Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Red Dragon

Out of the silence

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Eight years ago, I wrote in one of my very first posts on this blog: “I still hope that [Thomas] Harris comes back and writes another amazing novel. I really do. Even Hannibal, for all its problems, has remarkable moments…All the same, it’s been four years since we saw a new book from Harris, a notoriously slow and methodical writer, and there hasn’t been a whisper of another project. And the pressure to write another Hannibal Lecter novel must be tremendous. But I hope he resists it. Because an ambitious new thriller by Harris without Lecter would be the literary event of the year, maybe the decade.” Looking back, this seems slightly hyperbolical, but I stand by my statement. There was a time when I would have argued that Harris was the best popular novelist in America, based on a remarkably modest body of work. He’s written just five novels, one of which is best forgotten, and his most recent effort of any value is nearly two decades old. Yet between Black Sunday, Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and the most worthwhile parts of Hannibal alone, he’s responsible for more memorable ideas, scenes, and characters than any other bestselling writer I can name, apart perhaps from his longtime admirer Stephen King. No author in my lifetime has done more to break down the barriers between literary and mainstream fiction, based on little more than a dark imagination and an unsurpassed level of technical proficiency. During the years when I was working mostly as a suspense novelist, I read his novels endlessly, and it’s possible that I owe more to his example than to any other writer in any genre.

As a result, I greeted yesterday’s announcement of a new Harris novel, which is scheduled to be released the week before my next birthday, with more than usual excitement. The title and even the basic premise have yet to be revealed, a lack of information reflected in the most comprehensive article that we have on it so far, in the form of a paragraph from the Associated Press:

The Silence of the Lambs author Thomas Harris has a new novel out in May, his first in more than a decade. But don’t expect a return for Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Grand Central Publishing announced Wednesday that Harris will release his first “stand-alone thriller” since his debut, Black Sunday, in 1975. No other details were provided, although the publisher confirmed to the Associated Press that Lecter wasn’t in it. Harris, 78, has released just five previous novels. Four of them feature the flesh-eating Lecter, including The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon.

There isn’t much there, apart from the confirmation that Lecter won’t be involved, which is newsworthy in itself. Lecter is one of the great creations in all of popular fiction—perhaps the most indelible since Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, though, he eventually became a millstone around his creator’s neck. Harris has spent the last half of his career in a losing battle to reconcile Lecter’s star status with the uncompromising version of the character that had been established in the first two novels. It all but destroyed his gifts as a reporter and observer, since the later books were built around what he must have known was a lie. And the prospect of his emancipation is very exciting.

But what really struck me about that article is the realization, which I could have figured out for myself if I had bothered to do the math, that Harris is seventy-eight years old. That’s just one year younger than Philip Roth was when he announced his retirement. These two writers are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, but they have affinities that aren’t entirely obvious. They’re roughly of the same generation, with preternatural abilities of observation and description, and both saw writing as a sort of torture. Stephen King has written of Harris “writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration,” since “the very act of writing is a kind of torment,” and while Roth was more prolific, he found the act of creation to be comparably grueling, as he once told The Paris Review:

Beginning a book is unpleasant…I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. Okay, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book. I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book.

And after he retired, he posted a note on his computer that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Few writers remain productive toward the end of their eighth decade, and those who do, like John Updike, are usually those for whom it was easier to keep writing than to stop. If Harris found it painful in his forties, it can hardly be any less agonizing now, and the burden of expectation must be very great. We don’t know what inspired him to return to fiction after all this time, but I can venture a few guesses. Harris signed a lucrative contract over a decade ago, and he might have felt a sense of obligation to fulfill it, although both he and his publisher can live quite comfortably off his backlist. I once guessed that after he outsourced his most famous creation to Bryan Fuller, he’d feel free to write a book of his own, which might be part of the answer. But the best clue of all, perhaps, comes straight from Lecter himself, who advises Clarice Starling to consult Marcus Aurelius in her search for Buffalo Bill:

When you show the odd flash of contextual intelligence, I forget your generation can’t read, Clarice. The Emperor counsels simplicity. First principles. Of each particular thing, ask: What is in it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its causal nature?

When Starling, not unreasonably, asks him to cut to the chase, Lecter rewords the question: “What does he do, the man you want?” And while we know less about Harris than just about any other novelist alive, including Thomas Pynchon, we know exactly what he does. He writes, often brilliantly, and so much of what clouded his talent—Lecter’s seduction of Starling, the revisionist fanfic of Hannibal Rising—was merely, as Lecter might say, “incidental.” And I hope we’ll have one more chance to see his true nature again.

