FEATURE: VOL. 2
In the second half of this series of film analysis, we have covered a range of different themes and narratives, which stem from exploring the pessimistic view’s of human nature in “The Mist” and “Affliction”, to witnessing the chaotic frenzy of flying monsters in “The Birds”. However, the theory we will be investigating in this volume is the idea of character transformation, or in other words, motion pictures which give insight into psychological metamorphosis. The human psyche is perhaps one of the most interesting topics to examine and produce on film. Especially when it highlights a sinister, more deranged form of character, as it creates a terrifying outlook on psychopathic behavior. Just like the famous American author, Andrew A. Smith wrote, “People fear what they don’t understand”, and it’s very true. It could be argued, broadly speaking, that movie fanatics have always been more interested in the darker themes of cinematic life, the unknown realms of reality, the terrifying scenes of the motion picture. Perhaps to gain an insight into a demonic underworld that is for the most part mysterious and fascinating to the average Joe or Joanne.
The two films that stand out like a sore thumb are Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” and Michael Mann’s “Manhunter”. Both of these films contain highly psychotic antagonists, each at the pinnacle of their insanity, ready to burst at any second.
Firstly, we’ll begin with “The Silence of the Lambs”, and most importantly, the disturbed character Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, who is played by Ted Lavine. “Buffalo Bill” is predominantly an extremely dangerous serial killer at large, yet his roots run much deeper than that. We discover early on that he chooses his victims with great care and attention to detail; ruling out the possibility that he is just a reckless or mindless serial killer who just enjoys a good human butchering from time to time. All of his victims are young adults, female, each with “big through the hips, roomy” physiques resulting in loose and succulent skin, which is highly specific when it comes to choosing precisely the body “Buffalo Bill” needs. It’s perhaps a little obvious at this point that he has a few screws loose in that strange head of his.
The fact Jonathan Demme decided to use the symbol of the moth, and its family member, the butterfly as the thematic motif for “The Silence of the Lambs” perhaps indicates to us that the film is going to portray some sort of evolution or rebirth. “The concept of metamorphosis from a larval caterpillar, to a confined cocoon, to eventually renewing itself into an exquisite butterfly or moth defines the traditional symbol of transformation”. Thus, the moth and the butterfly are “undoubtedly the most important thematic symbols of the film”. The films obsession with this symbol is evident throughout: with the use of a moth in the movie poster, when Buffalo Bill inserts a chrysalis in the throat of his third victim Frederica Bimmel, Buffalo Bill’s infatuation with decorating his house with butterfly and moth memorabilia, his weird habit of nurturing and breeding different species of moths and butterflies, the symbolic shape of a butterfly he forms when he spreads his multicolored dressing gown while dancing naked… the list is endless. We could write a whole feature just on the countless appearances of moths within this film. However, more importantly, we need to know what is the reason for this symbol, and what correlations do they have with the main antagonists Buffalo Bill?
In this case, the moth represents Buffalo Bill’s transformation, that is his attempted transformation from vermin into beauty and this symbolizes the entire arc of the narrative. Just as the larval caterpillar transforms into a cocoon, likewise, Jame Gump transforms to Buffalo Bill and his newly found obsessions; highlighting “this idea of death, transformation and rebirth”. But why does Buffalo Bill want this metamorphosis to take place and why is he killing for it?
Gump’s significant issue is that he despises himself, he feels so alien in his own skin, so utterly disarranged with himself that he wishes he was something else entirely, “who loathes himself so much that he wants to be the farthest thing away from what he fundamentally is – he wants to be a woman”. Thus confirming that the entire Buffalo Bill plot line revolves around a gender dilemma, his “sexual identification”, not that he’s a transsexual, “his pathology is a thousand times more savage”, he wants to be reborn. Which evidences just how important the moth symbol really is. It’s a story of Jame Gump’s evolution, his journey through death and destruction, to finally metamorphosing to rebirth.
In comparison to this character arc is the film “Manhunter” and it’s unstable antagonist Francis Dollarhyde, otherwise known as the “Tooth Fairy”, who is played by Tom Noonan. He is similarly another individual who covets what he see’s, just like Jame Gumb. Dollarhyde is likewise very much a loner, he moves around in the shadows of life, unseen, without much purpose. Just like Buffalo Bill enjoys stalking his prey before he pounces, Dollarhyde takes pleasure in watching videotapes of the families he envies before brutally killing them. Especially the women of the household, observing them at their homes with their dream lives, the women playing with the children by their pools, cooking for their families. Everything Francis Dollarhyde secretly wishes for in his life, a motherhood figure, a woman to love him, a family of his own. This is Dollarhyde’s dream, this is what he wants and he’s willing to kill for the sensation his craves, even if its manipulated.
