Friday, July 10, 2015

HANNIBAL Ep. 32: "Dolce"

In which we’re conjoined.  I’m curious whether either of us can survive separation.

Allow me, dear reader, if you will, to indulge in a bit of editorializing before digging into “Dolce”, this week’s mind-warping episode of Hannibal.  Or perhaps the editorializing is part and parcel of the digging.  Lord knows a good deal of my thoughts have already been beaten into the ground before now, especially if you’ve been following the epic Hannibal essay project that I began several months ago (and if you haven’t, get cracking at the beginning.)  But I feel that they bear repeating nonetheless, even in the relatively limited arena of my readership.

So following the news of Hannibal’s cancellation two weeks ago, this week brought the news that both Netflix and Amazon have passed on picking up a prospective fourth season of the show.  Much of their decision seems to be motivated by the unfortunate timing of the cancellation, as the series’ cast has been released from their contracts (a common move in a situation like this) and Bryan Fuller has begun work on his televised adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  Despite the interest of most of the creative parties to continue the show, the wait for their availability might stretch into next year, thus delaying more Lecterverse exploits beyond the time that those streaming services are willing to wait.  The fate of the show, then, rests in another cable outlet, or a lesser web service.

The only way I can respond to this (especially in the wake of viewing “Dolce”) is to drop my well-mannered veneer of loquacity and say “Wake up people!  This is a tragedy!”  There’s a whole tree falling in the woods argument to be made about Hannibal’s impact on the popular form, but the fact remains that what Bryan Fuller, James Hawkinson, Brian Reitzell, Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, and so many others on the creative team have crafted in two and half seasons has forever expanded and altered what is possible for a televised narrative.  As I’ve mentioned before, I hesitate to even confine Hannibal to the field of television; it’s as cinematic as anything the medium has witnessed, an unholy marriage of Lynch and Bunuel.  Works of art like this show what is truly possible on the small screen, and in many ways they’re much more daring than the majority of major theatrically released films.  If indeed this season is the swan song for Fuller’s vision of the Lecterverse, then there will come a day in the near future when the word on Hannibal finally gets out to the audience that it so stridently demanded: that this was arguably the most subversive show in the history of television and one of the most subversive artworks of the modern cinematic medium.

It’s also been a show very much reflective of our time, sometimes in rather unexpected ways.  Witness the two scenes in “Dolce” that encapsulate the show’s complex explorations of sexuality.  Following Mason’s offer to harvest his sperm for a proper Verger heir, Margot and Alana engage in a bout of sensual coupling that transcends the meaning of the term “sex scene.”  It’s intriguing on a purely narrative level, as before now there’s been no hint that Alana has lesbian tendencies.  And Fuller doesn’t seem like one to indulge in the hoary male cliché of all women being constantly a half step away from getting it on with any member of the sisterhood.  Alana’s intentions in her alliance with the Vergers have always been murky, and yet following their tryst both women are fairly blunt about the desire to deliver both Hannibal and Mason to the authorities when the time is right.

So what remains is what appears to be a purely carnal experience for both women, depicted in a kaleidoscopic montage of intertwined body parts and merging identities.  It’s all in keeping with the show’s various plunges into the fungible, mutable nature of sexuality.  In this manner, it also mirrors our modern society’s ever-evolving definition of what defines one’s sexual identity in all its permutations.  Just as we’ve gradually moved away from the strict male-female gender dynamic, so too has Hannibal defied much of that tradition in the way it presents desire and attraction (even as it also conforms enough to said expectations to provide a gateway into its more subversive aspects.)  It’s very possible that the Alana-Margot affair involves two women who view sexuality as a nebulous concept to be indulged, no matter what reproductive organs the partners might possess.  It doesn’t hurt that they’ve both been the victims of sexual predation by two men who’ve shown no compunction about using sex as a weapon (Mason’s pedophilia from Thomas Harris’s book has been downplayed in this version of the story, but his incestual crimes still leave vivid scars.)  Or that they’ve both entertained dalliances with a man whose increasing obsession with one of those predators has removed him from their lives. 

