A Nice Chianti

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Posted on 25 May 2013 00:09

(Originally written for MCA 10100, or Intro to Media Studies.)

Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal relies heavily both on the mythos from which it draws, first set down in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs and adapted by Jonathan Demme, and on its beautiful cinematography. Hannibal is shot almost like a film; for a forty-minute show, it luxuriates in selective focus and film effects in order to more fully submerge the viewer in the nightmarishly elegant world it portrays.

Hannibal is, without a doubt, a thriller. It is perhaps unique in this respect because part of the thrill we feel, as viewers, stems from the fact that the ending is a foregone conclusion. We know Hannibal Lecter (played here by Mads Mikkelsen) is a cannibal, at the very least; if we have seen the original film or read the book, we know he is captured by Will Graham, a profiler played here by Hugh Dancy, and ends up in Chilton’s asylum as a result, and the subsequent events involving Clarice Starling. While Hannibal itself is based on Red Dragon, which is set before The Silence of The Lambs, Lecter himself is one of pop culture's most famous antagonists (at times; his moral alignment, cannibalism aside, shifts according to his whims) and it’s more than fair to generalize and say that we all know, at this point, that he is concealing both his dietary preferences and his true nature. In terms of narrative structure and popularity, Hannibal is comparable to any Sherlock Holmes interpretation in which we meet Moriarty for the first time. Enough of the audience knows how this ends – a glass cell for Lecter, the Reichenbach Falls for Holmes and Moriarty – that the narrative arc is already a closed circuit, so to speak. While providing a definite direction for the show, this is also rather limiting in terms of character interpretation and the intervening events. Writing for such a show requires a sort of sustained balancing act between making nods to the canon and the mythos and bringing a breath of fresh air to said closed loop.

Hannibal’s cinematography is beautiful and immersive. One of the most important elements of this, from a narrative standpoint, is the way Graham sees crime scenes – he sees them as they are, in situ, if you will, and then peels back the layers, watching them in reverse, before internally reliving the events leading up to the present. As he moves back in time, unseeing – for example – a spray of blood, the emergency services personnel around him, a dead body – a golden blur sweeps back and forth across the screen, like a conductor’s baton or a windscreen wiper – or, perhaps (and certainly more significantly), a pendulum. There is also a sort of grainy film overlay, which makes it clear that what we are seeing is not reality, or at least not reality as it currently is. Given the psychological themes at the center of the show, this is the most likely interpretation, as well as the most elegant. As a piece of lighting, this is effective from a narrative and an atmospheric standpoint, something at which Hannibal consistently excels – there is a beautiful shot of Mikkelsen as Lecter that is chiaroscuro at its best, in the most classical sense, where the light picks out the planes of his face – cheekbones, the bridge of his nose, and so forth – and leaves his eye sockets in deep shadow, making his face almost skull-like. ”Amuse-Bouche” opens with the same sort of slow-motion, luxurious shot that made the pilot of Elementary so memorable, as well, though here it is spent shell casings that fall, thunderous on the cement, rather than drinking glasses. The dream-like quality of the sequence is similar, as well, though here it is actually a dream rather than a flashback. The new credits sequence, as débuted in “Amuse-Bouche”, is similarly ethereal and beautifully macabre – blood spills against a white background, forming a hollow visage similar to Escher’s "Peeled Faces".

One of the most important elements of the show is the relationship – personal and professional – between Graham and Lecter. There are two beautiful shots that highlight this, first when Lecter visits Graham at his home and later at the end of the episode. Before addressing this, however, it’s important to note that there is a persistent invocation of the Hades myth with regard to Lecter. The first shot that includes him, for example, does not even begin by focusing on his face, but is rather a slow pan up across a black lacquered table (implied to be a piano by the background music) past a plate with a selection of fruit – a fig, a strawberry, and a pomegranate segment, spilling seeds. The last is, of course, how Hades bound Persephone to stay in the underworld for a part of every year – Persephone ate in the underworld, and was therefore inextricably tied to it. The first time Lecter and Graham meet in a personal setting, it is when Lecter visits Graham, and brings him food, some of which is implied to consist of human flesh – and Graham invites Lecter into his home, and eats his food, two actions which are binding in hospitality and consumption in most mythologies. They sit facing each other across a table, backlit – their profiles are highlighted – and it is a beautiful summation of the way they are constantly opposed, and starkly different, and yet eating at the same table. At the end of the episode, they face each other the same way in a hospital room, well-lit and quiet, and it seems to signify how their relationship has become almost friendship – it has certainly transcended the boundaries of something strictly professional.

We later see Hannibal repeat this binding via hospitality and food with Agent Jack Crawford (played by Lawrence Fishburne), though here the implication of cannibalism is even stronger. In this adaptation, the tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds (played by Lara Jean Chorostecki) plays the same role she does in Red Dragon, trawling for information and endangering investigations. She approaches Lecter, who already knows her identity and reprimands her for her rudeness; cut to Crawford’s dinner plate. He has been served loin which, upon further inquiry, Lecter identifies as pork, though it takes him a nail-biting minute to do so. Lounds, as it turns out, is alive, well, and whole; if Hannibal follows the same overall character arcs as Red Dragon, she will later be killed by Francis Dolarhyde for the same sort of rudeness in an ironic twist. Regardless, Crawford – just like Graham – enjoys the meal, and Lecter invites him to bring his wife for dinner one day. He seems to feel a certain frisson at feeding others human flesh without their knowledge, and he also seems to be collecting FBI agents in this way. For someone who inhabits his mind as fully as Lecter does, this seems to be a sort of game of intellect, an inside joke with one’s self.

