So, when I heard that Jonathan Demme recently passed, I had the same reaction as everyone else: oh no. But then this other weird thing happened. Even though I recognized his name and remembered that he was an esteemed director, it took me a few seconds to remember just what he was esteemed for. That’s when I went, “That’s right. Silence of the Lambs.”
Not only do I think that my reaction was fairly typical of how everyone reacted when they heard about his passing, I think it sums up the strange case of Jonathan Demme’s career. He’s always been the director’s equivalent of the “oh, that guy” character actor. You know what I mean. There are those brilliant character actors you’ve seen all your life. You love them to death, you remember everything they’ve been in and in some cases, you even feel that they were better than the A Listers they often played second banana to. But no matter how much you love their work, you can never remember their name. It’s only when people say, “He played the goon in so and so,” or “She was the ditzy blonde in this and that,” when you go, “OMG, yes! Him! I love him!” That was Jonathan Demme in a nutshell.
What’s so bizarre about Demme becoming the “oh, that guy” director is that he filmed, in my opinion, one of the two most influential movies of the 1990s--Silence of the Lambs. No, scratch that–Silence of the Lambs was not only one of the two most influential movies of the 1990s, but the most influential movie since 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What is it about Silence of the Lambs that has me feeling that it was such an important film? I could explain, but you see, it’s difficult. The biggest reason is that so many movies and TV shows have begged, borrowed and stolen from it for so long that it now looks unremarkable by comparison. But trust me: Silence of the Lambs was an incredible groundbreaking film, but you had to be there to understand why. So let me explain as best as I can what it was like to see this movie for the first time.
Picture it: it’s 1991. You’ve grown up on a decade of 1980s movies. There’s nothing wrong with them in particular; it’s that just like any time period, the movies have developed a particular sensibility to them that screams “1980s.”
All the men and the women are dolled up with heavy makeup and either look like something out of an MTV video, a Patrick Nagel painting or Miami Vice. They all have the signature big hair, mullets, skinny ties and 1980s clothes. Everything–even the sets–looks “poppy” and cheerful.
The score to most mainstream Hollywood movies is typically either Casio keyboard or pop music. Although you’ll hear it in a few movie, classical scores have completely lost popularity.
As for lighting, the cinematography is all about “visual pop” and “clarity.” In daytime scenes, everything is very brightly lit with an emphasis on beautiful color palettes. In nighttime scenes or scenes that take place in dark settings, lighting is more or less neon-colored and emphasized as much as shadows so that the audience can see every detail.
Besides the cinematography, music and art direction, 1980s movies tend to fall into very sharp, clearly defined genres. There might be the rare and occasional “comedy horror” (Werewolf in London) or sci-fi comedy (Innerspace) but for the most part, there’s very little overlap between genres in any film. Horror is horror. Comedy is comedy. Action is action.
Also, each of these genres have become formulaic and narrow in scope. In terms of horror movies, by the late 1980s, they’re exclusively in the slasher genre and they always play out this way: a bunch of teens are bumped off by a serial killer who has supernatural-like powers of resurrection. The victims are moronic, and all the female victims are young, attractive bimbos who always do the worst possible thing they can do to get killed.
In terms of cop flicks, the protagonist is always a buff, handsome grizzled cop cut from the same cloth of Dirty Harry who has decades of experience under his belt. He is less detective than action hero, and he often kicks, punches and shoots his way through the movie until the very last scene, where he guns down the villain in a climactic, shoot ’em up.
One last thing that defines 1980s movies is that they still adhere to a rigid black and white view of morality. There are no shades of grey. There are clearly defined good guys and clearly defined bad guys. You can like the bad guy because he’s witty or is an entertaining character, but you can’t identify with him or root for him. As for antiheroes, they may do some questionable things throughout the film, but they never cross a line and they will always have at least one redeemable quality about them.
Now, once again, picture it. It’s 1991. In your brain are: MTV, big hair, neon, Casio soundtrack, slasher films, shoot ’em ups, preternatural serial killers, dumb bimbos and black/white morality. You sit down and you watch Silence of the Lambs thinking, “Cool, a movie about a serial killer.”
The first thing that leaps out at you is that the protagonist is a woman. Not a muscle-bound, gun wielding guy with karate skills and decades of kicking ass under his belt. A chick. A very wimpy looking chick. And she’s still in training, so she has no real idea what she’s doing. She’s so green, in fact, that she completely fails a practice run in one of her classes. Playing out a mock scenario in which she breaks into a suspect’s home, her instructor (pretending to be one of the suspects) immediately ambushes her from the side.
The next thing you notice is how everyone looks. Jodie Foster, although she’s in makeup, doesn’t look like a 1980s doll, with the big hair and MTV clothes. She has plain straight hair and is in sweats in the opening scene. In the rest of the movie, she is not only dressed plainly but so are the other actors, in very drab business suits.
