Euro-cannibalism – it has style. “Caníbal” (Cuenca, 2013)

Carlos (Antonio de la Torre) is the most prestigious tailor in Granada (Spain), but he has a secret life as a serial killer. He captures women – in the opening scene he causes a car crash – and he takes his victims to his remote mountain cabin where he slices them up for their meat. The butchery is discreet: we hear the chopper descend and see a trickle of blood dripping off the marble slab. But compared to most cannibal films, it’s pretty polite.

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No pretence of an explanation is given for the act of cannibalism, although it is done in so ceremonious a fashion that some reviewers have speculated that it represents a form of transubstantiation: the body and blood of the women is, for him, the body and blood of communion. Carlos is a respected church goer, and the priest has him repairing sacred fabrics. He attends church, where we hear about the blood and body of Christ.

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Carlos seems to feels no guilt about this hobby, slicing his expensive woollen suit fabrics as precisely and dispassionately as he gathers his meat, and he is a man of precise habits, reading nothing but tailoring texts and eating nothing but a fillet of meat with a nice glass of vino tinto. His prey seems to be exclusively women: he kills men, but then seems to lose interest in their carcasses. Could this be his form of love or erotic attraction? Or is it a deeper psychoanalytic condition where women are blamed for the woes of the world (check out the book of Genesis) or seen as more “animal” because they breed and bleed? Or is it a comment on the modern meat industry, which uses female animals for their reproductive output (milk, eggs, etc) then turns them into meat when they are worn out?

His routine is interrupted when a beautiful but noisy immigrant from Romania appears in his life and peeks into his fridge, commenting on his apparently paleo diet. The last we see of her, she is getting into his car. Later, her much more demure twin sister arrives looking for her (both are played by Olimpia Melinte), and she awakens in Carlos something akin to love. She speculates that he had once had a girlfriend who hurt him badly. She asks him if he likes girls. “I like girls” he replies. Probably not in quite the way she meant though.

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What happens when you fall in love with your next meal?

Some have suggested that Manuel Martín Cuenca, the director, could have edited out at least half an hour of nothing happening, but then you tend to hear that while shuffling out of the screening of most European movies. I thought the movie was beautifully made and quite engrossing, as we watch the dispassionate killer gradually make a connection, begin to see the face of the other. Cuenca himself asked: “If the devil fell in love and if through love he understands the feeling of compassion, what would happen?”

Caníbal got only a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (the review website) but, on the other hand, Variety wrote:

Sumptuously shot in carefully composed long takes, Caníbal puts every scene in perfect aesthetic balance – the scenery and colours all harmonise, whether a snow covered mountain, a neat tailor’s shop or a naked body being hacked up. The film firmly keeps its butchery off-screen and, given its glacial pace and lack of overt sensationalism, it definitely ranks as a niche item — and a rarefied one, at that. But sophisticated arthouse audiences might eat it up.

Another reviewer said “this feels like a short film stretched out to two hours”. I disagree, but at least you have been warned.

The important difference here from most cannibal films is that there is no real attempt to understand why Carlos eats women. They are just his preferred meat. Cuenca says:

“Carlos could be your dad or husband or friend. Carlos eating female flesh every night at the table with his utensils and civilised manners is each and every one of us every evening.”

 

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A “Swift” Response to the embarrassing problem of caged children

From today’s The Guardian:

First Dog on the Moon

The “Modest Proposal” (or “humble suggestion”) refers to Jonathan Swift’s 1729 satirical pamphlet:

A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick

I think it says it all.

 

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Highway cannibalism: “The Road”, (Hillcoat, 2009)

Cormac McCarthy wrote his chilling book The Road in 2006 and won the Pulitzer Prize for it. I remember reading it at the time, and it was a very disturbing experience. Diving into the book was like one of those dreams where you walk out of the sunshine into a cold, dark and ominous environment. It left me both sorry and relieved to finish it. The sense of loss and wasted opportunity left a deep impression for weeks after reading it, maybe forever. The film captured some of this deep sense of menace and loss, but to a much lesser extent. Roger Ebert and many other reviewers praised the film, at the same time pointing out that it was not as powerful as the book. The Guardian reviewer summed the film up as intensifying the poignancy while deflecting the horror, and some of the more graphic examples of cannibalism are skipped in the film, particularly the finding of an infant’s corpse, all prepared for consumption by his desperate parents. But perhaps it’s an unfair comparison: experiencing a book through one’s own imagination is never really comparable to seeing the interpretation of the actors and director.

