Monday, May 21, 2012

My Night with Hannibal a Cemetery

Good evening, Clarice. You seem right at home here in the cemetery...

The first time I saw The Silence of the Lambs was back in 1993, after it had been made available on home video. I was 14 when it hit theaters, and while I was in love with horror fiction, my parents still had rules about watching R-rated movies. By the time I was 16, in ’93, the rules were pretty lax, and I finally got my chance to see the film version of the Academy Award winner for Best Picture in ’91 – the first horror film to earn such an honor*.

The experience was exciting and terrifying for me. I was alone in my home, watching the movie on our crappy VHS, but Hannibal Lecter’s predatory stare cut through the fuzzy horizontal bars that occasionally flickered over the screen and into my imagination forever. Buffalo Bill’s glam dance was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and I wasn’t able to make heads-or-tails of his decision to tuck his cock in between his legs. And I fell in love with Clarice Starling, just as everyone in the film seems to, drawn to her intensity and tortured innocence; I wanted to protect her as badly as Lecter seemed to want to. Few movies to that point had ignited my imagination, or inspired my nightmares quite like The Silence of the Lambs.

This past Saturday, I finally got my chance to see the film on the big screen, in the most unlikely of places – a cemetery. Every summer, a Los Angeles based film organization called Cinespia** puts on a series of screenings at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard. A couple years ago I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory there, and enjoyed singing along to the Oompa Loompa song with 2,000 of my closest film geek friends. This is Cinespia’s 11th season showing vintage films in the cemetery, and the events are among the finest L.A. has to offer.

I can’t be certain of this, but I believe over 5,000 people showed up to picnic on the lawn in front of the cemetery mausoleum. They brought out their lawn chairs, picnic baskets, nice Chiantis, and as much pot as they could sneak in, and spent the evening enjoying this film under the stars. My girlfriend and I got there early enough to secure a nice spot under a palm tree so we wouldn’t have anything obstructing our view. We enjoyed a peaceful dinner, surrounded by the happiest people you could imagine. Despite being something you do in silence, watching a movie is often best enjoyed as a community experience – good films create a fun energy; great films create a contagious energy.

The Silence of the Lambs is a great film, and once the movie started, it became clear that everyone here loved it as much as I did. We cheered when Clarice appears in the opening training sequence. We booed when Dr. Chilton makes his first appearance. And, of course, we celebrated the arrival of Lecter himself; had we not all been sunken in our lawn chairs, or sitting Indian-style on the grass, we might have given the cannibal hero a standing ovation.

You’d think that seeing a movie in the cemetery with that many people might be a distancing experience, but it was far from it. The projection was top-notch, and I was remarkably engaged. I was really struck by Jonathan Demme’s direction (quite nuanced), and the really awesome set design. I know it has been written about ad nauseum, but Lecter’s cell and the cellblock is one of the best movie sets ever constructed. It feels as if Starling has descended into hell itself, and arrived at the office of Satan. The room has the look and feel of a cell, yet it also feels like a therapist’s office with its hospital lighting. When Starling sits down in front of Lecter for the first time, we quickly realize how powerless and overmatched she is, despite the fact that he’s on the other side of paneled glass.

What also hit me was Ted Levine’s incredible performance. Buffalo Bill is a character that screams for a broad characterization, yet Levine makes Bill remarkably sympathetic. Watching him put on his make-up, sewing his woman suit, and dancing for himself on camera provide such a human counterpoint to the cold monster that mocks the girl in well and coldly instructs, “It puts the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again.” Levine makes us see the humanity inside the monster, which only makes Bill scarier, so when he has Starling trapped in the dark, we’re devastated by the tension.

My 5,000 friends seemed to agree, as they were on the edges of their blankets as the movie reached its chilling climax. And they laughed heartily as Lecter finishes his final phone call with Starling by nonchalantly telling her that he’s “having an old friend for dinner.” It’s a well-earned punchline for a character who is every bit as cheesy as he is creepy.

The Silence of the Lambs is a mesmerizing horror film, even 21 years later, and it was well served Saturday night in a Hollywood cemetery. There is no other place I’d rather see it.

*Most people don’t like to call Silence a “horror” film, preferring the more general genre label, “thriller.” Maybe calling it a horror film makes it seem too genre-specific, and therefore unworthy of the motion picture industry’s biggest prize. Regardless, it will always be a horror film as far as I’m concerned, simply due to the fact that while it has no supernatural elements, it does mine the darkest regions of the human imagination for its story – no different that Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” or Stephen King’s “Misery.” True horror doesn’t have to be about ghosts and creatures of the night, at least it doesn’t have to be about literal ones.

** Cinespia does screenings all summer long. Coming up on May 26 is a screening of Billy Wilder’s classic, Sabrina, and on May 27, Grease. I can already see the people dressed as greasers dancing the night away to “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want.”

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