Myth

19/07/13 Film Essay # , , , ,

The Lone Ranger (2013)

The Lone Ranger (2013)
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writers: Justin HaytheTed ElliottTerry Rossio
Stars: Johnny Depp, Armie HammerWilliam Fichtner

 

The Lone Ranger, a borderline comic book film infused with outrageous action and dry humor, is good summer fun with a fresh mythic twist, courtesy of the filmmaking team behind the “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The titular masked hero is brought to life through the eyes of his old sidekick, Tonto (Johnny Depp), who has been transformed, for the purposes of the film, from caricature to a Native American spirit warrior with equal – and at times top – billing. The story begins as Tonto recounts to a young boy in 1933 – and us, an audience in 2013 — the untold tale of John Reid (Armie Hammer), a district attorney, and his passage into legend.  Behind the well-written, well-acted and expertly-directed film lie dark references to the rise of warfare between the white settlers and the Indian nations. Politics and business colluded to create terrible, inevitable incidents of history as America expanded westward in the 1800s. For modern audiences, Tonto and the Lone Ranger put their legendary heads and hearts together to lead a spirited fight for justice and the rule of law against greed, stupidity and corruption. Two unlikely heroes make for a dynamite duo.

LoneComic

I love the new rendition of The Lone Ranger — but that could be because I am over 70, a longtime Johnny Depp fan and a proponent of contemporary films revamping outdated cultural mythology for the greater good. For those who remember the original legend of a masked man in a white hat who rode into town and set folks straight in the wild west, the emergence of a 21st century Lone Ranger with Tonto now a full blown equal is sheer pleasure. Depp does a respectful turn as an American Indian who lives in sync with nature, thriving before the age of the machine; Depp, with help from some very smart writing, helps the visionary spirit of the west live on. The humor and wild acts of Good triumphing over Arch-evil in The Lone Ranger draws forth audience participation in the best way.

As the new story begins in a 1933 San Francisco carnival, a boy masked and garbed in the Lone Ranger’s likeness wanders into a natural history sideshow, where a life-size buffalo and brown bear loom, mounted in displays next to an aged American Indian standing before a painted Monument Valley backdrop. The Indian’s diorama is called ‘The Noble Savage in His Natural Habitat,” and the Indian wears a dead crow on his head.

LoneSilver

For the cognoscenti, The Lone Ranger made his first appearance on radio in 1933. He was the last of an elite band of Texas Rangers ambushed by bandits and restored to life by Tonto, who became his faithful companion. His image ushered in look-alike post-WWII boys and girls who rode imaginary horses and longed to be the masked Ranger, with cap guns and silver bullets that never missed.

DeppTonto

Now the story comes alive again as an old Indian who calls himself Tonto begins to tell a young boy the story of the Lone Ranger and to appropriate his legend for modern times. As if to keep a boy from 2013 as fascinated as the boy from 1933, Tonto tells his story so loosely, with shifts in time and space and special effects, that he seems to perform the magic of time travel. In seconds, he steps back and forth from diorama to the past, where all the action takes place. This version of the Lone Ranger mimes iconic scenes from past and present western moviemaking, wreaking havoc on any viewer’s effort to reference actual history.

What is clear is the film’s invitation to shift the singular image of hero in our minds. Tonto begins as a prisoner in a boxcar on a train sitting next to Butch Cavenish (William Fichtner), who’s being transported for trial. But Cavenish’s gang rides up along the train and boards with guns blazing to free their boss.

When the man who will become the Lone Ranger leaves his passenger seat and attempts to save the folks on the train by taking charge of Cavendish, an auspicious meeting with Tonto quickly puts the two men on equal footing. From here on out, these two men from very different backgrounds become reliant on one another to create vision, not destruction for the future.

LoneHiHo

Once upon a time, the Lone Ranger was “lone.” He was the old-fashioned, outsider hero much revered and admired. I listened to him on the radio, followed him on TV and occasionally caught him at the movie theater in Saturday afternoon serials. It was a time when girls learned a social identity from male heroes. He took his place in society as “the Masked Man (with) his Faithful Indian companion” in feature films, newspaper comics and comic books.

His image rearing high on his white horse, shouting out “Hi Ho Silver, Away” is seared into the cultural psyche, forever merged with the William Tell Overture — and now includes Depp’s startled eyes and an indelible comment that says ‘hey, buddy, you’re not up there by yourself anymore.’ Look at the new film poster and compare it to an old one for confirmation of two heroes becoming one as the new legend unfolds.

Johnny Depp’s exemplary characterization of Tonto is seeding the image of a “brother hero.” To wit, here is a quote from a previous piece I wrote about the emerging double-hero archetype in Master and Commander for The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal: “In Master and Commander, duty is wedded to compassion as both friend and opposite, as separable companions worthy of and dependent upon one another for survival, healing and success.” Together, Tonto and the Lone Ranger create a similar dynamic duo of interdependence and reversibility, a “brother hero” with two faces – one quite erudite and one quite ready to smite – who burst forth from literary folklore to cope with an encroaching imbalance in nature. Each becomes more the man he is in the presence of the other.

I don’t remember a woman, saloon-keeper or wife in the early radio or film presentations of the Lone Ranger, so I’m left with Miss Kitty fromGun Smoke. In today’s version, however, the wife and the saloon-keeper madam are both colorful, independent women who are worthy of being identified with by a new generation of young girls. Wife and mother Rebecca Reid (Ruth Wilson) is married to the Dan Reid (James Badge Dale), the ranger who apprehended Cavendish and was subsequently killed in the ambush, his heart torn out and eaten by the bandit. Reid’s younger brother is the up-and-coming legend who’s been sweet on Rebecca since they were kids. Red Harrington (Helen Bonham Carter) sports a tattooed, ivory false leg that doubles as a shotgun and an erotic art object for those moments in a madam’s life when her authority is in jeopardy. Rebecca is no victim when the bad guys capture her; she protects her son and escapes. And, in the end, when the Lone Ranger (her husband’s younger brother) goes back on the trail, she leaves him with a seductive smile that will, for sure, bring him back to the gate of her ranch.

In The Lone Ranger, the last Texas Ranger, the one who didn’t die in the ambush, gains a star-powered equal, Tonto. Greed, pride and ruthless exploitation give rise to two men of opposite persuasions who carve out principled relations with each other. Tonto anoints the surviving Ranger a spirit walker – “one who has crossed over to the other side and returned.” He gives him a name, Kemosabe. In the old legend, Kemosabe meant “man of wisdom.” But when the Ranger asks this Tonto what Kemosabe means, he answers flatly, “wrong brother.”  Tonto – like the rest of us when we entered the theater — reckoned for the heroically recognizable ranger, the older brother who put Cavendish in cuffs but was killed in the famous ambush.

LoneTrain

The film brings forth a timely heroic image of two men, flipsides of one another who are brought together to meet a grievous outcome of progress — a nature out of balance. Rabbits have become fierce, and horses stand atop tall trees and gulp liquor. C.G. Jung speaks of two forces governing our actions as human beings. One lies within, the other is the spirit of the times. When times call for men and women to cope with nature out of balance, learning to live with paradox is required. To counter bad guys who exist on both sides of the law, the Ranger calls upon the intellect of a dead philosopher (Thomas Paine) while Tonto calls upon the spirit of a dead bird. Together they function comically and effectively within a world driven by progress and leavened with absurdity.

The interaction between the Lone Ranger and Tonto functions as an alchemical symbol of opposites in motion. Visual imaging of the two men in action invites audiences to feel the underlying unification of opposites. The whole beneath promotes a new level of understanding. Neither man stays good for long, nor bad.

Tonto and the Lone Ranger regularly surprise one another as they see themselves mirrored in each other’s behavior; when Cavendish is cornered in the middle of the film, Tonto seizes Reid’s gun, not keen on Reid’s intent to bring Cavendish “to justice” via the courts, only to be smacked on the back of the head by a shovel. In another instance, Reid is dragged from an impromptu burial up to his neck by his horse, leaving Tonto behind only to return moments later to inquire the way to the river where Cavendish and his boys are hiding. The man who lives by the book of principles readily abandons the man relying on a dead bird when he’s buried to his neck in sand until he can’t move forward without him. The man of instincts with a bird on his head readily turns an agreement to his own purposes – until his purpose goes asunder.

