Beautiful inside: THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS (T.L.P. Swicegood, 1966)

We all are vaguely aware of our eventual deaths, and some people even take it seriously enough to arrange insurance of other funding for their funerals. But how many of us consider the environmental cost of burying or burning human bodies? Over one million people die every week – all those bodies going into landfill under granite slabs, or adding to the carbon emissions from the crematoria.

Why not eat them? Many of these corpses are still covered in healthy flesh. If human meat is comparable to that of the other animals we choose to eat (apparently somewhere between veal and pork), why not let those who are hungry eat some of the corpses, preferably the ones that are minimally diseased? Is death by starvation less abject than cannibalism?

Most readers will find this unthinkable and assert that they would die rather than eat human flesh, as many did after hearing about the Uruguayan rugby team survivors from Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 which crashed in the Andes, leaving nothing to eat but frozen passengers. But like most taboos, this one is based on cultural conditioning rather than any rational thought. After all, why is it fine to source meat from a pig who has lived a short and brutal life and suffered an agonising death, but repulsive to eat a person who no longer is capable of pleasure or pain?

That is the question this short film seems to ask.

An undertaker and his two friends, who are restaurant owners, go out on the town killing people; the restaurant owners cook parts of the bodies, and the undertaker earns his keep burying the left-overs. The rather thickly ladled humour involves the victims having the names given to the flesh of animals: their first victim is Sally Lamb, and the specialty at their restaurant that day is lamb leg.

Their racket goes awry when a detective, who has a secretary conveniently named Miss Poultry, suspect that something isn’t quite kosher.

Lévi-Strauss wrote in “A Lesson in Wisdom from Mad Cows”

“The link between a meat-based diet and cannibalism (a notion broadened to take on a certain universality) thus has very deep roots in thought…. Indeed, a day may come when the idea that human beings in the past raised and slaughtered living things for food and complacently displayed slabs of their flesh in shop windows will inspire the same revulsion as what travellers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries felt about the cannibal meals of American, Oceanian, or African indigenous peoples.”

Acceptance of violent slaughter, particularly the impersonal conveyer-belt killing of modern agriculture, legitimises cannibalism by removing all subjectivity from the victim. The voracious and ever growing desire for meat, together with the fading of the clarity of the naïve dualism of human and animal, leads inexorably to acceptance of the consumption of human meat; thus the boom in cannibal films and television shows. The harvesting methods in this film are repulsive because they are similar to what we pay slaughterhouse workers to do, hidden from our sight.

There’s even pre-slaughter stunning.

With its bad jokes, wooden acting and terrible script, this movie scored a paltry 43% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the only official critic writing “You’ve never heard of this movie. Keep it that way.”

But the full movie (all 63 minutes of it) is on Youtube should you wish to ignore that advice. With its mid-century kitsch and ironic soundtrack, it’s so bad it’s good, if you know what I mean.

Patriarchal civilisation, Derrida tells us, depends on what he calls “carnivorous virility”:

The subject does not want just to master and possess nature actively. In our cultures, he accepts sacrifice and eats flesh.

‘Eating Well’ or the Calculation of the Subject.

The movie makes this abundantly clear in the macho strutting of the killers and the detective on their trail, but also in its choice of female victims. Men are killed violently, but as a struggle for power. Women must be subjugated, terrorised then cut up and eaten. One of the killers uses a chain to destroy a statue of the goddess Aphrodite (the Venus de Milo) in a spa, then kills a woman with the same chain. Yes, it’s symbolism, double-strength. The women are nature, presented in this film as seductive and edible. The men are the symbolic order, at war with nature and controlling her through their carnivorous sacrifice.

As one of the killers asks, his hands full of intestines:

“Isn’t she beautiful inside?”

“The mothers were empty… cored” – THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (Colm McCarthy, 2016)

In an alternative present, or perhaps near future, humanity has been decimated by a fungal disease that turns its victims into flesh-eating “hungries“.

At an army base in rural England, a small group of infected children are being studied by biologist Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close, fatally attractive once more), who considers them less than human, or at least dispensable in her search for a vaccine. A sacrifice for the good of humanity, which is on the brink of extinction.

Despite being “hungries”, compelled by their infected brains to tear any uninfected human apart for food, these children think rationally and feel human emotions. But only one person, their teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), considers them human.

One girl, Melanie (a brilliant performance by thirteen-year-old Sennia Nanua), is inquisitive, imaginative and excels in the classroom to which the children are wheeled each morning, strapped to their chairs to stop them eating the guards and teacher. Through the peephole of her stone cell, Caldwell gives Melanie riddles and even asks her to consider the Quantum Mechanics paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, in which a cat in a sealed box could be either alive or dead, or both, depending on a random state of subatomic particles controlling a potentially lethal radioactive charge. The hungries, strapped to their wheelchairs, polite until they smell flesh, are neither human nor subhuman, or perhaps, like the cat, alive and dead at the same time. Melanie is in a box (or a stone cell) and may be alive or dead, depending on the science; human or inhuman, depending on the politics. Like all of us, her life is in a state of quantum superposition, controlled by random forces over which we have no control. Ask anyone in an ER ward.

