Digesting "Hannibal"

By Gary Percesepe and Frederick Barthelme

By Salon Staff
Published March 7, 2001 1:00AM (UTC)
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Whew! And I thought "Hannibal" was just a trashy movie, full of trendy nihilism and vacuous evil. After reading this exchange of e-mails, it seems like we're more in danger from intellectuals like Barthelme and Percesepe than from the Hannibals out there. After all, mass murderers and cannibals are easily dealt with once you catch them; you simply shoot, inject or imprison them. But these artsy, oh-so clever and sophisticated intellectuals attempting to theologize and art-ify such carnage; what exactly do you do with them?

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It's certainly no crime to be so intellectually bankrupt, but one remembers the old Bible text: "Fear not those who can kill the body, fear those who can kill the soul." Even a child would recognize and recoil from the evil and wretched world that Hannibals (and one must assume the filmmakers and writers) inhabit. It takes so-called adulthood, with its "education" and its "sophistication" to elevate such death-obsessed, narcissistic rubbish to the heights these two have raised "Hannibal" to.

If Barthelme and Percesepe's view of love, life, justice, passion, theology and morality ever becomes the norm, there will be no fix for that particular homicide -- it will be the homicide of virtue itself. As with "Hannibal," it will have a huge hollowness at its core; autistic reveling in the pornography of death masquerading as both art and profound thought.

-- Don Cicchetti

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I thought Charles Taylor's review of "Hannibal" summed things up very succinctly, so I'm scratching my head as I read your re-review of the film. You've managed to dig up an arch-intellectual version of Bob and Doug McKenzie to tell us that gratuitous body mincing and brain consumption are the "cinematic equivalent of the Gospel of Mark." (!) If Taylor's review makes even more sense now, it's only because I got to read Percesepe and Barthelme doing their brainiac version of lighting Molson farts.

-- Duncan Butcher

All I can say about the bombastic blather Barthelme and Percesepe trade back and forth like a poisoned Cert: You guys deserve each other! "Hannibal" is atrociously weak, limp filmmaking from beginning to end, a parody of its own avarice and indifference to plot, character, mood, tone, action, symbol, resonance, performance, et al.

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Where the superb "Silence of the Lambs" -- the greatest American film since "Raging Bull" -- dared to make horror plangent (Demme's exquisite direction greatly aided by two superlative lead performances), "Hannibal" pries open the willingly offered heads of the trash-loving, debased movie audience looking for just one more unexpected thrill, feeding its own brain back to it as the only available succor.

-- David Greven

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Why is Salon wasting my time? Anyone who sits there, watches "Hannibal" and at the same time dismisses "Silence of the Lambs," knows as much about moviemaking as a discarded cork from a bottle of Chianti. If you don't appreciate "Silence," don't appreciate the ultimately honest back-and-forth between Hopkins and a far superior Jodie Foster, then you don't even understand the beauty of that film. The bond between Hannibal and Claire was never a love story; it was always teacher and student. The fact that it was evil teacher and good student was what made it fascinating. You two are flat-out idiots.

-- Malcolm Johnson

I read your article with a mixture of disbelief and sputtering laughter. Can there be a more stereotypical pseudo-intellectual whinge session about a complete cultural non-event? What's next -- a deconstruction of tampon commercials? The semiotics of "Dude, Where's My Car?" A postmodern analysis of Republican lesbian cunnilingus? If you consider any of the above as material for future articles, I will require a percentage of all advertising revenues they generate. Thank you for a dollop of surreal humor that brightened my day considerably.

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Anthropophagically yours,

-- Mark Benedyk

While I am pleased that you have had two eminent writers bring to attention the semiotics and encoding that runs through the remarkable film adaptation of Thomas Harris' "Hannibal," I wish that someone on your staff had directed them to the "Table for One, Dr. Lecter?" thread that is currently going on your own Table Talk message board. Astounded by the caustic reviews including the very negative one by Charles Taylor in your Arts and Entertainment section, I decided on Valentine's Day to conduct a provocative discussion celebrating this film among the almost entirely negative remarks on the board. I had clearly seen a different film than the other posters. I began my posts with cryptic and sarcastic remarks intended to provoke. I got results. I also was able to redirect the discussion to an examination on the real message and source material that Harris had originally intended to examine in his thought-provoking trinity of popular novels.