That man, of course, is one Will Graham, and it’s his long awaited reunion with Hannibal at the Uffizzi Gallery that forms the other half of this episode’s dual examination of the ambiguities of sexuality.  At various times, Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen have lauded Bryan Fuller for the silences and pauses he’s allowed them in their conversations/confrontations, and this scene is no different in that respect, as so much of what each man wants to express is contained in lingering glances and deep gazes.  But then again, so much of what has come to define the Will/Hannibal relationship has been borne from this same sense of the sprawling, often indefinable undertones that lay just beneath the surface of their interactions.  The internet meme of the duo as suppressed gay lovers is amusing, and there’s definitely a spark of homosexual desire that drives their bond.  Credit Fuller, again, for having the guts to redirect Hannibal Lecter’s previously dandyish but very heterosexual impulses (his most enduring on-screen relationship so far the May-September one with Clarice Starling) into coded gay longing.  Maybe this is part of the reason why the show hasn’t reached a broader audiences; the arena of network television still like its relationships to be resolutely hetero or definably gay in a prancing or butch manner. 

Beyond all of this, though, is the boldness he displays in forming a male-male coupling that is defined less by traditional modes of sexuality and more by the logical extension of male bonding that the culture has reduced to the status of bromance.  For here are two men who have found the ultimate definition of themselves in each other, even as that fulfillment comes loaded with self-destruction and the possibility of annihilation.  Will is able to clearly define the blurring of their personalities that has taken place, even as he also deals with the retroactive and future guilt that he now feels for all of Hannibal’s murders.  It’s the endgame for Will’s empathic abilities; he might have feared forever bonding with Garret Jacob Hobbs, but the connection he’s formed with Hannibal extends to an almost genetic level.  Such haziness lends this scene a queasy feeling, but it also makes it downright touching, a depiction of two people inextricably headed toward doom, yet also deeply enamored of each other.  It also blows away most other televisual and cinematic representations of the complexities of human relationships in the depth of maturity to which it strives. 

In the realm of complex pairings, we also have the curious case of Bedelia DuMaurier, who has been posing for so long as Lydia Fell that she now regularly self-administers a potent mixture of sedatives to keep her act going when Jack and Will arrive on the scene.  Again, in most narratives of this sort, Bedelia would be the victimized woman or the femme fatale, but Hannibal  won’t allow for such easy answers.  For the better part of two seasons, she’s simultaneously expressed a deep attraction and revulsion toward her patient/lover/captor.  But even now, after so many hints this season of her disgust with Hannibal’s murderous tendencies, she refuses to participate in simple dialectics when it comes to her feelings, packing up his bags as she prepares to part from him, telling him that he won’t be eating her, but still sharing a tender kiss and intimating that that act of cannibalism might still happen someday.  And her staunch defense of him in the face of multiple interrogations shows the depth her bond with him, mirroring so much of Will’s situation.  On a meta-level, these two relationships might be read as a metaphor for the plight of intellectuals and artists, who need their mutual company in a world that is so defined by strict measures of good taste, success, quality. 

To continue the angle of complex and dysfunctional relationships, there’s Mason Verger’s homicidal revenge lust.  His obsession with eating Hannibal is a neat bit of poetic justice, but it also seems to hold deeper implications.  Look at the scene in which he fantasizes about walking up to the table where a fully glazed and prepared cannibal has been served up, Cordell’s rapturous description of the cooking process still ringing in his ears.  There’s such peace in Mason’s gait and countenance.  When he awakens to the sound of his phone, the pained, wistful look on Joe Anderson’s mangled face almost makes you sympathize with this monster of a man, forever trapped in a physical prison borne from the cost of his own excessive ways.  Mason might be a horrible person, but he’s as much of a product of his upbringing as any of the show’s other characters.  This single act of revenge seems to represent, for him, a chance at redemption through assimilation (or as his newly found Bibilical viewpoint allows him, a “transfiguration.”)

