Re-Watchterpiece Theater: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing.

Today’s Re-Watchterpiece Theater target is actually a direct result of TV. Specifically, I binge-watched NBC’s Hannibal– two seasons, 26 episodes- over the span of about one week. That I watched that much of it so quickly should tell you everything you need to know about my opinion of that show. Ultimately, it inspired me to re-watch the most popular version of everyone’s favorite cannibal, 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. It’s a film I hadn’t seen in two decades. What changed?

Oof

Oof

The First Viewing
To be blunt, the first viewing was rather banal. I was visiting my aunt and uncle and their family, probably for some holiday in 1993. Note that visits to this uncle entailed at least a 4-hour drive, so this was an overnight stay. We walked in, put our bags down, settled in to the living room, and my uncle said, “We rented Silence of the Lambs. Seen it yet?” I believe Pizza Hut was involved during the viewing.

We watched the movie, and I was distracted most of the time because my cousin and I were messing around and barely paying attention. I vaguely recall thinking the Death’s Head moth was really creepy, and everyone remembers everything about Buffalo Bill, including his tucked-back-wiener dance to “Goodbye Horses”. Then there was Hannibal himself, expertly played by Anthony Hopkins. He was a quote machine in that movie, uttering one line after another that audiences would never forget, up to and including his teeth-sucking sneer about fava beans. That’s pretty much it. I enjoyed it but didn’t get anything deep out of it.

Naturally, since then, I’ve seen bits and pieces, but certainly never the full film in its entirety. I probably saw the classic Hannibal Lecter quote scenes more than the entire rest of the film combined over those 20ish years.

The Re-Watch
There was one humongous aspect that I missed the first time, and it was readily apparent on the re-watch. Specifically, Clarice Starling is a feminist hero. But before we get there, first let’s discuss the world she inhabited.

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They’re like Batman and Robin, or… something

In Starling’s world, almost every single male character objectifies her in some way. Her fellow trainees, male, leer suggestively at her. The camera goes to great pains to note this. Dr. Chilton hits on her almost immediately, and acts like a petulant child when he is rebuffed. Pilcher the moth geek blatantly hits on her, with Starling even calling him out on it. And while Jack Crawford doesn’t overtly hit on her, he uses her femininity throughout the film, most notably to get law enforcement out of the room. She is not a person but rather a means to his end- catching Buffalo Bill and getting Hannibal Lecter’s assistance. Testosterone and brutish male behavior is figuratively thrown in her face early in the film via Miggs. At some point, the misogyny is so rampant that you have to assume it’s over the top and done for effect.

Ironically, Lecter- one of the most notorious villains in film history- actually treats her with respect to some degree. He certainly doesn’t hit on her. She doesn’t treat him like an animal as so many others do, and he helps her solve the case.

Here's subtext in your eye!

Here’s subtext in your eye!

It’s the world that Starling inhabits which allows her to put on the crown of feminist hero. She never once flinches at the paternalistic bullshit, the come-ons, or even Miggs’ semen*. It’s that determination to wade through the bullshit that enables her to solve what nobody else can. And she does it in a way that none of the other male characters would have- by simply respecting Lecter and treating him with dignity. And lest you think I’m reaching, look at how the other male characters treat Lecter. Chilton is a monster to him. Crawford warns Clarice not to share personal information, but doing so (“Quid pro quo, Clarice”) is what gets Lecter’s cooperation. His captors generally make his life miserable. Starling’s approach is completely unique in the context of the film and it allows her to solve the crime.

In the years since I saw Silence of the Lambs the first time, I’ve seen it on the AFI Top 100 and thought, “I guess it belongs. At least it’s memorable enough.” I never once thought about any subtext. But there it is in flashing neon lights. Lecter grabs your attention, but it’s Starling’s role as hero that makes the film special.

Thanks to Dr. Kelli Marshall for helping me out with this- you can find the Twitter conversation here.

*Ok, maybe she literally flinched there, but not metaphorically- returning again and again to interview Lecter. Plus, who wouldn’t literally flinch? 

 


11 Comments

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11 responses to “Re-Watchterpiece Theater: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

  1. I laughed at your title “Re-watcherpiece Theater.” Excellent.
    You know, I never really observed Silence of the Lambs from a feminist standpoint. I’ve always found Clarice to be one of the strongest female characters in film but now that you mention the examples of misogyny of objectification, you’re right – she is definitely a hero who pushed her way through the pressures of a male-dominated field.

    • In reading about the film a little after I watched it, apparently there was quite a controversy at the time of release- I believe Betty Friedan hated it. There’s been a lot written about gender in that film (and transgender issues), which I had no idea at all.

  2. Nice write up! I really do love this film. Speaking of Hannibal, I’ve been meaning to watch that show too. Love me some Mads. Love me some Michael Pitt (though I here he’s being replaced in the new season so that blows) Ugh. So much stuff to watch on TV.

    • It’s REALLY good- kind of what Dexter probably wanted to be. I’d heard those rumors about Pitt and kept waiting for him to show up, but you don’t see him until late in season 2. Although he does have a big role.

  3. Rick

    Have you seen Manhunter, the first “Lecter” movie? Brian Cox plays the cannibal. It is Michael Mann in full-80s mode.

  4. Well you know what I’m going to say. “Take this thing back to Baltimore!”

  5. Reblogged this on J. Barry's English Studies and commented:
    The subtext that John picks up here is also present in Thomas Harris’ novel but the film is perhaps better positioned to draw this out in subtle images than the written text. That seen in the funeral home with Starling is a perfect example as it holds so much more power in the film. It ends with Starling asserting herself and dismissing the country cops so they can perform the autopsy.

  6. For me I think it is the relationship between Clarice and Lecter that is like he is being a father figure to her guiding her investigation and feeding her curiousity for the deranged. On a Freudian level this is a masterpiece. It is a film that forged a lot of the 1990’s aesthetics with natural lighting and dark tones (see Se7en for example).

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