Thursday, October 27, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #7 - Jame Gumb

In his novels featuring Hannibal Lecter, author Thomas Harris subtly makes his cannibalistic psychiatrist less repulsive, even likable at points, by contrasting him against another, more off-putting killer. In The Silence of the Lambs, this is first accomplished with Lecter's neighbor in the asylum, Multiple Miggs - while Lecter may enjoy toying with FBI trainee Clarice Starling, he objects to Miggs' semen-flinging lack of hospitality and punishes him for the offense. Starling is sent to Lecter to help find Buffalo Bill, a serial killer at large who skins his victims; we meet "Bill" as he captures Catherine Martin, a senator's daughter who Starling will spend the book and movie trying to save. We learn that Bill, like Francis Dolarhyde, believes he is in a process of transformation, in his case by creating a "woman suit" out of the skin of his victims. As he instructs Catherine, famously, to put the lotion in the basket, he's repellent for all the reasons that Lecter is attractive - the former is inarticulate, weak and misogynistic, whereas Lecter is erudite, fiercely brilliant and enamored of Starling's feminine power (also, he opts for Bach's "Goldberg Variations" as a soundtrack to murder). Like Dolarhyde and Mason Verger, Bill (real name: Jame Gumb) is in a false process of transformation, whereas Lecter, in a completely dark and twisted way, has become more human than human.

There were complaints and protests by gay and lesbian groups, when Jonathan Demme's film of The Silence of the Lambs was released, that the sack-tucking Jame Gumb represented the same hostile stereotypes about "murderous gays" as Sharon Stone's AC/DC possible killer in Basic Instinct and the self-loathing gay killer in Cruising. But it's important to note, as Lecter does, that Gumb is not truly a transsexual - as Lecter points out, true transgendered people tend to be very nonviolent. Gumb is a psychopath whose abusive upbringing (explicit in the book, implied in the film) has led him to start his woman suit project as a response to his self-loathing and violent animosity towards women. As played by Ted Levine, who is fearless in moments like the now-iconic "Goodbye Horses" scene, he's the perfect monster for Clarice, who throughout the film is struggling to transcend the male gaze, to vanquish. Thanks to Jodie Foster's brilliant performance and Demme's marvelously empathetic direction, Starling is one of the strongest and most compelling female characters in cinema. And considering the horrible abyss her hero's journey leads her to descend into, it makes a perverse sense that one of her most affirmative relationships with a man is with a cannibal who believes in her. And Lecter has far too much taste to name his dog "Precious."

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