Yet another A paper, this one from my 200-level film class. This paper is about duality on the silver screen. As usual, it’s not exactly the most exciting work I’ve done. It is, after all, an academicpaper. As such, it was done in a rushed manner, though not without care and attention to detail. I do wish I had more time to smooth out the transitions and otherwise refine the paper before I submitted it.
Duality in people exists as qualities that are seemingly in opposition of each other. It is far easier to classify people with one label, to categorize them in such a way that is convenient. However, duality is part of the human condition. In both Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, duality is a prominent theme displayed in the main characters.
Clarice Starling is the heroine of The Silence of the Lambs. At the beginning of the film, she is an F.B.I. trainee with great ambition and aspirations. Immediately we see dualism manifest in Starling’s choice of career. In the field of law enforcement, she is a woman in a man’s world. This contrast is highlighted in several key scenes in the film. One such shot places Starling in the middle of a crowded elevator full of men who are all easily taller and stronger than she is. The distinction is further enhanced with the use of color: the men are wearing red shirts in contrast to Starling’s gray sweatshirt.
Starling is portrayed as a strong, smart, and resourceful woman who, through her ambition and bravery, overcomes obstacles that prevent her from reaching her immediate goal: to capture serial killer Buffalo Bill. While the classic depiction of the female image is that of daintiness, demureness, and otherwise one that is softer and more nurturing, Starling exhibits leadership qualities that are not traditionally portrayed in women. Throughout the film, she also shows us that she is a very strong and capable woman who can take care of herself.
One such example of Starling’s strength and leadership is in the funeral scene. All of the police officers seemed resentful of having a woman in their midst (one who means to overtake the investigation using expert knowledge no less). She takes charge by respectfully telling all of the officers to leave so that she and her colleagues can get to work. This is a clear demonstration of Starling’s strength and courage, especially given the male-dominant atmosphere. Demme shows us that she has the gumption to take command of situations where necessary.
This unusual display is offset in the same scene however. When the coroner passes around a small jar of ointment to apply to one’s upper lip, just below the nostrils, Starling shows us that she is not out of touch with her femininity. Out of a feminine sense of modesty, she demurely turns around to apply the ointment. Later, when Starling visits some academics to learn about the origins of the cocoon that was forced into a victim’s throat, she is asked on a date by one of the experts. While she showed no deference to the earlier flirtations of the hospital administrator, she acquiesced to the expert’s advances with feminine charm. As we can see, Clarice Starling exemplifies the duality of masculine strength and power coexisting with feminine demureness.
Another character in the same film exhibits such duality as well. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a brilliant psychiatrist who reached the top of his field. He is well educated and very cultured as can be seen in the way he carries himself. His ability to figure someone out with minimal information is a demonstration of Lecter’s powers of observation and inductive reasoning, a sign of his incredible intellect. He also appreciates courtesy and civility, a trait congruent with his appreciation of the fine arts.
However, beneath his refined poise and respectful manner lies a savage animal capable of killing and eating another human being. In the scene where Lecter escapes captivity, we see that despite his intellect and civilized demeanor, he effects his escape with a great deal of brutality and violence. In the same man who appears to be the civilized epitome of fine living is a terrifyingly violent monster.
One might conclude that this horrific side of Lecter is indicative of an inherent evil that pervades his eve ry move. However, he seems quite capable of controlling his murderous impulses, engaging in them only as he sees fit. Despite Starling’s clear threat to his freedom, he chooses not to hunt her down. The murderous violence that Lecter is capable of seems so wildly visceral and animalistic, yet he demonstrates that he is in control of his actions.
Duality is also prominent in Blue Velvet, perhaps more so than in The Silence of the Lambs. Dualism is seen not only in the characters but in the environment itself. David Lynch portrays protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont as a young man living in two different worlds. Jeffrey begins his journey in the relative safety of the suburban comforts of Lumberton. Lynch paints Lumberton’s safe existence as an idealized fantasy with the overly blue skies serving as a backdrop to the perfect white picket fences and oversaturated red roses. Lumberton is a town where children walk home in safety under the watchful protection of the crossing guard. It is a place where the grass is healthy and green, where firemen pass by happily with huge grins and friendly waves.
Jeffrey transitions from this picture of suburban perfection into the much darker and more dangerous world of criminals like Frank Booth. He becomes exposed to a sexual world intertwined with violence and abuse, a stark contrast to what he is accustomed to. This dark and dangerous world, hidden away from view, is the polar opposite of the surface of Lumberton, yet it exists in the same physical realm of Lumberton.
Accompanying Jeffrey on this descent into the seedy criminal underworld is his counterpart, the young and pretty Sandy Williams. When Jeffrey suggests that they sneak into a woman’s apartment, Sandy balances his enthusiasm with skepticism and a grounded perspective. She represents the voice of reason. She serves as a symbol of purity, as Jeffrey’s anchor in the world of normalcy. Even so, she too succumbs to mystery and goes forward with Jeffrey’s plan, suggesting that even the pure will have their moments of misjudgment and temptation.
Sandy’s pink and white dresses and blonde hair distinguish her from the woman central to the underworld. That woman, Dorothy Vallens, wears deeper and richer colors. Dorothy’s hair is black, and her apartment is couched in plush velvety textures and sumptuous reds. Compared to the virginal Sandy, Dorothy exists as a darkly sexualized female figure. It is she who initiates Jeffrey into a world of sexual perversion and violence.
Before this initiation, Jeffrey himself is relatively innocent. He is confident and silly, making Sandy laugh with his rendition of a ‘chicken walk’. He is, however, bored. Boredom, along with curiosity, serves as a catalyst to his adventure: “There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience,” he says. As soon as he steps into the underworld, his innocence is corrupted. What started as an exciting little mystery in a small town soon turns into a nightmarish trip into a disturbing realm hidden away from public view. He becomes dragged into a world of perversion and sexual deviance. Very rapidly, Dorothy snares Jeffrey and keeps him in a sexual relationship with her. While having sex, she asks Jeffrey to hit her. Although Jeffrey initially finds this repulsive, he does give in when provoked and strikes her. Here, his inherent desire to do good crosses paths with his darker side when he succumbs to the sexual opportunity presented by Dorothy. In this way, Jeffrey is not as different from Frank as we might like to believe. Here we have a person who risks life and limb to save a strange woman, all the while taking advantage of a sexual relationship that is borne from that woman’s dysfunction. It is difficult to reconcile these two sides of a person, making Jeffrey a fine example of dualism.
These two films show us that dualism is an inherent part of human existence. They illustrate that the good and the bad exist together, oftentimes in one person or one place. People are complicated. It is not necessary to flatten one’s character into a single dimension in order to understand them. Rather, one need only to understand that seemingly disparate qualities, be it good and bad or male and female, can exist together to create a complex dynamic in people’s psychology.