This article appeared in the February 22, 1991 issue of the Chicago Reader, about three months after the UN Security Council authorized the use of “all means necessary” to eject Iraq from Kuwait and roughly a month after the U.S. Congress cheerfully authorized our going to war, with all flags waving. I’ve rarely felt as alienated from the taste and desires of the mass audience as I did when I reviewed The Silence of the Lambs — an experience made all the more painful by my admiration for much of Jonathan Demme’s previous work — at least until the release of No Country for Old Men during a second and (ultimately, but not initially) much less popular Gulf war. And it wasn’t until I saw John Gianvito’s The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein that I found my own emotions about the war reflected in an American feature. —J.R.
PRINCES IN EXILE
Directed by Giles Walker
Written by Joe Wiesenfeld
With Zachary Ansley, Nicholas Shields, Stacie Mistysyn, Andrea Roth, Gordon Woolvett, Chuck Shamata, and Alexander Chapman.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Written by Ted Tally
With Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith, and Ted Levine.
One of the governing pretenses of mainstream movie reviewing is the assumption that value judgments have little to do with subject matter. Yet as soon as one looks beneath the etiquette of reviewing, it becomes apparent that certain value judgments about certain subjects are already so manifestly present in our culture that any reviewer who pretends these biases don’t exist is likely to wind up reproducing them.
Let’s get down to hard cases by starting off with a question: Which would you rather see — an intelligent movie about teenage cancer victims, or an intelligent movie about serial killers? Theoretically, it’s hard to imagine many people opting for the first over the second; I certainly wouldn’t, in spite of an almost built-in aversion to slasher movies of all kinds.
But I’ve recently seen an intelligent movie about teenage cancer victims (Princes in Exile) that made me feel great, and an intelligent movie about serial killers (The Silence of the Lambs) that made me feel awful. If the ways these movies made me feel could be translated into stars, Princes in Exile would get three and The Silence of the Lambs none at all.
If, on the other hand, I were asked to rank the films technically and aesthetically, without reference to either morality or subject matter, the issue would become a bit more complicated. The Silence of the Lambs is both confusing and implausible as story telling, but it pushes all the right emotional buttons, generating the jolts and suspense it aims for, and it’s stylish to boot. Princes in Exile, which is much more lucid and plausible as story telling and is also emotionally compelling (though in a very different way), has virtually no sense of style. (The handling of the offscreen narration is usually less than graceful, and the Muzak-like score is at times downright offensive.) Perhaps these considerations would earn each movie two stars, but that would make them seem technically or aesthetically comparable, which they certainly aren’t.
Finally, if I were asked to rank these films morally — without reference to aesthetics, technique, or how they made me feel but exclusively in terms of how and what I think they contribute to the welfare of the world — Princes in Exile would get four stars and The Silence of the Lambs would get none.
Given these split decisions, I’ve refrained from assigning any ratings at all to these movies, because to do so would entail either privileging one yardstick over another or trying to work out some meaningless average between all of them. Certainly if I had to choose which film I’d rather see a second time, Princes in Exile would win hands down. But I wouldn’t expect to find much company when I got there.
A low-budget, partly state-financed Canadian production — with no famous actors, written and directed by people I’ve never heard of, and based on a novel (by Mark Schreiber) that is also unknown to me — Princes in Exile has absolutely no fashionable calling cards. There is nothing even remotely hip about the way the movie sells itself (”a heart-warming story about life’s real heroes . . .”), and most people are likely to find any honest description of its content — the moral education of a sensitive teenage boy with a brain tumor, set at a summer camp for children with cancer — an immediate turnoff.
I don’t want to make any undue claims for this small, unassuming picture, but of all the commercial releases opening this month that I’ve seen, this is the only one I have no regrets about having seen — chiefly because it’s the only one that never lies, not even for a moment. Given the potential painfulness of the film’s subject matter, this honesty proves to be practical as well as honorable, because the film’s intention is not to voice harsh truths — as the hero is initially inclined to do — but to show us how to cope creatively with them. And we don’t have to have cancer (or know someone who does) to benefit from what the film is saying, which is basically that we can live profitably and happily in a world where hope is at a premium.
Periodically narrated offscreen by its teenage hero, Ryan Rafferty (Zachary Ansley), the film restricts its focus to one summer session at the camp; it begins just after Ryan arrives — when he’s wandering alone in the woods and is found by the camp’s director (Chuck Shamata) — and ends when he’s leaving with other campers on a bus. Consequently, all we ever know about the campers’ families and home lives is what they tell each other; if there are any family visits, we don’t see them, and the only times the film ever strays from the camp’s grounds is when one of the campers, Robert (Nicholas Shields) — nicknamed “Stuntman” for his daredevil stunts — is taken to a hospital for treatment when his acute lymphocytic leukemia becomes more serious, and when some of the campers, including Ryan, visit him there.