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So: what’s it about? Well, it’s post-apocalyptic. A great catastrophe has wiped out most life on earth, including most of the forests that we rely on for the very air that we breathe. The earth is dying; the voice-over tells us “No animals have survived, and all the crops are long gone”. We are never told what happened: there is a flash and there are two characters: man and boy. They are given no names beyond those.

“Cannibalism is the great fear”

The earth is stripped of life, the survivors of their names and their humanity. Armed gangs roam the highways, killing and eating anyone they can find. When the man shoots a member of a cannibal gang who encounters them on the road, he is left with only one bullet in his gun. It will be for the boy, if it should ever come to the point where the only choice is to kill him or let him be eaten. When they come across a big house, they find a number of people locked in the basement – kept for future meals. When the cannibals arrive, they hide in the bathroom, and the man gets the gun ready at the boy’s head.

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There is a lovely scene where they find a survivalist shelter and spend a few days eating as much as they want, and even bathing – feeling clean is an almost forgotten luxury. But there is a pervasive sense of dread, of a world spiralling down into total extinction. Viggo Mortensen from Lord of the Rings plays the nameless man, cold, dirty and desperate, Strider who will never become Aragorn. The mother is played by Charlize Theron in a lamentably brief appearance, and Robert Duvall makes an appearance as a nearly blind old fellow somehow surviving in a time with no hope. The man teaches the boy a stripped down deontological ethic – there are “good guys” and “bad guys”, and the good guys are “carrying the fire”. They also don’t eat people. It is a final grasp at a humanism which failed humanity and failed the planet.

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The impact of The Road comes from its feasibility. We know that we will probably not meet a psychopathic psychiatrist or even hairdresser, we don’t go to fly-over towns where the local abattoir workers have gone feral, we certainly don’t charter Uruguayan military planes to fly us across the Andes. But the threat of some sort of apocalypse confronts us from the front pages of the papers every day, in stories of natural disasters, nuclear wars, pandemics and environmental collapses. Human history is replete with examples of disasters followed by social collapse and cannibalism. The Road takes this scenario into our own time. We see the J-curves of human population matched by the same graph of species extinctions and carbon emissions, and we are forced to think – if the worse happens, what, or whom, will we eat?

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Autocannibalism – you Reddit here first

This is not a movie review – they come out on Sundays.

So this is from Reddit, which is a social news aggregation, web content rating and discussion website. People post under pseudonyms, and then win points for how many people like the post. This means that stuff sometimes is, let us say, exaggerated. Reddit has over 200 million users. Which still doesn’t mean the stories are true.

However, nothing is guaranteed true in this world, not even promises to denuclearise, which you might think everyone would want to happen. Therefore: I’m giving this story the benefit of the doubt, and if it isn’t true, the dude went to a lot of trouble, so he deserves an up vote just for all the hard work.

Come on. If this was on a cooking blog, you wouldn’t even blink.

This guy, who calls himself Incrediblyshinyshart, served his friends tacos, made from his own amputated leg. He reported to Vice that he was involved in an accident a couple of years ago – a car hit his bike, and his foot was shattered to the point that he would never walk on it again. When the doctor asked if he wanted to amputate, his one question was, “Can I keep it?”

To make a long leg story short, he invited ten of his most closest friends to a special brunch. They ate apple strudel, they drank gin lemonade punches and mimosas. And then he served fajita tacos made from Shiny’s severed human limb.

The foot was not going to be fixed.

The full process is described in the June 12 on-line edition of Vice, and I don’t intend to repeat it all here. There were a number of pictures, some quite grizzly, which were not included in the article, but they did conveniently put in a link if you really want to go there. I don’t recommend it, but then I also avoid the meat section at the supermarket.

