Digesting "Hannibal"

Two noted authors discuss an unspeakable love, how the critics got it wrong -- and the semiotics of brain eating.

Published March 3, 2001 8:07PM (EST)

We saw "Hannibal" on two different nights in two different cities. When we started exchanging e-mails about the movie, we realized that the critics had it all wrong. We began to think maybe we should try to get it right. We didn't, exactly, but we decided we'd share our e-mails in the hope that our dialogue -- which continues -- might at least advance the discussion from where it has been. Neither of us has read the Thomas Harris book on which the movie is based, and readers who have not seen the movie are advised that some pertinent plot points are discussed in detail below.

Frederick Barthelme: So I saw "Hannibal." Loved it. Thought it a sublime love story. It's the best Ridley Scott movie since "Blade Runner," which single-handedly defined the look and feel of "future" movies for the last 20 years, and which, like this one, managed to make a simple story hugely complex and defining. (Will anyone ever forget Rutger Hauer saying, "Time to die," releasing the bird, or telling Deckard the things he's seen -- "Troop ships on fire at the edge of Orion"? Answer: No.) And, as "Blade Runner" was in its moment, "Hannibal" is the best-looking movie in years, showing us new ways to see. The "Blade Runner" look was all cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, I've been told, the future and rain and glitter and advertising that take your breath away. And here again the "look" of the film is a visual elaboration of the themes: "Hannibal" is all about the adoration of light, the elegance of shattered sound, the shadowed beauty of the world we live in but never really see.

What is odd is that I anticipated hating this movie: Of the two previous entries in this series of films based on Thomas Harris novels, I enjoyed but was no big fan of "The Silence of the Lambs," and I thought "Manhunter" quite good, a better version of the B-picture, and in that film I've always felt Brian Cox easily a better Hannibal Lecter than Anthony Hopkins. (This argument rages on, apparently.) But that changes with "Hannibal," a stunning and tricky movie that almost every reviewer seems to have watched with head up arse, because Hannibal isn't a B-picture thriller/horror flick. It's amazing that no one noticed! From the opening it's a stunner -- the credits are great post-Raygun stuff, as evocative and graphically delicious as I've seen in a while, and I even thought I might leave when they were done to save myself the wretched experience the reviewers seemed to suggest was next.

But we stayed. I was not sure about Julianne Moore in her first scene -- the talk around the car hood -- but then she got better. She is sure-footed on-screen, and much more a pleasure to watch than Jodie Foster, who was maybe too butch in the role (or were they saying that's characteristic of female FBI folk?) but less a player than this Clarice, and nowhere near as cinematically supple. Where Foster is all business, Moore is all nuanced womanhood -- all the systems are operational and going at full click. From first to last the movie tells you what it's about and what it isn't about, and what it isn't about is the comic-book grotesquerie that the reviewers seem so hotted up over. Even the loopy brain scene is more Grand Guignol out of "Saturday Night Live" than anything else. And besides, the sautéing is tasty.

Gary Percesepe: I saw "Hannibal" as a love story too, one with real teeth. For me, having not read the book, the tip-off that this was a love story was the hair. To me, it's automatic with the hair. Hair we are. If it's long hair, and brushed against lightly, it's what French theorist Roland Barthes might have called a "cultural code" for romance, a universal signifier that clues even the clueless and says, "Yo, over here, we're working this way." And it's odd, because my instinct when hair comes on the scene too early in the love story is to lose interest; it's all too transparent, too easy. I become a resisting reader -- is this the postmodern condition, the exhaustion of decoding sign upon self-referential sign, or just a former fiction editor tired of seeing writers who put the woman's hair in the first paragraph as a way of taking a shortcut on characterization? Whatever.

In any case, when they put the hair in the trailer I'm thinking it was for commercial reasons they just couldn't resist, but in the movie itself the hair arrives right on time, takes over, tells those of us who haven't quite got it yet that something else is going on here. And I think that Moore is sleepwalking in the first part of the movie: She's the sleeping beauty from the opening scene, awakened at last with the kiss that brings a tear in the kitchen. It is all so right, so coded (but not overcoded), that I am amazed that the so-called critics have missed it, exchanged it for the monster mash. If anything, it's a parody of the genre. Ridley Scott's intelligence is all over this movie. I did put my hands in front of my face during the brain scene but was laughing out loud -- hard to remember when these emotions last collided like that in the theater for me.

