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.

We are all Nietzschean fish: HANNIBAL Season 2 Episode 8 “Su-zakana” (Fuller, 2014)

When Jacques Derrida pointed out that the binary of inside/outside is “the matrix of all possible opposition”, he was apparently not referring to this episode of Hannibal, not even to cannibalism particularly. But he was big on deconstructing binary oppositions, and his opinion that the core binary, the binary to end (or start) all binaries, is that between inside and outside, is particularly apposite to this episode.

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Will and Jack are fishing through a hole in the frozen ice of a river, but the prey they are planning to capture is not piscine – it’s Hannibal. Yes, Jack finally got the message; they are no longer discussing whether Hannibal is the Ripper, now it’s about the tactics that might entrap him. They are outside of Hannibal’s world of gourmet human flesh, and their way through it is via his table. Live bait, to lure a predator.

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IMHO this is one of the key episodes of the series, smack in its middle (although who knew that the blinkered, Philistine network would cancel after three seasons?), and it features the line that for me is the core of the whole Hannibal mythology:

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One of Nietzsche’s most quoted aphorisms is “That which does not kill me makes me stronger” and that, for Hannibal, is precisely the role of a true friend. One should be, to a friend, “an arrow and a longing for the Übermensch” (the superman). This is to what Hannibal was referring when he said that the struggles with Will (including, of course, his attempted murder of Hannibal) would change them – that they were “all Nietzschean fish”.

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Will has brought along a wild-caught trout, from his icy rendezvous with Jack. Hannibal has prepared it as truite saumonee au bleu, and the trout seems to be regurgitating his own tail.

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You thought “turducken” was some brilliant 21st century idea? Nup. The Tudors were doing it in the 16th century, and it was called “engastration” meaning “stuffed up the gastric passages”. Their specialities included pie from a whole turkey stuffed with a goose, who was stuffed with a chicken, then a partridge, which was stuffed with a pigeon. This poor trout has his own tail in his mouth, but he is the very totem of cannibalism: humans eating humans; we eat ourselves.

They dine to the Piano Concerto 1 in C Major by Ludwig Van Beethoven, or at least that is what we, the audience get to consume, while they enjoy the fish and the banter. Will is being a smartarse, implying that he still suspects, or knows, that Hannibal is the cannibal, and implying he might be joining up with him.

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Jack is quick to dispel the idea that they might have doubts about Hannibal, but alludes instead to:

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Hannibal is ready for that. He has a whole Nietzschean weltanschauung to share with his admiring friends:

“We need to move past apologies and forgiveness. We will absorb this experience.”

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This could have almost come out of Thus spake Zarathustra, in which “man is overcome and the concept Übermensch becomes the greatest reality”. Hannibal, as we know, spends his time helping the region’s many serial killers and tormented psychotics to “become” their greater selves. As a leading forensic psychiatrist, he is familiar with, and often therapist to, most of those who will be pursued by the FBI. Like Nietzsche, who said that “Zarathustra, as the first psychologist of the good man, is perforce the friend of the evil man”, Hannibal is drawn to these violent individuals, not to cure them but to see if they can become a higher form – an Übermensch.

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Now we get into the episode’s killing time and, again, there is engastration involved. This time, a vet examining a dead horse finds she was not pregnant, but has a dead woman sewn inside her. Now, that’s worth calling the FBI for.

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Hannibal is still acting as murderer-interpreter, despite having said he was retiring last episode. He sees that the woman is inside the horse for a reason:

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Yeah, where have we heard that before? Ah yes, Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill) in Silence of the Lambs, who put a moth chrysalis into the throat of each victim, as they ‘gave’ their skin to assist his becoming a woman.  But what was this woman supposed to become? She’s pretty dead.

