EXITS: HANNIBAL LECTER AND WES CRAVEN
The three-year run of Hannibal, one of the most visually and narratively innovative series ever to air on television, broadcast or cable, came to a breathtaking conclusion Saturday night. I have already confessed to a bit of selfish melancholy that there will be no more surprises, no more opportunities to get lost in the show’s radical approach to reimagining Thomas Harris’s well-known and well-trodden scenarios, and no more sweet, agonized anticipation over what form the show, probably the most envelope-pushing of any network show ever aired, might take in its own becoming. But I must also confess that I couldn’t be more satisfied with the way Hannibal, all three seasons now fully unveiled, was orchestrated to a beautifully modulated finish that illustrated the truly expressive and even transcendent (of the limitations of a more audience-friendly, more comfortingly linear structure and tone) achievement of Bryan Fuller’s series. (Matt Zoller Seitz, linked below, likened it to the most bountiful possible fulfillment to date of the concept of “a novel for television.”)
The feeling faithful viewers were left with Saturday night was one that wholly resonated and complemented the vision of Fuller and his collaborators, and our faithfulness – Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham joining forces in an exquisitely choreographed dance of death with Frances Dolarhyde, a.k.a. the Red Dragon, and then in each other’s arms, in the bloody repose of that dance’s aftermath, making clear what was barely subtext to begin with, that Hannibal has been, from the very beginning, a love story. Hannibal’s final chapter unfolded as if it were always meant to end in exactly this place, at exactly this pace, its possible season-ender now a perfectly satisfying series finale, in which Will chooses to hurl himself and Lecter, both horribly wounded, over a cliff and into the sea rather than continue on with a life which has now, in killing Dolarhyde, allowed Will to become Hannibal’s true soul mate.
And as it was here at the end, so has it always been. Even though the show was a product of the rigors and frustrations and disappointments and occasional glories of telling stories in a medium governed by corporate influence, deliriously entangled finances and the fickle instincts that inspire the ratings chase, Hannibal’s richness, of design, of experimental narrative surety, and an unwavering refusal to underestimate its audience, has always lent it a completeness that is shared only by those shows, some great, some good, some uneven, which seem to understand that not all stories must linger and dribble and continually echo past glories in the name of longevity.
In its way, without ever addressing the strengths and/or weaknesses of other forms and stories, the way Fuller approached retelling the Lecter story exposed the vain, self-consciously transgressive, overstuffed grab-bag nature of something like American Horror Story, which season-to-season remains bereft of the sort of cohesive grandeur and purpose that Hannibal sported in glorious excess. Compared to Fuller’s daring formal structure, AHS feels even more like a vanity project that the writers are making up out of cheap cloth as they go along week to week. The staying power that Hannibal can claim has everything to do with it being a sensual, allusive, disturbing and even moving approach to a story contained within three seasons that can be returned to like a favored novel, revealing more and more layers of meaning, of humor, of resonating terror, of genuine pleasure with each new encounter.
And speaking of transcendence, perhaps Hannibal’s greatest achievement is how thoroughly it seems to have eclipsed previous cinematic incarnations of Harris’s popular tales, in its casting, of course— few who have regularly luxuriated in the monstrously smug entitlement and megalomaniacal, omnipotent ambition of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter will likely clamor to return to Anthony Hopkins’ entertaining but more conventionally realized portrayal—but also in the very way it spins the seductive details of its sinister dreamscape into a lingering and inevitable dance of death between psychological profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Lecter, turning Hannibal’s grim beauty in service of what ends up becoming one of the most revealing, unlikely and weirdly powerful love stories ever told.
In the couple of days since the finale, I’ve had a chance to read a couple of really fine essays encompassing personal reaction, analysis, interpretation and emotional reckoning with the fact that Hannibal, as we have now come to know and appreciate it, will spin no more. Both Matt Zoller Seitz and Jeff Jensen articulate their responses with passion, alongside the moments that inspired those responses, and very early on in reading them I realized any attempt on my part to do the same would fall far short and wanting. It is well enough for me to point you in their direction and allow them to amplify your experience of Hannibal in the way they did for me. Here is Seitz in Vulture on one of the many elements that makes Hannibal great, a likely candidate for posterity in the annals of television:
“The sophisticated aesthetic developed by Fuller and his many collaborators… is the reason why, despite being the most gruesome drama ever aired on network TV, Hannibal never felt unacceptably brutal to me. It is, no question about it, ultraviolent, but not in the manner of a cheap slasher film. It is ultraviolent in the manner of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and The Fury, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange (which Hannibal quotes by scoring Jack’s beating of the doctor to Gioachino Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie”) and touchstones of religious painting, such as Tintoretto’s 1565 painting of Christ’s crucifixion. It is ‘studied’ in the best way, i.e., thoughtful, considered. It is concerned mainly with exploring what violent actions mean (to us, and to the story) rather than simply attempting to replicate the physical experience of suffering (although it does that, too; every wounding and death on the show is viscerally jolting and also often carries an emotional charge). And it pays equal attention, sometimes greater attention, to emotional violence, showing how characters (usually Hannibal, but not always) coolly scrutinize their targets, then push certain buttons to ensure a particular outcome that’s often destructive for all involved. The physical violence represents a continuation of emotional violence.”