Written by nevalalee

October 4, 2018 at 8:29 am

The slow fade

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Pet Shop Boys

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 16, 2014.

A while back, William Weir wrote an excellent piece in Slate about the decline of the fade-out in pop music, once ubiquitous, now nearly impossible to find. Of the top ten songs of 1985, every single one ended with a fade; in the three years before the article was written, there was only one, “Blurred Lines,” which in itself is a conscious homage to—or an outright plagiarism of—a much earlier model. Weir points to various possible causes for the fade’s disappearance, from the impatience of radio and iTunes listeners to advances in technology that allow producers to easily splice in a cold ending, and he laments the loss of the technique, which at its best produces an impression that a song never ends, but imperceptibly embeds itself into the fabric of the world beyond. (He also notes that a fade-out, more prosaically, can be used to conceal a joke or hidden message. One of my favorites, which he doesn’t mention, occurs in “Always On My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys, which undermines itself with a nearly inaudible aside at the very end: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”)

The slow fade is a special case of what I’ve elsewhere called the Layla effect, in which a song creates an impression of transcendence or an extension into the infinite by the juxtaposition of two unrelated parts—although one of the few songs on that list that doesn’t end with a fade, interestingly, is “Layla” itself. As Weir points out, a proper fade involves more than just turning down the volume knob: it’s a miniature movement in its own right, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end, and it produces a corresponding shift in the listener’s mental state. He cites a fascinating study by the Hanover University of Music in Germany, which measured how long students tapped along to the rhythm of the same song in two different versions. When the song was given a cold ending, subjects stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the song was over, but with a fade-out, they continued to tap 1.04 seconds after the song ended, as if the song had somehow managed to extend itself beyond its own physical limits. As the Pet Shop Boys say elsewhere on Introspective, the music plays forever.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

In some ways, then, a fade-out is the musical equivalent of the denouement in fiction, and it’s easy to draw parallels to different narrative strategies. A cold ending is the equivalent of the kind of abrupt close we see in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which rarely go on for long after the demise of the central character. (This may be due in part to the logistics of theatrical production: a scene change so close to the end would only sow confusion, and in the meantime, the leading actor is doing his best to lie motionless on the stage.) The false fade, in which a song like “Helter Skelter” pretends to wind down before abruptly ramping up again, has its counterpart in the false denouement, which we see in so many thrillers, perhaps most memorably in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. And the endless slow fade, which needs a long song like “Hey Jude” or “Dry the Rain” to sustain it, is reminiscent of the extended denouements in epic novels from War and Peace to The Lord of the Rings. The events of the epic wrench both the protagonist and reader out of everyday life, and after a thousand crowded pages, it takes time to settle us back into Bag End.

The fade, in short, is a narrative tool like any other, complete with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Weir quotes the sound engineer Jeff Rothschild, who says that in order for the fade to sound natural to a listener’s ear, the volume must “go down a little quicker at first, and then it’s a longer fade”—which is a strategy often employed in fiction, in which an abrupt conclusion to the central conflict is followed by a more gradual withdrawal. There are times, of course, when a sudden ending is what you want: Robert Towne himself admits that the original dying close of Chinatown isn’t as effective as the “simple severing of the knot” that Roman Polanski imposed. But it’s a mistake to neglect a tool both so simple and so insinuating. (A fade-in, which allows the song to edge gradually into our circle of consciousness, can create an equally haunting impression, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and one of my favorite deep cuts by the Beatles, George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You.”) These days, we have a way of seeing songs as discrete items on a playlist, but they often work best if they’re allowed to spill over a bit to either side. An ending draws a line in the world, but sometimes it’s nice if it’s a little blurred.

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2016 at 9:00 am

I can dream, can’t I?