The article emphasised that what he did was in no sense illegal. Cannibalism can often be linked to murder (thank you Dr Lecter) or at least interference with a corpse, both of which are legally frowned upon. But this was his own body part, and did not involve a corpse – he is very much alive and kicking. [Sorry – Reddit is full of much worse puns]. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell makes it clear that, in the USA, there are no laws against cannibalism per se.

Why am I not surprised at the t-shirt caption?

The bit I was most interested in was: what did he taste like? His answer is quite comprehensive:

“People think it tastes like pork because in movies we hear it called “long pig.” But that term originated in places like Papua New Guinea, where they eat wild boar. They’re not eating our big, fat, domesticated pigs that have white meat. Boars don’t have white meat. They just don’t…. I think it’s more akin to that. This particular cut was super beefy. It had a very pronounced, beefy flavor to it. The muscle I cut was tough and chewy. It tasted good, but the experience wasn’t the best.”

The Reddit entry by Shiny is here.

Enjoy.

The future is cannibal: “The Time Machine” (Pal, 1960)

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HG Wells wrote his ground-breaking novella The Time Machine in 1895, and George Pal’s movie of it, made in 1960, kept to that timeline, with of course a detour some 800,000 years into the future. The film was fairly sensational at the time of its release and won an Oscar for best special effects for the time-lapse images, particularly the disintegrating corpse (we’ll get to it). It took some liberties with several aspects of the story for the purpose of fitting a lot of science and a lot of fiction into under 100 minutes of film, but was generally true to the social commentary of the book, particularly the division of humanity into the effete intellectuals and the menacing workers. To this, the Director, George Pal, added a sixties flavour that was quite prescient for a work made in the first year of that decade, particularly a strong antiwar theme, including a horror of nuclear conflagration and resulting environmental devastation, which occupied a large part of the public imagination in the Cold War years.

Why is the Time Traveller interested in time travel?

“I don’t much care for the time I was born into. It seems people aren’t dying fast enough these days. They call upon science to invent new, more efficient weapons to depopulate the earth.”

Freud said that the two most profound taboos are incest and cannibalism, and he traced their origins, as linked events, to Darwin’s primal hordes and the murder and consumption of the father who was monopolising the women. Anyway, fast forward (very fast) to the year 802701 and incest seems to have had a revival (insofar as everyone looks the same) while cannibalism, somehow, is still frowned upon. Or rather it has gone underground.

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The Time Traveller meets the humans of the future, the Eloi, who look like a bunch of beautiful but listless hippies, even though hippies did not exist for a few years after the film was made. A separate race of humans known as Morlocks live underground, shunning the daylight and any kind of fire. In their deep caverns, they have dark, satanic mills and chop up the Eloi, who are clothed and fed by the industrious Morlocks and then “harvested” at maturity. This is why there are no old Eloi, although there don’t seem to be any babies either, which makes the sustainability of the cannibal diet a little tricky.

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But wait, are the Morlocks cannibals? To be a cannibal, you really need to eat the flesh of someone of your own species, and it seems unlikely that the Eloi and Morlocks are even related, having evolved into different niches centuries earlier. The Time Traveller, known only as George, is shown some “rings” (a form of data disks which require no energy except for a quick twirl with finger and thumb) which reveal that a 326 year war destroyed the environment, causing the human race to retreat underground. Some remained in the infernal depths as white-eyed demons, preying on the innocent, while those who got the subterranean homesick blues eventually returned to the surface when it cooled down. There they continued to be fed and clothed by the Morlocks, but when the factory whistle goes, they march glassy-eyed into the factory – as raw materials.

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The Morlocks are dressed in baggy skin and flabby paunches and have bulging eyes and long, shaggy white hair. In fact, they look more like decrepit twenty-first century boomer hippies than the Eloi ever did. They are also no match for George who has his fists and his matches. There is also a love interest – Weena, (Yvette Mimieux), an Eloi girl whom George saves from drowning, since the Eloi can’t really see the problem if she does. He accuses her of being a child, then hopes to take her home with him on the Time Machine, a nice precursor to Lolita, which was filmed two years later. In 1895, in contrast, George has only male friends, and his off-sider is the Scotsman David Filby, played by Alan Young, who went on to be the side-kick of a horse in Mister Ed for many years.