The title of the film comes from the name given to Ryan’s cabin. Ryan comes up with the name himself, and it’s just about the only social act he performs during the first part of the picture. A withdrawn loner, he informs us early on that he has two basic “life goals” — to lose his virginity and to publish his journal, which he writes in every day. It’s part of the movie’s achievement that we’re made to sympathize with both of these goals and hope that Ryan achieves them; yet by the end of the film, when he has achieved neither goal and doesn’t know for sure if he ever will, neither he nor we experience any serious disappointment, because by then his sense of himself has changed sufficiently to make both goals seem less important.
As in a Howard Hawks film, Ryan’s friendship with Robert grows out of a tension that starts out wholly antagonistic. (Robert quickly picks up on the fact that Ryan has a crush on a much older volunteer nurse who works at the camp and, to Ryan’s embarrassment, periodically questions him on what kind of progress he’s making with her. Ryan, for his part, both resents and envies Robert’s courage in performing his death-defying stunts.) Many of Ryan’s other relationships are also charted in the film. There’s the artist in his cabin who designs the “Princes in Exile” logo and later supervises an ambitious work of conceptual art — the construction of an enormous makeshift wall (meant to represent a cancerous tumor) that is ceremonially burned at the end of the summer. There’s Gabriel (Alexander Chapman), the only black member of the cabin, who suffers from Hodgkin’s disease, practices Buddhist meditation, and uses visualization therapy, which Ryan doesn’t believe in. There’s a younger camper in another cabin whom Ryan puts aside his rationalist pessimism to help, pretending to be an “exorcist” to rid him of his demons. And there’s Holly (Stacie Mistysyn), a teenager who has lost a leg and wants to collaborate with Ryan on a humorous skit about cancer — the very notion of which initially offends him.
All of these characters are realized with a great deal of plausibility, density, tenderness, and sincerity. Without ever sentimentalizing the characters or limiting the story to simple didacticism (although didacticism is certainly an important part of its program), the film winds up saying a great deal about how children with cancer can best cope with their situation. My affection for this film, however, is not merely a matter of its being politically correct and honest and thoughtful about a subject that most of us would rather not think about. It is also entertaining; I felt involved in the story on a purely escapist level.
But let’s face facts. No matter how valuable or pleasurable this movie is — and I don’t want to oversell it — it can never have even a fraction of the commercial cachet of even the worst of the big-studio releases, largely because it wasn’t made chiefly in order to turn a profit. And nothing I can say could possibly make such a film seem fashionable or necessary or central to our culture; I can only fall back on my gut reaction and say that I liked it.
The Silence of the Lambs, on the other hand, has everything going for it: a highly respected director (Jonathan Demme) with many fine films under his belt (including Citizens Band, Melvin and Howard [see below], and Swing Shift), well-known actors (Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn), a script by an award-winning playwright (Ted Tally) based on a best-selling novel (by Thomas Harris), substantial media promotion, and already a good many rave reviews from influential critics. More than that, it has a subject that is intrinsically commercial: a charismatic, brilliant, virtually superhuman incarcerated serial killer named Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), who eats his victims, assisting a plucky FBI trainee (Foster) in tracking down another serial killer named Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who dresses in drag and skins women alive. When Lecter himself — nicknamed “Hannibal the Cannibal” — breaks loose, the film moves into high gear.
Why is such a subject intrinsically commercial? Simple escapism is obviously part of it: it’s pretty safe to say that there are more serial killers in movies than there are in real life, just as there are clearly more teenagers with cancer in real life than one could ever expect to find in movies. But why this escapism should focus on serial killers is a more difficult question. And why the exaltation of one particular serial killer who is a brilliant guru — virtually a religious figure who outclasses even the wholly virtuous FBI — could carry so much charge and appeal is even more curious.
As The Exorcist did 18 years ago, this movie seems to tap into irrational, mythical impulses that ultimately seem more theological than psychological (or even logical), but there doesn’t appear to be much edification about this aspect of the movie in the rave reviews that have already appeared, which seem better equipped to regurgitate the myth than to analyze it. “Still, watchful, deeply droll and infinitely sinister, he becomes the high priest of criminal psychosis,” enthuses David Ansen about Lecter in Newsweek. “He’s a kind of twisted Sherlock Holmes,” writes Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly, “able to absorb, with heightened, Zen-like detachment, everything that goes on around him, and to draw visionary inferences from the mass of data his senses take in.” They seem to be describing some higher being in Star Wars, but the curious thing about these reviews is that they seem perfectly willing to accept Lecter’s supernatural powers — convincing a hostile prisoner in an adjoining cell to swallow his own tongue, knowing precisely when and where to reach Clarice (the FBI trainee) on the phone — as realistic, or at least believable. Hopkins’s performance is certainly stark and commanding, but none of it would count for beans if the audience weren’t already predisposed to accept his character as some sort of divine presence.