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Inception

For years, I’ve been daydreaming about a piece of fan fiction that I’d love to write, although I doubt I’ll ever get a chance to do it. Let’s call it The Carousel. It’s a midquel to Inception, which means that it takes place during the events of the original movie—in this case, after Cobb has assembled his team for the mind heist, but before they’ve actually gone into Fischer’s head. (There’s nothing in the film itself to rule this out: it’s unclear how much time passes after Saito approaches them with the assignment.) Cobb is concerned about Ariadne’s lack of experience, so he proposes that they practice first with a quick, straightforward job. It’s a commission from a striking, mysterious woman in her fifties who wants them to enter her aging father’s dreams to discover the secrets of his past. She is, of course, Sally Draper from Mad Men. The rest of the story follows the team as they invade Don’s mind, burrowing into his memories of his life at Sterling Cooper and the women he loved and lost, and probing ever deeper toward the dark heart of the man who was once known as Dick Whitman. We’d see Arthur and Ariadne trying to blend in at the office holiday party, or maybe Eames going undercover in Korea. And when they emerge from Don’s brain at last, with or without the answers that Sally wants, they’ve all been subtly changed, and they’re ready to go after Fischer. If nothing else, it explains why they’re still wearing those suits.

Alas, I don’t think I’ll ever write this story, mostly because I know I can’t give it the energy and attention it deserves. After I got the idea for the crossover, I decided to put it off until Mad Men finished its run, which would allow me to draw on Don’s full backstory, but the longer I waited, the more obvious it became that I couldn’t justify the investment of time it required. For one thing, I’d want to write it up as a full novel, and to do it justice, I’d have to go back and watch all seven seasons of the series, looking for places in which I could insert Cobb’s team into the background, à la Back to the Future Part II. I’d also want to revisit Inception itself to see if there were any plot holes or contradictions I could explain in the process. In short, it would be a lot of work for a story that I’m not sure anybody else would read, or particularly want to see. But I seem to have incepted myself with it, because I can’t get it out of my head. As with most fanfic, there’s an element of wish fulfillment involved: it allows me to spend a little more time with characters I probably won’t see ever again. Mad Men ended so beautifully that any continuation—like the Sally Draper spinoff series that was pitched in all seriousness at AMC—would only undermine its legacy. And Inception is one of the few recent blockbusters that deliberately makes a sequel impossible, despite the occasional rumblings that we hear along those lines. It won’t happen. But this is why fanfic exists.

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

In the meantime, I’ll sometimes try to scratch that itch by reading a novel or short story and mentally casting all the characters with faces from Mad Men. It’s a habit that I picked up years ago, when I first read Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, and I’ve done it since with Airport and a few of John D. MacDonald’s novels. (I still think that Jon Hamm would make a perfect Travis McGee.) And the show maps onto George O. Smith’s stories about the space station Venus Equilateral almost too well. I’ll often do it when reading a story that is best approached as a period piece, thanks either to the author’s intentions or to the passage of time. Picturing Don, Joan, and the rest at least allows me to keep the clothes and hairstyles straight, which is a more significant factor than it might first appear: a book like John Updike’s Couples reads altogether differently when you realize that all of the women would have been dressed like Betty Draper. In other cases, it amounts to a hybrid form of fanfic, enabling the kind of dream casting that still makes me wish, say, for a miniseries version of The Corrections starring the cast of Arrested Development—which just makes me want to read that novel again with those actors in mind, just as I recently went back to Red Dragon while picturing Hugh Dancy as Will. It’s a harmless game, and it can bring out elements of a story that I might have overlooked, just as the casting of a particular movie star in a film can clarify a character in ways that a screenwriter can’t.

And this is just a variation on what happens inside all our heads when we read a novel. Only half of the work is done by the writer on the page; the other half occurs in the reader’s brain, which populates the novel with faces, settings, and images that the author might never have envisioned. What I see when I read a story is drastically different from what appears in your mind’s eye, and we have no way of comparing them directly. (That said, an adaptation can lock certain elements into place for many readers, so that their imaginations run more or less in parallel. Ten years ago, no two fans saw the characters from A Song of Ice and Fire in quite the same way, but thanks to Game of Thrones, I suspect that a lot of readers now just picture Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke, as if a wave function had collapsed into exactly one eigenstate.) The fact that fanfic bridges that gap instantaneously, so that we can immediately see all of our favorite characters, is a large part of its appeal—and the main reason why it’s a flawed school for writers who are still learning their craft. Creating believable characters from scratch is the single hardest aspect of writing, and fanfic allows you to skip that crucial step. Aspiring writers should be wary of it for the same reason that the playwright Willy Russell avoids listening to music or drinking wine while he works: “I think both those things seduce you into thinking that the feelings engendered by the wine or music are present in your work.” That’s true of fanfic, too, and it’s why I’ll probably never end up writing The Carousel. But I can dream, can’t I?