Another thing you immediately notice that’s very different about Silence of the Lambs is the color and cinematography. Unlike 1980s movies, the neon lighting and “pop” palette is gone. With the exception of one scene earlier in the film, everything is mostly in muted earth tones–black, brown and gray. There are primary colors (red, blue, etc.) but they’re desaturated.
The lighting, especially, is very different from the bright, peppy lighting of the 1980s. Scenes are lit in a way to create a sense of atmosphere, unlike before, where lighting is designed for clarity or to make a scene look pretty. So, in many scenes, the lighting is dim even though in a real life scenario, it would have been lit with fluorescent lighting. There is also a lot less artificial lighting and more natural lighting.
Another weird thing you are noticing is that many of the indoor scenes have dark backgrounds, with the actors lit as if from a single source, like a candle, spotlight or natural lighting from a window. This is borrowed from a classic painting technique known as chiaroscuro.
Once you’ve gotten past the fact that in Silence of the Lambs the protagonist is a female and everyone and everything looks different, another thing that you immediately notice is the score. It’s orchestral, classic and dark. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard as a kid who grew up on Casio and Top 40 pop. If you’re older, on the other hand, hearing the score is a shock to the system, precisely because you can’t even remember the last time you heard a classical orchestral score in a major movie.
As you continue watching the film, you’re met with another surprise. When the senator’s daughter is kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, you revert back to all the Jason, Michael Meyers and Freddie slasher movies you’ve watched as a kid or teen. You think, “Oh, great. Here comes the scene when the serial killer chases her, she runs into a basement and she’s killed in two seconds flat.” Instead, the movie turns the whole slasher genre on its head. For one, the victim is not only chubby and average looking, she is the very opposite of the Helpless Bimbo archetype. She uses her wits and instincts to survive, then turns the tables on the serial killer.
The longer you watch Silence of the Lambs, the more you feel as if you’ve fallen down a rabbithole into a whole new cinematic experience that you’ve never seen before. Everything is topsy turvy. For example, it turns out later in the film that there isn’t one villain, but two of them. And they’re both complete and total psychos. And one of the psychos is an antihero who you genuinely like, sympathize with and actually root for when he finally escapes, even though he’s a complete and total sociopath.
On top of everything, there’s a moral ambiguity permeating the entire movie that cinema has never dared to cross before. For the first time, you’re faced with a reality in which Hannibal Lector is clearly an evil human being but is one of the good guys in the film.
What’s more, the movie is envelope pushing in a way you’ve also never seen before. There’s never been a mainstream movie up until that point that dared to touch gender dysphoria in such a confrontational way. You are completely shocked as hell by the full frontal nudity of Buffalo Bill tucking his penis between his legs. Silence of the Lambs is edgy, too, in terms of its gore and language. There’s never been a mainstream Hollywood movie up to this point that has had realistic autopsy scenes, referenced semen, included something as gruesome as people’s skins being used to make clothing or used the C-word before. And, as a creature of the 80s, you’re practically gobsmacked by it all.
One last thing about Silence of the Lambs that is so different from what you’ve seen in the past is that it doesn’t neatly fit any predefined genre. It has all the elements of being a classic B movie slasher horror but is also a psychological thriller and a cop flick. Not only that, it plays out in a way that’s never been done before in a cop flick. Yes, there is the cliche showdown between the protagonist and first villain where she blows him away, but the second villain escapes, with the clear intention of killing more people.
Now the movie ends and what happens? As someone watching this film for the first time in 1991, your mind is officially blown, just like the minds of millions of cinema goers across the country and around the world. You have no idea what you watched. All you know is, “This is a major movie of epic proportions,” not because it was well done but because it is so different.
Why Silence of the Lambs was Different
Of course, a film being mind blowing and very different isn’t enough to qualify it as being groundbreaking. A lot of films throughout history have been both yet never made any ripples. So what was it about Silence of the Lambs that did?
For one, it was a watershed film in that it was the first 1990s movie ever made. I know. Saying that it was the first doesn’t really make sense. If the 1990s started in–well, 1990–how could Silence of the Lambs be the first 1990s movie?
Well, the thing was that even though in 1991 we were no longer in the 1980s, movies still had a 1980s sensibility to them. There were still the Casio and pop soundtracks, the neon palettes, the artificial flood lighting, everyone in classic 1980s glam attire, and everything else that we associate with that period stylistically. So even though the world had moved on, filmmakers hadn’t. They were still stuck in that decade.
