“I’m giving very serious thought to eating your wife”: “HANNIBAL” (Scott, 2001)

It is quite extraordinarily, in retrospect, to realise that this 2001 film was the first Hannibal Lecter film to be about Hannibal Lecter. He was very much a bit player in both Manhunter and Red Dragon (both based on the book Red Dragon) – he was in an asylum and visited occasionally by Will Graham, desperate for a clue as to the identity of the serial killer the FBI was hunting. The movie that made him a household name, The Silence of the Lambs, saw him still in that Baltimore Asylum for the Criminally Insane, but now he was a major figure, even though only on screen for a bit under 16 minutes. But very good minutes they were (he won the Oscar for it, and the film won five in total) and, importantly, we saw him escape, to rejoin us, the viewers, in the breathing world, as we crept, with wide eyes, back to the dark parking lot of the cinema after the credits had rolled.

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“I need to come out of retirement and return to public life.”

In Hannibal, he is free, and doing what he loves best – being an expert on Renaissance art and poetry in Florence, drinking fine wines, and occasionally eating people. But, as in the previous movies, and in the TV series, Hannibal takes his sweet time before he actually appears on screen. His image appears at 24 minutes: an archive video of him attacking a nurse who was careless with his ECG (any comments on why he attacks the nurse would be appreciated. It seems out of character for Hannibal: discourteous even).

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His voice appears at 28 minutes, and his person at 30. Hannibal never rushes things. Instead, the film starts with Hannibal’s nemeses: Mason Verger, intent on revenge and plotting to capture Hannibal and feed him to his pigs, and of course Clarice Starling, her career in tatters due to a combination of law enforcement ineptitude and toxic masculinity working to bring her down. She is caught on the news shooting a woman with a baby, even though that woman was a drug dealer who was shooting at her.

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Her only possible way to reinstate her career will be to work with Verger to capture Hannibal.

This wasn’t an easy film to make – sequels rarely are, particularly when they are following a film that did a lot better than anyone expected. And this film was made ten years after Silence, so there was a huge, pent up demand. There was also the brilliant book from Thomas Harris on which this was based; it had come out two years previously, and many, including the director of Silence, Jonathan Demme, the screenwriter, Ted Tally, and the star, Jodie Foster, considered the plot a bridge too far. All three declined to be involved in the new film. Lucklily, Anthony Hopkins was ready to get back in the saddle, so the film proceeded – without him, it would seem to have been unlikely.

So, sad not to get Demme back to direct, but hey, Dino di Laurentiis found a substitute: the brilliant Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise), who had just finished Gladiator and at first declined the script, as he thought it was another ancient history epic, and didn’t want to have to direct elephants crossing the Alps. Oh, it’s about a cannibal in Florence? OK then. The screenplay was first drafted by Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet and then written by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List). And instead of the incomparable Jodie Foster, he chose, from a list of the greatest actors of the time, Julianne Moore, apparently the recommendation of Hopkins. di Laurentiis said of Jodie Foster’s refusal to take part: “when the Pope dies, they get a new Pope”. So it was off to a rollicking start.

Then there’s the supervillain. In Hannibal movies, there is always a much worse monster for us to hate, giving us licence to like Hannibal that much more. In this case, it is Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), heir to a huge fortune built on the cruel pork trade, a sadist and child molester in his youth.

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He is the only surviving victim of Hannibal: instead of killing him, Hannibal got him whacked on psychotropic drugs and suggested that he slice his own face off and feed it to the dogs. In the book, this is explained: Mason had adopted two dogs who were good friends, and put them in a cage with no food, to see if they would turn to cannibalism. Gratuitous cruelty and cannibalism – not what Hannibal is about at all. Hannibal’s cannibalism contains a nugget of justice. As the Asylum orderly Barney tells Clarice:

He told me that whenever feasible, he prefers to eat the rude. Free range rude, he called them.

Incidentally, Barney is portrayed by Frankie Faison (The Wire) who is the only actor to appear in all four Hannibal films up to this one.

Hannibal manages to communicate with Clarice throughout the film, usually by letter or phone call, explaining his point of view and questioning why she continues to serve her corrupt and venal masters.

Tell me Clarice, would you want to harm those who have forced you to consider it though? It’s perfectly OK to feel this. It’s perfectly au naturel to want to taste the enemy. It just feels so good.