Good and bad go hand in hand with these two, in clear sight unified within and between them. One is as certain to bonk the other with a shovel to get his way as the other is sure to save the day when all is lost. It’s pretty hilarious, and pretty sophisticated humor.

Don’t slide toward an easy resolution of The Lone Ranger.  It’s meant to move in the psyche. The film is easy to dismiss as wrong, wrong-headed and wrongly directed. Monument Valley, for instance, isn’t in Texas where the railroad is being built. The characters and conflicts are ones you’ve seen so many times – all the usual players are there: greedy corporates, mangy outlaws, savvy saloon madam, good wife, dead lawmen and dead natives, etcetera. And yet all the action — ambush, trickery, train robbery and massacres – are all shenanigans of the first, the second and the third order of Westerns everyone wants to see. A few shocking scenes are included, perhaps to avoid boredom for the jaded under-twenty-somethings. Don’t dismiss the film, or you’ll miss the seesaw motion of Tonto and Reid as they become a double-hero archetype and the ‘every-man-out-for-himself’ myth bites the dust.

After the masked boy of 1933 leaves the carnival tent, resolved to wear his mask forever, the old Indian leaves the diorama, having changed his buckskin for a suit, and a real crow flies forward out of the historically dusty remnants of Monument Valley. I felt its whistling wings pass my ears, a courier of “the spirit walker” opening the way between then and now…and a then to come. Bring it on, I say. Bring on the mythology that meets the challenges of our day. See this film.

0 likes no responses
15/11/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Argo (2012)

Argo (2012)
Director: Ben Affleck
Writer: Chris Terrio
Stars: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman

 

A dramatization of the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez’s miraculous rescue of six American diplomats during the famous 1979 Iranian hostage crisis — a feat made possible by disguising them as Canadian filmmakers.

What was I thinking? Three action thriller films in one week? Not my usual style as a seeker of mythic themes in film with cultural relevance. Being blown, thrown and ripped from my wits on a virtual roller coaster of near death encounters might be an occasional choice but not a ride I’d take over and over in one week. That said, there was a discovery to be made.

Watching The Matrix and The Hunt for Red October just days before I saw Argo gave the film a mythic framework. To recap a bit, The Matrix conjures up a computer-enhanced hero who plugs in and out of virtual realities with the ease of a Zen Master. The Hunt for Red October is about two heroes; a rescuing CIA operative and a defecting Russian navy captain who confront one another under the ocean as a nuclear-armed submarine heads toward the U.S.

By contrast, Argo is a real life story in which the hero is a real life man, Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) who rises to mythic stature by making illusion truth at just the right moment. Mendez successfully crosses the Iranian airport in full view of armed guards with six fugitive American diplomats disguised as a Canadian film crew on location in Tehran scouting a science fiction film.

The chutzpah of the Argo play on words, “Ahrwgofugyrself” (exquisitely delivered by Alan Arkin) reflects an inspiring triumph of mind over matter. The audience laughed every time the slogan was uttered, and its sentiment easily expresses the pleasure taken when courage and integrity visualized in film are mirrored in life. Tony Mendez (and, for that matter, Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, Jack Ryan and Captain Ramius) refused orders to follow his conscience when the CIA wanted to pull the plug on the rescue mission mid-stride. Independent action, taking responsibility into one’s own hands – or by the balls (these are very male films) – is never a sure thing but when the other way, the sure way, is for sure a dead end, it’s is worth a shot.

In Argo, Mendez’ efforts are infused with a mythos of heroism as might’ve happened in the ancient days of Greek when Odysseus called upon the gods to give him safe passage. The six American diplomats who ran from the back door of the besieged American embassy found temporary refuge in the Canadian Embassy. They hid there until Tony Mendez arrived with a plan more likely to succeed in a fairy tale than a war zone. The real life rescue mission drew cover from a different sort of mythic raiment than the Greek skies — Hollywood moviemaking. Mendez, with critical but not guaranteed help from his agency, transforms the six fugitive American diplomats stranded in Tehran into a Canadian production crew of a faux movie – an epic scale sci-fi film, funded, storyboarded and publicized with movie posters in the trades with a direct phone line to a Hollywood production studio.

While Argo is a story with an awfully good ending, there’s no spoiler in knowing the hostages escaped. In the film, anxious, dispirited American captives walk within an arm’s length of soldiers whose shackles promise torture. Fifty-two other hostages were detained 444 days in Iran. And terrorism ended the lives of four Americans, including an ambassador, in Libya a bare month ago. The danger is actual, not virtual. Argo is the dramatization of a true life C.I.A. caper dreamed up and carried out by one of the bravest men on the planet, yet it’s supported by a tradition of science-fictionalized heroism that everyone in the world believes even though it’s clearly make-believe. Only Orson Welles could’ve done it better.

The thread of mythic storytelling runs through all three films. In The Hunt for Red October, King Neptune himself commands the action, allowing state-of-the-art Cold War nuclear submarines to navigate murky waters while we hold our breath not wanting to utter a disturbing sound. It’s like being submerged in the psychic depths of a dream where unconscious encounters between behemoth monsters occur in slow motion. The Matrix engages our imagination for other worldly experience just as conclusively. We’re effectively dropped into an inner core of subsistence survival, a womblike murky fluid with bacterial attackers into which a few human survivors plug in through a cybersocket splice in time and space from one world to another. With the magnetic pull of possibility heightened by computer animation, The Matrix engages viewers in an exhilarating, albeit sobering mythic in-between world where dodging bullets is key to peace and well-being.

Like Ginger Rogers who did everything that Fred Astaire did — only backward and in high heels, Argo plays out as an action thriller through the lens of a fake movie. As the faux Canadian film crew, conspicuously white and swarmed by Iranian pedestrians, carries out a faux location scout on Tehran’s humming streets in a crowded outdoor market, we’re as alert as if we were 20,000 leagues under the sea anticipating a collision of humongous submarines. I physically flinched when an Iranian storekeeper leapt angrily to his feet objecting to a photo taken by a young woman in the role of the movie’s location scout. She quickly offers him the polaroid photo but he’s not interested. She profusely apologizes but he’s not interested. When I visited souks in Marrakech, I experienced a similar angry tirade from a shop owner to a photo I’d taken of his booth. He didn’t care about the photo. He cared about an insult vibrant in his own mind. Physical assault was avoided but like Trinity disappearing into a telephone as she’s about to be crushed by huge truck, escape felt close. Imagine then, the odds of extricating six Americans from a revolution – an impossibility without the magic of a Hollywood script.

As a true story with a little fast fingered editing of events for box office leverage, Argo walks the same fine line between fantasy and reality as The Matrix or The Hunt for Red October. We imbue Tony Mendez with special powers as he traverses the Iranian airport with six fugitive Americans in full view of armed guards just as we do when Jack Ryan shimmies down a wire from a helicopter into the freezing cold ocean to a waiting submarine or when Neo bodily invades a digitalized agent and, like so much silly putty, turns himself inside out! But more importantly, the armed guards suspended disbelief just like we do while watching movies and let Mendez through.

One of the funniest, barely plausible scenes in Argo is when one of the faux Canadian filmmakers explains – in Farsi – the faux film’s faux storyboards to a very real life Iranian Guard. He translates – fabricating on the spot – wild planetary invasion drawings of storyboarded scenes with metallic men and latex women into a convincing saga of acceptable Iranian family values – and gets his group past a key checkpoint. Maybe outrageous schemes are the only ones to fly in the face of an enemy as invisible as fear.

For me, three action thrillers in a row turned up a truth that breaks through facts. We walk a fine line between fantasy and reality every day. Some days, it’s more obvious than others; The Matrix, a widely popular film based firmly in myth offers a choice to live a fictionalized version of the ordinary or realized version of the extraordinary. The Hunt For Red October fictionalizes an enlightened vision of men from nations at war who relinquish the power to wipe humankind off the face of the earth. Argo, an arguably lesser film packs a larger truth because we live so close to facts of terrorism – wherever in the world they occur – thanks to an invisible world wide web of eyes that doesn’t wait for a movie theater to reveal what it’s seeing. And, yes, it’s funny. There’s nothing duller than truth without humor.

