Rev. Mar 27 2014
Posted, RIP Jonathan Demme, Apr 27, 2017.
In a recent rescreening of Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, I found myself becoming a bit depressed. It was not because I identified with Clarice Starling, orphaned due to the death of her father, then a runaway because she could not bear to hear the screaming of the lambs at a Montana farm. It has to do with my critical exploitation of the movie twice, in two different contexts, in the early 1990s, as I sought at the time to inform the practice of contemporary art inside the Russian doll container of the larger popular culture around it. In it, I linked up bad art to Hannibal Lecter, and considered his cell
in its basement lair look, a classic tabloid space: I even reproduced it for my essay for the exhibition, Tabloid (Sally Hawkins Gallery, March, 1992)
And I think I thought such a low down psycho space, which I was theorizing as a crawl space around the culture, was also a subconscious contributor to my Rock Bottom space in the Value (1991) exhibition, which I still talk about.
I think I also considered his art to be an example of psycho art, that is, overdone, sickly precocious, automatic in its mania to represent exactly. The fact that the Duomo is done entirely from memory also linked it in my mind to the model of a cathedral that the Elephant Man was said to have fashioned in his cell, imagining it from only being able to see the tower from his window. And I think in my mind, at the time, I linked this sort of bad art to psycho art and to the tabloid turned upside down mentality of the time.
At the same time, I was impressed with Kristi Zea as a set designer and art director and especially liked her set up of the temporary holding cell devised for Hannibal in a transfer point
I compared this directly to an installation, Public Enemy, done by David Hammons as part of an early installation-focused exhibition, Dislocations, curated by Robert Storr at MOMA, and sought then, in essay form never published, to link art installations to psycho or forensic installations.
These ideas still persist, and the program is one I have continued. But the primary mistake I made at the time was using static formal visual similarities between spaces, especially in the case of comparing the “it looks like the same thing” sense between the above set up and Hammons installation, and left it at that. I felt that a formal similarity was enough to confirm an identity between the two. In this I ignored Lecter’s own advice to Starling, taken from Marcus Aurelius, what is the thing itself, the motive, what does he want more than anything else. In leaving my discourse at the level of formalistic similarity, and that being proof of a connection, I indulged in the kind of facile apophenia with formalist language which is part and parcel to conspiracy theorists and other seekers after secret codes, but also was working within a strict formal-static context, that is, from the perspective of the art world out. Because of this I believe that I contributed to a discourse which saw abject art as somehow an equivalent to psycho art in horror movies, and thus believed that the mad artist was an accurate depiction of the artist. Though I now criticize the fact that art world let the psycho artists schema from popular culture breach the critical firewall of the art world and flood and corrupt, for example, Mike Kelley art criticism (though I held my own on that, and got it right), it looks to me like I did not have enough theoretical dig to fully understand the differences, and why Hannibal Lecter in fact was the very opposite of an artist.
And, in a problem I have solved by this point, by my study of ritual space and how art exists in the context of ritual in it, in a sequence of events and a series of images, I can now make a better appraisal of the difference.
The picture of the Duomo in his cell, for example, later removed as Chilton is torturing him with punishment, is a property that expresses two things. First, as they discuss, and as is the basis of his deal, he wants desperately to get out of that cell, and see something of the world, even a nice seashore view would do. That is that kind of view. Second, he is working from memory only, and the level of detail is meant to be taken, as a result of that information, as an indication of his steallock brain, its capacity for fixating on details, and making use of them, deviously, dangerously, in ways other human beings cannot possibly conceive. This, the picture is a diagnostic sketch, a mad drawing, telling us that he is mad, it is not meant to be appraised as a work of art, as its relentless literalism, its searching obsessive detail, its escapism is everything that true art is not.
