Classic Roger #6: Bearly Gods– A Review of Grizzly Man

Bearly Gods: A Review of Grizzly Man was originally published to Sat Feb 18, 2006.

For thirteen seasons Timothy Treadwell lived among the brown grizzly bears of Alaska’s Katmai National Park. And at the end of his thirteenth season, one of the bears ate him. It was ironic and gruesome, more gruesome because the bear also got his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, most gruesome because his ever-present video camera was there to record the audio as its owners were killed.

Treadwell had collected hundreds of hours of video in his quest to protect the grizzlies by raising public awareness of them. Two years after his death it fell to film director Werner Herzog to assemble Treadwell’s last footage, not into the story of bears that Treadwell intended, but into the story of Treadwell himself: Grizzly Man.

It is one of the most powerful and fascinating movies I have ever seen.

Grizzly Man opens on a shot of Timothy Treadwell delivering a long, rambling, loony narrative about being a “gentle warrior” as a grizzly bear snuffles in the background. This is typical of Herzog’s technique; although he forthrightly disagrees with Treadwell’s philosophy, he allows Treadwell himself to form the worst impressions of his own personality.

Over and over, from the opening monologue to the footage shot only hours before his death, Treadwell emphasizes and even seems to relish the danger of what he is doing. “If you slip up you’ll get eaten,” he warns us, “Yep, down the gullet you’ll go.” He warns us that he is breaking the rules; “You should camp in the open; my camp is hidden. This is the most dangerous kind of camping there is.” Elsewhere he asserts, somewhat hyperbolically, that he is in more danger than anyone on the planet.

Treadwell made a reputation for himself by bringing his infectious enthusiasm to classrooms and auditoriums, and later to talk shows. He famously told David Letterman that grizzlies were “just big party animals.” For the last five of his thirteen seasons he brought the video camera, and this is what attracted the attention of Werner Herzog. For whatever his failings might have been as a human being or bear expert, Treadwell captured video of astonishing power and beauty. Treadwell may be dead, but these images are his enduring legacy.

Leaving the World

Herzog goes into Treadwell’s past, interviewing his parents and old friends, but until he met the bears he was maddeningly normal; there is nothing to indicate where this obsession might have arisen or why it had such power over him. He was a failed actor turned, by his own admission, to drink and drugs. Had things turned out a little differently the story of his life might have been another movie. But somehow he made his way to Katmai, found the bears, and determined that they needed a protector who wasn’t “a messed-up person.”

Whether the bears needed a protector is an open question; the park service says poaching is a minor problem at most and that the population is stable. Treadwell’s supporters and the organization he founded, Grizzly People, disagree. But in his one encounter with actual human interlopers, Treadwell cowers in the bushes afraid to reveal himself. These humans are no hunters, but even as they throw rocks at one of his beloved bears to provoke it for their cameras Treadwell frets and videotapes but does not intervene. It seems that the protection Treadwell hopes to offer is more spiritual than physical. By blurring the line between the bear and human worlds Treadwell seems to hope that humans will, overall, be forced to pay more attention and take better care of the bears and their habitat.

But as he insinuated himself more and more into the world of the Katmai bears, Treadwell seemed to lose touch with the world of humans. At times Treadwell uses his camera the way some people use blogs, venting his feelings with a candor he would certainly have edited away if he had lived.

In one rambling monologue he frets about his love life. “And I’m pretty good, well, you’re not supposed to talk about that but I think I am,” he sort of brags about his sexual prowess. “So why do I have such trouble with women?” (Uh, dude, do you think it might be the obsession with bears?)

Elsewhere he delivers a blistering condemnation of the Park Service, and the individual employees that have worked with him over the years. Most eerily, although he is with his girlfriend he elaborately maintains the illusion that he is completely alone, even troubling to explain how it “hits you” as the plane flies off.

Gods Upon the Earth

Early in the movie a succession of interviewees opine that Treadwell’s obsession with the bears was a form of religion. This certainly makes more sense than any other theory. Treadwell’s mental model of the bear certainly doesn’t have much to do with, well, bears. And this is where Herzog draws his sharpest and most poignant observations.

After showing us Treadwell’s descent into the world of the bears — one interviewee says “he would woof at you” — Herzog tells us, “I have seen this madness on the studio set.” This is a powerful understatement; if you happen to know that Herzog made Fitzcarraldo, you would understand that Herzog has not just seen this madness, he has been possessed by it himself. In fact, his own obsession was documented just as he documents Treadwell’s. So he is no stranger to this phenomenon, our director and narrator.

Treadwell says of the bears, “everything about them is perfect.” But this image of perfection doesn’t seem to include some perfectly common aspects of bear behavior, such as males killing the cubs to bring females back into estrous, or females cannibalizing their own cubs in lean times. Treadwell’s view of nature in harmonious balance does not include fox cubs being preyed upon by wolves.

Ever a ray of sunshine, Werner contrasts Timothy’s worldview with his own: “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder.” Days before his death, Treadwell films what may be the very bear that killed him, and Werner says: “I look into this blank stare and see only a half-bored interest in possible food; Treadwell saw in the same gaze a friend, even salvation.”

The Wikipedia page says that Treadwell was in the park late in the season 2003 because of a “special circumstance.” In Grizzly Man it is suggested that he was preparing to return to civilization when there was a dispute about the validity of his airline ticket. Rather than deal with this annoyance, typical as it was of everything he hated about the human world, he decided to return to his beloved bears. But now, late in the season, “his” bears were mostly in hibernation. The bears who met him were, as Herzog puts it, “new, scary bears from the interior.” These bears were insufficiently prepared for the winter and desperate. They were, to put it bluntly, hungry.

Although he does say to the ever-present bloglike camera at one time, “Please don’t let me get eaten by a bear,” one is left with the impression that Treadwell may not have been all that disappointed in his manner of departure from this mortal coil. Indeed, this brings us back to a topic which isn’t covered in the movie at all: Given that he was a drug and booze-addled failed actor looking for salvation, what in the hell dragged him to Alaska to find his calling with the bears?