And Argo has the last laugh. What if anything has meaning when fiction works better in reality than reality itself?

0 likes no responses
14/03/12 Film Essay # , , ,

The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life (2011)
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Stars: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain

 

In Tree of Life, the story of a post-WWII fifties family is interspersed with cataclysmic images of our planet being created, sun, moon and earth rolling through eras of stark change and life evolving through the dinosaur age. Breaking up a story of a family with lengthy visuals of stars in the making, shifting shapes of galaxies and flights through space may turn us on, may turn us off but either way, we’re left with the question, why? Malick’s known to be a filmmaker with purpose. (Reference Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line.) If he’s paralleling a family raising sons with births and deaths in the universe, I believe he’s raising a question that’s meant to include human beings. What does nature have to say about evolution?

The family story begins with the death of a grown son, presumably the oldest of three brothers who’ve been raised in one of those tree-lined fantasy neighborhoods that I, as a seventy-something, can still remember. Then the film backtracks over the early years of the family and the boys’ childhood. Father, an iconic hardworking returned vet determined to do right by his family, finds it increasingly difficult to cope economically and takes out rising frustrations on his wife and children. Mostly he clamps down, restrains and controls himself but sometimes he raises an iron hand, mindful – perhaps – of an old testament God. Mother, a lovely iconic silent wife and a loving mother, looks on helplessly as her sons irritate their father and plays like a child herself when he’s not there. The three sons, iconic “boys will be boys” brothers, unsupervised and with plenty of free time on their hands, find ways to test each other’s trust, tumble a little too dangerously and amuse themselves with just the world around them. But they never really feel out of the sight of Father’s dark disciplinarian eye. A tense upper lip of love accompanies every fatherly hug and a fierce emotional straitjacket constrains family events.

When one of the boy’s buddies drowns in the local swimming quarry, the weight of consequence for invisible transgressions is palpably shared amongst family, friends and community. To link morality to rebellious desires is a human act, not from nature itself, felt by attendees of the funeral. As the oldest son goes through the changes of adolescence, he becomes more secretive arousing dread for the outcome we already know is in the works.

But Tree of Life is not a narrative about a family’s lost son. It’s not a story about a father abusing his sons, arguing with his wife or wrestling with adversity. It’s not a story about a wife infantilized as a housewife. It’s not about three brothers who raise each other. It’s not a story about a father’s lost dream, a wife’s lost identity or the lost childhoods of three boys. Well, yes, it is all those but, more to the point, it’s a story that begs us from the beginning of the film to ask “Why?” Why pose such a small intimate personal family story within such a large cosmic context?

I believe Tree of Life takes on an ambitious objective. Aspiring to be a masterpiece casting human life within the context of evolution, it wishes to put us in touch with how we might be experiencing evolution in our own, specific lives. In the end, it turns our eyes back on ourselves, asking us to look at what doesn’t make sense as being something that might be part of evolving. Instead of taking our small point of view of personal failure – a father working his ass off and still losing his job, a wife giving over her life to pleasing her family only to feel alienation in her bones, children wanting love only to be met with rejection, rage and confusion – Tree of Life begs us to ask why. Could there be a larger way to see what’s happening?

And now let’s make the leap provoked by the film’s juxtaposition of the personal within the cosmic. When parents raise children for a world that they believe is the world their children will grow up into, they can be dead wrong. And it’s possible that the child knows, intuits or feels within the roots of his being, that he is headed into a world that his parents cannot fathom because he’s fresh to realize that something new is coming. The world as he’s growing into it does not yet exist. The breakdown between parent and child, the ripping of bonds we label as adolescent rebellion or the ravages we call mental illness, may be dislocations of evolution. Tree of Life makes it abundantly clear that evolution is not a smooth handing of the wand from one marathon runner to the next. Some are spared. A dinosaur steps over a wounded animal. Thousands perish in a flood. Some quickly perish, leaving only fossils. Not unlike the young boy who drowned in the quarry.

If we were to imagine we are part of evolution, we might translate the events of family life – much like Terence Malik – into ones that speak of our own family disruptions as expected in furthering evolution. As much as we strive for order, human nature slips its yoke. Children experiment, provoke and promote chaos against their better judgment. We watch a scene at the dinner table, Child defying Father, and recoil, asking why they would do such a thing when they know the consequences. There’s that ‘Why?” again. Could there be useful end to a collision of forces, an ineffable effort to adapt to an unseen vibration of emerging circumstances beyond our simple horizon of the human life span?

We are, each in our own way, contributing to a much longer life on the planet than we’ll live. However much pollution we see in the air, it’s also invading the oceans and seas of the world. What kind of being will it take to live a generation from now, a thousand or a million years from now? If we consider failures of orderly succession as reflections of evolution, we open a new perspective. We meet our failures – and those of our children — with new respect. We feel ourselves a part of nature, not apart from it.

If a vision of interconnectedness between the inner nature of humankind and outer nature of the universe is what Tree of Life is about, Malick may indeed be ambitious. Yet the film certainly gives us a larger context for understanding our disappointments, our limitations and our grief. Cast as part of an energetic exchange, nature is not a backdrop and we’re not without resources to see our own contradictions as furthering life on earth. We are large, very very large.

As I finished this essay review of Tree of Life, I felt the heavy emotional weight of my investigation and, perhaps to balance myself, levity sprang to my rescue. I recite what I heard in my mind’s ear, present it as a quote: “Shake your head, shake your booty, shakin’ may be quakin’ when it comes to figuring out what perpetuates and what situates.” I said that. 🙂

0 likes no responses
07/02/05 Other Writing # , , , , ,

The Female Trickster Hero in Contemporary Cinema

Presented by Jane Alexander Stewart, Ph.D.
for Aphrodite and Hermes Colloquium at the University of Alabama

Movies can be much more than entertainment. They can be modern day mythmakers activating new archetypal images in the culture. Together, sitting in the dark, we can change our lives and update ancient mythology. Mythic figures like Aphrodite and Hermes are not simply characters but psychic energies that come alive through the medium of film. For instance, when we go to the movies and identify with images of women appearing in film, we are not only observers but participants in the making of myths about the feminine sensibility we live by.

The feminine trickster hero in film is a female protagonist who plays her role in the liminal zone of creativity, going against the grain of convention to achieve a high purpose. She seduces her male consort and us – as her audience – with humor and feminine ingenuity into believing in her power and legitimacy as an enhancing figure in public life. I call her hero and not heroine because the designation of “hero” elevates her to a mythic status in our culture of one who makes a difference. As much as the hero’s journey of transformation is meant for women as well as men, it is still primarily envisioned in masculine form. Perhaps one day the feminine trickster will surprise us, changing the common meaning of “heroine” to be more than the main character in a story.

To my way of thinking, Aphrodite and Hermes have been vamping it up in the movies for the last hundred years, transforming the way we, as a culture, value what has traditionally been labeled “feminine”. The mythic beauty of Aphrodite, fascinating as both an individual character in film and in the nature of film itself, lures great numbers of people into movie theatres, seeming to be a radiance outside oneself. Then Hermes, mercurial to the core and a trickster completely at home in the liminal zone between self and other created by film, ignites everyone’s imagination. How talkative and expressive we feel as we walk out of the theatre infused by the light-footed Hermes teaming up with Aphrodite. Somehow, they’ve turned us around and turned us on to the beauty of the feminine that lies within.

In my presentation, I discuss and present clips from three award winning American movies – The African Queen, Marnie, and Erin Brockovich – showing women in the role of what I call the feminine trickster hero, changing the way we think and care about girls, women, and a feminine sensibility in everyday life.

