Who was the tiger? LIFE OF PI (Ang Lee, 2012)

This is the 2012 film of the 2001 Yann Martel novel of the same name, directed by Ang Lee, who also made Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hulk and Brokeback Mountain. It is the story of a young man named “Pi” Patel, who recounts his life story to a writer. At 16, Pi and his family sail for Canada on board a freighter, carrying the animals from their zoo. They are Hindu vegetarians and have trouble with the French cook, who tells them that the cow and pig he serves up to them were vegetarian (where have we heard that joke before?) The ship encounters a massive storm and sinks. Pi survives the shipwreck and is adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat, with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

WTF sort of name is Richard Parker?

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Well, the name comes from an English court case about cannibalism (yes, you are in the right blog).

Here’s the thing. It’s not easy to survive in a lifeboat at sea. There’s the sun beating down, the risk of being swamped by big waves, danger from sharks and whales, and most difficult of all – no food or water. Drinking water that is. As Coleridge said:

“Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”

The “custom of the sea”, as British sailors used to call it, was that while it was not exactly encouraged, it was acceptable to eat whatever you could find in that situation, including your shipmates, preferably after they had died. But – not always.

In 1884, a small ship called the Mignonette was being sailed to Australia when it hit a big storm and sank. The four crew members survived in a lifeboat, not unlike the one in Life of Pi, for a couple of weeks on two tins of turnips and a turtle they managed to catch. When the 17 year old cabin boy fell into a coma, probably from drinking too much salt water, they slit his throat, drank his blood and ate him. His name was Richard Parker.

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Simpson, A. W. B. (1984), Cannibalism and the Common Law: The Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the Mignonette and the Strange Legal Proceedings to Which It Gave Rise, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29911792

The captain and first mate were tried after their rescue and sentenced to be hanged, but their sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment, and the men ended up serving only six months. The case itself, Regina v. Dudley and Stephens, became an important precedent for the “defence of necessity”.

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It was judged that, while cannibalism might be necessary under the custom of the sea, killing the boy to eat him was still murder, even if it saved the lives of three other men. Monty Python wrote a sketch based on the case:

The tiger, Richard Parker, is clearly named after this cabin boy. By some amazing coincidence, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a novel (his only one) almost fifty years earlier in 1838 called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, in which a character named Richard Parker becomes a victim of cannibalism by the ship’s remaining survivors after a shipwreck.

In the film (I knew we’d get there eventually), Pi escapes onto the lifeboat with a zebra, who breaks his leg in the fall, and an orang-utan. When the tiger, Richard Parker, jumps on the lifeboat, Pi leaps off, and witnesses the ship, with his family, sinking.

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A spotted hyena emerges from under a tarpaulin covering half of the lifeboat and threatens Pi, forcing him to retreat to the end of the boat. The hyena kills the zebra and later the orang-utan. Richard Parker (the tiger) emerges from under the tarpaulin and kills the hyena. It’s the circle of life.

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Pi takes refuge on a raft and comes to an uneasy truce with the tiger, feeding him fish that he manages to catch, overcoming his vegetarian ethics to save a fellow mammal. He answers the question so wearisomely put to most vegans: would you eat meat if you were starving?

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After sailing for some weeks, Pi and the tiger come across a floating island, filled with meerkats, who are very cute and assuage Richard Parker’s hunger. But the island turns out to be carnivorous, with the water turning to acid at night and consuming any animal on the ground. Some critics have interpreted this as mother earth turning against us as we fill the air with greenhouse emissions. At what point will we turn to cannibalism? As Pi finds out:

“Hunger can change everything you ever thought you knew about yourself”.

Reaching the coast of Mexico, Pi is disappointed to see Richard Parker disappear into the jungle without any farewell. Pi is rescued and brought to a hospital, where he tells the story to an insurance agent. The agent does not believe his story, and asks what really happened. Pi then tells an alternative story, in which his mother is the orang-utan, a sailor is the zebra, and the ship’s brutish French cook (played by Gerard Depardieu) the hyena. In this version, the cook kills the sailor and eats his flesh. He also kills Pi’s mother, but then Pi kills him with a knife, and uses his corpse as the cook used the sailor: as food and fish bait. The question of whether vegetarians would be carnivores in extremis is answered: yes they would, and they could be cannibals too.

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The writer recognises the parallels between the two stories, noting that in the second version Pi is actually Richard Parker, unleashing the carnivore/cannibal within each of us. Pi says that it doesn’t matter which story is true, because his family still died either way. He then asks which story the author prefers, and the author chooses the first, to which Pi replies,

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The Los Angeles Times called the film “a masterpiece”. It has grossed over $600 million at the box office, and has a “fresh” score of 87% on the Rotten Tomatoes site. The visuals, particularly the computer graphics, are astounding.

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Pi describes Richard Parker as

“my savage partner who kept me alive”

And the moral of the story, as they used to say in children’s books, is that, depending on the circumstances, we can be the tiger, or we can be the cabin boy. There is a tiger and a cannibal hiding inside each of us, just under the thin tarpaulin of civilisation.

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Taming the tiger, as Pi finds, is quite a trick.

“…power over life and death” HANNIBAL Season 2 Episode 11 “Ko No Mono” (Fuller, 2014)

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“This is my design”.

It’s Will Graham’s favourite line. But he is wrong. Everything that has happened and will happen in the build-up to the giant brawl (of which we saw a preview in episode one) is in fact Hannibal Lecter’s design. Jack and Will think they are playing him (and Will is not too sure), but he is at least a dozen steps ahead of them all the way.