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All right, there are some very silly things in this movie, and leading the list is the fact that the Eloi all speak perfect twentieth century English. Considering we can barely understand Chaucerian English from 600 years ago, it seems a bit odd to be able to converse with the locals straight off the boat, as it were, some 801,000 years into the future. In the book, the TT has to learn the Eloi language, but there’s no time for such nonsense in a 90 minute movie, unless it’s a European art-house film. Then there is the time machine stopping in 1966, just in time for nuclear war to break out, giving the film only six years before proving itself wrong.

There is a Robinson Crusoe feel to this film – although the planet seems quite heavily populated by young pretty hippies and old decrepit cannibal hippies, George is the only civilised patriarchal figure there, shouting at the Eloi and setting fire to the Morlocks as he sees fit. His first encounter with the Morlocks involves seeing – yep, a footprint. Lots of footprints, showing where the Morlocks have absconded with the time machine. We know the year; we don’t know whether it’s  Friday though.

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Anyway, George gets down and dirty into the underground, beats up some Morlocks, and sets the place on fire. He also fires up the Eloi who reclaim their power and beat up a few Morlocks too. Their totally vegan diet apparently has not left them, as George rudely claimed, “living vegetables”. His judgement of the Morlocks though is more severe: they had:

“… degenerated into the lowest form of human life: cannibalism!”

He gets his machine back and flees into the future, after killing a Morlock, who decomposes in time lapse mode, a scene that was quite the talk of the audience at the time.

But really, George. They have a system that works. His plan appears to be to return to 802701, impose regime change, and “free” the Eloi from the mouths of the Morlocks to build a new world. But of course the Eloi have no idea how to grow their food or make their clothes. With George as absolute monarch, they may learn. Or might they splinter into cliques, as humans always do, and soon go back to eating and wearing each other?

Filby, back in 1900, realises that George wouldn’t go off to build a civilisation without a plan. He figures out that he has gone back to the future and has taken just three books with him. Which books? No one knows.

Which books, Filby asks with a twinkle, would you have taken?

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Maybe Janice Poon’s cookbook?

 

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Revenge is (sweet) meat: “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (Burton, 2007)

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Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, made in 2007, seeks explanations, rationalisations and even justifications for the depicted crimes of murder, cannibalism and various pure food offences. This version of the 19th century pot-boiler is a star vehicle and also a musical, a most unlikely format for a ‘slasher’ film. It is an adaptation of the Sondheim stage musical, in which Todd is an honest man wronged by a corrupt power establishment: Judge Turpin (the late, great Alan Rickman) has falsely convicted him and transported him to the colonies so that he, the judge, can abduct Todd’s wife, Lucy. Todd meets Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who tells him Lucy was raped by Turpin and committed suicide, leaving their daughter a ward of the wicked judge, who now lusts for the young girl. In the twenty-first century, Sweeney Todd is not the entrepreneur that he was in earlier versions of the story, but the wronged anti-hero, and the forces of the law and government demonstrate the unregulated libidinism that previously characterised Todd. His plans to trap the judge thwarted, Todd wreaks revenge on all males (females being fortunate not to need barbers) with his cutthroat razors.

The abjection is constant, starting with the opening credits where we see streams of blood, mincemeat, pies going into ovens and more blood flowing into the sewer. The 2007 Todd is an artist: Depp’s portrayal is almost balletic in his use of the razor to slice each throat, and the viewer is treated each time to fountains of arterial blood. There is no polite avoidance of the cannibal question in this film: Todd and Lovett share a song where they speculate on the gastronomic features of different professions (she recommends priests). Todd puts this discussion in a social context:

“The history of the world, my love, is those below serving those up above! How gratifying for once to know, that those above will serve those down below!”

Despite this class-based comment, they agree to forgo the alterity that their working class roots would demand: “We’ll not discriminate great from small… we’ll serve anyone… and to anyone”. The reification of any adult male that comes into the shop arises not from Todd but from Lovett: he wishes only to waste everyone, to revenge himself on a society that has betrayed and (he believes) killed all those he held dear. She argues that this would be wasteful: “With the price of meat what it is, when you get it, if you get it; good, you got it!”

