Thursday, April 21, 2011

Closer, please... Closer...

First impressions are very important. They give us cues we file away emotionally, due to their novelty and our unpreparedness, and they are often too strong to be undone by the reasonable conclusions our minds manufacture after the fact.

Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is certainly well-known now as a classic of suspense and horror. A multi-Oscar winner (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay) that made household words out of Thomas Harris’ characters, and reset standards for its genre(s). So even a new viewer coming to it today knows they’re in for some stress.

But when it was freshly released, an audience would have felt trepidation from the start, and perhaps not have recognized all the techniques that were affecting them. We know when we see muted colors and sharp angles we’re not in Happytown, and when the music suggests danger we know how to process that as well, sophisticated as we are. So, how to cut through our knowledge and experience, and give us the proper dread as an appetizer?

The opening credits do this masterfully.

As a graphic designer, the typography in the opening sequence always struck me as oddly chosen. At the time, with Twin Peaks as my reference point for so much of the other culture I was absorbing, I noted what I thought were similarities, and moreorless left the subject behind, pouring my critical attention into the main body of the film. It was probably only on my sixth or seventh viewing that the genius of the opening revealed itself to me.

The first cards appear against a stark scene, black branches against a grey sky.  The black lettering seems to be hiding within it, difficult to discern compared to the usual approach of making the text highly present and visible. The style itself -- thick black letters with a thin white outline -- is already very different from what we’re used to seeing. All caps; a loud, shouting choice.

When we get our first clear view of Clarice Starling, running through an FBI training path, she is immediately confronted by, and dwarfed by, another credit popping up in front of her. And so we are immediately confronted with the tension of the moment, that she is facing unexpected and formidable danger. (It’s amusing to note that this credit belongs to the actor who plays Buffalo Bill.)

These captions are larger than we’re accustomed to as viewers. A film is designed for a large screen; to make the credits in this size of typeface is not the norm. This becomes especially evident as we follow Clarice -- she runs through the woods, essentially pursued by titles that are now stacked three names high, filling up the screen.

And within themselves, each line of text carries its own tension. The white outlines vary in width a bit, as though an inverse drop shadow accompanies them, but the direction of this thickness changes from time to time.

Then there is the letterspacing, the key indication that none of this is mere intuition or accident on the part of the filmmakers. The letters are spaced in a manner that no professional-in-training would ever submit as their homework – too loose, too irregular. The baselines are not consistently maintained, even within single words. The letters sit at slight angles, not parallel with each other.

For an especially illustrative example, look at “ISAAK” -- even a non-designer can see once it’s pointed out that there’s far too much space between the two A’s. Things aren't right here. Our usual comfort is subverted. The movie has just started, and it's already fucking with us.

So, we have a title typeface that is absolutely not to be trusted.

Imagine you’re walking alone, you turn a corner, and there’s an unexpected stranger in front of you. Maybe not that unusual in itself. But this stranger is different. He is large, and somewhat obscured by the dark. His manner of dress is off somehow. His posture is forced and uncomfortable. He is making no attempt to restrain his presence, no reaction to your sudden appearance, he is just standing there, looking at you. Everything about him is a little bit wrong. And he’s standing much too close, with no hint of intention to back away or let you pass.

Maybe there’s nothing really wrong, maybe there’s no danger, but that’s not how you’re going to feel in that moment.

We hear about frighteningly unbalanced people in the news every day, and there aren’t many of us who can say they’ve never been in uncomfortable proximity to a stranger who just gave off that aura of wrongness, who we couldn’t wait to be far away from. We have to make those kinds of judgements about people often, and we ask ourselves afterward if we were just nervously overreacting. Our social programming, our politeness -- our adherence to the expected rules of engagement with others -- are what usually keep us from fleeing these people on first sight, from crossing the street when we see them approaching. We repress our danger instinct.

But what should we do when we’re faced with a person who will not follow those rules in return?

Of course, this happens all the time. And it turns out fine in the end.

Except for those rare occasions when it doesn’t turn out fine at all.

That fear -- someday, I may turn the corner and be faced with the person who won’t step aside, who has been waiting for someone, and I am that someone -- that is the fear that is perfectly captured and distilled and secretly fed back to us within the first five minutes every time we watch The Silence of the Lambs.

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