This episode is all about DEATH AND REBIRTH. This is a fundamental theme in most religions: the sacrifice of the innocents, and the rebirth (Moses in the bulrushes, Jesus’ resurrection, the birth-rebirth cycle of Hinduism and Buddhism).

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The episode starts with a birth. The Wendigo (stagman) is watching a creature born from the earth – tearing its way free from the birth membrane and gasping for breath. It is the birth of a new Wendigo, and it is Will Graham. It is his dream.

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Then there is death, and death precedes life, because we kill to eat. For some of us it’s plant based, for others a sentient creature, slaughtered in our name. For Hannibal, it’s all of the above, and always dramatic. Last week was a baby pig, this week it’s a couple of songbirds. This scene is taken from the book Hannibal. He is serving dinner to Will. We see a bird in a glass case; we see wine being poured in. Surely not.

“Among gourmands, the ortolan bunting is considered a rare but debauched delicacy.”

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“Preparation calls for the bird to be drowned alive in Armagnac. It is then roasted and consumed whole in a single mouthful.”

Will points out that ortolans are endangered.

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The tradition in this fearful ceremony is to wear a shroud over the diners’ heads, under which they hide from God.

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Hannibal witnesses Will eat his ortolan, as do we, in extreme close-up.

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Hannibal tells Will that after his first ortolan he was “euphoric”.

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Haha! Good one Will! See you and raise you, in a high stakes game, or so we suspect, and which is confirmed to us later in the episode. Will is (or thinks he is) trapping Hannibal. Yet, as his dream portends, he is not fully in charge of this narrative, and may in fact be turning into his own version of the Wendigo, even as he pretends to be following Hannibal’s tuition, graduating to murder and cannibalism. Hannibal tells him

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His choices are affecting the physical structure of his brain. Killing is changing the way he thinks. Then Hannibal uses some dialogue from Red Dragon, in which Hannibal is encouraging Francis Dolarhyde, (whom we don’t meet in this series, although there is some speculation that he was the killer in Season 1 Episode 1).

“You must understand that blood and breath are only elements undergoing change to fuel your radiance. Just as the source of light is burning.”

The creation of the Wendigo, or the Übermensch, is a chemical process, a “becoming” which requires the destruction, the burning, of lesser beings, just as humans like to believe that the destruction of “lower” animals is required for their continued existence (or so the Verger marketing campaigns tell them). Will can only grow into his destiny by killing and burning people. And such is the impression he hopes to give Hannibal.

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In the book and films of Red Dragon, Freddy Lounds (a male reporter) is glued to Dolarhyde’s grandma’s wheelchair, set alight, and rolled into his parking garage. In this reimagination, we are led to believe that Freddie Lounds has met that fate, after the removal of some meat (her psoas muscles) for the meal Hannibal and Will enjoyed at the end of the previous episode. They continue their metaphysical conversation over her (?) charred corpse, in front of the clueless Jack Crawford. Hannibal observes that the burning was sacred. Will replies:

“Freddie Lounds had to burn. She was fuel.
Fire destroys and it creates. It is mythical.
She won’t rise from the ashes. But her killer will.”

Oh yeah. And we’re not leaving the metaphor there. It’s the circle of life, as Elton keeps reminding us. Life ends in death, death engenders new life. Nietzsche spoke of amor fati – the love of fate, the acceptance that what has happened could not have happened any other way, and will happen again, and again. Bit like Australian politics.

Yet Hannibal continues to hope that somehow his own agency can alter the cycle of eternal recurrence, reverse time and repair the loss, particularly of his sister. He is obsessed with Stephen Hawking’s description of entropy as proof of the “arrow of time” – we “know” that time only flows one way because a shattered teacup does not gather itself back together. Hannibal really likes Hawking’s early theory that, when the universe stops expanding and starts contracting, time will reverse and entropy mend itself; the teacup will mend, Mischa will be whole again, Abigail will be returned to Will. He has something of the sort already planned out, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Apologising to Will for killing Abigail, he says:

“Occasionally I drop a teacup to shatter on the floor. On purpose. I’m not satisfied when it doesn’t gather itself up again. Someday perhaps a cup will come together.”

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Meanwhile, we get to know Mason Verger, and find out why Margot hates him, Hannibal increasingly dislikes him (now he is in his therapy room) and we are going to really detest him. Mason has a cute recipe for cocktails: he likes to make children cry and add their tears to, presumably, gin and vermouth. He’s into orphans, which got him into trouble in his youth.

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Hannibal’s therapy is never pointless. He has been treating Margot; a rather unorthodox therapy in which he encourages her to have a child so that she can inherit the Verger fortune when she kills Mason. Now he drops the hint to Mason: that she may be expecting a child.

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Now, in case we have somehow overlooked the birth, death, rebirth theme, someone (yeah, of course it’s Hannibal) has dug up Freddie and a few other corpses and made a Shiva effigy in the graveyard.

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Shiva is known as “The Destroyer” within the Trimurti, the Hindu trinity, but he is also the God who creates, protects and transforms the universe. Hannibal sees a similar role for himself in the human universe. Not surprising that he likes the Hindu gods, because there can be many of them, and he is hoping Will, or one of his protégés, will become like him. He tells Will that every creative act has its destructive consequences.