The entirety of Seitz’s commentary can be read here, and if you are a “fannibal” you really must read it while the images and sounds of the series finale are still glowing white-hot in the memory, or again after encountering it on Blu-ray in the coming months.
However, the first piece I read after actually seeing and absorbing the show for myself was Jensen’s, and I especially appreciated it for being what is possibly the most observant piece to ever bear the Entertainment Weekly banner. Jensen reckons with sharpness the way Hannibal seems to comment not only on its own mythology, but on its own precarious status as network product, and even on the people who made up its small but loyal audience. In doing so, he describes the brief epilogue that tags the final episode:
“We saw long-suffering Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson), the bride and beard of Hannibal, sitting at a table set for three, waiting for her groom and his true love to join her. She had prepared quite the meal for them: Her own leg. She represented us, the fan hoping for more helpings of a dish we’ve grown to love. But she also represented to the worst possible scenario for Hannibal and its devoted fans. Do we really want to see the show sacrifice valuable bits just to get more of it? No. To borrow from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem and a line from Moriarty: `It has been an intellectual treat to me to see the way in which you have grappled with this affair, and I say, unaffectedly, that it would be grief to me to be forced to take any extreme measure.’”
Read the entire piece here.
But despite Jensen’s convincing analysis re the satisfaction of Fuller’s conception of the climax to which he and his collaborators have managed to bring the show, there are still rumors, this time of a cinematic continuation, which would in part recast the Clarice Starling/Silence of the Lambs portion of the Lecter saga in the mold of the radical reimaginings Fuller has already forged from Harris’s vast source material. It’s a tantalizing possibility, but the reassuring thought remains that we have already enjoyed a self-contained, fully realized masterpiece of television, and when the third season Blu-ray release arrives we really will be able to return to it like a novel, or a 39-hour feature film, and appreciate anew the ways in which Fuller and company have reshuffled the deck, raised the bar on the ways stories can be told on television, and their artistic possibilities. Farewell, Hannibal, and thanks for the often seemingly inescapable nightmares which held their own very rich and perverse pleasures. We’ll be seeing you again very soon.
Another exit made this week promises no such reunion and is a far more painful one to acknowledge. Director Wes Craven, who as one of the pioneering directors of a new strain of crude and often psychologically brutal horror in the 1970s fearlessly burrowed into the subconscious dread of his audience, died earlier this week at the age of 76 after a long struggle with brain cancer.
After making his way from academia (he was, for a time, a college humanities professor), Craven made his way to New York into the wilds of pornography and, eventually, more mainstream exploitation filmmaking, and the fledgling director’s first feature belied the cowardly implications of his surname with an unrelenting fury. Last House on the Left (1972), which recast Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring with relentless, pitiless sexual violence, refused to look away from either the misery of its two central, female victims, raped, mutilated and murdered by a gang of thugs in the woods, or the angry vengeance rained down upon them by one of the girls’ parents, and the movie, inadvertently or purposefully, reflected the dark undercurrent of political and social tension tearing at the country during the Vietnam era. The filmmaking was raw, artless and sometimes inept, qualities which actually served the film’s purpose of simultaneously implicating the audience in the horror and submerging them into a much more immediate, difficult-to-digest experience. (Last House on the Left was, of course, the movie whose advertising encouraged potential audiences, when the going got rough, to continually keep repeating to themselves, “It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie…”)
In 1977 Craven unleashed The Hills Have Eyes, in which a vacationing family is stranded in the desert and subjected to assault and terror at the hands of a deranged mirror-image clan of cannibals surviving in the desert hills, themselves victims of mutations brought on by exposure to nuclear radiation. Again, Craven’s unrefined approach was perfectly appropriate for keeping the audience under his thumb, and the movie’s lack of superficial finish makes it look even better, and play far scarier, in comparison to the slick, up-to-the-minute ghastliness of the 2006 remake and its even more revolting 2007 sequel. (Craven himself directed a 1984 sequel to THHE which is also held in low regard.)
