Amusing the mouth – HANNIBAL Season 1 Episode 2 (Fuller, 2013)

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The episodes in the series Hannibal are named after courses in fine dining. The first season is based on French recipes – the first episode was the Apéritif – like any good pilot episode, it got us in the mood, intrigued us, gave us an appetite and got us just a bit drunk, so that we could enjoy the courses to come. Episode 2 is the amuse-bouche – literally “amusing the mouth”. It is a small hors d’œuvre which both prepares the guest for the meal and offers a pointer into what the chef has planned for the repast.

This episode is full of tasty teasers for the series to come. Unlike Will Graham and Jack Crawford, most of us viewers know that Hannibal is a cannibal – with a potential rhyme like that, how could he resist? To them, he is a distinguished and brilliant psychiatrist who, they hope, can keep Will sane enough to solve their murder mysteries, but Hannibal has his own plans for Will, and we even get just a small hint of Hannibal’s mysterious past, what drives him. We, the Hannibal aficionados from the books and/or films, are aware of the fate of his sister Mischa when they were both little – she was eaten by Nazi deserters. Hannibal may have unknowingly participated in some of the broth. But this is a later Hannibal, a Gen X Hannibal, who has not lived through a war, but has still lost and maybe eaten a sister, apparently. So, although he is not the kind of personality who lives in the past or wallows in regrets, he tells Will

“I feel a staggering amount of obligation. I feel responsibility. I’ve fantasised about scenarios where my actions may have led to a different fate for Abigail Hobbs.”

He’s referring to what happened to her in episode 1, but also to what he has planned for her later in the season. Hannibal, like a good chess player, works out his moves far in advance of the play.

We also get a lot of amusement, amuse-bouche, in that the jokes are about cannibalism. These early episodes are more episodic than later in the series – they are almost self-contained. There is a central crazy, and Hannibal and Will work together and apart to their own ends: Will to catch the perp, Hannibal to “blood” Will, give him a taste for killing. This particular perp is burying his victims as feed for his mushrooms – he loves the way mushrooms network and know who is coming. They seem in fact rather more aware of what’s going on than most of the characters, except Hannibal and perhaps Freddie Lounds.

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Freddie Lounds, tabloid journalist, is looking for a scoop and hopes to trick Hannibal, who is the ultimate trickster, and unlikely to fall for such shallow pranks. We fall for it, though, when Hannibal finds her recording device, tells her off, and speculates on her punishment.

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Next scene we see Hannibal entertaining Jack, serving loin with a cumberland sauce of red fruits. Jack asks about the cut of meat (and so do we). “Pork”, says Hannibal, offering us the double entendre (or amuse-bouche) of the night:

Is the pork long pig? Well, maybe, but it turns out it isn’t Freddie – she’ll be back.

Will is now more willingly accepting Hannibal’s psychological analyses. They discuss, doctor to patient, the key concepts of the series: killing, appetite, and power. Will admits to enjoying killing Garrett Jacob Hobbs (which happened in episode 1).

They have broken the taboo. Shooting bad guys is something we watch on TV from a very young age, act out on the playground, but no one is supposed to admit to enjoying it. Enjoying it is unmentionable, but Hannibal won’t leave it alone there. Why do we enjoy killing? And this is the crux of Hannibal’s philosophy and his power: God loves to kill, and we are made in his image. Maybe.

Hannibal may or may not believe in some sort of God – I tend to think he agrees with Nietzsche that God is dead – but he certainly believes in power. Power to satisfy his hunger, without bothering about conventional morality.

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That is the journey on which he will take Will for the next 37 episodes (and, dare we hope, Season 4 to come?)

 

NEXT WEEK: ELI ROTH’S GREEN INFERNO

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From the sublime to the ridiculous: LOVE BOAT Season 3 episode 13 (Duchowny & Rafkin, 1979)

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Tom Paine said it is only a small step from the sublime to the ridiculous, so it seems fitting to move from last week’s blog, HANNIBAL, one of the most concise studies of the cannibal psychosis of postmodern society, to a glimpse of the bourgeoisie at play, or at least their aspirations of what that might look like. I refer, of course, to LOVE BOAT, a series that ran for an absurdly long nine years and 250 episodes. Aaron Spelling was the producer – he also made Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, Beverley Hills 90210, Charmed and a string of other shows, which always seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the time.

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Why are we watching Love Boat you ask (or wail, while pathetically covering your ears)? Well, there is an interesting cannibal reference in episode 13 of season 3, which went to air on November 24, 1979. The episode has the catchy title of “Not Now, I’m Dying / Eleanor’s Return / Too Young to Love” – there were always a few threads going on at the same time.

Warning: the following theme song is a mind worm and will be running through your head relentlessly during your worst hangovers.

