Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Hannibal

Twenty-five years later: The Silence of the Lambs

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Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

At this point, it might seem like there’s nothing new to say—at least by me—about The Silence of the Lambs. I’ve discussed both the book and the movie here at length, and I’ve devoted countless posts to unpacking Hannibal Lecter’s most recent televised incarnation. Yet like all lasting works of art, and I’d argue that both the novel and the film qualify, The Silence of the Lambs continues to reveal new aspects when seen from different angles, especially now that exactly a quarter of a century has gone by since the movie’s release. Watching it again today, for instance, it’s hard not to be struck by how young Clarice Starling really is: Jodie Foster was just twenty-eight when the film was shot, and when I look at Starling from the perspective of my middle thirties, she comes off as simultaneously more vulnerable and more extraordinary. (I have an uneasy feeling that it’s close to the way Jack Crawford, not to mention Lecter, might have seen her at the time.) And it only highlights her affinities to Buffalo Bill’s chosen prey. This isn’t exactly a revelation: that sense of a dark sisterhood is a pivotal plot point in the original story. But it’s one thing to grasp this intellectually and quite another to go back and see how cannily the movie casts actresses as Bill’s victims who subtly suggest Foster’s own facial features, just a little wider. And it’s more clear than ever how Foster’s early fame, her passage into movies like Taxi Driver, her strange historical linkage to a stalker and failed assassin, and her closely guarded personal life gave her the tools and aura to evoke Starling’s odd mixture of toughness and fragility.

What’s also obvious now, unfortunately, is the extent to which Starling was—and remains—an anomaly in the genre. Starling, as embodied by Foster, has inspired countless female leads in thrillers in the decades since. (When I found myself obliged to create a similar character for my own novels, my thoughts began and ended with her.) Yet aside from Dana Scully, the results have been less than memorable. Starling has always been eclipsed by the shadow of the monster in the cell beside her, but in many ways, she was a harder character to crack, and the fact that she works so well in her written and cinematic incarnations is the result of an invisible, all but miraculous balancing act. None of the later efforts in the same direction have done as well. Christopher McQuarrie, while discussing the characters played by Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow and Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, gets close to the heart of the challenge:

They’re not men. They’re women that are not trying to be men…To me, more than anything, Rebecca is mature, elegant, confident, and at peace. Her only vulnerability in the movie is she’s just as fucked as everybody else…Usually when you want to create vulnerability for a woman, it’s about giving her a neurosis—a fear or some emotional arc that, ultimately, gets the better of her, whether it’s a need for revenge or need for redemption. You know, “Her father was killed by a twister, so she has to defeat twisters no matter what,” and I wouldn’t have any of that either. It simply was: you’re here on your own terms and you’re in a shitty situation created by people in power above you. How do you escape this situation and maintain your dignity?

Which isn’t to say that Starling didn’t suffer from her share of father issues. But those last two sentences capture her appeal as well as any I’ve ever read.

Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

Time also offers some surprising perspectives on Lecter himself, or at least the version of him we see here. The Silence of the Lambs, like Rocky, is one of those classic movies that has been diminished in certain respects by our knowledge of the sequels that followed it. Conventional wisdom holds that Anthony Hopkins’s take on Lecter became broader and more self-indulgent with every installment, and it’s fashionable to say that the best version of the character was really Brian Cox in Manhunter, or, more plausibly, Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal. It’s a seductively contrarian argument, but it’s also inherently ridiculous. As great as the novel is, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Lecter or Thomas Harris or The Silence of the Lambs at all if it weren’t for Hopkins’s performance. And in many ways, it’s his facile, even superficial interpretation of the character that made the result so potent. Hopkins was discovered and mentored by Laurence Olivier, whom he understudied in August Strindberg’s Dance of Death, and it helps to view his approach to Lecter through the lens of the quote from Olivier that I cited here the other week: “I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in. I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics, and find a creature swimming about somewhere in the middle of them.” Hopkins’s creature is the finest example I know of a classically trained stage lion slumming it in a juicy genre part, and even if it wasn’t a particularly difficult performance once Hopkins figured out the voice, still—he figured out that voice.

