Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dinner Time!

by Kemper

Hannibal Lecter was the original foodie.
Thomas Harris’ brilliant crime-thrillers Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs showcased an unforgettable cannibal serial killer and were adapted in film versions with Michael Mann doing the first one as Manhunter, and  the movie version of SotL becoming an instant classic.  However, a bad thing happened after that.

Hannibal Lecter got popular.

With everyone joking about fava beans and a nice Chianti after the second movie hit it big, it was just a matter of time until the good doctor made another appearance, but the follow-up novel delivered by Harris was a gore-soaked mess that tried to transform Hannibal into some kind of anti-hero by pitting him against someone supposedly worse than him in the character of a wealthy disfigured former victim of the psychiatrist.  (And let’s not even talk about what Harris did to Clarice Starling in that one.)

The film based on that one did well at the box office but took a critical beating.  Then someone remembered that Anthony Hopkins had never played Hannibal in Red Dragon so a competent but uninspired second movie of it was put together and rolled out, but it didn’t rake in the cash.  Shortly after that, Harris completely sold out his best known character by cobbling together an origin story in novel and screenplay that flatly contradicted much of what we’d been told about Hannibal.  When Hannibal Rising hit theaters, it didn’t have the benefit of Hopkins so it crashed and burned with critics and audiences.

This is where Hannibal had been left.  A once great villain that had been overexposed by clumsy attempts to cast him as some kind of righteous avenger and defender of culture by munching on rude and tasteless people.  Meanwhile, scores of books, movies and TV shows had done their own versions of genius serial killers and tortured souls chasing them with the help of high-tech forensics.  Hannibal had sparked a trend and became a complete cliché in the aftermath.

Which is why doing a TV series as a prequel to Red Dragon seemed like such a terrible idea.  Hannibal wasn’t even going to be the first serial killer from a series of books to hit television since Dexter had been working that turf for years.  With it being on the worst rated old broadcast network in NBC instead of an ediger cable network, this just seemed like it’d end up as another sorry chapter in the sad descent of Hannibal Lecter.


Producer Bryan Fuller, best known for creating clever and quirky shows that get cancelled before their time like Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me, came up with the idea of using some of the back-story in the novel Red Dragon to give us a new interpretation of Hannibal, and it looks like he‘s both taking the story back to it‘s roots while putting new twists on the old characters.

In the pilot episode Apertif, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) teaches criminal profiling at the FBI training academy.  After a string of college girls are kidnapped and killed in Minnesota, Will  is recruited by Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), the head of the Behavioral Science Unit, to help find the killer.  Unfortunately, the empathy and imagination that enable Will to put himself into the mind of a killer also result in borderline social disorders and make him unstable so Crawford brings in prominent psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) to hold Will together long enough to get the job done.

That story should sound familiar to fans of Harris, but it’s what Fuller and company have done with stray bits of back-story from that one that made this pilot so good.  Red Dragon started with Will Graham retired after nearly being killed while capturing Hannibal.  Lecter is in custody and delights in tormenting Will with observations that he’s so good at finding serial killers because he’s one at heart.  We never got see Will or Hannibal in their primes so this show is filling in a significant gap.

Like the best adaptations, Fuller knows when to break away from the source material.  Will and Hannibal never worked together in the book (It seems like this might be an idea Fuller picked up from the second film adaptation.), and Will was not a bundle of near-crippling social anxieties despite his issues.  There’s a critical event that’s part of Will’s history that is shown in the pilot, but with the new factor that Hannibal is not only present, he engineered it.  Fuller has also gender flipped a couple of characters like Freddy Lounds going from ugly male sleazy tabloid journalist to an attractive female sleazy crime blogger.

The show’s stunning visuals (Inspired by Fuller's love of The Shining) are haunting like a woman impaled on the antlers of a deer head or a field of decomposing bodies sprouting mushrooms in the second episode.  These effects are also used well to show us how Will’s mind works.  The Red Dragon book notes that Will pictures a silver pendulum swinging and stopping to clear his thoughts.  In the show, a line that sweeps back and forth is used to depict how Will filters out everything he doesn’t want to see to work a crime scene.
Dr. Lecter probably has a recipe for the 
mushrooms that Will found in the woods.
All of this has made the first two episodes good, but what elevates them to great is the way that Fuller has handled the main characters, and despite the show’s title, it’s Will, not Hannibal who has been more of a focus so far.  Hannibal doesn’t even show up until halfway through the pilot, and that proves that Fuller knows what makes Lecter work.  Where the last couple of books and films tried to make Hannibal the main character, the first two books are better with Will Graham and then Clarice Starling in the lead while Hannibal is the boogeyman who frightens and torments them.