Anyway, getting to the point. One of the main characters on the ship is the Doc (Dr Adam Bricker) played by Bernie Kopell, who also played the KAOS agent Siegfried in Get Smart. On this particular cruise, Lucy, a friend of Doc’s (Barbi Benton), comes on board with her boyfriend Peter (Dack Rambo). She wants a romantic conclusion, a proposal, but Peter keeps on making excuses.

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Eventually, Peter “admits” to having a terminal illness, saying he has Kuru, a disease he spotted on the front of a magazine. Doc calls his bluff, pointing out that Kuru is only contracted by “eating people”. But then Peter drops a pen, can’t hold a book, and Doc realises that he really does have a disease – ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). A sad irony in that Dack Rambo was to die of complications from AIDS only five years after this episode went to air. Barbi Benton, who started off as a Playboy model, is still going strong, as is Bernie Kopell at the time of writing.

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This is interesting not so much for the longevity of the stars but the mention of Kuru. This is a prion disease, a rare, incurable neurodegenerative disorder that was found in the Fore people of Papua New Guinea. Kuru is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, related to the “mad cow” disease that cured people from eating beef for many years and is still tested for when you go to donate blood.

Kuru was first suspected to be related to funerary cannibalism (eating your relatives rather than burying them, to return their life force to the village) after extensive studies by the Australian anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum starting in 1961. Kuru was found to be eight to nine times more prevalent in women and children than in men. Fore men reported that they considered that consuming human flesh would weaken them in times of conflict or battle, while the women and children were allowed to eat the bodies of the deceased, including the brain, where the prion particles were particularly concentrated. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, a virologist, was later awarded a Nobel prize for mapping the transmission of the disease to chimpanzees by transferring into them parts of the brain of an 11-year-old Fore girl who had died of Kuru.

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From a 2010 documentary of Kuru

Kuru is rare and hard to catch (even the Fore people have a high rate of immunity to the disease). It is, however, very popular among people who write about cannibalism on social media, as they think it proves that human cannibalism is a ‘bad thing’ because it can make you ill (although they don’t mention the bovine version, in case that ruins their dinner). The Nobel prize was the cherry on top of the brain tissue theory of cannibalism.

In 1979, the same year this episode of Love Boat was aired, an American anthropologist, William Arens of Stony Brook University, New York, published his book The Man-Eating Myth, in which he challenged the automatic assumption of cannibalism among those dubbed “savages” by the colonial powers of the West. In fact, Arens caused a major uproar in anthropological circles by saying he could find no adequate documentation of cannibalism as custom in any form for any society – it may have happened, but not as a socially sanctioned system. He was more interested in why people are so fascinated by the depiction or suspicion of it (and so am I, hence this blog). As for the Fore, Arens said “the evidence is circumstantial, since Fore cannibalism has never been observed by an outsider”.

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So, did the Fore get Kuru by eating their dead? We’ll never know for sure, but we can be confident, with Doc, that Peter didn’t.

NEXT WEEK: HANNIBAL Season 1 Episode 2

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Very hard to catch: “HANNIBAL” Episode 1 “Apéritif” (Fuller, 2013)

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This is going to be a long blog, because Hannibal (three seasons 2013-15) really was one of the best shows on television, and although I am only covering the first episode here (out of 39 made), this was the pilot and introduced most of the main characters and themes of the whole “Hanniverse.”

The cancellation of the show after three seasons was apparently due to insufficient ratings. The surveys used to determine such decisions consider total numbers of viewers, but not the fervour of the viewing. Judging by the comments on social media (and some very weird stuff on Tumblr), the fans of Hannibal were fervent and avid (Francis Dolarhyde, the “Red Dragon”, who appears in Season 3,  was of course the first to call himself an “avid fan” of Hannibal Lecter). It has since become a cult series, and far more people have seen it on DVD or streaming services than ever watched it on network television.

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Episodic TV when it began was usually static: the main character, whether cop, lawyer or doctor, tended to be the same at the end of the episode, the antagonist dead or defeated. You could pretty much watch any episode in any order. Such was television before video and streaming: if you missed an episode or came in late, it was important that you could quickly work out what was happening, because there was no way to pause or go back. Streaming has opened this up, to the point where now protagonist can change, learn, grow and even die (think Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones). Hannibal is all about growth. And death.

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Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), the famous psychiatrist and infamous cannibal, is an avid fan of growth, evolution and death. Yet the chief protagonist of the series is ostensibly Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who lectures to FBI rookies, and can recreate mental pictures of the murders being investigated. The first episode starts with a gory crime scene (there is some speculation that Francis Dolarhyde, who does not appear until Season 3, may have committed this particular crime). Will stands and watches the police as they take pictures and collect evidence, then closes his eyes. The heartbeat starts, and then the swinging pendulum, that will become familiar as the series progresses; these props allow him to recreate the murders in his mind, with himself in the disturbing role of perp. He looks for patterns that will help him put a motive and a face to the killer. Each step of each murder is accompanied by his mantra: “this is my design”.