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The camera lingers lovingly on Mason’s disfigurements: according to the DVD, Oldman spent six hours each day in makeup to make him so lovable. Hopkins, on the other hand, did not bother with makeup for this movie, allowing his advancing years and natural pallor to tell the story of the years since his escape.

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With Hannibal, there is always the question of who is the cannibal. In Red Dragon, was it Hannibal in his cell or Dolarhyde collecting movies of women he had killed and raped? In Silence, was it the same Hannibal in the same cell, or Jame Gumb, killing and skinning women to make a vest with tits? In this one, is it the Renaissance scholar Hannibal seeking a job as curator of the Capponi library or Inspector Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), threatening a local pickpocket into ambushing Hannibal, hoping to sell Hannibal to Verger to be fed to his pigs? The pickpocket loses his femoral artery to a small knife that Hannibal keeps in his sleeve. He dies, but Pazzi gets the fingerprint he needs for the deal to go ahead and in a scene full of Catholic symbolism, washes his bloody hands in the fountain of Il Porcellino, a porcine reference to the greed of Judas and the cowardice of Pontius Pilate, as well as a foretaste of the pigs who have been bred to eat Hannibal. Verger and his thugs get the pigs flown to the US and primed to eat humans (pigs usually prefer not to). Pazzi later gets from Hannibal the same treatment his treasonous ancestor received in Florence 500 years earlier – hanging from the window with his bowels protruding. But not until Hannibal has offered the line of the movie:

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Hannibal has met Pazzi’s wife, Allegra (Francesca Neri), at the sublime opera of Dante’s sonnet A ciascun’alma presa from Vita Nuova, which Hannibal and Allegra recite to each other meaningfully, all about Beatrice eating Dante’s heart, and clearly referencing Hannibal’s growing obsession with Clarice.

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In a scene that reveals both Pazzi’s desperation to make Allegra happy, including risking his career and life to capture Hannibal, and Hannibal’s own burning love for Clarice, she asks him:

Allegra: Dr Fell, do you believe a man could become so obsessed with a woman from a single encounter?
Hannibal: Could he daily feel a stab of hunger for her and find nourishment in the very sight of her? I think so. But would she then see through the bars of his plight and ache for him?

Dante and Beatrice were nine years old when his obsession with her started. Hannibal’s obsession with Clarice started at a more mature age, but burns just as brightly.

The music, Vide Cor Meum, is by Hans Zimmer (Lion King, Gladiator, the Dark Knight trilogy and heaps more) and is so beautiful that it is used again in the TV series Hannibal, in the season finales of both the first two seasons. As she leaves with Pazzi, another couple brush past saying “let’s get something to eat!” Hannibal mutters to himself, and to us, “why not?”

Verger understands that the way to trap Hannibal is by threatening Clarice, and pays Paul Krendler (Ray Liotto), the man who has conspired to destroy Clarice’s career since she first rebuffed his advances, to fabricate evidence of collusion with Hannibal.

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“But not to help…”

She is suspended from the FBI. Hannibal goes shopping for fine furniture, and burglaring for medical equipment. He breaks into Clarice’s apartment in DC, where she has drunk herself to sleep, and leaves a collage of her face on a fashion shoot in a magazine. The game is afoot. He leads her to Union Station where he engages her in a discussion of her life, her future, and why the forces of the law, the law she loves and respects, have totally betrayed her.

Why are you so resented? You serve the idea of order, Clarice. They don’t. You believe in the oath you took. They don’t. You feel it is your duty to protect the sheep. They don’t.

As he leaves, Verger’s Sardinian hit-men hit him with a tranquiliser dart and drive him off. Now who will save whom?

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Hannibal is strapped to a forklift in a crucifixion position, his feet are to be fed to the pigs, then he is to be kept alive for several hours until the rest of him is given to them. She cuts him loose, leading to one of the funniest exchanges in the film.

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Clarice can deal with most of these thugs, but is shot while rescuing Hannibal, who picks her up and walks through the hogs. They leave him alone – since they cannot smell fear on him. He arranges for Verger’s helper to push the furious billionaire into the pig pen. Dinner is served.

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Krendler returns to his lakehouse, but Hannibal is already there. So is Clarice; Hannibal has removed the bullet and she is sedated. She wakes dressed in full evening gown and high heels and staggers downstairs where, in the most famous scene of the film, Hannibal has sawn Krendler’s cranium off, and is preparing to serve his brain. Of course, the brain has no pain receptors on its surface, so Krendler is awake and joins the meal.

