The Starling Moment

© MGM/Universal

It’s a Starling Moment.

If you ask me what the heroine’s journey is, I think of her. Clarice Starling. Not her male predecessor Will Graham, portrayed by Hugh Dancy, who was such a hit in fandoms and internet forums when the television show Hannibal had its three season run. No, I think of Silence of the Lambs Starling, Hannibal Starling—cool, unemotional, steady, unwavering, uncompromising, intelligent, exacting. Stoic.

The scene is set. The platters arrayed with their silverware, napkins folded, and wine chilling in anticipation of the feast. Candlelight washes the surface of the table. A sizzling pan nearby conjures the familiar smells of a kitchen table—buttery mother sauces, a warm crust of bread. Above this familiar dinner time plateau, Julianne Moore’s face becomes a sheet of ice. We share the same numb shock as Starling—strapped to our seats, unable to move, transfixed.

The camera zooms in, ever so slowly, to Hannibal Lecter’s (Anthony Hopkins) textured and shadowed face as he speaks, the camera cutting to Clarice Starling (Moore), who listens despite her defiance. Then he speaks:

“…would they have you back, you think? The FBI? Those people you despise almost as much as they despise you? Would they give you a medal, Clarice, do you think? Would you have it professionally framed and hang it on your wall to look at and remind you of your courage and incorruptibility? All you would need for that, Clarice, is a mirror.”

This Starling Moment is the real climax of Ridley Scott’s 2001 film, Hannibal, though if you’re not paying attention, you might miss it. It is not encapsulated by any murder, moment of violence, or sexual or romantic capitulation. The moment transcends the struggles of both sex and death—Eros and Thanatos—that often preoccupy our human existence.

Instead, the Starling Moment can be defined as the penultimate stage in the heroine’s journey. It heralds the end and arrives when, at long last, the central heroine recognizes and assumes her own power—whatever power is unique to her. In Starling’s case, it is her courage and integrity, as Lecter explicitly points out. Clarice no longer has space to ignore, hide, or deny the truth. To assume her power, she must recognize herself, or be recognized by another.

This moment has its home in Hannibal, whose vehicle is Clarice Starling, but we find it elsewhere. It is echoed in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), in which the rebellious character of Jen, at first appearing to be no more than an obedient and courteous young girl preparing for marriage, is revealed in stages to be far more than what she appears. Breaking rules and disrespecting her cultural expectations, she spends much of the movie refusing Chow Yun-Fat’s appeals for him to be her teacher, while he declares, “Deep down, you’re good. Even Jade Fox couldn’t corrupt you.” Jen doesn’t need a teacher, but she needs recognition that even in her contrarian attitude she has a “pure heart.” We can find it in The Wizard of Oz, as Dorothy Gale stands before the friends she has led into the Emerald City after her misadventures and tests, and Glinda the Good Witch arrives to announce that “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.” Dorothy’s moment establishes not a power of home, it is dominion over her environment and how she confronts and solves those challenges the foreign environment imposes. Now, she can go anywhere. In V for Vendetta (2005), Natalie Portman portrays Evey Hammond, a woman who is happy to engage in her normal life under strict totalitarian rule, until a rebel named V provides the crucible in which her own power is revealed and recognized through a staged imprisonment. All these heroines come to their Starling Moments in different ways, sometimes with much ceremony and in others with great quiet, they are always the dynamic force behind events, and they alone. Without them, no story worth telling exists.

If we want to understand the heroine’s journey through Clarice Starling, culminating in the dinner scene in Hannibal, we must rewind the disc, back to the beginning.

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The Silence of the Lambs (Orion Pictures)

Our first indication that Clarice Starling is a hero: she’s always the one rescuing Hannibal.

They first meet in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991). We follow fledgling agent Clarice Starling to the institution where Hannibal Lecter is housed as a caged animal, an infamous serial killer known as “Hannibal the Cannibal.”

Journeying to Lecter requires descent. Massive stones surround the inmates, punctuated by steel bars. We can sense, through ominous dripping sounds and ill lit rooms, the claustrophobic nature of this infernal setting. As viewers, we accept this environment without question.