Lecturing his students at the FBI academy, Will tells them: “Everyone has thought about killing someone, one way or another”. At the end of the lecture, Jack Crawford, (Laurence Fishburne), head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI, asks him where he sits “on the spectrum”. Looking away, Will tells him:

“My horse is hitched to a post that is closer to Asperger’s and autistic than narcissist and sociopath”.

Will lives in Wolf Trap, Virginia, and rescues and adopts a multitude of stray dogs (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is also headquartered in Virginia, making it a very animal-friendly place). Will’s talent is empathy, and the imagination to see into the thoughts of others, even those whose dark secrets most of us would rather avoid.

This imagination is what Jack Crawford needs. Eight young women have disappeared, but no bodies have been found. When they find the eighth victim, whom Will discovers has been returned to the bed where she was killed, they discover that her liver has been removed, and then replaced. Why would the killer put it back in? The crime scene investigators Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park), Jimmy Price (Scott Thompson) and Brian Zeller (Aaron Abrams) are baffled. Like a Greek chorus, they explicate each mystery, and lay it out for Will to solve.

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Just so, Will figures this one out: they are looking for a cannibal.

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Hannibal Lecter, after whom the series is named, does not even make an appearance until 21 minutes into the first episode. This is the horror genre, so his introduction involves a close-up of his face, which “emphasize(s) its shadows to the point of engulfing it in pitiless darkness” (Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus). Pity, we will discover, is not one of Hannibal’s attributes. He appears to the music of Bach: the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, the music that Anthony Hopkin’s Hannibal requested in Silence of the Lambs, the music that he was playing as he killed and flayed the guards during his escape.

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This new Hannibal is enjoying an exquisitely prepared meal of liver, certainly not a diseased one. He is then shown at work, wearing a perfectly fitted blue three-piece suit, analysing a neurotic patient, and annoyed by the blubbering of this patient, and particularly the snotty tissue he leaves on Hannibal’s perfect side-table. At the end of the session, he is visited by Jack Crawford, who admires his drawings, and compliments him on his academic work. He wants Hannibal to help with the investigation. Hannibal agrees, but it’s a whimsical project (and as Clarice Starling says in the book Hannibal, it’s whimsy that gets him caught). He plays with them – a game of hidden identity .

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Hannibal is the Renaissance man in all aspects – educated, elegant, tasteful. Crawford wants his help with the case, but his brief really is to evaluate Will’s mental stability.

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Will soon realises what is going on: “Jack, whose profile is he working on?” Hannibal is analysing Will. Keeping track of his potential issues. He will use this information later in the season.

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A ninth victim is found in a field, impaled on stag-horns. Velvet from such antlers was found in the wounds of number eight, but possibly was put there as a healing agent, an apology. The police and the gutter press (the gossip paper is now called TattleCrime) start calling the killer the “Minnesota Shrike”, named after a bird that spears its prey on sharp objects and then carries off the flesh for later consumption. Will immediately realises that this is not the work of the same killer.

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The team finds that the victim’s lungs have been removed. In the next scene, Hannibal is preparing, flaming and enjoying a healthy dinner of lungs.

It’s time for Will and Hannibal to go do some FBI investigating (no Supreme Court jokes, please). You may remember that in Bram Stoker’s book, Dracula could never enter a house unless he had been invited. Well, if you don’t remember that, I think Bryan Fuller certainly did:

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Hannibal takes an immediate interest in Will. Later in the series, we will see this develop into something resembling love, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At this stage, Hannibal sees a kindred spirit and wants Will to grow – he wants to (re)create Will in his own image. For Season 1, only we, the audience, know that the image he wants to recreate is that of a serial killer and cannibal. A man of such superior taste and discernment that eating humans is of no more consequence to him than eating a pig. A ‘super-man’, what Nietzsche called an “Übermensch”. He sees that potential in Will:

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The teacup will become a very important plot point later in the show. Hannibal accepts Nietzsche’s “amor fati” (the love of fate) and so is a fatalist, but he also watches Stephen Hawking’s videos and hopes that, if the universe reverses its expansion and time begins to flow backwards, his sister will be resurrected. More on that in a later blog.

