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Surprisingly, not unwatchable: Hannibal

[ 34 ] April 28, 2013 |

(There’s a television show in the title. How could it not be yet another one of those posts?)

I say “surprisingly” because the show’s producer — and at this point, principle director — is David Slade and I’m not exactly a fan of his work. That means Hannibal is a litmus test for my brand of auteur theory, because I’m genuinely impressed by some of his work here and consider him a derivative hack with all the subtlety of a nine-year-old learning to play the trumpet: whatever talent he possesses is masked by the fact that all he can do is blow. I took the fact that he does so as hard as he can for as long as he can sustain his breath as a fairly damning character flaw. But Hannibal suggests he may have finally learned something.

For those of you who know nothing of American popular culture, Hannibal is a show about a man named Hannibal Lecter. He’s a serial killer who loves playing psychological games with know-it-all FBI agents. That’s the show’s motivating irony: he’s contacted by the FBI to provide psychiatric support for their most gifted criminal profiler. He’s solving crimes! While copycatting them! Talk about dramatic irony! The point being that this is a show about people with deep insight into the thought and behavior of sociopaths who fail to notice that their consultant’s therapist is one. It’s a show about psychological isolation — about people who can’t interact with the world or the people who inhabit it because there’s a felt distance between themselves and their humanity. So it only makes sense that even when they’re together, they’re alone. In “Potage,” for example, Lecter meets with the head of the FBI’s behavioral science division and one of their top psychiatrists:

The long shot establishes that they’re all in the same room, which is important because if it didn’t, you might not realize that. The conversation proceeds via a series of medium close-ups in shallow focus:

The depth of field is so shallow that the items on the front of his desk as unfocused as the wall behind him. His body occupies the thin slice of the world that the camera and lighting conspire into focus. Same with her:

And with him:

The three of them are sitting in the same room but are connecting neither with it nor each other. Their psychological isolation is being represented by the thin slice of the diegetic world that happens to be in focus. How thin is it?

Thinner than this man’s face. It’s almost as if this man — the aforementioned criminal profiler — doesn’t even understand himself. Maybe he should see somebody about that.

That’s right — he already is and it’s not working. You can tell because even when Slade switches from medium close-ups that suggest that all men are islands to two-shots that should suggest companionship, the thin depth of field isn’t even ample enough to include both subjects in focus. How isolated does Slade want these people to seem? Even when they’re four of them in the same frame he racks the focus from one to another depending on who’s talking:

Sticking four people in a frame and creating a sense that they’re talking at rather than to each other requires a deft touch I didn’t think Slade possessed. It’s not exactly unsubtle, but it effectively creates a mood that untrained viewers would describe as “creepy” without exactly knowing why. Instead of the shallow focus functioning as it normally does — to focus the audience’s attention on one element in the composition — the cumulative effect of these shots is a claustrophobia tinged with obsessive attentiveness. The world is small and largely unfocused except for this little slice of clarity. And on Hannibal, as often as not that little slice of clarity contains corpses mutilated by someone with an eye for composition. The mundane world of homes and offices and other people exists only in an unfocused and isolating haze; the frail horror of artfully desecrated bodies is sharply in focus.

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  1. scepticus says:

    As a former nine-year-old learning to play trumpet, I resemble that remark.

  2. KatWillow says:

    These shows glamorizing psychopaths (like Dexter) are a scary trend, given the personalities of our “leaders” and corporate rulers. Are we being trained to like, admire and even sympathize with murderous psychotics?

    • SEK says:

      The show has its flaws, but I assure you Lecter’s not being any more glamorized here than he was in Silence, i.e. there’s something oddly admirable about his intelligence, but you never forget who or what he is.

    • aimai says:

      At least Dexter has the conceit that Dexter only kills murderers. The whole Hannibal mystique really escapes me–I mean, disgusts me. Its nothing but ubermensch crossed with cannibal.

      • SEK says:

        It’s important to note that, the title notwithstanding, this show’s all about Will, the brilliant profiler. He’s clearly the protagonist, and Lecter’s clearly, well, Lecter.

      • Heron says:

        I’m not really sure about that. Obviously, it’s how Hannibal sees himself and wants others to see him, but once you know his back-story -once you know that his parents and sister were murdered and eaten by starving Russian soldiers hiding from the Germans after the start of operation Barbarossa- you realize that all he’s really doing is perpetuating his childhood trauma, albeit with some serious affectations added on. Hannibal makes nothing, frees no one, and has no freedom himself; he’s as trapped within his private pain as any other neurotic, and all he does is drag others into that prison with him. He may see himself as Nietzschean, but that refusal to “forget” and that inability to define himself makes him the exact opposite. That’s part of what Will was getting at in Red Dragon when he responds to Lector needling him about being less brilliant by simply pointing out that Hannibal is insane, and he isn’t.