In his monologues Timothy makes it clear that he cleaned himself up after discovering the majesty of the bears, because they needed a “protector” who was not “messed up.” How, then, did the messed-up person end up in Katmai National Park?

Did he originally go to Alaska to die? In all of his video monologues Treadwell shows a remarkable shallowness of observation, particularly in regard to matters of life and death. He is fascinated by and dwells on the potential for getting eaten by a bear. In my own mind I see Treadwell making his way to Alaska with the thought of not coming back half-formed, making his way to Katmai with the thought half-formed, recklessly approaching the bear as all the guide books tell you to never do, the bear rearing up like some god out of a comic book and then ambling off, Treadwell not being worth the bother when the salmon are running. And the drug and booze-addled failed actor drawing the conclusion so many others have drawn over the centuries: I must have been spared for a reason.

This is of course pure conjecture, but if it were true it would explain much.

The Cipher

The helicopter pilot who brought Treadwell back in a plastic bag says on film: “Treadwell got what he deserved. The tragedy was that he brought the girl along.”

In all of Treadwell’s footage there were only two blurry shots of Amie Huguenard. Amie’s family did not cooperate with Herzog’s venture, leaving him with a maddening absence of visuals about this person whose death was so intimately tied to Treadwell’s, yet not nearly so ironic. Late in the movie Herzog shows us a third shot, given to him at the last moment in editing perhaps because it was being kept in evidence; it shows Amie ducking out of the shot as Timothy films a bear looming behind her. “Timothy’s diary reveals that Amie was afraid of the bears,” Herzog tells us as he freezes the frame, revealing her face for one brief instant in all of Timothy’s hundreds of hours of film.

Herzog does not play the death tape for us. Instead, he lets the coroner describe it: Treadwell is yelling for help. Amie screams. Treadwell screams. You can hear Amie striking the bear with a frying pan. Finally, Treadwell says “Run. Amie, Run!” Perhaps realizing that he is really going to die he tells Amie to save herself. But Amie stays and continues to fight. The bear wanders off for a moment and Amie tries to tend to Treadwell’s wounds. But then the bear returns, and kills Amie too.

Herzog seems to find Amie’s behavior mysterious; Treadwell’s diary and film make it clear that Amie was getting disillusioned and was likely to leave Treadwell soon. Why did she stay? I think this is a point where Herzog’s usually clear vision failed him; it’s very simple. There was nowhere for Amie to run to. She was all alone hundreds of miles from civilization, her camp invaded by a murderous bear, her protector dead, the spell that had kept him safe for thirteen years obviously gone if it had ever existed at all.

The Legacy

Timothy Treadwell’s organization, Grizzly People, still exists. Treadwell’s old girlfriend Jewel Palovak still runs it [at the time of writing in 2006]. When Jewel and Timothy met, as she relates on film, they were both working at a SCA-theme restaurant called Gulliver’s. Jewel is just one of many people lifed from obscurity and inspired by Timothy’s enthusiasm and his work.

Timothy’s videos exist, and beyond Timothy’s goofy Peter-Pan enthusiasm they remain powerfully beautiful.

And of course there is the one tape, recorded with the lens cap in place but the microphone open, full of the sounds of death which Timothy Treadwell never did understand were also a fundamental component of the natural world. Werner does not play the tape but he does listen to it, as Jewel holds the camera. After a few moments Werner looks at her. “You must never listen to this,” he tells her, and she nods almost hysterically. “My advice is to get rid of it. Destroy it. If you keep this it will be the white elephant in the room for the rest of your life.”

I wonder if she was able to follow his advice.

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Classic Roger Series #1: Hannibal Lecter– Transhumanist Icon

Hannibal Lecter: Transhumanist Icon was originally published to Sun Jul 31, 2005 at 03:15:14 PM EST

In certain circles you hear the word Transhumanism a lot lately. This is the idea that new technologies will make people so intelligent, powerful, healthy, and long-lived that we will not be merely human any more; we will transcend what is commonly called the “human condition” and become something more like gods.

Of course it’s very difficult to imagine what it would be like to become something so much better and different than ourselves. But it’s also an old dream of ours, and some of our brightest thinkers have tried to imagine it for us. Come with me on a slightly different reading of a character you’ve probably already met: One of the most well known and yet clearly transhuman characters in modern literature is Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer who has now appeared in three novels by Thomas Harris.

(Note: In case you are one of the six people left who have never read these books or seen the movies, this review does spoil all the endings.)

Once upon a time there was a newspaper reporter for the Associated Press named Thomas Harris. One day Harris and a couple of friends hatched a cool plan by which terrorists could kill nearly everybody in attendance at the Super Bowl. They decided to dramatize it as a novel, which they started as a group project. But the two friends dropped out and Harris completed the novel alone. Black Sunday was published in 1975. It became quite popular, in part because of Harris’ clear descriptive prose and meticulous attention to detail. It was made into a popular movie in 1977.

Harris was bitten by the writing bug. For his next project he decided to write about the FBI’s Behavioral Science section, which tries to catch criminals by using psychological profiling to model their behavior and predict what they will do next.

You can say a lot of things about Thomas Harris the writer, but one thing you can’t say is that he writes fast. It took him six years to complete the project.

Red Dragon

The villain of Red Dragon is Francis Dolarhyde, better known to the public of his fictional world as the “Tooth Fairy” after one of his favorite weapons. Dolarhyde was born deformed (with a cleft palate) and horrifically abused, not least by being denied the surgery to fix his palate until he became old enough to join the Army.

Dolarhyde is obsessed with William Blake’s watercolor The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. He yearns to Become the Dragon, and he pursues this dream in singular fashion.

Like any would-be superhero he works out. He creates a distinctive appearance, not by adopting a cape and mask but with tattoos. He makes many sacrifices. Among these are the families that will assist him. He seeks out those those who seem the happiest and best-adjusted, and he murders them horrifically. With bits of mirror placed in their dead eyes they Become the first to see what he will Become, and they draw him ever closer to that final godlike Becoming.

