Feminine Hero

01/08/13 Film Essay # , ,

All The Real Girls (2003)

All The Real Girls (2003)
Director: David Gordon Green
Writer: David Gordon Green
Stars: Zooey Deschanel, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson


Not until girls became real persons could a movie like All the Real Girls be made. Now, even young men are noticing. Girls and women are not figments of the male imagination but real, live, hot-blooded human beings with needs, desires and ideas of their own. Conceptualized, written and directed by two men, “All the Real Girls” captures that heightened poetic moment when Mars falls in love with Venus. But because Venus is a real girl, not a dreamgirl, she holds her own orbit just long enough to send life-changing tremors through Mars while she makes a few of her own.

In this way, an old story gets a fresh twist. Paul (Paul Schneider), a bored small town stud with too much time on his hands, is captivated by Noel (Zooey Deschanel), his best friend’s younger sister returning home after graduation from a girl’s boarding school. Theoretically, Noel should be just another conquest but instead she arouses feelings in him that confuse Paul, making him shy away from his usual modis operandi of fast kisses, quick sex and cool exits. But Noel, a virgin on the verge, launches her own agenda. She flirts with Paul hoping her big brother’s friend will provide an answer to her budding sexual desires.

All the Real Girls opens with Paul and Noel talking in the shadows of an alley, stopped on a walk around town by obvious tones of mutual attraction. Noel’s forthrightness contrasts with Paul’s hesitation. Noel asks Paul, “Why haven’t you kissed me?” He answers that he doesn’t want to kiss her like he’s kissed other girls. She suggests he kiss her hand, seducing him easily from her hand to her mouth. She’s ready. He’s not. When Noel leads Paul into a passionate first kiss, an equality of spirit is established.

This may be a girl who can be swept off her feet but she is far from passive. Virginity may be an alluring sign of purity to a man but, for a young woman, it marks a burgeoning potential. Noel is on the brink of discovery, breaking through to a time of empowerment where sex and feelings converge into self-knowledge. It’s not about Noel yielding to the flattery of Paul’s discovery that she’s ‘the one’. All the Real Girls explores rather than trivializes the rich emotional territory of a young woman’s arousal of sexual desire. Noel wants to know how she feels about Paul. And she wants Paul to want to know what she can only know after she knows herself as a sexual woman, not settling for less. It’s not all about Paul. When Noel tells him, “You have my heart”, she speaks a truth she can stand behind. Thus, sexual desire takes a turn into emotional awareness, revealing a truth so obvious that it’s invisible. Love between a man and a woman is an intersection of feeling, a profound transition beyond expectation or design.

Once Paul meets Noel, he can’t seem to help himself from talking in poetic phrases. Even though he’s a small town hick who has slept with every girl in town, a natural elevation of aesthetic expression takes place when he’s in her presence. He picks up her trombone and plays – badly but with soul. Delightfully symbolic, Paul dances behind Noel’s back in the lanes of a bowling alley. And he says he could do it forever. On a more serious note, he stops cracking jokes about girl’s bodies. But his determination to realize his fantasy puts Noel on a timeworn pedestal; one from which she can only fall. He won’t kiss her like he’s kissed every other girl nor will he sleep with her like he’s slept with every other girl. He’s reaching for something special – and he gets it. Paul gets carried into a river of change; he goes from a boy realizing his dreamgirl fantasy to a young man facing the fact that he’s not the only one who matters in the matters of love. And it’s not just about romance. ‘Real Girls’ puts intense loving back into friendship as well as family.

When Paul finds out that Noel finds out that she loves him by having sex with another man, a stranger, his fantasy gets struck to the ground but his relationships with his mother and his best friend deepen. No way Paul could have ever anticipated that Noel would have sex with another man while they were in his fantasy. It opens his eyes to the sheer existence of other people as people in their own right. He begins to see his mother, Elvira (Patricia Clarkson) as a real person, making the best of her life as a single woman. Elvira is a truthful woman, a little bit wacky but strong enough to convince her son to don a clown suit, brightening a day for children at a local hospital. She doesn’t back down from confrontations with him about his puerile attitudes and, on one occasion, hits him for his stupidity. To his credit, he doesn’t run away. Paul also goes from bad boy posturing with his best friend to some soulful hugging as they both knuckle under to emotional needs they would rather not have. These two young men turn from friends who conquer fear with bravado to ones who battle demons of loss, shame and limitation together. To deal with the women in their lives, they develop an honesty of feeling they’d rather not have.

