Thomas Harris, Clarice Starling, and Me

The name Hannibal Lecter was a constant in my household. Long before I was cognizant of the context, I knew the infamous character and his creator, Thomas Harris, were held in reverence. My mom and sister vociferously devoured (pun intended) the 1981 novel Red Dragon and its fame-eclipsing sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, on constant repeat. When the trilogy-ender Hannibal was published in 1999, I was nine years old, and vividly remember the ecstatic family furor leading up to its release. That haunting, grotesque cover of harsh reds and blacks, depicting a snake-like creature devouring an agonized man, is one of the iconic images of my youth.

I wasn’t allowed to read them, of course, despite my growing interest in crime fiction. The most I managed was sneakily skimming the first fifteen pages of Hannibal at my sister’s kitchen table. I was entranced, to say the least; the seed of fascination had been planted through osmosis.

Four years later at thirteen, I’d already seen my fair share of violent R-rated movies: Terminator 2: Judgment Day under parental supervision, Halloween by myself one late night in a darkened basement. My parents knew what I gravitated toward and cautioned rather than forbid, unless something struck them as inappropriately explicit for adolescent minds (i.e. Bram Stoker’s Dracula). So when I begged my mom to let me rent a VHS copy of The Silence of the Lambs from our local rental store, she allowed without issue. She even let me watch it alone, unsure of her own interest given her devotion to the novel.

Every cinephile remembers the moment when a specific movie blew their minds apart. Nothing would touch the effect Silence of the Lambs had on me for at least a decade.

For ages I didn’t understand why, or how, or even the full extent. I just knew, like a lightning strike to my bones, something had switched in how I understood the language of film, the crafting of it; its potential to challenge, inspire, prophesize. Clarice Starling, and by extension Jodie Foster, was the definitive heroine of my formative years. Thomas Harris became a literary icon, once Mom granted me freedom to consume the books. I rented it over and over and over again, wearing out the tape that didn’t belong to me; I pored over TVGuide schedules so I could record it off a movie channel onto a blank VHS; it was one of my first DVD purchases when I had enough earned money in my pocket.

I watch it around Valentine’s Day every year (not an idea I take credit for— the film was released on February 14th, 1991), and I’m never not enthralled anew, even as I’ve memorized every frame, every cut, as every music cue strikes goosebumps of remembrance.

The best part? It isn’t about the good doctor.

***

We’re all familiar with the Little Red Riding Hood mythos. A vulnerable little girl lost in the ominous, dark, dangerous woods, a heartbeat away from closing wolf jaws. Forests have always been an iconic horror movie setting, from the original The Wolf Man in 1941 to last year’s The Monster, and aside from haunted castles, is there a more instantly frightful environment? They strike a chord of universal terror — unfathomable dark, eerie noises, low-hanging branches, wind wailing sharp.

Clarice Starling emerges from the depths of a shadowy forest trail, minuscule and indistinct. The camera stays on her as she approaches. She crests a hill hand-over-hand until she fills the frame, catches the fading patterns of sunlight. Sweater-front soaked with sweat, hair falling from a messy ponytail, simple stud earrings glinting, she stops to briefly catch her breath and steel her resolve before churning forward. This is a training course at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, not a demon’s lair, but Clarice dominates the former with skill and is about to enter the latter. Either way, she’s already challenging stereotyped expectations as old as monster stories.

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This is what The Silence of the Lambs is: women surviving in a male-dominated world. The film wastes no time diminishing Clarice in elevators amidst towering muscular men, eclipsing her in darkened hallways with lines of sexual predators on each side. Every man wants something from her — Frederick Chilton, her time and attention; random police officers, her body; Jack Crawford, her keen mind; and Hannibal Lecter, a tool for escape and cure for boredom. The cinematography vacillates with purpose between assuming her direct, distinctly uncomfortable point-of-view (almost always men in close-up, so their gaze penetrates us as viewers as much as her), and emphasizing in wide shots how constantly she is watched; observed; desired; pruned down. All of which is a violation for Clarice, yet inescapable. This isn’t cinematic voyeurism compromising a female body for titillation, but threat.

“Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice?”

Clarice’s skin always prickles. She’s always aware of the glancing, lingering brushes of lust, power, demand. She always sees the men who want to fuck her, and averts her eyes with expectant, tired anger. For me, few other movies have so honestly, acutely distilled how it feels to move through the world as a woman. I cringe each time. I shiver. My stomach roils.

The objectification of the female form is instantly established with a sweeping shot of a wall in Jack Crawford’s office covered corner-to-corner with newspaper printings. “Bill Skins Fifth,” cries a headline. Crime scene photos of mutilated, naked victims are plastered front page like the most exploitative of tabloids. The media chooses to glamorize the killer, glorify his acts of savagery, while his victims are immortalized only as dismembered, faceless husks. As Clarice takes in Crawford’s office, her eyes halt at this wall. Her body language transforms from idle shifting to absolute stillness. Her silence speaks volumes, her piercing gaze focusing on each woman in turn. Later, during an autopsy, she’s moved to tears at the victim’s glitter nail polish and thrice-pierced ears. She recognizes them as they truly are — people, humans, girls with hobbies and desires and dreams and fears. Clarice wants their murderer captured not for fame, but to preserve their safety against the predatory man who reduced them to things to be used and discarded at will.

Catherine Martin is her lamb, but Catherine Martin is a person with a childhood, an apartment, a cat, a mother, who sings along to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in her car and fights for her damn life. “If he sees Catherine as a person and not just an object,” Clarice says, “it’s harder to tear her up.” Bill never does, instead commodifying and destroying for his own benefit, nor the law enforcement officers desensitized to violence as they snap photographs and rattle off sordid details. Clarice does. They’re not just victims, even if they are victimized.