The mechanics of that redemption form the basis for a scene (and an edit) that is as moving and hallucinatory as anything the show has produced this season.  Drawn once again back into Hannibal’s lair, Jack is forced to witness Will (who, earlier in the show, he admitted to possibly wanting to carry out Hannibal’s killing on his behalf, looping back around once again to his usage of Will as a pawn from the earlier seasons) serves as the main course of the recreation of the planned dinner from “Mizumono.”  As Hannibal notes “Jack was the first to suggest getting inside your head.  Now we both have the opportunity to chew quite literally…what we’ve only chewed figuratively.”  As he bores in on Will’s skull with a saw, seasoned Lecter fans will recognize the encroaching doom as the same one that FBI sleazebag Paul Krendler suffers at the climax of the Thomas Harris’s Hannibal.  And for a moment, Jack’s ultimate nightmare seems to be coming true, as blood flies from a drugged Will’s scalp.  But that blood slows down into an impressionistic splatter of crimson rain (an image that has been repeated many times in the show), climaxing in several splotches suspended against a heavenly field of clouds (reminiscent of the celestial ending of “Mizumono”) before cutting to Will and Hannibal hanging upside down alongside other cuts of meat, the newest arrivals to the Verger estate, Mason there to greet them with delight.  This transition seems to indicate that the bribed Florence police arrive to the scene before Will’s brain is served up as the main course, but it also creates enough temporal dissonance to call into question the nature of the reality of this final scene.  But in a season in which the characters have often moved as the dead navigating their way through the underworld, this should come as no surprise.

Sunday, July 05, 2015


In which this is my least favorite life.

So MAN ceased to be MAN-a rational, moral creature, a being who once transcended the causality of nature.  Instead he became a meaningless, enigmatic machine-like piece of MATTER.  Even the MANIPULATORS who controlled UTOPIA ceased to be MAN in the old sense of the word.  After denying their mannishness for so long, they finally lost it and so became the most terrifying animal on the face of the earth. (The Western Book of the Dead/1970)

Rust: “Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.” (“Form and Void”/Season 1)

What’s that Rust?  That valedictory sentiment about the stars in the sky symbolizing the worth of fighting against a seemingly overwhelming universal darkness?  Have you been to Vinci, CA Rust?  Have you ventured out of the Louisiana backwoods since going mano y mano with death and the great beyond?

The brilliance of the first season of True Detective was born from many mothers.  Its limited run format ramped up the tension of the week to week plot progression, the specter of resolution of some form lurking at the end of Episode 8.  The way that Nic Pizzolatto deftly played with tropes from the Southern Gothic tradition, Lovecraftian horror, the great Noir canon, and a very post-millenial sense of guilt and paranoia tapped into the zeitgeist from several different angles.  And the casting of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, stoner icons extraordinaire, to play the embittered, hollowed out knights of the Vermillion Parish highways engendered a level of audience identification and affinity that allowed the show’s various plunges into the abyss to retain some semblance of meta-narrative comfort.

It was all very deep and dark nightmare juice that flowed through that first season.  The waking terror of the past living in the present on the gnarly, alcohol-ravage face of a once studly detective.  The tales of late night ceremonies in the woods which conjured something deeper than just child abuse for their youthful victims.  The suspicion that something greater than all of us was enacting its bad juju on the corporeal forms which populate the inner recesses of the gulf coast, those abandoned farm houses that we all pass during road trips through the country, the ones that we always fear might be host for some real Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style perversions turning out to be exactly that.  And the very real possibility that the existential speechifying of one Rustin Spencer Cohle was, in fact, all true.  That the secret fate of all life is that we are all doomed to be reborn into the profoundly fucked up lives we inhabit, like a nightmare that we keep waking up into.