And as soon as we acknowledge, or even embrace, the degree to which Lecter is a fantasy that barely survives twelve minutes onscreen, the more this approach seems like a perfectly valid solution to this dance of death. If Lecter seemed increasingly hammy and unconvincing in the movie versions of Hannibal and Red Dragon, that isn’t a failure on Hopkins’s part: making him the main attraction only brought out the artificiality and implausibility that had been there all along, and Hopkins just did what any smart actor would have done under the circumstances—take the money and try to salvage his own sense of fun. (As it happens, Ted Tally’s script for Red Dragon is surprisingly good, a thoughtful, inventive approach to tough material that was let down by the execution. If I had to choose, I’d say he did a better job on the page than Bryan Fuller ultimately did with the same story.) With the passage of time, it’s increasingly clear that Lecter falls apart even as you look at him, and that he’s a monster like the shark in Jaws or the dinosaurs that would follow two years later in Jurassic Park: they’re only convincing when glimpsed in flashes or in darkness, and half of the director’s art lies in knowing when to cut away. Put him front and center, as the sequels did, and the magic vanishes. Asking why Hopkins is so much more effective in The Silence of the Lambs than in the films that followed is like asking why the computer effects in Jurassic Park look better than their equivalents today: it isn’t about technology or technique, but about how the film deploys it to solve particular problems. Twelve minutes over twenty-five years is about as much scrutiny as Hopkins’s wonderful Lecter could sustain. And the rest, as they say, should have been silence.

The monster in the writers room

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Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

Note: Spoilers follow for the season finale of Hannibal.

When it comes to making predictions about television shows, my track record is decidedly mixed. I was long convinced, for instance, that Game of Thrones would figure out a way to keep Oberyn Martell around, just because he was such fun to watch, and to say I was wrong about this is something of an understatement. Let the record show, however, that I said here months ago that the third season of Hannibal would end with Will Graham getting a knife through his face:

In The Silence of the Lambs, Crawford says that Graham’s face “looks like damned Picasso drew it.” None of the prior cinematic versions of this story have dared to follow through on this climax, but I have a feeling, given the evidence, that Fuller would embrace it. Taking Hugh Dancy’s face away, or making it hard for it look at, would be the ultimate rupture between the series and its viewers. Given the show’s cancellation, it may well end up being the very last thing we see. It would be a grim note on which to end. But it’s nothing that this series hasn’t taught us to expect.

This wasn’t the hardest prediction in the world to make. One of the most distinctive aspects of Bryan Fuller’s take on the Lecter saga is his willingness to pursue elements of the original novels that other adaptations have avoided, and the denouement of Red Dragon—with Will lying alone, disfigured, and mute in the hospital—is a downer ending that no other version of this story has been willing to touch.

Of course, that wasn’t what we got here, either. Instead of Will in his hospital bed, brooding silently on the indifference of the natural world to murder, we got a hysterical ballet of death, with Will and Hannibal teaming up to dispatch Dolarhyde like the water buffalo at the end of Apocalypse Now, followed by an operatic plunge over the edge of a cliff, with our two star-crossed lovers locked literally in each other’s arms. And it was a worthy finale for a series that has seemed increasingly indifferent to anything but that unholy love story. The details of Lecter’s escape from prison are wildly implausible, and whatever plan they reflect is hilariously undercooked, even for someone like Jack Crawford, who increasingly seems like the world’s worst FBI agent in charge. Hannibal has never been particularly interested its procedural elements, and its final season took that contempt to its final, ludicrous extreme. In the novel Red Dragon, Will, despite his demons, is a competent, inspired investigator, and he’s on the verge of apprehending Dolaryhyde through his own smarts when his quarry turns the tables. In Fuller’s version, unless I missed something along the way, Will doesn’t make a single useful deduction or take any meaningful action that isn’t the result of being manipulated by Hannibal or Jack. He’s a puppet, and dangerously close to what TV Tropes has called a Woobie: a character whom we enjoy seeing tortured so we can wish the pain away.

Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

None of this should be taken as a criticism of the show itself, in which any narrative shortcomings can hardly be separated from Fuller’s conscious decisions. But as enjoyable as the series has always been—and I’ve enjoyed it more than any network drama I’ve seen in at least a decade—it’s something less than an honest reckoning with its material. As a rule of thumb, the stories about Lecter, including Harris’s own novels, have been the most successful when they stick most closely to their roots as police procedurals. Harris started his career as a crime reporter, and his first three books, including Black Sunday, are masterpieces of the slow accumulation of convincing detail, spiced and enriched by a layer of gothic violence. When you remove that foundation of realistic suspense, you end up with a character who is dangerously uncontrollable: it’s Lecter, not Harris, who becomes the author of his own novel. In The Annotated Dracula, Leslie S. Klinger proposes a joke theory that the real author of that book is Dracula himself, who tracked down Bram Stoker and forced him to make certain changes to conceal the fact that he was alive and well and living in Transylvania. It’s an “explanation” that rings equally true of the novels Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, which read suspiciously as if Lecter were dictating elements of his own idealized autobiography to Harris. (As far as I know, nobody has seen or heard from Harris since Hannibal Rising came out almost a decade ago. Are we sure he’s all right?)

And there are times when Hannibal, the show, plays as if Lecter had gotten an executive producer credit sometime between the second and third seasons. If anything, this is a testament to his vividness: when properly acted and written, he dominates his stories to a greater extent than any fictional character since Sherlock Holmes. (In fact, the literary agent hypothesis—in which the credited writer of a series is alleged to be simply serving as a front—originated among fans of Conan Doyle, who often seemed bewildered by the secondary lives his characters assumed.) But there’s something unsettling about how Lecter inevitably takes on the role of a hero. My favorite stretch of Hannibal was the back half of the second season, which looked unflinchingly at Lecter’s true nature as a villain, cannibal, and destroyer of lives. When he left the entire supporting cast to bleed slowly to death at the end of “Mizumono,” it seemed impossible to regard him as an appealing figure ever again. And yet here we are, with an ending that came across as the ultimate act of fan service in a show that has never been shy about appealing to its dwindling circle of devotees. I can’t exactly blame it for this, especially because the slow dance of seduction between Will and Hannibal has always been a source of sick, irresistible fascination. But we’re as far ever from an adaptation that would force us to honestly confront why we’re so attached to a man who eats other people, or why we root for him to triumph over lesser monsters who make the mistake of not being so rich, cultured, or amusing. Lecter came into this season like a lion, but he went out, as always, like a lamb.

“Their journey so far had been uneventful…”

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"The overnight train from Paris to Munich..."

Note: This post is the twenty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 28. You can read the previous installments here.

In evolutionary theory, there’s a concept known as exaptation, in which a trait that evolved because it met a particular need turns out to be just as useful for something else. Feathers, for instance, originally provided a means of regulating body temperature, but they ended up being crucial in the development of flight, and in other cases, a trait that played a secondary or supporting role to another adaptation becomes important enough to serve an unrelated purpose of its own. We see much the same process at work in genre fiction, which is subject to selective pressures from authors, editors, and especially readers. The genres we see today, like suspense or romance, might seem inevitable, but their conventions are really just a set of the recipes or tricks that worked. Such innovations are rarely introduced as a conscious attempt to define a new category of fiction, but as solutions to the problems that a specific narrative presents. The elements we see in Jane Eyre—the isolated house, the orphaned heroine, the employer with a mysterious past—arose from Charlotte Brontë’s confrontation with that particular story, but they worked so well that they were appropriated by a cohort of other writers, working in the now defunct genre of the gothic romance. And I suspect that Brontë would be as surprised as anyone by the uses to which her ideas have been put.