Revisit Katharine Hepburn and see her as a trickster hero working her magic on Humphrey Bogart (and us) in The African Queen in 1951. As Rosie lures Charlie into believing they can actually blow up a German gun boat, his spirits rise against all odds during their treacherous journey. He gives up drinking, navigates to safety, and falls in love with Rosie. And we become convinced that feminine wiles deserve a great deal more credit than they usually get. But Rosie is a serious woman. She doesn’t just want love; she wants to save the world. What trickster’s slippery hand are we to believe is at work when the African Queen surfaces on its own, no one at the helm, and with its makeshift torpedo blows up the gun boat, releasing Rosie and Charlie from the hangman’s noose and setting them – and us – free to imagine a future in which the good guy wins?

Whether anticipating or participating – take your choice – in the creation of an unprecedented change of attitude toward the sexual abuse of girls that has been taking place in America, there’s Marnie, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film with a heroine of the same name. Marnie quite literally opens with Tippie Hedren bouncing a purse with a highly suggestive design on her hip, mesmerizing us into a story of how a young woman wounded by childhood trauma resorts to multiple identities to survive. Perhaps this is the feminine trickster hero at her best, awakening us to the significance of sexual abuse on girls and women. Marnie opened our eyes to a truth that was just coming of age. Today, the damaging effects on a young girl’s self-esteem and her ability to form healthy relationships seem obvious.

With eyes wide open, we celebrate a modern feminine trickster hero, Erin Brockovich, winning an Oscar in the hallmark year of 2000 as she turns the tables on a corporate Goliath. It’s hard to know where to put your attention, on the real woman or the actress. The big screen tells the story of a real woman’s groundbreaking accomplishment with America’s sweetheart, Julia Roberts, in the lead. Together, they pretty much bury the cultural stereotype of a beauty without brains, sending a clear message that women with stunning looks are not only bright and capable but awesome under pressure. It seems the heroine has crossed over. The Erin/Julia heroine who uses her cleavage to entice a male clerk into losing his good sense so she can gain access to Water and Power records could be the woman next door. We believe it. She parlays a single-minded determination into a seven-figure salary. And she furthers a lot of good causes while she’s at it. A woman using the power of sex appeal to get past a male gatekeeper may be as old as the hills but in 2000, the weapon’s legit. In film and real life, the feminine trickster hero has made her way to the new millennium.

Archetypes on the big screen come alive in society as audiences take them home. A feminine trickster hero like Rosie who steps forward and speaks up inspires achievement through risk-taking. One like Marnie whose pathological behavior is revealed as adaptive shakes loose old thinking. And Erin who honors a deep truth about feminine intent, hopefully furthering empathy in both men and women. When we watch a movie, identifying with a female protagonist and her dilemmas, the archetype is at work. As we’re enjoying the heroine, crying or laughing in the dark, we’re also taking her into our hearts and minds – and letting her change us. We feel smart, clever, and good. The next thing we know, she’s in our workplace, pulling the lever in our voting box, and making different choices down the street at the local store.

However, the feminine trickster hero faces an especially difficult task when she struts her stuff. Identifying with magical beings like Rosie, Marnie, or Erin who lure us into valuing the assertion of “feminine” values in public arenas arouses vulnerability as well as strength. While watching her, an audience feels an ambiguous fear – afraid for her and of her. She may be leading us down a wondrous path quite capable of inseminating new insights but we’re concerned that she may also be inviting trouble. She must counteract a knee-jerk reaction of fear when she steps out against convention. We worry that she’s going to get killed, reveal secrets best kept as secrets, or bring down house and home. Paradoxically, this is where her talents truly shine – in circumstances of ambiguity and complexity where a woman’s own life, and those of others that she loves may be in danger.

The feminine trickster hero aims high, often ignoring the disagreeable nature of uncharted territory. She envisions turning the tables one hundred and eighty degrees, making clear the absolute necessity, the terrible tragedy of excluding the wiles of the feminine in facing uncertainty. If she doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, she surely gives us the opportunity to make up the future as we go along.

  • The African Queen, Dir. John Huston; Perf. Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Fox, 1951
  • Marnie, Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock; Perf. Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. Universal, 1964
  • Erin Brockovich, Dir. Steven Soderbergh; Perf. Julia Roberts and Albert Finney. Universal, 2000
0 likes no responses
16/04/04 Film Essay # , , , ,

Kill Bill, Volume I & II (2004)

Kill Bill, Volume I & II (2004)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, David CarradineVivica A. Fox

 

…”Who is Bill? If you see Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and don’t grapple with that question, you’ve missed a key point. Kill Bill I set us up to ask the question. Kill Bill II delivers the answer.”

At a time in history when comics and comedians – Doonesbury, Boondocks and Jon Stewart – are delivering cutting edge truths about the uses and abuses of power, it’s not surprising to see Tarantino’s comic book movies delivering deep philosophical truths about traveling between the mythic realms of life and death and dramatizing the imbalance of masculine and feminine forces in our modern age.

Kill Bill I and II certainly capitalize on the fascination with gore and violence that sells movies but they go far beyond the usual Pow! Bam! Shoot ’em Up attraction. Believe it or not, there’s a mythic sized romantic tragedy at the center of these films. A beautiful young woman falls in love with a smart, older man who thinks he knows what’s best for her. She puts herself in his hands, wanting to please him and fulfill his vision of the perfect woman. And then she grows up, gets pregnant, questions the fast track life defined by her man, turns on a dime and disappears. He feels abandoned, alone and rejected, his manhood radically in need of revenge and reparation. He tracks her down, finds her with another man and kills her – he thinks. But women these days are not so easily put out of the picture. She comes back, ready to do battle with any man insensitive enough to take her unborn child for his own ego satisfaction.

But Kill Bill is not simply a story of revenge, it’s a contemporary portrayal of the larger seesaw of life and death forces aptly dramatized by the storyteller of our times – film. With finely tuned cinematic appeal, Good and Evil rage against one another in a most acceptable form – the unreal world of the comic book. The conflict between the universal forces of feminine and masculine, subjective and objective perspectives as well as the mystical and the scientific are set into high-speed motion by Tarantino for your viewing pleasure and enlightenment. It’s all very believable in the realm of fantasy; impossibly so.

Done in lighter ways, this story is Pygmalion – a man who thinks he knows what a woman should be and finds himself left behind when she grows up and has some ideas of her own. Done in a dark way, this is Medea where a man was wrong when he thought a woman who devoted herself to him and his career would not mind him taking their sons and moving on to greener pastures. Done darkly in the movies, this is Lost Highway where David Lynch morphed men mercilessly in the night searching for a comfort zone with gorgeous women. Men who base their masculinity on control of the feminine may start out well, even draw the most beautiful and exciting women. But the rebellion that occurs when a woman gets her own idea of who she is can make for a nasty ending if a man resorts to violence to maintain his control. It’s this kind of woman and this kind of man that fill Tarantino’s bill in both volumes of Kill Bill. Mother nature has drawn an invisible line of respect in the sand between men and women – and Bill crosses one that invites a fight to the death with his beloved, The Bride. We know from the film titles, from the horrific massacre at the beginning of Kill Bill I, and from the fact that a sequel, Volume II, promised to reveal Bill ‘s true identity and the truth about his top woman assassin’s determination to do him in.

So, who is Bill? I mean – really. Sure, he’s a pimp, a broker of killers for hire. But what does he represent in the world and why must he be killed? For the woman’s sake, for the world’s sake?

The first twenty minutes of Kill Bill II almost sent me from the theatre in shivers, willing to miss out on the answer. There’s a relentless, ruthless attack on The Bride (Uma Thurman, the hero we believe in) by Bill’s brother, Budd (Michael Madsen, a true brother in crime). I wish I could say I had the trust of a kid reading a comic book that the good girl would win while watching Volume II. But I was really worried that I could be in for a misogynist driven second half to Kill Bill I. After all, Uma got away with a lot of murder in that first half. It wasn’t just the sadistic laughing of Budd who felt he was justified in burying Uma alive because she had hurt his brother’s feelings by leaving him. It was the finality of comic book logic – every superhero meets situations where there’s no way out.