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Very few characters in Hannibal or the books or films previous to this series refer to Lecter as anything other than “a monster”. Monsters are supposed to scare us, fill us with dread of the “other” who plans to ambush and devour us alive. The genre owes much of its success to our evolution from the tiny, prototype mammals who lived, hundreds of millions of years ago, in terror of the dominant reptiles. We can go back further; most animals will feel fear when faced with a predator. Fear is a biological necessity, a warning; fear keeps us alive. Monsters are grotesque, horrifying, easily identified. Frankenstein’s creature, Dracula, the Wolfman – these are what monsters should look like.

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But Hannibal is not such a monster. He is a well-respected psychiatrist, a snappy dresser, a renaissance man who loves art, classical music and rare wines. He is also a sophisticated gourmet cook, albeit with a slightly wider range of meats than your average chef. But here’s the main thing about Hannibal – we like him. It’s difficult to like Dracula, or the Wolfman, or the Walking Dead. But it’s hard to dislike Hannibal, and his evident pleasure in his meals only makes us appreciate his skill the more, even as we realise what he’s cooking. He accepts the consequences of his decisions: Hannibal has staged the copycat crime as a mirror image that will lead Will to the killer, and ensure that Will will have to use lethal force, the trauma of which will change him. Change, growth, death. But the serial killer, Garrett Jacob Hobbs, has killed all those girls because he doesn’t have the heart to kill his daughter, for whom he has incestuous feelings (the other taboo that Freud used to lecture us about).

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When Hannibal warns Hobbs that the FBI “know”, Hobbs kills his wife and slits his daughter’s throat, forcing Will to shoot him. Hobbs’ final words to Will are “You see?” Will sees: he sees death, he sees change, he sees the thrill of the chase and of the kill.

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The daughter, Abigail (Kacey Rohl), has been orphaned and almost killed by Hannibal’s ploy. She is collateral damage in Hannibal’s design. Hannibal rarely admits to regret, but he still can take responsibility for this girl, for reasons that will become a little clearer later when he addresses the death of his sister. Will finds Hannibal in Abigail’s hospital room asleep, head bent sideways, clothes crumpled, the devoted parental figure guarding the child.

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The character Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was terrified by his creation.  Similarly, in the foreword to the book upon which the Hannibal series is based, Red Dragon, Thomas Harris considered Hannibal a monster, and was also terrified by him. He described “meeting” his characters as he wrote them:

“I am invisible to my characters when I’m in a room with them and they are deciding their fates with little or no help from me…. Graham and I went on to the Violent Ward and the steel door slammed shut behind us with a terrific noise. Will Graham and I, approaching Dr Lecter’s cell. Graham was tense and I could smell fear on him. I thought Dr Lecter was asleep and I jumped when he recognised Will Graham by scent without opening his eyes. I was enjoying my usual immunity while working, my invisibility to Chilton and Graham and the staff, but I was not comfortable in the presence of Dr Lecter, not sure at all the doctor could not see me.”

Luckily for us, unlike Dr Frankenstein, Harris did not abandon Hannibal to his own devices but gave him brilliance, taste and opportunity. And a massive superiority complex.

Bryan Fuller, the showrunner, reimagined some of the plot and many of the characters. Jack Crawford is now black, Alan Bloom is now Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) and is a kind of love interest for Will, the journalist Freddy Lounds is now Fredricka “Freddie” Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki). Many of the other characters we knew from the books and movies will be reinvented in later episodes with different skin colour, sex or other characteristics.

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Hannibal Lecter himself is quite different, and not just because he is now played by a Danish rather than Welsh actor. Hannibal actually grew more complex and nuanced in each textual rendition of the previous stories. In the book Red Dragon, he was called a psychopath, and Will reported that he had tortured animals as a child, which is a very common marker of that affliction. But by Hannibal Rising, the prequel book and film that explained Hannibal’s history, he is a deeply traumatised child who has witnessed (and perhaps indulged in) the cannibalism of his baby sister. However, his cruel responses are never to non-human animals and never to weaker children – Hannibal picks on the bullies at his orphanage, and his first murder is a vulgar and uncouth butcher who insults his aunt. From that time, he prefers to eat the rude – “free range rude” as he calls them. In the films (most of them) Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal as brilliant but twisted, the crazed jester.

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Mads Mikkelsen prefers his Hannibal to be a fallen angel – the devil himself, first diagnosed by a gypsy in the book Hannibal, but brought to full rendition by Bryan Fuller, Mads and the production crew. Director of Photography James Hawkinson explained how this effect was achieved from this first episode, where Hannibal emerges from the chiaroscuro effects that are so prominent in the show:

“He’s basically Satan hiding in plain sight. He’s right there in front of everybody, but no one is able to see him for what he really is. We determined that he should always be shrouded in a certain amount of darkness because of that.”

