When asked which three directors most influenced him as a filmmaker, a young Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) replied: "Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme, and Jonathan Demme." Demme, who died yesterday at 73 from esophageal cancer, will be missed. He was one of the last great iconoclast authors of American cinema—a genre-bending filmmaker who could turn a road-trip rom-com into a film about escaping neoliberal capitalism (Something Wild), spin Neil Young concert documentaries into decade-spanning portraits of an artist's evolution, and transform a wedding farce starring Anne Hathaway into a deep study of addiction and guilt (Rachel Getting Married).
Demme is one of the most imitated filmmakers of the past 30 years, yet no one else has managed to reproduce his dizzying balance of hyperrealism, grounded exaggeration, and cinematic gesture. All of which are on full display in his timeless 1991 masterpiece, The Silence of the Lambs—which more than holds up to a rewatch in 2017.
The first thing you notice when rewatching Lambs in 2017 is how theatrical it is. It's John Waters by way of Douglas Sirk, layered with the pulpy psychoanalysis of the hefty airport-lounge paperback it's been adapted from. It's a melodrama but with face eating.
The theatrical factor is usually associated with Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter or Ted Levine's fantastically ridiculous Buffalo Bill, but there's more to the pastiche than that. Demme's opening scene immediately establishes the film's trademark—uncanny realism—as Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling is alone on an FBI obstacle course, while Howard Shore's bombastically morose score crashes in with chunky strings, smothering Clarice in a peculiarly sudden foreboding. Demme heightens our senses from the outset; he saturates us in the logic of his aesthetics and the language of his vision. And as such, he makes sure we're buckled in when things turn to lotions, baskets, and a skin-wearing man singing karaoke.
This dip into a heightened sensory experience is made totally effective by the fact that we're literally dropped into the mind of Clarice. As she navigates the plot with trepidation, cynicism, and a growing sense of unease, so do we.
Demme was always brilliant at drawing out empathically feminine perspectives from hypermasculine narratives (see Something Wild or even the skewering of machismo in Philadelphia.) Clarice is a small woman dwarfed by her setting and the larger-than-life characters she deals with. In one shot, she takes us into an elevator filled with burly, red-shirted FBI agents, and we feel her unease. As a passing extra looks her up and down in a tracking shot through the airport, she covers herself gently with her suitcase. In a later scene, we get a first-person view as county cops leer at her.
Even the viewer becomes her pervert. "Don't you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice?" asks Dr. Lecter. Our eyes watch her too.
Lambs is a film of faces and eyes. Through Demme's vision, we are taken down winding hallways, seated face-to-face in interrogations, handed night-vision goggles, and told kill or be killed. By the time Hannibal becomes the film's epicenter, Demme has conditioned us to hone in on the minutiae of his facial movements: The audience is made honorary detective.
This journey into the bowels of derangement and disillusionment can blind you to the film's greater anger. Demme takes Thomas Harris's pseudo-intellectual thriller and turns it into an embittered discourse about post-Reagan America, the oppressiveness of the patriarchy, and the brutality of late-20th-century loneliness. He doesn't shy away from linking this to politics or American culture.
In 2017, it is hard not to see the woman-killing, basement-dwelling, skin-stitching Buffalo Bill as a cartoonish projection of modern misogyny, something that Demme presciently ties to white nationalism. Bill's home is replete with neo-Nazi iconography, and one poster echoes alt-right Twitter memes, reading: "America: Open Your Eyes!"
Bill exists in quaint suburban Americana. He hides his gun under a handmade blanket, adorned lovingly with silk swastikas. In 2017, Bill would have a hentai pillow, and those swastikas would be Pepe frogs.
Silence of the Lambs is the apotheosis of Demme's genius because it is a film that lends itself to infinite interpretations. Its meaning shifts with the times and its audience. Demme's inimitable knack for blurring the line between viewer and participant gave his films the aura of carnival rides controlled by maniacal carnival-goers. What makes Lambs so complex is its principle of simplicity: of each particular thing asking what is it in itself.
Demme, like Lecter, knows that we as viewers are primed to covet, and we covet what we know. And by blurring what we think we know, he leads us down a labyrinthine basement—in a bucket, lowered down to no one.
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