Not to single out Terminator 2 (1991), because that is an amazing movie in its own right, but it’s the perfect example of what I mean. Visually, you can see the 1980s sensibility all over the film even though, ironically, it seemed as if James Cameron was trying to get away from the typical bright and preppy look of a 1980s movie. He shot everything at night, and there was an emphasis on darkness in most of his scenes. Nevertheless, he just had to have the 1980s-style blue neon flood lighting everywhere. Try as he might, he just couldn’t get it out of his system.
I repeat–this is not a knock on Cameron as a director or the movie. Just making a point of showing how even though the 1990s were underway in 1991, movies were very much trapped in the 1980s visually.
Also, typical of so many 1980s movies, Terminator 2 was stuck in that same black and white morality, where there couldn’t be any moral ambiguity whatsoever. When The Terminator came back in T2, it had to be made perfectly clear in the minds of the audience that although he was the villain in the first film, he was 100% good in the second film and that there was a new bad guy, the T1000. This, I emphasize again, isn’t a criticism of Terminator 2 or any movies that don’t have moral ambiguity. It’s just to point out how in 1991, movies were still going by the 1980s playbook.
So here we all were in 1991, watching movies that may as well have been made in 1987 or 1989. Then along came Silence of the Lambs and BAM! When that film came out looking the way it did, feeling the way it did, crossing so many boundaries and throwing all the typical 1980s tropes thrown out the window, it was game over. That was the film that officially threw down the gauntlet and said, “Welcome to the 1990s, folks. The 1980s are officially over.”
From that moment on, Silence of the Lambs shaped how movies of the 1990s would look and feel, from the atmospheric, chiaroscuro lighting to the muted color palettes. Not only that, it also shaped how both TV shows and movies all look more or less look to this day. I’m not talking about the obvious cases, such as horror TV shows like American Horror Story or Hannibal. With rare exception, practically everything that you watch now was influenced to some degree by Silence of the Lambs, even non-horror entities like The X Files and The Matrix.
It’s not just the visuals that Silence of the Lambs helped to redefine, but the music score. There’s a chance that Basic Instinct and so many other movies in the 1990s and beyond wouldn’t have gone back to a more traditional-sounding score had it not been for this film.
Movies also became more envelope pushing. Before Silence of the Lambs, full frontal male nudity was not only considered explicit but themes involving gender bending and dysphoria way too controversial. Now filmmakers felt freer to shoot movies like the Crying Game and even show male genitalia for good measure.
Besides being a seminal film and a watershed moment in cinematic history, another major reason why Silence of the Lambs was such a groundbreaking film is that it invented so many of the popular archetypes an tropes that have become a staple in today’s entertainment, sometimes for the better and, in some cases, for the worse.
Two archetypes that owe everything to Silence of the Lambs is the Erudite Serial Killer and Sociopathic Antihero. Se7en, Pulp Fiction, House, Dexter and Breaking Bad would’ve never existed were it not for the movie, as well as characters such as Raymond Reddington from The Blacklist and Joe Carroll from The Following.
Some might argue that these movies, TV shows and characters could’ve just as well have been inspired without Silence of the Lambs. Even if that were true, without that movie making Hannibal Lecter so popular, none of these would’ve made it past the green lighting stage. The idea of basing a TV show around a sociopath who the audience is supposed to identify with would’ve considered way too controversial.
Something else that owes a lot to Silence of the Lambs is the nihilism that now pervades modern American entertainment, especially comic book reboots such as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and canceled TV shows like Revolution. Silence of the Lambs wasn’t a nihilist movie. Unfortunately, because it dared to toy with moral ambiguity, unintelligent screenwriters who grew up watching the movie and others like it confused moral ambiguity for nihilism and have now made heroes out of sociopaths or taken the stance that there’s no real such thing as good and evil.
Now I know that some people are going to want to argue about this movie being the “first.” I can even hear some of the comments now. “You can’t say that it was the first because all of the things that you claim were the first were also in other movies.”
Well, that is true to a certain extent. Silence of the Lambs had antecedents, just as every other great movie did. If we looked hard enough, we could find plenty of antecedents for films like Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Citizen Kane.
The thing is, though, the reason why movies like that get credited as being “the first” is that they were the first to take all of these very different elements from multiple sources, realize their potential and like an alchemist, combine them in a way to create something that was revolutionary. Serial killers with gender dysphoria was already explored in Psycho, but it was Silence of the Lambs that dared to actually show it in such an in-your-face way. Nancy Thompson could technically be the first female victim to battle against a supernatural serial killer, but then she winds up dying in Nightmare on Elm Street just like all the other victims.
The list goes on and on. We can find antecedents to Silence of the Lambs all we want, but the fact is that it was the film when all of these things came together beautifully, resulting in a movie that was not only brilliant but completely revolutionized cinema for the 1990s and beyond. And we all owe it to “that guy,” Jonathan Demme.