Noisy Water Review

Finding self-identity with a damaged psyche;
the analysis of societies isolated homme psychopath

Haley Conners

Throughout the history of film noir, the noir criminal has been a key figure in supplementing film noir’s existentialist theme. In early film noir, the homme psychopath stemmed from the post-war veterans that could cope with, “the complex bureaucratized postwar environment through the pure pleasure of destruction itself, the delight in inflicting pain” (Douglass 30-39). This theme was carried out into modern noir films, such as The Silence of the Lambs by Jonathon Demme, where psychopath killers Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lector were born. This existentialist theme is embedded into the disturbed behavior of noir psychopaths, such as Buffalo Bill, who is searching for a sense of self-identity through gender as he struggles with an unstable psyche and community rejection of his wish to become a woman. His existentialist fate is a by-product of society rejecting him. Communal rejection and the gap between the outcast protagonist is frequently demonstrated in many of the early film noirs as well.

Buffalo Bill’s search for his own identity is complicated after his rejection from multiple hospitals after he requested a sex change. He becomes isolated and hateful toward society as a whole, and he looks for a different outlet in which he can satisfaction in his sexual identity, and revenge against society’s blatant rejection of him. Unfortunately, he becomes so deranged and desperate to find this inner peace among himself, he kills and skins women his size, and wears them literally as a skin. This literal form of “feminine identity” proves how isolated he has become from his community. In the article “Consuming Community in Silence of the Lambs,” Kendall Phillips develops this theory by saying, “Bill, according to the all-seeing Lecter, ‘hates his own identity’ and learns to ‘covet the identity of those around him’ – murder his means of transformation. Systematically abused as a child, Bill […] seeks an identity in the absence of community” (Phillips 32-36). One of the most memorable scenes in The Silence of the Lambs, is when Bill has his hostage Catherine, and he is doing his make-up and trying on female clothing and tucks his genitals so that he appears and looks like a woman. The gender disillusionment and psychological instability challenges America’s gender role acceptance, and this film in particular leaves the impression that society is to blame for the unstable psyche of those confused with gender identity.

The societal rejection that Bill faces due to him straying from normal gender role archetypes is explored not only in The Silence of the Lambs, but in other film noirs where the male criminal or psychopath isolates himself from society in order to obtain the identity he is looking for. Much of the time, there is a blurred distinction between the male victim and the psychopath. For example, Bill had to have thought of himself as a victim of society since he felt rejected and unaccepted. Because of this, he became crazy and turned to immoral and corrupt outlets to find some sort of satisfaction within himself. This very likely could be a mirror of the director’s portrayal of societal corruption. Quite frequently, noir films express some sort of societal or political sentiment or message that they want the audience to hear. In The Silence of the Lambs, the message deals with the consequences of an un-accepting and judgmental American society. These men, who have become ‘victims’ of this isolation, in turn resort to crime and corrupt engagements because they have lost all hope in society themselves.

The Silence of the Lambs, while being a modern noir, incorporated a lot of traditional aesthetic elements of the earlier film noirs such as the private eye, the damaged criminal, and the sexual elements among some of the main characters. Clarice Starling, a woman who is filling the role as the of the femme detective during her FBI training, brings a modern twist to the original perception of the detective archetype as she leads the investigation throughout the entire film desperately in search of the whereabouts of Buffalo Bill. Being a woman, and the main character representing truth and justice and the order of societal stability, she branches from the traditional noir homme detective, also paralleling the perception of gender roles in the contradiction of Buffalo Bill. However, even though each character pushes traditional boundaries of gender role archetypes, they still battle obtaining their own identity because of the pressures society still holds against them.

The infamous battle between the psychologically corrupt and the morally driven characters is a key component in The Silence of the Lambs, and determining the audience’s opinion on the characters. Like most film noirs, the audience tends to empathize with the morally stable characters, who seem to be searching for justice and peace. In some cases, the audience finds themselves siding with the corrupt character if he or she is attempting to right their wrongs or smooth out all of their past crimes. This brings to light the importance of expressing the search for self-identity in film noirs, because society itself is interested in being comfortable with their own identity. These films are a way of comforting their audiences by letting them know that only the mentally unstable are doomed to their fate and deserve what they get, which is usually death. In Richard Rushton’s article, “The Perversion of The Silence of the Lambs and the Dilemma of the Searchers: On Psychoanalytic ‘Reading,’” he makes the claim, “And the heroes of this drama will always be those who side with "us" - a community of the same who can feel confident in their dissociation from the perverse pleasures of them: the community of others” (Rushton 252-268). He validates the claim that film noirs that express the struggle of self-identity find their success in emotionally engaging their audience to side with the character who they most associate with. In Silence of the Lambs, the audience tends to side with Clarice and empathize with Hannibal Lector because although he is insane and eats humans, he helps Clarice in finding Buffalo Bill and almost builds a relationship of respect with her. Even this glimpse of human empathy makes the audience have more respect for the serial killer. In one of the last scenes where Hannibal calls Clarice while on the loose, they have an exchange where he tells her he will not pursue her since he claims “the world is much more interesting with you in it.” While audiences tend to side with Clarice and find sympathy towards Lector, they feel a sense of satisfaction when Starling finally kills Buffalo Bill since he “got what he deserved” (Phillips 232-236). This separates the world of good and evil for film goers, and brings some sense of comfort within themselves and their own identity.

Another aspect The Silence of the Lambs addresses is the failure in society itself. The film seems to be mocking the homosexual community, and sides with the belief that sex changes and gender roles need not be re-defined or tested. After all, Buffalo Bill’s breakdown was a result of his rejection of a sex change. He had been pushed away, snubbed by his own community, and he took it personally, in some ways taking revenge on the isolation that was inflicted on him by his own neighbors. This outlook that the film seems to be expressing, is also a crack at society’s un-acceptance of homosexuals and the consequences of these actions. Like many film noirs, they usually are challenging the societal standards and morals that are established, and they explore the extremities and consequences of these standards. It makes one wonder if Bill wouldn’t have gone insane if he would have just been accepted by society and allowed his identity to be changed into that of a woman.

The noir psychopath has been explored and expressed in various film noirs over the ages, but one re-occurring theme always seems to emerge when doing so: the process of self-identity and acceptance in society, and the mental downfall usually stemming from societal isolation or rejection. The Silence of the Lambs brings this issue to light, and questions the consequences of rejecting one another based on gender-related choices to obtain personal identity. The birth of the psychopath demonstrated in noir films is just a reminder for audiences to take a step back and evaluate their own judgments and identities, as well as analyze the societal standards that are set in place that uphold a large portion of this responsibility and the consequences that accompany it.

Works Cited

Phillips, Kendall R. "Consuming Community in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs." Communication Quarterly. 47.4 (1999): S26-32. Print.

Rushton, Richard. "The Perversion of The Silence of the Lambs and the Dilemma of the Searchers: On Psychoanalytic ‘Reading’." Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society. 10.3 (2005): 252-68. Print.

Demme, Jonathan, dir. Silence of the Lambs. Orion Pictures, 1991. Film. 28 May 2013.

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