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Will tells Alana that the killer of Freddie must have a benefactor, and

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But Will is befuddled over Margot, and her revelation that she used him to get pregnant. Fatherhood was not was he was expecting, but he quite likes the idea. He asks Hannibal if he has ever been a father.

“I was to my sister. She was not my child, but she was my charge. She taught me so much about myself.”

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Now, in the books Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, Mischa was a toddler who was torn from Hannibal’s little arms by Nazi collaborators in WWII and cooked, and Hannibal was given some of the resulting stew, which, we are supposed to swallow, turned him into a cannibal. Well, that is how you become a wendigo apparently. No such revelations in the TV series though. For one thing, this Hannibal is much younger, and was born decades after the Nazis were defeated. We don’t know how old Mischa was in this new universe, or the circumstances of her death and ingestion. Perhaps we’ll find out in Season 4:

#bringbackhannibal

Please?

We do know that Abigail reminded him of Mischa, which means she might have been a bit older than a toddler when eaten. So Will, who is still mighty pissed off about Hannibal killing Abigail and forcing her ear down his throat, asks

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Amor fati.

Will talks of his dreams, in which he is teaching Abigail to fish. And just to confound anyone who claims Hannibal is a psychopath, he says (and this pretty rare)

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So why did you kill Abigail? Will wants to know. You sacrificed her!

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Now Hannibal often quotes God, which bothers many in the audience, including, at this point, Will. What God does Hannibal pray to? Well, he doesn’t pray, we are not awfully surprised to learn. He’s just impressed by disasters, particularly church collapses.

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Will retorts that he prayed to see Abigail again, and Hannibal, who has a sharp wit, points out

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Yes, her ear, barfed up in Will’s kitchen sink. Put up your hand (nobody’s watching) if you laughed at that line! But Hannibal has a plan, which he puts in obscure, metaphysical terms, which don’t much help the terribly practical Will:

“Should the universe contract, should time reverse and teacups come together…”

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Well, he is, supposedly, going to be father to Margot’s baby.

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Mason is now annoying everyone – at his farm, where he is teaching pigs to eat living humans, and in Hannibal’s rooms, where he is boasting of the way his father would stab pigs at the shows, just to see how fat they were.

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Mason arranges a car accident for his sister, followed by a hysterectomy, to remove her temptation to kill him. Without an heir, all the money would go to the Southern Baptist Church. And no one wants that. Except, I guess, the Southern Baptist Church.

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We finally find out the truth about Freddie Loundes’ murder – there wasn’t one. She’s sitting in an FBI office, part of Jack and Will’s plot to entrap Hannibal.

Will is not impressed with Mason’s mutilation of Margot, and the loss of yet another child (he’s keeping count: Abigail, 1; fetus, 2). He punches Mason in the mouth, pulls a gun on him, and tells him that all of them have been pawns in Hannibal’s game.

“Do you think it was Margot’s idea to have an heir?
You think it was your idea to take it from her?
My idea to come here and kill you?
The only thing that you, your sister and I have in common – is the same psychiatrist.”

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Oh, there is a reckoning coming. In two more episodes.

 

“Man’s flesh is delicious” THE LAST CONFESSION OF ALEXANDER PEARCE (Rowland, 2008)

Alexander Pearce was, as far as we know, Australia’s first cannibal. Although the Indigenous people of Australia were regularly accused of cannibalism, the evidence is suspiciously absent, and clearly such accusations were extremely useful in the British colonial campaigns of subjugation and genocide.

But Alexander Pearce was the real thing.

The film is mostly set in Hobart Jail, where Pearce (Irish actor Ciarán McMenamin) is waiting to be hanged, and has requested a priest to hear his confession. Somewhat unwillingly, an Irish priest named Father Philip Connolly (Adrian Dunbar) listens to Pearce’s story.

In 1824, the British penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land was a living hell, where vicious floggings were regular punishments.

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Pearce had been transported to Australia for stealing a pair of shoes, and continuing law-breaking saw him eventually transferred to Sarah Island, which was surrounded by sea on one side and wilderness on the other.

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Eight convicts made their escape, and headed off into the bush with enough food for four days. After eight days, weak with hunger, they start discussing cases where sailors lost at sea have engaged in cannibalism to survive, and realise they will have to do the same. They nominate Dalton the one member of their gang they all hate, a man who volunteered to be the “flogger” and who has whipped all of them. He probably should have kept his day job at Sarah Island.

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Three of the others turned back, but “took their share of Dalton”. Every time they run out of food, another man is killed. They see new potential meat – kangaroos and emus – and vow brotherly love – never to kill another of their own, but then discover how fast kangaroos and emus can run. Soon there are four, then just three, and Pearce realises that he is next, because the other two are friends. Luckily for Pearce, one of them gets bitten by a snake, develops gangrene and well… once more they have brotherly love. The priest is dismissive of such protestations of virtue, and Pearce answers:

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“A Full Belly is prerequisite to all manner of good! Without that, no man will ever know what hunger will make you do.”

Soon there are only two, and neither dares sleep. Pearce wins the game, and the last meal, but is interrupted by a local.

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After three months, Pearce made it, alone, to Jericho, in the centre of Tasmania, over 150km away from Sarah Island. The magistrate sent him back to Sarah Island, because he did not believe the story of cannibalism. He thought it was a cover for his friends, to disguise the fact that they were still at large, bushranging.

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“He’s a thief. He’s a forger. A recalcitrant Irish… but I didn’t credit him with being a savage”.

It was also impossible to hang him for murder, since there were no bodies – a legal benefit of cannibalism.