The children are kept in cells and only taken out by heavily armed soldiers. Their food is live worms.

Melanie is precociously brilliant and loves her teacher Miss Justineau.

When the base is invaded by hungries, Melanie escapes along with Miss Justineau, Dr. Caldwell and some heavily armed soldiers, some of whom she needs to eat to save Justineau. This causes her human side some ethical issues.

The group agree to take Melanie with them, believing that Caldwell will be cutting her up for a vaccine, but she is forced to wear a mask, like Hannibal Lecter as they try to find a fortified settlement in a world filled with hungries.

Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a respectable 86% although most of the reviewers saw it as a superior entry in the zombie tradition. It’s actually not a zombie movie, although there are very large numbers of rotting people standing around, ready to chase anyone that moves too fast or talks too loud.

But the hungries are not corpses who have risen from the dead like Night of the Living Dead; they are infected by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which is a real fungus discovered by Wallace in 1859 (the dude who came up with the idea of natural selection at the same time as Darwin). The fungus, which normally affects insects, has in this story mutated to take over the brains of living humans, making them into hungries. Spores from the fungus, or a bite from a hungry, can turn a person into one in a few seconds. If you recall the virus that took over the UK in 28 Days Later and filled the victims with uncontrollable rage, this is an infection (albeit fungal) that fills its victims with voracious appetite. The hungries stand around like rotting statues, unresponsive to anything but the taste, sound, smell or movement of living animals, including humans. Is there a metaphor here for the way we drift through life, only mobilised, often by smart marketing, into sudden bouts of voracious hunger? The hungries are “free” of all the cares and duties of being human – they are only alive when they smell fresh flesh. They live what Kundera calls an “idyllic” existence of constant repetition. Melanie is equally free in her cell – to strap herself into her chair, learn her lessons, and eat her worms at night. Once she is freed, there are all sorts of decisions to be made – practical and ethical ones.

Although the fungus is not a virus like COVID-19, it does eventually kill the hungries to feed on their bodies, in order to grow its fruit body and create spoors.

Caldwell explains that the child hungries, including Melanie, were discovered in a maternity hospital.

“The mothers were there too. They were… empty. Cored. From the inside.”

The embryos were infected through the placenta, and

Melanie and the other children at the base were captured soon after birth and socialised (except for the, you know, growling and biting), but other child hungries have gone feral, and live in urban tribes that hunt and can communicate only in grunts and snarls. Melanie has to establish her authority over them by employing their own violent methods.

The movie (and book on which it is based by Mike Carey, who simultaneously wrote the screenplay) is a bildungsroman, the story of Melanie’s coming of age. Incarcerated since birth, Melanie has a burning desire to understand what she is, how she got that way, and control her own future.

The interviewer on rogerebert.com said:

“There’s a visceral, emotional impact to the horror and action of “The Girl with All the Gifts” that resonates because the characters and the world they live in feels real to us.”

We all live in that world, where infections run wild, the authorities are at a loss for solutions, and superspreaders and conspiracy theorists are hungries. This is an intelligent and gripping thriller that asks questions about the nature and ethics of sacrifice. While we are sacrificing front line workers to save oldies (like me) from COVID, what can we say about the sacrifice of the innocent like Melanie?

The favourite word of 2020 was “unprecedented” as an unknown and widely unforeseen virus disrupted all aspects of normal life. Derrida uses the term “arrivant” – an “Other”, an absolute newcomer about whom we know nothing, and who may take monstrous form. Melanie and the hungries, like SARS-CoV-2, are arrivants.

The big question Melanie asks the scientist and the teacher is: what if the arrivants, the child hungries who are symbiotes with the fungus, are a superior race of human? We eat animals we consider lesser beings – why shouldn’t they do the same?

“I wanted to surprise you” HANNIBAL Season 2 Finale, “MIZUMONO” (Fuller, 2014)

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Mizumono is usually translated from Japanese as a “matter of chance”, which is already surprising for a narrative where we have constantly been told that Hannibal, the cannibalistic mastermind, is completely in control and manipulating the other characters, including the entire FBI. But it is so, as we shall see. Even Hannibal is surprised, and not in a good way.

The episode begins with Hannibal’s handwritten note, an artwork in itself, a calligraphic masterpiece (what – Hannibal’s going to write like a spider crawling out of an inkwell, like me?) He is inviting Jack to dinner.

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We all know it’s going to be a showdown, orchestrated by Will, who has told Jack they are trapping Hannibal, and has told Hannibal they are killing Jack, preparatory to escaping together. Whose side are you on, Will?

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Hannibal sums up the carnage to come, with a line used against him in the book Hannibal

When a fox hears a rabbit scream, he comes running. But not to help.
When you hear Jack scream, why will you come running?

