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 eating of the heart is a powerful image” HANNIBAL Season 3, Episode 1 “Antipasto” (Fuller, 2015)

Look, I know from the Fannibals sites that some people didn’t like Season 3, or at least not as much as one and two. I humbly beg to disagree. This season sees Hannibal exposed and ferocious, no longer wearing his “person suit” in which he was pretending to be the respectable psychiatrist, trying to help the FBI catch – well, himself. At the end of Season 2, he left most of the cast writhing in pools of their own blood, and we saw him drinking champagne on a plane to France. His psychiatrist, Bedelia, was by his side, wedded to him, it seems, by their shared responsibility for the death of her patient, whom Hannibal had referred to her. Obligated to him by his helping her cover up her killing.

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Hannibal’s fairy tale is set in Florence, Italy. You may remember a Hannibal of a different generation, in Silence of the Lambs, telling Clarice Starling that memory is what he had instead of a window, as she admired his drawings of the Duomo. Hannibal, it turns out, is an expert on pre-Renaissance Italian literature, particularly Dante, and wants the job of Curator and Translator at the Palazzo Capponi, which of course he gets, by killing the previous Curator and then consuming the man chosen to replace him: Dr Fell, who he meets and eats in Paris. Also by being able to recite Dante from heart at a moment’s notice:

Joyous appeared he in his hand to keep
my very heart, and, lying on his breast,
my lady, veil-enwrapped and full asleep.

But he awakened her, and of my heart,
aflame, he humbly made her, fearful, taste
I saw him, finally, in tears depart.

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Bedelia is no longer pretending not to know what Hannibal does, or of what he is capable. She has an insight into his Nietzschean ethos

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And Hannibal is loving Florence.

“I’ve found a peace here that I would preserve. I’ve killed hardly anybody during our residence”.

Well, the old Curator. And Dr Fell. And Mrs Fell. But the rude Professor Sogliato, who is a natural for dinner because he has been opposing Hannibal’s appointment and being, well, rude about his Italian – will he kill and eat him? No, that would not serve to preserve the peace.

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Bedelia has a flashback to her apartment, just after the bloodbath of the Season 2 Finale, where Hannibal is showering, washing off the blood. She asked him then what he had done.

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Bedelia is terrified of him, but still, they are living the high life.

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There’s a complication, of course, as can happen when you kill people (maybe eat them) and take their identity. This complication is a young scholar from England, Anthony Dimmond (Tom Wisdom from The Boat That Rocked and Avengers: Endgame) who worked for Dr Fell, cordially detested him, and won’t be too upset when he finds out that Hannibal is taking his place. Hannibal appears to show friendship, in one of those double entendres that Hannibal does so well

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We have another flashback to Hannibal’s extended feast on Abel Gideon, at which the only guest of honour was Abel himself.

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“you wish me to be eating oysters, drinking sweet wines and snacking on acorns.
All to make me tastier?”

Abel’s arm is hanging up in the basement being consumed by snails, to make them tastier. And Abel’s tasty flesh is being eaten by Hannibal

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At the dinner, Dimmond asks Bedelia (AKA Mrs Fell) if she is avoiding meat. She replies with one of the great vegan ripostes

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But what is she eating instead? Ah yes

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Dimmond, being a scholar, tells her

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Yes, Bedelia is being fattened up for a future feast. And she knows it.

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Dimmond gets his hopes up: “Is it that kind of party?” “It is not that kind of party” replies Hannibal. To Bedelia’s amazement, Dimmond gets up and leaves at the end of dinner. Alive.

But not for long. Hannibal is giving a lecture to prove his qualifications for the Curatorship. He lectures on mediaeval art, particularly drawing the comparison between Judas, who betrayed Jesus, and Pietro della Vigna, whose alleged treachery and suicide earned him a place in Dante’s Hell. Disappearing in the glow of his slideshow, Hannibal is soon replaced by the One whom Mads seems to be using as inspiration for his portrayal of Hannibal

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The theme of his talk is

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Lo fe gibetto a me de la mie case: I make my own home be my gallows”.

Realising that he is looking at her, and that he considers that she betrayed him (by resigning as his therapist), Bedelia gets up and rushes home to pack. Dimmond comes to the lecture, realises immediately that Hannibal has replaced Dr Fell, and they stroll through an exhibition of instruments of torture. Why do people love such exhibitions? In fact, why do we love stories about zombies, vampires, cannibals? Hannibal explains

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Or as Dimmond puts it

“What still slaps the clammy flab of our submissive consciousness hard enough to get our attention?”

Dimmond offers a sort of partnership with Hannibal. Big mistake. Since Will, Hannibal is not looking to take on new partners. Hannibal takes him home for dinner, just as Bedelia is about to leave, her bag packed and ready.

Wasting no time, Hannibal wallops Dimmond with a bust of Aristotle (appropriate on so many levels) and has a fascinating exchange with Bedelia as she wipes blood off her face, and Dimmond crawls painfully toward the door. He asks her, and us:

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She knew what he would do. She was curious about what would happen. She anticipated their thoughts, counter-thoughts, rationalisations. Is this (the bloody mess) what she expected? Yes, it was.

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He helps her off with her coat. She’s not going anywhere.

And nor is Dimmond, whose corpse Hannibal folds up into the shape of a heart and leaves in a distant cathedral – but more of that next episode.

And nor are we. We are also curious about what will happen. We also anticipate thoughts, counter-thoughts and rationalisations. We also expect things to happen, whether it be in this show, or in our own lives, filled with appetite and consumption and instruments of torture.

That’s participation.

As usual, Hannibal has the final word, in a line that sums up pretty much everything I have been trying to say about cannibalism, and the link to carnivorous virility, and our assumption that it’s OK  to eat anyone whom we classify as less than us.

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As Claude Levi-Strauss said:

“We are all cannibals”.

 

Next week: Beneath the Planet of the Apes