In the end, Clarice saves Catherine. A woman saves another woman. A woman shoots dead the male killer after he stalked her with night-vision goggles in the ultimate extension, and culmination, of the male gaze. There are no white knight saviors. We survive by helping each other.

***

“Crawford’s very clever, isn’t he, using you?” Dr. Chilton sneers, preening over his own ego. “Pretty young woman to turn him on. I don’t believe Lecter’s seen a woman in eight years, and you are ever his taste.”

Incensed, Clarice snarls back, each word a fire-fueled bite, “I graduated from UVA, doctor. It’s not a charm school.”

This, moments after Chilton blatantly hit on her to her obvious discomfort. When Clarice isn’t watched by men, she’s systematically belittled. Chilton doubts her abilities, dismisses her as a pretty face to sexualize, and bullies. The entomologist is too distracted flirting to pay attention to the professional needs of her visit. Crawford demeans her in front of a room full of male deputies, then has the gall to chuckle in retrospect at her fury. Hannibal, the only man to recognize Clarice as a human being (what a delicious irony), who respects her personhood and challenges her toward his conception of intellectual improvement, eviscerates her to the quick upon their first meeting. Even after they’ve established a give-and-take rapport, he can’t stop himself from harping about sex to see if she squirms; to regain the accustomed balance of power slipping through his fingers.

“Do you think Jack Crawford wants you, sexually? Do you think he envisions scenarios, exchanges, fucking you?”

A half-beat of surprise while Clarice absorbs his ghoulish attempt, before she shakes her head in dark amusement and exhausted recognition. “That doesn’t interest me, Doctor. Frankly, it sounds like something Miggs would say.”

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As a working woman, Clarice is forced by her male peers to walk that tenuous, impossible line between contribution and silence. Even when her words hold a bitter aftertaste, they’re always coated in a protective wrapping of courtesy. When to be outspoken because it’s the right thing to do yet avoid being labeled a bitch and an ice queen, or having her career derailed? (Something that happens in the Hannibal sequel, orchestrated because of one man’s vendetta against her.) So she’s a consummate professional. An excelling student who knows her shit inside and out because she wants to, loves to, and needs to within the twisting restrictions of the patriarchal FBI. The organization’s first female agent was fired by J. Edgar Hoover himself in 1924, and they refused applications from women up until 1972. The Silence of the Lambs was published in 1988, the film released in 1991. Last year, an estimated 20% of all agents were women, with only 12% afforded leadership roles.

Clarice runs, she shoots, she vaults backwards over obstacle courses, she takes every punch from a bigger, bulkier male trainee. She’s just as good, if not better, but of course she has to prove herself. Of course.

And yet, she refuses to sacrifice her compassion. Perhaps it’s a women-as-inherently-more-insightful archetype; there may exist arguments the film advocated that inane myth of feminine intuition. But I just don’t see it. I see a woman who’s as resourceful, observant, and empathetic as she is shaken, frightened, and worn. She hunts Jame Gumb and humanizes his victims not on the basis of Girls Just Do That Better, but because her experience as a woman, the lens through which she interprets the world, aids her already existing skills regardless of gender. A understated brittle streak runs through her word choices and body language. We smash cut from a wide shot of her slumped crying against her car to a close-up of her staring unflinching down the camera’s center as she fires off bullet rounds. Out of desperation, guided by instinct, she disobeys the “don’t let Hannibal Lecter inside your head” rule instituted by older men in positions of authority; manipulates for advancement, and doesn’t suffer from using that subterfuging insubordination to her advantage. She succeeds. Her care for women, as a woman, is a core pillar of her strength. Both and all exist in her.

When Crawford is amused at her irritation, she quietly, bluntly answers, “It matters. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.”

Crawford, this time, is the one to check his gaze. “Point taken,” he acknowledges, half-sighing as he twists back into his seat.

***

There’s an alien grace to Jonathan Demme’s directorial technique. Something unrelentingly unsettling, and not of this world. Pacing as slow as a weighted boat on a lake, and yet frenzied as a fever dream nightmare. More than half way through, every implicit promise of horror, every cumulative second of dread, implodes outward in a symphony of violence. Hannibal Lecter, a deaths-head moth with his blood-coated mouth, bodies strewn at his feet, rapturously transfixed by a classical melody. Then, forever etched into my psyche: a man held aloft in crucifix pose, intestines spilling out, backlit by a twisted version of shining heavenly glory.

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At thirteen, I learned the power of silence, sound, and visuals courtesy of this movie. My ability to absorb the technique of film was elevated and transformed, and the revelation of what those combinations were capable of producing, awakened.

Eleven years later, I graduated from film school — but not before, at eighteen, I briefly considered a career in the FBI, enough to attend a recruitment seminar at the local hometown college. I even dyed my hair brunette (temporarily), cut it to my shoulders, and wore suit blazers. That was all because of the defiant empowerment Clarice infused within me. And my love for the cinematic medium, my belief in what it can do when pressed, reshaped, interpreted beyond typical restrictive caricature, was informed almost entirely because of her movie.

With age and time, all idols fall. Jame Gumb is the epitome of transphobic vilification; the film operates exclusively within the ideology of a gender binary; and aside from Clarice’s best friend Ardelia Mapp, it focuses only on white women, disregarding the contributions of and violence against women of color, LGBTQ women, women with disabilities, and the gender nonconforming. But for all of its stinging heartbreaks and failings, this is one of those movies inseparable from one’s DNA, that get under your skin and remain essential for your life’s entirety.

Like Clarice restlessly orbiting Hannibal’s cell while his chair twists to track her movements, I’m always linked to The Silence of the Lambs.

“I’ve no plans to call on you, Clarice. The world is more interesting with you in it.”

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