Film Essay

12/01/01 Film Essay , Published Works # , , , ,

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Hui-Ling Wang (screenplay), James Schamus (screenplay), Kuo Jung Tsai (screenplay), Du Lu Wang (book)
Stars: Yun-Fat Chow, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang


(Published in C.G. Jung Library Journal, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2001)

Watching Crouching Tiger; Hidden Dragon, I felt like a kid at a Saturday afternoon matinee. I can remember seeing ‘The Thing’ when I was ten. “IT” — whatever “IT” was — crawled out of the ocean and I crawled under my seat. I was sure the whole audience dove for safety. The distance between make-believe and reality collapsed easily when we were kids. But the same thing happened recently when I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. When Ang Lee matches his masterful storytelling with the weapon artistry of warriors in a computer game, I bounded across invisible sheets of air right along with them. It was exhilarating. And, as the film seduced me into the possibility of the impossible, the fact that Tiger’s hero was a girl seemed to offer more, not less excitement. I suspended my disbelief for an eighty-pound girl as readily as I would for James Bond. And if there were any doubt that a story drawn from Asian mythology would appeal to American viewers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon put an end to it.

The trailer put us on notice. It promised a strong girl hero whose rebellious spirit would drive the film’s wild adventures. This girl enticed with artful deception, first pitting wits and moves against an experienced woman warrior of high style and grace. Then she walked out on a limb, weightless against gravity, to slash swords with a grand male Pooh Bah on the tips of a bamboo tree. I, like many teenagers, had crossed swords and gone far out on lots of shaky limbs challenging authority figures. The metaphors were powerful. Viewed from this perspective, the girl is engaged in a classic, cross-cultural Hero’s Journey identified by Joseph Campbell. But I awaitedCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon cautiously. I hoped the girl wouldn’t turn out to be another foil for a man’s crisis like so many big Hollywood movies. Could this girl stay true to a passionate desire for freedom in a world hostile to an empowerment of feminine sensibilities? The Wonder Woman of my generation never went beyond the identity of saving victims of crime. What would be in store for Ang Lee’s Wonder Girl?

THE HERO — Jen Yu (Zhang Zigi,spunky and engaging) is angry, fiercely independent, wanting freedom from the old system. She wants to be free to come and go as she pleases, like the heroes she’s read about in books. From her first appearance, in the room where a sacred sword will be stored for safekeeping, she is not where she is supposed to be. And she makes no apology for where she stands. This girl intends to take her place according to her own wishes, not the protocol of her traditions. As Crouching Tiger, it could be said that Jen feels entitled to be curious. As Hidden Dragon, she sports a cool demeanor concealing an irreverent attitude and a self-determined assurance. This girl wants more than the role of wife, which, for the moment, is the only future she has been offered. She has been betrothed to a member of the landed aristocracy, an old and boring man, a paradigm of the establishment and, to Jen, a constricted system of social values. Jen has her eye on a different kind of life, one with the magical powers and freedom of Zen warriors. And she’s not ashamed of her desires. She flouts her ambition. Like Muhammad Ali, she enjoys taunting her opponents with flippant remarks like “I’m just fooling around”. She fights against rule and prejudice, taking on some of the biggest, “baddest” men of the land — for some of the best fun in the film — to be free of traditions that constrain the movement and options for women. Surprisingly, the film does not belittle her rage. Perhaps, at last, a girl who faces the dead-end vision of feminine development in society can be acknowledged as legitimately infuriated.

THE CALL — Jen Yu’s heroic journey gets underway when she skitters in the dark, scarcely more than a shadow, over the walls of Peking and steals Green Destiny, the sacred sword of Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat, Asia’s Cary Grant), a Wudan warrior of the highest order. Jen steals the sword, not because she really wants it but because she can. Yes, the girl’s heroic call begins with her impulsive theft of an ancient sword, symbolic of centuries of sacred arts and traditions. What kind of a hero is this? She toys with rules not questioned by wise men and women. This capricious act of youthful female anger turns an ordinary story into an extraordinary one. An ordinary story would have the girl chasing after the power that the boys have. As an extraordinary story, the girl’s hidden motive creates a mystery quest. We will only find out what she wants by following her. She will provide clues in the form of confrontations spurred by intuition and emotion rather than planned by intellect or required for status.

The theft of the sword brings Jen into battle with Shu Lien (Michele Yeoh, soulful beauty) who is the protector of the sword, a Wudan warrior in her own right. Shu Lien steps forward against Jen’s hasty bravado. She demands Jen return property that does not belong to her. In this first battle between the two, they fly like blackbirds’ tipping wings across tiled rooftops and scooting fearlessly at high speed through Peking’s narrow streets. In what might be the most adrenaline-inducing scene and finest exhibition ofCrouching Tiger’s unique human appeal, Shu Lien, running along the top of a city wall, suddenly darts downward — supported possibly by a centrifugal momentum — and with her feet clinging to the bricks, stops midstride, stands parallel to the ground, reaches down and rips a chunk of brick from the wall, and hurls it at Jen. It is absolutely breathtaking!

Shu Lien, a mature woman who, although she inherited her father’s business and never married, still chose a traditional lifestyle that contrasts sharply with Jen’s determined quest for freedom. But now Shu Lien has been pleasantly surprised by the return of her past love, Master Li Mu Bai, the most acclaimed enlightened warrior of Wudan martial arts in China. Mu Bai has come to tell Shu Lien that he is breaking away from his esoteric training. He explains that after a period of intense meditation, he has not found enlightenment but only the vast emptiness of existential longing. He has come upon a profound sorrow spread so dark at the core of his being that he does not want to transcend it. Instead, he wants to change his life. He is laying aside the sacred ancestral sword, Green Destiny, which has been bestowed upon him. He no longer wants to serve the dictates of vengeful leaders and their endless cycles of war. From the restraint in their mannered speech, we know that this man and woman left a deep love for one another behind, many years ago, to follow traditions that excluded personal desire — much like the Henry James story, The Beast in the Jungle, where the protagonist denies his passion for his woman friend in favor of a quest for meaning, only to find after she dies that she was the meaning he sought. Due to circumstances of tradition, when Shu Lien was unable to marry, she developed her warrior skills to perform the duties of a security guard. Mu Bai now entrusts her with the sword that has defined him and she is the one who delivers it to Peking for safekeeping.

THE HERO’S CONFLICT — Jen evades Shu Lien in their first encounter and escapes with Green Destiny slung across her back. But her theft unleashes a sophisticated clash of wills between generations. When Jen Yu was ten years old, she felt her intelligence and catlike instincts blossoming. She surpassed parents, teachers and, especially her mentor in martial arts, Jade Fox (Peipei, dark, mysterious). But, while Jen honed her hidden talent, she complied with parental expectations. Now her theft pulls back the curtain, revealing crossed purposes at the heart of her soul. Jen has set her sights on freedom in a world which gives precious little freedom to anyone, certainly not to a slip of a girl from a prestigious family destined to marry and cement ties of political dynasty. She is destined by the traditions of her land to be married but destined by her spirit to take a path not cleared before her.

