling, who also won the Oscar, I noticed a few things about her role that hadn’t sunk in before. She is playing a woman in a man’s world, which is reinforced many times, such as when she steps into an elevator at the FBI and is a petite woman surrounded by tall men, or the scene at the funeral home in West Virginia, where she musters the courage to politely tell all the local cops to get out. This ties in with the performance of Scott Glenn as her boss, Jack Crawford. At first glance this seems to be a matter-of-fact role, the kind that exists to give exposition and further the plot. But every scene he is with Starling there is a palpable awkwardness, as if he is containing something. When Lecter first meets Starling, he asks her whether Crawford lusts after her, and she shrugs the question off, but the question hangs there for the rest of the film. Crawford has used Starling because she is a young woman, will he ever think of her as just an agent?

When the film came out, there was some expression of dismay in the gay community that the killer, Jamie Gumb (aka Buffalo Bill) was a homosexual and gender-disoriented individual. I remember that there was a particularly angry article in the Village Voice. I can sort of see the point, because especially back then there weren’t that many characterizations of gay people in mainstream cinema—so when there is one, he’s a sadistic and twisted serial killer. On the other hand, every group has its bad apples, and artists can’t be forever looking over their shoulder, afraid they are going to offend someone. I believe it was Jean-Luc Godard who said that the most effective criticism of a film was to make another film, and hopefully there will be continue to be more films about gay people that portray them in the myriad ways that they are, good, bad and in-between.

14 Comments:

Blogger jaydro said...

I was never a fan of this film, perhaps because I was way too much of a fan of Michael Mann's Manhunter. I much preferred the Hannibal Lecter in the original film, and I hated hated hated that head-fake scene. So there. :P ;-)

8/29/2006 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

Ooookay. I saw Manhuter before Silence, and I thought it was a good movie, kind of a pumped up B-film. It's kind of a dim memory, though. Brian Cox is a good actor, but he wasn't nearly as scary to me as Hopkins.

8/29/2006 01:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

Silence of the Lambs is easily in my top ten of films. Fuck, might very well be in my top five.

Manhunter is a great film, but really, when comparing it to SotL it all gets a bit silly. Sure one might prefer Manhunter over SotL, but it gets a bit harder when trying to somehow prove it's a better film. Manhunter is a well-crafted film, with some great artful touches (the flaming wheelchair scene is amazing). SotL is art, pure and simple. One of the most probing and disturbing (because of the former) films on death, lust/sex/love/longing/relationships, temptations plus nature of the flesh and nature itself, ever made. And made with a craft and sense of cinema that Manhunter rarely comes even close to approaching. I don't really even have to get into the acting. Foster blows Petersen clean out of the water when it comes to inner turmoil, and seriously, Cox may be a more realistic Hannibal Lecter, but not nearly as sophisticated, complicated and mezmerizing as Hopkins makes him here. There just is not much contest.

Oh, and hi. Sorry I've been away. Work and no internet available. But I'm back now. You boys have been lazy I see, btw. Except you, of course, Jack.

On the other hand, it's been a really boring movie summer. Who the hell would have thought PotC 2 would have been my moviegoing highlight this summer?

8/29/2006 03:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

Except you, of course, Jack.

Et tu Brian.

8/29/2006 03:18:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

Welcome back, Nick! As my grandparents used to say, take off your coat and stay awhile.

8/29/2006 03:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

As my grandparents used to say, take off your coat and stay awhile.

Thanks, Jack. Might just do that.

Although it would have to be my shorts, since that's all I'm wearing at the moment. No one minds, I hope? Thought not.

8/29/2006 03:56:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

Well I didn't say Manhunter was a better film than SotL, but for me it was much more effective. It got under my skin with the home movies and the overall look of the film. I liked Cox better because he wasn't as over-the-top as Hopkins' Lecter. SotL was well-made, with fine acting by everyone, but for me it just kind of sat there. Stuff in Manhunter provokes nightmares that make me wake up in a cold sweat, and Mann mined the very same material in an episode of Miami Vice and I think even perhaps in one of his busted cop pilots.

And I did I mention I hated the SotL head-fake scene?

8/29/2006 05:10:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I was never a huge fan of SotL to begin with, but I find that as time goes by Hopkins' performance gets less and less impressive to me. Evil is never very scary if it's constantly advertising to the world how evil it is.

You're right, in that in my case I was in junior high when SotL came out. I honestly don't remember how I came to see it for the first time. I think I had maybe seen parts of it throughout the years when my parents rented it, or when it was on TV, etc. I know I had to watch it for a couple of film classes I took in college, but I'm not sure if I had watched it all the way through before then or not.

8/29/2006 05:21:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Oh, and I hated the head-fake, too. Stuff like that really hurts a picture, I feel.

Nick, welcome back, it's really very good to see you. I'll have to start an argument about The Descent now.

8/29/2006 05:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

Stuff in Manhunter provokes nightmares that make me wake up in a cold sweat

I'll say the same thing for Lambs. Can think of three at the top of my head. I also think Buffalo Bill is oft cruelly unmentioned as one of the creepiest serial killers in movie history. So now I've done my part.

I'll have to start an argument about The Descent now.

Let's see the review first, chap, then we'll talk.

Oh, and loved what you're calling the 'head-fake-scene' (pourquoi?). Even worked a second time on me (been a long time since I saw the movie.

8/29/2006 05:46:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Let's see the review first, chap, then we'll talk.

Will do. Never intended to hijack this fine thread.

what you're calling the 'head-fake-scene' (pourquoi?).

I think "head-fake" originated as a football term, meaning you fake one way (with your head), then cut back the other.

8/29/2006 06:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

I think "head-fake" originated as a football term, meaning you fake one way (with your head), then cut back the other.

Ah. Football terms. As in what we call American football. This delightfully American pastime. Should have known. Or should I?

Ah, gotta sleep. Timezones still applying, and all.

8/29/2006 06:40:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Well, I think it's football anyway, but I can't say for sure. That's just where I hear it most applied, and it makes sense enough. But honestly, I have no idea, it could be dreived from an ancient Swahili term for all I know.

8/29/2006 07:54:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

I think it can be applied to basketball as well, or any sport where you try to elude someone.

8/30/2006 10:36:00 AM  

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