Look, this whole woman in horse plot is a bit silly, so we get to meet another really important character family: the Vergers. We don’t see Mason yet, who will be the main antagonist later, but we hear him as he rapes his sister, Margo, saying

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Since we’ve all read the book or seen the film Hannibal, we know that Mason used to give poor kids chocolate at his father’s poor-kids’-camps, just before he abused them. So, Margo has changed (in the book she is a weight-lifting lesbian, who would be less prone to submit to Mason’s perverse desires, but the bodybuilding lesbian is such a stereotype). Now she is very cute, and we figure someone is going to fall for her, and that someone’s gonna be Will, because we suddenly see a filmy love scene, apparently inspired by the impressionistic sex scene in the film Fight Club, which turns out to be Alana and Hannibal. Is Hannibal bi, or just using her? Best not to talk about it.

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Hannibal has his own hopes for Margo Verger, including a course of Übermensch 101, which is – get them to kill someone. In this case, her abusive and filthy rich brother.

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Alana really likes to talk about stuff in bed, much to Hannibal’s obvious distaste.

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The woman in the horse’s uterus is on the slab, very dead, giving the BAU (Behavioral Analysis Unit) guys a chance to get some cannibal talk in.

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But hey, there’s a heartbeat! Is this the birth that Hannibal predicted? They open her up, crack apart the ribs, and a bird flies out. Birth, resurrection, growth, all basic issues in Hannibal and the rest of Western literature.

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And we’re not finished with inside/outside dualisms and engastration. The bird in the woman in the horse was meant to be her rebirth, and Hannibal points out to Will:

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Will has found out that “doing bad things to bad people makes you feel good”, a truth that Hannibal emphasises to him, and also to Margo, who has been dehumanised by her brother, and since then by her family, who consider her weird. She’s come to the right analyst here:

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But does Will still want to kill Hannibal?

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Oh, yes, the sub-plot. The psychopath killing people is the social worker of the guy who sewed the woman into the horse, hoping for a rebirth. Those two, of course, must have their confrontation. It results in one of the great lines of the show:

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He’s certainly in there, but he’s not dead, and tears his way out of the horse’s uterus just as Hannibal is bonding with a sheep, a nod to the original theme of Silence of the Lambs.

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Will wants to kill the dude, but Hannibal stops him. Killing people is 101, and Will is way past that, so Hannibal sticks his thumb in the gun’s hammer just as Will is about to blow the killer away. Killing this random psychopath will not move Will onto a higher level of evolution.

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But Hannibal is impressed as hell at Will’s progress from wimpy FBI trainer to willing executioner. With dialogue quoted straight out of Hannibal’s thoughts about Clarice at the end of the book Hannibal, he tells Will:

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“I can feed the caterpillar, and I can whisper through the chrysalis, but what hatches”:

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As the great Derridean and Nietzschean philosopher Dr Seuss once said: “Inside, Outside, Upside Down”.

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The Young cannibal: PIGSTY (Italian: PORCILE), Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969

Pasolini’s films were usually brilliant, but rarely easy to watch. They were not designed as entertainment, but to make a point, usually political, and even then don’t ever go straight to it, but leave it up to the viewer to interpret. Some of his films were extremely graphic – his final film, Salo, was based on de Sade and was particularly difficult to watch. He was murdered soon after that one was released, so who knows what might have come next?

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The opening credits roll over some very cute pigs in a sty, although they are not a major part of the rest of the movie, until the end. I guess for Pasolini they represent the European bourgeoisie, which I think is appallingly offensive. To the pigs.

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Two separate stories are being told, interwoven. Segments of one are followed by the other, or sometimes the same one again. One story is set in 1967 and is about a German industrialist who looks a lot like Hitler, his son Julian, described by his mother as a “Mannerist San Sebastian”, and his radical fiancée Ida who joins protests to piss on the Berlin wall.

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Julian will not go with her to the wall, nor even kiss her – he becomes catatonic after telling her that he has another love. Turns out to be the pigs in the porcile (sty). He prefers them to the hedonistic existence of his father who makes an alliance with an old rival, Herr Herdhitzel, even though he knows of that rival’s involvement in the Holocaust, and could destroy him.