    • Leeds man says:

      We’ve always glamorized psychopaths, e.g. Alexander the Great.

    • mxyzptlk says:

      I don’t get the sense the Lecter glamorized so much as made intriguing, but not necessarily in a positive way. There’s 30-some years of cultural baggage about Lecter already out there in the public sphere, and that’s something a show like this will have to navigate — the audience knows what Lecter is and does, so how do we make that new and unfamiliar?

      One good move was casting Mads Mikkelson as Dr. Lecter. In many ways he’s the opposite of the scene-cannibalizing Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins owned the role, and was good and entertaining, but you don’t watch Hopkins as Lecter and think “this guy could function in society.” Mikkelson is more inscrutable, calmer, and his motives are buried. And his accent gives Lecter a more defamiliarized presence.

      But they’ve also navigated the copycat murders very well. We assume we know it’s Lecter doing them because we know who Lecter is, but if you didn’t, there’s not enough in the show to suggest that Lecter is definitely the one doing them, like with the shrike and the lungs; the cut to Lecter pressing out the air from the lungs he’s preparing to cook suggests they’re the victim’s lungs, but all we have to go on is the cut, and it’s very possible those were lungs he got from his “ethical butcher.” (I don’t know how common it is to eat lungs in Europe, but I’ve seen a wider array of organs on offer in butcher shops over there than I’ve ever seen in the U.S. — you can get some cow lung recipes here — so it’s believable that this gourmet is just into some offal cookery.) The suggestion is planted that Hannibal the Cannibal is munching on victims, but that’s only because of what we bring to the show; Hannibal may just be eating with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.

      For me, anyway, it’s these touches that make Lecter the character so interesting; I’m supposed to know him, but in this incarnation, I don’t, and not knowing is more unsettling than knowing.

      (For what it’s worth, the show sparked me to have a dip back into Red Dragon, and I think some of the choices they’ve made for the show improves on the book. Will Graham, Freddie, and Jack Crawford are all more interesting characters in the show, and feel more like character-types in Thomas Harris’ hands. It’s been years since I first read that book, and I was surprised at how unconvinced I was by Dolarhyde’s grandmother’s actions as the groundwork for his backstory. With the Hannibal characters, less is more.)

    • rea says:

      Are we being trained to like, admire and even sympathize with murderous psychotics?
      Andrew Jackson says hello.

  3. Peter Hovde says:

    Clearly a must-watch for me.

  4. bspencer says:

    Thanks for this, SEK. I’m definitely gonna check it out on On Demand.

  5. Aaron Baker says:

    You’ve managed to explain very plausibly some of the unsettling, gloomy effect of this show on me. The feeling of isolation is so pronounced that I very much wonder how long the show will last–it just seems awfully uncomfortable for a comfort-demanding American audience.

    • SEK says:

      I don’t think it’s long for network American television, but I could easily see it running on FX or AMC, and given that both channels are now seemingly fine with picking up network “scraps” and turning them into profitable shows, hopefully that’ll happen.

      • Hob says:

        I like the show so far and would like to see it go on for a while, but given its basic setup I’m not sure how long it could run and still make sense. I mean, assuming that it’s meant as a prequel to Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs*, then at some point Hannibal has to get caught. Graham doesn’t look too stupid yet for not catching on, because he’s pretty confused and traumatized, and Crawford doesn’t look too stupid because he’s already used to working with weird morbid nerds (and because Laurence Fishburne is awesome), but that’ll change if he keeps getting away with everything for too long.

        (* Or a reboot or whatever you want to call it— obviously they’ve changed around some events and characters, and it takes place in the present rather than the ’70s/’80s/’90s of the books and movies, but it does seem to be leading in the same general direction. And as much as I like the movie of Silence, this actually seems to me like a more faithful adaptation of how Thomas Harris’s books feel than any of the movies. The books really are pretty strange.)

        • Chuchundra says:

          Bryan Fuller has said that he’d like the show to go at least four seasons so they could do the Red Dragon story, perhaps as a full season, so I figure the plan is for Lechter to get caught eventually, not to drag it out indefinitely.

        • Heron says:

          I sincerely hope they get away from the “killer a week” format. A show about serial killers and the people who catch them really ought to follow a longer story-arc format, though I can see how that could put real pressure on the writers to keep things interesting. That it is as far as possible from the bland procedurals that dominate the TV landscape is appreciated, and while I’d enjoy a longer form show, I’d hate if getting it meant a return to such snore-fest monotony.