But even at the show’s darkest, the easy charm and charisma of McConaughey and Harrelson offered reassurance to viewers.  Both actors turned in career best performances, sacrificing ego to explore their own inky depths.  Star power, however, will always hold sway over any twisting of perception.  And like it or not, this dysfunctional buddy cop duo was still entertaining as hell to watch each week.  There’s an inherent pleasure to laying witness to the personal apocalypses on display in Season 1, a good horror story that adheres enough to a traditional quest narrative that dipping your feet in that black pool of madness offers a thrilling frisson, but also an easy way back to the safety of your normalcy.  The world of Vermillion Parish can still be tucked away when you finish that first season.  The darkness might still be out there, but, significantly, it’s out there.  Moral and ethical corruption that deeply rooted is relegated to a part of the country where snakes are still handled in religious ceremonies.  And as shown in the final episode, the supernatural fog that threatened to envelop the world was merely humanity showing its nastier side.

Which is why True Detective’s second season exists in such stark contrast to the first.  Gone are the troubling, yet still accessible, boogeymen of cult rituals.  Gone are the lush Southern Gothic vistas.  Gone are the sexy, charismatic leads to serve as dual Virgils in the journey through the underworld.  What remains is something altogether more disturbing, and impenetrable, and darkly seductive.  Time’s flat circle come back around, echoing in the dankest recesses of the mind.

It’s fitting that after an enigmatic opening scene featuring pink-ribboned wooden stakes in a field, Season 2’s first character introduction is that of washed up detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), dropping off his son to another day of the interminable hell of middle school.  As his son leaves the car, the scene cuts to Ray being interviewed by what will be revealed as a lawyer attempting to expand his visitations rights.  At first blush, it’s a visual callback to those long police interviews with Hart and Cohle from the show’s first go around.  But this time, the camera slowly creeps toward Ray, and the soundtrack gradually envelops the ear with a vague, unsettling rumble, cutting off only as the lawyer notes that the man who raped Ray’s wife (thus producing the son that the Velcoros were so desperately trying to conceive on their own) was never found.  And then Ray tries to bribe the lawyer to grease the skids for him.

It’s almost as if Pizzolatto is serving up swift and immediate refutation of Season 1’s more charming aspects for those viewers expecting a repeat of bleak mystery tinged with a smattering of “All right all right all right.”  Even the opening credits song (Leonard Cohen’s minimalist “Nevermind”) is a reversal of the dark, lush romanticism of The Handsome Family’s “Far From Any Road.”  Farrell and McConaughey have both played their share of pretty boys and steamy sex symbols, but the latter’s easygoing demeanor provides a much easier lure for the viewer.  Farrell has been pitched as leading man material for more than a decade, yet there’s a flatness to his persona that often distances him from fully engaging an audience in classic star system fashion.  For me, his peak came in Michael Mann’s maligned 2006 big screen version of Miami Vice, in which Sonny Crockett is more conflicted collection of cop/noir/spiritual detective tics and mannerisms than fully cohesive human being.  The tension that comes from his state of being, and the fulfillment he finds in his partnership with Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) is compelling stuff, a broad commentary on male bravado.

That same quality is what makes Farrell such a hypnotic presence as Ray, a man who has seemingly lost all hope for life.  Rust Cohle may have bottomed out, but he was enjoying his time running from the pain of the case that got away.  Ray is wallowing in his own worst instincts, and in the bleak ravages that time and misfortune visit upon so many.  A bitter alcoholic, a cop in servitude to corrupt forces of all stripes, a failed father prone to irredeemable acts of violence (including assaulting the father of one of his son’s classmates, while forcing the son to watch and promising the infliction of even more graphic harm in the future)….he’s a crushed, hollowed out shell of humanity in every possible way.  There’s a palpable brutalism to his character, with nary a romantic notion of gumshoe intrigue to be had.  (As his ex-wife spits at him in the second episode “You were fine as long as everything else was fine.  And then something happened, and you weren’t strong enough…”)  And there’s that stare of his, the one that Farrell is proving to wield with mastery.  Several times in the first two episodes, the camera focuses on a first person POV of Ray…and then allows him to stare back with a blankness, an emptiness that is uncomfortable on several levels.  McConaughey’s glare always carries with it a hint of dreamy sexuality.  Farrell’s heavy brow creates a visage in which his eyes sink back into darkness, eradicating any appeal in favor of a deep stare into the unknown.