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The locals arrive to tell of Julian’s fate, eaten by the pigs. Like Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer, Julian is eaten by those he loved, or lusted after, or ate.

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But the industrialist doesn’t want to spoil the celebrations, and tells the locals:

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The other is set sometime in the middle ages (judging by the weapons and armour) and in a volcanic waste-land. A young man, called only “the young cannibal”, wanders around catching and eating whatever he can find, including lone soldiers.

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He joins up with other brigands who wander the smoking hills catching, killing and eating, throwing their victims heads into the volcano. When he is caught and prepares to be executed, tied down to four wooden stakes and left for the wild dogs to tear to pieces, he utters the words for which the film is most famous:

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The young cannibal is a mirror image of Christ, killing his father instead of being killed, tied to the ground instead of raised on a cross, quivering with joy instead of asking why he has been forsaken. For Nietzsche, God is dead. For Pasolini, we have eaten him.

Cannibalism is usually defined as the eating of human flesh by humans. There are a lot of grey areas (and pink ones when pigs are involved). We eat them, they eat us, we eat each other. It’s about greed and power, and is the same whoever is eating or being eaten. Julian’s father sums it up:

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Hell is in Hello: “MOTEL HELL” (Connor, 1980)

Lee Marvin “sang” these words in the musical Paint Your Wagon:

Do I know where Hell is? Hell is in hello…

Don’t know whether Director Kevin Connor got the idea from Lee Marvin, but he certainly borrowed from Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with an actual chainsaw duel between two brothers featuring at the climax of the film. Texas, in its own low budget way, revolutionised the horror genre, introduced slashers, and let us in on the world of the neglected, socially isolated “flyover zone” cannibal.

It’s also a spoof on Psycho – the killer in the motel, the unsuspecting travellers. You might also call it a precursor of the film Delicatessen that was considered on this blog last week: once again there are rooms for rent, human meat for sale.

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The motel is actually called MOTEL HELLO but the “O” keeps flickering off, thus giving the sinister name, and the title of the film.

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Vincent (Rory Calhoun) is a neo-lib dream: an entrepreneur who relishes his freedom to do whatever he likes in the name of business. The hidden hand of the market is his, and that hand carries a shotgun, or sometimes a chainsaw. Vincent runs the motel, but in his spare time (of which he has plenty) he ambushes motorists and stores them until he slaughters them and sells their flesh in his butcher shop as FARMER VINCENT’S SMOKED MEATS.

Simpsons fans will know Rory Calhoun of course!

Farmer Vincent’s is a family business, and Vincent’s sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) is involved in the process, which involves burying the victims up to their necks in the garden and cutting their vocal chords so they can’t make a fuss, then feeding them up like hogs until they are fat and edible. But Vincent fancies one of the victims, Terry (Nina Axelrod) and asks Ida to help her heal from the accident he caused. His kid brother Bruce (Paul Linke) is the local sheriff, and is as clueless as we expect local sheriffs to be, but he soon develops a crush on Terry. But she develops a crush on Vincent, so we know that (murder and cannibalism aside) there’s going to be trouble.

In a scene that perfectly parodies slasher movies, two little girls sneak into the smoking room, and with the requisite spooky backing track, are terrified by the scenes of carnage they see there – a lot of dead pigs. Only pigs, we might chuckle but, for Vincent, pigs and people are just the same: dumb animals good for nothing except slaughter and smoking for profit.

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Terry is pretty upset about losing her boyfriend (to whom she was not married, the religious Vincent notes), but he convinces her that being with them is “preordained”

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“Ah, the ways of the Lord are mysterious!”

Vincent’s methods of harvesting meat animals are not too particular: the local meat inspector who gets too nosy, a bus full of hippie musicians, even a pair of swingers whom he has lured with an ad – all get buried up their necks in the garden, unable to make any intelligible sound.

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He explains to Ida how important his various traps are, because “they give me a chance to be a free agent” and his work will remain special and important. Yep, Vincent is a classic neo-lib. As Ida pulls the latest victims out of the truck toward the holes he has dug, he tells her “plant ‘em!”. As they reflect on the strangeness of the hippies, they chant their motto:

It takes all kinds of critters
To make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!

