Mystery

15/09/12 Film Essay # , , ,

The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)

The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Writer: Abbas Kiarostami
Stars: Behzad Dorani, Noghre Asadi, Roushan Karam Elmi

 

Truly one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Despite taking place in a barren area of Iran, the gorgeous cinematography of The Wind Will Carry Ustransforms its audience from simple movie viewers to privileged beholders of earth’s great splendor.  The film’s palpable sensation of a vast arid desert stimulates the imagination as only a master filmmaker can.  Before hints of a plot begin, before any human speaks intention, the visual grandeur of nature stirs the soul.

In the film’s opening scenes, our viewpoint rises from firm ground to open air looking out over an old SUV spiraling down a dirt road with rolling hills of golden grain spilling toward the horizon.  A patter of talk rises from the car.  The men inside debate whether they’re going in the right direction to a small town they’re seeking.  A tree standing alone in an empty wheat field serves as their only landmark.  For a moment, I turn off the subtitles to feel the effect of entering a foreign country with men conversing in a foreign tongue.

Images of Brecht’s play, Waiting for Godot, pass through my mind.  In particular, I recall two men on a park bench with a lone tree on an empty stage reflecting the deep inner waiting that is life apart from its events.  I turn the subtitles back on.  “We’re headed nowhere.”, I read one of the men saying.  I smile as I slide into a land where all transpires on a symbolic plane, only to be understood in reflection.

A young boy greets the men as they near the village, a village built into the side of a hill much like the ones built by Anasazi Indians, but smoothed and rounded.  Homes are shaped by hand out of the earth, connected and knit together by clay paths kept immaculately clean. The purpose of the men’s visit remains obscure.  The boy seems to know why they’ve come, but the men quickly swear him to secrecy.  One man emerges as prominent; his assistants will always be nearly invisible.   With a bit of a smile, he tells the boy, “If anyone asks you why we’re here, tell them we’re looking for buried treasure.”

The main man, dubbed the Engineer by villagers, asks the boy to show them where an old woman is dying.   And then he never visits her.  He asks others how she’s doing but he occupies himself with shaving, finding food and answering calls on his cell phone from a woman who also wants to know how the old woman is doing.  Every time the cell phone rings, he leaps in his SUV and races to the top of a hill for reception.

At the top of the hill, a villager digs a well in a cemetery. The Engineer often sits and watches him dig while he talks on the phone.  He tells the caller he has to wait for the old woman to die but offers no explanation about why.  While the woman is very old and not eating, the days until her end are in question because she rallies off and on.  To an unheard question, he answers it’s not a waste of his time. Death is clearly not a predictable event but one that must be waited for.  The calls lend insight into his presence in the village.  He’s on a deathwatch.

The Engineer seems certain he’s doing the right thing.  He will not interfere with the course of events.  He waits with patience and impatience.  Of course, while I wait, I begin to wonder who he really is and since I don’t know who he is, I begin to wonder who a man called the Engineer might represent?  Since the story gives no clue of his relationship to the woman, the villagers or the caller on his cell, I’m left to my imagination and I do begin to imagine.  The teleological argument for the existence of God proposes a designer – an engineer, perhaps – who directs natural things to their end (St. Thomas Acquinas).

While the Engineer waits and walks through the village and its surrounding countryside, he passes fields and valleys toward and through mountains alive with color and texture.  As he walks, we flow through stands of trees turned chartreuse green by glistening sunlight.  Is the Engineer acting as imago guide in the wilderness of life’s existential waiting?

He befriends the boy who, as he passes him, is always busy taking exams.  The boy’s schooling is central, his main pursuit.  He loves to study, to learn and take exams.  When the boy turns down a ride with the Engineer, he gets a lesson.

Engineer: Hurry up get in.
Farzad: I can’t come now.
Engineer: Why?
Farzad: I need one more answer for the exam.
Engineer: What is it?
Farzad: The fourth question.
Engineer: You don’t know the answer?
Farzad: No.
Engineer: Why?
Farzad: Because I don’t.
Engineer: What was it?
Farzad: “What happens to the Good and Evil on Judgment day? “
Engineer: That’s obvious. The Good go to hell and the Evil to heaven. Is that right?
Farzad: Yes.
Engineer: No. the Good go to heaven, the Evil go to hell. Hurry in and write that, then come back.

Is he every child?

A young woman who lives across from where the Engineer is staying gives birth to her ninth child.  One day she’s pregnant and stringing yarn on her balcony; the next she’s slim, no longer pregnant and back hanging yarn.  She’s given birth with the predictability of harvesting a field of grain in summer.

Is she every mother?

The man digging the well falls in and is almost buried alive while the Engineer is nearby receiving one of his calls.  He rushes the news of the accident to the villagers, saving the man’s life.  He’s rescued.  Not his time to die.

Is he every man?

As the Engineer watches a young woman dressed in red milking a cow for him, he recites poetry to her that elevates her task to a maid reflecting cycles of the moon.  She lives in two worlds.

Is she every woman?

The maid gives him milk as a gift.  The Engineer is recognized as an honored guest of the village though he does nothing substantial.  Somehow, everyone knows and accepts his presence.

But the hovering and wandering of the film prompt us to ask “Why is he here?”  We wonder what vision is being opened up for us. The Wind Will Carry Us leaves us to guess.

Perhaps we are following the angel of death, the one who engineers the cycle from beginning to end?

Perhaps we live amongst earth’s great beauty and do not see it as vividly as we could?

Perhaps we’re being urged by the film’s great beauty to see earth’s bountiful renewal, the way waiting for death is part of our learning and part of our knowledge?

Perhaps we scurry about, studying and working on the one hand while on the other, we move slowly, birthing, tending and dying?

Perhaps all is being overseen by the Engineer who is as ordinary as we are?

Perhaps The Wind Will Carry Us is making a call, a message of urgency requiring a race to the top of a hill repeatedly until time releases us?

The Wind Will Carry Us serves as a reminder, an assertion that we are critical observers of the earth’s grand mystery of regeneration so no one slips into forgetfulness.

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03/01/09 Other Writing # , , , , , ,

Missed Diagnosis

This is my story. It could save your life.

My story begins late one night in December 2008. I’d just come home from a long and wonderful trip to Bhutan, Nepal and India and was in the midst of moving in with a man I’d met and fallen in love with two summers before. We’re both in good health, exercise regularly and keep our diet on the light side. But this night we’d been out to a fancy restaurant. We were in a high mood, planning a celebration for our 70 and 75th birthdays as one big party in February. A few hours after I’d gone to sleep, an intense cramping in my lower left side awakened me. My abdomen was bloated. My stomach felt hard as a rock. I couldn’t lie still so I stood up. I immediately bent over in pain. Feeling pretty weak I supported myself with the back of a bedroom chair. Sitting or lying down felt worse. That night, I walked around and around and around the living room wondering what was wrong and what to do. I’d suffered digestive discomfort for years but never anything like this. It was logical to believe I’d picked up a bug in India. As I walked, I took GasX. About ten minutes later, I felt better and was able to go back to sleep. I thought that was the end of it but it was just the beginning.

I’m a psychologist who hears many clients describe digestive discomfort, especially after a meal out in a restaurant. I’ve listened to many women describe similar nightly walkabouts in which all they could do was wait for gastrointestinal pain to subside. One woman told me her mother had been having attacks for years and tried every home remedy and medical prescription in the book with no sustainable relief. It’s common to hear people report getting so frightened by the pain that they believe they’re having a heart attack. They go to an ER, lay around on a gurney for hours and come home with a diagnosis of indigestion. Still, since the pain was extreme, I called my internist the next day and got an appointment a few days later. He sent me for scans of my liver, kidneys, gall bladder and esophagus, gave me an ECG in his office and prescribed Prevacid for indigestion. All the tests came back normal.

But nothing was normal. I continued to have severe digestive discomfort and painful spasms every few nights. I searched the Internet hoping to understand my symptoms better. I kept coming up with GERD (gastro esophageal reflux disease) and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). Each search described many of my symptoms but there was little mention of the pressure from gas that I was experiencing or the pain. I saw a nutritionist who was convinced that my gall bladder was malfunctioning. Her dietary recommendations didn’t work but she heightened my awareness of the importance of diet. In particular, I learned that carbohydrates produce gas and overeating at any particular meal puts extra stress on the stomach. I started a low carb diet and ate small frequent meals. I also stopped eating anything after six pm. Even though my alcohol habit consisted of little more than a glass of wine with dinner, I stopped drinking any alcohol. A glass of wine seemed to set off a spasm. Same with my morning cup of coffee. Taking these measures slowed down how often I experienced these episodes of intense pain but did not affect the intensity once one got rolling. Modifying my eating habits certainly helped but didn’t solve the problem.