We accept it because we have seen it before. Woman descending to underground spaces is a recurring theme. Starling’s descent to Lecter’s underground dungeon echoes Persephone’s descent to Hades. She passes from one world to another, through the mouth of the Earth itself to confront the god. (A recent retelling of this myth is Alice Sebold’s excellent The Lovely Bones.) But Starling, unlike Persephone, has arrived by consent. She has not come to serve—she has arrived to conquer the Hadean depths.

By her arrival, she rescues Lecter. She does so by granting him the dignity of his profession (psychologist) through their quid pro quo arrangement, in which they exchange information for information—Hannibal Lecter can help her catch a killer, and Starling can help Hannibal recover a lost part of himself.

Their arrangement allows Lecter to ask her questions and she, in return, consents to give honest answers. Though on the surface, The Silence of the Lambs conveys itself as a more straightforward procedural, the film deviates from the limits of its genre as we devour Lecter and Starling’s intense back and forth. Though they’re separated by prison bars, Demme’s direction is genius: extreme close ups give the illusion of being only inches apart. First, Jodie Foster’s earnest face fills the screen, then the camera oscillates back to Anthony Hopkins’s atavistic stare. Their psychological battle dominates The Silence of the Lambs to the point that the main criminal investigation—the FBI’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill—seems irrelevant.

Clarice tells Hannibal about a childhood incident, wherein she tried to save a lamb from slaughter. She did not succeed, and this moment forms the cornerstone of her character.  Her admission—which Hannibal demands—establishes their mutual trust, earned through vulnerability. Starling emerges from the underground unscathed.

As a result, Starling overturns the ancient order of “rule by force” and “might makes right,” which has been the domain of the masculine in eons past. Like the mongoose before the cobra, Starling subdues Hannibal. In return, Hannibal submits his authority, and his heart.

What continues to captivate audiences about The Silence of the Lambs is the tension of sex and death between the main characters. The struggle between Eros and Thanatos is part of the heroine’s journey, and it’s particular to women: Clarice must learn how to navigate a hostile environment surrounded by men.

Traditionally, the heroine learns about her physical being in the underground theater. Various myths explore how she learns the ancient lessons of Eros that’s intimately intertwined with her body and biology. This crudity—and the threats posed to Starling as a female—show up explicitly in the opening scenes of The Silence of the Lambs, when the inmate Miggs flings his semen at her through the bars of his cell. (This becomes an inciting incident that convinces Hannibal to change his mind and agree to speak to Starling, cementing the importance of this act in the narrative.) She’s here to learn how to speak to a criminal, yes, but she’s also here to learn about savage, vulgar, and carnal realities so that she can finally understand the relationship between body and mind, herself and the world, and most of all, between men and women.

Robert Greene’s controversial but seminal work on seduction, The Art of Seduction, explains that this—the submission of man to female power/seduction—has always been the female form of warfare. (While sexuality is often implied, it need not be a guaranteed part of the heroine’s journey.) Female sexuality has always been a frightening force for modern audiences to handle. Underneath Clarice’s apparent innocence in her enforcement of justice, lurks the hungry pagan forces of Aphrodite. Lecter and Starling’s pursuit of one another—his courting, her careful cataloging of his recordings—mirrors the elements of a seduction. Eros is here, hot on the heels of Thanatos.

By the time The Silence of the Lambs ends, this initial part of her journey is over, and she emerges with this knowledge as power. In Hannibal, Lecter will encounter a matured Starling; she will no longer have to descend as she once did when she was a novice. When she meets Lecter next, she will have achieved a greater level of mastery—and will once again rescue him.

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Hannibal (MGM/Universal)

In Hannibal, 10 years after The Silence of the Lambs hit theaters, we are given another setting for Starling’s ongoing journey, with another potent symbol: pigs.

The horrifically disfigured Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), Lecter’s only surviving victim, prepares to take his revenge on Lecter: attacking him with pigs. Trapped in a muddy arena turned pig sty, Lecter looks for once as though he will truly meet his end. Arms lifted and bound to a cross, his face covered by the familiar, sinister mask first seen in The Silence of the Lambs, he is baited and waiting to be eaten alive by pigs. His pant cuffs are rolled up to reveal his feet, exposed for the waiting beasts. (If one remembers the hogs Dorothy Gale so loathed in The Wizard of Oz, there, too, is another heroine’s journey worth recollecting.)

