Silence of the Lambs – Filmmaking Essay

After viewing several great films and reading the chapters in Kristin Thompson’s 1999 book Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique, I decided to focus on the film/reading that connected with me the most – Silence of the Lambs, a film created by the now defunct film studio, Orion.

Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins play an intriguing, delicate crime ballet which won the top five Oscar categories (only two films had previously achieved that status).  This drama/horror/thriller centers on a female FBI agent, Clarice Starling (Foster) who seeks the help of legendary serial killer named Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector (Hopkins) to find and arrest another suspected serial killer named “Buffalo Bill”, played by Ted Levine (TV’s Monk).

The film’s narrative makes the audience relate to Starling the closest as we learn more (plus more than we might want to know) about the worlds of these serial killers, the film’s theme. Filmmakers use the misc-en-scene to create a haunting vision of a dark crime world for the antagonists and protagonists. No bright colors or happy tones are communicated to the viewer.

Director Jonathan Demme orchestrates all the elements in an interesting and intriguing way to reflect a deep level of fascination with serial killers in our society. Filmmakers visualize what causes these people to do these things in extreme detail.

This plot sets up a chain of events – cause and effect situations and relationships creatively within a specific time and space. Smaller storytelling techniques like motifs such as Buffalo Bill’s moths/butterflies explain character traits, goals and actions and larger ones like continuity (events occur even if they’re actually shot out of sequence) allow Demme to create special alterations to space and time within the film narrative.

Even the antagonists’ character names play an important role. Lector and Bill get their nicknames because they’re separated, vilified and strangely fascinating to society.

The violence is not very commercial and contributes to the integrity of the story to show just how shocking the character’s action was and how far they would go to get their new life. Buffalo Bill wants to reborn as woman and Lector wants freedom, travel and “a room with a view.” In this world, there is no happy ending.

The respective goals of Lector and Buffalo Bill seem selfish, but their minds don’t think like most people. They don’t place a high value on human life.

The plot creates a division between the antagonist killers and the protagonist, Clarice Starling most notably when Catherine’s mother, the Senator pleas for her daughter’s life on television. The audience already knows that the Senator and Starling are on the “good” side, but the audience also gets to hear Starling’s reaction to the plea, saying how smart the Senator is by talking about her daughter’s family and caring personality so it’s possibly harder for Buffalo Bill to hurt her. Clarice also cares and respects for Catherine’s life, but the antagonists do not.

This dark film is painted by Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography, which accurately sets the mood and theme of the plot – dark, sinister characters in dark worlds doing dark things and the people who try to stop them.

Demme sews this world together with creative filmmaking and an enthralling experience for the audience with misc-en-scene, music and sound without using special effects, which heightens the realism.

This film is a diegesis of the Harris book. For example, we are lead to believe that Catherine’s mother is a Senator even though we don’t see her in her office or voting in WashingtonD.C.

Non-diegetic elements, such as the film musical score by Oscar® winning composer Howard Shore and such as locations and/or discussions about the other films/books, Hannibal, Manhunter and Red Dragon, also play a role in the narrative.

Both diegetic and non-diegetic elements combine to create a Hollywood narrative mode where the audience is invited to believe that what they are seeing is real. The audience is drawn into the film’s constructed world without being addressed directly.

Out of all the amazing filmmaking elements, I believe that the overall sound effort in Silence of the Lambs brings the film to a heightened level, which improves every key element through three sources – dialogue, music and noise. These techniques follow the crimes of serial killers (the theme) in this dark psychological thriller (the tone).

Lector’s entrance at the airport to meet the Senator, Lector’s escape, and Buffalo Bill’s abduction of Kathryn are all examples that magnify the theme, the shocking acts of serial killer. These techniques express in the characters traits and emotions, heighten dramatic events by spotlighting and selection and use a variety of technical sound devices.

Here is an example that combines many of the recently mentioned the sound techniques.

Non-diegetic music heightens attention of Lector’s escape in the ambulance as he reveals himself to the audience and prepares to kill the medic. The music gets louder and the rhythm matches the motions of Lector’s slow actions and rise from the stretcher. Then the climax hits and the music explodes as Lector takes his “mask” off.  Now the scene immediately cuts to Starling’s co-worker getting off the phone and racing down the hall to tell Starling what happened. The characters action has now accelerated along with their continuing non-diegetic music, but the music is still at the same rhythm of the characters action.

Time not a big factor, but location is often in this film. Filmmakers consistently use dialogue hooks, where one scene references something that is going to happen in the next scene. For example, Jack Crawford is notified that Lector is being transferred to Memphis. Next we see the transfer occurring in Memphis. Another dialogue hook occurs when Starling realizes Buffalo Bill knew his first victim.  They mention her home in Belvedere, Ohio and the following scene, Starling is in Belvedere.

A sound bridge is seen when Dr. Chilton listens in on one of Starling’s conversations with Lector. We see and hear Lector telling her information about Buffalo Bill. Then we see Dr. Chilton listening in on the tape recorder with Lector’s voice still audible.

We see a sound over when Starling is watching the senator’s plea on television.  We get Starling’s expression while the plea is still seen and heard from the television in the background.