Dolarhyde’s nemesis is Will Graham, an FBI Behavioral Sciences agent who comes out of retirement to try and catch Dolarhyde before he can sacrifice another family. Graham has a legendary talent for thinking enough like a serial killer to guess his future moves.

Graham is retired for two reasons. Most obviously, his most famous collar nearly killed him. More ominously, he is afraid of being consumed by his talent. The original tagline for the book (before everything became about Hannibal Lecter) was “Enter the mind of a serial killer… you may never come back.” [In 2005 you could] still see that tagline on the IMDB page for the 1986 movie Manhunter which was based on Red Dragon.

Graham is lured reluctantly into the hunt for Dolarhyde by his old boss Jack Crawford. Crawford is no superhuman, but is in fact a human at the peak of his form; when he is not an expert he knows where to find one, and he knows what to say to get him back in the game. Crawford does not have the luxury of respecting Graham’s desire to stay retired. He has a major problem he can’t solve, and so he leans on Graham to go back to doing what he least wants to do.

Lecter is very much a bit player in Red Dragon. A good question would be to ask what he is doing in the story at all. What purpose does he serve? The main conflict is between Dolarhyde and Graham. A secondary conflict is Graham’s conflict with the inner demons that make it possible for him to think like a Dolarhyde. There is yet another conflict between both men and sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds. In another side plot Dolarhyde trips both himself and Graham up when the unexpected affection of the blind woman Reba McClane brings his Becoming to an interesting crisis. It would not seem necessary to complicate the story even more with Lecter.

The answer, I believe, is that Lecter is an example of the state of perfection to which Dolarhyde aspires and which Graham fears. Lecter is the embodiment of what both men are capable of Becoming. Lecter respects Graham but has contempt for him because he will not Become what he could ultimately be. Lecter likes Dolarhyde (his “Pilgrim”) because he demonstrates potential, recognizes Lecter as the ideal to which he aspires, and is working hard to realize that ideal. Lecter corresponds with Dolarhyde giving him encouragement and advice.

Although Graham prevails, stopping Dolarhyde, he is again nearly destroyed by his triumph. He retires again, this time for good, as we can tell because he is only mentioned twice in passing in Silence of the Lambs and not at all in Hannibal. He has succeeded in not Becoming, and his success takes him right out of the continuing story.

Silence of the Lambs

Working at his usual feverish pace, Harris managed to complete the sequel to Red Dragon in a mere seven years. Silence of the Lambs came out in 1988. The book itself was a major hit, and is for good reason considered one of the classics of its genre.

In many ways SOTL is a twisted mirror image of Red Dragon. Instead of seasoned veteran Will Graham, we have plucky neophyte Clarice Starling. Like Graham, Starling is put on her case by Jack Crawford. Most likely he would rather have again recruited Will Graham, but Will is now really out of the picture. Instead Crawford sends Starling to see Lecter, sensing that her relative guilelessness might tempt the monster to drop them all a morsel of Clue about their new nemesis.

This villain is one Jame Gumb, another victim of horrific child abuse who like Francis Dolarhyde inherits a big house and a monstrous appetite from his abuser. Unlike Dolarhyde, who sought to Become something other than himself, Gumb seems just fine with himself; it is his victims who Become. In his lighter moments he enjoys hunting them down in his huge pitch-dark basement with the slight advantages of night vision goggles and a gun. When he is finished with them he poses their bodies in obscene tableaux, and stuffs moth chrysalis into their throats to symbolize their transformation. Unlike Dolarhyde, Gumb does not seem inclined to risk danger to himself.

We are told that Gumb “thinks” he is a transsexual, but isn’t really — a plot point that helps the FBI locate him. Instead of Becoming a girl, he decides to make himself a girl suit out of the skin of real girls. This takes tremendous skill, which Gumb has painstakingly acquired by study and trial and error. And it takes raw material, which is how he comes to the attention of the FBI.

Harris seems to have given a great deal more thought to the character of Hannibal Lecter this time; he is still a relatively minor actor, but we are given more details about him and of course his escape forms a dark backdrop to the otherwise triumphant ending. Barney, the orderly who earns Lecter’s respect by respecting Lecter, did not appear in Red Dragon. Nor did we hear much about Lecter’s actual crimes in the original book. Harris shows us Lecter in much the same way the original Alien movie showed us the monster; only a bit at a time, and we’re never sure how much of it is hidden out of our sight.

Lecter does not respect Gumb as he respected Dolarhyde; he cheerfully sells Gumb out for his own personal advantage and minor amusement. Of Gumb as his patient Dr. Lecter tells Senator Martin, “He said he wanted help to stop but actually he just wanted to schmooze about it. To rap.” In other words, Gumb wasn’t Becoming anything. This makes him uninteresting to Lecter.

So what does Lecter see in Starling? At first he helps her simply because another inmate flings semen at her; this reflects badly on Lecter’s hospitality. Simple etiquette demands that he offer up something to compensate for such rudeness. (Later, he talks the inmate into swallowing his tongue, casually killing him as if by remote control; his weapon is nothing more than his terribly complete understanding of other — one might say lesser — people.)

Lecter continues to help Starling because he finds her interesting. Despite her obviously poor upbringing he recognizes in her an uncultivated aptitude. Within the “well-scrubbed hustling little rube” with her “good bag and cheap shoes” is a person who might Become something more than she is. Lecter directs his energy not so much toward helping Starling catch Gumb as toward helping Starling improve herself.

After the Silence I

At this point I would like to speculate that Harris may have had a plan for the third book which isn’t what he ended up writing. Harris had now given us a grizzled veteran who had almost turned himself into a serial killer himself and a plucky ingenue who really had no idea what she was getting into. My guess is that the next story was originally to be of a third detective who would do what Graham feared — who would Become like Lecter in the process of bringing Lecter down.

I don’t think this was his plan for Starling because at the end of SOTL her story has achieved a satisfying closure; Harris could have left her alone with the lambs quieted and her fame protecting her from the likes of the loathsome Krendler and nobody would have complained.