At Sarah Island, Pearce was viciously flogged and chained to a rock.

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He escaped again, perhaps at the urging of another young convict, whom he killed eight days later, while they still had provisions. He was apparently enraged when he discovered the boy couldn’t swim, a real disadvantage when escaping from an island. Pearce signalled the first passing ship, confessed his actions and showed the authorities the body. So this time, they could hang him.

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“The man’s a monster. He cut that young man in half, and devoured him for meat, and this while he himself still had bread and cheese lining his pockets”.

At the governor’s table, all merrily chewing on some other unfortunate animal, they discuss Pearce’s fate: to be hanged, and his body dissected.

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“Quite an irony, I imagine, a cannibal being dissected… see what breeds such savagery”.

Asked by the governor’s wife why he is giving comfort to Pearce, the priest replies “I do it for fear… Fear of what we all might become, here at the end of the world.”

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Pearce was hanged at the Hobart Jail at 9am on the 19th July 1824.

“whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall that man’s blood be shed, for in his own image, God made human kind.”

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“The world is always easier understood held at a distance with tales of monsters and the like. This is how Alexander is remembered. Not as a man. Yet few truer words have ever been spoken: A full belly is prerequisite to all manner of good. Without that, no man will ever know what hunger will make him do.”

The film was nominated for the 2010 Rose d’Or, Best Drama at the 6th Annual Irish Film and Television Awards, Best Drama at the 2009 Australian Film Institute Awards, won Best Documentary at the 2009 Inside Film Awards and the director Michael James Rowland was nominated in the Best Director (Telemovie) category in the 2009 Australian Directors Guild Awards.

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Pearce is supposed to have said just before his execution:

“Man’s Flesh is Delicious. It Tastes Far Better Than Fish or Pork.”

This line does not appear in the film, and is probably apocryphal.

“It was… intimate” HANNIBAL Season 2 Episode 10 “Naka-Choko” (Fuller, 2014)

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Intimate is the word for this episode. And hey, this is a cannibal blog, so all the sex going on might seem a bit out of scope, but stick with me, it makes sense. It’s all sex and death today. Sigmund Freud would have loved this episode.

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Everything Hannibal does has a purpose – a plan or, as Will would say, a “design”. He is always a dozen steps ahead of the chess game he is playing with Jack Crawford, which explains the huge punch-up that’s going to happen (we saw some of it at the start of episode 1 of this season).

What motivates Hannibal is what motivates us all. When we pad out to the fridge in the middle of the night, or he abducts a rude person on a dark road, we are concerned with two things: appetite and power. We are hungry, and we have the power to open a packet of instant noodles. Hannibal is hungry, and has the power to kill and cook people. Just a matter of opportunity, and belief. This hunger and lust for power is motivated, Hannibal believes (and I’m not going to argue with him, because that would be rude), by death.

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According to anthropologist Ernest Becker, most of us are motivated by a fear of death, and fill our time with convoluted ways to distract us from thinking about it.

Hannibal, and increasingly Will, are fascinated by it. Hannibal is a psychiatrist, so he is very familiar with Freud’s “death drive”. Freud had always assumed that humans are driven by the “pleasure principle” – we like things that make us feel good. Sure, but later, in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, he suggested another drive which, he felt, explained why we revisit unpleasant and traumatic memories, both in dreams and often in our compulsive behaviours. This is the death drive, which is in a way more primal, since life itself comes from the inanimate, and must perforce return there. While the sex-drive pressures us toward extending or prolonging life, the ego-drive pressures us toward death. Death, then, becomes a driving force in our unconscious.

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Will has seen this death drive from the start of the story, was repelled by it, then started to recognise it as personified in Hannibal. Will pictures death as the stag-man, or as @BryanFuller calls him, the Wendigo. The Wendigo is a figure from North American Algonquin folklore. He is a giant cannibal figure, who gathers strength from feeding on human flesh, but the flesh makes him grow larger, and so his appetite can never be satisfied.

The Wendigo bite will infect the victim and turn him into a Wendigo too. Just what Hannibal is hoping to do to Will.

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For much of this season, and at the start of this episode when Will kills the cave-bear dude, he has fantasised the Wendigo – when he pummels the guy, he visualises beating Hannibal.

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When Will cracks the guy’s neck, we see him twisting the Wendigo’s antlers. He is trying, symbolically, to kill both the Wendigo that is Hannibal, and the Wendigo growing inside him.

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Violence brings intimacy for Hannibal and Will. Will points out that they are now even – both have sent someone to try to kill the other. Hannibal tenderly bandages Will’s torn knuckles, raw from the beating he gave – whoever he thinks he was beating. Hannibal mutters:

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Will replies:

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They are not just even now, they are almost equal. Will has tasted blood, he seems to be becoming what Hannibal wants him to become. His vision at the crime scene is not his usual recreation of the crime (since he did it) but, instead, the dead guy telling him: “this is my becoming”

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Will replies:

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There seems to be, finally, a genuine love developing between Hannibal and Will – a Nietzschean love. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spake Zarathustra:

“In your friend, you should possess your best enemy. Your heart should feel closest to him when you oppose him.”

They have been enemies. Now they are ready to be friends, to feel love.