Of course, the joke could always be on us. We still don’t know that it’s human flesh – that’s subtext rather than text at this point – but the mere possibility of it is enough, which is the great dark humor of it. Maybe it really is pork loin.

One of the major themes of Hannibal is obsession – Lecter’s obsession with Graham, most pointedly, though Dr. Alana Bloom, a colleague of Graham’s played by Caroline Dhavernas, also cautions Crawford about letting Will “get too close”. To what, specifically, is never clarified, but given Graham’s almost superhuman ability to empathize, it can safely be assumed that she means the crimes; she means the gory spectacle of them, certainly, and the horror implicit in such violent acts, but more specifically, she is referencing the show’s own tagline – “enter the mind of a killer” – and Graham’s ability to literally place himself in the moment, in the driver’s seat, if you will, and relive these acts as the perpetrator. Fuller has referred to the first two seasons as the “seduction”, making Lecter’s character-establishing shot even more relevant – subtextually, and yet concretely, he is the Hades to Graham’s Persephone. Hannibal is engaging in a slow, deliberate, mental seduction; the show is convincing us to care about characters whose ultimate fate we already know, and the character is trying to get under Graham’s skin as only a best friend (and, admittedly, a gifted psychologist) can. Perhaps the best way to analogize Hannibal’s compulsive attraction to Graham would be to compare him to a clockmaker, an expert in gears and mechanism, presented with some new automaton that works in inexplicable ways. Lecter feels that same itching of his fingertips, that same drive to figure out just what makes Graham tick – to understand his function, and to consume him in that way, mentally, and possess him.

In terms of clothing, the characters are dressed in a fairly straightforward manner. Crawford wears run-of-the-mill suits, while Graham, who is not in fact an agent, wears checked shirts and slacks. Lecter, the cultured psychologist, wears beautiful tailored suits with pocket squares, but changes into shirtsleeves and a sweater for his visit to Graham – presumably to put Graham at ease and insinuate himself into Graham’s good graces, both out of a personal curiosity (he is still a brilliant psychologist, after all) and for his own safety, as he is working with the one man who could possibly expose him and his omophagic predilections. This is another element of characterization addressed more fully here, but one particularly worth noting in a Fuller show, where color and detail are particularly important.

Picking up Red Dragon for the first time, I couldn’t help but notice some particularly loving parallels, particularly from this passage:

Graham had a lot of trouble with taste. Often his thoughts were not tasty. There were no effective partitions in his mind. What he saw and learned touched everything else he knew. Some of the combinations were hard to live with. But he could not anticipate them, could not block and repress. His learned values of decency and propriety tagged along, shocked at his associations, appalled at his dreams; sorry that in the bone arena of his skull there were no forts for what he loved. His associations came at the speed of light. His value judgments were at the pace of a responsive reading. They could never keep up and direct his thinking. He viewed his own mentality as grotesque but useful, like a chair made of antlers. There was nothing he could do about it.

Besides the Persephone myth, a major figure in Will’s dreams and hallucinations is the Raven-Feathered Stag, which we first see watching Will in “Apéritif” and which returns in “Amuse-Bouche”, walking through the hallways at his home. This is perhaps analagous to the Ceryneian Hind, Artemis’ sacred golden-antlered doe. Hercules’ Third Labor involved the capture of the Ceryneian Hind for a menagerie, though in the end he returned it to Artemis, letting it go free. The Raven-Feathered Stag haunts Will. Though it doesn’t have the definite purpose of, say, his hallucinations of murder victims, or his empathetic extrapolations, it is an excellent symbol of both his “grotesque but useful” mentality and the great obstacles he has yet to overcome. Hercules performed his Twelve Labors as penance for killing his own sons; Will is also suffering a certain amount of guilt, but as explained in “Amuse-Bouche”, this is not because he killed Hobbs, but rather because he enjoyed doing so.

In terms of that last and rather psychosexual revelation, this gives new significance to Will’s reluctance to allow anyone to remain in the room while he turns back time, so to speak, as well as how sharply he is pulled back to reality when Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park) raises her voice in “Apéritif”. He is, after all, shaking; “shocked at his associations, appalled at his dreams”. There is a particularly breathtaking exchange in “Amuse-Bouche” where Hannibal argues that to kill is natural; after all, we are created in God’s image, and he kills all the time. He and Graham have already established the iconic quid pro quo Lecter later establishes with Starling; a memory for a clue, one insight for another, and Lecter initiates the theological exchange. “And did God feel good about that?” Graham asks. “He felt powerful,” Lecter replies, sitting across from him, the man with all the answers and the inside jokes with himself and, as he declares himself, “problem-free”.

The most clear message, in a show about various shades of morality, is that of distancing one’s self and not “getting too close” – whether that be to Lecter, from Graham’s point of view, or to the characters, from ours. After all, we’ve read this story before. We know how it ends. It does not do to lose one’s self too fully to the shadows, whether they are Graham’s demons or the enthralling horror of a foregone conclusion. All that remains is to watch and wait and give a little of ourselves over to the story in exchange. Quid pro quo.

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