Jonathan Demme trusts his audience deeply, asking them to do a lot of work, but giving them as large a set of keys as he can. In his landmark pictures like the genre-defining The Silence of the Lambs, he doesn’t have as performative a “visual style” as other contemporary auteurs. Lambs released in 1991, which also brought us visually striking films by James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Barry Sonnenfeld, the Coen Brothers, Luc Besson, Spike Lee, Joe Johnston, Kathryn Bigelow, Pedro Almodóvar, Wim Wenders, David Cronenberg, and Martin Scorsese.
All of these directors wield cinematic form like a playful weapon; they demand you to “notice” the construction of their sequences as a chief part of the engagement of the film’s experience. But I’m not trying to neg Demme nor Lambs. The Silence of the Lambs is beyond beautifully constructed, and Demme is an astonishing filmmaker throughout his career. But he, and this film, utilize a noticeably invisible (paradox alert) stylistic approach to communicating the characters’ emotional journeys. Demme is exquisite with visuals and Lambs is brimming with iconography (Jodie Foster towered over by male FBI recruits in the elevator, Anthony Hopkins‘ prison escape), but it’s not demanding in a way a lot of the aforementioned filmmakers’ visuals are. The work is subtle, alluring without the person being allured understanding why. Like I said, Demme asks us to do a lot of the work, and the rewards are plentiful.
If there is a signature shot in Silence of the Lambs, it’s this: Lookin’ straight down the lens close as all heck. Demme and his regular DP, the masterful Tak Fujimoto, simply love filling the frame with their actors’ faces, and love making their textual conversations expand meta-textually by having them look straight at us as they speak. It’s a simple, intuitive way to present empathy in all its purity, even as the subjects we’re demanded to be empathetic with perform vile acts. The film is about listening, about communication, about cutting through the noise to achieve some kind of clarity for once. It makes so much sense that the noise of other cinema techniques would be eschewed in favor of this kind of soft directness, this pure humanism.
It also gives every single character, no matter how minor in terms of the narrative, a chance to star, to show and prove themselves. All of this helps explain why one scene sticks out in my mind above the rest, despite its relative lack of impact on pop culture. I’m talking, of course, about my Beautiful Bug Boys.
When Clarice Starling (Foster) and Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) discover a moth lodged in a Buffalo Bill victim’s throat, Starling visits a pair of expert, eccentric entomologists — aka my Beautiful Bug Boys, played beautifully by Dan Butler and Paul Lazar. In a lesser, ickier crime thriller, these two bug boys and their quirks would’ve been played for, and lensed with the intention of laughs, of discomfort, of distanced mockery. Instead, Demme and Fujimoto give them the exact same amount of space and literal focal length they’ve afforded everyone else, allowing us to appreciate them with as much empathy and delight as they deserve.
And boy, do they deserve it. They’re introduced playing chess with all their bugs, which is about as god tier a character introduction as I’ll ever see in cinema (Queen’s Gambit could never). And from the jump, Starling is down to clown with their vibes. She might be literally looking down on them, but she’s not judging them. “If the beetle moves one of your men, does that still count?” she asks by way of introduction, gifting them the courtesy that their hobbies are not unusual, are worthy of focus. “Of course it counts, how do you play?” is their response, gifting Starling the same respect back. In a film full of men treating Starling as an unworthy occupant of space (not to mention all the murder and cannibalism and stuff), this sequence is a tonic of kindness, of listening, of honoring.
And yes, this does include the moment where Lazar’s character bluntly makes a pass at Foster’s character! The film is full of male figures of varying degrees of authority treating Starling as nothing more than a subject to be considered for sex and ownership. Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) grossly tells her he wants to take her out during a professional visit; Dr. Lecter (Hopkins) plants the seed that Crawford is only interested in sex with her; and, well, a prisoner literally throws semen at her. It’s fascinating and telling to watch Foster slide up and down a scale of status versus performance, to analyze in real time whether she needs to shrink or expand to placate and nullify this toxic male energy threatening her. But when Lazar asks her if she ever goes out for cheeseburgers and beer, we see a new kind of energy emanate from Starling in her response: Fun. Playfulness. Even joy. Silence of the Lambs is a dark world to live in, but for this brief moment, it’s downright cathartic to watch Foster inhabit a goofier emotional space. It’s telling that Starling’s response is to simply clarify, “Are you hitting on me, doctor?” with a note of intrigue in her voice. Lazar’s response is simple: “Yes.” And while the matters of the case demand this moment be moved on from, it’s not because of a grim, sexism-drenched need to pivot for survival. Rather, it’s a simply series of direct, unjudged, equitable interactions.
Ultimately, I love my Bug Boys because they personify the directness of Demme’s emotional empathy on either side of the camera. I feel them honor their subjects the way Demme honors his, looking at this dead bug up close, saying “Somebody grew this guy. Fed him honey, nightshade. Kept him warm. Somebody loved him.” It doesn’t matter that the “somebody” in question is a vicious killer who’s MO is skinning people to wear them; in this moment, every facet of it deserves attention and sensitive observation, just like Demme and Fujimoto’s camera shows us. And then, I feel them from the vantage point of us, the audience; when they realize why Starling is there they erupt, “You mean this is like a clue from a real murder case? Cool!” and later ask someone to take their picture at an FBI celebratory event. The Bug Boys might be tertiary characters in the overall scope of The Silence of the Lambs, but for this wonderful moment, they take up the entire scope with deserving adulation on all sides.
This movie is officially not for babies.
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