It’s rare for a genre to emerge, as gothic romance did, from a single book; more often, it’s the result of small shifts in a wide range of titles, with each book accidentally providing a useful tool that is picked up and used by others. Repeat the process for a generation or two, and you end up with a set of conventions to which later writers will repeatedly return. And as with other forms of natural selection, a secondary adaptation, introduced to enable something else, can evolve to take over the whole genre. The figure of the detective or private eye is a good example. When you look at the earliest works of mystery fiction we have, from Bleak House to The Moonstone, you often find that the detective plays a minor role: he pops up toward the middle of the story, he nudges the plot along when necessary, and he defers whenever possible to the other characters. Even in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is only one character among many, and the book drops him entirely in favor of a long flashback about the Mormons. Ultimately, though, the detective—whose initial role was purely functional—evolved to become the central attraction, with the romantic leads who were the focus of attention in Dickens or Collins reduced to the interchangeable supporting players of an Agatha Christie novel. The detective was originally just a way of feathering the story; in the end, he was what allowed the genre to take flight.

"Their journey so far had been uneventful..."

You see something similar in suspense’s obsession with modes of transportation. One of the first great attractions of escapist spy fiction lay in the range of locations it presented: it allowed readers to vicariously travel to various exotic locales. (This hasn’t changed, either: the latest Mission: Impossible movie takes us to Belarus, Cuba, Virginia, Paris, Vienna, Casablanca, and London.) The planes, trains, and automobiles that fill such novels were meant simply to get the characters from place to place. Over time, though, they became set pieces in their own right. I’ve noted elsewhere that what we call an airport novel was literally a story set largely in airports, as characters flew from one exciting setting to another, and you could compile an entire anthology of thriller scenes set on trains or planes. At first, they were little more than connective tissue—you had to show the characters going from point A to point B, and the story couldn’t always cut straight from Lisbon to Marrakesh—but these interstitial scenes ultimately evolved into a point of interest in themselves. They also play a useful structural role. Every narrative requires a few pauses or transitions to gather itself between plot points, and staging such scenes on an interesting form of transport makes it seem as if the story is advancing, even if it’s taking a breather.

In Eternal Empire, for instance, there’s an entire chapter focusing on Ilya and his minder Bogdan as they take the Cassiopeia railway from Paris to Munich. There’s no particular reason it needs to exist at all, and although it contains some meaningful tidbits of backstory, I could have introduced this material in any number of other ways. But I wanted to write a train scene, in part as an homage to the genre, in part because it seemed unrealistic to leave Ilya’s fugitive journey undescribed, and in part because it gave me the setting I needed. There’s a hint of subterfuge, with my two travelers moving from one train station to another under false passports, and a complication in the fact that neither can bring a gun onboard, leaving them both unarmed. Really, though, it’s a scene about two men sizing each other up, and thrillers have long since learned that a train is the best place for such conversations, which is why characters always seem to be coming and going at railway stations. (In the show Hannibal, Will and Chiyo spend most of an episode on an overnight train to Florence, although they easily could have flown. It ends with Chiyo shoving Will onto the tracks, but I suspect that it’s really there to give them a chance to talk, which wouldn’t play as well on a plane.) Ilya and Bogdan have a lot to talk about. And when they get to their destination, they’ll have even more to say…

Eyes without a face

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Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

By now, Hannibal seems to be nearing its final stretch—its promised lifelines from Amazon or Netflix have failed to materialize—but it still retains its full ability to shock and amuse. The funniest thing about last night’s episode came at the very beginning: unlike every other installment of the show this season, it aired without a viewer discretion advisory warning us of the violent imagery to come. And if anyone really thought that this meant the show was going to soften its content for its move to Saturdays, it took about ten seconds for it to disabuse us of that notion. (If the commercials that aired with it are any indication, the network evidently assumes that most of its viewers now are well over the age of sixty, and have probably seen it all.) “Digestivo,” which marks the end of the Mason Verger arc, as remixed from the novel Hannibal, may be the most violent episode of broadcast television I’ve ever witnessed. My wife watched much of it from between her fingers, and while I had a good idea of what was coming, it was both bracing and horrifying to see Bryan Fuller go further than Ridley Scott or Thomas Harris himself ever dared. I was pretty sure, based on the source material, that I was going to see a moray eel going down Mason’s throat; what I didn’t anticipate was the prospect of him eating Lecter, piece by piece, using Will Graham’s transplanted face. It isn’t an image that I relished, exactly, but it deserves a slow clap from anyone who thought Fuller might lose his nerve toward the end.