As hero, Jen’s internal conflict vividly reflects the clash of the old with the new in society. Young people often rebel to transform and transpose old values. Their desire for freedom to be individuals reflects their desire to affect their families and culture with their own lives. Girls in modern society face a particular pain. A boy typically knows there is a role for him at the end. But there is no place for a girl as a returned hero. She is driven by a sadness and an excitement that she might be the one who discovers a new way. In a sense, a girl hero embodies a different kind of heroic quest, one of the old being transformed by the new. There is no traditionally established, public call for a girl to join society in any other way than through constricted roles. The calling for full development, therefore, comes from within — often from an impulsive action.

THE QUEST – Men in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may scoff at Jen’s bravado but they don’t trivialize her desire. Jen is not just a female hero fighting like a man. And her desire goes beyond the familiar fervent need to be coupled with a man. When Dark Cloud (Chang Chen, dashing and sensitive), the young leader of a band of renegades, attacks her father’s caravan in the Gobi desert and steals her comb, Jen is fierce in her determination to retrieve what belongs to her. This girl will not be stolen from. But the leap from her carriage window onto a horse chasing Dark Cloud across the desert takes her into an unexpected territory of love. Though she will not be taken, she learns that she can be seduced. Not without symbolic significance, Dark Cloud finds water in the desert for Jen to bathe and refresh herself. It’s only as Jen experiences sexual desire rising in her own body that her feelings for Lu soften and change. When she yields to Dark Cloud, it is with feelings that can be given but not stolen.

However, Jen’s quest does not end here. Though she falls in love with Dark Cloud, coupling is not the culmination of her journey. Her love sharpens the edge on her internal conflict, sets the stage for stealing Green Destiny and coming into the critical encounters with both Shu Lien and Mu Bai that will eventually transform her into a mature, morally developed woman. She returns to her father’s house after her stay in the desert with Lu, ostensibly to marry within the family tradition. But on her wedding day Lu shows up and she bolts. A life in the desert, even in love with Lu, is not an answer. Society allows this couple no more acceptance than it has Mu Bai and Shu Lien. Her love drives her deeper into conflict, deeper within herself. She takes to the road, disguised as a boy and ready to do battle to prove herself worthy of an independent life. But a successful resolution of her problem requires more than flashy moves against outside enemies. Her distinguished elders, Shu Lien and Mu Bai, who followed the old ways and put aside personal love, have lessons of the heart to teach her. Still, while their history of lost love casts a protective shadow on Jen’s romantic adventures, it holds no vision for an outcome. Jen’s desire will serve as compass as well as inspiration for her on her journey.

NO EXIT — When Jen follows her instincts out onto a limb against Mu Bai, after rebelling against Shu Lien’s advice, she meets an opponent who has examined the questions she’s just beginning to ask. In his current search for freedom, he represents a novel adversary. Mu Bai deems Jen a woman destined for more than male conquest, more than a prize for a male ego. He acknowledges her exceptional talent and offers to teach her. But Jen is suspicious of Mu Bai’s intentions. And even though Mu Bai breaks through her youthful disdain for all that comes from a previous generation, he makes a fateful error when he requires her to bow to the same system that has deprived him. When he offers her entry to Wudan Mountain, she calls it a whorehouse; implying women are used but not taught there. Her childhood mentor, Jade Fox, suffered the consequences of its prejudice and became a hated enemy of the state by murdering a Wudan warrior who took her as concubine. Jade Fox stole a Wudan manual of training as revenge for the warrior’s unwillingness to teach her and taught Jen its secrets. But, Jen could read the text of the manual while Jade Fox could not, so she was able to develop talents far beyond her mentor. This ability to “read” is emblematic of the trans-gender and trans-generational themes in the film: the socio-economic chasm between aristocracy and the servant class that constricts women as well as the difference between two women of two generations. The fortitude and initiative taken by Jen to learn more than her so-called teachers and surpass both their accomplishments and their expectations highlights a familiar break between parent and child but also reveals a hidden resentment that the old use to hold back the young. Jade Fox accepted her inability to read; Jen considered it merely a further challenge. Jen, lacking clear direction, refuses to join either side of the old system of warfare — as a Jade Fox rebel or a Mu Bai warrior.

THE ORDEAL — Though Jen honed a keen intelligence while being tutored by her childhood mentor, she underestimates Jade Fox’s possessive agenda for her. When Jen refuses to kneel before the power of Green Destiny, Jade Fox finds an opportunity to bring Jen back under her influence. She captures and drugs her, hoping that Jen will have no alternative but to join her. Mu Bai attempts to rescue Jen. But Jade Fox wages an underhanded battle with poison darts and kills him. Now Jen is no longer an innocent; she grasps her ignorance. Shu Lien, devastated by Mu Bai’s death, demonstrates an awesome balance of emotion. As rageful loss vies with soulful compassion, she sobers Jen with a profound lesson of forgiveness. She shows the heroic child that freedom without empathy is no freedom at all. These extremely moving emotional interactions with Mu Bai and Shu Lien awaken Jen to the destructive side of her genius. And, in a tender moment of acceptance, Shu Lien demands a promise from Jen — not to be careful but to be, above all else, true to herself. Shu Lien’s charitable disapproval of Jen’s shortsighted, youthful acts of grandiosity is astonishing. In soul shattering times, Shu Lien’s kind, fierce and unconditional love dissolves barriers of blame.

THE BOON — Jen becomes a hero of a feminine sort, adept at stepping lightly between mind and body. Each step takes her closer to her destiny, an enactment of the courageous action asked of any conscientious individual. Her path goes through a labyrinth of contradictions. Just as Jen thinks she reaches clarity, she is met with an impulse in an opposite direction. To become more than she imagines she can become, she is called upon to master both disappointment and disillusionment. From this mastery comes a straightforward boon of heroic proportion — an ability to balance chaotic feelings with uncertain capabilities. The call differs radically from the one of self-sacrifice that most teenagers hear today as they face demands for exceptional performance in a highly competitive world. The familiar call of self-sacrifice attempts to persuade young people that they will achieve their dreams by complying with society’s agendas. The call for a mastery of self, aimed at calming ravaging emotions and navigating ambiguous outcomes as a way of life, is a modern challenge for young heroes in a society where no table has been set.

