A reader sent in the following email after a twitter exchange between Ryan and me:
I’m always intrigued by your take on socially-aware filmgoing vs. needlessly tearing a film apart to create controversy.
You tweeted earlier about how critics would react to The Silence of the Lambs today. As a gay horror buff, I have a queasy relationship with this movie. It’s an amazing, frightening piece of filmmaking. Jodie Foster is amazing. Hopkins is hammy, but amazing in his hamminess. I own the DVD (and the VHS).
What always trips me up though is every time I see Buffalo Bill’s lair, with the disco decor and his both explicitly stated and implicitly coded homosexuality, I can just feel gay men in the 90’s getting the shit beaten out of them. This was about the extent of representation gay men had in mainstream cinema. I want compelling gay villains, and James Gumb is that, but he’s also morally one-dimensional– merely a sadistic psychopath who wants to fuck himself. He feels like a George Bush Sr. era wet dream about filthy, despicable gay men.
I dunno. How do you think film representation intersects with violence against minorities? Do you think it does at all? What’s the best way to love a movie without dismissing its problems?
If you don’t have time to answer this, no worries. But I just respect your opinion and figured I’d give it a shot. I struggle with this question all the time as I attempt to be a wise movie geek.
My original tweet was something like “Silence of the Lambs would never pass muster today because of the serial killer character.” What I meant was – it’s such a strange narrative turn in an otherwise tightly wound film that the mass of yelp-like film critics would have pounced on that kind of oddity in a film. How many interpreted the tweet, including Ryan, was that the politically correct police would have protested its depiction of a gay character. While that’s probably true, that wasn’t my initial intent in my tweet, the reason being, I have never thought of Silence of the Lambs as a film that contains a negative gay stereotype.
But that said, back then it was routine to lampoon gay characters and if it took a major protest about Silence of the Lambs to bring awareness to that? More power to the people and the movement. What I resent is people getting the film wrong and creating falsehoods.
Before I talk about Silence of the Lambs and then The Imitation Game I want to say that it’s a bummer when a movie you love watched now reveals negative stereotypes or slurs. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one example. I was watching Breaking Away and there was a gay character in the bowling alley acting very effeminate and saying something like “hey, you wanna roll some balls?” The humor came out of feeling uncomfortable being around an out gay man. It would take years for this stereotype to end (and in some ways it hasn’t) and if Silence of the Lambs was part of that, I’m sure Jonathan Demme wouldn’t mind.
I have always felt it was a mischaracterization of both the character and the film. Jonathan Demme has said Jonathan Demme has said he regrets “that I didn’t find ways to emphasize the fact that Gumb wasn’t gay… We didn’t fortify and clarify that enough.” He was right. What I resent is the suggestion that the Academy “ignored” those protests and gave the film Best Picture.
There are a few things to know at the outset about Jaime Gumb – he isn’t gay.
He hunts and kills women, for starters. Even if you don’t know anything about serial killers, the film states it for the record: “serial killers tend to hunt within their own ethnic groups.” We know that with serial killers that isn’t exclusively true – Jeffrey Dahmer was a white serial killer who killed black men. What we do know about them though? They almost always kill the gender they are oriented towards.
Jaime Gumb is based loosely on Ed Gein. Ed Gein killed middle aged women. He kept their body parts in jars in his home. No one knew much about his sexuality except that he liked to occasionally dress up in the skin from his victims. Ed Gein was not gay. Neither is Jaime Gumb.
The film shows two versions of Jaime Gumb. It shows the the “straight acting” guy who appears to Clarice Starling:
I think all would agree that he’s not lampooned or flamboyant here.
And it shows the scenes of Gumb dressing up as a woman. As everyone knows, trans does not equate with being gay but Gumb is not trans either — as Clarice Starling clarifies:
There’s no correlation between transsexualism and violence.
– Transsexuals are very passive.
Hannibal: Billy is not a real transsexual. But he thinks he is. He tries to be. He’s tried to be a lot of things, I expect.
Clarice: You said that I was very close to the way we would catch him. What did you mean? There are three centres for transsexual surgery: Johns Hopkins, the University of Minnesota and Columbus Medical Centre. I wouldn’t be surprised if Billy had applied for sex reassignment at all of them and been rejected.
Clarice: On what basis would they reject him? Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence. Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.
The script references Jaime Gumb’s first victim as a Benjamin Raspail whose head was found in the bottle. He killed a man but first dressed him up as a woman. Raspail – NOT A TRANS but gay:
Hannibal: His real name is Benjamin Raspail, a former patient of mine, whose romantic attachments ran to, shall we say, the exotic. I did not kill him, merely tucked him away very much as I found him, after he’d missed three appointments.
