Criterion Sunday 13: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

As a winner of all five major Academy Awards (film, director, actor, actress and screenplay), this film has a fairly solid reputation, although I’d argue that this kind of lionisation by the Oscars doesn’t amount to all that much, given how wide of the mark they so often are. But certainly, The Silence of the Lambs is a very tautly made psychological thriller with fairly straightforward horror elements in the way its antagonist, a mysterious figure known for most of the film only as Buffalo Bill, carries out his murderous work. His crimes are being investigated by rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who on the suggestion of her boss (Scott Glenn, always reliably on hand to play bureaucratic heavyweights) interviews the incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). I imagine most of this is fairly well known now already, and certainly the tête-àtête scenes between Starling and Lecter remain fairly intense, as director Jonathan Demme keeps the camera in close on their faces throughout. The performances too are well-awarded, as Hopkins manages somehow to stay just the right side of camp in the leering delight he takes in all the nasty sordid little details of the crimes, while Foster is upright and believable as a fresh-faced recruit. In fact, much of her role is to be a lone woman in the very male-dominated world of law enforcement, scrutinised far more closely than her colleagues as she goes about her work, and the procedural details the film allows her character are partly so that she can be framed and followed by the eyes of the men around her. That said, there’s an uncomfortable element to both the crimes (all against women of a certain size) and to the depiction of their killer, with the story showing a fascination in his cross-dressing which could easily be construed as transphobic, although details are taken from cases of real serial killers. Whatever its weaknesses, the resulting film is still a fine display of filmmaking craft which manages after 20 years to hold up rather well (hairstyles and fashions amongst law enforcement characters remaining fairly restrained, after all) and which will no doubt continue to exert an eery fascination for future generations.

Criterion Extras: The extras on the disc include storyboard comparisons, text from the FBI manual detailing some grisly case studies of serial killers, some lengthy deleted and extended scenes (all nicely contextualised within the film by introductions), and a commentary. This last features the lead actors and creative personnel as well as an FBI agent and is carefully edited and marshalled. It’s largely interesting, though the FBI agent doesn’t have much time for liberal handwringing about capital punishment. Another side effect of listening to a commentary is that the images come into greater focus shorn of the soundtrack, and you really notice the way Demme so frequently frames the faces frontally in dialogue scenes. The cinematography by Tak Fujimoto is also really excellent, with good use of light and dark and almost a softness to the palette. (NB There’s been a new Blu-ray release of this film since the review above was written, so the extras may differ.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jonathan Demme; Writer Ted Tally (based on the novel by Thomas Harris); Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto; Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 December 2014 (as well as years before in Wellington).

The East (2013)

It’s always a precarious thing, trying to capture in a fiction film a flavour of contemporary counterculture. You only have to look back to attempts to depict the earnest ferment of young minds in the 1970s to see how laughable the outcome can seem in hindsight. Of course that’s not entirely fair: it’s not all to do with the filmmakers or the period fashions. In part, it’s to do with the way that earnestness (much like faith) comes across on film: in the darkness of the auditorium, passively taking in images, it’s difficult not to be a jaded, judgemental cynic. This is never more so than when faced with the passionate belief of characters who are trying to actively engage with a corrupt system. There are times when the protagonists of The East, young ecological activists (anarchists, perhaps, or “terrorists” to the authorities), come across as a bit ridiculous, but they’re certainly not fools.

Fiction film has never seemed a particularly effective medium for protest, and I can’t imagine it ever being so. There have always been attempts to create films that challenge the viewer and move the argument beyond the auditorium, whether the bold agitprop of Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s, or Latin American filmmakers like Fernando Solanas with La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), who actually programmed in discussion breaks to screenings. Fiction’s strength is in being able to give a bit of insight as to how activists operate and why they do what they do, and perhaps thereby create doubt in the viewer’s mind as to the veracity of society’s orthodoxies. As such the protagonist here is Jane, a corporate spy played by co-writer Brit Marling, who infiltrates the group as an undercover agent called Sarah, and comes to harbour doubts about what she’s doing.

Aside from being the title of the film, The East is the name the activists give to their group, which engages in ‘jams’ — which is to say, interventions against corporations they perceive have wronged people or the environment. The film opens with video footage they’ve uploaded to the internet showing them pumping oil into the home of a CEO whose company is responsible for massive oil spills. However, as the company is a client of Jane/Sarah’s firm, she is assigned to get information on them that they can then pass to the FBI. As the company’s boss Sharon, Patricia Clarkson does an excellent job as confidant (and arch-manipulator) of the younger Jane.

It’s clear that the activists are all well-educated middle-class kids, many having coming from the same enshrined power base as the capitalist moguls they are targeting. Their choice in resisting and fighting against these power structures is shown to be a result of their education and world travel. As a result, on several occasions in the film their resistance group seems closer to a cult: they have a leader figure filled with a sort of evangelical zeal (Alexander Skarsgård’s Benji), not to mention rituals of initiation and group bonding that reaffirm their communal social structure and attachment to the environment. It’s Jane/Sarah’s experience that mediates this for the audience, and the precarious line the film must walk is in moving from our initial shared experience of their group as being rather affectedly ridiculous, to one in which Sarah (and hopefully the audience too) feels more sympathy and engagement with their beliefs.

The East is in the end a gripping film that never mocks or condescends to its earnest protagonists, as they engage with real issues affecting the world. Playing the wary central character, who limns the divide between the forces of authority and anarchy, Brit Marling does a wonderful job, yet I’m not sure that either she or the film manages to quite carry me through as an audience member to the denouement. In the darkness of a cinema, I remain a cynic to the end, but then I equally can’t imagine the film’s activists being much enamoured of cinema and its passive spectatorship. Still, it’s a bold attempt to try to be more than just a petit bourgeois escapist pleasure, while being satisfying on just that level.

The East film posterCREDITS
Director Zal Batmanglij; Writers Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling; Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov Роман Васьянов; Starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 30 June 2013.