Wednesday, October 10, 2018

"It is Right Now": Clarice Starling and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

by Rob DiCristino
“I am not here today because I want to be. I am terrified.”

The very first words Thomas Harris writes about Clarice Starling in his 1988 novel The Silence of the Lambs are about her appearance: “She had grass stains in her hair and grass stains on her FBI Academy windbreaker from diving to the ground under fire in an arrest problem on the range.” Appearance is an issue, of course, because the trainee has just been called to the office of Section Chief Jack Crawford to learn about her now-legendary assignment to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Still, she’s undeterred: “She knew she could look all right without primping,” Harris writes. His Clarice Starling is ambitious, calculated, and tactical. She wants to look good. She wants to stand out. She makes colorful and dismissive comments about the men she comes across (“Well fuck off, Chilton”) and fights tooth-and-nail to outwit them whenever possible (“Damn if these assholes are going to see me cry”). Harris’ writing is pulpy, muscular. His Clarice searches for strength in the same ways a man would — by making the biggest and best impression she can.

Jonathan Demme and Ted Tally took a different approach when they adapted Harris’ novel for their 1991 film. Through Demme’s lens, Clarice Starling is more human, more dignified, and — as a result — more vulnerable than her literary counterpart. Rather than try to make the biggest waves, the cinematic Clarice syncs up quietly with the current; she listens, learns, and asks questions as long as possible before taking action. She lets Lecter, Chilton, and Crawford — men presuming to be her superiors — talk to their heart’s content. She lets Lecter posture and pontificate. She lets Crawford swagger and command. She lets Chilton ooze and sleaze. Though she grins and bears it with convincing bemusement, what none of these men knows is that the wheels in her brain are always turning. Every one of their actions tells her something about what it means to do this job, to live in this world. Every one of them, too, exposes a weakness in those charged with saving Catherine Martin’s life. For them, it’s about ego. It’s about accomplishment and accolade. Reputation. They’ve all got axes to grind and careers to enrich.
This isn’t to suggest that Clarice Starling is without open wounds of her own. She is, of course, the daughter of a police deputy shot dead in the line of duty. She did, of course, get shuffled around by relatives who subjected her to that awful screaming of the lambs. She was, of course, admitted to the FBI Academy with hopes of quieting those inner demons. She does, it must be said, have something to prove. In her essay, “A Hero of Our Time,” Amy Taubin writes that Clarice’s “commitment to law and order” is, at its heart, an attempt to vanquish her “barely repressed feelings of abandonment and loss.” However, she also writes that Clarice is “more moved by vulnerability than she is attracted to power.” After all, Clarice is pushed off the Catherine Martin case on more than one occasion — in deleted scenes, she and Crawford are actually suspended for their mishandling of the situation — demonstrating a dedication to a personal catharsis that far outweighs a dedication to her career. Clarice isn’t exploiting Catherine Martin’s vulnerability in order to get ahead. She’s exploring her own vulnerability in order to save Catherine Martin’s life.
That exploration begets more vulnerability, of course. Throughout The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is frequently subjected to sexual violence and emotional debasement. She’s leered at by her peers at the FBI (“What is this alien being doing here?” Taubin writes, imagining the mostly-male Bureau’s interior monologue), an entity whose leader sees fit to send a trainee into the arms of a cannibalistic psychopath. Is she there because of her resume or her looks? Dr. Chilton assumes the latter, and the condescending lech opens each door expecting the helpless girl to run screaming into his arms when she sees the monster he’s managed to snare. Hannibal Lecter is a monster, for sure. He digs his claws into Clarice’s soul, groping and molesting her for his own amusement. Multiple Miggs, lacking Hannibal’s intellect, takes a less subtle approach. And then there’s the cops in West Virginia. And the girl in the river. The pervy doctors. Finally, there’s Buffalo Bill. He kills women to cope with his own loss of identity. He takes their skin to recoup a sense of self. He rips them apart to make himself feel whole. He thinks he has the right. Some men do.
Amy Taubin closes “A Hero for Our Time” by lamenting the public’s fascination with Hannibal Lecter and openly suggesting that those who come to The Silence of the Lambs for a session with the man behind the glass are missing the deeper point of the film. It’s true that we are captivated by Lecter, a character whose exploits have now stretched over four novels, five films, and a tragically underrated television series. He pokes and prods at us in ways we’re afraid to admit we might like. He’s the flash, the sex. But he’s not the hero. Clarice Starling is the hero. Clarice Starling used her instincts to track down a serial killer. Clarice Starling saved a vulnerable young woman from certain death. Clarice Starling, staggering blindly through the darkness, wiped a brutal and hateful man from the face of the earth. Clarice Starling did it alone. “For nearly three decades,” Taubin writes, “Clarice Starling has been without sisters, mothers, or daughters…If ever there was a moment to rally around Clarice, ensuring that she will never be alone again, it is right now.” Amy Taubin is right. Clarice Starling is my favorite character in all of cinema. She is my hero. She will never, ever be alone again.

1 comment:

  1. This is so much of the reason why it was hard for me to get into ‘Hannibal’. There’s no one you’re rooting for (no one good). There’s no one fighting the darkness, just Will Graham trying not to let it consume him (which isn’t the same). Clarice is, and will always be the emotional core of that story and it's the most cavernous void in all the other stories.