The use of darkness continues through the whole series. Consider the scene in Will’s motel room, where Hannibal brings Will a breakfast of sausages and almost certainly turns him into an ‘innocent’ cannibal with their first shared meal. What’s in those sausages? What’s really in any sausage?

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Hannibal brings the darkness into the lives of the other characters as he instructs, feeds or kills them. Hannibal has reversed the Frankenstein story: the talented doctor is now the killer, creating serial killers, super-men and women in his own image. Far from running away from his creations, he devises convoluted ordeals to forge their new personas.

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Satan, if he walked among us, would no doubt ensure he was rich, brilliant, and a connoisseur of all the good things of life, those things that the rules of religious humility would disdain. He would also be incredibly powerful. He would be a super-man, an Übermensch. I’ll get to Nietzsche when we arrive at Season 2. That may be a while. Super-men, like psychopaths, are very hard to catch.

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The first cannibal film was made in Australia? “The Devil’s Playground” (Bindley, 1928)

We tend to think of ‘cannibal films’ as starting with the Italians: Ruggero Deodato’s Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (1977) or, before that, Umberto Lenzi’s Man From Deep River (Italian title Il Paese Del Sesso Selvaggio, 1972). These followed a formula in which civilised Europeans blundered into savage lands (Lenzi’s film was set in Thailand) and are captured by cannibals, tortured, witness terrible atrocities and then escape.

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Chief Trelua, cannibal king, actually a Sydney lifeguard

But cannibals have appeared in movies well before the Italians invented their special exploitation genre. Tarzan films from the early twentieth century showed the lost British Lord living with apes but killing cannibals – they were prima facie cannibals, because they were savages. But they were background noise, they were the predators in the jungle, assumed to be cannibals by trade, but not usually caught in the act (and, in the books, Tarzan’s British aristocratic breeding stops him tasting human flesh, for reasons he can’t quite understand).

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Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan the podiatrist

One of the very first film to show savages as cannibals, before Johnny Weissmüller hit the vines, was actually an Australian film called The Devil’s Playground, written and directed by Victor A. Bindley.

This is the opening card (it’s a silent movie):

Far off the beaten track, in the South Seas, lies a beautiful island – a jewel of the sea. Its waters, abounding in the low grade island pearl shellfish, have brought a few white traders to its shores. The sinister reputation borne by its native population in fetish and cannibal rites, in the past, and the wild doings of some of its present white population, has earned for the island the name of:

“THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND”

 Not to be confused with Fred Schepisi’s 1976 film of the same name, which revolved about quite different appetites.

Bindley’s silent movie was made with a budget of £2,000, not a fortune even in 1926, when production commenced. This required a certain financial prudence: according to Australian Film 1900–1977, scenes were shot on beaches near Sydney (Bilgola) and interiors in the Mosman Town Hall. Natives were played by Sydney lifeguards in
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Painted savages

The villain, however, is a corrupt white man named Bull Morgan who exploits the natives and forces the heroine, Naneena, to marry him, after murdering her brother. Fun fact: Naneena is played by Elsa Jacoby, later a prominent Sydney socialite, philanthropist and opera singer. Meanwhile, the locals are not content to put up with colonialist discourses:

Trelua seeks counsel of the wise man, Malatai!

“Malatai! Our warriors grow fat and lazy under the white-man’s rule, and our men-children are weaklings!

“Our spears would but splinter against the might of the whitemen, for they are as many as the white sands of the sea! Their great men are wise! Let Trelua seek justice in their councils!”

“Your puny words cannot hold me for long, O Malatai! Better to die fighting like men, than like women upon our sleeping mats!”

The natives rise up, but not to rescue Naneena – they are cannibals and cannot be seen to do too much good. She is rescued by an airman, who calls in a British cruiser to quell the native revolt although, before the cannons roar, the cannibal chief kills Bull, proving that no one is all bad.

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The cannibals attack the grog shop!
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The noble hero

The Sydney Morning Herald of 8 February 1930 reported that the film had been banned from export (another first for the director) under the censorship regulations which included blasphemy, indecency, or obscenity, being injurious to morality, or likely to be offensive to the people of the British Empire. It may be that the violence of Bull whipping poor Naneena was a bit over the top for the censors (although she gave him back as good or better than she got), or that the British navy blasting natives with cannons was “offensive to the people of the British Empire”.

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The navy arrives to put down the cannibal mutiny
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Bull whips Naneena!
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Naneena whips Bull!

But the most likely reason for the ban is that showing the corruption of the white traders, who were widely known to be exploiting and corrupting the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, was a bridge too far. Like most cannibal films, it raises the question: who is eating whom?

At any rate, the film was shelved and did not have a public screening until 1966, by which time it was just a historical oddity. It is available in the NSW State Library on VCR, which led me to spend an excruciating two hours there recently. It’s not much of a cannibal film, really, but then it’s not much of a film. Pretty exciting, for a cannibal film blog, to find a very early specimen, especially when it’s home-grown!