Burying The Bride alive was just a little too close for comfort to the history of male-dominated societies and sad revelations of female mythology. Many books testify to how the patriarchy has sunk the feminine far into the underground on purpose, for greed and power (The Da Vinci Code is a recent, fictionalized version of this research.). My trust moved to even shakier ground when Uma not only got nailed into her coffin with feet and hands bound by heavy ropes in a box barely the size of her body but was also lowered into a gravesite and covered with dirt. Even if she did have the wherewithal to get out of the box, the earth would crush her. Her plight arouses a flight or fight response that had me gasping for air. It lasted just long enough — lit off and on by a flashlight she had chosen (over being blinded by mace) to ease her crossover to death– to make me desperate for a superhero to show up.

And then, just when I thought I couldn’t stand it another minute, Tarantino tucks in a back-story. He changes the pace, eases the despair of terror by showing The Bride adding Chinese martial arts under the tutelage of The Master Killer, Pai Mei, (Chia Hui Liu) to ones she honed earlier in Japan. This taught her mind over matter. Whew. I won’t spoil the suspense but suffice it to say, it has something to do with getting in touch with the power within. It’s well known that an individual’s subjective viewpoint colors much of how you see things but the lesson here is that it could save your life. It isn’t Superman but The Bride’s own, natural superpower that gets her out of the box. A Wonder Woman for an age of wonder, she taps into the roar of her eternal life force. The Bride rises like an original earth goddess from Budd’s intent to suffocate her, spiraling like a whirling dervish straight from the grave as truly as the ancient Sumerian goddess, Inanna, returned after her descent into hell.

The larger story point is that women in descent – pushed or pursuant – experience revitalization. Years of oppression do not go unrewarded in mythology. They reconnect with their unconscious, uniquely feminine spirit and begin to rise again. The Bride survives this second certain death at the hands of a man determined to do her in and resumes her path of revenge toward Bill. Integrated now with the powers of the mythic Underground as well as martial arts from Japan and China, The Bride holds new options for taking on obstacles – even at close range and when seeming hopelessly trapped. Flying in space and traversing time without constraint is old hat for this heroine. This feminine hero now possesses a few special, secret tricks about resilience that will come in handy later, in the nick of comic book time.

Dusty and smeared with mud – otherwise no worse off from her ordeal – the Bride, fleet of foot and vast in energy, crosses desert mountains with in a single stride to pay Budd another visit. But she finds her dirty work done. One of Bill’s other ViPERS, Elle (Daryl Hannah, a ‘She’ if there ever was one), has given Budd more than money for The Bride’s famous sacred Hattori Hazon sword. She hid a poisonous snake midst the million and killed him, dead within moments. Elle, a one-eyed blonde mirror image of The Bride greets Uma, Hattori Hazon sword in hand – knowing full well how to use it. And Elle wants nothing more than to take The Bride’s first place position with Bill. But look out. The Bride knows Budd has been hiding a Hattori Hazon sword of his own, given to him by brother Bill. She finds and pulls it from its sheath.

Now, as kids would say, the next scenes are the good part – a clashing sword fight between two lithe, tall, blond and well-matched female warriors. They tear poor old Budd’s trailer to shreds as they would smash a city to smithereens if they were let loose in it. They go at their fight pretty evenly until The Bride discovers that Elle killed Master Pei Mei who had taught them both their super skills. Then she ends it with one of those other tricks she’s learned from The Master Killer – another one that should be revealed only to the brave moviegoers who survive The Bride’s Texas burial. That’s when we begin to suspect The Bride of ethics not befitting a cold-blooded killer. The white eye-browed bearded monk not only trained The Bride as a master assassin, he opened doors of perception for her, and ones he didn’t open for others. Everything she sees is psychic, there for dissolution, remaking and transforming to her heart’s desire.

From now on, she is a sleek killing machine intent on ridding the world of Bill, her archenemy, ex-lover and the leader of the ViPER pack. Volume II began by telling how the wedding massacre in Volume I came about. The Bride had left Bill when she found out she was pregnant, wanting to leave the business that endangered the new life growing in her body and putting her in constant peril. She dropped far out of the limelight, looking for a quiet retreat into domesticity. But Bill found her and, unable to lure her back to him, shot her in the head. She didn’t die but she did go into a coma for four years, a symbolic death from which she awakens stronger than ever. In Volume I, she makes a list and starts on the rampage that leads her to Bill in Volume II. It’s clear. There is no life for her if Bill is alive. This is more than revenge, more than retribution for the death of her child and the unmitigated attempt on her own life. She could never be free. He owns her perception of herself as a natural born killer. To have a chance at being her true self, she must break the mirror.

As The Bride descends upon Bill’s house, she is intent upon killing this enemy of her soul. But she’s met with a surprise that pits her realities one against the other. She discovers an outer reality that she definitely wants to be a part of. But there is also the internal reality – being in service to Bill – that goes directly up against it. The emotional tension of The Bride carrying both simultaneously visibly reads as a tough cookie with heart. She’s awesome. And we want to know what she’s going to do. It will be a fight to the death – of realities. The Bride kills Bill and, with him, the old image of herself. But that’s not the secret that closes the story. Again, I wish I could tell it but The Bride has a grand trick this time, one that restores balance in her life, one that you have to see and feel for yourself. Bill’s ability to maintain an imbalance of power is killed. His foot on the neck of innocence and belief in the goodness of ordinary life is lifted.

Bill’s own ego killed him. Like Orpheus who – against explicit orders from Hades – had to take one look back as he led his beloved Eurydice up from the underworld, Bill had to know why The Bride left him. Unable to tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty and the tension of trust without control, he shoots The Bride with a truth serum so that he can believe what she tells him. And she does tell him the truth. She left him because he was wrong; she is not a natural born killer. She is not his right arm. She was a manmade killer and she no longer is. When she discovered she was pregnant, she found her center, the eye of generativity that offset the historical horrors in her life. And Bill (like Orpheus) loses her, dies of a blow to the heart he didn’t know was possible. In truth, it was Bill’s lack of imagination, his inability to embrace the ineffable meaning of love and his perverse addiction to the momentary delight of domination that did him in. It was his inability to trust The Bride as his own soul.

Lucky for us. Because Bill symbolizes the separated, unbalanced masculine that turns away from the mystery of what is not yet known, what is yet to come.

0 likes no responses
14/11/03 Film Essay # , , , ,

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Director: Peter Weir
Writers: Peter Weir (screenplay), John Collee (screenplay), Patrick O’Brian (novels)
Stars: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd

 

Original version published in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library
Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2.

 

“New Heroes for New Times”

When I first conceived of this essay on the forging of true male friendship on the high seas in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, I simply thought of the gift of mythic inspiration being offered by the portrayal of a dynamic caring between two splendid men. But then I saw Fog of War in which the inability of two powerful men to speak honestly to one another — a U.S. President and his Secretary of State — resulted in one of the great disasters of the twentieth century. That was when I realized that open communication between men of immense power who know that they must sometimes commit evil in the name of good cannot be judged as ‘gay’ or ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’ or ‘irrelevant’. Now, in these modern times, when it’s not just a matter of individual deaths but the death of nations that’s at stake, our mythology of what makes a real man is critical. In Master and Commander, duty is wed to compassion as both friend and opposite, inseparable companions worthy of and dependent upon one another for survival, healing and success.

In Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a deep friendship between men is elevated to the level of heroes. And manliness is given a new strength to face an unknown future. The film reinvigorates the old mythology of what makes a man a real man, showing how consciousness and identity can be forged in intimate relationship as well as in battle. And then it goes one step further. Master and Commanderputs forth a new kind of hero – a boy who finds insects as fascinating as dragons, pencils as necessary as guns and good male role models more compelling than bad. It seems like a good time to be a boy.