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

The Monster of Florence

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The cast of Hannibal

Like most great acts of trickery, narrative and otherwise, the television series Hannibal hinges on a feat of sleight of hand. At first glance, its source material could hardly seem more clear, since it’s there each week in the opening credits: “Based on the characters from the book Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.” Yet the more I watch it—and this is my favorite network drama in years—the more I’m convinced that its real influences lie elsewhere. Once you get past its florid title and grotesque gallery of murderers, the novel Red Dragon is essentially a realistic thriller, with some of the most detailed and convincing procedural elements that the genre ever produced. (I’ve seen books on writing that recommend studying it as a sourcebook on forensic technique.) It’s no wonder that Michael Mann, our most obsessive cinematic chronicler of men at work, was drawn to it: Manhunter, which puts its director’s name directly in the title, remains the most faithful filmed version of this story that we have. Bryan Fuller’s interests, to put it mildly, are somewhat different. There’s hardly a credible moment of forensic analysis or laboratory procedure anywhere to be found on this show: the investigative team is there primarily to provide subtle comic relief, and most of the crimes are solved, literally, by an act of Will.

Because the title of this show, after all, isn’t Red Dragon, but Hannibal. And as the series has unfolded, it has become manifestly clear that its real thematic touchstone is the novel of the same name, along with its notorious adaptation by Ridley Scott. In itself, this is a daring choice: neither the novel nor the movie Hannibal ranks high among anyone’s favorites, unless you’re Stephen King or David Thomson, and even if you like aspects of both, as I do, it’s hard not to see it as the point when Harris’s tendency toward the overwrought and gruesome overwhelmed his keen instincts as a crime reporter. Yet it’s those very excesses that seem to fascinate Fuller. The show’s lineup of serial killers of the week has grown increasingly baroque, to the point where Francis Dolarhyde, who merely slaughtered two families in their homes, might find it hard to make an impression. Characters from the novel Hannibal, like Mason Verger and his sister Margot, are given big roles, and the show’s visual aesthetic—all dripping blood and dark, candied surfaces—has more in common with the later Harris than the stark, clean lines of the early books. And the fact that the new season draws liberally on Lecter’s adventures in Florence signals that it intends to dive even deeper into those gothic trenches.

Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

Yet Hannibal, the show, pulls it off, when the book and movie mostly didn’t. And this is thanks largely to its clarity of purpose regarding the character of Lecter himself. Harris’s last two books suffer from his growing identification with Lecter, along with a curious misreading of his appeal. As Martin Amis was among the first to point out, Hannibal frees Lecter only to turn him into an arch consumer with a taste for expensive brand names, rather than the severe, poised monster he was at his best. Here’s his airline meal on the plane ride home:

An elegant yellow box trimmed with brown from Fauchon, the Paris caterer. It is tied with two ribbons of silk gauze in complementary colors. Dr. Lecter has provisioned himself with wonderfully aromatic truffled pâté de foie gras, and Anatolian figs still weeping from their severed stems. He has a half-bottle of a St. Estephe he favors. The silk bow yields with a whisper…

This kind of thing can go on and on—and it does. In his cell, Lecter seems like a being of infinite possibility; in Florence, he’s a fop and snob whose choices are designed to tickle the most superficial of bourgeois instincts, a primate of the Ponte Vecchio.

And while the series doesn’t shy away from showing us Lecter’s decadent lifestyle, it benefits from a more reasoned understanding of his evil. Lecter, for once, is the villain here: we’ve seen him destroy lives and inflict pain to an extent that the books themselves never acknowledged. By ridding itself of Harris’s ambivalence toward his own creation, the show is better equipped to walk its fine line between real dread and campy decadence. One of the pleasures of Hannibal is how close it always seems to crossing over into parody, and it’s deliciously aware of this. The dialogue is so mannered that you feel you could put together an algorithm to generate it on demand: “Morality doesn’t exist. Only morale.” But by keeping itself at arm’s length from its title character, which it regards like a beautiful but deadly wasp in a jar, it allows us to delight in Lecter’s extravagances while not asking us to buy into his values. The result is one of the weirdest, perversely singular shows around: for a series that seems perpetually on the cusp of cancellation, last night’s season premiere was almost willfully uninviting to new viewers. Whether the show can maintain that balance for much longer remains to be seen, and even as it stands, it’s doubtful if it would work at all for an audience that hadn’t been taught how to watch it. For now, though, it’s great, gut-wrenching fun, even if it only pulls it off by the skin of its teeth.