Next I saw a gastroenterologist who was convinced I had SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). He prescribed Xyfaxan, an antibiotic that targets bacteria in the intestine in order to restore proper balance and cease pain caused by spasms of the gut. I did several series of this antibiotic over the next months. The third, pulling out all stops, was for three weeks. He also prescribed Levsin, an antispasmodic medication. The antibiotics seemed to lessen the frequency of occurrences and the Levsin was a godsend. My symptoms were increasing and the episodes becoming more frequent, more unpredictable. It’s hard to describe how disturbing it was to be clueless about when an episode might occur. If I had an afternoon of clients, I ate a light breakfast with no carbs and skipped lunch. It was the only way I could be sure I wouldn’t crash in the middle of a session with a client. With Levsin in my pocket, I felt more in control but when I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t get an attack I just didn’t eat.

Oddly, when I was fine, I was fine and that was most of the time. Difficult to predict, symptoms often came out of the blue and while very intense, passed within minutes. I learned that I could avert an episode by taking Levsin at the first sign of symptoms and even stop a rising spasm on its way to full bloom if I acted quickly. Because Levsin worked and because the antibiotics seemed to be working, I had confidence that the GI doctor knew what he was doing and felt confident he would solve the problem. I began to keep a journal of what I was eating and when I had symptoms. Eating carbs and eating too much at one meal continued to be major culprits. They led to gas, bloating, abdominal cramping, heartburn and scratchy throat. As months passed, I sometimes felt an intense pressure pushing on my diaphragm and rising to the center of my chest. I sometimes felt a hot spot behind my sternum, pain in one or both arms and soreness under my ears. I took Levsin everywhere with me. On a walk, to the movies, to bed.

Adding to my difficulties, I felt depressed, tired and annoyed. So many interactions in life revolve around food. “Let’s get together for lunch” became a challenge. Not being able to eat freely meant playing a game when we went out with friends. I began a blind man’s game of not seeing food on the table, on my plate or on a menu in order to enjoy myself. At least in California where I live, restaurants are used to people customizing their meals but I only had one diet I knew worked. When it didn’t fit the occasion, I cancelled. It’s an education to notice how central food is to so many ordinary things we do in a day. Being so restricted often secretly stole the fun out of a get together for me but I couldn’t risk a build-up of pressure.

On occasion, symptoms got started and subsided on their own. But mostly, the only thing that made a spasm bearable was Levsin. GasX always helped. Sometimes Gaviscon or Prevacid helped. I tried PPI acid suppressors (proto pump inhibitors) but with little reliable effect. On my low carb diet, I lost weight, 20 lbs from 138 to 118 in eight months. In a society where “one is never too thin”, I was looking good and getting lots of compliments but I did not feel good. It’s one thing to modify life to live around symptoms, another to think of living with an imposed restriction day in and day out for the rest of my life. As time wore on without a diagnosis, I began to think the painful episodes were here to stay.

My spasms felt like contractions in childbirth, horribly intense but subsiding in minutes. Resolved to their intrusion, at least I knew they would end. Like a woman giving birth, I went with the pain, breathed as rhythmically as I could and held the faith that I could get through it. I leaned against a couch, a fence or a wall depending on where I was when they happened. Since I felt like a pregnant woman with too much pressure on her stomach, I slept on a wedge to keep my head elevated to alleviate weight on my digestive tract. Keeping my upper body elevated while I slept helped me feel better but it didn’t prevent pressure from building up. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of a nightmare dreaming that I was being strangled or crushed or worse. To combat this invisible foe, I did everything I could, but to no avail.

Since I believed my symptoms were clues, I described them numerous times to numerous doctors, each with a different specialty, hoping one of them – internist, nutritionist, cardiologist, gastroenterologist and holistic md – would recognize what I could only sense. I kept asking questions, kept looking to them for answers. What’s causing all this? Where’s all the gas coming from? If it’s acid reflux, GERD and/or IBS, why doesn’t elimination of the usual culprits – gluten, dairy products, chocolate, wheat, red meat and alcohol – make a difference? If it’s SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), why aren’t the antibiotics working? And, bottom-line, how does pressure from intestinal gas cause a cramp in my chest? Since my problems started the week after I came back from a trip to India, doctors and friends joined me in speculating that I’d brought back an obscure bug. That added to the mystery but it still didn’t explain how indigestion was related to spasms.

Did I take tests? Of course. Blood tests, electrocardiograms (ECG), scans and scopes of the upper and lower GI tract. They ruled out esophageal problems, gall bladder, liver and kidney problems, heart problems – or so I thought. Did I follow doctor’s instructions? Of course. Three rounds of intestinal antibiotics. Did I talk to people? Of course. Smartest friends in the room. Everyone had their own experience and/or someone close to them who had similar symptoms. They also had lots of advice. Apparently, there are millions of Americans suffering from chronic bouts of indigestion that they’re treating with billions of dollars of digestive aids. But no one pieced together the combination of symptoms I was describing into a diagnosis.

To add to my confusion about what was happening and, in hindsight, to the hidden danger of a missed diagnosis, I had a para-thyroidectomy in December 2008. I had been diagnosed with parathyroid dysfunction during an annual checkup with my internist before my trip to India. There was some speculation about whether it could be a cause of my digestive discomfort. Not likely but a possibility. Apparently faulty calcium regulation can contribute to digestive problems. The surgery required – of course – blood tests and another ECG. Fortunately (especially in hindsight), I flew through the surgery with flying colors. But it further confused the picture. After my calcium levels were restored, I enjoyed an upsurge of energy. When I was not actually experiencing an episode or its aftermath the next day, I felt better than I had in years.

Incidentally, in January 2009, I saw a cardiologist. It was a routine visit, like seeing a gynecologist. It was simply part of my overall pursuit of greater health appropriate to my age. My cholesterol levels were a bit high (LDL 120) and I was considering statins. I did, of course, describe my symptoms to him, including the fact that I was seeing a GI doctor. During the exam, he thought he noticed a murmur and recommended I get a stress-echo test to complete my work up. “Nothing urgent”, he assured me. Nothing that couldn’t wait until after a spring trip my partner and I were planning to Paris. In fact, none of my doctors expressed any caution about traveling for six weeks out of the country or any urgency regarding any other tests.

In August 2009 – after eight months of mind-numbing episodes of pain — I did find the answer. Persistent questioning – and, I believe, lady luck was on my side. We came home from Paris mid-June and I made an appointment to complete my cardiology workup with a stress echo test at the first opportunity. That would be August 7. By this time I was afraid my digestive difficulties were burdening my heart. I thought I might not be able to complete the stress echo well enough for accurate results. But by August, I was a pro at dealing with my attacks and felt confident I could get through it even if I felt one coming on. Exertion at this time was the least of my concerns.

Even though I knew that going up a steep sidewalk, swimming 4 short laps in a row or spending ten minutes on the elliptical trainer could arouse symptoms signaling the likelihood of an attack, I could work around it. I’d learned to pace my walking, slow down my exercising and not lift anything heavy. On the stress echo treadmill, it didn’t surprise me that I was fine for 4 minutes, 134 heartbeats. At that point I began to feel the usual pressure in my stomach, a light-headedness, pain behind my ears and a desperate need to rest. I’d been told 138 heartbeats was the target so when the monitor flashed a red 141, I figured I’d more than accomplished the target. I gasped for breath and asked the nurse, “Is that it? Can I stop now?” And she answered, “Only if you want to.” She didn’t bat an eyelash at my obvious distress. I’ve since discovered that people like to challenge the treadmill when they take the test so I guess that’s what she was used to. Then I did what I usually did when I was faced with an imminent attack. I calmed myself down. I breathed, meditated and thought pleasant thoughts while the nurse scurried around getting her numbers.

I was completely unaware of what had just happened. Customary for me, by the time I got to the waiting room, I felt fine. In this case, I felt pleased that I’d recovered without taking a Levsin. As I waited for the cardiologist, I was in a good mood, sure that – one more time – the test showed nothing definitive. My blood test numbers looked better than ever. They had all dropped dramatically from the year before. Total Cholesterol — 202 (from 247), Triglycerides — 61 (from 95), HDL 79 (108), LDL 111 (from 120). Clear proof that diet can affect your cholesterol — in case you had any doubt!

This was Friday afternoon. I was reading these results when the cardiologist came in. I was fully expecting a smile on his face. Instead, the look on his face was dead serious. He was very careful with his words. His words. “You have angina. Your reaction to the stress echo test is one of the most extreme we’ve had here in quite awhile.” My brain. “Is this something new, different or related to my problem?” He wanted to schedule me for an angioplasty as soon as possible. He asked me “Were you frightened while you were taking the stress-echo?” Wryly I answered, “No, I’ve felt similar spasms hundreds of times since December.” I had no idea what he was talking about. He was the first person to mention the word ‘angina’. First to indicate that I should be very concerned, even alarmed. He scheduled an angioplasty for Monday. I had a vague idea of what an angioplasty was but I had no grasp on angina. I certainly wasn’t thinking what I should’ve been thinking. ‘Good grief, I’m lucky I’m not dead.’