Indeed, Lecter’s evil genius is in being able to take puzzles, that others cannot work out, the files on Buffalo Bill, for example, and work it out, connect the dots, put together a plan of action. It may even be said, then, that his drawings are doubly not-art, being in fact disguised blueprints for escape (and, indeed, in the sequel, Florence is made use of as the setting where he sets up his later lair). In fact, later, Starling does an autopsy on the girl drowned in West Virginia, and finds that the psycho killer himself is a manic hobbyist, exporting from afar a rare moth, the death’s head (another use of this oft used horror motif, horrific nature), inserting it far down in the throat of the victim, as if to turn the body into another cocoon
But Lecter, forseeing that a patient of his would be causing problems, and then making use of that prognostication to form the basis for his own psycho killing, leaves a clue as to this methodology and his identity, or at least to the fact that he knows the identity of the killer, when Starling breaks into a storage place, ingeniously devised by the awkwardness of his address, Your Self, sees stored haunted house paraphernalia, the owl of mystery and murder, going back far, but certainly to Psycho )1960) itself
Then in the set up of the car, like a Keinholz work of installation art, there is a headless manikin
And then the head of the murder victim in a jar, with the moth stuffed down the throat, making the connection
By this means, then, Lecter toys with the world, and with the police. He is a puzzle maker and puzzle solver, and his art is just a where’s waldo version of his puzzling mania.
But in Silence, the role that mad drawings play in communicating the particularly high performance quality of his psycho state, is best exemplified by the one he has made, in fact, of Starling
And this is nowhere better worked out than in his drawing of Clarice Starling, executed in his temporary stopover stay pen
This drawing lays out his plan, which the cops, of course, completely miss. In this picture, buttoned up Clarice, whose “cunt” he could not in their first meeting smell, is depicted décolletage, her hair let down, in drapes, with folds and contours, she is a woman, not the uptight tomboy that she has to be in the FBI. There is little question that Lecter satisfied some masturbatory fantasy thoughts about her, in pouring over her in the way of this drawing. The fact that the lamb is let go and set down over her left breast, signifies his drawing as a kind of suckling on her. He is living vicariously, in picture sex, through her. For that, she is safe, however. He has also somehow, in a sick way, adopted her, she knows, for example, that when he escapes, he will not come after her. But more importantly, she presides over a twisted road
And, even more importantly, and hardly incidental, but essential, as he says, there are three twists on the road, and three crosses over the road, each with a shadow. It is a kind of calgary. But he is telling them, it will start with Starling’s visit, which will humanize me and make you lower your guard. From here too I will get a something I need, to open my locks. Then, I will follow that road, in three twists. And this is where I went wrong in 1993 thinking that the cage itself done up was the primary impact of the tableaux, and that the world of the psycho was fixed. No, it is part of a sequence. It is shown that way, as an element of an elaboration of barbed wise, a twist, of many layers of security, (one notices in this shot, three loops of wire in the central of the picture, and three men departing)
So there is the front door of the building, the getting out of the building, there is the elevator, and there is the cell and barrier. A lesser criminal would just try to break out of the cage, and perhaps it was put there for show to distract to a singular jailbreak vision of escape, so that he does not think of the layering. But Lecter knows, he knows that if he gets out of the cell, he must then also get down that elevator, and if he gets down that elevator, he must also get out of the building. There is a lot of security, and it is by three crucifixions that he does. The first is, of course, the “shot from hell,” which made such an impact at the time, the cop strung up in a crucifix form, with his belly eviscerated. The purpose of this shot is to shock, to unnerve, to frighten, to make them startle to awake, and only focus on the immediate at hand. Interestingly enough, the shot is come to in stages, in the movie. First we see it through the door, as a black bird of doom, a something gone wrong
And then we see it in the shadows, from afar, as a what the heck is that, what am I looking at, capturing the shock, the fact that he is crucified with arms slightly upward so that in his uniform and his evisceration in red his red and blue and white also make him part of the bunting, is Lecter’s devious way to mock and make fun of the idiocy of his capture.
And he may have got an idea to do up the dead as a kind of portrait by having to look at the lighted portraiture of city fathers all about, and then the cop at the sawhorse, taking up his post, he has transmuted that into horror, a devising from the means at hand
Then there is the first crucifixion, as said. The second one is that the other victim is laid out on the floor, and is badly eviscerated in the face. He it is they now launch a rescue mission for, and in tending to getting him down to the ambulance, their inward focus takes their minds off security. That is the second crucifixion, laid out on the floor, then on the gurney, then in the ambulance. One wonders then if Lecter then planned that as they were taking the body down the elevator, the roof of the elevator might start to drip blood.