A boy’s odyssey to manhood may still be held captive by Homer’s ancient tale of the man who bears its name – Odysseus – but the nature of the journey, once completely singular, has begun to change. Master and Commanderprojects an expanded vision of expectation meeting the boy who is growing to manhood in our society today. It holds friendship with other men and caring for children central to the task of becoming a ‘real man’. This heroic image of manhood calls for self-reflection and listening as well as decisive action and conquest. And decisions, solo as they must remain, are not without context. Individual performance often emerges from intense interaction, be it warm and complementary or antagonistic. And, important to the challenge of today’s complicated conflicts, the expanded myth of manhood taking symbolic form in Master and Commandershows an empathetic understanding of an enemy’s point of view beginning to compete with brute force as a tool for victory. Purposeful expression, honest communication, and a genuine feeling for others gain stature as an integral part of leadership. The consequence is a complex, more complete and more fulfilled image of male identity.

Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World opens fast, sweeping across a wild, vast sea with only a fluttering of sails to suggest that men are present. But present they are. In the creaking hold of a British ship of war, a lone lantern makes its way through the dark. A disembodied hand flips the daily sandglass and shadowy sailors exchange places on the tall masts of HMS Surprise against the dawning light of a new day. Napoleon may represent the enemy in 1805 to British imperialism, threatening to claim the South Seas for France but, in this film – in the hands of master filmmaker, Peter Weir – the French enemy ship, Acheron, represents the threat of a future dominated by technological advancement. The Acheron comes like a phantom from the fog, pinpointing the aging Surprise as if equipped with laser beam radar and sporting an invincibility that will require more wit than gunpowder from its Captain, “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). Aubrey’s orders may be to keep the Southern Atlantic Ocean under English control, but his truer purpose will be to assert the spirit of man over the reach of machine. This is the stuff of mythology, the coming of a new hero for a new time. But Aubrey, unlike Odysseus, brings friendship to an even level with the power of personality as key to a man’s stature. He enters into a creative tension with the ship’s physician, a man his equal and opposite, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Friendship undergoes close examination inMaster and Commander, articulating a modern, yet very manly, vision of caring for others. It is the forging of a fit, compassionate image of leadership from a friendship between two extraordinary men on the far side of the world at the cusp of a new age that lies at the center of this film.

Homer’s famed Odyssey established Odysseus as a new hero for his times, a man with a more enlightened consciousness, one in which a mere mortal possesses heightened god-like mental as well as physical abilities. As the tale goes, when Agamemnon forced Odysseus to join Ithaca’s war against Troy and bring civilization to a primitive world, he dragged Odysseus from his fields as a man who knew how to sow seed, nurture it to fruition and reap the rewards of civility. When war became Odysseus’ only pursuit, he hardened and learned to defend himself with a cleverness and pride that excluded concern for community, honing his mind to the fine art of thought designed for action in battle. If we were to imagine Odysseus’s twenty-year journey home from the Trojan wars as a personal quest to develop a male identity more suitable to society than battle, his extended visit with the goddess Calypso could be seen as necessary to the transition, critical to the development of emotional and spiritual sensitivities. Woman was regarded – borrowing words from Joseph Campbell – as ‘being there’ at the center of a man’s quest for wholeness. Odysseus was a battle weary man in desperate need of getting in touch with feelings that would allow him to re-enter his previous life. He was headed across the great seas of the Mediterranean toward home and Penelope, his devoted, patient and much desired wife who had kept his palace, lands and marriage bond intact during his absence. Odysseus could be seen as a man in great need of integrating emotion into his being. He accomplished this task of learning to love, empathize, and be sensual in the typical way imagined for a hero – with a woman. In the time of Odysseus, a man’s spiritual desire was deemed synonymous with capitulating to the lure of feminine beauty beheld in a woman.

The notion of a Greek hero developing or emanating empathy in context of another man was a contradiction in terms. So, when Peter Weir’s Master and Commandershows the brave, cunning and charismatic Captain Jack Aubrey of the HMS Surprise expressing private worries, seeking out frank opinion and playing impassioned string duets with Dr. Stephen Maturin, his stature as a traditional hero is either in question or under revision. And the same could be said of Maturin, a man of no small heroic stature even though he serves in a secondary position as ship’s surgeon. He not only performs brain surgery in a makeshift open air amphi-theatre of the ship’s hold while the patient’s shipmates look on but he digs the remnants of an errant bullet from his own belly, with little or no anesthetic, backwards through the reflected image of a mirror! These are men whose manhood should not be in question. But, of course, that is what’s at stake. Aside from the intensely emotional confrontations that stretch anyone’s notion of male bonding, there will be two crucial moments when each of these men must choose between his egoistic goals and friendship. Their decisions challenge the self-contained image of stoicism traditionally thought critical to the definition of a real man. The oceanic forces of the collective unconscious are at work once again. Under the pressures of war and weather in Master and Commander, they set male identity in motion — and demand from audiences a greater appreciation of the breadth of male heroism than previous myth would have it.

The two men of Master and Commanderare strong individualists – and worthy adversaries in conversation and vision. Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin are about as contrary in temperament and calling as two men can get. But the differences that lie between them are not there to be mollified, lessening either man’s stature by negotiation or compromise. Having a friend not like himself proves useful, making each man feel unique, strong and true to his nature. At the center of this story lies a choice point for each man, a moment when each must look deep within and choose what marks himself as a man – honoring friendship or pursuing ambition. They shift and ponder and groan, determined to integrate the feelings they have for one another into their larger sense of purpose in the world.

“Lucky” Jack Aubrey is a man of action, Master and Commanderof what it takes to keep men, ship, and country together under siege. As he dares to round the Horn of South America in his creaking brig against great and dangerous odds, he yields to Maturin’s pressure to be self-reflective. Not easily, but he does. He finally admits to his friend that his pursuit of the more advanced Acheron into treacherous seas is, indeed, no longer dictated by orders from England. It is his own will, his own interpretation of duty that sends him forward. Only in the privacy of intimate conversation does he admit such hubris. Aubrey feels he must prove that an experienced man of skill and intelligence will be relevant to a future that promises to be dominated by advancements in technology. As he casts his eyes upon a small model two of his men have constructed of the Acheron, he declares, “That is the future”. But he also comments, “it is still vulnerable at the star, like the rest of us”. Subtly, he refers not simply to the construction of a ship but to the ego of his enemy, the man behind the weapon. This is a leader who values empathy as an advantage in war not to be forgotten.

Dr. Stephen Maturin is a quieter man of science, observant, thoughtful and sardonic, preoccupied by a curiosity for nature. He may be aboard a ship but he is not a man of the sea. With nerves as steely as Aubrey, he holds his own and inspires high regard from seasoned sailors. ‘He’s a physician, not just a bloody surgeon’, snaps a seaman who knows most naval doctors simply cut off limbs after a battle. In spite of his ignorance of sailing, Maturin is not a man to be taken lightly. He may not understand nautical terms but that doesn’t stop him from grasping intention and expressing strong opinions about the direction Aubrey chooses. He also operates upon wounded men with a cold confidence that denies his awareness of the limitations of medical treatment at sea and leaves him optimistic about the future of a boy who loses an arm from the nasty consequences of war. It was common practice for boy children to be sent into naval service by their parents in 1805, but uncommon for them to be regarded with such respect as they receive aboard the HMS Surprise.

Together, Maturin and Aubrey set a tone of mentoring and convey a vision beyond war. Maturin is as intent upon using the Royal Navy to further his scientific investigation of the unknown world as Aubrey is intent upon extending Britain’s power into it. He bristles with anger when Aubrey dismisses his scientific investigation as a hobby, not of worldly consequence. Maturin takes Aubrey equally to task when he refuses to turn back toward England when both men and ship are stressed past the breaking point. “Can you really claim that there is nothing personal in this call to duty?” The two seem to thrive on being honest to the sticking point with one another. Intensely competitive, their exchanges reveal the workings of a friendship, showing an interplay between passion, honesty, and respect that feeds achievement. Each man sees himself in line for legend and, with a little mythic imagination, can be seen as using the navy for higher purpose – to further the reach of mankind beyond the known.