Ultimately, of course, both Lecter and Will were spared, at least for now. Mason wakes up from surgery wearing someone else’s face, but it turns out to belong to Cordell, the world’s most sadistic nurse and transplant surgeon, and it quickly slides off to the floor. It’s an unbelievably gruesome sight, and it reminds us of how willing Hannibal has always been to capitalize on our deepest fears about disfigurement. Decades ago, Pauline Kael made a similar point while discussing the polarized critical and audience reaction to Irvin Kershner’s Eyes of Laura Mars:

The danger is to the eyes. If the killer had gone for the throat, probably the movie wouldn’t be so frightening and wouldn’t be considered immoral…Laura Mars violates our guardedness about our eyes. The most dreaded thing that can happen to what many regard as their most sensitive organs happens in this picture; like Un Chien Andalou, it attacks what we’re watching the movie with.

Hearing Kael refer to the eyes as our “most sensitive” organs reminds me a little of what Woody Allen said about the brain: “It’s my second-favorite organ.” And Hannibal isn’t above making us fear for what might happen below Lecter’s waist. (The most disturbing moment in the episode, at least for me, was Mason’s speech about the actual cannibal Armin Meiwes, which reminds us that real life can produce monsters as horrible as anything fiction could devise.) But the face, like the eyes, has a special status in our nightmares, and by targeting it, as Kael cannily notes, it’s as if the show is attacking us at the very place at which we’re joined to the narrative.

Caroline Dhavernas and Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

And so much of the power of visual storytelling is derived from the filmed human face that destroying it feels like an assault on the idea of emotional connection itself. I noted years ago that the later films of Tom Cruise, who is in many respects our most interesting movie star, play like a series of variations on the theme of masks and facial disfigurement. He wears a mask in Eyes Wide Shut and Vanilla Sky, the latter of which, along with Minority Report, all but erases his features, and even a franchise as escapist as the Mission: Impossible films is built on masks and their removal: the most delicious mislead in the entire series comes at the start of M:I-2, when Cruise peels away his face to reveal Dougray Scott beneath. Cruise returns to these images of masks and disfigurement so obsessively in his best films that it’s hard not to see it as a reflection of his ambivalence toward his own good looks. That’s what makes him so fascinating as a star: no actor, as Taffy Brodesser-Akner noted in The New York Times Magazine, has ever worked harder for our pleasure, but it’s all built around a core of secrecy and withholding. And the destruction of the most famous male face in the world, even in fantasy, seems designed to force us to think about the nature of our feelings about it. (Cruise, for what it’s worth, seems to have moved on: he allegedly turned down the lead in Iron Man because it would have required him to wear a mask for much of the movie.)

It’s a theme that Hannibal has mined from the beginning, and it’s right there in its sources. Mason Verger is defined by his lack of facial features, and it feels intuitively right that Lecter makes his improbable escape in The Silence of the Lambs by peeling off another man’s face and wearing it like a mask. Much of Hannibal, the show, has been devoted to the systematic removal of the masks that Lecter wears, or what multiple characters have called his “person suit”—a veiled nod to the literal person suit that Buffalo Bill will later construct. And there’s a strong possibility that the show, if it had been renewed, would have taken it even further. At the end of Red Dragon, which Hannibal is about to retell in loving detail, Will Graham all but loses his face:

[Dolarhyde] pinned Graham with his knees, raised the knife high and grunted as he brought it down. The blade missed Graham’s eye and crunched deep into his cheek.

And the damage was permanent: in The Silence of the Lambs, Crawford says that Graham’s face “looks like damned Picasso drew it.” None of the prior cinematic versions of this story have dared to follow through on this climax, but I have a feeling, given the evidence, that Fuller would embrace it. Taking Hugh Dancy’s face away, or making it hard for it look at, would be the ultimate rupture between the series and its viewers. Given the show’s cancellation, it may well end up being the very last thing we see. It would be a grim note on which to end. But it’s nothing that this series hasn’t taught us to expect.

Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2015 at 9:14 am

Typhoid and swans

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Hugh Dancy in Hannibal

Last year, when Community was abruptly served its walking papers by NBC, I wrote the following on this blog:

Community has been canceled. It was a move that took a lot of us, including me, by surprise, and it was announced just as I’d absorbed the happy news that Hannibal was coming back for at least one more season…At a moment when the show seemed so confident of renewal that it ended the season with an episode that all but took it for granted, it’s gone.

Later in the same post, I noted: “Of course, the peculiar thing about watching a cult series these days is that you just never know what might happen.” Still, my overall tone was pessimistic, if not outright dismissive, about the hopes for its revival in some other form. Which just shows how much difference a year makes. Within minutes of yesterday’s announcement that Hannibal had indeed been canceled, speculation was already turning to which online or cable outlet would be picking it up for a fourth season. It made the cancellation seem less like a death sentence than like a suspenseful interlude as we wait to see the conditions under which the characters will survive—or pretty much what Hannibal itself does on a regular basis.

Of course, there’s no guarantee. Bryan Fuller, who never had a series run for even two years until now, seems to have had few illusions about the show’s prospects: the current season is burning through material so quickly, not just from Red Dragon but from Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, that it feels like Fuller is trying to cram as much as possible into his available window. Still, even the tangible possibility of the show getting picked up elsewhere represents a curious mental adjustment for viewers. In the old days, attempts to save threatened shows were the province of grassroots campaigns, with fans bombarding networks with letters, muffins, or bottles of tabasco sauce. Sometimes it worked; usually it didn’t. Now revivals that would have once seemed utterly out of the question are on the table, thanks not to fan enthusiasm but to a shifting media landscape, with players both new and old eager to produce quality content for an existing audience. Next year alone, we’re going to see continuations of both The X-Files and Twin Peaks with their casts and creative crews intact, including a new episode of the former by Darin Morgan, which is basically the full realization of all my fanboy dreams. And it means that just about anything seems possible. (The glaring exception, somewhat hilariously, remains Firefly, which has nothing going for it except a rabid fanbase and the patronage of the most powerful director in Hollywood.)

Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks

And as Lecter himself once said: “Typhoid and swans—it all comes from the same place.” In a way, this is all the bright side of the aversion to risk that characterizes so much entertainment these days. Hollywood is obsessed with sequels, reboots, and remakes for movies that were perfectly fine on their own, but television has enough shows that were canceled before their time to make a return to an old idea seem less like a sign of creative bankruptcy than a gift from the gods. It’s probably too much to ask a company with obligations to its shareholders—and executives praying not to get fired—to make much of a stand for great content for its own sake: we can only wait for those moments when their interests happen to align with what we care about, even if it’s by accident. That’s the funny thing about the entertainment industry. The same corporate mindset that thought people wanted to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is also responsible for bringing David Lynch back to the Black Lodge. On an individual level, it’s possible that development executives can differentiate between the two, but it all runs together on a balance sheet. And the primary difference between Twin Peaks and Spider-Man, aside from their cost, is their gestation period. It takes only a couple of years for a comic book franchise to start to look attractive again; with a cult television show, it’s probably closer to twenty. But even that timeline is starting to accelerate.

So how would a fourth season of Hannibal look? Fuller doesn’t have the rights to The Silence of the Lambs, which would be the logical next step in the series, but he’s hinted that he’s not particularly worried about this. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he says: “There is a pocket in one of the novels of some really rich interesting character material that I’m inverting and twisting around.” He goes on to explain what he means, off the record, and the reporter tells us, in a coy parenthesis, “It is is indeed radical.” There’s no telling what he has in mind, but my own hunch is that it involves a throwaway line about Will’s fate after the events of Red Dragon:

Will Graham, the keenest hound ever to run in Crawford’s pack, was a legend at the Academy; he was also a drunk in Florida now with a face that was hard to look at, they said.