The cardiologist knew, of course, what I didn’t know – that the angina I had experienced on the treadmill was a life threatening aspect of blockage of the arteries in my heart. He continued to talk while I continued to blur. He assured me that the beta-blockers and nitroglycerin he was prescribing would, as he put it, “make sure I got through the weekend without an incident”. After not worrying for months, I now had to fret the weekend? Blur. As it turned out (and as usual), I had attacks both nights. And I used the nitroglycerin both times and it worked very quickly. I guess the good and the bad of the nitroglycerin was that it worked. It was evidence that the condition of my heart was the root cause of my painful episodes.

Fear blocked the big picture, distracting me from the warning my body was giving me that something very serious was wrong. Pain swept me off, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, into a foreign land of medical expertise desperately in search of an answer to my symptoms. For eight long months, I had been swept away by a tornado of puzzling pain into the medical specialty of gastroenterology. As much trust as I’d put in the wizards of medicine, as conscientiously as I’d sought answers from them to show me the way home to health, the man behind the curtain didn’t have the answers.

Now, after the fact, I’ve learned that the information my doctors needed for a differential diagnosis for a woman has been all but excluded from medical research until recently. According to Harvard Health Letter (Vol. 34, 9/09), medical research on heart disease has steadfastly overlooked women because maleness has been considered the top risk factor. There is precious little published, even for doctors, indicating that gastrointestinal distress is a possible much less definitive symptom of heart disease in women. Furthermore, according to the same Harvard Health Letter, even when diagnosed, a woman still must be “a little more aggressive in getting the care” she needs. I can attest that I passed from doctor to doctor in Los Angeles, seeing some of the best doctors in the country without arousing the slightest expression of urgency about what they were seeing and hearing.

Medically speaking, I had angina pectoris. The spasms radiating to my arms finally made sense. After the fact, everyone seemed to know that angina causes pain when the heart experiences competition for its oxygen from digestion. I can’t imagine what would’ve been required to alert anyone of my doctors to imminent danger while I was traveling the yellow brick road of doctor’s appointments. What more could I have done? I even had an attack during an appointment with the GI doctor. As it was, the diagnosis did not get made until after I nearly set off a heart attack during a routine stress echocardiogram. Who were these doctors seeing in their examination room?

Angina is dangerous. It typically sets in motion a quadruple by-pass. I was diagnosed on a Friday, went in for angioplasty on Monday. In an extraordinary procedure that is now so standard it takes your breath away, a surgeon weaved a little camera up through an artery in my groin to my heart and discovered a 90% blockage. Instantly, he inserted a stent. Saved my life. That’s the only way to say it. I was very very lucky. Any untoward event. Any slight fender bender. A heated argument. Sudden anxiety. Traumatic surprise event – to me, a member of my family or one of my friends. Any unexpected stress that would’ve demanded more than 10% flow to my heart and I’d be dead. It’s a humbling thought.

The first thing my friends say when they hear my story is “That’s great. You’re going to be fine now.” And then there’s a pause, a second take. The next thing they say is ‘Ohmigawd, 90% blockage, you could be dead. That’s weird. How could your doctors miss that?’

I know I tell a harrowing truth that’s hard to believe. No one, not one doctor, friend or family member ever mentioned the word ‘angina’ to me in eight months of suffering. Angina was not in anyone’s vocabulary. Angina was never mentioned until my cardiologist said the word to me after the stress echocardiogram, a test ordered because he’d thought he heard a slight murmur in my earlier exam. Maybe my heart was murmuring to him, telling us to check out my heart and discover the angina behind my digestive distress.

Further in the ‘believe it or not’ department and to my complete delight, I’ve experienced a complete erasure of digestive distress since my angioplasty. All of my digestive problems have cleared up. I can eat anything I want. Drink wine and indulge in desert. My choice for the first time in almost a year.

But more important. Missing the diagnosis was extremely dangerous. Angina is as close as you can come to having a heart attack without having one. Angina is a build-up of plague in an artery of the heart – called atherosclerosis – that interferes with blood flow. Angina attacks don’t kill heart muscle but angina is a ticking bomb, ready to set off a heart attack with just the right amount of pressure – from stress, exertion, excitement. I’ve run across an impressive anecdote about angina written in 1790. Before the tests of modern medicine, Dr. John Hunter showed himself to be an astute observer of his own angina pectoris when he wrote, “My life is in the hands of any rascal who chooses to annoy or tease me.” What he knew is that an imbalance between the metabolic demands of the heart and the adequacy of one’s coronary circulation to provide oxygen causes pain. I wish I had had his insight. I experienced surges of physical symptoms when I got angry, upset or frightened or ate too much but I had no inkling what it meant. Now I know, angina interferes with the flow of blood when we need it the most. Not during an ECG when the heart’s at rest. If my heart had needed more than 10% blood flow to deal with a sudden jolt of fear, heavy lifting or – as with the stress echo – running, I’d have had a heart attack.

Time to ask the big question. But before I do, I’d like to make a qualifying statement. Even though it’s clear to me, after the fact, that my doctor’s lack of insight endangered my life, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not blaming my doctors for missing my diagnosis. I’m grateful for their continued concern and, ultimately, thankful for to their expertise. As I said, they saved my life. But why didn’t the absence of a source for the relentless distress I was experiencing arouse a sense of urgency in my doctors?

Recent news headlines about being in charge of your own health care have taken on new meaning for me. Here are some thoughts to ponder, more frightening than they seem when one’s life is at stake.

1) It’s no secret that there’s a breakdown in the health system that doesn’t encourage communication between specialties. I don’t have statistics but, as in my case, it could be critical if lady luck isn’t on your side. My cardiologist believed I was in good hands for digestive distress and stayed his course until a stress echo that put me squarely in his ballpark. When my GI doctor tapped the bottom of his bag of tricks, he didn’t have a policy directive to pick up the phone and call my cardiologist even though he was seeing symptoms indicating a crossover. My internist, persistent and conscientious, is not a coordinator of services.

2) Medical training is not oriented to educate patients as partners in finding a diagnosis. Yet patients need help now. We need to know how to go beyond the walls of a particular specialty. Even my ability to ask in-depth relevant ‘doctor to doctor’ questions did not uncover my diagnosis. Not one of my doctors expressed the need for a stress echocardiogram. Though I’d seen the cardiologist initially in January, his response was routine. My internist, who I saw often, first in December and last in June, mentioned in passing “if you’d like to move your appointment (for the stress echo) up from August, you probably could.” I took that to mean the stress-echo was one more elimination test.

3) Where does the fabric of integrity underlying the medical field as a whole come into action? My GI doctor, with whom I was in continuous contact, agreed with my plan to finish up my cardiac workup after I got back from France. But he expressed no sense of urgency and no possible explanation of how my heart might be related to my digestive problems. Is that an appropriate end to his responsibility? Did he suspect a connection between digestion and the heart and not say so? Or if not, why not? If the patient is the lynch pin, the only one carrying information from specialty to specialty, they need education as much as elimination to find a diagnosis.

True, I didn’t fit the picture for Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). I had no markers, as they call the signs of CHD in medical circles. My numbers are good. I’m a happy 70 year old in a relationship, slim and in general good health. I stretch, walk, and workout daily. I’ve followed a fairly good diet for years. And I had my heart checked. I’d had two ECG’s. I’d had surgery, a high heart stressor. And I’d seen a cardiologist. I also felt fine when I wasn’t having an attack. No doctor objected to my taking a long trip out of the country even though we didn’t know what was causing my problem. No one explained I might need more than an ECG – or insist on a stress echocardiogram or a nuclear cardiogram, the tests that take pictures of your heart in action and when increased blood flow is needed – to determine whether my heart was okay. Even the idea that blood flow might be related to my spasms and/or digestive problems did not enter the equation until after the fact.

It seems more important than ever to see oneself as a detective hot on the trail of your own case. Or, a Dorothy who has pulled back the curtain and knows a doctor is just a person, not a god. It’s pretty much a medical fact these days that each doctor who sees you looks from their own particular specialty and that there’s little crossover from one specialty to another. As I heard one cardiologist put it “When you’re a hammer, everything you see is a nail”. Makes it not only good but necessary, I believe, to track your own clues. As if you were finding fingerprints, you can identify a pattern running through one appointment after another even when logic is missing and everyone is looking in the wrong direction. As hidden as it may be, a magical through line exists. On the road, a tin man without a heart, a scarecrow without a brain, a lion without courage all became more than when they started. Even though nothing made sense, I persisted, never lost my curiosity and, in the end, I found the answer. Like a murder mystery without the murder, my tale would make a captivating adaptation of the Wizard of Oz.

The moral of my story? Don’t hand over your ruby red shoes. Doctors are ordinary people. It has to make sense to you before it makes any sense at all. Put angina in your vocabulary alongside heart attack and stroke. No reason to wait and wonder if your heart might be the heart of the matter. Check it out. Don’t wait for your doctor to tell you it’s urgent. And don’t settle for a test that won’t give you the full picture of your heart at work. It’s when it has to go to work that your life depends on it.