Barthelme: I was trying to imagine how they managed straight faces through the brain scene. It was so oddball, and Ray Liotta, whatever else, did the scene brilliantly. I mean, he was the perfect guy whose head you might like to open up so that you could rearrange some stuff in there.

The hair key -- and I agree on the coding -- was most interesting to me because when it hit in the movie it added a great deal of resonance and richness compared to its use in the trailer. In fact, it seems to have changed meanings altogether from trailer to film -- in the ads the hair pass is about menace and threat, typical stuff, but in the film it's a remarkable little bit of lovemaking, far more complex and entwined than is suggested by the preview. Seems to me this enlargement of a clip rarely happens in movies these days. How many times have you said, or heard, that all the best parts are in the trailer? Not so here.

Percesepe: The "brush the hair" was too good to leave out of the trailer, I suppose, but like you, I think the film amplifies, extends and comments upon the trailer in an extraordinary way, analogous to another rarity in film -- a sequel that surpasses the original. (I cannot recall this happening since "The Godfather Part II.") I felt that the Jodie Foster performance in "The Silence of the Lambs" was more complex in a way, in that she perfectly captured Clarice's peculiar combination of toughness and vulnerability, compassion and ambition, anxiety and confidence, the lamb-loving child and "conflicted about her parents" adult, all the things that make 20-somethings so alluring and the age so dangerous. To me, Foster's Clarice is the eternal grad-school 24, but Moore, as an older Clarice, brought to the role some lovely pale skin that was in such contrast to her toughness, that fragility of goodness that Hannibal could not ignore.

Also, it seems to me that Foster is an internal actor, whose male equivalent might be an early William Hurt (before he went on career autopilot) -- it's all happening inside with actors like Foster and the early Hurt, while Moore returns us to the importance of the body in acting. Much like Hopkins himself, and Laurence Olivier before him, she is a physical actor. She pares away layers of acting. Plus, her Clarice is less in need of a mentor, but no less in need of what Hannibal elicits from her. Gary Oldman's bizarre Verger character tries (for plot purposes?) to reintroduce the mentoring business into the film, claiming that Hannibal will come only when he feels he's needed -- when Clarice is in danger, shamed by her bosses -- but I'm not convinced this new Clarice needs mentoring so much as she needs what is missing in her Hannibal-less, FBI life: grand passion.

Barthelme: No, the things left out -- the mentoring, the "more complex performance," which I really think was just a second helping of dime-store psychology -- actually add to this job here, to Moore's performance. She betrays more of, and is more credible betraying, her feeling for Lecter in the train-station chase scene, and maybe that's what works for me. And "mentoring" isn't even a part of this thing any longer -- Clarice is in the game as an equal from the start. She's fascinated, enthralled, engaged and every inch his equal. I never doubted she was swept away by him. It is maybe her secret, but surely she is not unaware of the darkness, and instead begs for the darkness to envelop her. And then, in the marvelously grotesque boars-and-barn scene, her desperate instinct is to protect, protect, protect, and the reasons aren't strictly FBI.

I readily admit that I adored the chopping scene at the end -- I worried, going into it, that Lecter might not do the right thing for the character, but what he does is so sublime and perfect and fitting and profound, and all the other stuff about Lecter makes us believe this act that we could not believe without him being him, could not believe of an ordinary man. That this works is probably the pure genius of Scott and the film, transporting us to a kind of love we've long since forgotten, which gets no play in the current culture, where everybody's about half-smart all of the time, unto death.

Percesepe: Well, I guess that Moore's performance grows for me, and it is in direct proportion to her reinvolvement with Lecter. That is, he brings it out in her. This is why, in the beginning of the movie, I had trouble connecting to her character: The Hannibal-less Clarice is not complete; she is missing her significant other. I do not discount entirely the mentoring piece, because he replaces her father, for me, in the movie, making it all a bit incestuous, as Hannibal rightly appreciates.