The intellectual challenges also become an important element of mood. Lector continually taunts and toys with Starling calling her “white trash”, but also directs his venomous methods towards Miggs as well.

The film has a hauntingly realistic tone. The contrast between the tone of Starling and Lector’s voices indicate a noticeable difference between the two characters.

Lector’s a voice is monotonous and doesn’t change much, but occasionally his loudness does. Starling’s voice is determined, but very emotional when the dialogue between them gets intense.

Lector’s phone call to Starling in the final scene illustrates this point well. Starling’s voice is a solid at first, but when lector tells her he is going to kill Dr. Chilton, the timbre of her voice is reduced to a whisper.

A frightening use of sound occurs when Catherine sees marks from fingernails in the pit and realizes what is eventually going to happen to her.  She screams with incredible loudness and high pitch which greatly heightens the tension of the scene.

The audience gets another dramatic shock when Buffalo Bill answers her screams.  The first one is relatively soft but haunting. The following screams are still haunting but now very loud with a quivering timbre in them. These two different kinds of screams coincide with Buffalo Bills character traits – careful and soft (when catching his victims) and violent (when things go wrong). The synchronicities of the rhythm of these sounds match exactly with the visuals we see.

An opposite example of sound rhythm would be Clarice’s flashback in the funeral parlor. She sees the body in the casket, and then we see her face reacts as she slowly walks toward the casket. We hear the background noise of people talking slowly fade because this flashback of her father is only in Clarice’s thoughts.

Spotlighting occurs when Starling is in the funeral home, she hears the organ music which draws her attention to the viewing room and causes the flashbacks of her father’s funeral. Non-diegetic music is added to dramatize the sequence.

We see great use of camera placement and spotlighting is when we first see Buffalo Bills place. The camera slowly navigates Buffalo Bill’s lair through directions where the audience discovers his world through the camera.

While the camera is moving through the house, we hear a sewing machine which draws our attention to Buffalo Bill.  Then we hear a wall that yelling which draws us to the pit where Kathryn is being held. The audience now has a sense of orientation for the later scene when Starling enters the house during the film’s climax.

Camera placement is used to achieve similar, more dramatic and frightening results in a scene where Starling investigates a rented storage space purchased by Lector. The misc-en-scene is very detailed with the limited space as Starling works to navigate through Lector’s increasingly disturbing items.

Spotlighting is also used when Starling is searching the room of Buffalo Bill’s first victim.  As she searches through the room, she hears a cat meow from the other room which draws her attention to that room where she finds more clues and evidence.

Selection, one particular sound emphasized over another, is another well used technique in this film.  For instance when Chilton forces Lector to tell him Buffalo Bill’s name, we get the selection of Lector’s breath when he sees the pen Chilton drops.  The sound of the breath is non-diegetic and tells the audience Lector is the only one who knows about the pen (just like no one else can hear his voice except the audience).

Another solid example of selection and the movie is when Lector is taken to give information to the Senator. As he starts to change his tone and dialogue to scare and insult the Senator, a plane engine, gradually getting louder, is selected to emphasize the increasing tension in the dialogue.

It’s a definite advantage to have the film adapted from an existing work. Ideally, the screenwriters basically use what can be best translated into visuals, but the constant battle to satisfy fans of the book never ends. It’s a different medium and every audience member has a specific view of what the film looks like from the book’s text.

The studio makes the movie…audience watches the movie.  The only way most members of an audience communicate with a studio, the producer of the film is through box office/video sales, public opinion, and critic reviews.  This communication also filters to the actors, directors, producers and film crew an important point especially when you’re adapting work from other media.

Narrative forms differ in different mediums a verbal learner (descriptive) learns differently from the visual learner (see to experience), still the verbal learners reads the book in a solitary environment which can be more scary because their imagination is more open and they don’t have companionship to comfort them.

There’s no way to satisfy everyone, but it’s clear that Ted Tally (and author Harris) clearly had a talent in the context/discourse of film. Technical sound techniques like non-diegetic sounds/music weave into the plot to express the characters’ personality/emotion, heighten dramatic events through spotlighting and selection. The sound brings the film to a heightened level that improves the realistic plot.

Movies can become a business, instead of an art form when the studios depend solely on audience support.  As an art form, the relationship between a studio showing their finished product in a theater (or at home) and the audience watching their work can be a highly extraordinary way people communicate.

Movies are fantasies and are meant to be entertaining, but filmmakers must not forget that movies leave a lasting impression in the minds of many people in our society today, even though Hollywood seems more of a business instead of a creative storytelling.

Silence of the Lambs had excellent timing to become an iconic, star-maker, symbolic representation of serial killers (the film’s theme) and a great female perspective in the law enforcement genre. The sound, music, acting and directing are all top-notch within the realistic tone of the psychological thriller. The graphic content equals the intellectual, emotional content of the film, so I think it’s justified.

The sound techniques in this film are used to their potential as they expressed the characters traits and emotions, heighten dramatic events by spotlighting and selection and use various technical sound devices.  They use of all these techniques help to make this great psychological thriller even better by adding to mood and tone, how the audience feels.

Copyright © Michael Siebenaler

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