BEYOND THE OLD WAYS — Mu Bai loosened the grip of service to a society based upon elitism, dominance and certainty but he still represents an old hero. He has been taught, like many young people have been taught, to keep frustration to himself rather than change direction, embrace his feelings and act effectively for the health and well being of all people. Jade Fox became addicted to her rebellion and was as surely limited by it as by any system of the state. Neither Mu Bai nor Jade Fox break through the illusion of superiority ingrained by their warrior training. Only Shu Lien sees through Jen’s drive for freedom to the larger issue of personal freedom. Shu Lien layers moral intent into Jen’s desire and helps her move toward an elusive but full feminine identity. Shu Lien can imagine a mature feminine presence in public life but she has not lived a life grounded in a determination drawn from female sexuality. This is a new way, one confounding in its complexity but actively pursued by the younger woman. Jen’s last heroic action in the film is a leap downward into a flowing stream of mysterious water. She is taking us toward a new vision of the feminine which lacks contemporary definition, has not coalesced into a recognizable identity in society and lies somewhere in a girl who continues to move — somehow –toward her heart’s desire.

When Dark Cloud and Jen were in the desert, he told Jen a story about how he became a man. To fulfill one’s dreams, he had heard the old folks say, you must leap off a mountain into the dark abyss below to an unknown fate sustained only by a belief that “a faithful heart makes wishes come true.”

THE END — We all need heroes and mentors. Jen and Dark Cloud help us to see an adventurous fresh start for lovers who are both intent upon living fully and deeply. And, someday, their relationship will form a springboard for others just as Mu Bai and Shu Lien’s has been for them. Jen and Shu Lien will surely meet again to teach each other more of life’s lessons. There just aren’t enough female heroes around who are warriors of the spirit as well as the fist and the kick. And there aren’t enough adults willing to tell young people the truth of their own awakening. The audience that sharedCrouching Tiger with me loved the opportunity to identify with a girl who fought for the freedom to be an individual. No one minded that she needed more than fancy footwork to achieve maturity. Young people today often claim more authority than their age and experience warrant because heroism is not linked to the heart. Jen models a hero who breaks through emotional as well as physical barriers as she transforms into a carrier of society’s hopes and values for tomorrow. She inspires an invigorating new vision and advances a cultural reformulation of our image of hero articulating extraordinary interior as well as exterior leaps of accomplishment.

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12/10/00 Film Essay # , , , , ,

The Princess and the Warrior (2000)

The Princess and the Warrior (2000)
Director: Tom Tykwer
Writer: Tom Tykwer
Stars: Franka Potente, Benno Fürmann, Joachim Król


 (Published in C.G. Jung Library Journal, Vol. 21, No. 3, 2002)

Perhaps, as noted film director Mike Nichols suggests, a film’s artistic success lies in the power of its core metaphor to drive the story. If so, I believe The Princess and The Warrior (written and directed by Tim Tykwer) owes its ability to rivet our attention from beginning to end on an innovative interpretation of the Ouroboros as a symbol of enlivened continuity. Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols defines the Gnostic symbol of a snake biting its own tail as a representation of the continuity of life but focuses on the symbol as a closed, static circle – like a child sucking its thumb. Tykwer, I believe, opens up the symbol into a narrative of a heroine shedding old mores, rippling past a dead-end to a fresh start. It is indeed inspiring to see Sissi Schmidt (Franka Polena) triumph over the paralyzing effects of despair in an heroic story of personal determination.

At first glance,The Princess and The Warrior appears to be a familiar story of a young woman who rebels against convention and follows her heart. But, it should come as no surprise that Tykwer, the visionary filmmaker behind the labyrinthic “Run Lola Run”, is not simply telling a story of romance. The Princess of the title trusts her instincts in order to follow a path of mysteriously synchronized events and, as if embodying the wisdom of the Ouroboros, affirms the promise of infinite possibility when love and trust are mutual between a man and a woman.

One by one, as surely as the opening scenes of Tykwer’s film show a letter making its way through the automated machinery of the postal system, The Princess slips from scene to scene like a still image in a children’s flipbook. No one single image, separated from the others, makes sense. But viewed at a certain speed, each one magically contributes to the emergence of a story. The page turning child, or viewer of any age watching The Princess and The Warrior, receives a special reward——an unasked question answered. One doesn’t consciously ask how the brain creates movement out of still images when pages are flipped nor how vitality is restored after trauma robs the soul. But the surprise of finding meaning where there was none mysteriously sparks a flow of energy and inspires hope for a future that may depend on suspending disbelief.

The Hero Myth, or The Hero’s Journey, wildly popular in our culture as a formula for the deliverance of mature masculine consciousness, (i.e. Star Wars, Platoon) has no path for girls or boys pursuing the secrets of regeneration. Tykwer’s film, as a modern mythic story of origins and a heroine’s journey, fills in many missing clues for those who seek the nature of continuity and evolution. Princess sinks its roots not in the classic Hero’s Journey, then, but into the ancient quests for feminine wisdom found in the mythology of the Sumerian Queen, Inanna as well as in the classic Greek Elusinian Mysteries. Still, the old myths hampered by the patriarchal goal of male dominance give scant detail of the actual trials and triumphs of exploration and accomplishment involved in the hero’s search for identity and wholeness from a female perspective. The Princess and The Warriorportrays an important image for contemporary times: one of a female hero who first looks death in the eye and then takes on the larger problem of human despair and the crippling effect of disillusionment in the modern world. While Tykwer’s heroine borrows depth from alliances with old female heroic tales, it is a fully modern invention to imbue her with the power of regeneration and create out of her own cycle of events a mythic perspective of the relationship between the masculine and the feminine.

From the head of the snake——or its tail——The Princess and The Warriorbegins with a letter from one young woman living alone atop a glistening sea of light to another young woman residing in the darkened rooms of a big city asylum populated by the mentally ill. Sissi Schmidt (Franka Polenta) works as a nurse in the Birkenhoff Psychiatric Hospital in Wuppertal, Germany. The letter asks Sissi to pick up a gift left by her friend’s dead mother in a safe deposit box at a bank. This seemingly simple request sets off a series of events that lead Sissi out of her complacent adaptation as a nurse and draws her into a complicated relationship with a man that changes her life. By the end of the film, the dead mother’s gift takes on a meaning far beyond what either young woman could have imagined. It acts as an invisible hand from the “other world” that guides Sissi along a deeply felt, but not wholly recognized, path of longing for connection —— and a new start.

Tykwer puts the ancient feminine principle of renewal into play in this film by sending Franka Polenta back into action as yet another captivating heroine. She was the larger than life, magical redhead speeding through Run Lola Run, and now she is just as amazing as the slow motion blonde inPrincess. Polenta’s character, Sissi, practically opens Princess surviving a near death experience, when she is mowed down by a huge red truck on her way to the safe deposit box and receives a street tracheotomy from a stranger.