Incidentally, the Oxford Apartments in Milwaukee where Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate most of the boys and young men who took his fancy in the 1980s was torn down after his arrest and a playground built, but the locals refused to use it, calling it – you guessed it – the devil’s playground”.

 

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NOT a cannibal movie: “Black Panther” (Coogler, 2018)

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Western culture, and cinema is no exception, has shamelessly used cannibalism as an unexamined accusation against “others” – mainly the black and brown people of lands coveted by imperial powers: Africa, the Pacific, South America and others. The Greeks used it to dehumanise any barbarians who happened to become bothersome, and of course Columbus made some very nice profits when he “discovered” that the Caribs, a tribe he hadn’t met, were man-eaters and needed to be converted, enslaved or exterminated (and the Spanish then did all three, very successfully, to most of South America).

Very early cannibal movies showed stereotyped cannibals, bones in their noses, dancing around a cauldron containing a sorry looking white man, often a man of God.

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This is from a 1928 film called Be My King (Lupino Lane)

Doctor X (Curtiz, 1932) saw the villain going to Africa to learn the secrets of the cannibals.

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Even Bing Crosby and Bob Hope headed off to the “Dark Continent” and almost got eaten.

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Road to Zanzibar (Schertzinger, 1941)

The cannibals’ nationality changed, but the victim, the civilised white man (or sometimes even woman) stayed pretty pale, just being in the wrong (savage) place at the wrong (then) time. Think of Robinson Crusoe (Bunuel 1954)

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The after-party from Robinson Crusoe (Bunuel, 1954)

Robinson Crusoe is one of the classic stories of the savage being tamed by the civilised white man. Crusoe has been shipwrecked on an island. Friday is a cannibal whom Crusoe saves from a rival tribe as he is about to become lunch. Friday is taught to serve the master, and has to promise never again to eat humans.
The civilised Crusoe, incidentally, is described as having been shipwrecked on his way to the area to capture slaves.

Think of the “Cannibal Boom” of the 1970s:

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Man from Deep River (Lenzi, 1972)

The cannibal story likes to pretend that civilisation has eliminated such savagery, but it still fascinates and repels us at the same time. In 2013, the “savages” were at it again in Eli Roth’s Green Inferno (this time white people, just trying to save the jungle, being eaten by crazy Peruvian cannibals).

So this is the image of the intersection of empire and indigenous culture: civilisation and savagism. Uncivilised cannibals are shown as inexplicable antagonists, as amoral as sharks or predatory aliens. Their cannibalism is usually seen as acculturated and therefore distinguishes those cultures as uncivilised and morally inferior to the white (usually male) hero’s culture.

That’s why I was interested to see the take on cannibalism in Black Panther, which is set in the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda, but involves a lot of cultural interchange with an increasingly violent America. Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), a U.S. State Department employee stationed in Wakanda, becomes an ally to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the King of Wakanda. When Ross attempts to speak to the leader of the Jabari tribe — M’Baku (Winston Duke) — he’s told:

“One more word, and I will feed you to my children.”

There it is. There’s the colonialist trope. And here is how Black Panther handles it:

“I am kidding – we are vegetarians.”

So, not a cannibal movie, but a worthwhile flipping of the tired imperialist stereotypes.
It sneaks into this blog because of the cool cannibal joke.

And they’re not really vegetarians, because they are wearing furs and catching fish. Sigh.

Good movie though.

 

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Sex and appetite: “Suddenly, Last Summer” (Mankiewicz, 1959)

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Some movies drip with stars, to the extent that you start to wonder if most of the conflict in the film was about who would get higher billing. Not this one – as well as star power, we have a story of homosexuality and cannibalism, and it’s not totally clear which was more shocking to the audiences of 1959.

As for the stars – we have Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, in a film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, Cleopatra, etc), and loosely adapted from a play by Tennessee Williams. Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay. A veritable galaxy of stars.

The film is about a young woman who has descended into mental illness due to a traumatic experience with cannibalism, the details of which the audience are not shown until the very end. Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) is being evaluated by a psychiatrist, Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), at the insistence of her wealthy New Orleans aunt Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn). Violet suspects there is more to her son Sebastian’s death than she wishes to become public, and offers to finance a new wing for the hospital if they will pressure Dr Cukrowicz to give Catherine a lobotomy (which is what had happened to Tennessee Williams’ sister). Violet hopes thereby to remove the memory of what happened to Sebastian (who is only seen in flashbacks and never front on), while Catherine was travelling with him in Spain “last summer”.