But Bryan Fuller doesn’t let us off that easy. Nothing is ever that straight forward in Hannibal. We suddenly get lots of sex, but it’s not our Übermensch lovers – it’s decidedly heterosexual, and Will and Hannibal are each shown in bed with, respectively, Margot and Alana, who will end up in a lesbian relationship with each other (sorry if that was a spoiler). There’s even an ironic view of Hannibal and Alana doing the pottery scene from Ghost, but with a theremin instead of a wheel.

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The sex is long and graphic, there is lots of groaning and sweating and some ecstatic expressions, but it is all exploitation.

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Hannibal is using Alana as his alibi for his nightly outings, as we will see. Margot Verger wants a male heir so she can kill her brother and still get her inheritance (an idea nurtured by her psychiatrist – one Doctor Lecter).

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Hannibal and Will morph in and out of each other, and at one stage both are in bed with Alana. And, never far away, is the wendigo.

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And we finally get to know Margot’s brother, Mason Verger, who, unlike the 1999 book and 2001 movie of Hannibal, has a face (at the moment). Mason is heir to a hog empire, and is busy breeding a pig that is willing to eat living humans.

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He intimidates Margot with these pigs (not hard as he has had her clothes filled with meat to tempt the porkers). He invites Hannibal, who is not easily intimidated, and knows as much about pigs as Mason:

“A resourceful feeder and an opportunistic omnivore”

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We find out something else too, something which becomes central to the attempts in the later books and movies to find a causality to Hannibal. They discuss Margot, and Mason asks if Hannibal has a sister.

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Mason is impressed with the visit, and Hannibal goes home with a new client and a suckling pig, which he serves to Alana and Will.

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He got the pig, he tells them, from a friend. “A friend of yours. Not a friend of the pig’s” Will comments snarkily. Hannibal’s reply is a veiled threat:

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A fascinating discussion of Will and Hannibal’s relationship follows, complicated by the fact that Alana and Hannibal are both psychiatrists and can’t leave their work at the office. Alana points out that “it’s hard to know where you are with each other.” Will replies that “We know where we are with each other. Shouldn’t that be enough?” Hannibal summarises this triangle as he gazes into his wine glass:

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We’re back to interpreting Hannibal as Satanic. Not my preferred reading, but Fuller hands out no obvious explanations in a plot that is up there with Greek Tragedy.

Anyway. Enough of the sex and exploitation and dead baby pigs. It’s time for the blood bond of the Übermenschen. Hannibal has heard about the Will Graham interviews, and waits, wearing his killing suit, for Freddie Lounds to come home to a nice surprise.

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But Will already has Freddie in his remote shed, where she has found bits of the cave-bear dude. Now it’s time for dinner. We finally get some cannibal talk! Will is apprentice cannibal, Hannibal the master chef. Will says

“I provide the ingredients. You tell me what we should do with them.”

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Now Hannibal gets the rules of the game. “Veal? Pork perhaps?”

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Hannibal offers to make a Peruvian dish called lomo saltado, and hands Will a sharp knife to cut up his meat, a definite gesture of trust, or maybe a tease. Now they are playing with the thin red line between pleasure and pain, eros and death drive.  As they eat, Hannibal analyses the meat: it has notes of citrus. It tastes “frightened”. Will asks “what does frightened taste like?”

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Look up “long pig” – it is widely used as a term for human meat, supposedly coined in the cannibal Pacific islands, and probably a mistranslation. Good enough for Hannibal, though, to know what Will is claiming. They are eating Freddie. Will is claiming he has swapped sides and is the cannibal’s apprentice. He reverses a speech Hannibal makes in Silence of the Lambs, where he chides Clarice for her insistence on trying to find what happened to make him the way he is.

“Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviourism…. You’ve got everyone in moral dignity pants – nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil?”

Will turns it around: he says “I’m not the product of anything”.

 

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Will has, he is claiming, given up good and evil, gone where the universe has taken him. And that is to Hannibal’s dinner table. They discuss the nature of evil – Will says it’s destructive. In that case Hannibal argues (again from the Silence of the Lambs) storms must be evil. And fire, and hail. Or what underwriters call “acts of God”.

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Not gods. Übermenschen.

 

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“I wonder who the real cannibals are” CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (Deodato, 1980)

This movie is a big deal, in cannibal studies.

When you hear terms like “video nasties” or “grindhouse”, Cannibal Holocaust tends to be high on the list of titles mentioned. The film’s violence was extreme in 1980, although it has certainly been exceeded since then, with the “benefit” of CGI special effects. The scenes of death and cannibalism were enough to get the director, Ruggero Deodata, arrested for suspected murder, as he had arranged for the actors to go underground to give the impression that, just maybe, he had gone for the ultimate in cinéma vérité: a snuff movie. Where the film remains at the cutting edge (sorry) of extreme cinema even today was in its presentation of authentic animal cruelty, in the midst of fictional human deaths. For this it was widely condemned, even by those who otherwise enjoyed the film, and it was banned in several countries, including Italy and Australia. The best part of the film is probably Riz Ortolani’s stunning soundtrack. But in the end, I must grudgingly say that Cannibal Holocaust is a film more relevant than ever – because it is a direct indictment of “fake news”.

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At a time when news stories were increasingly becoming sensationalist beat-ups, and the American failure in the Vietnam war was still being blamed on the ubiquitous media coverage of the gruesome results of that conflict, Deodato is asking the question: “what can we believe”? Or, as the protagonist of the film, anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) asks in the last few frames

“I wonder who the real cannibals are?”