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Most of this is fairly true to the book. Only the ending was changed, apparently to appeal to those whose morality could stand seeing a man eat his own brains, but not to seeing Starling, so long an honest cop, go over to Lecter’s side – the side of cynicism about authority and enjoyment of the finer things of life. Instead, she rebuffs him and with her remaining strength tries to stop the dinner, and then the escape. She hancuffs the two of them together, Hannibal goes to bite her, then to cut off her hand, but it is he that leaves minus one. That’s love.

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But then, there is the single tear – does she regret the opportunity to dance with the devil?

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I admit to preferring the story the way the author wrote it in the book. I think Hannibal would have too. Read the book and you will see that is the perfect denouement to the Hannibal saga. I think they compromised on the end to avoid controversy (although they did get away with feeding Krendler his own brain, so they weren’t totally devoid of courage).

I suspect that the idea of amputation of his hand came from Sir Anthony Hopkins, who had starred in Shakespeare’s Titus only two years earlier, in which he cuts off his hand, and his daughter suffers a worse fate involving both hands and her tongue. [I nearly said Hopkins had a hand in the decision, but I restrained myself].

Titus is also a cannibal movie, by the way. You can read my blog about it at Titus.

Why does Hannibal eat people? Clarice speculates on this earlier in the film, while she is still on the case, as Krendler asks her what she’s doing sitting in the dark.

Thinking about cannibalism. Aren’t you curious why he dines on his victims? To show his contempt for those who exasperate him. Or sometimes to perform a public service. In the case of the flutist, Benjamin Raspail, he did it to improve the sound of the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra, serving the not so talented flute player’s sweetbreads to the Board with a nice Montrachet at $700 per bottle.

Yes, Clarice, quite right. But also, like any cuisine, it’s a habit, or a preference. Hannibal simply cannot see any reason not to eat people, particularly rude ones. In the final scene, he offers to give it all up for her:

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BTW: note the books on Krendler’s fridge: Southern Cooking and Vegetarian Times. Our ethical choices: what we consider right, or what we consider delicious. Hannibal, unlike everyone else, makes his choices without hesitating. He considers them the same thing.

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Entrepreneurial cannibalism: “Eating Raoul” (Bartel, 1982)

Eating RaoulEating Raoul has become a cult classic since its release in 1982. It was directed by Paul Bartel, who also plays the role of Paul Bland, a use of nominative irony, since he and his wife Mary (played by the wonderful Mary Woronov who starred in Warhol and Corman films) are a bland and horribly normal couple. They live in a block of apartments and eke out an existence working at unsatisfying jobs, while dreaming of somehow opening their own restaurant.

The film starts with a shot of the iconic Hollywood sign and a voice-over, of the type that was popular in film newsreels, describing the contrasts in that town between rich and poor, and tells us that “sex hunger is reflected in every aspect of daily life”.

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“The barrier between food and sex has totally dissolved.”

This contrast then goes to the microcosm of the life of Paul and Mary. They are prudes; they sleep in separate beds and disapprove of sex, except for “a little hugging and kissing”. But there are almost constant “swinger” parties in an adjoining apartment: as if to exacerbate their financial woes, rich and decadent swingers share their lift and their corridors. When one of the swingers tries to rape Mary, Paul kills him with the cast iron frypan, finds $600 in the guy’s wallet, and thus begins a career of hilarious and profitable murders of “rich perverts”, whom they lure with ads offering kinky sex.

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But that doesn’t make it a cannibal film, suitable for this blog. That comes later, when their locksmith, Raoul, enters the scene, ready to make money from the bodies and the victims’ cars.

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But when Raoul himself has to be disposed of, and there is nothing to serve the real estate agent who is going to secure the purchase of their dream restaurant… Well, as Hannibal said in Silence of the Lambs:

“Haven’t you had company coming and no time to shop? You have to make do with what’s in the fridge, Clarice.”

Cannibalism is all about power and appetite, and so Eating Raoul is a perfect allegory for Western (and particularly Hollywood) society. Everyone is either exploiting or fucking everyone else, and why should Paul and Mary Bland be any different? Cannibalism – it’s the ultimate American Dream.

