Forshaw, Barry, The Silence of the Lambs.
From novel to film to Hannibal Lector's progeny, Barry Forshaw's assured analysis of the artistic ramifications of Silence of the Lambs (1991) makes for an informative and respectful read. This monograph is a rewarding addition to the Devil's Advocates series, with its serious contemplation of the great works of cinema.
Forshaw's obvious knowledge of horror is exemplary, and he uses the monograph to promote the genre, while celebrating Silence's contribution to cinematic and literary horror. He covers many aspects of crime, horror and thriller genres, particularly regarding the trajectory from Hitchcock to Jonathan Demme and their subsequent influence on other directors of note. Along with Thomas Harris (novelist of the Hannibal series), Demme (with a 'rigour worthy of Bergman' (pp. 35-7)) and his seminal creation of the film Silence of the Lambs remain the real champions of this analysis.
According to Forshaw, Demme has 'channelled existing horror tropes to create a new, durable hybrid of the crime and horror genres', and Forshaw celebrates the work kaleidoscopically (p. 9). He acknowledges Demme's 'medically plausible verisimilitude' in Silence, while praising the entire machinery of the film as 'quality writing and rigorous plotting along with exuberant staging, sanguinary inventiveness and constant visual flourishes' (p. 20).
Further, the author details Demme's experience as horror director in low--to mid-budget films prior to Silence of the Lambs, which makes this film such a masterpiece with its 'arcane mix of Gothic horror and modernistic settings' (p. 34). Here Forshaw gives credence to the very phenomenon Hollywood ignored in praising the film so roundly (awarding it no less than five Oscars): its adeptness as a work of horror. While praising Ted Tally, the screenwriter, Forshaw also acknowledges the plotting, writing and ground-breaking characterisations of Harris's novel.
In setting the scene for Silence, Forshaw covers keystone precedents, including Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934), Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and The Boston Strangler (1968). The author shares some lesser-known facts about the infamous Ed Gein case and 'Il Mostro di Firenze', as both reprobates were researched for Harris's original creation. Forshaw then details the paranoiac reinvention of the serial killer as a super-intelligent being, referencing such monstrous performances as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as precedents to Hannibal Lecter's screen persona.
On that note, Forshaw shows much respect for the refinement of both star performances in the film--from Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins--as he does for acting and casting generally (an all too often ignored aspect of mise en scene) as well as providing details of other actors in line for the parts. Forshaw contrasts the two early Lecter performances, Brian Cox and Hopkins, both favourably, both seamlessly examined--like a befittingly precise, surgical autopsy. The author exhibits a keen understanding of the performers' contribution to mise en scene, praising Foster's 'subtle and carefully shaded' acting with informed sensitivity (p. 46). He celebrates Foster's capacity to deal with the 'casual, unthinking sexism' delivered upon her avatar, Clarice Starling (p. 45), with Oscar-worthy subtlety.
Like the film, Forshaw's book assumes an intelligent audience (p. 32). Moreover, the monograph consistently elevates this key filmic text by comparison with more contemporary works: Silence does not descend to mockery as do so many other examples of the genre, but rather subsumes the audience in genuinely non-attenuated horror. Forshaw illustrates that Harris and Demme raise the social standing of Lecter by comparison with the working-class antagonists of similar fare: Leatherface, Norman Bates and Freddie Kruger (p. 54). Thus his respect for Demme and his entire team, including cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, indicates a serious artistry well beyond B-grade Giallo films.
Forshaw details the exigency of Lecter's matchless horror admirably. He uses concrete terminology right down to the necessary 'feminine' intuitiveness of the horror-thriller protagonist (p. 12). The author extols Silence's genre-based utilisation of irony, narrative point of view and schadenfreude (even at Clarice Starling's expense) in the hands of this masterful horror director (p. 39).
In detailing the history of Silence, Forshaw brings respect to Manhunter's Michael Mann and Dante Spinotte equally (director and cinematographer respectively), while noting the influence of Dario Argento's Suspiria and Giallo cinema. His argument is never superlative, but rather grounded in solid fact and admirable knowledge--indeed, Forshaw knows how to thrill us with his acumen.
The material is organised in chronological fashion, with pithy, often ironic titles worthy of the film itself. Each segment delivers a fresh angle while debating the relative merits of the contrasting directors. He accentuates the Academy's sanitising of this previously abhorred cinematic genre; the excellence of Ridley Scott's version of Hannibal; Lecter's progeny; and what he calls the 'legacy of the lambs' (including Fincher's Se7en). Forshaw's expressed passion for, and occasional disappointment with, the accumulative works of the Hannibal series detail precedent horror relationships such as those between Marion Crane and Norman Bates. He links the works to such traditions as William Blake's artworks and the Jewish daemon, the Dybbuk, and includes a discussion of the 'gay backlash', while remaining sympathetic to both the film's producers and gay rights. He even respects his readership enough to include a spoiler alert on the films he discusses.
Forshaw's literary expression is erudite and informed--indeed, his language has beauty and rhythm, which makes this read extremely pleasurable. While Forshaw praises the film for its efficacy, including some deft horror set-pieces, he must similarly be praised himself for the pithy, yet deep exposure of horror in this film. If he praises Thomas Harris for the eloquence of his prose, he might equally be praised for his own. Indeed, Barry Forshaw is a credit-worthy commentator and the book a genuine page-turner.
--Ian Dixon, SAE Institute and Qantm College, Melbourne
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|Publication:||Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2014|
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