Scott: Hannibal (2001)

Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs were perfect films, so there was no point in repeating them when it came to Hannibal, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the third novel of Thomas Harris’ Lecter cycle. In fact, so accomplished was Silence, in particular, that Hannibal had to be somewhat farcical from the outset, if only to capture the absurdity of trying to follow up what was arguably the greatest thriller ever committed to film. Where Ted Tally would return to write the screenplay for Red Dragon, David Mamet was the ideal screenwriter for the job here, especially when aided by Steven Zallian. In his plays and films, Mamet had developed a taste for inane disquisition, and deranged monologues, that works brilliantly for the first Lecter release in which Hannibal himself is the main serial killer. Add to that the tasteful veneer of the Miramax look as it stood at the start of the millennium, and the stage was set for one of the wildest rides of the decade, a lavish exercise in the flamboyant bizarre.

Right from the outset, Hannibal has a vastly different aesthetic from both Silence and Manhunter – or perhaps more accurately, positions itself as a later iteration in the dialogue between serial killer and media ecology that drove both of those films. In contrast to the stately credits of Clarice Starling jogging through the environs of Quantico, we now open with jagged textures of torture and found footage, foreshadowing the two horror strands that would come to dominate the 2000s. We re-encounter Starling, now played by Julianne Moore, in grating, gritty and conspicuously ugly opening scene that ends with her wiping blood of a baby. The editing is hyper-kinetic and yet its flow is thwarted by periodic “photographic” stills and the cold light of Washington DC is a million miles away from the warm glow of the glass partition that separated Hannibal from the original Clarice. The new Clarice can only describe this shootout as an “ugly mess” and compare it to the siege of Waco.

That shift from serial killer to terrorist as the dark nemesis of the American imaginary also situates Hannibal in a later horror epoch, although the film hasn’t quite shifted into that new period either. If anything, Scott’s film represents the precise moment at which 90s horror gravitated into 00s horror, as arguably the most iconic film of the previous decade now finds itself remediated ten years later for a new millennial world order. More specifically, Hannibal represents the point at which the remediatory horror of the 90s starts to split into two distinct strands, opposed in some ways as codependent in others. In their seminal 1999 manifesto, Remediation: Understand New Media, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin suggests that the 90s were driven by what they described as the process of remediation – the compulsion to continually transform content from one platform to another. They argued that this remediation took on two different but complementary forms – on the one hand, hypermediation, or a heightened attention to mediation; on the other hand, immediacy, or the illusion of no mediation occurring whatsoever, offering us a putatively unmediated real.

Much of 90s horror oscillated between hypermediatory and immediate registers but by the millennium and the apex of the World Wide Web, these two tendencies had started to dissociate into two distinct horror registers. Hypermediation was channelled into found footage whereas immediacy was channelled into torture, although of course the two continued to commingle. For all their immediacy, torture films frequently obscured their atrocious displays between escalating levels of feedback; for all their hypermediation, found footage often attacked the eye and body in direct and confronting ways. In Hannibal we see this dissociation starting to occur in and around the figure of Hannibal himself, who might be unrivalled by any other serial killers but is now himself so internally dissonant that he feels like two characters in one. Hannibal is thus less a sequel than a remediation of Silence, and an object lesson in the horizon of remediation as it stood in the early days of millennium.

The first iteration of Hannibal is hypermediated. We first see him in a flashback that seems glitched or distorted by feedback, and then see more of him on video, before finally hearing his voice on cassette. From there, he is nearly always embedded in image composites, while for the first half of the film Clarice’s narrative consists largely of combining, recombining and remediating scenes from Silence, transferring it from one platform to another as Hannibal, still played by Hopkins, takes a well-earned vacation in Florence. Hannibal’s image is also omniscient here, making it to the FBI Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitive website, along with Osama Bin Laden, who feels like an uncannily prescient figure in the skein of the film, given that it was released in February 2001, over six months before the World Trade Centre attack.

However, there is also a more immediate iteration of Hannibal here. For the first time we actually see him committing his crimes, including some of those only alluded to in Silence. This includes a flashback to the earliest depicted scene in the entire Hannibal universe (at least until Hannibal Rising) in which Lecter instructs protégé Mason Verger, played by Gary Oldman, to cut and bit off parts of his own face. This sequence couldn’t be any more grotesquely embodied, both in Mason’s deformed visage in the present, but also in the disported, queasy and abject textures of the flashback itself, which concludes with a dog lapping up the fragments of skin that fall to the ground. Likewise, Scott takes one of the great understated moments of Silence – when Dr. Chiltern shows Clarice a photograph of a nurse that Lecter attacked, a photograph that we never see – and translates it into security footage of the event in question. It is notable, however, that this is security footage, and not a “direct” representation, signalling, even at this early stage, this immediate-hypermediatory crossover.

Between these immediate and hypermediatory tendencies, the Hannibal of Hannibal becomes a kind of body artist, both grounding himself in and transcending the corporeal at the same time. While he may induce Mason to disfigure and disable himself, and in doing so trap him within his body, he also liberates Mason from his body, imbuing him with a hyper-connectivity that is encapsulated in the bank of televisions and computer monitors that bedecks his bed and plugs him directly into the stock market. It’s almost exactly the same tableau that we see in The Bone Collector, released the year before, in which the quadriplegia of Detective Lincoln Rhyme, played by Denzel Washington, necessitates an enormous interface of screens that allows him to guide avatar Amelia Donaghy, played by Angelina Jolie, through an increasingly virtual cityscape in the quest to locate a hyper-networked serial killer.