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The full film is currently available on Youtube:

 

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The Silence of the Trump (The Late Show)

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Stephen Colbert took over the Late Show from David Letterman in September 2015, but really started drawing the big crowds when Donald Trump was elected President a bit over a year later. Colbert skewers Trump nightly on the late-night show (in fairness, a lot of the material seems to write itself), so when Jodie Foster, who played Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, the movie that brought Hannibal Lecter to fame in 1991, appeared as a guest on the Late Show last December, it made sense that she would appear as a Special Agent. But instead of working for Jack Crawford, hunting serial killers, she is now working for Robert Mueller, hunting the Russian connection to the President.

Here is part the scene they are spoofing, from The Silence of the Lambs.

Go and watch it again. It’s a classic, and has been used hundreds of times in satirical pieces of all sorts. Hannibal is one of the most iconic figures of our time. Representing voracious appetite, a disavowal of the old humanist ideals of the sanctity of human life, a love of the good things of life, and a wicked sense of humour, it’s pretty clear why that might be so.

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Having an old friend for dinner: “The silence of the lambs” (Demme, 1991)

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The silence of the lambs is, almost without exception, the film that people first mention when I talk to them about cannibalism. This is a little surprising as, although the male lead, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), is a cannibal, for most of the film he is incarcerated, and even on the loose he is not seen actually eating anyone (although he certainly discusses the idea with some gusto). In the sequel, Hannibal (Scott 2001), he is indeed shown serving human flesh – the brain of Clarice’s nemesis – to its owner. In a later prequel, Hannibal rising (Webber 2008), an attempt is made to trace Lecter’s psychopathy to childhood trauma: the cannibalism of his sister during the war, much to the displeasure of many of his fans, who complained of the loss of the nuance and the mystery.

The silence of the lambs has become something of a cinematic classic, while the sequels and prequels have largely faded from memory. Robert Butler in the Chicago Tribune credited the film with legitimising cannibalism in the movies, with its star cast and haul of all five major Academy Awards – best picture, best actor, best actress, best director and best adapted screenplay. Before this, Butler claimed, cannibalism was limited to exploitation films. No doubt directors from Luis Buñuel to Peter Greenaway might demur.

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The film is a psychological thriller with Hannibal Lecter, an evil genius, trading insights into the most private neuroses of trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling in exchange for his profiling of the serial killer, Buffalo Bill, whose very name seems to animalise him. Bill is killing and skinning women to make a woman suit. He is pure monster, closer to the gender-challenged Leatherface of Texas chain saw massacre than the urbane, sophisticated, civilised psychiatrist Lecter, who remains a mystery. Bill and Leatherface are in fact both based on the real-life murderer and grave robber Ed Gein (as was Norman Bates from Psycho), who was very keen on making things out of human bodies, although whether he was a cannibal is still uncertain (and he’s not telling).

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Lecter’s jailer, Dr Chilton, comes closest to attempting a diagnosis, saying “Oh, he’s a monster. A pure psychopath. So rare to capture one alive”. Starling, asked by a young policeman if Lecter is a vampire, simply replies “they don’t have a name for what he is”. Maggie Kilgour, who wrote an excellent book on cannibalism as a “metaphor of incorporation”, wrote that Hannibal is defined by “rhyming logic” – anyone named “Hannibal” must end up a “cannibal”. That is good enough for the viewers – the man is considered pure evil, but deliciously, he is not a monster in the sense of Leatherface or even Sweeney Todd: we appreciate his style and wit, we even like him in contrast to the other psychopaths we meet in the film: Buffalo Bill, and Multiple Miggs, who ejaculates on Starling on her way out of the asylum, a dastardly act that the chivalrous Lecter abhors, and because of which he chooses to assist her. The psychological or legal weaponry of modern society is useless against his brilliance and primitive, raw power; Staring is sent to interview him like the lamb of the title being led to slaughter. Buffalo Bill has captured his latest victim, Catherine Martin, daughter of a powerful US Senator, and there are only days or hours before he kills and skins her to make his “woman suit”.

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The opening of the film finds Starling running in the woods, small and alone like Red Riding Hood, yet we soon find that she is on an FBI obstacle course in Quantico, running past the motto “hurt, agony, pain – love it”. Starling is not one of the screaming victims that we find in Texas chain saw massacre: Starling is still a victim, though, of patriarchy from her colleagues, mental probing from Lecter and stalking in the dark by Bill, but she is smart, well trained, strong and sassy, standing up to her boss when he uses the chauvinist card: she is the perfect example of the prey woman becoming the avenging hero.