The core of the movie’s appeal is not just Lecter but his sessions with Clarice. A former psychiatrist, Lecter imparts his wisdom and insight into the psychological makeup of Buffalo Bill in exchange for Clarice submitting to his analysis and spilling her own soul. The fact that Clarice has no romantic involvements (unless one counts her highly charged sessions with Lecter) and that Foster plays her with assurance and distinction leads some defenders of this film to call it feminist. Gleiberman, however, is so enamored of the original material — “No other pop novelist has gotten as far inside the heads of serial killers as Thomas Harris has,” he claims, seemingly on the basis of his own acquaintance with the insides of serial killers’ heads — that he even considers the film’s less-than-wholehearted misogyny to be a flaw: “The Silence of the Lambs would have been harder to shake off had it been crazier and less ‘moral’ — less of a feminist outcry over the violence perpetrated against women.” Apparently “moral” without the quotes would be misogynistic pure and simple, the platonic ideal that every slasher film should aspire to.
As far as I’m concerned, this movie is moral enough (in the Gleiberman sense) as it is. From Psycho to Peeping Tom to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to The Silence of the Lambs, every slasher film is predicated in part on the audience’s half-repressed desire to see a woman get torn to pieces. Making the slasher charismatic or sympathetic in some way is invariably part of the routine, a part that critics invariably praise as “disturbing, complex irony,” and making the women who are potential slasher victims sympathetic is usually part of the formula as well. (This, too, is often given intellectual justification by being cited as proof that the filmmaker has a heart; presumably if the women were unsympathetic, they’d simply deserve what they got.) In Psycho, Peeping Tom, and Henry, we’re asked to feel sorry for the slasher, who’s just a poor, crazy mixed-up kid, an attitude that’s more or less extended to Buffalo Bill in Demme’s film. Lecter, on the other hand, represents a genuine innovation — the slasher as role model — and people who argue that this film is offering some special insight into evil deserve to have their brains washed out with soap. (I’m being rhetorical, of course, because the very project of a film like this one is to wash people’s brains out.)
Stylishly, intelligently, and suspensefully, The Silence of the Lambs sets us up to imagine pornographic scenes in which Clarice, a young woman (Brooke Smith) kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, and various other individuals (male and female) are eaten, skinned, sexually abused, and/or torn apart. In the film’s closing punch line, we’re asked to laugh at the imminent prospect of one such character being eaten by Hannibal the Cannibal. If “disturbing, complex irony” makes everything more palatable, The Silence of the Lambs provides reams and reams of it. To call it feminist is to imply that we should also imagine plucky, intelligent, nonattached, and resourceful women being torn apart, along with bimbos and cops. Demme should be applauded, at least, for offering equal employment opportunities.
What’s pathetic about the childish claim that the movie is teaching us something important about evil or psychosis or violence is that it’s being made at the same time that we’re gleefully destroying a country and people who are already oppressed by a dictator, and that we appear to be carrying out this carnage mainly for the sake of holding a weapons trade fair. We probably know a lot more about serial killers by now than we know about Iraqis; thanks to movies, our images of serial killers are more generously varied and nuanced — more compassionate, respectful, and even worshipful — than our images of ordinary Arabs. (Name a single movie Arab since Rudolf Valentino’s Sheik who has commanded as much love and sympathy as Psycho’s Norman Bates in this culture. Not even Omar Sharif at his noblest can hold a candle to him.)
To be fascinated with individuals who kill without compunction — whether it’s the real Charles Manson during the last major war or the fictional Lecter during this one — is defensible, but only if we keep our sense of proportion and admit that we’re currently killing without compunction at a far greater rate than all the real serial killers in our midst combined. I suspect that there may be enough unconscious recognition of this fact — enough displaced guilt — to account for the runaway sales of gas masks in small towns in Ohio and Texas and to make a purely theatrical construction like Lecter seem profound and oddly satisfying; as long as the mass murderer remains wholly other, we can regard him with awe and even affection, thanks to some twisted form of unacknowledged narcissism. Consequently, the spiritual union between Lecter and Clarice is another version of the spiritual union between Lecter and ourselves. What is finally so obscene about The Silence of the Lambs, particularly in the context of the present moment, is that it invites us to feel smug and self-satisfied about that union — as if we’ve suddenly become privy to certain dark, occult religious secrets — without for a moment facing up to what it actually entails.