Bodo Reimer -a tight combo of machismo vulnerability pulled off by Benno Furmann – is on the run after committing a petty theft when he scoots under the big truck to hide and discovers Sissi lying flat on her back unable to breathe. Daunted for only a moment, he sizes up the situation and promises he’ll return to help her. Returning with a common plastic drinking straw, he performs an emergency cut in Sissi’s throat with the point of a hunting knife, inserts the straw and restores her breathing by sucking blood from her air pipe. Just before Sissi blanks out, we hear her thinking, “someone could find happiness in the outside world if someone like him was around.” Like the age old concept of “love at first sight” explained as a Jungian anima/animus projection, an image from her fantasies has found a match.

Sissi miraculously survives her accident with only minor injuries but when she returns to her job at the psychiatric hospital, she no longer feels like she fits in. Sissi grew up in the hospital, the child of a nurse who died in an odd accident when a psychotic patient deliberately threw a hair dryer into her bath – possibly the same patient who impregnated her with Sissi – leaving Sissi motherless at a very young age.

Sissi has always been every patient’s sweetheart, an innocent girl happily in service of any mad fantasy. Now, for the first time, she feels different. Although on the outside she appears cool and calm, frustration and desire have begun to burn beneath the surface. She realizes she’s not an inmate; the patients no longer feel like friends or family. Her first night back from fifty-three days in the hospital, she tosses and turns, agitated and unable to sleep. She feels driven to action. By her own words, she has to know if Bodo’s miraculous appearance means that “she is supposed to be with him” and sets off on a determined quest to find the man who saved her life or, one might argue, her very life-essence.

Unlike the familiar heroines of myth and fairy tale, Sissi is neither seduced nor abducted by Bodo. Rather, passion rises within her and propels her toward a stranger with no name who left no clue as to his whereabouts but captured her complete attention. For the first time, she wants something for herself.

Her beginning point is a button ripped from his shirt by her clenched hand — she had been desperate to hold on to him as he left her lying under the truck. A young blind ward of the hospital was accompanying her on her errand to the bank at the time of the accident and she now enlists his help. Just before the truck hit her, she had pushed the boy to safety. Devoted to Sissi, the boy is eager to help.

Walked back through the accident scene and, aided by his heightened sense of hearing, he quickly finds the store from which Bodo emerged just before finding her under the truck. The owner sells illegal guns and, though he knows Bodo, refuses to tell Sissi where he lives. Sissi, no longer the passively agreeable child she was before the accident, makes the first of many brash moves in pursuit of her destiny. She whispers in the ear of the blind boy and instigates an outrageous spoof that forces the owner to give her Bodo’s address.

Sissi does indeed find Bodo, but her newfound sense of purpose is again put to the test and she is refused satisfaction. Instead of Bodo recognizing her and being delighted that his quick action paid off in her full recovery, he knocks her down and nearly strangles her. True, she surprises him during a karate practice session with his brother but his split-second, unthinking reaction when she taps him on the shoulder suggests that instinctually he could be as deadly as he had been life-saving when he found her under the truck. Bodo doesn’t apologize. Instead, as if possessed by a demon, he demands she leave the premises.

Sissi does leave but she also returns at a later time and befriends his brother. This time, when Bodo finds her in his house, he pushes her out into a dark rainy night and leaves her stumbling in the mud. For Bodo, Sissi’s attraction is more than irrelevant. He is enraged by the distraction that her interest in him causes to his all-encompassing obsession with death. He is a man living in a private emotional hell and wants no company.

When Sissi talked to Bodo’s brother, she found out that Bodo is crazed with guilt. His wife was killed in a bizarre accident for which he feels responsible. On a trip, he went to the men’s room at a gas station and left his wife distraught after an argument, so that she didn’t notice dropping a lit cigarette into an overflow from the gas pump setting off an explosion that killed her. Bodo’s brother has been awakened more than once to discover Bodo embracing a pot belly stove stoked with hot coals in his sleep, presumably attempting to bring his wife back from her fiery death or join her. But he has not been able to heal Bodo’s obsessive despair. A pot belly stove stoked with coals for the night may also be drawing a frozen man to warmth, an unconscious lure to a woman’s Eros as a source of rejuvenation. Bodo’s brother may indeed be helpless but he schemes to leave Germany — leave the past – and start anew in Australia.

An innocent heroine, informed by the mythology found in Beauty and the Beast, would sustain Bodo’s brutality from an attitude of self-sacrifice and good heartedness, but Sissi is not an innocent. From birth, she’s been exposed to and trained to deal with insanity. She responds to abusive behavior by taking control of the situation. She can lock a man down if she has to. She has no father to rescue by catering to a beast. She is not preserving a traditional image of femininity. To the contrary, pursuing the man she loves breaks her away from a system of self-sacrificing convictions that put a roof over her head as an orphan. She pursues Bodo at the risk of losing her home and her job but with the hope of gaining a true feeling of connection. She sustains herself with a mystical sense of purpose, an imaginative spirit and a belief that she is bringing two worlds together. From Sissi’s point of view, saving Bodo’s tortured soul from a sentence of isolation in hell is part of saving herself from a life caught inside a cage.

Sissi demonstrates an uncanny ability to see a person’s goodness lying beneath impulsive actions and to act directly with compassion. She takes careful note of Bodo’s tears flowing down his cheeks as readily as when he flails out in anger. He cried while he assisted her under the truck, and he cries as they arrive at the gas station where his wife’s fatal accident occurred. But the extreme oscillations between grief and rage haven’t changed him. He’s stuck in another world, shut off in the “men’s room” when an explosion of fire changed life as he knew it. But is it immutable and forever? Sissi believes Bodo reached out, at least momentarily, when he pierced her throat and freed her spirit. He opened a door, created a pathway between worlds that, for her own sense of self, she needs to travel again.

Her interactions with Bodo are not so much romantic as sorely real, a part of her desperate effort to leave behind a childhood distorted by the mad fantasies of others and escape a role of servitude to adult dependencies. Even when Bodo pushes Sissi away, he fails to discourage her. She finds other ways to stay close to him, certain that pursuing him will take her to a new life. Her empathy for his entrapment energizes her and makes her stronger, not more passive or vulnerable. She gathers strength as she goes. When Bodo throws her out of his house and leaves her soaking in the mud, Sissi picks herself up and, instead of slinking home to the asylum, seeks comfort on a grassy knoll overlooking the city. Suddenly, the rain stops and the vast black sky above twinkles with starlight, merging stars with city skyline, and making heaven indivisible from earth.

