Jonathan Demme was the award-winning American filmmaker best known for his critically acclaimed and commercially successful directorial work on The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. For me, however, he was a magician. One who managed through skill alone to craft ugly stories into weirdly comforting experiences. The past tense here feels wrong, in a sense, as even though Demme passed away in April of this year, his memory lives on in his work. As with all art, what remains of Demme’s work is not persistent and unchangeable – while his films remain fixed in form, each generation gives them a new meaning and is moved in new ways by them. This is exhibited clearly in his most impacting work: The Silence of the Lambs. The film is inarguably his best-known, and one of three films in history to have won all top-five Oscar categories. For me however, the film’s most important characteristic is in Demme’s ability to find goodness in evil.
The Silence of the Lambs offers perspective into some of the most terrifying of human behaviour. Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lector (Anthony Hopkins) resides in a top security prison facility, having killed and eaten multiple victims. Although showing no remorse for his own crimes, he nonetheless helps the detective Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in the pursuit of a kidnapped girl, held captive by another vicious killer, Ted Levine’s chilling Buffalo Bill. Though his actions are ultimately for his own benefit, of course. While many of the scenes throughout Demme’s film still send chills down my spine after multiple viewings, a sign of brilliant work by all involved, I somehow find the film oddly comforting.
As a viewer, I am not comforted by movies in which awesome people do awesome stuff and then everything is awesome forever and ever. Certainly, we can admire and aspire to those figures, but we would be stretched in believing there’s enough of them to spare off-screen to correct the wrongs of our own world on their own. They can make the world better, set examples and lead the way, but without the flawed masses at their back, their impact is sorely limited. However, if a film leads us to believe that everyone, even the worst of us, such as Hopkins’ Hannibal, can contribute to the greater good, if only a little, then surely that there’s a chance for every one of us to make good in a world lacking in Herculean protagonists – and that this world might just become a little more bearable in the process.
The Silence of the Lambs depicts this philosophy well. Our protagonist, Clarice Starling, is a dedicated student of the FBI academy. She wants to help the vulnerable and make the world a better place. Furthermore, she is a strong young woman, surviving alone in a ruthless world following the death of her father. All in all, Clarice is the heroine one could only hope for. But in this dark and twisted world she alone is not enough. She requires contribution, specifically Hannibal’s, to save the day. It is precisely Hopkin’s antagonist’s cruel assistance in her pursuit, as revolting as his character is, that I find comforting. It is this collaboration for good, regardless of the character of the participants, and notwithstanding the absolute necessity of more Clarices in the world, which keeps the day saved just a little longer for cannibal and prey alike.
The value of Demme’s work is undisputable, built upon brilliant performances throughout, most notably by Foster, Hopkins and Levine. And while its perfect shots will please movie buffs that can discuss camera angles long into the night, the film’s important aspects aren’t so much the director’s technical decisions in particular, despite the craftsmanship exhibited by Demme, but rather the emotional and intellectual response they manage to invoke in audiences. It’s this attack upon apathy which permeates Demme’s work, and which would arise again later in his career in the outspoken and socially-minded Philadelphia. Regardless of whether, like me, you find comfort in the efforts of Hannibal and Clarice, or The Silence of the Lambs left you terrified beyond belief with its violent shots of hanging corpses with slit stomachs, and the iconic and ever-chilling: “I ate his liver with some fava beans”, Jonathan Demme nonetheless crafted a tale after which you’ll struggle to simply shrug your shoulders. Those are the movies that matter.
Robert Jonathan Demme died on April 26, 2017. He was an American film director, screenwriter and producer. His notable works include Stop Making Sense, Something Wild, Philadelphia and Rachel Getting Married. He won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The film also received Academy awards for Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally) and Best Picture.
The Glasgow Film Theatre will be screening the works of Jonathan Demme as a part of their CineMasters season surrounding the director: Philadelphia (August 20-22) and Rachel Getting Married (August 27-29). Tickets are available here: https://glasgowfilm.org/shows/cinemasters-jonathan-demme