The long stare seems to be a signature shot of this second season, as one of the most memorable scenes in “Night Finds You”, the second episode, features a haunted Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) gazing at a rorschach blot of a water stain on his ceiling, those old 3am insecurities leading him to tell his wife the tale of his childhood entrapment in his basement (a protective measure by his alcoholic father).  The creeping despair that eats away at his cool exterior (“What if I’m still in that basement…in the dark?  What if I died there?”) is ballsy material for classic life of the party Vaughn to embrace; it’s all played in another single first person POV shot, one which requires him to unleash his sadness in unforgiving detail.  But in a way, Vaughn is as perfect for this role as Farrell is for Ray.  Both men have enjoyed the Hollywood high life in their time, and the physical toll of those good times has created weathered complexions well-suited for the portrayal of two beaten down characters.  Look back at Swingers-era Vince Vaughn and you see a guy who likes his women and drink, but whose rakish charm is ably abetted by a rail thin physique.  Over the years, that body has become bloated by time and habit, heavy bags settling under his eyes.  This Vaughn is what is needed for reformed sleaze merchant Frank and the world-weariness he mixes with his salesman’s magnetism (“Behold, what once was a man” as he dryly jokes to his wife.)

Physicality seems to play a large role in all three of the male leads, as Taylor Kitsch attests to in his portrayal of exiled motorcycle cop Paul Woodrugh.  Kitsch has also had his time in leading man training, but his flatness of affect sometimes makes Farrell look like Jim Carrey.  That and the almost blank slate quality of his looks.  He’s handsome, but more in the manner of a porn star or a soldier than a Hollywood star.  Which makes him an ideal vessel for Paul, the former Black Mountain (see Blackwater) mercenary turned wandering motorbike samurai by way of Electra Glide in Blue.  He might not carry the nasty mojo that Ray packs in every day, but Paul’s tortured psyche can be seen in his sub-Oedipal relationship with his mother (Lolita Davidovich), in the mysterious scars that tattoo the left side of his body, in the midnight ride of doom he takes, hurtling along the Pacific Coast Highway toward death (which he unexpectedly finds in the emptied out corpse of Ben Caspere.)

Paul might hint at Oedipal mythology, but Rachel McAdams’s Antigone Bezzerides goes full blown old school in this respect.  The daughter of New Age guru Eliot Bezzerides (whose Panticapaeum Institute pays tribute to a prominent ancient Greek center of commerce), she’s trapped in a world in which her younger sister (and recovering addict) Athena works as an online porn star, and in which, much like Sophocles’s heroine of the same name, she rails against the actions of her godlike elder.  As Creon’s sister Jocasta killed herself following Oedipus’s moment of Anagnorisis, so too does this Antigone’s mother drown herself shortly after Eliot’s spiritual conversion, his refusal to guide her away from her fate a major bone of contention for his daughter (there’s also a hint of deeper sleaziness in Eliot’s moral relativism, especially in regards to Athena’s new job.)

And Antigone’s last name hearkens back to a mythology of a very different sort.  A.I. “Buzz” Bezzerides was a notable crime novelist and Noir screenwriter, most famously penning the script for Robert Aldrich’s revisionist and harrowing Kiss Me Deadly.  There’s a lot of that film’s Mike Hammer in the character of Ray Velcoro, both men serving as brutalist caricatures of the masculine imperative in the crime milieu.  When Ray and Antigone share a car ride in Episode 2, it almost plays as a parody of those classic Hart/Cohle voyages of the first season, Ray’s blunt and profane musings a far cry from the existential poetry that Rust espouses.  The manner in which the film veers away from sanity and into an apocalyptic crescendo of violence can also be seen in the general tone of Season 2, especially in the abandonment of any vestige of charm from the first season (much as Mike Hammer is stripped of his classic allure in Ralph Meeker’s uber-misogynist take on the character.)