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This is the question that every cannibal film or TV show asks, in its own way. Hannibal Lecter denies he is a cannibal in season 3 of Hannibal (I’ll get to it in a couple of months) when he tells a victim, whose leg they are both eating:

“This isn’t cannibalism, Abel. It’s only cannibalism if we’re equals”.

Cannibalism is about power and appetite. Those we accuse of cannibalism, in this case the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, were in all probability never cannibals. The imperialists who came in search of gold, like Columbus, or oil or timber or news footage were the real consumers – of humans who had been transformed into commodities and resources. Cannibal Holocaust asks us to think about what, in the panorama of abuse, death and torture that surrounds us, is real?

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This wasn’t the first Italian cannibal film: that was Man From Deep River. It wasn’t even Deodato’s first cannibal film, which was Last Cannibal World (Ultimo Mondo Cannibale). He had gratuitous animal cruelty in that one too. But Cannibal Holocaust asked new questions about the media in which it was made, about the motivations of the documentary, and about what Deodato himself was doing.

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The film is told from the viewpoint of an anthropologist, Monroe, who is asked to go to the Amazon, to the area frequented by cannibal tribes and known as the “Green Inferno” (a name that spawned a tribute movie 33 years later). His mission is to find out what happened to four young American film-makers who disappeared there without a trace. Well, guess who came to dinner?

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The first half of the film is Monroe negotiating with the locals, watching a rape and murder, helping eat an adulterer, shooting several natives, and finding and recovering the cans of film that have survived the whole sordid adventure. And yes, making friends, but not enjoying dinner with the cannibals.

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The second half of the film purports to show that recovered film, which a television network wants to show uncut to the public to sensationalise their deaths. This part is often referred to as the forerunner of the “found footage” movies that became enormously popular later with Blair Witch Project. In fact, Punishment Park (Watkins, 1971) was probably the first found footage film, claiming that its story of anti-war protesters being dumped (and filmed) in the California desert is actual newsreel. But in that period, what was genuine newsreel footage was on television every night, and showed dead American soldiers, burning Vietnamese civilians, and Kent State University students being gunned down by the National Guard. The difference between real and fake news was becoming opaque, years before the time of Trump (in fact, when he was still busy avoiding the draft). Deodato said he believed a lot of the news reports of Red Brigade terrorism in Italy had been staged for the cameras. In any case, even in unvarnished reporting, the framing of the camera and choice of which shots to use make the concept of real, impartial news unattainable.

 

Who were the cannibals? The ones depicted as real savage cannibals in Cannibal Holocaust were described by Francesca Ciardi, who played Faye, one of the lost American filmmakers, as:

…perhaps the sweetest people I have ever met. The cannibals were just local people. They put wigs on them but in real life they were very clean people: they worked in offices and they wore well-pressed shirts”.

The most controversial legacy of this film is the appalling animal cruelty. Deodato juxtaposes brutal violence on humans (rape, murder, cannibalism) through special effects, while filming live and in gory detail the killing of a coatimundi, a giant turtle, a monkey (whose brains are eaten while still alive), a tarantula, a snake and a pig. When their guide gets bitten by that snake, we get “live action” of them chopping up the snake, then chopping off the man’s leg. The team make sure the camera is rolling before wielding the machete.

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What is he trying to achieve through this collision of fake human and actual animal deaths? Is it simply to try to extend the illusion that, just perhaps, these shaky images were indeed real footage, and the actors were dead? Well that didn’t last past his murder trial, where he had to produce them in the court in order to be exonerated.

Critic and media academic Calum Waddell points out that this movie shows vile and debased behaviour on both sides – the ‘savage’ natives and the ‘civilised’ Westerners. But the Americans are punished for it – they are eventually killed and eaten for their troubles. The natives? A few get shot or burned, but there is no judgement. Waddell calls this a “fascist perspective”, because white people shouldn’t act like this, and so get punished, but the “savages” – well, that’s just the way they are. We can’t expect better of them, and in fact the Americans, when they first land, young, strong and white, are the picture of gung-ho adventurers, seemingly invincible. Then they regress into savagery, as they trek deeper into the green inferno.

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They (the savages) are cannibals by nature, and we (the civilised) risk becoming like them. The civilised whites lose their humanity as they enter the inhuman world of the cannibals, just as American troops in Vietnam lost theirs as they became enmeshed in that jungle war and started to massacre villagers. The film crew set fire to the native village so they can film an imaginary war between tribes. They capture a young girl and rape her just for fun, then film her body, impaled on a stake for losing her virginity.

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Cannibal Holocaust documents the loss of belief in the inevitable progress of humanity, usually told through the invincibility of white privilege.

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The Americans film everything, even their own death at the hands of the infuriated natives. The interlopers act as imperialists always have, but now they get eaten for it.

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To complicate the question of truth or simulation, we are shown a series of clips that the Americans are said to have recorded earlier in their careers, which we are told were staged for the cameras. These were clips of actual executions and abuses that Deodata presents here as fake news, created to be sensationalist newsreels.

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So now we have Deodato playing with our heads: real human executions are presented as fake, while fake rape and killing is presented as real. Real animal abuse, insisted upon by the director, is accompanied by gallons of human gore and agony which we know is fake.  Monroe is told: “Today people want sensationalism.”

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The subtitles did not use spell-checking

Yet the roller-coaster of fact and fake does not really work. Did Deodato really expect people to file out of the cinema (when it was finally shown after years of censorship) scratching their heads and saying “those guys really did get eaten! Damn shame.” The scenes of actual vicious killings of animals seem meant to drive home the point that, just maybe, the deaths of the young Americans are real too. But, as Waddell points out, the coatimundi is killed in the first half, which is unequivocally a fictional presentation (or at best re-enactment) of the expedition to find the lost tapes. So that creature’s death is totally gratuitous.