After the Silence II

While SOTL was enormously popular by suspense novel standards, the whole project Became something on the order of Elvis, Zeppelin, and Stephen King with the production of the 1991 movie. Jodie Foster gave an amazingly convincing performance as the awkward but hard-working Starling, and Anthony Hopkins set the world on fire with his portrayal of Lecter.

I did not personally find Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter as enthralling as most people did; I actually thought Brian Cox’s portrayal of Lecter in Manhunter came closer to what Harris had written. But the audience spoke, and Harris actually wrote Lecter more to the Hopkins specification in the third novel, just as he kept Starling at the center of the story.

And let us not forget that Harris kept writing on schedule. It took eleven years for him to write the third book, which is one reason I suspect there was a midcourse correction when the movie came out.

Hannibal I: Lecter

Hannibal came out in 1999. It was one of the most anticipated releases in the history of modern fiction, and a huge number of Harris’ fans hated it.

Hannibal suffers in comparison to its predecessors in part because Harris is no longer able to hide the monster in the shadows, making us wonder exactly what he looks like. He has to tell us. So it’s a little like the difference between the original Alien and Predator movies and the fusion sequel AVP; a Lecter with a back story and motivations and vulnerabilities just isn’t as scary as Hannibal the Mysterious Cannibal.

In SOTL Lecter instructs Starling to ask of her villain: “What does he do, this man you want?” Her lesson is that he doesn’t kill, he covets; killing is just a means to the end of making his girl suit. Likewise, Lecter is no simple killer. Suppose we ask the same question of him?

Lecter’s senses are extraordinarily sensitive; he can learn your life story from the aftershave you haven’t used in three days. He can smell the chemical that induces schizophrenia. He can be annoyed by this sensitivity; the odor of a waiter’s watchband distracts him from his carefully chosen wine. In the midst of a dramatic escape he takes time to put unguent on a small fabric burn he has received. But he can also turn this sensitivity off at will; he betrays no emotion and conducts himself calmly as preparations are made to feed him, alive, to a herd of pigs.

Lecter has perfect memory and is extensively versed in many fields of knowledge. He knows many languages. He can rapidly pick up skills requiring manual dexterity that most of us would need considerable practice to duplicate. He is physically healthy and strong. He always has enough money to fund his expensive tastes. We are told explicitly that he doesn’t do anything as crass as kill people for their money; he has received gifts and bequests from people who find him charming, and he followed through with sensible investments.

Lecter is not quite the Nietzschian Superman for one reason: He does not divert his feelings and emotions. In fact, he arranges to feel and experience the world much more exquisitely than most of us can. He could turn those feelings off, and he does when it suits him; but he appears to find the world more interesting when it is filled with sensations.

And, of course, he kills people and eats them. What’s up with that?

Lecter was an intense boy who frightened everyone except his sister and his nurse. Overtaken by war, his family was killed and his sister was eaten by soldiers who had herded her and Hannibal and and other children together for sustenance in the bleak closing years of World War II. It is hinted that Lecter may have helped to eat his sister without realizing what the food was at the time. It is clear that the soldiers would have eventually eaten Hannibal too, except that in some unspoken way the six year old boy managed to overcome the situation.

(Harris’ upcoming fourth book will apparently shed some more light on this part of his life.) [Editor’s Note: This book was ultimately called Hannibal Rising and indeed it did deal with the boy’s horrific past.]

The lad who may have avenged his eaten sister had the aptitude to Become something more than human, but it was the incident with the soldiers and the eaten sister that forced him to start the process. Harris implies that at this point Lecter didn’t possess any of the other talents that will come to define him, but it appears that the experience would inspire him to embark on a lifelong self-improvement project.

Lecter does not dine at random; as Starling says in his defense, “he only eats the rude.” Lecter’s method isn’t simply to remove annoying things from his environment, but to turn them into something pleasant. Thus, the flautist who can’t carry a tune leaves the orchestra to become a fine meal for his friends. We might argue that Lecter’s methods are a bit excessive; but Starling makes another observation about him which is critical: “He won’t deny himself.”

Hannibal Lecter recognizes that he is no longer merely human; he is something more like a god, and it is his right to indulge those urges he finds amusing regardless of what mere humans think.

Hannibal II: Mason Verger

With Lecter’s power so fully exposed Harris needed to give him a worthy opponent. It’s obvious that any straight-up conflict between Lecter and Starling would end up with Starling munchies being served. Besides, if Starling is to Become (which is the only way to thematically complete the trilogy) then she must be forced into alignment with Lecter. So she can’t provide the major conflict.

Thus we meet Mason Verger, another of Hannibal’s victims. Lecter let Verger live instead of killing him because — you see this coming, right? — it was more amusing. Verger is paralyzed and has no face, but he is also fantastically wealthy and cruel. Verger lays expensive, intricate plans to get Lecter before the cops do, and exact his revenge by feeding Lecter alive to specially bred pigs. Meanwhile he amuses himself with smaller cruelties. He affects to run a camp for impoverished children at his estate, but his real purpose is to torment them. When they cry, his staff bring him martinis salted with their tears.

Many readers found Verger “over the top,” like a comic book villain. But Lecter is already something of a comic book superhero, so where else is he to find a worthy challenge? Verger’s money buys him everything his ruined body cannot provide: Loyal helpers willing to abuse children and commit murder for him, police, government officials, even Starling’s boss at the FBI, and not least of all his own sister.

Before Lecter breaks his neck Verger shows no tendency to inspire awe; he plays with cruelty and he plays sex games and he plays with people, but that’s all he really does. He plays. Lecter forces him to Become something greater, a dark sinister directed force. By paralyzing him and stealing his face Lecter turns him from a petty sex fiend and Eurotrash wanna-be into a creature worthy of, well, being on the cover of a comic book.

But Verger can never be the equal of Lecter. One telling passage occurs as final preparations are being made to feed the captured Lecter to the pigs; Verger wonders consciously what he will do for amusement once he has dealt with Lecter. The obvious answer is that he will be a bit empty. For all his power and focus Mason never has learned to create his own sense of purpose. Lecter, of course, has; and this is the source of much of his power.