Written by nevalalee

June 5, 2015 at 9:05 am

The slow fade

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Pet Shop Boys

William Weir has an excellent piece in today’s Slate about the decline of the fade-out in pop music, once ubiquitous, now nearly impossible to find. Of the top ten songs of 1985, every single one ended with a fade; over the last three years, there has been only one, “Blurred Lines,” which in itself is a conscious homage to a much earlier model. Weir points to various possible causes for the fade’s disappearance, from the impatience of radio and iTunes listeners to advances in technology that allow producers to easily splice in a cold ending, and he laments the loss of the technique, which at its best produces an impression that a song never ends, but imperceptibly embeds itself into the fabric of the world beyond. (He also notes that a fade-out, more prosaically, can be used to conceal a joke or hidden message. One of my favorites, which he doesn’t mention, occurs in “Always On My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys, which undermines itself with a nearly inaudible aside at the very end: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”)

The slow fade is a special case of what I’ve elsewhere called the Layla effect, in which a song creates an impression of transcendence or an extension into the infinite by the juxtaposition of two unrelated parts—although one of the few songs on that list that doesn’t end with a fade, interestingly, is “Layla” itself. As Weir points out, a proper fade involves more than just turning down the volume knob: it’s a miniature movement in its own right, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end, and it produces a corresponding shift in the listener’s mental state. He cites a fascinating study by the Hanover University of Music in Germany, which measured how long students tapped along to the rhythm of the same song in two different versions. When the song was given a cold ending, subjects stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the song was over, but with a fade-out, they continued to tap 1.04 seconds after the song ended, as if the song had somehow managed to extend itself beyond its own physical limits. As the Pet Shop Boys say elsewhere on Introspective, the music plays forever.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

In some ways, then, a fade-out is the musical equivalent of the denouement in fiction, and it’s easy to draw parallels to different narrative strategies. A cold ending is the equivalent of the kind of abrupt close we see in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which rarely go on for long after the demise of the central character. (This may be due in part to the logistics of theatrical production: a scene change so close to the end would only sow confusion, and in the meantime, the leading actor is doing his best to lie motionless on the stage.) The false fade, in which a song like “Helter Skelter” pretends to wind down before abruptly ramping up again, has its counterpart in the false denouement, which we see in so many thrillers, perhaps most memorably in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. And the endless slow fade, which needs a long song like “Hey Jude” or “Dry the Rain” to sustain it, is reminiscent of the extended denouements in epic novels from War and Peace to The Lord of the Rings. The events of the epic wrench both the protagonist and reader out of everyday life, and after a thousand crowded pages, it takes time to settle us back into Bag End.

The fade, in short, is a narrative tool like any other, complete with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Weir quotes the sound engineer Jeff Rothschild, who says that in order for the fade to sound natural to a listener’s ear, the volume must “go down a little quicker at first, and then it’s a longer fade”—which is a strategy often employed in fiction, in which an abrupt conclusion to the central conflict is followed by a more gradual withdrawal. There are times, of course, when a sudden ending is what you want: Robert Towne himself admits that the original dying close of Chinatown isn’t as effective as the “simple severing of the knot” that Roman Polanski imposed. But it’s a mistake to neglect a tool both so simple and so insinuating. (A fade-in, which allows the song to edge gradually into our circle of consciousness, can create an equally haunting impression, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and one of my favorite deep cuts by the Beatles, George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You.”) These days, we have a way of seeing songs as discrete items on a playlist, but they often work best if they’re allowed to spill over a bit to either side. An ending draws a line in the world, but sometimes it’s nice if it’s a little blurred.

