Later in the year, Kehr wrote a few follow-up articles for the Tribune
, including an essay on serial killers in contemporary Hollywood films (specifically in this film and Cape Fear
). I was only able to get a hold of one other article which I've pasted in below:
Power, not art, animates `Silence of the Lambs'
It's on the second viewing that films usually reveal their undertones-the background emotions that may heighten, offset or even contradict the feelings the director has self-consciously placed up front.
In the case of Jonathan Demme's "The Silence of the Lambs"-which seems, on the first pass, a particularly brutal, inhuman thriller-a second look reveals a layer of sadness and exhaustion, a pervasive, dispiriting sense of resignation.
This sadness of "The Lambs" is, perhaps, a sadness of surrender, the despair of an immensely gifted filmmaker who has (only for the moment, one hopes) decided to abandon the struggle. It's a film that contradicts almost everything Demme has stood for as an artist, in such superbly realized films as "Something Wild," "Melvin and Howard" and "Handle With Care," and yet, in the three weeks it has been in release, it is well on its way to becoming the most commercially successful of Demme's films-his only real hit.
It's sad, too, that the film's success doesn't seem surprising in the least. Give the people what they want-which in this case, apparently, is a cannibalistic serial killer as the hero of a major motion picture-and they'll turn out every time.
For those who haven't yet seen "The Silence of the Lambs" (and it is, for all of its disturbing implications, a film that deserves to be looked at and taken seriously), the plot might be quickly summarized as follows:
Baffled by a series of murders, in which the killer removes the skin of his victims, FBI agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) assigns eager young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to establish a relationship with captured serial killer Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant psychiatrist who enjoyed devouring the internal organs of his victims. Crawford hopes that Lecter may have some special insights into the killer's personality, which he might share with a beautiful, vulnerable young woman.
As it turns out, somewhat too conveniently, Dr. Lecter not only possesses those insights, but also knows the killer's identity, having treated one of his early victims. Clarice must convince him to give her the name before "Buffalo Bill," as the new killer has been nicknamed, can execute his latest kidnap victim.
Demme, following Ted Tally's screenplay adapted from Thomas Harris' novel, cuts among the on-the-scene investigations of Crawford and Clarice; Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) in his infernal cellar, preparing for his latest kill; and Dr. Lecter's grisly attempts to escape. But the core of the film is the relationship between Clarice and Lecter, as it is played out on opposite sides of glass walls and prison bars.
"The Silence of the Lambs" was described by Village Voice critic Amy Taubin as "deliberately, unabashedly, and uncompromisingly a feminist movie," an interpretation that Demme himself has clung to in his interviews. The film establishes a clear, if somewhat exaggerated, parallel between Clarice's exploitation at the hands of her employer Crawford (who is also portrayed as a father figure and potential lover) and Buffalo Bill's treatment of his victims as objects or animals (he is "harvesting" their skin to make a dress for himself).
Only Clarice's inner strength and feisty independence save her from the predatory impulses of the males who surround her; she is allowed-and this is the greatest anomaly for a Hollywood film of 1991-to survive the film without entering into a romance, without being claimed and redeemed by a man.
But is that really true? Clarice earns Lecter's complicity by striking a strange bargain: For every bit of information Lecter grants her, he will be allowed another question about the most intimate aspects of her emotional history. It's hard to see the feminist thrust of a heroine who allows herself to be raped, mentally if not physically, in exchange for access to the male's superior intelligence and insight.
The perverse dynamics of the Clarice-Lecter relationship become the central focus of the film. On one side of the glass partition that fronts Lecter's infernal prison cell there is power and desire, on the other vulnerability and submission.
The exploitative relationship is reflected in the literary names Harris has chosen for his characters: "Hannibal Lecter" links the irresistible power of a legendary military leader (with the free side effect of some phantom elephant imagery) to a sinister intellectualism-Hannibal is a reader (a lecteur in French) of both books and souls. "Clarice Starling" trembles with a quaint, bygone femininity-a bird about to vanish under the elephant's foot.
Clarice makes herself valuable to her FBI superiors to the degree that she enjoys a "special" closeness to Lecter (although she clearly has other investigative talents). As a couple, she empowers him and he validates her; they become a unit, and we are made to feel troubled when Clarice seems to betray him with a phony deal involving a furlough on a disease-ridden island. It's like a lovers' quarrel, a senseless spat in an Astaire-Rogers film, and we want to see it resolved as quickly as possible.