In contrast to Buffalo Bill, where he kills to eventually transform himself into a woman by using the skin of his victims to patch together a new skin for his body, to be reborn; Dollarhyde’s motives for killing his victims lie within his dreams, “it’s in his dreams. His act fuels his fantasies”. Within his dream lies “his quest to transform himself into Blake’s legendary depiction of the Red Dragon”, metamorphosing from an ordinary man into an alluring beast that only comes out in the moonlight. Dollarhyde believes that this transformation will enable him to become a formidable force to be reckoned with, and will ultimately fill the empty void that has overshadowed his entire life. Before the beginning of his transformation, Dollarhyde’s total lack of self-confidence and self-belief had completely crippled him up until now. He felt he had no hope in life without his death, transformation and resulting rebirth into the imperious Red Dragon. Perhaps following his complete revolution he would then have the confidence and power needed in order to gain the affections of a woman and maybe one day have a family of his own, perhaps these were his thoughts.
However, after Dollarhyde’s death, what is intriguing is that Michael Mann specifically arranged Dollarhyde’s fallen body, to take on a new form, where “he laid out in identikit fashion to the woman — not dragon — in Blake’s painting”. This became the moment Dollarhyde’s dream of becoming a Red Dragon, Blake’s beast, came to an abrupt end, “his merging with the mystical beast has failed. He is still a man”, as did Buffalo Bill’s quest to become a woman.
The connection between Buffalo Bill and the Tooth Fairy doesn’t stop there though. In order for there to be an effect, there must first be a cause. This effect of wanting to be reborn, wanting a complete transformation for both characters must of come from somewhere. Of course, the answer had to come from Doctor Hannibal Lecter, the man who knows everything, “look for severe childhood disturbances, associated with violence… Possibly you’ll find a childhood incarceration”. Buffalo Bill and Dollarhyde hated their identities, their identities being born through families who violently abused them as kids. Suffering those kinds of experiences growing up stay with those people for the rest of their lives and in this case, formed who they were, savage beasts.
Interestingly, a similar theme appeared in the last film we evaluated, “Affliction” by Paul Schrader. Schrader’s motion picture focuses on the lessons of violence and abuse instructed down from father to son through the means of alcoholism. It’s the pain that Wade Whitehouse keeps on afflicting after years and years of abuse from his father, Glen Whitehouse. This lifetime of abuse and violence has made Wade feel utterly worthless and has transformed him into one of life’s local losers, “he drinks, he smokes pot on the job, he walks with a sad weariness, he is hated by his ex-wife, and his young daughter looks at him as if he’s crazy”. This doesn’t leave much to be desired in regards to Wade Whitehouse as a husband, as a father or as the town’s sheriff. In fact, he is pretty miserable at everything he does in life, and his unhappiness comes as a result of being “controlled by fear of his father”. This hatred actually leads Wade to murdering his own father and then disappearing from the face of the earth, perhaps to transform into one of those savage beasts just like the Tooth Fairy or Buffalo Bill, who knows?
This link appears in a few films that Schrader wrote for, collaborating with Martin Scorsese in creating two cinematic classics, “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”. Each of these films all having similar thematic insights, in how “men’s violence is churned up by feelings of inadequacy”. This inadequacy characteristic is apparent in both “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Manhunter” with both antagonist’s attempting to conceal their troubling pasts with this desire to be reborn. Futhermore, these dreams are brought on from feelings of deficiencies which are caused by their haunting childhoods that were filled with abuse and violence.
Schrader sums up his ideal character to write about, which fits this feature perfectly, “the subject that is of most interest to me deals with a man who drifts around, often at night, peeping into other people’s lives. He is without a life of his own, and is trying to figure out how to get one, often operating against his own best interests in trying to find it”. This theme Schrader discusses is most definitely recognizable in both Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” and “The Silence of the Lambs” by Jonathan Demme, which is perhaps evidence that writers and directors alike enjoy exploring these unknown and possibly alien characteristics to what most of us are used to in everyday life.
Just as long as these interesting antagonistic character’s remain on screen at the movie theatres, and not out in a dark alley while I’m walking home at night, it’s fine by me.