God drives a Cadillac

If you’ll allow me to be crude for a moment: more often than not, gods are dicks. They’re narcissists and sociopaths. They crave your worship and don’t think twice of smiting you if you displease them the teensiest bit. They like a spot of sacrifice, ideally of the human kind – the bloodier the better. Whoever thought it was a good idea to give such hypersensitive, overpowered egomaniacs with the maturity of toddlers even the slightest bit of power?

What’s that you say? We did it? By believing in them, we invested them with power?

… literal theocracy sucks.

American Gods

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‘Twas the bear that done it: discussing The Revenant

12 Oscar nominations, a budget of $135 million and one very angry bear: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is the revenge flick that’s likely to continue being the talk of this award season. Reason enough to discuss the film one-on-one, like a better behaved Leonardo di Caprio and Tom Hardy, though with less grunting and accents that are easier to comprehend.

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A totally non-representative, disappointingly short Best of 2014

Nope, I won’t be doing any lists. No “Best game that gamers feel insulted by, saying it’s not even a game, like!”, no “Best instalment of The Hobbit to date, even though it wastes Mikael Persbrandt” and no “Best mildly disappointing new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic”. Just one entry.

Or should that be entrée?

I’ve written about Hannibal before. It’s rare that my pre-release expectations of any media product are this different from my opinion of the result: when I heard that they were doing a TV series based on the Hannibal Lecter books by Thomas Harris, I scoffed audibly. Cannibalistic cash cow, anyone? I was wrong, though: Bryan Fuller and his band of assorted sickos, psychos and gourmets have created one of the most fascinating series in a long time. It’s no The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos or Six Feet Under – but neither does it suffer from that comparison. It’s something entirely different, and it’s remarkably different from the films based on Harris’ novels. There’s obviously an element of Grand Guignol in the artistic killings of the series, but at the same time we’re not supposed to titter and gawk at the imaginative imagery. Fuller puts a sense of terror and downright, metaphysical dread back into that most hackneyed of fictional figures, the serial killer.

Much of the credit must go to Fuller’s two leads. I expected Mads Mikkelsen to be good, but he’s better than I’d dared to expect. He is miles away from Anthony Hopkins’ increasingly hammy Hannibal: a cold, calculating, diabolical and utterly fascinating creature, one of the reasons why Hannibal freaks me out as much. If Hopkins is theatrical in his camp evil, Mikkelsen’s culinary villain offers a much more intellectual, sharp-as-a-knife theatricality with no hint of a wink at an audience that despite themselves roots for that darn rascal Hannibal.

Pukka food, eh?

Will Graham, played by Hugh Dancy as a permanent bundle of frayed nerves sending messages of pain to a fevered mind, could have been the boring straight man, but instead he offers the much needed polar opposite to the series’ Hannibal Lecter. His humanity could have been boring, cloying or preachy, but Dancy brings a taut, nervous energy to the role that is constantly interesting, always watchable. The rest of Hannibal‘s cast fares well, but it’s Dancy and Mikkelsen that make it work – together with the cinematography, that is, which manages to balance fascination with repulsion with a deftness I can’t remember having seen in a long time, and definitely not in any of the post-Silence of the Lambs serial killer movies.

There have been other interesting, worthwhile media events in 2013, but nothing has captured my imagination and haunted me as much as Hannibal, and for that I owe Bryan Fuller a dinner, at least.

He may just be the main course, mind you.

And on that yummy note: wishing every one of you a very happy 2014! Except you. No, the other one. Yes, you. Sorry.

Of serial killers, haute cuisine and empathy

So many series we’re watching aren’t exactly puppies and rainbows 24/7. There’s Top of the Lake, with its panoply of misogyny, abuse and murder. There’s Game of Thrones, whose murder, mayhem and intrigue make Shakespeare’s history plays look like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, obviously what was missing was Hannibal, a heartwarming story of a troubled boy, his psychiatrist and food, glorious food.

Coincidentally, at the same time we watched the first episode of BBC’s Messiah series 2 – and while Hannibal probably features the more baroque, aestheticised killings, it’s Messiah that I found more difficult to watch. Not in a positive way, mind you; I didn’t come away from Messiah feeling shocked and sorry for the victims, because I didn’t feel that the series was all that interested in the victims. It wasn’t outright sadistic, but it still used the sadism of its killers (I’m including the first series of Messiah in this) as a somewhat lazy shorthand: the killer these people are up again is really messed up. Which is hammered home repeatedly – but it’s almost entirely about the killer in question and the detectives out to find him.

Hunting serial killers - a grim, serious business, set in grim, serious dingy basements. (Crack a smile and we'll have to do the photo again.)

I was surprised by how much Messiah‘s murders turned me off. I usually have a fairly strong stomach when it comes to on-screen violence, and arguably Hannibal‘s cannibalism and impalings are more gruesome. However, while Hannibal doesn’t necessarily spend that much more time with the victims of violence (at least not before they’re turned into Grand Guignol dioramas by Americas 10 Most Artistic Murderers), it has something that so far I haven’t really found in Messiah: empathy. While the BBC series is happy to say, “These are horrible crimes, because they look like horrible crimes, and our heroes will stop them,” Hannibal is interested in states of mind. It’s interested in the emotional consequences of these crimes. The series’ title character, eminent psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), may be cold to the point of appearing devoid of emotion, but his counterpart Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is empathy. He’s a raw nerve, incapable of not empathising.

I used to be a fan of serial killer narratives, and I still like films like SevenZodiac and earlier additions to the Hannibal Lecter mythos such as Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs. However, I’ve come to realise that I find these films offputting if the violence they depict seems to be decorative first and foremost. Messiah‘s murders seem to be as elaborately symbolic as they are first and foremost for audiences who may be bored with the common or garden variety of murder. They’re elaborate because that’s what the genre demands. And, for me at least, they are cruel because they’re there for the effect. The murders tell us more about how the series wants to entertain its audience than about the murders or the victims.

Would you like to talk about it? Over some liver pate, perhaps?

What Hannibal seems to be striving for, on the other hand, is that old Aristotelian chestnut associated with tragedy: through Will Graham we’re asked to experience pity and fear. I did feel pity for Messiah‘s victims, but more so because I felt the series wasn’t interested in them. It wasn’t even that interested in the murderer, beyond providing a relatively glib, facile explanation of motive. In that sense, Hannibal is closer to Hitchcock’s granddaddy of all things serial-killery, Psycho, in that it believes in extending its empathy to the people committing the crimes – although in the case of Dr. Lecter, there may be no understanding why he does what he does.

Other than him liking his haute cuisine, that is. Because, seriously, where are you going to get that steaming fresh liver for that dish you’ve simply been dying to try out?

The joy of a well-prepared meal.

P.S.: I might take on Top of the Lake soon. That is, if I can figure out what I think about it – or if I can figure out an interesting way of saying why it confused me.