Monday, February 24, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (3) *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *poor*

In this essay from August 2012 I examined three "perilous psycho" in order to show how they aligned themselves with either the phenomenality of "the uncanny" or that of "the naturalistic." This essay follows the same pattern, but with an additional touch in regard to filial relationships. Both films examined here deal with a trope in which "too little attention" can be as bad as "too much attention." Parenthetically I'll also add that both films are based on books that I have not read.

I noted in my review of 1973's THE CREEPING FLESH that the tormented doctor of that film wished to keep his daughter from being as lubricious as her mother had been.  Thus, even though the character is the opposite of a father who violates his daughter's sexuality, the CREEPING FLESH scientist traumatizes his daughter through withholding a normal level of affection; a trauma manifested through the doctor's use of a "Jekyll and Hyde" potion. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and EYE OF THE BEHOLDER references this paternal pattern in differing degrees.

Because SILENCE was a phenomenally successful film, winning the top five Oscar categories for 1991 films, it has been psychologically analyzed in great detail. Ted Tally's script, which appears to follow the Thomas Harris novel closely, seems tailored for such close analysis, given its artful exploitation of psychological motifs. For instance, it's certainly no coincidence that when psycho-villain Hannibal Lecter arranges a victim's guts so that they seem like wings spread out from his body, this image mirrors the "death's-head moth" that appears elsewhere in the film. At times, indeed, SILENCE may be a little overly composed, thumbing the tub for feminist psychological interpretations of male-female "difference."

One paternal pattern has not garnered much comment to my knowledge: the one that gives the film its name.  During Lecter's intense grilling of heroine Clarice Starling in one of their "quid pro quo" sessions, Lecter forces Starling to talk about the childhood trauma that led her to become a FBI agent. When Starling reveals that she was orphaned at an early age and sent to live with a relative on a farm, Lecter suspects that some trauma ensued at the hands of a "bad father." He does so in part because most audience members are likely to jump to that Freudian conclusion as soon as the story sets up an atypical foster-child situation. Instead, Starling's trauma stems from a non-sexual form of violence, in that she witnesses the fate of some lambs in the farm's slaughterhouse. The child tries and fails to save one of the lambs, thus imbuing her with a savior complex. The "adoptive father" in this case does not treat Starling badly, but he becomes the symbol of the world's voracious nature, in that his lamb-slaughtering is a form of violence that the adult world accepts without question.  Starling cannot oppose this form of violence, but she can as an adult seek out illegal forms of violence, like the ravages of serial killer "Buffalo Bob."

This proves interesting, though, because Lecter and Starling, despite their adversarial roles, develop a relationship roughly comparable to teacher and student-- one which resonates, however slightly, with that of the relationship of father and daughter.  I cannot speak to any events that transpire in later installments of either the book-series or the film-series, but if one regards that relationship hermetically-- within the corpus of that one film alone-- then Lecter presents a rough parallel to Starling's male relative.  True, the male relative merely killed for reasons of commerce and survival, while Lecter kills-- and eats-- victims because he enjoys it. But Lecter nevertheless provides clues that lead Starling to her quarry, and so her successful killing of Buffalo Bob almost amounts to her winning the prize at the FBI's "school fair."  I should note, too, that where Buffalo Bob represents the image of the psycho as creepy, aberrant, and out of touch with his own needs, Lecter is a model of paternal rectitude: intellectual and composed even when he kills people.

ADDENDA, 2/2016: Now that I've finally read the novel on which the film is based, I want to note that two of the film's standout visual scenes don't occur in the novel. I mentioned above the scene in which Lecter kills a guard and then spreads out his guts like insect-wings, and another visual moment that remains memorable appears at the climax, when Jame Gubb dons his "woman-suit" before attacking Starling. Neither event takes place in the novel, for the criminals in the respective scenes are focused on accomplishing their ends, not providing strong visual stimuli. I'm not criticizing the film for intensifying the horror in these scenes, but it's true that neither action is credible, and Lecter really has no business co-opting the "death's head moth" motif used by his fellow psycho Gumm.

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, however, never manages to choreograph the "pas de deux" between British intelligence agent Wilson (given the overly transparent nickname "the Eye") and Joanna, the addled serial killer he ends up following.

Whereas SILENCE's Starling suffers from a savior complex, agent Wilson is the embodiment of the disembodied male: he lives through his computers and his surveillance equipment.  In the film's opening sections we learn that because of his inability to relate to other humans, his wife left him and took away their little girl Lucy.  Yet Wilson does not show a lack of affect, even though some of the supporting characters talk as if he has little or none. While he performs his errands for British intelligence, he fantasizes that Lucy is still with him, running around making fun of the people he surveils.  This is a naturalistic version of the "fallacious figments" trope given that Wilson is always conscious that the little girl is not real.

Wilson's ogre-like boss sends the agent to watch over the boss' son, suspected of embezzlement. Like many a Hitchcock hero before him-- and Hitchcock-like motifs are all over the place in EYE-- Wilson blunders onto a violent murder-scene in the midst of a routine assignment. He witnesses the son meet with a sexily-garbed female blackmailer at an apartment, and before Wilson knows it, the woman kills her victim. Initially Wilson tries to apprehend her, climbing up to the balcony of the apartment-- significantly breaking his camera, the distanced "eye" through which he sees the world. But Wilson overhears the distraught psycho-killer screaming to herself, "Merry Christmas, DADDY!" This revelation of the sexy killer's daddy issues inspires Wilson to start following her around, trying to learn more about her rather than helping the police capture her.  Her name, incidentally, is "Joanna Eris," and the surname is an overly transparent evocation of the Greek goddess Eris, best known as the being who incites the Trojan War by hurling the Apple of Discord.

Though director Stephan Elliott's visuals recall Hitchcock, he and his scripters blunt any of the transgressive potential of the setup. Again and again the diegesis implies that Wilson is only working out his paternal guilt by watching over Joanna in her wanderings.  He learns eventually that she was victimized not by a violent father but an absent one: a man who deserted his little daughter at Christmas-time.  She was later put in the custody of a girls' school, where an implicitly lesbian headmistress may have created Joanna's extreme misogyny.  Wilson becomes protective toward Joanna, not least because some of the men she kills are predators. One of them, Leonard, comes close to turning the tables on the male-murdering Joanna and raping her, and one may speculate that this character stands in for the sexual stimulus that the audience expects to see in Wilson, especially since he first sees her in a "flagrante delicto" situation combining both sex and violence.

Since director Elliott came out as gay in 2012, I wondered if this might have contributed to his lack of interest in Wilson's presumably hetero nature.  It seems strange to me that a director who seems to be imitating Hitchcock so assiduously-- assuming that he was conscious of so doing-- would not play to the ambivalence of Wilson's conscious paternal motivations and subconscious sexual temptations.  But it's equally possible that the book is at fault in this respect.  Casting is also a problem: Wilson is played by an actor three years younger than the actress playing the character upon who he fixates.  This makes it very difficult not to expect a sexual dimension to their relationship, and when the film doesn't deliver this, it seems to be a cop-out.  It's also worth mentioning two other elements culled from Freud 101: that Joanna briefly marries a blind (read: "castrated") older man, a character who dies because of Wilson's meddling in Joanna's life, and that Wilson's "heavy father" boss dies near the end of the film, albeit by natural causes. But in the end what most sinks the film is that Wilson and Joanna are not sympathetic characters, and I doubt that the audience in 1999-- which largely stayed away from EYE-- had any idea why they should relate to either of these characters. 

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