Mulvey’s Male Gaze in Silence of the Lambs

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In recent times, film has been overcome with the idea of “the male gaze”. Stories are told through a visual lense of a “straight-male”. Sadly, this not only objectifies the dame character, but places the female in a much more passive role than their male counterpart. From time to time, films present themselves that attempt to both challenge and cleverly incorporate the male gaze. Silence of the Lambs, directed by Johnathan Demme, is one of the diamonds in the rough. Demme constantly uses film techniques in order to keep the audience guessing as well as to connect with the protagonist Clarice past a surface level. He also meticulously places these subliminal indicators throughout to symbolize certain vital piece of information pertinent to the investigation. This paper will address how Demme utilizes zoom, cutting, and low angles to establish Barthes’ 5 codes and take the viewer on a truly suspenseful detective journey that challenges the contemporary male gaze.

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In film, zoom plays a vital role in offering hints in order to keep the audience engaged in the film. Silence of the Lambs is no exception. From the initial start of the film, zoom is put to use. The movie transitions in with a young female wandering the FBI headquarters. The zoom is implemented when Clarice passes a sign that says, “behavioral science services”. This serves to offer viewers insight into the background of Clarice and gives viewers an idea of what type of work she will be engaging in, as she comes from a psychology background. This is followed by a long eerie walk down a cell-block of exiled prisoners. Zoom is once again utilized, but this time the framing is much tighter with face shots of the prisoners that emphasize the harsh (shadow-filled) lighting and creates a disoriented view that projects the inmates as primal predators. Demme has already established a mood and led the audience to feel how the female subject (Clarice) felt during the encounter. Another example of zoom is when Clarice is in front of the glass at Hannibal’s cell. This time, the camera is positioned at a much lower angle which creates a much shallower depth of field which suggests Clarice not only lacks power in this exchange, but also carries a smaller presence. An increased zoom length paired with a wide open lense aperture gives Hannibal a much more intimidating appearance and forces the viewer to stare directly at him due to their being no existence of any other stimulation in the middle-ground or background. This creates the illusion that Clarice, the FBI agent, is the one being interrogated. Yet another example of zoom being used is the scene prior to the capture of the 2nd victim (Mulvey, 1975).

There are two zooms implemented in this segment one of an eagle which signifies to the audience that the reoccurring symbolism behind bird imagery throughout the film represents symbolic code for the idea that each of the main characters wish for autonomy and independence and the chance to soar away from their nesting boxes. The following use of zoom is seen after the antagonist (Buffalo Bill) tears the blouse off of the victim and viewers see a quick close-up of the clothing tag which pictures a number 14. The significance of the number 14 is later explained as the MO for the serial-killer is that he prefers heavier set or “roomy” victims as Hannibal would say, which Buffalo Bill then starves. 14 is symbolic for the vulnerability of the “roomy” sized victims which represents the lambs that are screaming in Clarice’s head. Later on, Clarice, the protagonist, is pictured inside Hannibal’s birdcage shaped jail cell in Memphis where in one shot viewers are able to see the reflection of Hannibal himself pictured in the background behind Clarice’s head. It’s a very sinister scene as Hannibal appears to essentially be a reflection of Clarice and acts as her conscience in what seems to be already a doctor to patient relationship with Hannibal in the driver’s seat. This imagery also serves to show how Clarice playing the detective role as a female is able to more effectively sympathize and relate to the serial-killers where as her male counterparts weren’t able to extract any pertinent information in previous attempts (Dubois, 2001). During this scene, Demme utilizes hermeneutic code when Hannibal poses the question, “do you think the lambs will ever stop screaming?”. The question isn’t directly answered which keeps the audience engaged. This is symbolic for the lambs in Clarice’s childhood, and she has a chance to put them to rest by saving vulnerable females from Buffalo Bill. The zoom onto the pictures in the music box are symbolic for the relationship the 1st victim had with Buffalo Bill. In this same scene butterfly wallpaper is zoomed in on. The butterfly in this scene and the scene of him covering his genitals and spreading his wings like a butterfly symbolize transformation. Demme is again challenging the male gaze. He never allows viewers to fall into distraction by how Clarice is pictured but rather projects Clarice’s feelings onto the audience.