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Todd and Lovett never seem to eat their abject products; the pies being hugely financially successful they can, like the ruling class in Soylent Green, afford better fare. In fact, Lovett is presented as the psychopath in this version. She suggests the pie-making scheme despite her abjection at her rival’s use of local cats, and then, despite the young apprentice Toby’s clear devotion to her, locks him in the cellar with the corpses when he discovers the truth, and goes to fetch the murderous Todd. She is coldly rational like Hannibal Lecter, does no killing herself, and is in fact a perfect reflection of free trade capitalism, adding value to the raw materials that come her way. Todd is persuaded: the crunching sounds outside are “man devouring man my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?”

Todd almost kills his own daughter, who is disguised as a boy, finally kills the wicked Judge Turpin,  unknowingly kills his wife who is alive but insane, then throws Lovett into her own furnace when he discovers that she could have told him the truth. He once again kills for revenge, while Lovett dies not for her evil schemes but because she hoped to win his love. It is up to Toby, the innocent cannibal (he just loved Mrs Lovett’s pies), to slit Todd’s throat and thereby restore the social balance.

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Todd kills and dies because there are no legal recourses for injustice in Burton’s universe. Although he is a ruthless killer, the audience of the 2007 Todd is clearly invited to identify and sympathise with the anti-hero, much as we did the previous decade with Hannibal Lecter. Todd is a killer, but ordinary folks like us who jostle to get a table and eat one of Mrs Lovett’s delicious and very affordable pies are the real cannibals.

Sweeney Todd 2007 eating pies

Sweeney Todd received three Oscar nominations at the 80th Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role for Depp, Best Achievement in Costume Design, and Best Achievement in Art Direction, which it won.

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I feel pretty? “Dumplings” 餃子 (Chan, 2004)

“Do you dare to be pretty and young forever?”

Dumplings, (Chinese: 餃子) directed by Fruit Chan, was expanded from a short segment in the horror compilation, Three… Extremes.

Mrs Li, a former actress, wants to regain her youthful looks and her husband’s passion. She seeks the help of Aunt Mei, a local chef. Mei cooks her some special dumplings which, she says, initiate rejuvenation. Mrs Li sneaks a look as they are being made and discovers the main ingredient: Mei tells her that unborn fetuses imported from an abortion clinic are the secret to reversing ageing.  Mrs Li’s husband finds out what’s going on and wants a taste – it all goes downhill from there.

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In all good arguments, the premises must be opposed, otherwise there is nothing to argue about. So, in the abortion debate, one side starts with the premise that a fetus is human, the other that it is only potentially human. Both agree on the unspoken premise that human life (if it is human) is sacred, which is pretty rich in a world where, according to the UN, some twenty thousand children die every day of starvation or diseases caused by malnutrition. Anyway, this movie does not really take sides in that debate, although if the fetuses are not human then that kind of ruins this as a cannibal movie. So let’s pretend for 91 minutes.

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Eating children as an elixir of life or an aphrodisiac is not exactly a new idea. Probably the most famous case is Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian noblewoman who was perhaps the world’s most prolific serial killer, well before the term was invented – she was accused of torturing and killing hundreds of young women and girls between 1585 and 1609. Drinking blood, or the claim that she bathed in the blood of virgins (almost certainly a beat-up) was supposed to keep her young. Pavel Novotny made a doco about her in 2014 – 400 Years of the Bloody Countess – but I am not granting her true cannibal status (it’s about flesh, Liz), so you’re on your own with that one.

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If you’re not enamoured of dumplings, you may never eat one again after watching this. One reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes said:

  1. Do not watch it when you are eating. 2. Do not watch it when you are pregnant. And as someone who watched it whilst both pregnant and eating, my third piece of advice would be to NEVER do the two together.

However. I liked this movie, and I admit it gave me an appetite, but then I am very partial to Chinese dumplings. It is beautifully filmed, and it raises some important questions about how far people are willing to go in the quest for eternal youth. Why go under the knife if a simple Chinese feed can do the trick?

Young and pretty

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