As Vincent and Ida settle down to “plant” their critters and pull out the scalpels to cut their vocal chords, are they really behaving differently to the farmer who ties down a bull or hog to castrate him or to burn off his horns, or a sheep farmer who cuts hunks of skin off the backside of a lamb because it’s an easy way to avoid fly-strike (and saves money on insecticides)? They cleverly portray the hard work and care of farmers who really can see nothing wrong in the suffering they inflict for the sake of profit. He checks out one victim, smiling “not quite – tomorrow he’ll be ready to become famous.”

Terry asks how Vincent got started in the meat business and he tells her of the days when they couldn’t afford an icebox, and Granny would smoke anything she could catch – chickens, rabbits, frogs. One day, she asked Vincent to do something about an annoying dog who was barking, and that dog ended up smoked too. Did Granny know she was eating a dog, asks Terry, now repulsed, although she has just been enjoying Vincent’s smoked “ham”. Vincent replies:

Why Granny never put any distinctions on any of God’s creatures. She always used to say [Ida and Bruce join in the chant] MEAT’S MEAT, AND A MAN’S GOTTA EAT!

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Ida doesn’t like the wheezing and hissing noises the captives make as they try to talk without vocal chords. Vincent replies “They’re good animals! Not like taking care of chickens, or hogs.” Ida asks: “Vincent, do you think in the years to come people will appreciate us for what we’re doing here?” She goes on “Somebody’s gotta take a little responsibility for the planet!” Vincent and Ida are also ecologists, performing a valuable service by combating the scourge of human overpopulation.

The action is interspersed with the seemingly continuous telecast of a televangelist on the TV. Also with cannibal puns: as the swingers get ready for what they expect will be a wild evening (it will, but not quite as they hoped), Ida tells them “you look good enough to eat”. And the final credits roll to the Kregg Nance song “You’re eating out my heart and soul”.

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People certainly don’t like the idea of cannibalism, but they usually find it hard to articulate what is wrong with it, compared to eating other “critters”. For most, it is enough to say it is taboo, but that really begs the question. The genius of this film is that Vincent is not the usual psychotic serial killer type of cannibal. He is good humoured, kind, and has a strong sense of morality, seen in his choice of religious programs, as well as his shock when Terry comes on to him – he recoils, saying “we should be married first”.

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Well, they are going to get married, by none other than the local pastor, played by the legendary Wolfman Jack, a gravelly voiced DJ of the golden age of Rock.

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Ida drugs Terry, so that she and Vincent can go prepare the meat for the wedding feast. Vincent insists on offering his victims a humane death – he believes that “no animal should ever suffer any unnecessary pain”. Well, we nearly all believe that! Just a question of semantics – define ‘animal’. Define ‘pain’. And define ‘unnecessary’.

Anyway, Bruce is royally pissed off and starts looking for evidence against Vincent, and the “animals” start digging themselves out and staggering about in a scene reminiscent of just about every zombie movie.

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Terry finds out the truth, but it’s her version (what else could it be?) As far as Vincent is concerned, he is just preparing the wedding feast. He says:

Haven’t you ever cleaned a fish? There’s nothing cruel in what I’m doing here. I treat most of my stock better than farmers treat their animals. I don’t feed them chemicals or hormones. When you consider the way the world is today, there’s no question I’m doing a lot of them a big favour.

Terry ask him what right he has to play God. Vincent denies that is what he is doing.

I’m just helping out. There’s too many people in the world and not enough food. This takes care of both problems at the same time.

And that’s Vincent’s truth. And there is some truth in it.

The climax is the two brothers battling it out with chainsaws (a Texas Chain Saw reference) while Vincent wears a pig’s head on his head, which would not help his visual acuity much, but takes us to all sorts of interesting tropes, such as Animal Farm. The shock ending: as Vincent dies, he admits to his whole life being a lie, to being the biggest hypocrite of them all. Why?