But it was when he dared to invade the audience’s dreams—specifically, the nightmares of the kids in the audience—that Craven managed to up his game as a storyteller and an image maker, in the process delivering the first truly frightening serial killer of the slasher era. In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), scraping the elongated finger blades of his gloves along the walls of an abandoned boiler room in pursuit of yet another sleeping victim, built a legacy of horror on, of all things, the foundation of a child’s prayer (“If I should die before I wake…”) and turned the respite of slumber into the absolute worst refuge a terrified teenager could take. (The director would return to that same prayer at the end of his career which far less resonant results.)
The culture took to Craven’s monster on a first-name basis, and Freddy became not only a figure of genuine fear, but also one who opened up the possibility of self-awareness within the genre with his penchant for pitch-black wisecracks and the outright glee he took in punishing the younger generation for the sins of their mothers and fathers. Sequel after sequel, most of which Craven was only tangentially involved with, eventually diluted the effectiveness of the concept, until the director was moved to revisit Kruegerland with his New Nightmare (1994), which brilliantly deconstructed the Freddy mythology, and the very idea of the morbid attraction of the slasher phenomenon, in the process pointing the way to Craven’s last great achievement in genre subversion.
In the wake of the first Nightmare, Craven seemed to be satisfied working themes of racism and classicism and social justice into an uneven string of pictures like Shocker (1989) and The People Under the Stairs (1991), the best of the bunch being his weirdly earnest and unsettling look at the world of Haitian black magic in The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), which was based on the first-person accounts of anthropologist and author Wade Davis.
But it was in Scream (1996) that he seemed to find the perfect distillation and balance between sincere genre practice and the detailed examination of same, and he brought his own sort of pop-anthropological sensibility to the party in spades. Here was a movie which succeeded in having fun with conventions that had become worn-out and tired from overuse, an exhaustion to which Craven himself had contributed, that was at the same time deadly serious about the violence and the emotional toll inflicted upon its cast of characters. That Craven and writer Kevin Williamson would subject this most self-aware of franchises to the same sort of process of diminishing returns over the course of three sequels was one irony that went largely unacknowledged within the movies’ increasingly convoluted plots.
It’s unfortunate, too, that he also seemed, as he attempted to move further into the mainstream, both pre- and post-Scream, to have so much trouble shepherding good material past the meddling influence of the suits. Movies like Vampire in Brooklyn and Cursed may have been bad ideas to begin with, but studio tampering surely did little to ensure that Craven would deliver on the promise of his reputation as a horror master. But even in acknowledging that reputation, there’s a whiff of desperation about movies like Shocker and especially My Soul to Take, both of which saw Craven angling for new horror franchises based upon faint, anemic echoes of past glories rather than attempting to craft solid stories to tell. (In 1999 the director even made a bold attempt to separate himself from his stature as a horrormeister by directing Meryl Streep as a music teacher in the middle-of-the-road would-be Oscar contender Music of the Heart, but few seemed to notice.)
Thankfully, Craven will instead always be remembered for his successes, and he can lay claim to creating some shocking, potent, original horror imagery during a period when much of what was coming out of American efforts in the genre was satisfied with the simple repetition of worn-out plots and ideas. A friend of mine posted on Facebook upon learning of his death that “(Craven) made his mark, more than once, and it’s a mark that is uneraseable,” and such a claim seems about as undeniable as anything that has or will be said about the director upon the occasion of his death.
Wes Craven seemed to me more a meat-and-potatoes storyteller who had an undeniable talent for occasionally tapping into resonant, zeitgeist-flavored themes than an artist driven by personal expression. But when he was in peak mode, he was among the genre’s most fertile and socially engaged practitioners. His influence upon a generation of self-aware and self-examining horror filmmakers may be a double-edged sword (as Tarantino’s has been as well), but I suspect his unique penchant for creeping past their defenses into the dark corners of the audience’s collective fear centers will continue to be the envy of upcoming directors for a long time to come. “The first monster you have to scare the audience with is yourself,” Craven once said, and at his best he cast an unblinking eye on the sort of unforgiving horror that on its most fundamental emotional and visceral levels could only be described as personal.