Night becomes day and Sissi resumes her task of retrieving the dead mother’s gift from its safe deposit box. In her head, she begins a letter to her friend explaining the delay. By chance or divine plan, Bodo’s brother works in the same bank where Sissi’s friend’s mother rented a box. The brother has moved ahead with his scheme to get money to go to Australia by robbing the bank and, on the very day and at the very moment that Sissi is opening the safe deposit box downstairs in the bank, he and Bodo are botching a robbery of safe deposit boxes upstairs. Bodo’s brother is shot and, perhaps guided by that dead mother’s hand, Sissi’s curiosity takes her straight into the chaotic center of their attempt to escape. Together, Sissi and Bodo manage to escape with the wounded brother in a getaway car and drop him at an emergency room.

Once again, Sissi’s path intersects Bodo’s in an accident — as unlikely and life threatening as the first one. This time the tables are turned and Sissi steps into the critical life-saving role. Sissi, fully in command, ferrets Bodo away from a police blockade and hides him as a patient in Birkenhoff. But when TV news announces his brother’s death, Bodo flips out, tosses the television set against a wall and must be drugged. Sissi, with a hand as steady as the one Bodo used to perform her “trache”, reaches into the fiery core of his insanity and soothes him with loving kindness and spiritual encouragement. She lies down next to him in his hospital bed, fully clothed but closer than if she was naked and assures him that everything will be all right. “What planet do you come from?” he murmurs, staring at her, unable to imagine any human being caring about him. In his mind, he is death: responsible for his wife and his brother being dead.

But Sissi starts a full-blown plan for Bodo’s rescue and their escape. She borrows a car and dreams of a brighter tomorrow. In Bodo’s darkest moment of despair, as he is lying alone in a padded cell, Sissi slips in to tell him she’s dreamed that he’s to come with her. Her voice coaxes him back from the abyss: “You wonder why we two? We are together — brother and sister, mother and father, wife and husband – all in you, all in me. Both of us were both in my dream. I thought it was happiness. You’ve had too much bad luck.” The camera circles around them simulating the Ouroboros, no beginning and no end, creating a mysterious continuity between two human beings where there was none and making each whole first onto themselves, then together.

However, Sissi’s attraction to Bodo stirs up an anxiety-ridden jealousy and panicky fear of abandonment in two of her favored male patients. The blind boy, in an obvious suicide attempt, eats glass from a florescent light fixture. The other, a lecherous older psychotic who fancies himself to be Sissi’s lover, has guessed Bodo’s identity as the missing bank robber and called the police. Then, failing to kill Bodo in a telltale act that identifies him as the man who both impregnated and killed Sissi’s mother, he climbs to the roof of the asylum and threatens to jump. Sissi, the first one the scene – with the police and hospital attendants as well as Bodo close behind — approaches the sniveling snitch as he hovers on the edge of the roof. Knowing him for the coward he is, she whispers that people like him never kill themselves.

And then Sissi turns to Bodo, making a highly ambiguous invitation – “Come on”, she says. It’s clear Sissi intends to jump off the roof. But whether she offers life or death, no one can be sure. Then Bodo takes her hand and off they go. Leaping far out over the gutters of the roof, Sissi and Bodo float hand-in-hand, slowly downward as if changing time zones, moving past the walls of the hospital while forming a charismatic vision of freedom reminiscent of Brancusi’s abstract birds of flight. A young man and woman free falling through space to a future with no definition, only possibility.

They plummet safely into a river that only Sissi knows is there and rise buoyantly to the surface amidst millions of beautiful bubbles. But, even after they’ve defied death together — one more time – Bodo’s fear paralyzes him and keeps Sissi’s dream of happiness in limbo. It’s not sexual love but expertise that Sissi offers as a remedy. She heard his brother’s dying words to Bodo, “Get off the toilet.” Drawing upon her mastery of emotional repair, she insists they revisit the scene of Bodo’s trauma. If Bodo’s damning judgment of himself began there, perhaps an ending can start there as well. She waits in the car while he goes to the men’s room.

When Bodo comes back, he can (and so can we, cinematically speaking) see his negative, depressed self taking a ride with him in the back of the car. Bodo takes the driver’s seat next to Sissi but he keeps staring at his look-alike in the mirror. Something amazing has happened. Who he is and who he sees himself as being have been split apart. Bodo is no longer so completely identified with his dark side that he can’t see that it is his own damning, deadening judgment of himself that has kept him from returning to ordinary life.

Although Sissi does not singularly eject the shadow from Bodo’s life, she is no less tall in stature for being a participating rather than a rescuing hero. No mistake about it. She is the instrument of Bodo’s return from hell. The moments of physical contact between these two have been few but profound. When Bodo lays his hand on Sissi’s in the car, feelings of redemption as well as romance swell in their touch. They continue on and take the dead mother’s gift to Sissi’s friend returning to where the fateful letter of request originated.

If a stone house sitting alone on a peninsula jutting out into a glittering sea isn’t a symbol of immortality, what is? The snake bites its tail, waves lap a rocky beach, clouds darken a light blue sky or vice versa, despair mingles with joy or vice versa, waiting is pregnant with activity and vice versa, etceteras, etceteras, and etceteras. Sissi and Bodo open a path between worlds. Ending or beginning, the coming together of opposites sparks hope.

And just to make a point about the power of his hero to dissolve despair totally clear, Tykwer details his ending with Sissi and Bodo feeling the love for one another that they’ve been missing in their lives. A woman’s passion to be with the man who awakens her is oft missed and oft misinterpreted as a desire to give up and give over her own identity. Or she is construed as ambitious, driving more to be a partner than a lover. In many stories, a woman’s destiny is to get one or the other —— success and independence or love and relationship. Sissi succeeds in getting both; her persistence saves Bodo and frees her. But she also gets her man, not a Disney-fied beast transformed by a beautiful woman’s self-sacrificing love, but a flesh and blood man who visited a secret room of clanking skeletons in the basement of his own psyche and, upon feeling loved, opened his heart.

Sissi succeeds in deed and romance. For a woman to be the beloved as well as the one who fulfills her quest for identity and wholeness is a story not told often enough.


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18/06/99 Film Essay # , , ,

Run Lola Run (1998)

Run Lola Run (1998)
Director: Tom Tykwer
Writer: Tom Tykwer
Stars: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup


(Published in C.G. Jung Library Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1999)

From post-postmodern Germany comes a film that gives a girl the role of Hero, the special one born with the power to prevail against the collective odds. Lola (Franka Potente), despite her punked-up hair and striking looks, is Everygirl, an ordinary young woman of today, whose mother thinks she’s going out on an errand when she’s really running for her life. This Hero, as if in a fairy tale reinvented, has a daddy who betrays her, is weaker than he looks, and turns out to be irrelevant to her problems. At best, he can’t protect her; at worst, he won’t. But the girl still manages — through her persistence and surprising good fortune — to escape the limitations of the disempowered daughter role and score a victory for the feminine.