Even when they’re having fun, an exchange between the two carries mythic significance. As all the officers are having a meal together, Aubrey mocks Stephen’s serious nature with a joke. He asks Stephen to make a choice between two bread weevils. And then, with a twinkle in his eye, he takes advantage of Stephen’s gullibility. ‘Don’t you know, Stephen, that there is no better of two-weevils?” Might it be the two natures of these men that pose the choice? Or perhaps something even more profound? Later, when Jack and Stephen are discussing the responsibility they both feel for the deaths of young men aboard ship, the joke comes back to haunt them. Stephen owns to Jack that guilt weighs heavy on him when he operates. He must remind himself that when a man dies under his knife, it has been the enemy and not himself who has caused the man’s death. Then, in somber tone, he returns Jack’s joke to its source. “It’s service to war, Jack, that requires a choice between two evils.” Aubrey’s casual joke is brought full circle, revealing the emotional complexity required of responsible men.

More than the buddy camaraderie seen in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid or in a myriad of movies with the likes of Hope and Crosby, the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin often requires each man to become introspective, look within himself and reconsider what’s important to him. Thus, each man is called upon to develop himself and stretch beyond his own consciousness. The string duets with Aubrey on violin and Maturin on cello are described by the ship’s cook as ‘scrape, scrape and screech, screech’ which is, indeed, an amusing characterization of the insistent nature of their collaboration.

Aubrey, long past his orders and against Maturin’s counsel, pursues theAcheron ’round Cape Horn. It is at this point that Master and Commandertruly lifts into mythic storytelling and opens the way for an alchemical transformation of common friendship into something heroic. The weather gods are not with Lucky Jack this time. Raging storms, freezing winds and bizarre blankets of snow are not relieved but aggravated by a blistering hot dead spell. A stream of fear passes from man to man. Rumors of the Acheron as a supernatural enemy, one meant to sink them into the deep, replaces reason. As tensions escalate, Jack comes down hard on his men to keep order but it’s clear that things are out of his hands. It will take a sacrifice of human life – a young officer committing suicide – to get the winds moving. It’s as if HMS Surprise has entered another world, where life and death choices scrape against one another.

When the Surprise comes upon the strange and never explored Galapagos Islands, rare wildlife comes into view. Flightless cormorants and swimming iguanas can be sighted from aboard ship. Maturin feels they should be his to examine up close. Aubrey, believing the Acheron is long gone, grants Maturin his wish. But then Jack learns from a couple pirates that theAcheron is nearby and can be caught with small effort. He breaks his promise to Stephen, favoring the opportunity to chase after the Acheron. Maturin is furious, confronting Aubrey with the meaning of breaking one’s word. Tempers fly but Aubrey is resolute. And then an uncanny accident occurs that will force a character defining choice from Aubrey. Maturin is shot by mistake; a shipboard marine, attempting to shoot an albatross flying in and out the ship’s sails, misses and hits Stephen. He is not killed but the bullet wound contains a scrap of cloth that will fester and take his life. Removal is tricky, not a task to be performed by a skilled surgeon on board a rolling ship much less by Maturin’s inexperienced assistant. Aubrey must decide. Friendship or duty. Saving Stephen’s life or catching the Acheron.

Aubrey faces the crux of the matter in a world beneath and below; is he Maturin’s friend or, solely, his captain? Scrape, scrape. Duty is no longer a defense he can throw at Stephen in anger. He must ask himself. Is he on this journey alone or is Maturin an integral part of it. To Aubrey’s mind in the moment, it is his friend’s life or his dream, the chance to prevail in English history with singular ego. England’s praises await him. And he’s capable of heartless action to achieve his goals. But, to chase after the Acheron will mean certain death for Maturin. The doctor’s survival requires a steady hand on steady land. In a pensive set of cinematic reflections, Aubrey walks amongst his men, looks at the Acheron so tempting within his scope and ponders Maturin’s cello without a hand on its bow. He makes up his mind. Aubrey aborts his chase and escorts Maturin ashore for the surgery.

Aubrey’s decision to be in service to his friend, however, calls for a bit more of him than captain’s orders. It requires a reversal of roles, casting him in the role of a nursing assistant. For a few moments, he is handmaiden to Maturin who must take the scalpel to save his own life. Seeing Stephen operate on his own body exposes Jack to a queasiness he never feels in battle, a feeling he could’ve avoided for a lifetime but now has an opportunity to integrate. Then Aubrey, who believes the Acheron is long gone, grants Stephen a week to explore the island. Of course, because they are in the land of the gods, Stephen is miraculously up and about the next day, taking a five-mile hike to the far side of the Galapagos Island.

Then, the weevil joke turns again. Maturin faces Aubrey’s choice between ego and friendship. While hiking to the edge of a cliff to get a close look at a flightless cormorant, he sights the Acheron just setting sail from a hidden inlet. Screech meets scrape. Friendship makes another call. Maturin could ignore his duty to the Royal Navy, sure in his own mind that he’s fulfilling a higher duty by bringing home to England an unprecedented treasure. But he can’t deny his emotional commitment to Jack. He must match him. Maturin stares with longing eyes across an island as rare as the moon. He must abandon his investigation, releasing his exotic specimens from their cages, and rush back across the island to alert Aubrey. Now, friendship drives this man away from his chance to go before god and country as a singular hero. In Maturin’s case, there is even more at stake since Aubrey is intent upon taking them into battle with the Acheron, a battle that could take his life as well as his goal into the deep dark sea.

But their friendship yields an unexpected gift.

Later, under sail with Maturin back to work making notes and drawings, Aubrey pays him a visit. Jack commends Stephen for, what in his mind, was the right choice. But he also commiserates with Stephen’s loss. “Nothing saved? All lost?” Then, as they screech and scratch their way through a sensitive parry of pride and loss, something magical happens. Maturin shows him one ‘save’ from the island. He hands Jack a small branch of a bush and, enjoying a moment of foolery at Aubrey’s expense, looks on without saying anything. Aubrey plays along, especially since he has the audience of young Will. He holds the stick under his gaze until it moves ever so slightly and reveals itself to be an insect. Stephen explains that the insect camouflages itself as a stick to elude hungry birds. A sly look creeps across Jack’s face. Maturin has given him just the note he needs to draw in the phantom Acheron and, with Lucky Jack’s luck, possibly take it as a prize. He will disguise the Surprise as a whaler, pretty prey for the Acheron.

The creative tension between Jack and Stephen, epitomized in the music they play together but drawn out in detail in the choices they’ve made to elevate friendship above duty, yields an edge for the HMS Surprise in battle. Jack turns Stephen’s trick of nature into a ‘ruse de guerre’, using an insect’s instinct for survival not simply as camouflage for survival but as a way to get the upper hand against a superior force. Stephen, of course, can’t resist teasing his friend by pointing out that it is Jack, not the captain of theAcheron, who is the hungry bird! Later, in hand to hand combat on theAcheron, it will become necessary for Stephen to pick up a sword, exercising physical aggression as well as intelligence to defend himself. Each man must become more than he has been to meet the future.

And then there’s Will. Early on, when the Acheron came out of the fog like a phantom, its long cannon crashed into the HMS Surprise. It took its toll on ship and men alike. Will Blakeney (Max Pirkis), a bare teen, lost his right arm. But it seemed to make him stronger, more of a leader among the men. He gladly accepted the consequences of battle, determined to make others feel better about their weak points. The boy rises above the wound, using his recovery to study and learn. He reads Aubrey’s books on war at sea, (in particular, one about the renowned naval hero, Lord Hornblower) and draws pictures of Maturin’s insects. He softens the blows of Aubrey’s stubborn command upon Maturin and buffers Maturin’s angry judgments against Aubrey. He is a voice of kindness, especially providing a calm presence to the sailors around him as fear fed superstition characterizing the mightyAcheron as a devil ship. But he also steps up to take command when necessary. Will fills the bill as ‘the one’. He connects the above and the below, the opposites of rule and exception, reason and emotion, light and dark. Hermetic, he listens, carries messages and furthers a mysterious connection between forces when all else is failing. When an officer, designated by the seamen as a scapegoat for the unexplainable adversity of bad weather befalling the Surprise, takes his own life to appease the gods, Will is there to witness it. Of course, the winds began to blow. The ineffable connection between belief and effect has been paid homage – and acknowledged, much like in the ancient days of Agamemnon.