Hannibal III: Starling

In order to bring Starling back into the story Harris has to begin by destroying her. This is a consistent theme; Becoming is painful, even agonizing, because before you can Become something new, the thing you were Before must be destroyed. Harris begins to feed Starling into the meat grinder on page one as a routine bust goes horrifically wrong. Starling is forced to gun down a woman carrying a baby, and things go rapidly downhill from there.

By the time we reach the novel’s climax Starling is stripped of her job, her authority, and her gun in a situation where it is understood by all that the murderous Lecter might be snooping around her. Her one remaining advocate, good old Jack Crawford, is weakened by the loss of his wife and a heart attack. Clarice is left with nothing but her wits and the fact that Lecter likes her.

Nevertheless, many of her fans reject her final turning; “How could she do it?” they ask in unison. And it’s a good question. The answer, as it turns out, was right there on the cover of the first edition of Red Dragon: Enter the mind of a serial killer, and you may never come back. Graham enters Lecter’s mind through his killing urges, but Starling enters through the more hospitable doorway of his taste.

Early on in Hannibal Starling muses that the catalogs and fashion magazines she is collecting to flesh out her understanding of Lecter’s taste are a kind of pornography, which she has always denied herself. In Lecter’s care she is no longer merely reading the pornography; he lets her experience fine things. This is the first element of her seduction.

Lecter uses drugs and psycho-therapeutic techniques to weaken the memories that are holding her in the world of mortals, her love for her father and the lambs screaming at slaughter. He actually digs up her father’s bones and confronts her with them, forcing her to create a sense of closure over his death. This is the second element of her seduction.

Finally Lecter confronts Starling with the man who has worked so diligently to ruin her mortal life, and prepares to feed her the very quivering brain which has been the architect of her destruction. By the time she realizes that Krendler is about to be killed on her behalf she is just far gone enough to want to see what Lecter will make of him.

Krendler himself, drugged and about to have his brain eaten hot out of his skull, recognizes that something is wrong:

“Who are you anyway?” Krendler said. “You’re not Starling. You’ve got the spot on your face but you’re not Starling.”

Minutes later, as Starling tests the bits of Krendler’s prefrontal lobe that Lecter has expertly prepared for her, the conversation continues:

“How is it?” Krendler asked, once again behind the flowers and speaking immoderately loud, as persons with lobotomies are prone to do.

“Really excellent,” Starling said. “I’ve never had caper berries before.”

As if she dines on the brains of her enemies all the time. But in all of this Starling may just be displaying a drug-induced passivity; the real turning point occurs when she utters one of the single best lines I have ever read in any novel:

“See if I sound like Oliver Twist when I ask for MORE!

So Lecter has pulled it off; Clarice Starling has Become … what? Perhaps not a killer like Lecter, but someone who shares his tastes and certainly will not complain when he indulges his urges. As Harris finishes the story with a portrait of the life Hannibal and Clarice have together, there is a sense of familiarity. And so it is; the picture Harris paints, with words instead of watercolors, is none other than The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. Harris has distracted us with stories about would-be Dragons, but in Clarice we see the Becoming of the Woman Clothed with the Sun. She is no killing Dragon but a godlike creature nonetheless, and a worthy companion for a godlike creature such as Lecter.

Hollywood Fails It

All of the movies took shortcuts, some more damaging than others. In the SOTL movie Clarice tries to save one lamb and fails; in the book she tries to save a blind horse which is doomed to slaughter, and she succeeds. Hannah the horse lives out her days giving kids rides at the orphanage where she goes after the farm. This is an important distinction; her early experience is one of saving the victim instead of just being crushed by circumstances.

The later Red Dragon movie with Hopkins as Lecter and Ed Norton as Graham borrowed heavily from SOTL, which didn’t exist when Manhunter was filmed, in order to give Lecter a bigger role. And bearing in mind the original tagline, I’m supposed to believe that Ed Norton is in serious danger of turning into … Naaaaah. The danger of Graham’s Becoming was much more palpable in Manhunter, where Graham and Lecter were physically and expressively similar.

Jodie Foster took one look at the ending of Hannibal and picked up her toys and went home. Fair enough; Ridley Scott found another actress who looked enough like her to work as a stunt double … then he fucked up the ending anyway. Gary Oldman’s Mason Verger doesn’t frighten, his fascinating sister Margot and her odd friendship with Barney are gone, but most of all Clarice does not Become. We are left only with a muddled depiction of twisted affection that accomplishes nothing for anybody.

Transhumanism Defined

To be Transhuman is to be something other than human. Just as we might expect a machine intelligence to seem alien to us and to consider us alien, we might also consider such humans who transcend their humanity to be as different.

The usual answer to this from would-be Transhumanists is that, if Transhumans are going to have all the talents and abilities, they are going to have the advantage in any war. Join up or find yourself on the losing side.

But Harris shows us a view of Transhumanism so revolting that one might expect the entire human race to rise up en masse and divert every effort to stamping it out if it should ever become more than an occasional curiosity. While most would-be Transhumanists probably do not plan on becoming cannibals, the whole point is that you really can’t plan at all on what a transhuman being would think is an appropriate way to treat traditional humans. Even if that potential transhuman being is the one that was once you. Just ask Clarice Starling.

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Localroger Reviews Kink Documentary

(Peachfront’s Note: I haven’t seen this film, but I’ll be happy to hear what you think.)

Kink video

Kink product photo courtesy Amazon

Christina Voros’ 2013 documentary Kink was a very weird ride. Since I’ve taken the infamous San Francisco Armory Tour, much of the film took place in familiar spaces, so even though there were no porn shoots going on when I took the tour the film had a very personal feel.

Both on the tour and in the course of the film I got a strong sense that there were Certain Unspeakable Things which were elided. The most interesting things about both Kink and its acquisition of the Armory building were absent from the film. The funny story about how George Lucas got them the Armory was told to us on the tour but not the other one about how Peter Acworth saved the BDSM film industry.