Not only is Hannibal presented as a body artist but his artistry is definitively and defiantly queer. For all its brutality (and often because of it), Hannibal is the campest and funniest film in the franchise, an exercise in mincing archness in which Lecter expounds on his preference for eating “the free-range rude,” admits that he only killed Raspail to improve the sound of the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra, and writes an elaborate letter to Clarice after a couple of red wines. It’s like he’s only in cannibalism for the gossip, for the intimate complicities that come with consuming the human body. This is particularly clear in the conclusion to the first half of the film, which brings him into queer contact with Clarice for the first time in a decade by remediating the body of Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, the Florentine chief of police, played by Giancarlo Gianni. It is around and through Pazzi that Hannibal’s first great act of remediation lies, which depends in part on the role he has taken up as an art history lecturer and librarian.

Pazzi’s pursuit of Hannibal takes us on a cascading alternation between hypermediation and immediacy, the body and its virtual proliferations, that feels like the final cocktail whence torture and found footage horror are born. Initially, Pazzi and Hannibal have a purely professional relationship, with Pazzi regularly calling on the cannibal as part of his investigation into a series of unsolved Florentine crimes. Only by accessing the FBI’s Vicap files online does Pazzi realise Hannibal’s identity, and this coincides with Clarice also seeing him again for the time in years on a security video of a department store, at which point she drops the videotapes she has been remediating in a flamboyant slo-mo spiral. No sooner has Pazzi made the link, however, than he is flung back into a more material and embodied aesthetic relationship with Hannibal, who shares a knowing stare with him during an opera performance, before providing his wife with an original handwritten copy of the first stanza of Dante’s La Vita Nuova. Finally, Hannibal provides both an artistic and historical precedent for the crime he plans to enact upon Pazzi through a lecture in which he explains how and why a prominent Renaissance Florentine was hung from the very library in which he works in such a way that his viscera spilled out to the street below as a warning to would-be traitors.

To some extent, Hannibal replicates this crime, assaulting and subduing Pazzi, and tumbling him out of the window of the art library so that his innards also collapse on the street below, while orchestrating the fall so that he is quickly subsumed into the sculptural aesthetics of the square as a whole. Yet this torturous display is quickly subsumed into a series of Japanese camcorders and – more significantly – coincides with the first time that Hannibal and Clarice make direct contact, by way of Pazzi’s mobile phone, which rings just before he is dumped over the threshold. It’s Clarice, calling to tell him that she has discovered his activity on the Vicap website, and that he must avoid investigating Hannibal at all costs, but no sooner has Lecter answered the phone, and made this connection in virtual space and time, than we are returned to the abject display of Pazzi’s visceral spilling onto the street below, which are themselves hypermediated when Pazzi’s phone falls among them, a critical part of the mix.

By the time we arrive at the second half of the film, and shift from the classicism of Florence to the neoclassicism of DC, the torture and found footage tendencies of Hannibal have reached their point of maximal convergence and are threatening to break apart. Lecter himself seems to intuit this, entering into a cat-and-mouse game with Clarice that depends upon ever more precarious forms of mediation, as it to elasticise and distend the space between them, and between his own hypermediated and immediate incarnations, as far as possible. This exercise takes place, appropriately, as an extrapolation of that pivotal phone call that both precedes and is incorporated into Pazzi’s viscera. When he calls Clarice at home, the first thing he alerts her to is the low battery in her wireless phone, and from there he demands she speak on her mobile, while driving, so she can’t place a trace on the call. Finally, he lures her into a crowded DCE mall, circling around her as she tries to locate him, both of them sharing the same ambient sound on their mobiles, as the mediatory tissue between them expands and contracts, loops in and out of this escalating feedback cycle, like the merry-go-round from which Hannibal briefly reaches out for the slightest touch of her hair, as if to fuse the fingertip embrace he shared with her just before he escape from the cage in Silence.

However, while this incredible sequence might speak to the film’s efforts to rein in hypermediatory and immediate horror, nascent torture and found footage, right when it is dissociating, there needs to be one more set piece to capture the dissonance of this entire process – and Scott, Mamet and Zallian provide it with magnificent aplomb. The preface comes with the wild hogs that Mason Verger has trained to eat humans – incarnations of abject immediacy that nevertheless require the hypermediated and overlaid recordings of human screams to whet their hunger for the hunt. But the climax comes when FBI Agent Paul Krendler, played by Ray Liotta, finally meets his fate at the hands of Hannibal after dismissing him as a “queer – all that artsy-fartsy” stuff in the same manic ran in which he discloses that he came onto Clarice and that she rejected him. In the scene that became iconic the moment it hit the big screen, and that remains unrivalled for a mainstream movie some two decades later, Hannibal drugs Krendler, opens his skull, keeps him alive, and feeds him segments of his own brain. The viscerality of the scene is only matched by Krendler’s inability to feel or experience it except at a second remove (Hannibal reminds us that the brain has no pain receptors), as his own organ fails to recognise itself in the process of consuming itself. There’s no greater horror of immediacy, or of hypermediation, in cinema at this point in time – and no tableau imaginable that could evoke both their different and their independence, their interdependence, either, a perfect ending to one of Scott’s most slyly visionary endeavours.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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