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Or is it? Deodato seems to be saying: don’t swallow anything you see on screen.

Here’s the thing. Real atrocities go on, but usually in the dark, or behind walls, at least not near any cameras. The Americans catch and chop us a giant turtle who continues to move as his head is removed and he is disembowelled.

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We can be squeamish at the death of that beautiful turtle – Faye is filmed throwing up as they chop the animal’s head off, but then we see her biting into the cooked meat soon afterwards.

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The turtle died totally unnecessarily for the sake of a cheap movie shot. We can also be sickened by the scenes of rapes and murders of humans, which are fake, but look pretty real. But every moment, as we reach for the remote and gratefully turn off the movie, real atrocities are continuing everywhere, in wars and domestic abuse and abattoirs and laboratories. Real animals quiver in their death throes, millions of them every second, while we turn our faces away from the dying turtle. We are not filming those abuses, but very often we are paying for them, through our taxes or our shopping. Like Faye, the cruelty repels and nauseates us, but the appetite makes us forget. This film, perhaps, helps us to remember.

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Typhoid and swans: HANNIBAL Season 2 Episode 9: “Shiizakana” (Fuller, 2014)

Will is dreaming about killing Hannibal, tying him to a tree (the way Hannibal kills Dortlich, one of the men who ate his sister, in the book Hannibal). Instead of a horse, the show uses a stag, and instead of Dortlich, we see Hannibal, and then Stagman.

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Hannibal (in Will’s dream, remember) refuses to denounce himself as a monster

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He wants to talk about how we know another person:

“No one can be fully aware of another human being unless we love them. By that love, we see potential in our beloved. Through that love, we allow our beloved to see their potential. Expressing that love, our beloved’s potential comes true.”

He’s not talking Alana here. The love theme between Will and Hannibal that dominates the third season has started, within Will’s subconscious. The stag pulls the rope tied around Hannibal’s neck until

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Hannibal, meanwhile, is making dinner for Jack: Sacromonte omelette with liver and sweetbreads. He explains that he spent some happy days in Granada as a young man (I wonder if his Cervantes is as good as his Dante?)

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He doesn’t explain where his liver and sweetbreads are usually sourced from. Jack should know – Will told him all about it in episode 6: “You and I probably sipped wine while swallowing the people to whom we were trying to give justice”. But Jack’s a professional, and if he is worried about the provenance of the sweetbreads, he manages to give every indication of thoroughly enjoying his meal.

This episode’s killer is a beast that tears people to pieces, but doesn’t eat any of them, which makes him fairly irrelevant from the POV of a cannibal blog. Of course, it turns out to be a human in animal costume with mechanical cave-bear jaws, and of course he turns out to be a former patient of Hannibal’s. Is there any crazy SOB that this man hasn’t treated?

Then again, Hannibal’s treatment is far from orthodox. He is pleased to see Will express regret at letting Hannibal stop him from killing the dude in the stable last episode. He tells Will that

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But Hannibal considers that his choices are usually made for a good reason, so there is no real point to regret. He wants Will to adapt. Will mutters:

“Adapt. Evolve. Become.”

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We go into extreme close up. “Adapt, evolve, become” is the mantra of the Übermensch. Hannibal believes Will can adapt, evolve, become like him – a superior being to whom killing of ordinary people is no more regrettable than killing a fly. Killing Hobbes, and thinking he had killed Hannibal, gave Will a quiet sense

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And as Chilton told us, also in episode 6

“He is attracted to medical and psychological fields because they offer power over man. Cannibalism is an act of dominance”.

The power to kill. The power to eat. The power of what Derrida called “carnivorous virility” that defines humanity and its subjugation of nature.

We finally meet Margot Verger, in Hannibal’s office, complaining about the inhumanity of her brother. If carnivorous virility defines our humanity, and he is master of a cattle and hog killing enterprise, how can she dehumanise him like that?

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The FBI now think that the cave-bear is actually a dude who has trained a bear or wolf to attack first “livestock” (hate that word) and now humans. “Bigger prey” says Will. Hannibal, dressed in the only hat worth wearing in Baltimore, suggests:

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The dude is Randall Tier (Mark O’Brien) and he is preparing his mechanical jaws for the next date; we then see him tearing a couple of young lovers to pieces. Will does his pendulum thing and re-enacts the scene in his mind, but this time he is not just the killer – he is killer as stagman. He is evolving into Hannibal.

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Will says that the killing is not by an animal, and is not personal. The killer just wants to maul. To hunt.

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The people Hannibal kills for their livers and sweetbreads – they’re not personal either, although some admittedly are rude.

This episode sheds a lot of light on Hannibal’s philosophy of becoming and his search to find or develop (another) Nietzschean Übermensch. In Red Dragon, Francis Dolarhyde is becoming the Dragon (and will do so again in Season 3 of this series). In Silence of the Lambs, Jame Gumb is becoming a woman, or so he hopes, by skinning women and making a suit.

Hannibal tells Will:

“The way any animal thinks depends on limitations of mind and body. If we learn our limitations too soon, We never learn our power.”

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He tells Jack “Animals are far more like humans than we ever realised. And humans are far more like animals”.