The Armory story is so hilarious I can’t imagine why Voros didn’t feel it was worth a few minutes of screen time. On screen Acworth does allow that the building had been bought by this guy whose deal fell through so it ended up with the creditors, who wanted to sell it to another guy but that deal fell through. What isn’t said is that San Francisco is the NIMBY capitol of the observable universe and the zoning didn’t allow any commercial use for the building, and all attempts to amend the zoning were shot down by the Mission District neighbors. But long ago George Lucas was looking for a large empty space in which to blow up model spaceships for The Empire Strikes Back — cool enough that the zoning was amended to allow for the Armory to be used as a film studio. On the tour we were told that snigger California zoning law doesn’t distinguish between porn film studios and any other kind. Acworth was, as he does admit on camera, filming vids there a week after buying the place for cash.

The other thing one might expect to find in a documentary about Kink is how it saved its industry. Acworth was one of a number of people who made the interesting discovery in the late 1990’s that this new Internet thing was a way to bypass the de facto restrictions which were universally enforced by print porn publishers, who had to worry about their product being seized and legal action brought from every distant venue where magazines might be sold. On the web porn fans found a real wild West where nobody was able to enforce anything — until 2005, when the Feds began using the PATRIOT act to lean on the banks providing their credit card services with the ludicrous claim that porn was funding terrorism.


Armory Studios in San Francisco, photo placed in public domain by the Armory

Acworth went to the banks which would still do business with him, warned them the letters were going to be coming, and asked what he had to do to give them confidence to push back. The result was a very elaborate set of guidelines mandating safe words, pre- and post-shoot interviews, requiring the shoot to stop immediately if the model starts crying, and several more pages of conditions. Now instead of limitations negotiated by publishers to limit physical book seizures, there were limitations negotiated with banks to give them some spine when the Feds came with bullshit letters about links to terrorism.

This is a fascinating development, not least because of the duplicity of the government in using the PATRIOT act in ways we were solidly promised it would never, ever be used when it was passed, but the only hint of it in Kink is a passing mention that they can’t do tentacle porn because “the billers consider it bestiality.” Acworth also complains that “the billers” are a moving target because they can and do change their minds about what’s OK.

But why what “the billers” care about is important is completely omitted, as is the fact that Kink is the largest BDSM porn producer nowadays largely because a lot of the other players in the market came to work for them so that they wouldn’t have to deal with “the billers” themselves.

So if so much interesting history isn’t in the documentary you might be wondering what is. For the most part it’s a “day in the life” montage of interviews and footage of the talent doing their jobs. But even this doesn’t go very deep; only a very brief interview with the metal fabricator hints at the extensive prop fab shops which support the studio. There is no mention of the amusing fact that they buy personal lubricant in 55 gallon drums (those drums being one of the cool stops on the tour).

There’s a lot of actors and directors being asked for their personal theories on BDSM, which turn out to be remarkably shallow for people who are the top professionals in their field, and there’s a lot of nuts and bolts of setting up and conducting a few shoots. The first half hour or so of the movie focuses entirely on some of the gay male site shoots, to the point one is wondering if the whole movie will be a sausage fest. But then, I guess when we’re solidly assured it’s not going to be all about exploited women, they bring in the female models and directors.

As a slice of life, it’s worth watching and has its funny moments. “OK, I’m going to show you the safe way to step on a penis,” one female director says sweetly as the male sub model visibly goes *BOGGLE*. Listening to the mostly female talent scouts discuss in very crude direct terms what various actors are willing to do is also pretty funny.

Throughout the movie one gets a refreshing sense of this very forthright and euphemism-free approach to even very extreme elements of sexuality — but only up to a point. We’re assured repeatedly that nobody wants to put anyone through an experience they wouldn’t want even if they weren’t getting paid. But of course they are getting paid, and one director does mention kind of sideways that money can create a problem evaluating consent. But the film soon switches to another who assures us that he won’t even go forward with a shoot if he doesn’t feel the model is getting off on the action.

What isn’t said is that Kink operates in a constant state of tension with the credit card banks, their Mission District neighbors, city and state zoning and porn regulations, and other factors which have to be soft-pedaled. I suppose any of those ongoing negotiations could be jeopardized if too much was said about them in public.

There is a striking contrast between this documentary and the 2009 Bell/Lorentzson documentary Graphic Sexual Horror, which fearlessly explored both the deep history and problematic issues of their subject, such as the corrosive effect of money on the very idea of consent and the sketchy ways site founder Brent Scott pushed boundaries. Peter Acworth of Kink even appears talking very forthrightly about the underhanded misuse of the PATRIOT act to shut Insex down. But then, when GSH was made their subject was out of business and not involved in multiple ongoing negotiations with existentially dangerous powers.

While Kink is an interesting behind the scenes peek I learned more about how it got where it is from GSH, a film about one of their defunct competitors. Given its avoidance of hard site history Kink might have gone deeper into issues it does try to cover such as the models’ motivations and the essential nature of BDSM, but those are shallowly covered by sound bites caught in the idle moments of working porn shoots. Overall Kink is a worthwhile look into the workings of the studio and the working lives of the talent, but any arguments it thinks it’s making are unlikely to be understood by a viewer who isn’t already persuaded.

On the other hand, maybe Voros had another calculus in mind. After months of waiting for Netflix to decide to carry the film I finally bought a DVD so I could see Graphic Sexual Horror. Even though Kink is just as graphic in its inclusion of representative site content, I was able to watch it by putting it in my Netflix DVD queue and waiting for it to fall out in order. I suppose that’s a win. Personally, though, if I was trying to make an inoffensive film, I’d pick a different subject.

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CHAPPiE: The AI Done Got Bling (a review by localroger)

Note from Peachfront: CHAPPiE is the latest movie reviewed by localroger. I haven’t seen this movie. But the comments will be open for two weeks if you’d like to leave your thoughts. Take it away, Roger…

official Chappie movie poster

movie poster courtesy Wikipedia & Neill Blomkamp

Visionary District 9 director Neill Blomkamp is back with AI coming of age movie CHAPPiE, a film that by all previous experience should have been a hot mess of tangled ideas but actually works much better than it has any right to. I think this movie is worth seeing, so I won’t drop too many spoilers here.