Lola is a Hero waiting to happen. Fate interferes with her picking up her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtrue), after he pulls off a drug deal in Berlin and that misstep sets off a series of events in which Lola has to tap into an amazing ability to reconfigure consequences. Manni, calling from a telephone booth, reaches her at home on her red phone, and, after blaming her for the predicament he is in, pleads with her to come up with a way to save his life — in twenty minutes. Hapless fellow, he has lost the big bag of cash that belongs to mob bosses who are already on the way to pick it up. They will kill him if he doesn’t have their money.

As if held back only by imagination, Lola transforms herself into an animated cartoon. The sheer challenge of the impossible energizes Lola into using magical powers to rescue the Manni she loves. Her hair is dyed bright red as if to signal her affinity to the troupe of wild women who roamed the hippie San Francisco of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb’s fantasies in the sixties. As Lola slides into action mode on the brink of the millennium, she stretches seconds beyond minutes, banishes the past before it becomes memory, and flips the future back into the present so that she, not time, will be in charge of the outcome.

With a wondrous autonomy, Lola revisits her boyfriend’s crisis three times as if learning from her mistakes, each time increasing her focus and decreasing the constriction of circumstance. Her progressive return to the choice-points of the rescue scenario structures the three segments of the movie: in each segment she gets better at releasing herself from her parental legacy and takes on more creative responsibility for shaping the outcome. In the first episode, Lola is revealed as the daughter of a highly placed banker who could rescue her but instead viciously rejects her. In the second episode, Lola turns the tables on her father and manages to save herself but loses what means the most to her. As she repeats the same flurry of activity attempting to wrest enough money from the “world of the fathers” to avoid disaster, her internal interpretation of events shifts and so do the events themselves. Finally, Lola relies on herself, backs up her date with fate by tampering awesomely with the inevitable and walks away with a new future.

As Lola proceeds though her three scenarios and bumps into the same people one after another on her sprint through the city of Berlin, flashes of images appear on her mind’s screen like 15-second commercials, advertising the way her life is changing. Lola’s internal images align with the different external scenarios and envisioning styles. Imagination strongly figures into how things turn out for Lola, who is like an Imaginal Hero.

There’s a wonderful scene that repeats itself in each of the three episodes. A group of people carrying a huge piece of clear glass is walking right in front of an ambulance that is racing to save a man’s life. In the second episode, the ambulance crashes through the invisible barrier posed by the glass. Once this shield of time and space has been broken, the patriarchal order can’t be put back together again, and the movie shifts decidedly in another direction. In a redemptive, Buddhist way, reality becomes what Lola makes of it through her conscientious mindfulness. This insight is the boon this feminine Hero brings back from her challenge to the odds against a victory for compassion.

If I were a girl, I would like to be told “Run Lola Run” over and over again. Every night when I went to bed I would ask for the Lola story. Tykwer’s film makes me feel like it is okay to be Lola, spinning her red telephone in the air, warping time and slipping from one reality to another like an animated cartoon hero. “Tell me the part about what she did to the phone again,” I would like to beg of the freestyling storyteller.

Forget Clever Gretel who saves her brother through trickery, forget Snow White who, though fairest-of-them-all, doesn’t know a witch when she sees one, and forget that persona-struck Cinderella who goes for a guy who can’t recognize her in street clothes. I want the colorful Lola, who leaps into action when her boyfriend is in trouble, keeps her wits about her when time is running out, and manipulates her perspective like a kid with a computer game. I would insist. If I am to grow up and be comfortable on city streets, I want flaming red hair (not a short red cape) to mark my coming of age, and I want the death-defying, life-affirming ending that any decent Hero gets. I need a fairy tale where the girl is unique, triumphs over evil, and inspires hope.

Miraculously, Lola’s race against the odds is also winning at the box office.Run Lola Run has gotten a better run for its money than most independently produced foreign films: in many cities, its time on the big screen has been extended. Wherever you live, beg for this movie – insist upon it. When you see Lola go for the big bag of fairy dust, you’ll enjoy being with her, and believe again in the possibility of change.

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21/02/97 Film Essay # , , , , ,

Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway (1997)
Director: David Lynch
Writers: David Lynch, Barry Gifford
Stars: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, John Roselius


(Published in C.G. Jung Library Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1997)

Not for a moment in his latest film does David Lynch allow us the relief of believing that his primary characters, Fred (played poignantly by an edgy Bill Pullman) and Renee (portrayed by a sexy-perfect Patricia Arquette) are in a real marriage, saying daily good-byes, having a real life. Not even in the opening moments of the film when Fred and Renee are agreeing that it’s okay for her to stay home rather than accompany him to the club where he plays tenor sax, does Lynch allow us to believe that we are going to see only another noir narrative about a man obsessed with a woman he can’t possess. Nor will Lost Highwaybe another Fatal Attraction,” a movie that ultimately relieves its male watchers of their responsibility for the entanglements that ensue from their own voyeuristic flirtations. Lynch isn’t telling an everyday story; he’s linking a man’s loss of control over a woman’s sexual desire to feelings of murderous rage and going for the jugular of our present-day sexual anxiety.

Lost Highway is a long, drawn out film about entering and, maybe not fully, re-emerging from the dark shadows that contain the feelings of men in our culture. Lynch attempts to do justice to the inner sanctum of Fred’s self-torture aroused by the fear — old as Homer’s Paris losing Helen back to the Trojan king Menelaos — of losing the prize of his woman’s love. Much of America’s vision of masculinity still naively equates itself with a man’s ability to capture and keep a woman who carries the “right image” to the eyes of his fellow men. This is a private agony that has been sanctioned by the culture as a key cornerstone of initiation into manhood. When the manly task is nothing less than to compel the suitable woman to be perpetually desirous of nothing and no one else but him, the test of being a real man becomes the ability to possess the woman body and soul.

To link up, in a convincing way, the rhythms of extreme emotional fragmentation and impulsive acts of violence with what the American male has to go through when he feels he is not “man enough” to keep his woman with him is the affective brilliance of Lost Highway. The paranoia that tortures Fred and transports him into his own nightmare is tightly tied to the notion that masculine control is essential to survival. It wrenches us with the suggestion that if men do not break with this relentless pressure on them to be “real” men, men in cool control, masculinity itself will have a mental breakdown. Lost Highway is a man’s scream of anguish over his inability to escape from the ubiquitous cultural fantasy that possession of a woman is the only way for him to keep it together.