I’ve lived my life citing a couple mantras. One from Bob Dylan — “Those not busy being born are busy dyin’.” Another from Yevgeny Yevtusheko — ‘Don’t die before you’re dead’. I’ve never had my life saved before. Now death is more than a metaphor. Perhaps old age is the age of miracles. Or at least the profound realization of life as miracle. Take it to heart. Literally.

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25/05/01 Film Essay # , , ,

Memento (2000)

Memento (2000)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Christopher NolanJonathan Nolan (short story)
Stars: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano

 

Memento rides Oscar momentum so, hurry, catch it up on the big screen. See if you can figure out who killed Lenny’s life —— oops, I meant wife.”

By the end of Memento, I felt like I was inside Lenny Shelby (brilliantly played by the stunning Guy Pearson), an insurance agent who can’t form new memories after his wife dies in a bizarre accident. I wasn’t sure who had done what to whom or if what I’d seen had happened at all. But if you were to ask me what I’d seen as we walked out of the theatre, I’d give you a good story and believe it myself. In spite of my certainty that I couldn’t know anything for sure, I’d act as if I did. And soon you would join me figuring out whether we were in or out of sync with reality, both of us driven by a mysterious force to make sense out of what we’re talking about.

Lenny Shelby, believes that if he can – somehow – find out who murdered his wife. Then he can – somehow – kill him. And then he can – somehow – restore his peace of mind. Find the killer and kill him. That’s the simple story of Memento. Before his wife died, Lenny had a life – a routine, love and confidence. Now he has motel rooms, friends he doesn’t recognize and an identity he can’t be sure of. If he can just find the man who murdered his wife, he believes he can get back what he’s lost, his true reality. Lenny is desperate, crazily searching for a sense of himself that once seemed god given, natural and forever.

At its core, however, Memento opens up into a larger story, yielding a rare peek into a quest usually hidden from view, buried deep in the unconscious. It’s as if Lenny meets the Sphinx, a fabulous being of several heads, various animals and the snapping tail of a dragon. The Sphinx is said to watch over an ultimate meaning that must remain forever beyond the understanding of man. Lenny searches for the secret of sanity in a world of shifting images, messages and recollections. Perhaps his true quest is for an answer to an ancient riddle – “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it fall, does it make a noise?” Lenny may say “the world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes” but for him, events disappear minutes after they’ve occurred. And then what evidence can he possibly use to prove an event ever happened? Testimony from someone who was there? Did the murder of his wife actually happen —— and did it happen the way he thinks it did? The tree fell but did it make a noise if he can’t remember what happened?

Across Lenny’s chest, there’s an indelible tattoo of a fact he doesn’t want to forget —— “John G raped and murdered my wife”. But he —— and we —— can only read the message when he looks in the mirror, at a possibly soulless, two-dimensional reflection of himself. Hope and rage drive Lenny to compulsively track his wife’s killer, never doubting that he’s progressing toward recovery of his loss. If the killer can be stopped, he can get his life back. He believes killing the killer is the key to recovering his ability to make new memories and his sanity. I found myself dropping logic and entering Lenny’s frustration at not being able to remember events, his handwriting the sole clue that he once believed what he’d written. As Lenny moves through collapsing reflections captured quickly by a Polaroid camera, only his burning desire to find his wife’s killer holds him together.

Lenny justifies his drive for revenge in an intense speech to Teddy (Joe Pantoliana) —— a sinister, ever-confounding friendly cop who plays as good a demon of confusion as you’re ever going to see outside your own mind. “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?”, Lenny argues. Cultural as well as ephemeral, time is critical to sanity. But feeling time is an invention of a mind plagued by its loss. It may be romantic to think of living continually in the moment, never besieged by an emotional invasion from the past. But being in the moment takes on new meaning when memory fails, disconnecting past from present and present from future, leaving its owner stranded in between. Without the ability to form new memories, Lenny’s like a naked man in a dream, exposed and defenseless. It’s a frightening realization. One who can’t keep track of what’s happening can be easily led down dangerous paths.

The extent of Lenny’s vulnerability becomes wrenchingly apparent when he can’t discern that Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), the flawed beauty behind a bar who invites him home has just served him a pint of beer that she, a stranger and he himself has spit in. And Natalie doesn’t stop at teasing. She tricks and exploits him, becoming a vehicle for propelling him deeper into the spiraling whorl of reflections that he believes is his salvation. Mementonow asks a harder question of the Sphinx than the first one —— “if a man were there when the tree fell but doesn’t remember the noise the tree made when it fell, what’s going to happen to him?” In other words, what happens when the psyche can’t, won’t or doesn’t —— for any reason whatsoever —— keep up with the bombardment of information most of us find common to everyday modern living?

I believe Memento may be visionary, bringing to light a palpable fear barely speakable, perhaps only askable to ourselves in the morning mirror when the answer lies buried beneath a need to get on with the day. This isn’t about Alzheimers; Lenny is a young man. This is about a loss of memory from an unknown source, not far from something we all experience from time to time. Lenny struggles to keep track of what’s required and what’s needed to navigate practicalities as well as achieve his goal. He’s lost “it“, whatever “it” is that makes it possible to keep up a pretense of sanity. We all fake recognition of name, a person or an object when we feel on the spot. As long as we can remember what’s expected, we’re in the game. Our recognition of protocol provides protection, a thin line but still solid. However, danger lurks nearby; will we soon mistake the ad showing a hamburger for the real thing and try to eat the menu? Layering the murder of Lenny’s wife with an obliteration of short term memory, Memento poses yet another a pressing question of modern times, “of what do we become capable and of what do we become victim without the ability to form new memories?”

Certainly Memento qualifies as a complex murder mystery. I’m still trying to figure it out. Christopher Nolan who won numerous awards from his screenplay cleverly structures the film to keep multiple possibilities vying for truth right up to the end. Track Lenny’s system. Don’t miss the tricky turns. And you will also tap into the profundity of the questions raised byMemento, asked of the Sphinx —— the one who lies behind the doors of perception. Lenny’s plight rouses alarm for what happens when memory loses its race with time. It’s as if a silent killer lies in the psyche, capable of wiping out a security once taken for granted. Lenny himself may be the one he seeks. That is, the one suffering may be the one guilty. Diving into the fearsome depths of death by memory loss throws Memento into a chasm of human mystery far beyond Lenny’s drive for revenge.

Restore your own memory after watching Memento; watch it again. The murder, like Guy Pearson’s fine physique, acts like a pair of broad shoulders from which a tailored suit hangs in perfection, taking you – not just Lenny – on a trip across a threshold from which you will return, changed and thoughtful. Memento is nothing if not a gift of effect —— engaging us directly in our primary need to track events in order to feel safe.

 

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14/02/91 Film Essay # , , , , , , , , ,

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writers: Ted Tally (screenplay), Thomas Harris (novel)
Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Lawrence A. Bonney

 

THE FEMININE HERO OF THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

(Published in C.G. Jung Library Journal, Vol. 14, No. 3, 1995)

 

She emerges almost as if out of the earth and pulls herself up a steep incline, out of the abyss of a dark morning fog. As she reaches the top of the hill, she hesitates for a moment to get her bearings. The wings of a bird shudder and flutter. She starts to run. Alone in the woods, her footfalls echo in dead leaves crackling over hard ground. She picks up momentum, running slowly at first and then more rapidly, speeding through the deserted forest. Her eyes dart from side to side and she pushes herself to run faster with the resolve of a woman being chased, as if she fears some shadowy pursuer. Her breathing gets heavier. She scales a webbed fence three times her height and falls to the ground on the other side. Is there a sound of someone pushing his way through the bushes behind her? She breathes so loudly now that she would fail to hear the approach of any intruder and if he’s there, she certainly doesn’t see him. A man steps out behind her and calls out: “Starling!” She breaks from the obstacle course and, by the look in her eye, it’s clear she works to be strong enough to compete with any man, that she won’t be defeated by her size, her vulnerability, her sex. “Jack Crawford wants to see you in his office.” (From the screenplay The Silence of the Lambs, Ted Tally, Orion Pictures Release, l990)

In this very first scene, Jonathan Demme’s terror-filled film The Silence of the Lambs from Ted Tally’s Oscar winning screenplay sets the audience in position to identify with a new heroic journey of the feminine. When Jodie Foster makes her appearance, an FBI agent-in-training alone in the forest, we feel the context of danger that is the familiar hallmark of a woman’s life. “She’s not safe,” the red light flashes in our brains. Any woman alone, anywhere, puts us on signal alert. Watching Lambs terrifies us because we, especially we as women, know the danger so well. We know a woman isn’t safe living alone in her own apartment; and she tempts the fates when she chooses to run by herself through a park. Though classical mythology likens the female spirit to a nymph, at one with nature, invisible killers haunt the contemporary American landscape and women live with the fear that attack can come from out of nowhere. Not only do they fear men’s attacks on their bodies but also they face denigrating social systems that reinforce a second class status and devalue what it means to live through a feminine point of view.