I’d love to see this version of the show, as much as I’d love to see Fuller’s take on Clarice Starling. Yet even if we never get it, there’s reason to be content. The Silence of the Lambs is already a great movie. Thanks to Fuller and his collaborators, we also have a more satisfying filmed version of the rest of the Lecter saga than we’ve ever had before. Taken together, it’s a body of work more than worthy of the novels that inspired it. That’s a tremendous achievement. And it happened despite, not because of, what fans loved about this show in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

June 23, 2015 at 10:26 am

A brand apart

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Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What individual instances of product placement in movies and television have you found most effective?”

One of the small but consistently troublesome issues that every writer faces is what to do about brand names. We’re surrounded by brands wherever we look, and we casually think and talk about them all the time. In fiction, though, the mention of a specific brand often causes a slight blip in the narrative: we find ourself asking if the character in question would really be using that product, or why the author introduced it at all, and if it isn’t handled well, it can take us out of the story. Which isn’t to say that such references don’t have their uses. John Gardner puts it well in The Art of Fiction:

The writer, if it suits him, should also know and occasionally use brand names, since they help to characterize. The people who drive Toyotas are not the same people who drive BMWs, and people who brush with Crest are different from those who use Pepsodent or, on the other hand, one of the health-food brands made of eggplant. (In super-realist fiction, brand names are more important than the characters they describe.)

And sometimes the clever deployment of brands can be another weapon in the writer’s arsenal, although it usually only works when the author already possesses a formidable descriptive vocabulary. Nicholson Baker is a master of this, and it doesn’t get any better than Updike in Rabbit is Rich:

In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…

For the rest of us, though, I’d say that brand names are one of those places where fiction has to retreat slightly from reality in order to preserve the illusion. Just as dialogue in fiction tends to be more direct and concise than it would be in real life, characters should probably refer to specific brands a little less often than they really would. (This is particularly true when it comes to rapidly changing technology, which can date a story immediately.)

Danny Pudi and Alison Brie on Community

In movies and television, a prominently featured brand sets off a different train of thought: we stop paying attention to the story and wonder if we’re looking at deliberate product placement—if there’s even any question at all. Even a show as densely packed as The Vampire Diaries regularly takes a minute to serve up a commercial for the likes of AT&T MiFi, and shows like Community have turned paid brand integration into entire self-mocking subplots, while still accepting the sponsor’s money, which feels like a textbook example of having it both ways. Tony Pace of Subway explains their strategy in simple terms: “We are kind of looking to be an invited guest with a speaking role.” Which is exactly what happened on Community—and since it was reasonably funny, and it allowed the show to skate along for another couple of episodes, I didn’t really care. When it’s handled poorly, though, this ironic, winking form of product placement can be even more grating than the conventional kind. It flatters us into thinking that we’re all in on the joke, although it isn’t hard to imagine cases where corporate sponsorship, embedded so deeply into a show’s fabric, wouldn’t be so cute and innocuous. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a fake version of irreverence, done on a company’s terms. And if there’s a joke here, it’s probably on us.

Paid or not, product placement works, at least on me, although often in peculiar forms. I drank Heineken for years because of Blue Velvet, and looking around my house, I see all kinds of products or items that I bought to recapture a moment from pop culture, whether it’s the Pantone mug that reminds me of a Magnetic Fields song or the Spyderco knife that carries the Hannibal seal of approval. (I’ve complained elsewhere about the use of snobbish brand names in Thomas Harris, but it’s a beautiful little object, even if I don’t expect to use it exactly as Lecter does.) If it’s kept within bounds, it’s a mostly harmless way of establishing a connection between us and something we love, but it always ends up feeling a little empty. Which may be why brand names sit so uncomfortably in fiction. Brands or corporations use many of the same strategies as art to generate an emotional response, except the former is constantly on message, unambiguous, and designed to further a specific end. It’s no accident that there are so many affinities between advertising and propaganda. A good work of art, by contrast, is ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations, and asks nothing of us aside from an investment of time—which is the opposite of what a brand wants. Fiction and brands are always going to live together, either because they’ve been paid to do so or because it’s an accurate reflection of our world. But we’re more than just consumers. And art, at its best, should remind us of this.