      • Anonymous37 says:

        I think you’re wrong, because you’re forgetting just how low NBC’s ratings are. There is serious discussion about whether NBC will even survive as a broadcast network.

        This show is the single most visually disturbing show that I’ve ever seen on any network. Far more than Dexter. Episode 1 had Lecter slicing through (what was strongly implied to be) human lungs; episode 2 had human corpses covered with mushrooms.

        I find the show, and its visuals in particular, enthralling. But the fact that NBC is running this show shows just how desperate it is, and unless its ratings shoot up in the next 6 months or so, they’ll renew it for at least a second season.

  6. MD Rackham says:

    Either that or the producers would only pay to shoot the show on a full-frame DSLR and shooting WFO is the only choice, short of greatly increasing the lighting budget to allow shooting at a smaller stop.

    • SEK says:

      I’m amenable to arguments about technical restraints, but I don’t think that applies here. It seems too deliberate, and as the establishing shots demonstrate, they have the power to light the set adequately, so odds are they’re using this shallow focus for effect.

      • MD Rackham says:

        You’re probably right. It’s just that the ultra-shallow depth-of-field look is overused and trite, which fits with your earlier assessment of the director in question.

        It definitely creates that “creepy” feel, so whether intentionally or happy accident, it works.

      • sparks says:

        You won’t really know that until you see the budget!

      • Hob says:

        Yeah, whatever the overall budget of the show is, I don’t think they’re cutting corners on the visuals. As network shows go, it’s got some unusually impressive photography. I was surprised to see that the main DP is a guy with hardly any film experience.

  7. Anonymous says:

    This kind of analysis always reveals so much I never notice on my own – I assumed he just did it because it looked spooky. Is there a good book that covers the basics of this topic – not even sure what it’s called…shot framing? Composition?

    • SEK says:

      Technically, it’s Bordwellian neoformalism, though I put a bit more emphasis on the role of the auteur (as you’d expect, given my background in rhetoric). As for books that do what I’m doing, there really aren’t any, which is why I’ve written one. Should it ever emerge from permissions Hell, somebody might even read it one day. You can, however, find a goodly amount of the sort of analysis above though here.

  8. Shakezula says:

    Hannibal is a show about a man named Hannibal Lector.

    Is this the producers’ lame attempt to avoid lawsuits or a misspelling of LECTER?

  9. Chuchundra says:

    I’m only up to episode 3, but the show is supremely creepy and disturbing, more so than I even thought possible on a network show. I’m enjoying it, although enjoy seems like not the right word at all, but I think it may be too dark and intense to hold enough of an audience over the long term.

  10. Anonymous says:

    It’s really beautifully shot, though perhaps gratuitously bloody.

    Best non-comedy/non-Brian Williams-on-Jimmy-Fallon thing NBC has, by a mile.

  11. mxyzptlk says:

    I’ve been glued to this show in large part because of the shot structure, the color palette, the mise-en-scene, and general formalism brought to the production. I’ve been watching it again because I finally convinced my wife it’s worth watching, and now she wants to watch every episode two or three times as well, and that formalism really starts to shine through on repeat viewings.

    I don’t recall which episode — I think the third, or possibly the webisodes of the fourth — but there’s a match cut that goes from Lecter’s waiting room to Crawford’s office, and the objects in both shots are almost the same but reversed. (I’ll see if I can find the shots and post them.) The second pic above is the same as the shot I’m thinking of — lamp on the left, vertical blinds on the right. The shot before the cut, in Lecter’s waiting room, had a lamp on the right with vertical molding on the left. In both offices, the specialists in human behavior and motive try to parse what the killer is doing and is going to do, both use Will Graham as a tool toward those ends, but the two offices are inverses of each other, as Lecter and Crawford are similarly inverses of each other — both using similar means to nearly opposite ends (including Will). There’s almost a geometry to the character relationships that’s reflected in the mise-en-scene.

    Then there’s that deer. It shows up a number of times in Will’s fever dreams, but that bronze statue of that deer is always hanging out in the background of the shots in Lecter’s office.

    I also kind of love Graham’s relationship with the dogs. But I have two beagles sacked out on blankets at my feet as I type this, so I’m predisposed.

  12. maurinsky says:

    I watched the first three episodes On Demand this weekend. Having watched all of Bryan Fuller’s previous shows, I can see traces of some of them in this. Casting, of course – Caroline Dhavernas, and then having Gretchen Speck from Wonderfalls also show up as a potential victim in the the second episode. The mushroom garden was both spectacularly creepy and also kind of beautiful.

  13. [...] Moreover, that Robb and Talisa are together in the shallow focus creates the impression that they’re alone in a world that’s literally dissolved behind them. Except they aren’t. Which is also unsettling. The final shot in this sequence — the [...]

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