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Sunday, February 18, 2007

In brightest day, in blackest nutjob


You're familiar with Hannibal Lecter, right? Middle aged fella, very intelligent, underneath the goalie mask he looks a great deal like either Brian Cox or Anthony Hopkins (depending on which movie you're watching), tendency to kill impolite people and eat their organs? Yeah, him. Knew you'd heard of him.

I've gone on at length in the past about how poorly it reflects on our culture, when our most intelligent cultural icon is an insane, cannibalistic serial killer, and one of our dumbest, Forrest Gump, is an almost universally beloved cultural success story. But smarts are something that Americans in particular have always viewed with suspicion; we claim to admire intelligent people, but we refer to them disparagingly as 'nerds' and 'eggheads', while simultaneously electing a village idiot to our highest executive office.

(Okay, in point of fact, he was never actually elected, and I know that, but many many millions of people did indeed vote for him, and I have to assume that if Forrest Gump were a real person and he actually ran for office, Americans would vote for that dimwit in unprecedented numbers, as well.)

Nonetheless, the manner in which our society reveres those who do not make us feel stupid or inadequate, while hating and fearing those who do, is not really salient to my discussion of HANNIBAL RISING, a competently crafted but for the most part mediocre, as well as entirely soulless, film I saw yesterday. (It wasn't my fault. The older two SuperKids wanted to see it.)

What I saw in HANNIBAL RISING was not just the continuation of the mythos of a guy who is much, much smarter than any of us, and whom we therefore fear and despise. No, what I was watching yesterday was even more terrifying than that -- the transformation of a character we fear and despise into a character we kind of like and admire, because however scary his intelligence may be, it's kind of cool when it is used to kill undeniably evil, ugly, brutal, and otherwise thoroughly objectionable men, in cruel and visually interesting ways.

With HANNIBAL RISING, the character of Hannibal Lecter has somehow, well, risen above his previous characterization as a public menace and become... well... a superhero. He's a vicious, sadistic, cannibalistic, obviously insane superhero, but the contemporary Batman often seems to be only a twenty cent cab ride from chowing down on the Riddler's sweetbreads himself, so this is not so much a comment on how exalted a depiction of Lecter this movie presents, as it is one on how debased our cultural definition of 'hero' has become.

The movie's arc follows a basic formula any 21st century consumer of pop fiction easily recognizes -- a young boy's entire family is wiped out in front of him by evil, brutish men. The boy, who obviously possesses an innately superior will that allows him to drive himself to extremes the rest of us can only fantasize about, devotes himself to vengeance/justice, preparing himself through an arduous process of mental and physical training to become the perfect avenger of his brutalized dead. Eventually, he seeks out each of those who destroyed his childhood and brings them to justice, generally in a uniquely characteristic, almost trademarked manner that lets others know that the vengeance enacted was done by this character and this character alone.

Throw in tights, a cape, and a pointy eared cowl, and that's Batman; tweak a few story elements and toss in some webbing and it's Spider-Man. But in this movie it's neither, it is, instead, celebrated psycho serial killer Hannibal Lecter who is our protagonist, and despite the fact that various characters at one time or another cluck disapprovingly at him about what a 'monster' he is, those who reprove him are all universally depicted as a boring bunch of no-funs and goobers, while those he kills are all pretty irrefutably in dire need of killing, and Lecter himself is the smartest, sharpest dressed, most competent, wittiest, and best looking guy in this entire celluloid universe.

The overwhelming message is, yeah, he's a nutjob, sure, he kills people and eats them, but, what the hell, he's still way kewl, dude.

Aware of being manipulated though I was, even I couldn't help but admire the late teen Hannibal Lecter, holding a fork in his hand to block a blow from a bully. It's a neat bit of instant karma; whatever damage Lecter's tormenter means to inflict unnecessarily on Lecter, the force of the blow itself is what determines the extent of the punishment the creep immediately receives as a result of the attack. And when the piglike director of the orphanage later chides Lecter for not "respect[ing] the human pecking order" and "always hurt[ing] the bullies", it's a cold heart indeed that wouldn't warm towards Hannibal, however creepy he may seem.

Thomas Harris, creator of the Hannibal Lecter character and writer of both the book this movie is based on and the movie's screenplay, has Lecter himself rationalizing his actions when he later asks a Paris policeman,in the early 1950s, where the French police had been when French children were being loaded on trucks for deportation to slave labor camps by the Nazis. The clear implication of the remark is that organized, official, authorized police forces are as susceptible to cowardice and corruption as anyone else and, in the end, are no better and perhaps rather worse than an individual agent of justice/vengeance like Lecter. This point is underscored by the way this French policeman is depicted torturing and brutally executing many suspects who cross his path, although he leaves Lecter alone, and in fact, tries to help him, because the two of them both lost their families in World War II.

The concept that an organized police force can be corrupted, or is at least unnecessarily hindered by foolish regulations and bureaucratic inertia, so it takes an outsider to really work effectively for justice in this world, is a prominent element in the basic superhero lexicon. All of this subtext is meant to make the audience view Lecter as being not just sympathetic, but ultimately admirable and correct in his proceedings against the evil, evil men who killed, cooked, and ate his little sister. The occasional mutterings by tedious types as to Lecter's being a monster are thus easily set aside by the audience.