The character Clarice Starling represents an emerging model of a new female heroine. She embarks on a journey of confrontation with this hidden and pervasive annihilating force against the feminine in American society. Instead of following the precedent of most action/ adventure films starring women, The Silence of the Lambs does not focus on the way in which women have to function from the masculine in order to get the job done. In Clarice, we see an action/adventure character who is full of feelings from beginning to end, one who never doubts that feelings are an asset, a source of power. We watch her balance her intuitive clarity with a skillful maneuvering of frank and intimate conversation. She has an uncanny ease with emotionally piercing scrutiny by her male bosses, peers and even the male killers. Close examination of her most private thoughts does not rattle her. If anything, she becomes more focused. She is responsive, not passive, in the face of male betrayals and holds a mirror for the transgressors to look at themselves. And, against all warnings, she continues to place importance on establishing real interpersonal trust with Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter.

Clarice begins her story where classic stories of the heroine’s journey end; at the return to ordinary life after the descent. Whether or not the filmmakers are aware, the first image of Lambs shows Starling pulling herself up from a metaphorical feminine center like Inanna, a vision that suggests a heroine making her return from the deep process of self-examination and affirmation. She lifts herself out of the abyss, stands at the top of the hill ready to go forward, to forge a career for herself guided by the strength she discovered on the inner journey. When Clarice Starling succeeds, she succeeds as a heroine who carries a set of feminine ethics. She goes beyond self-growth or professional accomplishment. She manages to achieve a far greater victory: she establishes the strength of the feminine up against unmitigated evil and creates hope for the safety of a feminine presence in our society. Clarice Starling is a larger than life heroine, one who leads us on a newly unfolding quest to transform fear of the feminine into a triumph of the feminine.

To imagine that a woman is safe–safer–because she adheres to her feminine values sharply contradicts our thinking. Conventional male-oriented rules for survival are symbolized in The Silence of the Lambs by the FBI training that Clarice Starling receives: be strong, handle a gun properly, cover your back. By inference, this schooling suggests she must suppress her feminine qualities, qualities that are regarded both as provocation for attack and as explanation for women’s helplessness. While the intention behind that training may come from the well-meaning desire to help women, schooling women to perform like men in order to achieve safety shows a refusal to trust or rely upon what the feminine has to offer.

The terror of The Silence of the Lambs is built upon our subliminal acceptance that a woman is, by her very nature, an invitation to irrational aggression from men. Before she receives her assignment, Starling has a moment alone in Crawford’s office where she reacts to the pictures of serial killer Buffalo Bill’s victims posted on Crawford’s office walls. We know from the tensing in Jodie Foster’s face that this photographic vision of mutilation of the feminine affects Clarice in a more personal way than it ever could affect one of her male colleagues. Here is the first of many examples of this theme: women experience things differently from men.

At this early point in the film, we simply feel the fear behind that difference. We imagine the worst: unlike male trainees, Clarice could become a victim of an attack like this herself. We feel doubly frightened when we see the emotional way in which photos of the victims of Buffalo Bill affect Clarice because we expect those feelings to render her a helpless victim. We anticipate that, because she reacts emotionally, she will be unable to shield herself from that terrible, lurking violent force we have all come to accept as a part of the fabric of our daily lives.

Because we in the audience have worked so hard to numb ourselves in our own lives, our judgement of Clarice is unconsciously guided by the expectations of societally learned prejudices against the feminine. We hope that Agent Starling will submerge her natural inclinations to be emotional, that she will inhibit her true self; that if she insists on trying to become an FBI agent, she will at least be smart enough to realize that this is man’s work and must be approached as if she were a man, performing the job the same way he would. We hope that she will emulate the male role model. And that hope is our Achilles heel. We are afraid to identify with Starling, to choose her inclusion of emotionality as a path of honor and nobility. Her lack of regard for the rules heightens our fear even further as she ignores what we have been taught makes a woman safe.

“Do you spook easily?” Crawford asks Clarice just after he enters the office. On the surface, Jack Crawford appears to be the perfect father-figure and mentor, tough but interested in helping Starling’s advancement within the FBI. He evaluates her outstanding record as if she were any of one his trainees, and our inclination is to interpret his treating her without special attention to gender as proof of his open-minded professionalism. But, this indifference speaks to a subliminal prejudice. Pretending to ignore Clarice’s sexuality reinforces the belief system that says we should discourage the feminine approach in this arena where crimes must be solved and killers brought to justice. This is the Department of Behavioral Science, a world where agents must be trained to deal with serial killers who skin their victims. And Clarice is about to encounter a man who eats people alive, so terrifying that he can’t even be trusted behind normal lock and key. An almost morbid curiosity is set in the minds of the audience: if men fear Hannibal Lecter so greatly, what spectacle will we observe when a woman encounters him?

We hesitate embracing Clarice Starling as an authentic hero for this story. The majority of stories told in our culture feature boys or men as protagonists and present human dilemmas though the masculine ethic. Using Joseph Campbell’s outline of the hero’s journey, it begins with the “call to adventure.” The assignment–such as Luke Skywalker accepting the challenge to rescue Princess Leia–will be of the highest order and promises to put the hero to the ultimate test, helping him to learn what unique gifts he has to offer the world. The key to any heroic adventure is in the central character recognizing himself as in some way unique and outstanding. The mentor, Obi Wan Kenobe, teaches Luke that the force is within him, that he must discover his inner power.

The stories of our culture, in the film arts as well as in literature, support a man’s adventure to discover his outstanding qualities but inner feminine principles are not viewed as heroic. “‘Cries very easily’,” writes Susan Brownmiller in the chapter “Emotion” from her book entitled Femininity, “was rated by a group of professional psychologists as a highly feminine trait.” The goal of the study, she goes on to remind us, is to elucidate the way in which “stereotypic femininity was a grossly negative assessment of the female sex and, furthermore, that many so-called feminine traits ran counter to clinical descriptions of maturity and mental health.” In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, a female probation officer took offense to Jodie Foster’s Academy Award night acceptance speech in which she called her character in The Silence of the Lambs a feminist hero. “The only way,” this woman wrote, that Clarice Starling “got any pertinent information from Hannibal was to use her femininity (read ‘vulnerability’), not through any superior analytical investigative skills.” In other words, the only method of heroic behavior many women in positions of power know how to embrace is that which can be identified with the masculine: find out the facts, crash down the door, shove the gun out in front, throw the perpetrator on the floor, force his arms behind him and clap on the handcuffs.

Suspense builds as Starling makes herself an exception to these masculine rules of survival. She acts in a spontaneous and natural manner, following a compelling instinct to establish a relationship with Lecter. In her bookPsychotherapy Grounded in the Feminine Principle, Barbara Stevens Sullivan writes the following:

Masculine consciousness depends on splitting the world into opposites, on separating elements from their union with each other….Masculine consciousness separates the individual from his dark inner labyrinth: instead, the individual reaches in and pulls something out to be examined in the clear light of day, in the process of differentiation….The central value of the dynamic feminine principle is Eros: the connections between individuals, the relationships that encircle our lives….We call this feminine consciousness “wisdom.” It is the intelligence of the heart, even of the stomach, it is the wisdom of feeling. (Wilmette Il, Chiron Pub, l989, pp. 17-27)

In what might be described as the metaphorical inner labyrinth of our country’s soul, Clarice makes a connection with what the masculine-oriented world hides away and dismisses as an enemy. Throughout the film, Clarice reaches out to intermingle with the “opposite,” regarding the darkest areas of human nature as something she can learn from instead of categorizing them as monstrous and abhorrent. Her success lies in her wisdom of feeling. Through the power of her relationship with Lecter, she is able to draw him out and gain critical insights.

“Just do your job,” Crawford commands Clarice. His advice is clear: feelings will work to her disadvantage. In a man’s story, the strong and rational Crawford would be an appropriate mentor. In Clarice’s story, he fails to see the force within her. “You’re to tell him nothing personal, Starling….And never forget what he is.” True to the cultural prejudice against women, Crawford’s message to Clarice says she must learn to be someone other than who äsheð is. Her inner forces (for example trusting in intuition, in revealing herself and interacting on the level of intimacy) are seen as her worst enemies, perhaps greater enemies than even the outer threat of an adversary like Hannibal Lecter.