In all fairness, we shouldn’t be rooting for a serial killer. We’ve spent a good deal of time watching Hannibal do reprehensible things to reprehensible people. Why do we care if Verger’s pigs devour Lecter?

Because Clarice Starling cares. Lecter’s value is determined by the esteem in which Starling holds him—as deserving of the same right to life as any lamb led to slaughter.

As Starling enters the fray, so too do we as the audience go with her. Our attention to the moment is absolute. This is their first meeting since The Silence of the Lambs. The reunion is brief, but telling. Starling and Lecter work in perfect tandem. She offers him a knife to cut himself free of the binding. He reveals the location of hidden gunmen to her. They give aid to each other and they do so without hesitation.

In Hannibal, Starling is getting another chance to save the lamb of her youth from the slaughterhouse, and this time around, the lamb is Hannibal himself. Her story comes full circle; as a woman (and heroine) entering her mid-30s, it’s appropriate that she should look on the past and ponder what quests were left undone.

When a shooter hits Starling and interrupts their reunion, Lecter could easily leave Starling for the pigs. It is, in fact, in his best interest to do so, but Starling’s heroic virtue has a contagious element, and Lecter endears himself to the audience by choosing to save her.

Perhaps there are few images so loaded with meaning in the film as when a muzzled Lecter hoists Starling up while standing in a pen of roiling pigs—pigs themselves being ancient fertility symbols in pagan European history, suggesting that here, he is becoming the consort of the goddess. He has prepared himself for her, waited for her to rescue him, made himself vulnerable for her. The image of naked feet recurs in ancient art, from Sumer, to Egypt, to Greece. One can see it in the statuary of the pharaohs, who are all depicted with feet bare. Hannibal’s naked feet send us a numinous message: We are no longer of this earth. We have entered into the divine.

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Hannibal (MGM/Universal)

What follows is a visually arresting sequence, punctuating the next stage in the heroine’s journey.

The director of photography lovingly overlays Starling’s unconscious face beneath the windshield of Lecter’s car, the windshield reflects the trees above her, suggesting that she’s asleep, she’s being transported to another world, to a liminal state. The earthly realm, along with its rules and structures, has dissolved. Clarice has conquered her tests, rose above the obstacles. Now the villain is not her enemy, but her worthy consort. He is serving her and in service to her. To prove it, her brings her the head of her enemy—Paul Krendler, a man who has stalled Starling’s career in favor of politics—on a plate, quite literally. (Much like a house cat who likes to leave “gifts” on the front porch!)

In this crucial passage, as we see the sky and the trees reflected above Starling, we understand that the world itself has turned upside down. The moral order has been inverted. The traditional “good guys”, (the authority of the FBI), have been corrupted; the central villain, Lecter, administers a principal grace the FBI is incapable of demonstrating. Hannibal preserves the dignity of others by maintaining civility, and rewarding honesty. A small thing—but when an authority cannot exceed the small standard of a murderer, we are looking at an upside down world.

This sense of reversal in circumstances is not an unknown concept in mythology. Indeed, it becomes the central event that forms the catalog of humanity’s stories across cultures; we see it embodied in the concept of the Wheel of Fortune which may exalt us to the top of the wheel’s axis one instant, and then throw us down to be trampled at the bottom in the next. This idea of the “wheel” illustrates our fundamental relationship to reversals, and how stories reflect our attempt to understand and navigate these reversals. Famously, we can detect it in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante reaches midlife and finds himself wandering, lost, and the story proceeds from there. This theme crops up in folktales around the world. A person reaches mid-life and discovers that her way of living no longer serves the person she has grown into. Ideas once held in youth no longer apply. We see this played out more explicitly in the lives of others, the cliché of “midlife crisis” in which a person overturns their secure life to go in a radically new direction. For some, the change is internal. More commonly, we become stagnant, suffering under the burden of responsibility.

Starling faces a similar midlife challenges. In Hannibal, we discover she has married and gotten divorced, her career no longer holds the same promise, and the institutions she believed in during her younger years have failed her.

This dissolution and loss of faith is necessary for the Starling moment.