In a lovely piece of screen juxtapositioning, both ask Will “When the moment comes…”

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But what exactly needs to be done? Will sees the spectre of Garret Jacob Hobbs, the first serial killer he blew away, back in Season 1, sitting on his front deck, disturbing his dogs. Will picks up a hunting rifle and prepares to kill a stag. Hobbs says the same word he said to Will as he died, a triumphant question confirming the male need for carnivorous sacrifice in order to reinforce identity.

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You might remember that in Episode 4 of this season, Hannibal thwarted the attempted suicide of Jack’s wife, Bella  – he revived her (after first tossing a coin).

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He saved her for Jack. Now as the cancer takes her, she asks

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Well, that’s awkward. Will wants him to kill Jack, now Bella wants him to save Jack. Sometimes the hinges of human sympathies get a bit squeaky.

But he’s leaving town anyway, leaving the FBI and his patients behind, taking Will, for whom he has prepared a nice surprise, involving time reversals (remember the broken cup?)

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They’re burning all Hannibal’s patient records, including the one that shows the demented clock Will drew when he was suffering from encephalitis. But even over the smoke of his flaming life, Hannibal retains that keen sense of smell

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Yes, he smells on Will the scent of Freddie Lounds, whom Will had claimed was the main course of their recent dinner. Hannibal is surprised! Shocked. Disappointed. Angry. Sad. And you have to give it to Mads Mikkelsen, it takes a hell of an actor to express all that without a word of dialogue.

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Of course, the Jack/Will plot is falling apart, since they are not the hunters/fishers/conspirators that they think they are. Jack’s boss puts him on “forced compassionate leave” and he hands in his gun and badge.

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If they are going to take Hannibal down, it will be without the authority or firepower of the FBI. It’s just revulsion and animosity now. And Will never seems completely sure whose side he is on. But he has been goaded – by Hannibal who framed him, by Jack who is driven by humiliation at being constantly deceived, and probably fed a fair amount of human flesh by Hannibal, and Will is intent on seeing where this goes, which is a very Hannibal approach.

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Hannibal has outdone even himself with his presentation of the Last Supper (of this life) for himself and Will. He asks Will if he understands the concept of the IMAGO.

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It is the last stage of metamorphosis in insects, and also in humans turning into Übermenschen, I guess. But in what Hannibal calls “the dead religion of psychoanalysis” (a phrase he first used in Silence of the Lambs) it also means an ideal

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It’s the concept of an ideal person, often one (Clarice’s Dad for example) that we hold on to all our lives and try to live up to. Hannibal and Will have concepts of each other, but they are “too curious about too many things for any ideals”.

NOW IT’S TIME FOR OUR SURPRISE

Hannibal asks Will:

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Hannibal is asking Will for permission to show MERCY! Do you remember what he said last episode? “Pity has no place at the table”

Yet now he puts to Will a new plan.

We could disappear now. Tonight. Feed your dogs. Leave a note for Alana and never see her or Jack again.

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Hannibal points out that he served lamb, an animal that is so quintessentially gentle and harmless that it is repeatedly used in the most brutal religious ceremonies. Will sees the significance – lamb is sacrificial. Hannibal has sacrificed a lamb to appease the wrath of the new Übermensch, Will Graham. Is it enough?

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Well yes, Will does, he sees it as the triumph of the Will. He needs to see one of his mentors defeated, another victorious. He needs to see and even taste the sacrifice.

Jacques Derrida in an interview entitled ‘Eating Well,’or the Calculation of the Subject states:

The virile strength of the adult male… belongs to the schema that dominates the concept of subject. The subject does not want just to master and possess nature actively. In our cultures, he accepts sacrifice and eats flesh.

They have eaten the flesh of the gentle lamb. Now they need to sacrifice a warrior. They discuss forgiveness. Hannibal offers to forgive Will – would Jack do the same? Will replies

Jack isn’t offering forgiveness. He wants – justice. He wants to see you. See who you are.

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Will’s imago will be born in blood.

The FBI put out a warrant for Will (on somewhat shaky legal grounds according to some Internet commentators) and Alana phones to warn him. He then calls Hannibal, and uses the same words Hannibal used in the very first episode when he warned Hobbs:

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Hannibal is carving meat for their not-going-to-happen dinner when Jack appears, beautifully framed in the carver.

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This is ceremonial warfare like jousting or bushido or martial arts: it starts with courtesy and appreciation of the enemy.

Jack: I want to thank you for your friendship, Hannibal.

Hannibal: The most beautiful quality of a true friendship is to understand and be understood with absolute clarity.

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Jack reaches for his gun, Hannibal tosses a carving knife, and it’s on. Alana arrives with her little gun, and Hannibal offers to let her leave alive

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Pretty much what he said to Clarice at the end of Silence of the Lambs. She decides to shoot, of course; Hannibal has taken her bullets, of course. Then comes the shocking climax, where we find that Hannibal has actually reversed time, made the cup gather itself up again.

Have you seen this episode? If not, do so now. In case you haven’t, no more spoilers. It’s sensational.

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You did.

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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