This figure who in a classic hero’s story would prove to be a mentor turns out to be a symbol of patriarchal disregard for the feminine in Lambs heroine’s story. In a hero’s story, Jack Crawford would send his trainee to see Lecter as if he were going off to slay his dragon. In giving Clarice her assignment, Crawford downplays its importance (he calls it more of an “interesting errand” than a true assignment and assures her he expects little or no results). A few scenes into The Silence of the Lambs and it has already been established that agent Starling has to depend on skills her FBI training does not provide. Crawford’s half-hearted deception/offer hardly resembles a hero’s call to action but something in his presentation arouses the heroine’s attention. “What’s the urgency?” Clarice wants to know. Intuition tells Clarice that she is onto something important. She senses Crawford’s dishonesty. She refuses Crawford’s attempt to gain obedience by frightening her with his simplistic description of evil. She shifts from intuition to another feminine trait we see her use often, the depth searching question. “What is [Lecter] exactly?” Clarice wants to know.

“He’s a monster,” the chief psychologist Dr. Chilton answers in an elliptical film cut to the maximum security asylum. “Crawford’s very clever, isn’t he, using…a pretty young woman to turn [Lecter] on.” Now we learn that Crawford deliberately misled her, hoping her innocence would be disarming to a menacing killer he knows might have information regarding the Buffalo Bill case. Crawford dismissed her ability to be effective if she knew the seriousness of her task. Crawford not only fails to acknowledge Starling’s value, he feigns a protective attitude as a cover to exploit her femininity as a lure and engage her cooperation without revealing his motive.

Where Crawford veiled his sexism, Dr. Chilton can’t seem to contain a leering misogyny: “We get a lot of detectives here but I must say I can’t ever remember one quite as attractive,” he says upon meeting Starling. From the moment she leaves the training ground, in the very first encounter of her very first case, Clarice endures an open verbal assault on her sexuality. Chilton alternately insults her and then flirts with her, refusing to accept her lack of interest and professional manner. She holds her ground as Chilton reveals he has no respect for Starling, not because she is a trainee, but because she is a woman; and one who refuses his advances. Again, the experience of the heroic journey changes because Agent Starling is a woman. She can’t rely on the patriarchal system to nurture or respect her talents.

As they travel down into the cellars of the building, below the ground, towards the gallows where the state keeps its most demonic criminals, Dr. Chilton coldly briefs her on the rules regarding conversations with Hannibal Lecter. His prelude to introduction would frighten even the strong at heart. Clarice surprises us. She stops and asks to proceed alone. While Clarice’s request might be interpreted as an effort to take control and assume a certain masculine bravado, her agenda remains hidden: she wants to approach Lecter on her own terms. She knows everyone has failed in trying to gain cooperation from Lecter and maneuvers an opportunity to be alone with him, using feminine wiles for the first time in order to gain advantage. She finesses her rejection of Chilton by flattering him as someone with a power that Lecter reviles. Going alone to the interview with Lecter, Clarice will be able to test and challenge herself, to plumb the depths of her personal strength. Like a true heroine, she furthers her own spiritual search as she pursues the information necessary to solving the Buffalo Bill case.

If the opening scene of the movie hinted at the way in which we fear for a woman’s ability to protect herself, Clarice’s slow approach to Hannibal Lecter’s cell vividly reminds us that locks and keys are not adequate reassurance. Even the following written description of this scene from Ted Tally’s screenplay sends chills:

INTERIOR. DR. LECTER’S CORRIDOR. MOVING SHOT–with Clarice, as her footsteps echo. High to her right, surveillance cameras. On her left, cells. Some are padded, with narrow observation slits, others are normal, barred….Shadowy occupants pacing, muttering. Suddenly, a dark figure in the next-to-last cell hurtles towards her, his face mashing grotesquely against the bars as he hisses: “I can smell your cunt!”

Clarice’s dress surely does not project an invitation to seduction in this scene but nevertheless she draws out sexual advances from hidden places by her sheer physical presence. The whispered obscenity of Lecter’s cellmate, Miggs, burns like a hot coal reminding us of Clarice’s inherent vulnerability. She has entered into America’s underground, the place we hide away the worst imaginable sociopaths, the physical representations of our greatest fears; and the object of their aggression is female sexuality. This symbolic underbelly of society holds a dark male secret, a lust for and hatred against the mysterious power of the feminine. From emotional fragility all the way through to the flash of a leg out of a slit backed skirt, woman is seen as target in our culture. And because Clarice goes alone, we as the audience get our first view of what sustains the female heroine and helps her hold steadfast while being tested and degraded.

The confrontations between Agent Starling and Hannibal Lecter take us into new territory where we can begin to see the advantage of a woman at work with the demonic. Her method is receptive and responsive from the outset: she avoids a power struggle with the supernaturally charismatic doctor and instead defers to his authority. “I’m here to learn from you,” she offers, reaching out to Lecter with an odd respect. He tests her sincerity immediately, asking what Miggs said to her, wanting to see how capable she is of emotional honesty; and she meets his challenge without reservation. Everything Clarice has been taught and told, from the most subliminal messages of systemic sexism to the direct warnings she’s received from Crawford and Chilton, urges her not to allow Lecter even the most minimal insight into her feelings. Still, within moments of their first interaction, this heroine appears almost reckless in her willingness to engage Lecter.

That orientation towards personal connection affects Lecter more than even he might suspect. Where Crawford approached Clarice’s gender with indifference, and everyone from the respected psychiatrists of the world (Chilton) to the deranged deviants (Miggs) respond to her sexuality with varying degrees of uninvited arousal, Hannibal Lecter acknowledges Clarice as unique. He finds himself fascinated, not titillated, by her character. In their first meeting, Jack Crawford read Starling’s resume. Lecter reads her soul: who are you, where do you come from, what have you run from and where do you want to go?

Her individuality intrigues him. She reveals herself and makes it clear that she is more than an FBI agent. She is a person, and, even more important, a woman. Later in the film, when the mother of the latest Buffalo Bill captive makes a televised plea for her child’s life, Clarice remarks on how smart it is to make the killer aware of the girl as a feeling human being. “If he sees her as a person,” Clarice says, “it’s harder to tear her up.” By giving Lecter a sense of who she is, Clarice has affected his desire to destroy her.

In their first meeting, Lecter does dismiss Clarice in an angry fit over her bold assertion that he use his high-powered perception to evaluate himself, but when, on her retreat from Lecter’s cell, Miggs defiles Clarice by flinging his animal-semen at her face, Lecter is highly agitated. Witnessing this degrading attack on Clarice’s sexuality spurs Lecter into a frenzy, and he offers her a proper call to adventure. He calls Clarice back and awards her with information directly related to the Buffalo Bill case.

Though the audience audibly gasps each time Clarice violates the rules and ignores the warning to remain impersonal, the underground demon surfaces now as Clarice’s mentor. The true call to heroine action, the call to rise above ego, comes from the dark side. “Go deep within yourself,” Lecter says echoing Obi Wan Kenobe, and he gives her a real life and death assignment that will lead to her finding Buffalo Bill. Her interpersonal treatment of Lecter elicits his feelings of empathy for her and prompts him to give her what she wants most: “advancement”.

There is no doubt that on the surface he means to say he offers her advancement within the FBI system. However, the advancement he offers holds symbolic meaning as well and refers to her heroine’s journey. Starling’s “job” involves more than just catching a criminal. This story focuses on a woman who, while in training to develop her masculine side, discovers her exceptional nature lies in her ability to utilize feminine powers. She confronts an almost mythic demon who demands an emotional exchange whereby she must yield her softest innards in order to gain his cooperation. She opens herself up to Lecter and trusts–not in him–but in her own feminine capabilities as weapons in her fight for life and safety.

In translating Thomas Harris’ novel into screenplay form, the filmmakers changed the name of the storage facility from “Split City Mini-Storage” to “Yourself Storage,” heightening the metaphor of the heroine’s journey, sending Starling literally deep within herself. And why did Demme photograph the scene to feel as though it were underwater? Here is a quotation excerpted from The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets:

Students in mythology find that when the feminine principle is subjected to sustained attack, it often quietly submerges. Under the water (where organic life began) it swims through the subconscious of the dominant male society, occasionally bobbing to the surface to offer a glimpse of the rejected harmony. (Walker, San Francisco, Harper and Row, l983, p. 1066)

In fact, the filmmakers continually photographed Clarice’s voyage to feel as though it occurs in the underwater and the underground, the arenas of feminine exploration, emphasizing the closeness to the ebb and flow of nature and darkness that a woman experiences. She then resurfaces to resume her FBI training where her methods contrast against and test masculine rules for success.