My meat. I used – preservatives!

The film received a respectable 70% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The reviews range from “a rather well-executed dark comedy” to “tasteless, gruesomely awkward and moronic.” I liked it because it ticked all the boxes in my quest to understand cannibalism’s undermining of anthropocentrism. And Rory Calhoun is terrific – or as Montgomery Burns would say:

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Hiding the bodies – HANNIBAL Season 1 Episode 3 “Potage” (Fuller, 2013)

As you probably know by now, the episodes in the series Hannibal are named after courses in fine dining. Episodes one and two were the pilots, the ones that established the characters, let us in on secrets they didn’t know, and gave us a taste of what was to come. No on-going story arc you could really get your teeth into though.

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Episode 3 is called “potage” which is a thick vegetable soup. Can’t really get our teeth into soup, but it is very nourishing and warming. It looked in the earlier episodes as if this was going to be an episodic show: the secret cannibal would lead the hyper-empathetic FBI Special Agent to capture some single-episode outsider – a serial killer whose whole purpose was to be caught by this team while we giggle and point like kids at a pantomime: look Mum, they still haven’t seen the real bad guy! But there is no new serial killer introduced here. This episode is all about Abigail Hobbs, the orphaned daughter of the serial killer shot dead by Will Graham in the first episode. Her father cut her throat before Will filled him full of lead. The mushroom man from episode 2 tried to kidnap her to feed his mycelium. Now she has woken up, to a lot more than the FBI has managed to figure out.

You may remember from episode 2 Hannibal saying:

“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.”

Now he gets his chance. Abigail is becoming a surrogate sister to Hannibal who later will admit to eating his real sister Mischa (not to killing her though). He accuses Will of making her a surrogate daughter, which Will does not deny.

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Abigail is smart and sassy and a step ahead of everyone at the FBI, even though she is still deeply traumatised by the death of her parents. In a flashback, she is seen hunting with her father, shooting a deer. She asks him the questions that perhaps we have all asked our parents at some time: was it OK to kill? Wasn’t that deer smart? Don’t they care for each other and their environment? All the reasons we give to valorise human life, applied to those who are like us.

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Her father loved her dearly and hated that she was growing up and would leave him. His response is to kill young girls who look just like Abigail, because he can’t bring himself to kill her.  He answers her question, in a way, saying that he is “honouring” the deer by using ever part of her. This is the carnivore cop-out: as long as the kill is clean and the corpse not wasted, then it’s OK to kill. Her father feels the same way about eating young women; Hannibal feels the same about eating rude people. When Abigail expresses doubts about eating the doe, her father grabs her arm: eating her is honouring her, otherwise it’s just murder. The logic of the serial killer. And factory farm corporation.

 

Will, Hannibal and Alana take Abigail back to her home where her mother and father died and she almost died; someone has scrawled graffiti all over the doors: the word “cannibals”.

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And there is another complication – the brother of the girl killed by the copycat (really Hannibal of course) has come to accuse Abigail of murder, since most people (including Jack Crawford) consider her an accomplice to her father. Then there’s her best friend from school who tells her that everyone (else) thinks she’s guilty. The extras all end up dead (Abigail, like her surrogate brother Hannibal, wields a mean knife) Hannibal arranges everything so that the distressed brother appears to be the killer, and then they hide the body.

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Abigail is further traumatised – even for a girl who shoots innocent deer, watching your father kill your mother and then cut your throat, finding your best friend’s body and then killing the boy whose sister was the previous victim: these are not soothing experiences. Her brain is working fine though: she realises that dear odd dad was feeding them girl meat; she finds the pillows at home are stuffed with girl hair.

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She escapes from hospital and finds herself on the top level of Hannibal’s library. He gallantly helps her off the ladder and offers to help – but only if she asks. Dracula had a similar line – he had to be invited in.

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Abigail tells Hannibal she knows: Hannibal is the one who called to warn her Dad. And he called as a serial killer.