The chemistry between Moore and Hopkins is powerful; he brings out a performance she is incapable of until they finally share the camera, which is paced just right. I was breathless at the film's climax -- I mean, I was reeling with the perfection of it. An Aristotelian finish, in the sense that once having imagined this ending, you realize that aesthetically there could be no other ending at all. (This was where the movie should have ended, not in the dumb plane scene with the kid, which was weak and not funny.) True romance: You want to see them back together. I try to imagine myself as Clarice -- the attraction to this strange and powerful mind, this erect man, this measured, clipped, perfect machine for killing, for knowing what is in her head. Hannibal is the perfect lover, in the sense that he knows exactly what you are thinking; he is able to stay with you when he is not present; his absence fills your room, your house, your heart, with an aching to know the depths of the perfect evil he has achieved, and to know him is to have an alternate universe revealed to you, a Nietzschean one perhaps, where all so-called values have been transvalued. It is not beauty and the beast (which Scott, slyly, alludes to in the voice of the brutalized Gary Oldman character); it is a human love story.

The whole point is that this is not a monster, this is an intelligent human, the most intelligent life form you know or will ever know, and he loves you. And you have to ask yourself, "What does this say about me, that I have the ability to attract and hold such a one?" Once having known such a one, everyone else will seem ordinary. Clarice is unique in her ability to comprehend this -- everyone else, including the audience, misses this point, because we are culturally coded to see the big EVIL, the monster, when the story has more to do with how terrible love really is, how violent and wrenching and life-altering, how vulnerable we are in love. The bared throat always open to the knife; every angel is terrible and terrifying.

Barthelme: First, I don't think the audience is missing it -- that's rather the point of our discussion, isn't it? This movie is making scads of money at the box office and all the press is bad. If they were going for the brain-eating, they'd have stopped going by now. No, I think the audience gets just what we're talking about, this transcendent love.

On the rest, you are near perfect here, and you are right about beauty and beast. But exactly that: He draws her out, his is a love supreme, and it ignites them both, and yes, again, this aesthete, this exquisite man/being, perfect, one who -- what a great line -- "stays with you when he is not present." Yes. But "know the depths of the perfect evil he has achieved, and to know him is to have an alternate universe revealed to you," I think simplifies what Scott is doing: He is morphing evil into something else with the power of capital-L, across-the-centuries, big-time mountains of L-O-V-E, rhymes with glove, etc. (Note the repeated references to Lecter's eating only the rude.) So Scott is arguing a transformative nature, and reintroducing EVIL is going backwards, buying into that framework out of which we have just been elevated, buying into a way of looking at the world that is so beside the point, Scott seems to argue.

This is why the movie is wonderfully transgressive or, even better, "transgressive," that is, making fun of the idea of transgression, and also perhaps why it simply cannot be "seen" by many, because to see it is to accept the premise that there is even the remotest possibility that this creature so built up as horror show might transcend all of that, which is why the perfect gesture of the ending was necessary and perfect. I was almost praying for him to do this.

In the theater, at the point when he asks Clarice, "Above or below the wrist?" and we get the shot of the cleaver on her arm, I instantly knew what he had to do and I was worried that I was alone, that Scott himself wouldn't know what Lecter had to do, what Lecter would do. (And here you do have a touch of beauty/beast in the abject adoration of the object of desire.) But Scott was there all along, and Lecter is thus totally redeemed, utterly redeemed! An amazing feat. And too damn bad our fine film critics kind of missed the barge here, because to miss it here is to miss the entire movie.

Like you, at first I wanted to end there, or in the yard when the cop off camera yells "Show me your hands" and Clarice throws them into the air with abandon -- this triumph, this utter celebration of loving and being loved in this extraordinary, otherworldly way. It's an amazing moment, completely satisfying. I was even comfortable with the plane, flying away -- I could handle that -- but then the kid scene was a downer, a reductive tacked-on thing, I thought. Tonight we were talking at dinner about the way the Lecter of that scene is so utterly parentlike, protecting the kid (discouraging the Tupperware-housed Liotta brain -- you won't want any of that), but then giving in to the kid when the kid insists, but giving in without any mad, cackling madman routine, just a loving father with a truism (try new things) and a child for whom he has only the most generous feeling; Lecter is still in swoon over his time with Clarice and the perfection of himself in the chopping.