The place Lecter brings her to, the resulting and climactic “last supper,” is grotesque. Blood-curdling and clinical, with a vague nod to the trope of the mad scientist. Beneath our civility, our tools of science, our well placed picture frames, we are only one moment away from our bestial natures—and Dr. Lecter is not in the mood to let us forget it.

Lecter chemically restrains her and takes the liberty of dressing both Starling’s body and her wound. We sense her confusion, her dizziness, her inability to stop the inevitable. Like us, she can only function as an observer. Hannibal has dressed for the occasion, suit and tie in somber tones. Every element of the climactic dinner has been planned and executed with surgical precision.

Hannibal in particular is lavish in its photography—the film stock records every detail, the wrinkles at the corners of Hopkins’ eyes, Moore’s freckles, every pockmark in Ray Liotta’s skin. It is almost too much detail for the viewer to absorb. A bleached-skin Julianne Moore in a stark black dress enhances the noir atmosphere; the gray-tinged Liotta, portraying Krendler, whose skull has been cut open and revealed to the under contrasted light, provides the central horrific spectacle. Anthony Hopkins serves up Ray Liotta’s brains onto the white dishes with the detachment of a surgeon, scientific and pragmatic.

When Lecter “uncaps” Krendler, he is passing Starling the “crown” of the old order. It is the passing of an era, the expiration of the age of man, to a new eon.

As Krendler experiences his death throes through a quiet, tragic mumbling and disassembling of his pre-frontal lobe, he provides the ultimate distraction. This is a rabbit in the hat trick. A misdirection. Our horror to see a person being dissected—an experience so foreign to us as viewers, for we live in a sanitized world scrubbed of physical, bodily harm—is no less than an assault on our visual senses, designed to distract us so when Hannibal speaks the most important line of the film, it sinks into our consciousness with greater power. This is a trick used by con artists, hypnotists, psychiatrists, and in advertising all the time—inserting a soft message beneath a larger distraction. If you thought Hannibal was a horror film, you were wrong. The gore is mere distraction—this is a story about a heroine, not a serial killer.

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Hannibal (MGM/Universal)

It is Clarice’s crowning moment, as Hannibal Lecter turns to her and recognizes her, not as an equal, but as greater than. It is no shock that American audiences did not find much to love with this incarnation in the Hannibal story—the images and symbols are older. They challenge ideas about our current system, our hierarchy, and our class structure, and where women fit—or don’t fit—in these paradigms.

The heroes of ages past slayed dragons, put beasts to bed, and now all the dragons are gone. Woman enters a sanitized world bereft of dangers and quests. What remains left to conquer? Humanity has eschewed the battles of brutality for more civil measures that are typical of societies where the rule of law is held—we do not solve our problems with violence, we solve them with logic. Or so we tell ourselves. Our obstacles are workplace obstacles. Our challenges are dealing with the insufferable, the obstinate, and the corrupt. Like Clarice, we are delayed, suspended, held back. The Minotaur’s labyrinth has been exchanged for a floor of cubicles that terminates in glass ceilings, rather than dead ends. Our problems cannot be solved with the same violence that suited the ancient world.

This is where the Starling Moment holds sway. We can watch it transpire in Hannibal (which makes one wonder if it should not have been better titled Starling.) We recognize it by its central character—a character who is intrinsically all of us, as we endure the unglamorous work and tasks and labors, with all its stops and starts. We recognize her because the source of her power is indivisible—it cannot be separated from her, but is intrinsic to her. Her experience, her integrity, her virtue. For any unique person, it could be all of these things, or different qualities all together—what makes each person’s value and worth in this world is unique to them, to us all.

This is what Hannibal Lecter so poignantly recognizes in the Starling Moment—which could come to us in a myriad of ways as we find our way through life and all its vicissitudes—the alchemical transformation of the soul to its final, illuminated essence: gold.

If only we had understood, our gold was there all along—would it make us great? And I believe the answer for every heroine is: yes, it does.

Hannibal grants us a clue to this final stage of Clarice’s journey. We join Starling overlooking the lake upon Lecter’s flight. Beyond her, fireworks light up the night sky. While we know this is the celebration of Independence Day, it takes on multiple meanings for Starling—who has been freed both by the limitations of her career, her past challenges, by Lecter himself, and by the need for validation from any institution.

The fireworks may as well be celebrating her.