At that point, they are distracted again, as the body is wheeled out, and they go up to above the elevator, to spy down on the bottom of the elevator, and since the figure is dressed in white, as Lecter was, it is now assumed that this is Lecter, relieving tension from the gurneying rescue, they got him, and he is dead, because a bullet does not move him. In their minds, then, there was an escape, and then the shots, the gunfight, and Lecter lost
This is the third crucifixion. Just like in the drawing. And it is this dead man too who will rise from the dead. After they get into the ambulance Lecter reveals himself, he was the third body, he posed as the dead, in a Ulyssean ploy, faking death, in a way, common in a way, devious in this execution, and thus came back to life, that way. This is also communicated in the drawing, as Starling is depicted as the Madonna, and she holds at her bosom the lamb of god, the symbol of Easter, of the resurrection of the lord, the crosses now vacated. But it has to be noticed that, while baby jesus in some madonnas did smile back at the audience, to say to them, you too will be saved, this smile is the sick knowing gotcha smile of Lecter himself, he is the lamb, getting so much psychic pleasure from nursing himself in her bosom, and it is he who will live again, by escape
I also want to note that in early modern horror, the appearance of a Madonna votive on screen appearing to signify rebirth, here Frankenstein (1956) as inverted Madonna, giving birth.
And there it is. While in 1993 I made only a static formalist visually-rhyming connection between the set up in the courthouse and David Hammons’ piece at MOMA, today I have a much better understanding of the milieu and sequence wherein the image stands, and how it works out in each milieu, and this clarifies that in the world of Hannibal Lecter art was not art but a psycho secret way of planning, a signaling, a puzzling, a toying, a devious artifact of his treatment of the whole world. And that drawing right there, it told them everything they wanted to know, and they ignored it because it was “just art,” when, in fact, no art done by a psycho is art, it is the appearance of art exploited by a psychosis.
Finally, it is an odd thing, that, eight years later, a sequel to Silence was at last made, Hannibal (2001), and its entire mis en scene ends up being based not on Lecter’s life and crime, but on his art. As if peering through his psychotic pictures of Florence, Hannibal is found improbably curating a library in the Palazza Vecchio, right out in the open, and then kills an investigator who comes his way, with many beautiful shots of Florence, and, of course the music. But he kills as part of a lecture, and a part of history. Since the inspector coming after him is a Pazzi, he lectures on the Pazzi being hung from the palace, five hundred years before, disemboweled
And then shows him his ancestor, as he attacks him, in a shadow on the screen, a typical remediated shot
And then he sends him out the window, disemboweled. It is a not bad sequence, it has a nice art-life nexus feel to it, it suggests, however, his taste in art to be psychotic, or rather his mania to make life into art to be so. And it also has to be said that this notion that Europeans live still on the balconies on which history happened, and in the caverns of historical places, and enact their life like operas in public on the balconies of the public city, for all to see (and then no one captures him, it just does not seem possible), is a conceit of culture psychosis almost as problematic as his murdering
And then the movie switches back to the US, there is an entirely unsatisfying runaround Union station, but at least we make it to Ray Liotta’s country home, and there Hannibal nurses shot Clarice back to health, and, in the meantime, as changed her into a fetching low cut gown
Which means that in addition to sewing stitches into her body, he saw her naked. Moreover, the wound was in her right shoulder/breast area, the one exposed partly in his fantasy drawing. And, then, still on morphine, she finds her way downstairs to a macabre dinner hosted by brainless Liotta, and we see much more of her breast, including sweat on her breast
And it is to be noted that this entire sequence is lorded over by a strange bit of taxidermy over the bed in which she was lied (one imagines that Lecter managed even that detail), and it is a lamb
The result is a mannerist exercise, extenuating from preexisting material, highly arty, and entirely unreal, perhaps they thought to capture in full the psychotic nature of his character. Thus, while he sits and stitches Clarice closed, he gets to live, partly, his drawing: earlier, it was his blueprint for an escape: now it turns out to be one of his fantasies, especially with regard to her and his affection for her. A very odd through-the-looking-glass jump from art to life, in the progression of the series, though it does not quite work in this case.