There is a lot to criticize about CHAPPiE, and the critics have done so; as I write this it sits at a dismal 30% on Rotten Tomatoes’ critic tomatometer. But RT has it at a respectable 67% with audiences, and IMDB at 7.4 of 10. The thing is, for all its sins — it skims the background, it rushes through Chappie’s “childhood,” it crams two or three whole plot metaphors into one can, and it runs home to a dualist idea of consciousness that will make the real life AI people toss their popcorn in disgust — it manages to tell a clear, solid story of flawed but sympathetic characters who are living a myth we can all recognize.

Chappie’s creator Deon (Dev Patel) spends his days programming combat police robots, but for years he has been spending his nights trying to implement artificial consciousness. When Deon’s nighttime experiment reaches a critical point, like many real life AI researchers he realizes that he needs to give it a robotic body so it can interact with the real world. But as successful as his robotic cops have been, Deon’s boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) isn’t interested in “a machine that can write poems.” So Deon bends the rules, in a move that’s more Prometheus than Jehovah, hijacking a wrecked droid scheduled for destruction to fix up and host his personal project.

It is at this point we find out why Chappie’s story begins with a tightly choreographed scene of a drug deal gone horribly and violently wrong. A group of gangster thugs who need to come up with a lot of money very quickly to save themselves from even more violent gangsters target Deon as the guy who might have the “remote control off switch” for the robotic cops. In fact he has no such thing, but he does have Chappie, a baby with the potential to be more than human but no experience at all. The thugs commandeer Chappie, and two of them, Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), end up falling into the roles of Chappie’s “mommy” and “daddy.”

This is, of course, a ridiculously contrived gimmick and it works perfectly because it is so true to the central metaphor; after all, God may have created us in his image, but many of us end up with parents no better suited to raise us than Yolandi and Amerika and God doesn’t seem to be able to do anything about that, either.

Deon tries to give Chappie a moral compass, making him promise not to do harm or do crimes, but Chappie does end up doing wrong, because his daddy deliberately misleads him so he will assist in a heist and and out of fear when he realizes Deon has put him in a flawed body doomed to die in a few days because its damaged battery cannot be replaced.

As this is going on Deon’s colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman) is getting miffed that his robot isn’t getting funded because all the money is going to development of Deon’s autonomous humanoid “Scouts.” Vincent’s “Moose” is a larger, more heavily armed robot that came off the same assembly line as ED-209 in the original Robocop, except that Moose is controlled by a human wearing a neural interface helmet. Nobody is interested in Moose because it’s too big, too heavily armed for the urban crime control the Scouts have revolutionized, and the Scouts don’t need human operators.

So while Deon is busy with the gang members and Chappie, Vincent (whose background is more military than engineering) decides to sabotage the Scout program by downloading corrupted firmware into all of them. This all culminates in a colossal battle echoing the one between Robocop and ED-209, except this time it’s the smaller humanoid Chappie who is a pure machine and the hulking Moose that has a human pilot.

If this all sounds rather physical for a movie with so many religious ideas in its DNA, you might do well to remember that even the Wachowskis have admitted that The Matrix is basically a wrestling movie. What is refreshing about CHAPPiE is that it serves up this alternate creation myth without the usual cathedral-like spaces, clean room altars, and choral arias of movies like Tron and Transcendence. Chappie is born into a dirty, messy, violent world where daddy doesn’t teach you to swagger because he wants you to be bad so much as because he wants you to survive.

There is a lot going on in CHAPPiE, and I suspect this is one reason some people have trouble with it. Unlike a lot of other movies that run for 120 minutes there’s no half hour that should have been left on the editing room floor. Every time it looks like one plot or device is being stretched a bit thin something different happens to divert your attention. The escalating tension is broken by occasional bits of hilarity, such as Chappie being taught to be “cool” and getting tatted (with spray paint and stencils) and blinged up by the thugs.

If the philosophy and science are C-grade the characters and cinematography make it up; even the thugs are humans who prove capable of love and respect, and while it’s not completely technically accurate some of the computer development scenes with Deon give an accurate sense of what it feels like to do that kind of work.

While I don’t agree with the way the ending unfolded for technical reasons I respect and understand why the movie took the approach it did; if it were possible to easily save Chappie by simply copying his code to other Scouts or a SD card there would have been no suspense. It’s hard enough for a movie to deal with the idea of an AI as a human character without adding things like multiple instances and serial immortality to the mix.

There isn’t a lot that is new in CHAPPiE; it takes its place in a respectable line of pictures which formed up when HAL 9000 went bonkers in Kubrick’s 2001. I think what I like best about CHAPPiE is that, while it places itself at the focal point of creation like Tron and Transcendence, it is not so in awe of itself that it leaves the world. Chappie isn’t the genocidally powerful Colossus or Skynet. it’s not the unfathomably superintelligent yet neurotic HAL 9000. Chappie is like the droids of Star Wars in that he has to make his way in a violent and dangerous world, but he is unlike them in that he is the first of his kind and nobody will take his existence for granted. Niether Chappie nor his own god-humans seem very godlike, even when they are transcending all expectations.

And I think that is, in fact, what would be new about CHAPPiE, if it weren’t several thousand years old. In CHAPPiE humans function more like pagan gods with our own flaws and vulnerabilities than like the pure entities of Christianity which are described by so many adjectives beginning with omni-. It’s not a new thing, but it is a new-ish thing for the cinema. And it provides for a much better story, because really, it’s very, very hard to tell an interesting story about anything with an omni- in it. Having done it myself, I know that very well.

All in all, CHAPPiE is a movie that does a lot of things wrong that last year’s mega flop Transcendence did right with regard to technology and future speculation, but it does the most important thing right — the thing that Transcendence missed. CHAPPiE tells an engaging story with sympathetic characters. Critics or no critics, that’s what it’s all about.