 

He has promised to keep her secrets; now she promises to keep his. Just as his real sister Mischa might have done – if she hadn’t been eaten.

 

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Starting the ‘cannibal boom’: “Man From Deep River”, (Lenzi, 1972)

Man From Deep River, otherwise known as Deep River Savages, Sacrifice and (originally) Il paese del sesso selvaggio (English: The Country of Savage Sex), is a 1972 Italian cannibal film directed by Umberto Lenzi. Largely overlooked in the world of cannibal studies (with some justification), it is best remembered for starting the “cannibal boom” of Italian exploitation cinema that filled our big screens with blood and body parts in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Lenzi was probably trying to imitate the content of the notorious Mondo cinema, which had gained grindhouse popularity after Mondo Cane (Jacopetti and Cavara) in 1962. Mondo films tended to focus on exotic customs and locations, graphic violence, and animal cruelty, often presented as fact. Man from Deep River turned this into a fictional formula.

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The film was inspired by A Man Called Horse (Silverstein, 1970), which also featured a white man who is incorporated into a tribe that originally held him captive. Horse had the advantage of a big star: Richard Harris, who went on to be King Arthur, Marcus Aurelius and Albert Dumbledore (in the first two Harry Potter movies), as well as having a brief but glorious singing career with one huge hit: Macarthur Park. This is all totally irrelevant to this blog, which is about cannibal movies, but you should watch the clip of the Jimmy Webb song Macarthur Park, which has little or nothing to do with anything, even the song, but helps explain why Baby Boomers are, well, the way we are.

don't drop the soap
Don’t drop the soap

In Man From Deep River (see? back on track already!) British wildlife photographer John Bradley (Ivan Rassimov) kills a man after a boxing match in Bangkok (as if to say “we can be savages too!”) and heads into the rain forest, with his camera. Naturally, he is captured by a native tribe. Bundled in a net, he is and carried to their village, where they tell the chief that they have caught a large fish-man. After a bit of xenophobic torture and witnessing a couple of murders of members of a rival tribe of – yes – cannibals (the tongue scene is hard to forget), John attracts the attention of Marayå (Me Me Lai), the beautiful and naked daughter of the chief, who convinces her father that John is not a fish-man, just a hu-man. Dad agrees to release Bradley, as Marayå’s slave. Could be worse.

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There’s an escape attempt, and then the chance to join the tribe through a trial by ordeal – but of course, the cannibals are still next door, as they must be to qualify this film for this blog. Things get sticky. And red.

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Cannibalism is certainly featured in the film, but director Umberto Lenzi stated that cannibalism was not intended to be the central theme, and the “cannibal boom” did not really start until Ruggero Deodato released his film Last Cannibal World in 1977 (we’ll get to it eventually). Nevertheless, Man from Deep River is seen as either the inspiration or the start of the cannibal boom, as its combination of the rain forest setting and onscreen cannibalism was a revolutionary innovation (Tarzan movies never dared). Lenzi was asked to direct Last Cannibal World, but the producers chose Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust, 1980) when Lenzi’s price was too steep. Lenzi didn’t miss the boom, though, making Eaten Alive! (1980) and his most famous work, Cannibal Ferox (1981).

looks yum but I'm a bit tied up
Looks delish, but I’m a bit tied up right now

Man from Deep River also set the standard for scenes of extreme violence and carnage, including on-screen killing of animals, which rightly incited the wrath of censorship authorities around the world. It is a simplistic although surprisingly sympathetic look at the clash of modern and ‘savage’ cultures, mixed with a rather touching love story. It is elegantly filmed, although Lenzi’s obvious affection for twiddling his zoom lens can get a bit nauseating. But most of all, Man from Deep River set the pace for the cannibal exploitation movies that came after it: the white man, lost and bound, finding that his pretensions of superiority just don’t stand up to the scrutiny of the jungle.

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Literally: ‘the place of savage sex’. Fake news.
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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.