Luckily, the pair is able to kiss and make up. The consummation of their relationship comes when Clarice yields her ultimate emotional secret (the traumatic childhood event that gives the film its protectively poetic title) and Lecter responds with the suggestion that finally allows her to track the new killer to his lair. There is even a happy ending, one that reaffirms the bond between the characters by means of a quick, sick joke. Lecter promises to kill (and devour) the one character they both dislike-the one character who has tried to come between them.
One of the principal themes of Demme's work is precisely this sense of exchange between the partners in a romantic relationship, an exchange that produces a couple that is greater-stronger, more stable and more alive-than the sum of its parts. The incurable dreamer (Paul Le Mat) marries the hopeless pragmatist (Mary Steenburgen) in "Melvin and Howard"; the tense businessman (Jeff Daniels) is seduced by the dangerous free spirit (Melanie Griffith) in "Something Wild"; another uptight FBI agent (Matthew Modine) succumbs to the funky ethnicity of a gangster's wife (Michelle Pfieffer) in "Married to the Mob."
"The Silence of the Lambs" parodies and perverts that process. The exchange is not free, but horribly forced, sadistically inflicted, and the couple produced is sterile and monstrous.
We know that Clarice has finally absorbed all that Lecter has to teach when Demme confers Lecter's signature shot upon her: a huge, looming close-up, taken through a space-compacting telephoto lens. This is an image of total domination-the subject's forehead seems to hang over the audience, the burning eyes fix us directly-and it sums up Demme's style in "The Silence of the Lambs," a style of intimidation, control, manipulation. He will tell us exactly where to look, down to the precise millimeter, and exactly what to feel, down to the smallest tremor.
That's hardly an unusual technique in American movies, but in th context of a Jonathan Demme film it seems almost shocking, so thoroughly and deliberately does it contradict the approach Demme has developed over the course of his career.
Like Renoir and Rossellini in Europe, and McCarey and Sturges in Hollywood, Demme belongs to a profoundly democratic tradition of filmmaking, in which the basic unit is a long shot, filled with a number of characters and a multiplicity of points of view, that allows the viewer to make his own choices, forge his own identifications and arrive at his own judgments. It is an open, free style, as opposed to the closed-off, authoritarian technique of a Hitchcock or Lang. And most audiences don't like it, because it requires too much work.
In "The Silence of the Lambs," Demme has finally given up: He's succumbed to the temptations of movie authoritarianism, making a film about domination that seeks itself to dominate its audience. Clarice's compassion is only the alibi; the film's deepest appeal lies in the dream of complete callousness, of irresistible power and perfect freedom from moral constraint, that Lecter represents. Ultimately, the film is a power fantasy barely distinguishable from the crudest Arnold Schwarzenegger or Eddie Murphy vehicle, though aimed at a more knowing, more sophisticated public.
There is one shot in "The Silence of the Lambs" that bears Demme's signature, and it comes at the very end of the film: Looking down from above, the camera watches the people passing through the narrow main street of a Caribbean village, quietly observing as Lecter disappears into the crowd. The camera continues to record the spectacle for several minutes, as the end credits pass, even though there is now nothing to see (that is, nothing to do with the narrative).
As the character disappears, so does the director: His authority melts away, leaving only an open, uninflected view of a real world living in its own time and its own rhythm. This is a shot that could have been taken by Louis Lumiere on the first day of the invention of the movies (and Lumiere did take many like it). Returning a sudden, startling sense of innocence to this deeply contrived, brutally calculated film, the shot is almost heartbreaking. Here, in one image, is what Jonathan Demme has lost.
FWIW, another article published in the Trib (written by someone else, not one of their critics) interviewed the head of the FBI's Investigative Support Unit with regards to this movie. A portion of that article dealt with common traits in serial killers:
The arrest in January of drifter Aileen Carol Wuornos in Florida in connection with the recent serial killings of nine men indicated an exception to another rule: Serial killers are almost always men.
"Women (who suffer childhood abuse) internalize everything," Douglas said. "What happens is they turn to alcohol, turn to drugs, turn to prostitution."
Male killers usually choose women as victims, in part for sexual gratification but also because women are easier to dominate.
Serial killers tend to be cowards. The inability to establish or maintain relationships with women is a common trait.
"Bundy was living with a woman," Douglas recalled, "but every time there was a problem in that relationship, well, what you see is, rather than strike out at the problem with the person in their lives, whether it was an argument or whatever, they leave and they go outn a hunt, like a predatory animal. . . . They want to punish the victim and watch the victim suffer. They want to torture that victim. They want to see tears streaming down faces. They want to keep that victim alive and under control a long period of time."