Similarly easy to set aside is the fact that in the context of the character we've already seen established by previously published books and their cinematic adaptations, this version of Lecter makes very little sense. As told in flashbacks in the book RED DRAGON and its two movie adaptations, Hannibal Lecter was a respected psychiatrist who enjoyed a surreptitious avocation as a cannibalistic serial killer for years without anyone suspecting him, until perhaps the FBI's most brilliant profiler, Will Graham, came along and almost accidentally tumbled to Lecter's proclivities.

Yet in HANNIBAL RISING, we see a young Lecter who rampages across Central and Western Europe killing people he doesn't much like and eating them, with a French police detective who knows full well what Lecter has done and is doing in lukewarm pursuit. Even if we assume that said detective was sympathetic enough to Lecter that he never mentioned Lecter's name in any kind of official report (and that's more of an assumption than I want to make, since, at the end of the movie, we're clearly supposed to believe that the French cop thinks Lecter is dead, so why not mention his name?), Lecter's extraordinary background is still a matter of public record. You'd think someone would have done some kind of check on him before he got awarded a medical license in the United States, especially as he was planning to specialize in the area of mental health. And you'd think that the FBI would have looked into him too, given his connection to the case Graham was investigating, and someone might have wondered if this guy, who was connected to so many long ago post WWII murders that had cannibalistic elements to them, might not be a little fucked in the head.

But none of it really matters, because this is pretty much an entirely different version of the Hannibal Lecter character, and a contemporary audience that can acceopt the utter nonsense depicted in George Lucas' three STAR WARS prequels is certainly not going to demand a sensible connection between this film and its future-set predecessors.

Middle aged Hannibal is a scary guy who kills Federal officers and cuts their faces off, or fries their brains in butter. Young Hannibal... well, he's a little intense, sure, and he's got that scary Joker-grin, but still, he had a rough childhood and it's not like he's killing cops or anything.

Again... the overwhelming impression we are meant to take away from this film is that not only is this version of Hannibal Lecter actually somewhat cool, but he is, indeed, no longer a cultural boogieman. He has become a hero. An extremely post-Modern, very anti-heroic hero indeed, but, nonetheless, a hero... someone we can look up to and admire, as he does the things we ourselves wish we could do, and would do, if only we weren't bound and constricted by our own physical and mental limitations, and the restrictions of civilized custom. He is, in short, someone we admire, and aspire to emulate.

A society that would make a monster out of a man with superhuman intelligence, and a hero out of a man who is mentally retarded, is one with profound problems. But a culture that would make a hero out of Hannibal Lecter is most likely one that deserves to be destroyed.

4 Comments:

At 7:23 PM , Blogger MJ Norton said...

The common thread I'd seen through the early reviews (aside from general disparagement of the pace and other directorial elements, a lack of suspense and a script that swings from boring to silly back to boring) is this disconnect between the Lecter we saw in later films and this one on the point of justification for his actions and the choice of targets. It was largely based on those points - mentioned in various ways by various reviewers - that saw me skipping the movie this side of it appearing on cable.

The most forgiving interpretation I saw was that it's meant - as a total picture with the later films - to show us that stepping down the path he did even with the most sympathetic reasons still, ultimately, turned him into a monster. That his dark, vengeance-grown appetites outlasted his objects of vengeance and redefined him.

On a simpler level still, though, keep in mind that there are people for whom Freddy Kreuger, Jason Vorhees and the odious stars of The Devil's Rejects/House of 1000 Corpses are dark heroes. Many don't even seem to need a justifying motivation.

 
At 6:33 PM , Blogger AaA said...

A society that would make a monster out of a man with superhuman intelligence, and a hero out of a man who is mentally retarded, is one with profound problems. But a culture that would make a hero out of Hannibal Lecter is most likely one that deserves to be destroyed.
That says it all.

Can't wait for Armageddon.

 
At 3:20 AM , Anonymous Mike said...

I've often thought that it's long past time for that asteroid to come along.

 
At 5:15 AM , Blogger Highlander said...

I think it was in TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE that Heinlein, through his mouthpiece Lazarus Long, said something about how there was something 'inherently rotten' at the heart of German culture.

This is, of course, the bag that the entire German people have been stuck holding ever since they allowed Hitler to come to power over them. Nearly any contemporary citizen of the world would nod their head solemnly at such a pronouncement, while allowing themselves to smugly feel superior for, you know, not being a descendent of Nazis.

The fact is, there's something very rotten at the heart of American culture, too. Boil it down and I suspect what you come to is our free market capitalist inclination to regard ourselves and others as being, at base, chattel to be exploited, or chaff to be winnowed until we find a valuable kernel. Our tendency to look at everything, including our fellow humans, with the eyes of merchants, has caused us to create a worldview in which everything is and everyone are commodities.

It is exactly that worldview that allows one to ship one's fellow humans off to concentration camps, to torture them, to murder them, to invade their countries and steal their resources. Because if human life and human rights all have a price tag, well, human life and human rights all become very, very cheap.

I don't know any solutions, but I think it's frankly horrible that free market capitalism seems to be the best economic system we've come up with to date.

 

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