“Buzz” Bezzerides also worked as a communication engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power….and those words will arouse the morbid passions of any Noir aficionado, so tightly are they forever connected to the nightmare labyrinth of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.  In teasing the development of Season 2, Pizzolatto voiced his desire to explore the “psychosphere ambiance” of Southern California, and it’s through this that he introduces the show’s uncredited lead performer: the toxic hamlet of Vinci.  Based on the real life corrupt town of Vernon (read one L.A. Times reporter’s testimony here), Vinci is less a physical space than the manifestation of all that is rotten about the American/capitalist way of living, filled with toxic waste and migrant workers who serve as pawns for the high-monied machinations of would-be kings of industry.  It’s a spiritual sister to that classic Fitzgeraldian purgatory of The Valley of Ashes, a way station where dreams go to die.  Some of the most striking, haunting shots of this second season are the aerial establishing ones of Vinci’s factories and dead end-corners, the proto-industrial hum of the soundtrack evoking Eraserhead’s depiction of the 1970’s Philadelphia of David Lynch’s nightmares.  As Ray tells Antogone’s partner when he asks what Vinci is, “a city…supposedly.”

But Vinci can only exist as an extension of the great sprawl of Los Angeles, and that’s the character which haunts all of these actions, and all of these failed dreams.  The long aerial shots of the 405 and the maze of branches of that great quagmire of a freeway system play like a penetrating gaze into the circulatory system of a cancer-ridden, faded beauty.  It’s the Los Angeles of Noir fame, with shadowy forces as the puppetmasters controlling the lives of the weak and disaffected.  It’s also the promise of the Los Angeles dream, with Frank and the three police officer leads desperately trying to escape their pasts in a city founded on the allure of the new day.  As Thom Anderson wryly notes in Los Angeles Plays Itself, his epic testimony to the city on film (it’s on Netflix right now…you should really see if you already haven’t), the dream image of the city so often centers on the downtown area, which is one of the lesser visited and inhabited sections of the region.  The Los Angeles of True Detective is much more representative of the city as a whole, the distant neon glow a faint remedy for the often heartless hustle that dominates survival in such a setting. 

Which brings us back to the quote from The Western Book of the Dead which opens this essay.  That slim volume from 1970 (which also gives Episode 1 its title) offers a quasi-Zen reading of the history of mankind, one which concludes with about as fatalistic an assessment of this thing we call human progress as you can find.  This is the world that Rust Cohle preaches about in Season 1, only to eventually dial back his rhetoric in favor of a philosophy that acknowledges hope.  But Season 2 (at least so far) fully embraces this reading of existence, its characters wandering through their lives as enigmatic machine-like pieces of matter.  Season 1 might tease the presence of a Lovecraft monster at its heart, but the more reality-based wasteland of dehumanization that Season 2 offers is more gut-wrenchingly disturbing. To once again offer a nod to Polanski and Robert Towne, it hearkens back to Noah Cross informing Jake Gittes that “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything.”  And so, we have the corpse of Ben Caspere riding through the city all throughout the first episode, his hidden life of sexual depravity now behind him as he rattle through the night toward his date with the three officers.  And so, we have Frank’s bedtime speech about the world being as fragile as papier-mache, his vision of the water stains on the ceiling crossfading into the burned out eyes of Ben’s corpse, a fitting symbol for the emptied-out husks of Ray, Antigone, and Paul.  And so, we have the mysterious man in the black bird’s mask seemingly murdering Ray via shotgun at the end of the second episode.  

Season 2’s full embrace of this nihilism can be daunting the first time around.  It took me a second viewing of both episodes back to back to be sold on the whole thing.  Like Lera Lynn, who plays the freak-folk, narcopop songstress who serenades Frank and Ray with “This is My Least Favorite Life” at the dive bar where they meet, the show has a siren’s dark allure in the hypnotic vision it transmits from the ninth circle of Hell.  Comfortable it ain’t.  But sometimes crashing into the rocks can still be redeemed by that intoxicating siren’s plea.  And the dark journey through the California nightmare makes True Detective as enticing as any classic tug of war between Eros and Thanatos.  Or a midnight motorcycle ride to oblivion.