Noel’s turnabout on Paul wakes him up to the depth of despair that comes with disillusionment, creating empathy for the young women that he’s betrayed. But, as the wind blows and time passes, it’s not simply the error of his ways that impresses itself upon Paul. His imperfections take on greater meaning. Life and love are beyond control of the human ego. Children die. Noel’s younger brother has Downs Syndrome. Paul’s aging uncle has a young daughter (pointedly called Feng Shui) left in his care after his wife, her much younger mother died unexpectedly. His womanizing best friend decides to marry a girl he’s gotten pregnant so he won’t be alone. His mother clowns to cover up pain that won’t go away.

Decisions come not from the head but from accidents of nature, strange bedfellows of fate and the hearts of star-crossed lovers with different agendas. Choice goes back to the only place it can, where it belongs – in the hands of a man or a woman who knows little more about what they’re getting into than that they will get wet.

But, if no leap into the unknown realm of feeling is made, one sits upon the bank of the river watching life pass by. Not even a dog would do that.

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07/02/05 Other Writing # , , , , ,

The Female Trickster Hero in Contemporary Cinema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The African Queen, Dir. John Huston; Perf. Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Fox, 1951
  • Marnie, Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock; Perf. Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. Universal, 1964
  • Erin Brockovich, Dir. Steven Soderbergh; Perf. Julia Roberts and Albert Finney. Universal, 2000
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15/02/03 Film Essay # , ,

Adaptation (2002)

Adaptation (2002)
Director: Spike Jonze
Writers: Charlie Kaufman (screenplay), Susan Orlean (book)
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper


So, if you were to set out to make a movie about a woman seeking her soul’s desire in the form of a rare white orchid, how would you do it?

Would you begin with a blank screen and a man lying in darkness bemoaning his poor fat stupid body?

Would you pit a woman’s search for passion against a man’s search for the end of his screenplay?

And would you miss your metaphor, skipping past the inspirational glory of insect to flower insemination, soul mating in nature’s garden with uncanny instinct of matched forms to land on an idea that sounds good as long as you don’t say it out loud — “It’s what you love, not what loves you” that matters.

But then there could be a method in your madness. Missing the metaphor of the first two-thirds of Adaptation may indeed be the point after all. It’s hard to imagine that Hollywood has an ending for a film about the pursuit of spirit here on earth. And maybe that’s it. ‘Without a clue, go to the obvious.’ The ending for Adaptation is so familiar that any film buff in the audience could’ve written it themselves.

So there you are, with your audience in full swing believing they are on the verge of discovering the Holy Grail, and, suddenly, you tack on the expected ending of sex, violence and drugs?

There is an alternative but that would not be an Adaptation to the modern world of film making. For a moment, think of what would’ve happened if Meryl Streep’s character had been told by the ever-lovin’ screenwriters how they found her in the swamp. Suppose they revealed that her passion loving guru had posted her on his porn site. She would’ve marched them all into the swamp, taken their boots and let the alligators have lunch. She, meanwhile, would’ve gone back to her well-paying job, sweet husband and rare beyond rare New York apartment on the upper east side — and lived happily ever after as a feminine hero who had found the secret, resisted it being tarnished by commercialism and taken it home.

I can’t be the only viewer who balked at the nonsensical, hackneyed Hollywood ‘boy geek gets dream girl’ ending that sells movies these days. Who believes that a mature, accomplished and beautiful woman would give up her life to be the druggie lover of a guy living in the swamps? For that matter, who believes a man who had spent his life passionately seeking his heart’s desire would throw it away to be a porn site businessman warehousing sacred substances for grade school children. Nope, I just can’t be the only one.

Well, that’s show business — surely it’s not the secret of evolution. But hey, tacking on happy endings is good for laughs. And, when you think about it, the ending is pretty provocative about what Adaptation really means. Beware of what you match with, for it will have its consequences.