“I don’t know how to feel about this, sir,” Clarice says when Crawford tells her that Lecter induced Miggs’ suicide, presumably on her behalf. “You don’t have to feel anyway about it,” he responds. This is a key scene regarding the delineation between the masculine and the feminine principle. Crawford thinks answers lie in the facts of what Lecter says while Clarice searches for meaning from the way his actions make her feel. Again from Sullivan’s book:

Masculine knowing seeks laser-like clarity that fosters perfection, analyzing life from a rational perspective, breaking it down into component parts, examining each piece, judging it in a directed, disciplined logical way….Feminine knowing orients toward a state of wholeness that includes imperfection and that blurs edges and differentiations, a consciousness which exists within close proximity to the unconscious. (Wilmette Il, Chiron Pub, l989, pp. 17-27)

The masculine approach disregards feelings and exalts factual information. The heroine works through feelings in order to make sense of factual information. Clarice has a “feeling” that Lecter was speaking metaphorically when he gave her the assignment to check out his former patient Hester Mofet. Clarice evaluated the message in context of Lecter’s character and decided he couldn’t have been sincere about telling her to “look deep within yourself,” that there must be some hidden message behind the phrase. Nothing in the facts of what we have seen would lead us to deduce, logically, that Hester Mofet was an anagram or that Lecter wanted Clarice to discover a “Yourself Storage Facility.” She uncovers those details through some unexplained intuitive understanding of Lecter’s mind and, because of that ability, finds herself pulling back the American flag, deep within “Yourself”, from the coffin-like hearse that holds the first clue connecting Lecter to the Buffalo Bill case.

This American flag Clarice pulls back is the first in a long list of references Lambs makes to American society. A close viewing reveals that when Clarice finally kills Buffalo Bill, a stray bullet breaks open a window and a small, tattered flag finally sees the light of day. The American flag also hovers above Buffalo Bill’s sewing machine and he abducts his wonderbread-fed size-fourteen girl-next-door victims from the very heartland of the country. When we meet the U.S. Senator’s frizzy-haired blonde daughter, Katherine, just before she becomes Buffalo Bill’s next captive, she’s belting out this Tom Petty lyric, singing along with her car radio:

“After all it was a great big world, with lots of places to run to. Yeah and if she had to die trying, that one Å little promise she was going to keep. Oh, yes, take it easy, baby. Make it last all night. She was an American girl.”

***

The filmmakers clearly wanted The Silence of the Lambs to be more than a horror film; this is intended to be a culturally meaningful story about the patterns of our society that lead to this unacceptable victimization of women. What dynamics of the feminine do killers exploit? What societally suppressed powers of the feminine need to be re-emphasized in order to change the cycle of brutality? How do our mothers, sisters, and girlfriends find themselves cowering in the back of a van, trapped by a serial killer?

Haven’t all women, at one time or another, walked from their cars, maybe even carrying groceries, and found some stranger or neighbor in need of a hand? The threat of danger usually overrides the natural inclination to offer assistance to someone in need; but every now and then, hasn’t everyone just decided to put those groceries down and help push that car up the driveway or grab the end of that heavy couch? In her book In A Different Voice, Carol Gilligan writes:

The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate “the real and recognizable trouble” of the world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment. (Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press, l982, p. 100)

Women like to help. It’s part of their desire to make connections, open up possibilities, to give and receive from each other. The violent serial killer, like Buffalo Bill, appeals to that desire and then exploits it. He draws upon a woman’s generosity and then attacks her; and (the male-oriented) society turns the event around, blaming the woman for engaging in the interaction in the first place.

Blaming the victim distorts and undercuts a woman’s ability to protect herself. American culture socializes women away from their natural means of defense. The character Katherine hesitates when the stranger asks her to step into his van and carry the couch all the way back where she’ll be unable to escape if he is indeed Buffalo Bill. Her intuition tells her she should switch off her helping mode and stay out of the van, but she does as she’s told and steps into danger anyway. She doesn’t back away, retreat. Why? Like Katherine, American girls are taught from childhood to be the “good girl,” to be agreeable and compliant, to promote an amiable emotional environment, to nurture even when it goes against innermost intuitive feelings of danger. In 1848, pioneer feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, made the following, capitalized declaration to reporters:

SELF-DEVELOPMENT IS A HIGHER DUTY THAN SELF-SACRIFICE. (Gilligan, p. l29)

Whether its message is directed toward a woman who follows the traditional goal to “stand by her man” or toward one, like Clarice whose professional training suggests the importance of being like a man, patriarchal society teaches women to serve its goals at the expense of their own, less-linear, values.

The breakthrough aspect of Lambs is that the closer Clarice comes to accepting her true feminine self, the closer she gets to solving the crime; and the closer she gets to solving the crime, the more she has to grapple with who she is as a person. In their first meeting, Lecter chides Clarice for trying to cover up her hinterland roots. She surfaces from their tense confrontation in tears and has a comforting vision, from her provincial childhood, of her father returning home. Contrary to the negative assessment of what it means to cry easily, here we see a woman’s inner, private life appearing to nurture her and help her work through the fear she has just been courageous enough to confront. When Crawford pulls her out of class and steps up her participation in the Buffalo Bill case, Clarice ironically has to go back to Virginia, the unsophisticated “state” from where she came. Both Lambs and Clarice Starling take Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s advice by taking the next step. Clarice’s self-development overcomes her fears of inadequacy and leads her to an even higher duty of asserting her feminine presence in the world. Self-acceptance leads to self-expression.

With her penchant for matter of fact confrontation of authority figures and her reliance on feeling, Clarice exhibits a growing confidence in her feminine complexity after she returns from her mission into the “self-storage” facility to meet with Lecter for the second time. Anything but the good girl, Clarice sits on the floor, wet from her submersion into the unconscious state of exploration and discovery, and she thoughtfully exposes her exhilaration at finding the beheaded former client of Dr. Lecter. As her emotional bravery becomes more visible, we are impressed and tentatively begin to look for Clarice Starling to be the one who will find the killer through her privileged conversations with this demon. We begin to trust in what initially we feared the most and are prepared to follow her on the heroine’s journey that could transform our constrictive beliefs about the feminine.

Our first inclinations lead us to fear that Lecter has the upper hand, that he feeds Starling information in a way that will further endanger her. Because she reveals herself, maybe she isn’t “watching her back,” and ultimately Lecter will make his offer of collusion in an effort to do her in. Somewhere, somehow, he has a master plan to get out and kill everyone; and Clarice must be playing directly into his hands. Though resistance toward taking the path of heroism through feminine principles is difficult to overcome, the audience enters wholeheartedly into this heroine’s quest; we want Starling to succeed in her unorthodox method not just for her but for ourselves as well. We begin to trust Clarice not because she is capable and resilient but because she has exceptional talents suited to this particular battle.

Clarice’s ability to set the boundaries between revealing herself and allowing exploitation defines both the level and the complexity of her heroic interactive skills: it puts her on par with Lecter’s analytic prowess. Though she tacitly gives Lecter permission to probe her with personal questions, when he uses that privilege to focus on Jack Crawford’s sexual interest in her, she stops him cold, refusing to dignify his verbal fantasy of Crawford’s special interest in her with an answer. “Frankly, doctor, that doesn’t interest me,” she asserts, “It’s the kind of thing Miggs would say.” That emotional sophistication protects her from both her fear of Lecter and from our own subliminally accepted sexism out in the audience. The ability to differentiate emotional rapport from exploitation is one of the distinctive, heroic capacities of feminine instinct. Acting upon it enhances Clarice’s status and establishes a boundary with Lecter: Lecter cannot take her as a fool. From this point on, Clarice’s subtle, unspoken pride in her inner power must be honored. This is not to suggest that Lecter stops testing her or that he divulges his secrets to agent Starling easily. As always, the demon/mentor has more in mind than helping Clarice solve the Buffalo Bill case. Clarice has established for herself a relationship that parallels the Obi Wan Kenobe/Luke Skywalker model: as she presses for answers that will help her complete her outer pursuit, Lecter holds out in order to teach her about her inner quest.

“All good things to those who wait,” is Lecter’s tutelary snake-like response to Clarice’s demand to know who killed his former patient. This epithet, especially suited to the heroine’s journey, speaks to the importance of the feminine ideal of immersion and contemplation, to let one’s growth process “happen”, so as to avoid blocking a discovery that is trying to surface in its own way.

Throughout this testing of her patience, Clarice is learning to accept and rely upon her unique self, now, in äallð its facets. Confronted by the grisly reality and heinous condition of the killer’s latest victim in an autopsy scene, she drops any countenance of urbanity. Now, both her gender and her provenance work in her favor. Her understanding of the specificities of the habits of a “girl from the city” (versus one from the town) leads her to uncover things about the victim (the way her nails are painted means she is more likely to come from a particular area) that no other examiner can see. She is coming to a fuller awareness of the significance of self-respect or, in other words, she is learning the importance of cherishing and not disqualifying for any reason one’s personal background experiences as valuable and relevant to the task at hand.

More important, we see Clarice consistently return to her inner gifts in order to further her double goal in the outer world which is to solve the case while gaining recognition for feminine principles. This dual agenda emerged in an earlier scene, when Crawford had resorted to a sexist ploy to win over the local sheriff when the FBI was being met with a cold reception for intruding into the community grief at the funeral of a hometown girl. Under the pretense of protecting Starling’s delicate ears from hearing the description of the condition of the skinned girl, Crawford had sought – and obtained – a private conversation with the sheriff. Far from shielding Clarice, the exclusion drew attention to her sex from a roomful of male deputies, all of whom were already hostile to the FBI’s intrusion into their investigation. Crawford left her standing alone to withstand the probing social gaze of these local policemen whose attention he has focused on her alleged inadequacy. Once again, we got a chance to see this action/adventure heroine plunge down inward. Without an ally to protect her from the invasive stares, she withdrew from a scene as uncomfortable as any of the film’s more graphically malevolent moments by entering into the room of mourners and recalling a fantasy memory of her father’s funeral.