Sebastian has rejected his smothering mother, with whom he has had an almost Oedipal relationship, and instead has been using his cousin Catherine, as he used his mother on earlier trips, to attract young boys, whom he then procures for sex. Sebastian’s appetite changes though – just as he discarded his mother when she got older, now he no longer wants these Spanish boys: he says he is “fed up with the dark ones” and is “famished for blondes”, intending to head to Northern Europe.

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Catherine reflects on her naivety

Catherine in the final scene is given a truth serum by her psychiatrist and finally recalls Sebastian’s death. She remembers that the boys followed Sebastian, calling for bread (pan), and when he refused and ran, they chased him, tore him to pieces and ate his flesh.

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“…there were those children along the beach which was fenced off with wire. Our table was less than a yard away from the wire fence. And those… children… there was a band of them, they looked like a flock of plucked birds and they came darting up to the wire fence as if they’d been blown there by the wind by the hot white wind from the sea. And they were all calling out… Pan Pan Pan.”

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Psychiatry and cinema evolved together and are closely tied, particularly in cannibal films (consider Hannibal Lecter), where madness is sometimes used as a convenient explanation to avoid deeper social analyses. This film brings together complex themes that often were avoided in the 1950s. In the conflict between the rich tourists and the starving children of the seaside village we witness savagery as a response to a colonialist mentality of exploitation, objectification in Sebastian’s use of the boys and of his relatives as sexual objects to bait the boys, voracious appetite and the breakdown of normative morality. Sebastian’s sexual appetite is mirrored in the hunger of the boys he has abused, enjoyed and abandoned.

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“…cousin Sebastian was, he was lying naked on the broken stone… and this you won’t believe…nobody, nobody could believe it… it looked as if they had devoured him…as if they had torn or cut parts of him away with their hands or with knives or with jagged tin cans they made music with. As if they had torn bits of him away and stuffed them in their gobbling mouths.”

Tenessee Williams hated the adaptation of his play. To him, the cannibalism should have been metaphorical, not graphically represented (although it was certainly polite by today’s standards). He wrote:

“I walked out. Sam Spiegel, the producer, gave a private showing of it at a big party, and I just got up and walked out. When you began to see Mrs Venable, and it became so realistic, with the boys chasing up the hill – I thought it was a travesty.”

The New Yorker called the film “a preposterous and monotonous potpourri of incest, homosexuality, psychiatry, and, so help me, cannibalism.”

It’s not totally clear how a film about incest and homosexuality got round the Hollywood “Production Code”, which had strict rules against such immoralities. Critics have opined that Sebastian’s grisly death gave the film a free pass, because, the review board said, it “illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle” and “can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion.” Weirdly, the cannibalism seems to have cancelled out the homosexuality.

Anyway, it was a hit at the box office due to its big stars and scandalous content, earning $6.4 million on release, a tidy sum in those days. Both Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress.

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The film pressed all the buttons of 1959 America: homosexuality, incest and cannibalism. But what happens to the cannibals? The film leaves them on the top of the hill, their mouths stuffed with pieces of Sebastian. Like the angel of death in Violet’s parlour, they have passed judgement on Sebastian’s proclivities and handed him a sentence equally unpardonable (in those days) – to be eaten alive. Presumably they remain there, ignored and hungry until another rich man seeks to sate his appetite by arousing theirs. There is no judgement offered – these cannibals are simply forces of nature, a “flock of plucked birds”. Savages inhabiting our own travel itineraries.

 

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What a dragon it is getting old: RED DRAGON (Ratner, 2002)

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OK, look, I understand. We loved Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991), and we understood when he looked a little, well, worn ten year later when he played the title role in Hannibal (Scott, 2001). It was set some unspecified time after Hannibal’s escape at the end of Silence, and he had had a hard time – he’d had to flee the USA, kill and eat Dr Chilton, settle in Florence, and, worst of all, behave himself and hardly kill anyone there. That can really take a toll on a guy.

But then, nothing succeeds like excess, so Dino De Laurentiis decided he needed another Hannibal movie. OK, how about we see him return to the US and eat his way through a retirement village. No? OK, let’s instead make a prequel, set a bit before Silence, in which Hannibal would logically be much younger but Hopkins will, unavoidably, look much older. Very postmodern, huh?

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The movie Red Dragon (Ratner, 2002) is based on the book of the same name by the brilliant Thomas Harris, the book which birthed Hannibal Lecter in 1982. The book is incredibly rich in insights into the human condition, alienation and the family, the nature of power, the futility of our pretensions of importance in an indifferent universe. Most of the TV series Hannibal (Fuller, 2013-15) is based on this book (and yes, I will start my review of that superb creation soon, in fact as soon as I figure out how to cover 39 episodes without taking all year to do it). Also based on the book of Red Dragon was the terrific movie Manhunter (Mann, 1986) which had everything going for it other than Hopkins, although Brian Cox was a great Lecter, albeit a bit shy of admitting his penchant for cannibalism (it was the eighties).