Since this is before he‘s been caught, this version of Hannibal has to seem somewhat normal, and Mikkelson does a great job of playing him as just a little off. Not so much that anyone would think he’s a serial killer, but enough to let the audience know that Hannibal is a shark swimming among schools of fish.  When a blubbering patient drops a used tissue on his table, the momentary flicker of distaste that Mikkelson flashes makes you wonder if the guy is going to make it out of the room.  Just showing Hannibal preparing and serving food to other people is enough to make a viewer’s skin crawl.  Fuller has taken what could be a disadvantage in audience familiarity with Lecter and turned it into a way to generate tension just by having him around.

It also allows them to focus on the more sympathetic character of Will, and this is another great performance for the show by Hugh Dancy who completely sells the idea of a man so sensitive that it could make him crazy.  Will is a guy who compulsively saves stray dogs, but there’s some real darkness lurking there, too.  His empathy can put him into the crime scenes to the point of detailed imaginings of killing people yet he can also feel the suffering of the victims so it’s a double-edge sword.

Artistic themes are all over Harris‘ books, and it's almost as if the killers that Will chased were creating their own gruesome forms of expression, and that Will was the only critic who could correctly interpret it.  There’s a great bit in Aperitif in which another dead young woman has been discovered.  Will is almost offended at the crime scene, not because of it’s graphic nature, but because it’s immediately obvious to him to be the work of a copycat who harbored none of the oddly tender feelings he picked up on at the previous killing.  He dismisses it instantly as an art expert would an inferior forgery, and what adds another dimension is when it’s strongly implied that Hannibal killed this woman simply to get Will pointed in the right direction by showing him the opposite of what he should be looking for.

Even creepier, we aren’t sure what Hannibal’s agenda is in this.  He finds Will interesting, but is the doctor trying to push him into darker corners to see if he can turn him from ‘critic’ to ‘artist’?  Hannibal could be just toying with him while staying inside the FBI’s inner circle of serial killer experts for his own purposes, or he could genuinely think he’s aiding Will by his own twisted logic.  We don’t know yet, but we know what Hannibal is and some idea of where it ends up thanks to Red Dragon so the prospects are horrible to think about.

With only a couple of episodes aired and so-so ratings, there’s still a distinct possibility for this show to become yet another Fuller series cancelled before it’s time.  It’s also hard to tell how long they could sustain this concept.  At some point, it’s going to be ridiculous if a couple of serial killer experts like Will and Crawford can’t recognize the one under their noses.  However, Fuller claims that he has a plan for couple of 13 episode seasons at least so hopefully this smart new interpretation of a 30-year-old story will get a chance to deliver on the potential it’s showing in the early stages.

If nothing else, it’s turned an old and tired villain into something new and terrifying.

Kemper will never eat mushrooms again after viewing the second episode of Hannibal.  You can read his review of Red Dragon at his blog.

Up Jumped the Devil

The Death of Bunny Munro
Nick Cave
Faber and Faber, 2009
Anthony Vacca's rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I am conflicted. On one hand, Nick Cave is one of my top ten favorite musicians. For over thirty years he has consistently made some of the best emotionally and physically visceral music ever to come tearing, and sometimes aching, its way of the electric shiver of a set of speakers. The man can sing about capital letter Love in a way that will turn any person equipped with something resembling a heart into a believer; but he can also thrash and foam like a maniac about the erotic bliss of banal and lowercased murder. Age has not tempered the man. He can do the arena rock (There She Goes My Beautiful World), and then turn around and throw a dirty old man punk rock boogie your way (No Pussy Blues), and then stick his tongue firmly in cheek and strut his way through a playful poke and prod at a bible story favorite (Dig Lazarus, Dig). What I am saying here is that the man is versatile, confident, and staggeringly literate in his ability to craft a hell of a song. The same is true in every way about Nick Cave’s approach to writing a novel.

And here comes the conflict: as much as I love Nick Cave’s music, having finished reading this, his second novel (twenty years later after And the Ass Saw the Angel I am left wondering how many wonderful novels we could have had from the man if his calling had been that of a novelist first instead of a musician. Because, yeah, The Death of Bunny Munro is a wonderful book. It’s disturbing, tender, articulate, funny, monstrous, profane, humane, and everything else I could ever ask for from a single book.

Bunny Munro (could this be a respectful nod to the then recently departed John Updike and his own great creation of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom?) is damned. We know this from the first sentence on. And we also know, even if Bunny’s own self-awareness fails him on about all fronts imaginable, that there is no one to blame for Bunny’s fate except himself. His problem is not that he is married to a long-suffering, and emotionally-disturbed wife or that he has a precocious and loyal little son charmingly named Bunny Jr.; Bunny’s problem is that he can’t stop trying to fuck anything with a vagina even if it is at the expense of everything he should hold dear.