Lost Highway taps a world of dream reality and opens up a window onto an emerging male awareness of the internal cost of carrying such a burden. After Fred leaves Renee at home to read a book that they both know she will never open, he blows a frenzied stretch of jazz saxophone in his club that skims the rim of a scream. For a man filled with searing doubt, the wail of a tenor sax can easily sound like the inner pain of an injured anima. His access to soul is being cut off. And in a country headed by a saxophone-playing President who is being sued for sexual harassment, the film images of a man losing his grip take on a broader resonance. When Fred calls home between sets, we hear three different phones ring, with no response, in three different empty rooms; their staccato tones hollowly echo the repetitive anguished solo he has just delivered. We expect the worst when Fred arrives home. But there is Renee, fast asleep. The agony deepens; did she sleep through the call or did she merely get home in time (from whatever secret life she is leading) to carry off the ruse that she has been home all evening. Is Fred being paranoid or is he the classic symbol of a man emasculated, cuckolded even in his own house? The dark music rises from deep from within Fred’s fear of losing Renee, which means losing control, sanity, and identity all in one raw crescendo.

Lynch sets us up much in the same way he presents Renee to Fred, playfully spinning us around, letting us have the roller coaster experience of yielding to seduction and waiting for the surprise. He uses the movement in and out of shadows in Fred’s own house, in and out of time in Fred’s elliptical narrative, and in and out of Fred’s identity to intensify the uncanny feeling of unreality that ensues when panic creeps up from within. While Fred talks to the police about some video tapes that have been left on their doorstep, it gradually dawns on us that the tapes could only have been shot from his own mind’s eye. Fred and Renee are frightened, in other words, by the implications of paranoia; it is as if the video has been taken from the viewpoint of Fred’s sexual jealousy, outside ordinary reality and not able to be discussed by the couple in any rational fashion. Fred disavows any responsibility for this emotional complex, telling the police only that he does not own or like video cameras because he wants “to remember things my own way, not necessarily the way they happened.” In this instant, we become aware that Fred has chosen the point of view of madness, now verified as a separate reality on video. Lynch and his main character have begun to actively intermingle two viable realities. Fred’s inner reality now exists as “actual” memory, captured on camera. Swimming around in this particular ocean of confusion mixed with fear, memory is like a dream. The linearity of events becomes uncertain. Emotions are sucked up as if they were images, mixed up with facts and spit back as perceptions that openly distort what is being seen. Waking reality, sleeping reality, remembered reality, imagined reality and not-yet-imagined reality all collapse into each other. Just an instance of doubt gives rise to a whole story; the dream insists that it be taken seriously.

Mythically, Lost Highway is the dark night of the soul with an unconscious Eros bidding a man deep into his psyche, his love drawing him into the underworld close to death in life. Loving the woman who captivates him instead of a woman captivated by him, Fred becomes a prisoner of his fear of inadequacy. The anima pulls the hero into the unconscious with an amazing force, just as intense sexual passion can culminate for a man in an experience of fragility that is anything but manly, in an orgasm more like losing than winning. He feels his mortality, his vulnerability, his insufficiency, and — perhaps most of all — he is touched by life’s uncertainty. The fluidity of his feelings terrifies him and destablizes his coherence. He loses his ability to remain in control not only of Renee but of his own self. The non-linear nature of Lynch’s film thus becomes a reflection of the inner state and process of his main character, Fred.

It is true that as an audience, we keep feeling (like some of the critics who have disliked the film) that this is all wrong: a director, like a man, is supposed to be in control. But Lynch, like Fred, attacks dreamlike images as if they were real and relates to real events as if they were dreams. Seemingly, the love of film opens Lynch up, again like Fred, to a wild insecurity that drives him into irrational sensation, unintelligible shifts in reality and palpable changes in the identity of his central characters. There is be no other way to tell this story. Fred is in the grips of an even more insidious cinematic shapeshifter, on the road to meeting his own, internal demon. Personified effectively by a white-faced, trickster figure (a two headed snake, reminiscent of both Klaus Kinski’s nosferatu vampire as well as the Joker in Batman comics and played to the hilt by Robert Blake), the “demon” of repressed male rage introduces himself to Fred at a party. Renee is having a drink nearby with a guy from her past. The demon, in a memorable “twice” doubled-identity cell phone scene, tells Fred that he, Fred himself, has already invited him into his house. And that, in fact, as they speak face-to-face at the party, he, the demon, is simultaneously at home in Fred’s house. The implication is clear. Fred’s inner hostility is bubbling to the surface and beginning to wreak havoc. Tormented by the shapeshifter he himself has now become, Fred’s psyche caves into the inescapable connection between polarized opposites (love and hate, arousal and impotence, Eros and Thanatos) and his own violent nature. Psychologically, what is revealed is the paradox inherent in the male fantasy of arousal within this heterosexist anima set-up: the dueling desire to control, and finally kill, the very one who enlivens feeling. For this reason, any woman entering into a man’s emotional life is both terrifying and fascinating. She never comes without also bringing the fear of his not being ruthless enough to conquer and thereby destroy her. This anima fantasy takes root in an inescapable truth; women are powerful. Women do hold a mysterious power over men because they cannot be controlled — more precisely, because they offer an option for an alternative male identity that drives a man onto a lost highway of possibility.

Nowhere else in the film does Lynch depart from logic to convey a sense of inner reality as much as when he changes Fred’s identity to Pete, the twenty-ish garage mechanic (played with just the right degree of post-adolescent erotic acuity by the brooding Balthzar Getty). When Fred finds himself imprisoned in the psychic reality of having killed his wife, he is wracked by a headache and starts to regress; perhaps because his obsession seems more like a younger man’s preoccupation with the unreachable beauty of a big screen goddess than genuine grief over Arquette’s loss, he morphs into the morally less complex Pete. Here Lynch seems both to pose his audience with the question “Why Pete?” and to make us feel that in becoming Fred’s avatar that something terrible has happened to Pete, too. The scar on the side of his head suggests some horrible lobotomizing experience that Pete’s parents won’t talk about. Could Pete have been snatched by aliens, or perhaps by Fred’s demon? Sexual obsession, beyond its effect on the spirit can feel like some other being has come to inhabit the body. When Alice (Arquette again, now a sultry blonde) stands in the street just outside the garage in a tight white dress, wobbling in platform heels, looking for Pete and asks in a little girl voice if he would like to take her to dinner, the scene is a retro-fifties young American male’s dream. And when Lynch turns Pete and Alice into two beings of luminous light making love in the desert, we are held spellbound as if viewing unearthly beings from another planet. But more importantly, the passionate encounter is a direct comparison to the dead-end, dead-body, lovemaking we witnessed early on between Fred and Renee. We already know what’s coming. “I want you,” Pete cries out from the depths of his soul. “Well, you can never have me,” Alice hisses predictably, and in a nakedness no longer vulnerable to any manipulation, lifts herself up out of Pete’s reach and walks away in those dreadful shoes across the sand of a now arid fantasy — straight out of the picture.