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16/08/02 Film Essay # , , ,

Blue Crush (2002)

Blue Crush (2002)
Director: John Stockwell
Writers: John Stockwell, Lizzy Weiss
Stars: Kate Bosworth, Michelle Rodriguez, Matthew Davis


Do you remember the thrill you felt when Holly Hunter rose from the ocean depths in The Piano after she slipped her foot out of her boot and let her beloved piano sink to its watery grave? We heard Ada’s new voice – full of feeling – declare, “My will chooses life” as she gasped for breath and our hearts leapt forward. We shared the exhilaration of her narrow escape from a silence bred by judgement that women should be seen and not heard, cared for but not cared about and live happily ever after as caged birds who never sing.

In Blue Crush, Anne Marie (Kate Bosworth) breaks through that same membrane of a clutching oceanic despair that her life isn’t worth living. But she does it as a modern girl, not one from a past century. This girl deliberately takes on the crushing waves that have nearly silenced her. And she does it time and time again until she conquers the fear – “girls don’t score”.

Yes, Blue Crush is a summer teen movie and, I cannot tell a lie, I was there simply to see the big waves on the big screen. So, when Anne Marie’s story kept tracking, revealing the powerful inside story of a young feminine hero who has already come of age and is now struggling to make it in the world against many, many odds, I was surprised. And I felt personally touched by this ordinary young woman – sexy, well-meaning and delightful – go for it. We don’t have enough movies where girls get the real challenge of spirit, following what Joseph Campbell popularized as their ‘bliss’ on the road less traveled. And while the traditional hero gets the girl as part of his package of winning and succeeding, the feminine hero meets the guy along the way and must risk losing him to achieve her goal. This movie captures that conflict and much more.

Anne Marie is back on her surfboard in the major Pipe Masters competition after an accident three years previous at this same location in Oahu. A treacherous reef lurks beneath the huge waves like Hades in the dark recesses of the earth, waiting to claim the fragile bodies that dare the awesome pipe waves it creates when they fall from their boards. Anne Marie’s fall nearly took her life. But she has returned to try again.

Anne Marie’s critical re-entry to competition is complicated when she meets a guy with real relationship possibility. Matt (Matthew Davis) may be a pro quarterback on vacation but he comes across as a stand-up guy who truly likes her. Matt presents Anne Marie with what all women know as ‘the heroic choice’ just five days before her day in the pipe. It’s not the man per se, not relationship vs. career per se; it’s the mythic moment when a woman becomes her own person. Like Ada in The Piano who knew Baines couldn’t solve her problem, Matt can’t give Anne Marie the solution to facing an age old fear that a girl can’t actualize her talents and step into society on her own two feet. There are many ways a girl can stay tucked into safety, fit into an old vision of woman as childlike and needy of a man to make her whole. Do you know that they actually say, “she’s laying her line” when a surfer enters the pipe? Could surfing the pipe be any more symbolic of a girl meeting the challenge of following her own path?

In Blue Crush, Anne Marie’s mother has left her daughters to go to Las Vegas with a man while Marie is surfing the same spot where she almost lost her life. Only from the mythic perspective that a girl faces her crossover moment to womanhood on her own, without a mother or parent present, can this be believed. And Anne Marie is not completely on her own, like the orphaned knight of many fairy tales. Since this is a feminine hero’s journey, she is not only tossed to the winds of chance and danger but she has a younger sister to look out for!

Fortunately, she has friends who share her dream, wanting her to succeed not just for herself but for women everywhere. One friend is a coach (Sanoe Lake), the other a personal cheerleader (Michelle Rodriquez). They both want to see her picture on the cover of magazines as ‘Teen Girl of the Year’. Her thirteen-year old sister, Penny (Mika Booren) is a brain, a good kid and lucky to have Anne Marie set an example of willful determination before her. When Anne Marie signs in, a friend is right behind her shoring up her confidence.

And Anne Marie is such a girl, not verging toward tomboy, rebel or toughie. She’s driven by feelings, guided by her desires, and wants to be liked for more than a cutie in a bikini. She takes a chance on Matt’s attraction to her, uses her feminine wiles to embarrass the celebrity football players who abuse privilege by leaving their hotel room utterly gross and then befriends them when they want to learn how to surf. She shies away when women who’ve won a place on the surfing circuit show up. She wants to earn their respect, not be the darling upstart. It’s impressive when one of these seasoned women breaks from singular ambition, reaches out to Anne Marie – a bit paralyzed before her run – and launches her down the face of the wave into the pipe. Somehow, we relax. Things are as they should be.

The challenges of a young feminine spirit will be met.

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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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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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