Percesepe: Ridley Scott has always been intrigued by the Christ figure (witness "Blade Runner") and you are exactly right about the movie being all about redemption/absolution -- your eyes would see this every time -- but how can you have redemption without evil? I don't, by the way, mean capital-E evil, the whole metaphysics thing; I mean the false self, the one we try to starve while feeding the good self, the one we believe in, the one who believes in us, the one we hope to find by being with the right people in the right way, the reason we spend most of our adult lives trying to find the one who reveals to us the true self.

I see the movie in terms of feeding, then. Lecter wants always to be at the table. Food as sacramental. Take, eat: This is my body, given for you. This do in remembrance of me. Clarice is dressed to kill for the last supper. Like Christ, Hannibal keeps his scars when he ascends on high. I don't think I have reintroduced evil into the discussion; I think Scott takes evil as a given and spins it, breaks it free of its monstrous connotations (which is ultimately dehumanizing) and shows us the Hannibal within, the rude self transformed into a pure selfless act that is redemptive. And I love your thoughts on the patient parent on the plane, the radiance of a man in love in the afterglow, reflecting ...

I don't know. There is lot to take in here. I remembered, incongruously, a moment in an old film, "The Eyes of Laura Mars," Tommy Lee Jones saying to Faye Dunaway: "I'm the one you want." But Lecter is way past the Jones character -- he is strong enough to believe in his own redemption and not kill himself in the presence of the beloved. He is made of stronger stuff.

He also does not lie, a trait we all want in the beloved. His ruthlessness is precisely rooted in his relentless willingness not to lie about himself, who he is, and not to lie to the beloved or allow her to lie to herself -- he cannot allow Clarice to misperceive what she is feeling toward him. His troubles in the world all stem from a world that condones lying, elevates it so that it infests even our most trusted institutions -- the FBI, police, government. He is searching for the perfect world. Like Nietzsche, Hannibal aestheticizes the moral and privileges truth telling as the highest virtue -- for Hannibal rudeness is not only bad taste (and tastes bad), it is sinful and deserves to be punished. And lying is the mark of the rude and uncomprehending, and all things official; it marks all of our institutions and practices. He is offended in "Silence" when Clarice lies to him, promising a room with a view. That was unworthy of her; it was inelegant and Clarice knew it and was shamed by it.

Hannibal forgave her because he knew she was coerced to lie by her superiors. There is an innocence here, in him; most of us are willing to lie for the respite it brings from the world. We are willing to tell lies to shelter us, but Lecter knows that no lie can shelter us, that every lie feeds the false self and poisons our relationships. He expects Clarice not to lie to him. Her nonlying sense of integrity, which is precisely what gets her in trouble with her superiors, mirrors Lecter's own. She does what she needs to do, with the handcuffs, but when he makes the cut he cuts her free too, creating the possibility of that wonderful scene when she lifts up her hands, liberated. Who wouldn't want this kind of love that cuts us free from a lying world and gives us back our best self? How could you not love a man like that? The question becomes: How will Clarice now live in a world so fallen? (Dr. Fell, anyone?)

This film comes to us as a gift in a time that is out of joint; it celebrates an ecstatic love we had thought to be finally impossible, even embarrassing, long past the time when we thought ourselves able to receive, to still believe, when we had exchanged grand passion for hooking up. In spiritual terms, Ridley Scott bears witness to the mysteries of love and transformation, the cinematic equivalent of the Gospel of Mark. We are witnesses with Clarice to a dazzling, blissful transfiguration -- Clarice now has to go back, descend into this other, fallen world and do the paperwork. She saves him from the boars, and then he saves her and is himself saved. The film is fraught and blessed with this theology of redemption.

By Gary Percesepe

Gary Percesepe teaches philosophy at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. His fiction and poetry appear in the Mississippi Review Web Edition and other places. He is the author of four books in philosophy, including "Future(s) of Philosophy: The Marginal Thinking of Jacques Derrida."

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By Frederick Barthelme

Frederick Barthelme is the author of 11 books of fiction, including his most recent collection of short stories, "The Law of Averages." Barthelme directs the writing program at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, and edits the literary journal Mississippi Review.

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