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And he tells Randall (straight out of his words to Dolarhyde in Red Dragon):

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Hannibal, as exponent of becoming, believes he is Nietzsche’s Übermensch and wants to recruit others to this higher self. This really is the ultimate in anthropocentrism – putting humans on a different plane to other animals. But Hannibal is not a speciesist, because he does not consider most humans to be truly human. They are just means toward achieving the goal – becoming the higher self. He tells Randall:

“You bore screams like a sculptor bears dust from the beaten stone.”

This is the heart of Hannibal’s cannibalism: the slow-witted masses are simply raw materials to be used by the artist, who is becoming something greater, a higher self. Randall killing people, Will killing people, Margot killing people: these are all steps to their becoming.

Will asks Hannibal in his therapy session what he thinks about when he thinks about killing. The answer is crucial to understanding Hannibal and his philosophy (it is taken from Hannibal’s conversation with Clarice in Silence of the Lambs).

Hannibal: I think about God

Will: Good and evil?

Hannibal: Good and evil has nothing to do with God. I collect church collapses. Did you see the recent one in Sicily? The façade fell on 65 grandmothers during a special mass. Was that evil? Was that God? If he’s up there, he just loves it.

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“I know that babies taste best”: SNOWPIERCER (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)

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Verschlimmbesserung: a word I found in the Urban Dictionary. It means an attempted improvement, which just makes things worse.

How can we make the frightening prospects of global catastrophe due to climate change even worse? Well, apparently the best way is to come up with a half-arsed way of fixing it. In Snowpiercer, a corporation has come up with a substance, CW-7, which is sprayed into the atmosphere to deflect the sun’s rays and cool the planet. It succeeds brilliantly:

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The only humans left alive are on a train, the SNOWPIERCER, which dashes through the snow, circumnavigating the earth once a year. The grateful survivors form a happy band of brothers who work together to survive.

Just kidding!

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There is, as in all human society, a strict hierarchy of power and privilege. It’s the year 2031. The rich, including the train’s inventor Wilford (Ed Harris) live in luxury at the front of the train, the “scum” live at the back in squalor, beaten and tormented by armed soldiers and fed a mysterious protein bar made of what?

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There is revolution brewing though, led by Curtis (Chris Evans, in a far meatier role than Captain America ever offered him).

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There’s a lot to like in this movie – the plot is interesting, the action plentiful, the cast are stellar (including also John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Song Kang Ho, and Tilda Swinton, as well as Paul Lazar, who played a nerdy scientist in Silence of the Lambs) and the photography, particularly of the frozen world and the train, is superb.

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Bong Joon-ho is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. Metacritic has ranked him one of the 25 best film directors of the 21st century, and he recently became the first Korean director to win the top prize at Cannes – the Palme d’Or, for his new film Parasite, which also explores class and social divisions. The film between Snowpiercer and Parasite was Okja, an animated piece that was also nominated for a Palme d’Or but was voted down, perhaps because it was released on Netflix. Okja crossed the anthropocentric line of privilege, featuring cruelty to a giant pig specially bred for human consumption (like so many animals today) and the horrors she faces in the slaughterhouse.

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Snowpiercer also explores some fascinating ethical issues to do with leadership, biopolitics, class privilege, revolution, violence, the Holocaust, our reliance on technology and yes, finally, cannibalism.

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Wilford explains to Curtis: “You’ve seen what people do without leadership.”

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Look, this is a pretty recent movie and got a woeful cinematic release, so you may still be planning to see it. Therefore, I won’t disclose the ending. But you need to know the cannibalism angle, because you are, after all, reading this blog on cannibal films and TV shows.

There are hints in the first half of the film, discussions about the number of arms people have, and then more food references as they march their prisoner Mason (Tilda Swinton), who previously lectured them on their place at the bottom of society, through the front cars. First they go through a greenhouse, then an aquarium, and we hear Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a tribute (one hopes) to Silence of the Lambs.  At the front of the aquarium, ecological balance is maintained by eating the fish twice a year as sushi. They sit down for this elite meal, but make their captive eat the protein bars that are the only food given to the “scum”.

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Curtis and his dwindling band of fighters go through a butchery, then a school, where the children are taught that tail-enders

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And that we, the pre-trainers,

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There are dentists, tailors, hairdressers, a fancy dining-car, an aquatic centre, a disco, a drug lounge – all the things that make up decadent, modern society.

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We are socially and culturally determined in large part by what we eat. The food is always better in first or business class. The higher classes eat beautifully prepared, gourmet tidbits. The lower classes, the starving and the deranged eat what they are given, or what they can hunt.

Just before the showdown, Curtis reveals what it was like when they first boarded the train: “A thousand people in an iron box. No food, no water.”

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“There was a woman. She was hiding with her baby. And some men with knives came. They killed her and they took her baby.”

Then an old man took the knife and cut off his own arm, offering them that as food, to save the baby. Then others started doing the same. Sacrificing to the cannibals to save the next generation. Then the rich started sending through protein bars. And we thought they were going to be the cannibals!

Things Curtis hates about himself:

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Well, there’s a lot more to the story, and a lot more to like, but you can find out by watching the movie. It’s worth it.

Here’s the trailer:

 

IF YOU LIKE MY BLOG, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO RECOMMEND IT (WITH DISCRETION) TO FRIENDS ON SOCIAL MEDIA.
IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS, YOU CAN USE THE TAG, OR EMAIL ME ON CANNIBALSTUDIES@GMAIL.COM.