‘Slasher’ films like Texas chain saw massacre routinely pit the redneck monster against the civilised hero. The silence of the lambs turns the ‘slasher’ order on its head: Lecter is the city sophisticate, Starling the West Virginia redneck – he skewers her with the observation “you’re not more than one generation from poor, white trash, are you Agent Starling?” Yet when she is splashed with his neighbour’s semen he tells her that “discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me”. Lecter is a pastiche of classical monsters: Dracula’s hunger for blood (and exaggerated courtesy), Dr Frankenstein’s scientific insight, Dr Jekyll’s secret identity; his power to terrify is precisely his amiable, civilised charm: we would rather be scared of cannibals who wear leather masks and grunt than those who eat us with fava beans and a nice chianti.

Clarice Starling has to overcome not just the mind games of Lecter the monster, but also the political ineptitude of the men around her in order to blow away the psycho-sexual killer Buffalo Bill, who is not a cannibal, at least not in gustatory terms. Bill is a depraved cannibal in the sense that he incorporates human skin into his persona, but it is Lecter, the deprived cannibal in the asylum, who is the protagonist.

The silence of the lambs trades in close-ups: Starling usually pensive, Bill leering and imagining a valid sexuality, Lecter directly threatening, staring, unblinking, in extreme close up, straight into the audience’s eyes. It is us that he is addressing, analysing, threatening. Under the menace is a keen humour, often rare in the genre. Besides Lecter’s pun about “having an old friend for dinner”, he also reflects on Starling’s offer that, in return for helping catch Bill, he will be allowed to use a beach (under SWAT surveillance of course) where there are terns. Terns – the word suggests to him that he and Starling should have “turns” at sharing information. Starling’s turn will not relate to the case, but to her life, her childhood traumas. Despite her boss’ instruction to tell him nothing personal – “you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head” – she describes her worst memory: the death of her father, a town marshal gunned down while on duty, and her subsequent life on an relative’s ranch, where she found the truth of animal agriculture, being awoken one night by the screaming of the spring lambs as they were slaughtered. She tried to free the lambs, took one and ran, but was caught and sent to an orphanage. Since then, Starling has been struggling with the contradictory messages given to children that harming animals is wrong, but eating them is fine. Lecter’s speculative diagnosis is that she believes that if she saves Catherine, the lambs will stop screaming in her dreams. She has made the lambs subjects, while Bill makes his victims objects. As Starling tears up under the intense and massively magnified gaze of Hannibal Lecter, she gives a glimpse into the abyss of what Carol Adams calls the “absent referent”, the process that objectifies animals (and women) who are the victims of violence.

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Starling’s lambs are not the only part of modern civilisation scrutinised and turned inside out by The silence of the lambs. The social order is very commonly defined in film by showing not examples of it but characters or events that transgress it. The strength of Lecter’s character is his ability not just to offend the social order but to be an extreme example of it: like modern America, he is educated, rational, even enlightened, yet, like modern society, there is an undercurrent of voracious appetite and extreme violence. Similarly, Starling transgresses social boundaries with her challenge to masculine power structures and her role as the rescuing hero rather than the hero-victim. Cary Wolfe believes that the most important discourse in this film is that of species. While cross-gender conflicts are examined through the minor character of Bill and to some extent Starling, and class issues in the clash of the civilised Lecter with the often inept and backward authority figures, at the heart of the film (reflected in its title) is the struggle of Starling to come to terms with the objectification of the innocents – the lambs of her childhood or the women Bill is skinning. Objectification is seen throughout: Bill speaks to Catherine in the third person: “it rubs the lotion on its skin; it does this whenever it’s told”; Lecter speaks of his victims by function: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti”.

One critic went so far as to say that Hopkin’s brilliance in the role makes Lecter “the cannibal we all want to be”. Lecter does not resist humanist symbology, he takes it to its logical extreme: he orders rare lamb chops, (a reference to Starling’s trauma), in his cell before he slaughters his jailers and escapes, as if to say that he does not eat animals instead of humans: he eats animals, so why not eat humans? He represents consumerism taken to its logical conclusion. As Maggie Kilgour summarised, the film demonstrates the continuing power of primal appetites: “man-eating is a reality – it is civilisation that is the myth”.

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