Oh oh oh just realized that this pair includes wolves AND sheep… it seems much less incongruous now! *insert joke about wolf in sheep’s clothing here*…. If wolves are dancing, the lambs are probably sensible to stay silent, y’know?
Dances With Wolves (Best Picture, 1990)
I’m sure there are entire volumes analyzing the portrayals of Pawnee, Lakota Sioux, and US settlers in DANCES WITH WOLVES. That’s not what I want to talk about here.
I’m intrigued by the mood of the film. In any study of 19th-century America, the concept of “manifest destiny” plays a hefty role. This is the general idea that white America was destined to expand over the continent, from coast to coast, “civilizing and taming the frontier, and spreading the doctrine of republican democracy. The term was coined by journalist John O’Sullivan, who wrote:
And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.
The entirety of DANCES WITH WOLVES is tinged with a nostalgia that seems to me to be only mildly romanticized, though I admit that my knowledge of North American history is not great. I suppose it’s possible that someone like Dunbar (Kevin Costner) would be able to make friends with a wary Sioux tribe and eventually become one of them. I suppose it’s possible that he’d become such a celebrity by sighting a buffalo herd. I honestly don’t know how historically plausible this story is. But to me it seems the film neither caricatures nor patronizes to any great extent, for what that’s worth.
The mood of the film is nostalgic for a frontier that is already starting to fade away in Dunbar’s time (1860s). Dunbar himself says he requested the posting because he “always wanted” to see the frontier before it vanished. DANCES WITH WOLVES is permeated by the knowledge on all sides that the land is in transition. The frontier will be conquered and settled by whites. The native peoples will be forced further and further afield from the lands and traditions of their ancestors. Maybe it’s that the whole thing is colored by hindsight.
For a film about the past, we get remarkably little information about the past of the main character, John Dunbar. For all we know, his life begins at the moment he’s brought into a Civil War battlefield hospital to have his foot amputated. His attempt at suicide-by-battle (he rides solo across the field directly at the Confederate forces) instead makes him an inadvertent hero, able to choose his posting of choice. We know nothing about his life before that day.
Unrelatedly, I wonder how hard it is to get a trained wolf for a film.
The Silence of the Lambs (Best Picture, 1991)
The Best Picture Project has included several films for which I have felt little enthusiasm (THE FRENCH CONNECTION comes to mind). SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, however, is the first that I have actively dreaded watching. I strongly dislike suspense, and I’d much prefer to keep thinking of Anthony Hopkins as the nice bookstore owner from 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD. Great movie, by the way. You should go see it.
Turns out my compulsion to complete sets is stronger than my fear of this film, so here goes.
It may seem surprising to those who know me that I’m so apprehensive about this film, given my strong interest in shows like CSI and CRIMINAL MINDS. Indeed, CRIMINAL MINDS is a logical progression from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The characters in CRIMINAL MINDS frequently reference the earlier FBI Behavioral Sciences/Behavior Analysis effort to interview known and incarcerated serial killers, psychopaths, and sociopaths. CM characters Joe Rossi and Jason Gideon are supposed to have participated in that project.
What’s unclear from the film is just why a trainee agent is sent to interview a serial killer as infamous as Lecter in the first place. If his interview is so vital to the project, why entrust it to an untried trainee who isn’t even a full agent yet?
One of the things that makes Lecter so scary is quite similar to the reason Voldemort in the HARRY POTTER series is so scary. It’s the fact that impassive, cool calm can be so much more frightening than rage. Lecter is calm, courteous, and rarely changes his facial expression away from a polite mask. It occurs to me that much of his character is about masks – his rarely-varying facial expression, his demeanor of calm cool, and of course the infamous mask restraint of green plastic and metal wire. Interesting trivia — the prop and costume designers of the HARRY POTTER movies intentionally designed the Death Eater masks with Hannibal Lecter’s mask in mind. The designs on them might be inspired by Maori warrior tattoos, but the shapes and mouth grilles are Lecter all the way.
Funnier trivia: Martha Stewart was recently the Not My Job guest on the NPR quiz show “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” Before the quiz began, host Peter Sagal asked her to confirm a few things from her Wikipedia page. She confirmed that she briefly dated Anthony Hopkins, back in the day, but had to break it off because she couldn’t stop seeing him as Hannibal Lecter.
I’m going to go do something mindlessly happy in the spring sunshine now.
Next Up: Unforgiven (Best Picture, 1992) and Schindler’s List (Best Picture, 1993)