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While I am gratified that someone else has decided to bring this issue to the public's attention, I hope that Salon will examine this discussion (which begins at post #377 dated Feb 14) and use it to continue an examination on this controversial, intelligent and beautiful film.

-- Stephanie Dwyer

This article posits the least convincing argument I've ever seen published in Salon. I like to invent spiritual and metaphysical connections for movies that move me as much as anyone, but this has got to be a comedy routine, a parody of critical thought. The writers admit the film itself was a parody of horror, and this deprives it of originality and cheats us out of any authentic experience through it. To go prattling on with these precious metaphors is, however, genuinely horrific and laughable.

-- T. Klay

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It's surprising (and in a sense, reassuring) to see a fiction writer known more for formal experimentation and a deconstructionist philosopher take a film like "Hannibal" so literally, but in this case, I wonder if Barthelme and Persecepe haven't missed the point. While "Hannibal" certainly capitalizes on the projection of a romantic connection between the male and female leads, perhaps the more twisted and appropriate romance takes place between the film's creators and its audience. After all, the film -- and the novel upon which it is based -- exist solely as a result of an overwhelming interest on the part of the buying public to see more of Lecter, a character who for reasons related both to the extraordinary wit and intelligence with which he is endowed and the absurdly malicious and stupid behavior of the characters cast in conflict with him, has become a "satanic hero" in American culture: a likable villain.

Although, in practice, Hannibal Lecter bears little marked difference from Hollywood bogeymen like "Friday the 13th's" Jason or Freddy Kreuger of "Nightmare on Elm Street" -- murderous ids sent to dispatch cruel oppressors or libidinous teenagers intended to represent the "in-crowd" everyone has at some point felt persecuted by -- Lecter's role as brilliant sociopath, set in a temporally postmodern condition where traditional understandings of good and evil have been undermined if not exploded, has afforded him a fearful admiration from his audience that, given the grisly nature of the made-to-order sequel (it probably took Harris 10 years to come up with the novel not because he was struggling with the subject matter but because he hadn't intended to write it until Dino de Laurentiis made him an offer he couldn't refuse), has left the filmmakers wondering just how low they can go and have us still go there with them.

Though the emphasis on the aesthetic and the sanitation of the script for the sake of the popular audience obscures the suggestion, the film definitively proposes that Lecter, as much as we fear him, is our champion, sent to punish the wicked in appropriately grotesque ways, protecting beauty and virtue from harm and mercilessly destroying its antagonists. It's no coincidence that Harris' novel and the film's screenplay have Lecter becoming a Dante scholar -- in the end, Scott and Harris become, like Virgil, our tour guides; the pure and beautiful Clarice our Beatrice. We the viewers become like Dante, allowed the opportunity to see what ought to happen to the fools and users of the world. And Lecter, of course, is hell -- where hope is abandoned and justice is suffering.

-- Ed Tarkington

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I'm glad somebody else saw "Hannibal" as a great movie, and I'm grateful to Bartheleme and Percesepe for helping me articulate to myself just why "Hannibal" is so great. One thing that's interesting that Bartheleme and Percesepe missed is that the action in "Hannibal" is driven forward by not one, but two romances -- Hannibal and Clarice in the second half, and Inspector Pazzi and his wife in the first half. Before I read Barthelme and Percesepe's discussion, I hadn't realized this, and it seems that they didn't either. Everything of significance in the first half of the movie, all of which works to drive Hannibal and Clarice together again, is driven by Inspector Pazzi's devotion to his wife and his desire to please her. I kept wondering how Pazzi could be so stupid as to walk right into Hannibal's clutches. But now the answer's obvious to me. Hannibal only rips out Pazzi's guts and kills him; if Pazzi hadn't tried to trap Hannibal, his wife would have torn out his heart -- and left him alive.

-- John Squier


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