Written by nevalalee

September 16, 2014 at 9:34 am

Hannibal rises

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Hugh Dancy in Hannibal

I’m generally a good sleeper, but I’ve found myself tossing and turning on Friday nights. When I close my eyes, I’ll often find myself replaying scenes of hellish beauty and power: bodies grafted into cherry trees, turned into beehives, arranged in murals in the shape of a human eye, sectioned into slices like an installation by Damien Hirst. I know, I know—I shouldn’t be watching Hannibal so close to bedtime. But I can’t stop. After a fascinating but uneven first season, Bryan Fuller’s eerie, poetic, incredibly gruesome meditation on the work of Thomas Harris has turned into the best network drama I’ve seen in a long time, and that’s the least of its accomplishments. The Silence of the Lambs stands alone as a perfect film, and there’s no doubt that much of our fascination with Lecter stems as much from Demme’s movie and Hopkins’s performance as from the original novels. But Hannibal comes close to surpassing its source material in density and imagination. In some ways, it’s a reflection of the difference between film, which only has two hours to immerse us in a story, and television, which can devote thirteen episodes per season to furnishing an entire world. I’ve spent as much time thinking about Hannibal Lecter as any other character in fiction, and it’s only now that I’m starting to realize that I never really knew him at all.

And I’m as surprised by this as anyone. When the pilot first aired, I had a lot of doubts, but with a week still remaining until the premiere of the new season of Mad Men, Hannibal currently stands unrivaled as the richest slice of narrative on television. It’s one of those rare shows in which every creative element rewards scrutiny and reflection. Visually, it’s astounding, with beautiful and baroque tableaux of death that would skirt implausibility, or even parody, if they weren’t designed to force us to see the world from Will Graham and Hannibal’s charged perspectives. The music, sound, and production design are all first rate, and the direction keeps getting better and better. Most of all, we have the writing, which encompasses psychological richness, intricate plotting, and black humor while staying to just the right side of pretentiousness; and the acting, from a quirky, lovingly assembled cast. I was initially skeptical of Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter—he just seemed too villainous to pass as one of the leading lights of Baltimore society—but he’s managed to create a nuanced, terrifying portrayal while still keeping most of his secrets. As Will Graham, Hugh Dancy squeezes surprising notes out of an almost unplayable character. And Laurence Fishburne’s work as Jack Crawford is the show’s subtlest and most rewarding performance, even if it strains credulity that he’d still be in the field after the horrors that have befallen his team. (I also can’t fail to mention Raul Esparza, who has turned Dr. Chilton, unbelievably, into a delight.)

Laurence Fishburne and Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal

At some point, I expect that I’ll go back to revisit the first season, which I was watching at the time with only one eye. In retrospect, though, it feels like nothing so much as a necessary prologue to what the show has finally become. The major weakness of the first season of Hannibal was the problem it faced in playing our prior knowledge of its central character against the version of him that it presented. We know going in that Lecter is a madman who kills and eats other people, and the series took this for granted, to the point where it sometimes seemed interested in developing everything else but the man with his name in the title. The Hannibal Lecter of the first season is more of a sketch than a fully formed figure, and the show leaned a little too heavily on our familiarity with its sources. Now, however, with a season’s worth of narrative in the bank, we’ve seen Hannibal commit unspeakable crimes, staged before our eyes with an unflinching panache that even Harris never dared. This is not a man, as we were once reassured, who eats only the rude: he’s killed people we care about, and he continues to weave a web of incredible cruelty around Will and Jack. As a result, he’s far scarier than the Hopkins incarnation, whose charm shifted the balance of the novels and made nonsense of Harris’s strong moral grounding. It’s impossible to root for this version of Hannibal, but we’re still tantalized by him, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.

And it has the effect of retroactively enriching a series of books that I thought I had long since internalized. I’ve been rereading Red Dragon recently—it’s a novel that I seem to pick up every year or two and can’t put down until I’m done—and it’s remarkable how much more resonant it seems when I replay it with Dancy’s haunted face in mind. It’s unclear if Fuller and his creative team will have the chance to cover all three books, as they hope to do: given its modest ratings, it’s a miracle that the series has come even this far, and there are some complicated rights issues to be resolved with MGM before they can touch The Silence of the Lambs. A year ago, I would have been nervous at the prospect of a television show tackling this material at all. Now, though, I’m intensely curious to see what Fuller and the rest will do with it, especially because the way Hannibal has unfolded testifies to this show’s ability to execute a design that requires years for its full completion. If there’s one complaint that can be lodged against the character of Lecter, it’s that he’s too omniscient, too clever, too calculating, with a preternatural ability to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. (If nothing else, it’s unclear how he finds the time to style his victims in such striking ways, both in the field and in the kitchen.) But if every monster reflects its creator, we shouldn’t be surprised to find him at the heart of this methodical, painstaking, ruthlessly clever series. Because the only thing I can say for sure is that both Hannibal and his show have a plan.

Written by nevalalee

April 7, 2014 at 9:10 am

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