Contrary to the assertions of some critics that the film is all style and no substance, David Lynch and his team of filmmakers have used their extraordinary command of the movie medium almost as a direct argument to articulate why there is such a widespread resistance to narrative in so much good contemporary art. To those who would honestly envision it, the sexual state of things no longer grants the luxury of an unearned coherence. By borrowing the discontinuous discourse of dreams, Lynch has succeeded in conveying what we too often try to conceal from ourselves, the torture of insecurity in the American male psyche, from which there is no present vision of reprieve. The only hope is to go where Lynch takes us in the final moment of his own wild at heart, emerging vision, on a desperate drive into a black night, kept to center by nothing but yellow broken lines.

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30/06/95 Film Essay # , , ,

Safe (1995)

Safe (1995)
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Todd Haynes
Stars: Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Dean Norris


…”Living in the lap of luxury also means living with some of the most powerful chemicals ever concocted on earth. If you thought terrorism was a serious threat to your health and safety, take a look at Safe and prepare to do battle with a band of sneaky little murderers lurking in your couch, your carpet and your spray bottles, not to mention hair salons, highways and parking garages.”

It’s definitely easier to watch Erin Brockovich (2000) fight and win her case against big corporate polluters than it is to watch Julianne Moore wasting away from privileged housewife to a shadow of her former beautiful self and living in relative isolation in an Arizona desert. But they are they same story. Safe simply picks up the other side, the side of the victim rather than the victor. And, it could be argued, Safe tells the true, down to earth story with which we all can identify rather than the big fantasy story of triumphing against Goliath. Everyone I know is attempting to cut down on the chemicals coming into our lives on an every day basis. We shop organic, clean green and drive hybrid. And we feel like we’re fighting a losing battle.

I think Todd Haynes aimed his film at raising consciousness, filming a stylized, non-personal story meant to give you the creeps. The opening scenes feel more like the beginning of a mystery thriller than a study of a woman suffering the slow demise of a misunderstood illness. An unseen driver maneuvers a big black car into a darkened wealthy neighborhood at night, shines its headlights into the driveway of a large Tudor style home and slides silently through an electric gate. In the morning, a husband methodically makes love to a wife who sweetly pats him on the shoulder when he finishes his orgasm. Everything in place. Everything waiting for a disturbance. He leaves for work in an expensive suit while she clips flowers, waiting for a couch to be delivered to their mansion. It’s a picture of perfection, the ideal upscale life. Then the couch arrives, in black instead of teal and, symbolically, the murderer enters the house. The wife is the designated victim. Her husband, doctor and friends will stand aside like frozen bystanders on a sidewalk watching an old lady being pummeled by thugs stealing her purse.

It is the innocence of Carol White (Julianne Moore) and the people around her that captures our attention. They have no idea that the exact things they cherish, work so hard for and cost so much money are full of intolerable chemicals, pesticides and poisons. Invisible pollutants surround Carol. Her maids conscientiously spray liberal amounts of cleaning chemicals on trays before serving hors d’oeuvres at a party. We gasp, beginning to realize how pervasive poisons are in our own homes. Most of us adjust – at least we think we do. But some, like Carol, are highly allergic and remind us that our immune systems may be working overtime. To my mind, people with allergies may be acting like canaries in a mineshaft, giving the rest of us advance notice of a dangerous condition not readily detectable with our own senses.

Carol is afflicted with a malady loosely referred to as ‘environmental illness’, thought psychosomatic by many since its cause is so elusive and its symptoms so idiosyncratic. But the attack on the immune system has clear debilitating effects, interfering with the ability to perform ordinary activities. Every day events leave Carol coughing, throwing up and gasping for breath. She becomes a pariah at a baby shower when she mysteriously collapses while holding a child on her lap. Her nose bleeds after getting her hair permed. Carol’s enjoyment of life gives way to a vapid, empty depression full of fear.

On a whim, she picks up a flyer at her gym advertising a talk about the toxic effects of fumes. As she starts to seek answers, she’s drawn into a world of other people on a quest for a cure. Sufferers on a path outside conventional medicine who are willing to take chances because their doctors are stumped, their spouses impatient. It’s not a world Carol is used to and she finds herself frightened of this ‘outsider’ take on life but, desperate for help, she trusts them. The allergist pokes her arm black and blue with substances until he induces a seizure. She finds comfort in his lack of fear about what’s happening to her, relieved to feel a cause and effect connection. And she follows his advice.

To survive, Carol – like others before her – retreats to a desert wellness center in hopes that she can clear the toxins from her body. She finds solace but not a cure in the out-of-the-way community of people who have had similar experiences. The leaders and residents may be accepting of her weakness but the center espouses an ideology that justifies the extreme measures they’re taking. There’s a lot of kindness, an array of explanations and considerable support to withdraw even further to ‘Safe houses’ built like incubator bubbles for premature babies on the property. Despite good intentions, the philosophy reinforces a feeling of hopelessness and offers no way out. She does not get stronger; she weakens.

It may be that breaking out of innocence will not turn around the breakdown of people’s immune systems. Safe leaves us with that feeling, possibly reflecting a dark hopelessness in people that leads to desperate measures of retreat. As we hear stories about how the pollutants from farming and manufacturing in the Midwest are running down the Mississippi River and turning the Gulf of Mexico into a cesspool, perhaps we think our demise is inevitable but far enough off in the future that we can play the role of bystander.

But, perhaps, if we see Carol as a canary – perhaps see Haynes’ whole film as a canary, we’ll be motivated instead to revamp the ventilation system in the mines. Give ourselves the fresh air, sweet water and wholesome earth we deserve even if it costs a lot of money. The diseases stemming from an insistence by a demanding and growing population for more perfect goods, flawless tomatoes and cheap energy aren’t waiting. They’re crying out for us to vamp it up, change our priorities and take responsibility. No one likes to be preachy but the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” has never seemed more apt. Developing products with zero toxic side effects seems exactly what we want to be buying with our wealth. Otherwise, we’re stuffing our mattresses with killers. Revamping lifestyles and changing values without losing benefits may be a challenge. But, since no one has a solution for the repairing nature’s immunity system, the good idea is to prevent the breakdown in the first place.

In the Tenth Elegy, the famous poet, Rainier Maria Rilke may have been thinking forward to our times and warning us not to ignore our pain when he wrote:

But there, where they live in the valley, An elderly Lament responds to the youth as he asks:- We were once a great race, she says, a great race, we Laments Our fathers worked the mines up there in the mountains Sometimes amongst men you will find a piece of polished primeval pain or petrified slag from an ancient volcano. Yes, that came from there. We were rich.

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

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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



(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:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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