It is no small gesture of mythic storytelling that the fledgling image of a ‘relational masculine’ takes its human form in the ship’s very young midshipman, Will Blakeney. Will may be destined to the action of war but he harbors talents as a naturalist, gluing opposites together with empathy. His mentors may turn to one another for sibling-like solace but Will’s caring is key to his personality, instinctual not behavioral. He not only draws insects, he cherishes a lone beetle saved from the Galapagos. The beetle proves a bit of welcome salve for Maturin’s loss as Aubrey takes off after the Acheron. In case the implication of Will as a new kind of hero in the making might be missed, Maturin reflects out loud to Will that – perhaps, somehow – he will grow up to combine the qualities of a captain of war and a doctor of science. Will likes the idea. “Perhaps I could become a fighting naturalist.” If so, he would transcend and unify the opposites that Maturin and Aubrey find so antagonistic – and add an alliance of male strength to the myth of what makes a real man.

Novel idea, two heroes in the same story. Each made more unique by the other. True friendship. Novel idea, two men parenting a ‘fighting naturalist’, a real man for a future that will call out for both. Out of fierce confrontations, solid disagreements and embarrassing concessions, Aubrey and Maturin wring a broader version of manhood from mythology than the one left by Odysseus. The conflict between two friends drives the center of a drama in the mythic territory of wild seas on the far side of the world. And the boys who watch, the boys who would become men under such unusual tutelage constellate an Odysseus who turns egoism to compassion, avoiding the pride that brought Poseidon down on Odysseus. As Stephen says of the Iliad, “The book is full of death, but oh so living.” Yes, as it is also in the film, Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World.

0 likes no responses
13/12/02 Film Essay # , , , ,

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Steven Knight
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sophie Okonedo

 

“Once in awhile, there’s a special movie. If Dirty Pretty Things were a poem, you’d want to tuck it in your handbag, briefcase or backpack. When you had a break or a breakdown in your busy day, you’d reach for its inspiration.”

The movie opens with a handsome black African, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), hustling a fare for his gypsy cab at Heathrow, explaining, “I rescue those let down by the system”. With these casual words, Okwe announces that he’s about to play a role much larger than a taxi cab driver who gives people rides from Heathrow to London. Okwe is headed directly into a confrontation with the system that exploits the poor and rewards the rich without mercy. His determination to skirt the system begins to crumble when the young Turkish woman, Senay (Audrey Tautou), who has rented him her couch for sleeping gets routed by the immigration police for giving him, an illegal alien, refuge. He worsens her already poor status, lowers her from a decent job as hotel maid to a sweatshop seamstress where her boss demands oral sex during work breaks and endangers her sanity. She goes to their hotel boss, Sneaky (Sergei Lopez) for help, desperate for a passport to America and willing to do anything. As if things weren’t bad enough already, Sneaky makes her a victim in a deadly game from which only Okwe, breaking out of his safe haven of anonymity and acting as a doctor, can save her. Not just dangerous to his being found out and exported for mysterious criminal acts in Nigeria, rescuing Senay will make him part of the system he abhors — the one that “lets people down”, denigrating human value and exploiting desperation.

Almost a fable, Dirty Pretty Things is about a man in exile. Although Okwe has a country and a religion, he is no one no where. He lives, as we find him, as an illegal immigrant in London. He earns just enough as a cab driver by day and a hotel clerk by night to rent the couch of young Turkish woman, herself a marginal immigrant. He comes from Nigeria. He’s been trained as a doctor but through circumstances beyond his control, he cannot practice nor can he go home. Okwe may rest but he never sleeps. He is a man who must stay awake to survive. Awake, on his toes and ready for just about anything.

It is the feeling of Okwe being singularly alone, self-contained without reference, that lifts his story above the norm. With an intuitive knowing that this will be no ordinary David and Goliath computerized concoction of evil bearing down on good, we watch Okwe’s every move, wondering what will become of him – and us, as a consequence of our identification with his choices. We may feel vulnerable but we’re fascinated.

Okwe is the orphan left on the rock to survive, in the bull rushes or the wilderness at the mercy of strangers, animals and invisible spirits. The story is set for disaster. It is only in Okwe’s choices that hope resides, not just for himself but for those around him. We wince a bit at Okwe’s strict unwillingness to be corrupted by a system promising to line his pockets with gold. He won’t take a tip from his boss to be quiet about suspicious events but he’ll steal drugs from a state run hospital to relieve fellow taxi drivers from the clap. Real lives hang in the balance as Okwe drives a cab through empty days, slides through his nights as a desk clerk in a hotel where no one is who they seem to be.

Stripped of material goods, serious work and the comfort of family, Okwe carries his loneliness as a spiritual aloneness. He doesn’t whine. He observes. And, while an outraged sadness may fill our eyes with tears as we accompany him into the underbelly truths of people who have no means, we like watching Okwe. Like a modern day Siddartha, Okwe puts his faith in his ability to think, wait and fast as he, a man without place or identity, seeks to solve the mystery of a human heart stuffed down a toilet.

Come on. That metaphor can’t be missed. A man living by the seat of his pants midst big city squalor finds a heart – cut from some anonymous someone somewhere – in the toilet? His, ours, theirs — right? Quite a cast of strangers. It’s the Turkish girl’s heart, the taxi driver’s who hails from all over the world, the greedy doorman’s, the sleazy hotel boss’s, the legendary prostitute’s and all the lost people who come and go through a hotel’s revolving door. That heart stuck in the toilet is the heart of the matter for the disenfranchised. And this is a story about the matter of choice when there is no choice, a choice made against all odds.

Dirty Pretty Things delves into the act of personal choice, asking hard questions. Once the human heart has been trashed, sacrificed, bought and sold in a parking lot somewhere, can it be preserved, somehow, by small acts? Do small, everyday choices make a difference? When ethics, integrity and compassion are on their way to a sewer in a compromised society, can they be resurrected, made more than a source of pride, solace for lost souls walking into dead ends? Is there just some chance that choices made from the heart could be useful, even effective in places of great adversity and times of great danger? They’re worthy questions, begging for better answers than bombs. And it’s more than nice to see Stephen Frears throw his beautiful idea up on the big screen for our contemplation. It’s special.

And then there’s that other metaphor, the chess game where planning ahead, anticipating your opponent’s next move makes or breaks the outcome. Okwe’s a master chess player, moving in seconds while his opponent and good friend, Guo Yi (Benedict Won), moves at double slow speed. Guo Yi ekes out his subsistence in the basement of a hospital as a porter in the morgue. Lest we miss his significance as a prophet ferrying the dead, Guo Yi sews the suit pockets of an anonymous dead Chinese man shut so he can’t take bad luck with him to the hereafter. In a small, unnecessary act of kindness, Guo Yi bestows eternal happiness with a needle and thread.

Settle in. Slow down. You are entering a magical place where dead men and women get a second chance. Follow Okwe’s moves as he shows how an invisible man navigates the darkness of a system that cannot be fixed. To put Senay in safety, Okwe takes her to his friend’s basement refuge. But she cannot live among the dead and soon finds herself in even greater danger. Of course, Guo Yi sees instantly that Senay and Okwe love one another and that Okwe will do whatever he can to find a way out for her. True to his nature as philosopher ferryman, Guo Yi gladly assists Okwe in a deadly game of chess that could, if played well, set Senay free. If played well and flawlessly, Okwe might escape as well. But ready yourself for a surprise because this chess game is being played in the bowels of the earth where morphing is commonplace. By mythical account, the underground is where personal identity can dead-end into a brand new beginning.

And then, to keep Dirty Pretty Things pretty funny, there’s that spunky prostitute, Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), who put the whole tale in motion by telling Okwe where he could find the heart. Then, there she is, sitting on the side of the tub with Senay at the eleventh hour and joking, “Ah, so here we are. The virgin and the whore”. As the caper comes to a close, it’s Juliette who raises a finger, identifying herself as the carrier of an everlasting truth blowing in the wind of an underground parking lot. Invisibility is in the eyes of the beholder.

0 likes no responses
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.

0 likes no responses