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, Jonathan Demme." Demme, who died yesterday at 73 from oesophageal cancer, will be missed. He was one of the last great iconoclast auteurs of American cinema; a genre bending cineaste 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 into a deep study of addiction and guilt starring Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married).
Demme is one of the most imitated filmmakers of the past thirty years, yet no one else has managed to reproduce his dizzying balance of hyper-realism, 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 re-watch in 2017.
The first thing you notice when re-watching Lambs in 2017 is how camp 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 camp factor is usually associated with Anthony Hopkins' 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: 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 skin-wearing karaoke numbers.
This dip into a heightened paranoiac sensory experience is made totally effective by the fact 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 hyper-masculine 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 a lift filled with red-shirted burly FBI agents with her, 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 she is leered at by the county cops.
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, sat face-to-face in interrogations, handed night vision goggles and told kill or be killed. By the time Hannibal becomes the film's epicentre, Demme has conditioned us to hone in on the minutia 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 which 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 carnies. 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, that we covet what we know, and by blurring what we think we know, leads us down a labyrinthine basement: in a bucket, lowered down to no one.
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