I saw the film Shame last year, which was a powerful rumination on sexual addiction and what exactly it means to be a human being that interacts and forms relationships with others, and let me tell you this: I like sex as much as the next sane, non-repressed person, but living a life resembling anything like the shit that Michael Fassbender’s character from the aforementioned flick or that Bunny Munro goes through…well, there’s a reason why I just used the word shit.

Bunny will gladly tell you that his favorite thing in the whole wide world is a woman’s vagina: any and all vaginas. He wants to be inside them all. This is why in the first chapter of the book we find Bunny sitting in a sleazy motel room with a black hooker while he tries to talk his wife down out of a panic attack on the phone. She wants her husband to come home, but Bunny tells her he can’t because he is still out on the road selling his company’s beauty products from door to door. This is what we call a lie, because Bunny is only a few miles away from his home where his wife gets calls about Bunny’s dying father and there’s the sound of a thousand birds fleeing a burning peer right outside her window that’s driving her insane. Bunny promises his wife he will be home early in the morning, but it is late in the afternoon by the time he finally does; after he fucks a random waitress, of course.

This is the kind of man Bunny Munro is.

After a series of misfortunate events, the novel really gets rollicking when we find Bunny back on the road once more, selling his cosmetic wares all over Brighton (that’s in England) with little Bunny Jr. in tow. If I had to describe the plot of this novel then I would have to say here that it is a road-trip novel about fathers and sons. But that makes it sound so pedestrian and there is nothing ever somewhat resembling that word when it comes to something Nick Cave has created.

For one, Nick Cave weaves an encroaching apocalyptic funk throughout the novel by constantly reminding Bunny and the reader of a maniac who is terrorizing public spaces, his body painted red and horns jutting out of his skull. This is far from being just a prank because the bodies of women are starting to turn up, their bodies ripped to pieces by a pitchfork. No matter where Bunny goes he can’t escape seeing news coverage of the madman on TVs and in newspapers. He does his best to ignore the news story and the sense of dread it is welling up inside him, but he can’t help but notice that the killings are getting closer and closer to Brighton. And Bunny knows that the killings are coming home to him.

Also, Bunny is fairly certain that a ghost is haunting his every movement.

But it is hard to feel too sorry for Bunny, because he is constantly at his worst behavior. As he and Bunny Jr. drive around all day, spending nights at cheap motels and having every meal in fast food joints just as ubiquitous, we see just exactly how shitty a dad the man is. He leaves his kid in the car for hours while he goes to visit the homes of women whose names are on his list of interested customers, and when he is not trying to hawk his ridiculous sounding creams and ointments, he is seeing if maybe he can talk whatever women is in front of him into a quick screw. Because this is how Bunny sees women (and I do mean any and all women): they are vaginas with some immediate potential to be entered. It does not matter how old or unattractive a woman is, when Bunny sees them he is immediately thinking of them in terms of fucking. This does make for a lot linguistic feats on the part of the author, as he thinks up another colorful expression or play on words to talk about Bunny and his nearly constant erection.

In fact, it is the humor that saves this book from being utterly harrowing (and it is plenty enough harrowing, still). Cave does a similar trick like Martin Amis, in that, he is constantly placing Bunny in absurd and humiliating situations that the character completely deserves. One of the funniest running gags in this book (and one which Cave apologizes for in the afterward of the novel) is Bunny’s obsession with the singer Avril Lavigne. Cave sums it up nicely in this sentence right here: "Bunny is almost positive that Avril Lavigne possesses the fucking Valhalla of all vaginas." So if you can’t find humor in a dirty, middle-aged man beating off to this ridiculous notion of Avril Lavigne as the end-all be all sex object, then this book might not be for you.

Don’t think this book is all grotesquery and gallows humor, because Cave is also melancholy and generous in his portrayal of Bunny Jr. When Cave writes about how Bunny Jr. loves his father for no reason greater than the fact that Bunny <i>is</i> his father, the prose makes you ache. If anything, Bunny Jr. is the collateral damage throughout this whole story. We watch as he tries to understand exactly who this man is that is supposed to be his father. The boy is smart—he spends his time cooped in the car reading through an encyclopedia—but is too young to realize that he is or find comfort in the fact. What Bunny Jr. wants is for his father to love him back and be proud of having him as his son. Unfortunately for Bunny Jr., his father is a cad.

A quick post script: For the five-star experience, get a copy of this book on audiobook. Nick Cave reads the novel himself, and there is nothing like hearing Cave’s exact and lyrical way of speaking, as he keeps the story moving at a rapt pace. Plus, the audiobook features an original score of music composed by Nick and Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds (Nick Cave’s backing band). The score divides each chapter as well popping up every now and then at moments in the text where the music adds a surreal urgency to the events at hand. There’s also neat sound effects placed throughout the reading, so that when Bunny walks into a room with a flickering light there is also that all too distinct sound for us to hear right along with him. It all adds up to make a unique and unforgettable experience.

Also posted on GoodReads