Cutting, the act of slicing raw footage to transition to following clips is essential in film-making. Cutting may either show the audience what a character is looking at or a visual of the perspective from the eyes of the character themselves. Johnathan Demme selects and orders his cuts so cleverly. For example, during the cell block walkthrough scene, the use of point of view cutting intensified the scene with de-hazing filters that depicted a very scary situation to be in as the only female in an all-male cell block infested with serial-killers. Following this, a match on action cut was implemented when Clarice was leaving the cellblock. A prisoner is pictured laying in recovery position (on his side) engaging in repetitive motions with his hands, the cut is then initiated where the camera switches to Clarice and proceeds for some saliva or semen liquid to make contact with her face. Again, Demme is leaving it up to the audience to infer and piece parts together. Another great use of cuts is when there is about to be a flashback such as before Clarice enters the church. Demme chooses to pan the camera towards the sky to signal to the audience a memory is coming. Potentially the most suspenseful scene in the film leading up to the climax, was when the FBI are staging outside Buffalo Bill’s suspected location preparing to break in and then the camera jump cuts to Claurice knocking on a door in a quiet neighborhood. This creates suspense as the audience was being fed stimulation and expected to see the suspect however the jump cut gives a new hint that Clarice is on the hot trail towards the suspect which is further validated by the landing of a moth on the subjects clothing during her questioning in the home. Finally, at the end of the film, a montage sequence is featured where an American flag and a butterfly in motion are pictured through a series of cuts. Demme is using semantics to show Claurice is someone who is loyal to her moral codes and values. The butterfly swirling represents how freedom is limited to limit anti-social personalities from committing anarchy. During the Memphis jail interrogation scene symbolism can be seen throughout. While Claurice is traversing through the jail there is a cut to the word “iron” on the wall that carries deeper meaning of exile and being truly secluded within the prison walls. When Hannibal manages to escape, there is a cut to an image of a mutilated officer hanging in a bird like pose over a birdcage like jail cell. Hannibal’s escape is symbolic for him ascending from his bird cage in search of freedom (Mann, 1996).

Camera angle cam distort the picture to imply a plethora of idea to an audience. While Clarice is inside the funeral home the camera is at point of view where Clarice is looking up surrounded by a group of tall, masculine FBI agents in suits. The low angle shows an overpowering male gaze onto Claurice. The 2nd victim Katherine is pictured in a well about 15m down in the ground. This eye-line match perspective projected Katherine with having a lack of power and no sense of humanity. Finally, in the denouement of the film, the reappearance of the IR vision goggles is déja vu from the initial scenes when Buffalo Bill assaulted Katherine. This represented the scopophilia in film and shined a light on the concept that the audience is able to creep on Clarice where as she is unable to view Buffalo Bill. Demme, once again is able to challenge the male gaze and keep the audience engaged throughout. (Demme et al, 1991)

Works cited

  1. Barthes, R. (1977). Image music text. Fontana Press.
  2. Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2010). Film art: An introduction. McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
  3. Cook, P. (1981). The limits of the cinematic image: The scene as a threshold of image and narrative. Film Quarterly, 35(1), 12-21.
  4. Corrigan, T. (2007). The film experience: An introduction. Bedford/St. Martin's.
  5. Crary, J. (1990). Techniques of the observer: On vision and modernity in the nineteenth century. MIT Press.
  6. Dubois, P. (2001). Hannibal Lecter's body: The prison house of the subject. Cultural Critique, 49, 47-84.
  7. Hirsch, P. (1997). The anthropology of suspense in Silence of the Lambs. American Anthropologist, 99(3), 558-567.
  8. Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6-18.
  9. Prince, S. (1996). Narratology: The form and function of narrative. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  10. Sobchack, V. (1992). The address of the eye: A phenomenology of film experience. Princeton University Press.

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