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Luckily, Anthony Hopkins is a masterful actor and can carry through playing Hannibal a dozen years younger than the same character in his previous movie. But only just. The rest of the cast is also stellar, as you would expect from the reboot of a reboot. The screenplay is by Ted Tally, who also wrote the screenplay for The Silence of the Lambs.

The film starts in Baltimore, where a respectful audience watches and listens to the symphony orchestra’s second flautist pretty much ruin an otherwise masterful performance of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer’s Night Dream. In that audience is Hannibal Lecter, and he does not look pleased. No indeed. Something must be done. Medium to well-done, perhaps. In a sharp suit and a pony-tail, and quoting Horace, Hannibal later entertains the Board members of the Symphony who revel in his hospitality, despite one of their musicians being currently listed as a missing person. When Hannibal is asked by the Chairwoman to confess what is in the amuse-bouche, he replies: “If I tell you:

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He sits at the head of the table, watching them eat. They are “innocent cannibals” – because they know not what they eat. Well, after all, who really does the homework nowadays as to what’s on the dinner plate?

After the innocent cannibals leave, Will Graham (Edward Norton) turns up – he and Lecter have previously worked together on another serial killer investigation – Garret Jacob Hobbs (which won’t mean much unless you’ve watched the first season of the TV series Hannibal (Fuller 2013), a prequel to the prequel). Will and Hannibal have been trying to profile a new serial killer, the Chesapeake Ripper (who is really Lecter of course), and have been looking for some sort of medical expert, a vengeful crazy who know how to “souvenir” body parts from the victims. But that’s not what he’s doing (we assume that it’s a “he”.) Will has worked it out:

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As Lecter goes to get Will’s coat, Will finds on the bookshelf a copy of Larousse Gastronomique – it opens at “sweetbreads” – the recipe for the body parts that were taken from the victims. As the realisation comes to him – Hannibal is the cannibal! – so does Hannibal, with a large knife.

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Will survives, Hannibal is incarcerated in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and the Symphony Chairwoman faints in court when she finds out what (or who) was in the amuse-bouche. The case is sensationalised in The Tattler, a scandal sheet, by sleazy journalist Freddy Lounds (played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). Will retires to the seaside with his son and wife, Molly (a too brief appearance by Mary-Louise Parker of Weeds and West Wing).

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Several years later (according to the card), Will is persuaded to return to pursue a new killer: Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), “The Great Red Dragon” as he calls himself, or “The Tooth Fairy” as the cops call him, since he likes to bite the women victims as he rapes them, after he has killed them and their whole families. Not a cannibal, but certainly a biter. He uses his grandmother’s teeth – it’s all her fault of course, since she raised him in fear and shame and threatened to castrate him when he wet his bed (come home Dr Freud, all is forgiven). He greatly admires Hannibal, and likes to communicate with him about his “becoming” – he believes that “each being that I change makes me more than a man”, and he sees Hannibal as John the Baptist, to his Christ. And Will goes to see Hannibal, walking along the row of cages containing crazies, just as Clarice Starling will do later (in a movie made 11 years earlier).

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Does the set look familiar?

Hannibal tells him that he and Will are just alike – their imagination raises them above all the other “dullards”. And so the chase begins.

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After all the blood has been wiped off the walls, Hannibal writes to Will:

“We live in a primitive time, don’t we Will? Neither savage nor wise. Half measures are the curse of it. Any rational society would either kill me or put me to some use.”

The film ends with Clarice being announced. A nice segue into Silence of the Lambs, a film which had already swept the Oscars a decade before this.

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Reviews were mixed: some critics hated it, some loved it. Of course it made a fortune when it came out, grossing over 200 million dollars. The public was hungry for Hannibal. The fact that the story had already been made as Manhunter in 1986 didn’t bother anyone – it wasn’t Hopkins, and it didn’t focus on Hannibal, and, worst of all, there was no cannibalism. And let us remember that the book Red Dragon, on which both those movies were based, was also the basis for Hannibal the TV series in 2013, and particularly Season 3. There’s more than one Macbeth, and there’s more than one way to make Red Dragon. One critic wrote:

“The only downside to this delectable third course? The regrettable likelihood that Lecter fans will have to make do without dessert.”

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Hannibal Lecter is not real, but the public hunger for Hannibal the Cannibal certainly is. We put up with the “dullards” who put us, and Hannibal, into cages. We dream of sating our often deranged appetites, and we wish we had the power to do so. Hannibal offers us a fantasy of doing that.

 

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