From Walter White to Castle Black

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Stephen Dillane on Game of Thrones

Note: Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones.

Two years ago, after the stunning Breaking Bad episode “Ozymandias” first aired, George R.R. Martin wrote the following on his blog:

Amazing series. Amazing episode last night. Talk about a gut punch.
Walter White is a bigger monster than anyone in Westeros.
(I need to do something about that.)

Ever since, Martin and the showrunners of Game of Thrones have been as good as their word, moving past the material in the original books to treat us to moments of violence and cruelty, sexual and otherwise, designed to deliver the kind of gut punch that Breaking Bad did so well. It all culminated, for now, in the most recent episode, in which Stannis—who wasn’t exactly a fan favorite, but at least ranked among the show’s more intriguing characters—burned his own adorable daughter alive. (Now that I’ve taken an extended break from the series, there’s something oddly liberating about reading about the high points the next day, instead of sitting through yet another hour of “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” scenes.)

I’m no longer a Game of Thrones fan, but I’ll give the show partial credit for setting itself an enormous technical challenge. It tells a complicated story with at least three major factions competing to rule the Seven Kingdoms, but it seems determined to make it impossible for us to root for anyone with a legitimate shot at the throne. This has always been a series devoted to undermining our usual reasons for enjoying fantasy fiction, and giving us a conventional hero to follow might have obscured its larger point—that Westeros is a deeply messed up world with a system designed to spark endless cycles of bloodshed, no matter who wears the crown at any given moment. In the abstract, this is one hell of an ambitious goal, and I’m the last person, or almost the last, to argue that a show has any obligation to make its protagonists likable. Yet I still feel that it has an obligation to make them interesting, and this is where the series falters, at least for me. When I look at the show’s current lineup of characters, I’m reminded of what Mark Twain once wrote about the novels of James Fenimore Cooper: “The reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.”

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

In fact, in the absence of other satisfactions, Game of Thrones sometimes feels like an object lesson in the foolishness of becoming attached to anybody. It’s so singleminded about setting up and knocking down our hopes that it seems to be implicitly asking why we bother latching onto anyone at all. To which I’m tempted to respond with the words of Krusty the Clown: “Because I’m an idiot. Happy?” But the show either isn’t satisfied or no longer seems capable of doing anything else. At times, it resembles none of its characters so much as the loathsome Ramsay Bolton, with his systematic breakdown of Theon’s last shreds of humanity. Bolton, at least, is an unrepentant sadist, while the show hedges its cruelties with the implication that this is all somehow good for us. By alienating us from everyone, though, it’s taking the easy way out. We’ve known from the start that there can only be one winner here, at most, and if the show had managed to engage us with every side, the idea that most of these people won’t survive might have seemed genuinely tragic. Instead, I no longer particularly care who ends up on the Iron Throne. And by frustrating us so diligently in the short term, the show has denied itself an endgame that might actually have meant something.

A few seasons back, I might have defended Game of Thrones as a show that used dubious tactics for the sake of a larger strategy, but now I no longer believe in the strategy, either. (This lack of trust, more than any one scene, is the real reason I’ve stopped watching.) And I keep coming back to Martin’s comparison to Breaking Bad. Part of me likes to think that Martin merely mistyped: Walter White may not be a bigger monster than anyone on this show, but he’s certainly a better one. And the difference between him and his counterparts in Westeros—as well as the difference between a series that kept me hooked to the end, despite its occasional missteps, and one that I’ve more or less abandoned—lies in the queasy identification that Walt inspired in the audience. We may not have wanted Walt to “win,” but we loved watching him along the way, because he was endlessly interesting. And Breaking Bad earned its big, heartbreaking moments, as Hannibal has done more recently. But that kind of emotional immersion requires countless small, nearly invisible judgment calls and smart choices of the kind that Game of Thrones rarely seems capable of making. I don’t need to like Stannis, any more than I needed to like Walt. But I wish I liked the show around him.

Written by nevalalee

June 9, 2015 at 10:06 am

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