Clarice: If you didn’t kill him, then who did, sir?
Hannibal: Who can say? Best thing for him, really. His therapy was going nowhere.
Clarice: His dress, make-up…Raspail was a transvestite?
Hannibal: In life? Oh, no. Garden-variety manic-depressive. Tedious, very tedious. I now just think of him as a kind of experiment. A fledgling killer’s first effort at transformation.
Later, Hannibal tells the senator that Raspail and Gumb were “lovers” and that is the only reference in the entire screenplay to his potential orientation. But the thing is, Hannibal is lying in that scene as is later discovered – he lies all of the time. We don’t know what is true and what isn’t.
What we do know: He hunts and kills women. He may have killed men but his preference is for women.
I don’t expect everyone to know as much about serial killers as I do. And I don’t expect people to have watched Silence of the Lambs as many times as I have and know the script inside and out. But if you do the work you will find that it wasn’t intended to be a gay stereotype but rather a clumsily drawn serial killer’s efforts at transformation.
I am not here to tell you how you should feel about a certain film and how it scares you or offends you. That isn’t for me to say. Nor can I defend against hoards of dumbass idiots who see Silence of the Lambs and then go out and persecute young gay men. What I do know is that persecution and gay bashing existed before Silence of the Lambs and exists today.
What I do know is that there is a fine line between censorship in art for politically correct reasons that will eventually, if it hasn’t already, suffocate the life out of art. Negative stereotypes do exist. But when richly drawn characters like in the film The Help or a sociopathic female in Gone Girl are picked apart because they don’t correct all of society’s problems in one film? I think it goes too far. Way way too far and it isn’t fair for the tiny handful of films that get made about minorities to be roundly attacked by everyone for either not being “right” enough (The Help) or being too right (The Butler, Fruitvale Station). It would be one thing if we were talking about TV but we’re talking about film and HARDLY ANY FILMS GET MADE AT ALL that aren’t sequels or films aimed at families or superhero movies.
And that brings me to Alan Turning in The Imitation Game. Here we have a superb film about a gay British mathematics genius who changed the world. He was chemically castrated and threatened with imprisonment for being gay. Many believe that we have personal computers because of Turing. He is played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch alongside a stellar cast. Here is a film that DOES as politically correct rules demand – it paints him a good light. He is not “flaming” – he is doing good work for the world, work that is, frankly, MORE important than whose dick he’s sucking. And yet, now the complaint is that the film whitewashes his sexuality — which, I’m sorry, is ludicrous.
Are we still stuck in a time when a film showing sex between two men couldn’t win Best Picture? Probably. Are old straight white dudes in the Academy still uncomfortable with homosexuality on screen? Probably. Is it worth destroying and writing off the film because it doesn’t bravely depict that? I don’t think so but that isn’t really for me to say.
I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with the kind of nitpicking I see going on that attempt to destroy films that are at least trying to do some good to move an idea forward or show us something we haven’t seen before or cast diverse characters. When Frozen came out it was positively revolutionary that a princess could emerge without a man saving her. What follows was a cavalcade of social justice bloggers whining about how she was white and pretty and thin and that there were not black characters in the film, etc.
You know no one is more concerned with equality in Hollywood, and it’s an embarrassment that so many films continue to be dominated by white characters, but Frozen was trying to break new ground on a mass scale. And that is what The Imitation Game is doing. It’s bringing a hero – one who was shamed into suicide, for godsakes, into the mainstream. For a film with a leading gay character to win Best Picture at all is a miracle, my friends. It has, in fact, happened once in 87 years and that was Midnight Cowboy. A Beautiful Mind should have been that movie but they covered up his bisexuality and/or his homosexuality.
So I say celebrate and encourage works like these. Don’t obliterate them. All we’ll have left are stories about straight white men because those are unassailable.
As for Silence of the Lambs, I do hope it is rescued from false imprisonment by the gay community and forgiven its flaw of not making it clear enough that Jaime Gumb was NOT GAY and at the same time appreciated for opening up a dialogue for lots of people to finally get the point that if he had been gay portraying him that way would be considered a slur.
I don’t want to live in a world of sanitized characters. I want there to be the kind of freedom that we had in the 1970s. I don’t want the life to be choked out of art — I don’t want politically correct fascism. Negative stereotyping is lazy storytelling and should always be called out. But please, let’s help teach the youngers that the end goal isn’t to lie about the colorful array of the human condition. We come in all types – good, bad, ugly, beautiful, rich, poor, angry, happy, mean, nice – I don’t know about you but I don’t want all of the women in film to be “strong” supporting characters standing behind men who have the luxury of appearing imperfect or complex on screen.