Clarice’s recurrent retreats into childhood memory implies that feeling images, even sad ones, have restorative power. Clarice’s feminine strength helps her gain control of her emotions. She “resurfaces” from this immersion into self and handles the deputies with a heroic feminine gesture. Choosing not to assert her authority as an FBI agent to dismiss the deputies’ participation from the autopsy, Clarice speaks up and assures the men she understands their concerns. She asserts her control by taking their feelings seriously, deftly circumventing the power struggle in an unexpected way.

Later, in the car, Crawford acknowledges his mistreatment of her. He tries to seek her approval, and she holds her ground to make what appears to be a small point, illuminating the higher value of the act. “Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters,” she reprimands. Her point is taken: as a man in a position of authority, his devaluing of her leads to a greater acceptance of sexism. This is a subtle representation of what is the larger and most important issue that the film addresses. It is not sufficient to make a place for a woman on the job: what is needed is a place for the feminine to be expressed. Those men who hold positions of authority must break old habits of sexism and interact with the values and perspective of the women close to them.

The feminine hero wants male respect both for her ability to hold down a traditionally male job and to assert her own way of being in that job. She wants to enter and wield power in traditionally male institutions but with her feminine intact, perhaps even doubly committed to feminine values. She may lack development in the male skills, be symbolically “in-training” like Clarice, but she is also making demands on her colleagues and superiors to accept the intrinsic value of a feminine orientation that has developed as a consequence of experiencing life as a female. Just as Clarice’s goal involves more than finding the killer, the new heroine’s goal reaches beyond any desire to overthrow the patriarchy: it strives instead for a transformation of what has become heartless in patriarchy, seeking above all, a societal rebalancing.

“What did you mean by transformation, doctor?” Clarice asks Lecter after she has revealed her worst memory of childhood and earned her turn to question him. Quid pro quo – a fair exchange: that is the ethic of Clarice and Lecter’s confrontations with each other. The startling realization that these two could share an ethic suggests a symbolic basis for healing the imbalance in masculine and feminine principles that creates such frightening aggression in our culture. “Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse,” answers Lecter. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage, more terrifying.”

Speaking of the masculine and feminine as principles within all of us regardless of gender, Buffalo Bill’s character suffers from a severe detachment from his feminine. This is a killer so out of touch with what it means to be feminine that he thinks he can achieve womanhood through stitching together a costume made from the hide of the outermost definition of what it means to be feminine. This is a sinister aggressive new strategy by the masculine to take an unmerciful hold on the feminine by appropriating its persona. Risking a homophobic interpretation, Demme presents the psychological disarray of Buffalo Bill (a character who disappointed many viewers, in contrast to the texture found in Starling and Lecter) as a masculine dementia driven to the point of pathological persecution and destruction of the female in the outer world. It is noteworthy that the pathological behavior of coveting what is coveted can also be interpreted as a desperate attempt for some remnant of self-esteem. This is another thread of the theme of overcoming the evil wrought by what appears as an irreparable schism at the heart of this film.

Resistance to using a feminine orientation as an inner authority is particularly intense because claiming authority as Clarice does means confronting that which male authority often fears the most: its unknown territory, its darkness. Masculine-oriented storytelling builds the hope that we can dominate life, that we can exclude darkness. Stories in which the good-hearted hero defeats the evil villain carry on the fiction of possibility that we can live happily ever. This masculine ethic of transcendence through domination reinforces an escapist interpretation of institutionalized aggressive behavior. The familiar result, socially, is to live in a false state of security, a world run by the masculine principle of protection from harm where killers lurk behind every tree. In such a world, women aren’t safe to offer the counterbalance that includes respect for the dark side, an embracing of the side of humanity where solutions are not clear and problems of the shadow persist to the point that evil is a fact of life that must be continually confronted.

While Clarice does manage to fulfill the audience’s expectations for heroic action by killing Buffalo Bill, the rescue sequence in the murderer’s house is a parade of the heroine’s powerlessness against controlling the evil underworld rather than the usual heralding of an FBI agent’s ability to save the day. It is hard to recall a film in which the triumphing hero seemed more vulnerable. As in her submersion into “Yourself Storage”, or her descent to visit Lecter’s gallows, Clarice almost swims through the depths of Buffalo Bill’s subaqueous maze while he toys with his power to reach out and touch her in the darkness. What would in the usual detective film be the hero’s victory in battle against the antagonist feels instead like a narrow escape from victimization; only in a flash of frightened intuition does agent Starling manage to fire her gun in the right direction and save herself from the very fate of the kind of girl she has set out to liberate. This thin victory leaves the audience feeling unsettled because the threat of victimization continues: we don’t feel secure about the defeat of the villain.

The masculine journey, to which we have become so inured, resolves through conquering and winning, (Lucas made it work by locking into the joy of his boy-hero in Star Wars) but this feminine journey fails to wrap itself up so neatly. When in a masculine hero’s journey, our knight slays the dragon, the new equilibrium is one of safety and the townspeople shower gifts upon their savior. Solving the Buffalo Bill case, on the other hand, gives Starling little more than an official commendation, and leaves the largest relationship of The Silence of the Lambs unresolved: we know that Lecter escaped and remains at large. Even as she graduates with honors, with the always reticent Crawford adding his supposedly supreme compliments, a dry assurance that her father would be proud, Clarice gets a phone call from Hannibal Lecter. Crawford’s awkward and indirect praise is contrasted with Lecter’s presumptuously easy style and pointed congratulations, which imply that he hasn’t forgotten their negotiation for a fair exchange. We respond to his insinuation uneasily: does she still owe him something? Even though we allow that their connection is strong and Clarice has proven herself a worthy adversary, we slip back into identifying with a woman who has violated all the rules, revealed herself and told too much. It’s clearly not over.

“I’ll not be coming after you.” Lecter’s words are so unexpected that they ring out even as he speaks them in soft tones. “The world’s a more interesting place with you in it.” he explains. What has moved Lecter, the symbol of pure evil, to set this boundary of safety for Clarice? Why does the demon choose to let the heroine live? Is it possible that vulnerability has developed a safe passage instead of invited disaster? Could empathy and intimacy have protective power? We are left with questions.

Symbolically, this is Clarice’s greatest triumph: she has achieved a new state of equilibrium on the darkest level where feminine values can not only withstand but äco-existð with the hidden and terrifying consequences of an extreme masculine emphasis on control of objectionable elements. When Lecter asks Starling for reciprocity, for his liberty from her pursuit, she defines her power through empathetic language, “You know I can’t do that,” – and here again she appeals, appealingly, to the connection between them. She doesn’t say I can’t do that, as if she were now separate and apart from him. She does not abandon the feminine orientation but keeps it as a basis for action. Her honesty is part of the balance, part of the give and take that is key to the bargain that the Lambs characters have established as a precedence for collaboration. Above all other imposed responsibilities, codes of honor or magnanimous pacts of exchange, it is Clarice Starling’s perogative to affect the world through asserting her principles and she takes it as her duty to do so. On a literal level, she can’t let Lecter go because he is a criminal and she is an FBI agent; more profoundly, she can’t let aggression that breeds on detachment live freely without offering the opposition of intimacy as a balance. In symbolic terms, the masculine and feminine opposites are not independent of each other: one force simply äð cannot prevail without influence from the other. TheSilence of the Lambs ultimately suggests that the feminine hero’s goal lies not in destroying the demon that masculinity has become under patriarchy but by creating a relationship with him, to affirm feminine value in a hostile world that has forgotten how desperately it needs her.

<The Silence of the Lambs is an unusual story of a woman who, even in the face of all the pressure to behave like a man in order to remain safe and achieve success, confronts her fear, and in turn challenges our fear that to be feminine means you are a vulnerable target and a deserving victim. A symbol of the modern woman who no longer finds herself in the role of looking solely for personal approval or acceptance in a professional position, Clarice is neither demanding nor rebellious. She asserts her values with a self-possessed presence and a matter of fact manner of expression. She is able to gain crucial information from the most renowned serial killer alive as well as to learn from him. She succeeds where men have failed. By the time the movie ends, the hero has done the usual. She has saved the girl, destroyed the bad guy and graduated with honors; but something does not feel usual, ordinary. This hero won the day not by being an expert, male-identified FBI agent, but by breaking away and asserting herself as a woman who could rely on her feminine self to provide her with the special or “super” strength she needed. In this breakthrough film, as Jodie Foster recognized, the filmmakers vaunt a new type of heroine, one whose “feminine” capabilities make her exceptional.

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