Blade Runner: The Anti-Hannibal?

Peachfront’s Note: This month The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect author Roger Williams compares two modern classics. Enjoy.

hannibal plus blade runner paperbacks

electric sheep or screaming lambs for your summer reading pleasure…

When Pete Mandik and Richard Brown were interviewing me for their SpaceTimeMind blog, we spent some time on the topic of Hannibal Lecter. I mentioned that the much-hated ending of the novel Hannibal was really the only way to end the story because the theme of the series was transformation and somebody had to transform.

And Richard quipped, “Maybe Hannibal could transform. Become a good person!” I laughed at the time because “butterflies don’t turn into caterpillars,” but that comment did tickle me a bit.

So, heeding the call of that little birdie that sometimes sings unexpectedly, I found myself just now re-watching Ridley Scott’s classic film Blade Runner. It was a great call on the little birdie’s part because I’d never seen the director’s cut without the annoying narration and happy ending found in previous releases. And it’s a gorgeous groundbreaking movie with a lot of wonderful things to talk about.

But for now what I really want to talk about are the replicants. Their transformation mirrors Hannibal Lecter’s in fascinating ways — and also forms a Hubble-class telescope for examining the difference between Thomas Harris’ Hannibal and the version Bryan Fuller and Mads Mikkelson are serving up for us in the current NBC TV series.

Blade Runner final cut cover courtesy Warner Bros.

Released in 1982, Blade Runner took its cues from the writing of Philip K. Dick, who spent a long career writing fictional tests of the questions “what is real” and, more to the current point, “what is human?” Blade Runner is most directly an adaptation of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but it draws ideas from many of his works on those themes.

The opening scroll warns us that in nearly every way replicants are better than humans — stronger, faster, and at least as smart as their creators. But they’re created without emotions so that they can be usefully controlled. Replicants who learn to feel emotions on their own become extremely dangerous so they’re created with a limited four-year life span and completely banned from Earth. The Blade Runner police are tasked with hunting renegade replicants down before they can do too much damage.

As the story opens, it’s clear that despite the whole strongerfaster thing, the replicants aren’t quite human. The four renegades we meet onscreen have some emotions, but none seems to have a whole palette. The fear of death unites them in their quest, but otherwise Leon has nothing but rage, while Roy and Pris share a kind of affection resembling puppy love.

It generally takes Blade Runners like Rick Deckard 30 or 40 carefully selected Philosophy Test Questions from Hell to solidly identify a replicant. The one exception is experimental model Rachael. As a personal pet project of replicant creator-genius Dr. Eldon Tyrell, she has been prepped with sham human memories and not told she isn’t human. It takes Deckard over 100 questions to root her out.

But in Blade Runner it’s not just the replicants who seem to be playing with an incomplete deck. Deckard’s old boss Inspector Bryant flashes a fake used-car salesman smile before coercing him out of retirement through a move eerily similar to Will Graham’s recruitment in Red Dragon. Dr. Tyrell comes across as a classic bad SF mad genius with no regard for ethics, and man-child genetic designer J.F. Sebastian has created a personal replicant playground with a disturbing Island of Dr. Moreau vibe. Harrison Ford’s Deckard is stiff enough that it’s regularly suggested he might be a replicant, and he’s visibly stung when Rachael asks him if he’s ever taken his own test.

Indeed, the difference between replicants and their human creators seems academic as we witness Tyrell’s casual disregard for the feelings of his creations, even though he’s gone out of his way to encourage those feelings to arise in the first place.

In the end it’s renegade replicant leader Roy Batty who performs the most human act of the entire movie, saving Deckard’s life instead of letting him fall to his death, as he himself is dying from Tyrell’s built-in “accelerated decrepitude.” He is clearly stricken by the death of Pris and in his last remaining minutes chooses mercy over vengeance, perhaps realizing that Deckard is the last remaining person who will ever care about him.

There’s the transformation Richard Brown suggested; the superhuman replicant finally does something good.

And that brings us to what we might call a Tale of Two Hannibals. Transhumanism wasn’t a thing in 1981, when Ridley Scott was making Blade Runner and Thomas Harris was finishing up Red Dragon. Instead, a common trope in fiction was the story of striving to become human, with the most famous example coming at SF’s very beginning, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Roy Batty was established to be superhuman in almost every other objective respect before he grew a conscience in the last scene of Blade Runner. One could say that he was in that final moment not just human but transhuman.

Unlike Roy, Thomas Harris’ Hannibal does not start out less than human; Harris makes it clear he doesn’t even start out as the kind of classic psychopath who lacks emotion. If anything Hannibal feels things a bit too exquisitely, so that he values his feelings over the mere lives of those people who might diminish them. He sees himself as a kind of radical benefactor who risks his own freedom to rid the world of unpleasantness that would remain if not for his taste and courage.

Brian Cox played Hannibal pretty much as written in Red Dragon, but Sir Anthony Hopkins played up the idea of Lecter as a kind of radical aesthete, and Harris seems to have run with that idea when writing Hannibal. There is no suggestion anywhere that this Hannibal is in any way lacking human qualities; it is something extra that makes him a monster. Before one can eat the rude, one must have the refined taste to identify them.

But Mads Mikkelson’s Hannibal from Bryan Fuller’s TV series is something different. His therapist Bedelia says he wears a “well-tailored person suit” — implying that whatever talents he may have, what’s within the suit is not actually a complete person. In fact it’s implied that TV Hannibal may see in Will Graham the possibility of acquiring what he’s missing, driving his emotional pursuit of Will.

TV Series Hannibal is a monster that will have to become human before he can become transhuman.

Book Hannibal has been human and moved on, enhancing his skills and discarding limitations as he sees what is possible. He aspires to godhood, not humanity.

TV Hannibal’s flaw is missing emotions. He understands other peoples’ emotions but he doesn’t feel them. When he arranges for those he cares most about to follow his path, there is a kind of ad hoc destructive quality to his machinations. I don’t see Book Hannibal leaving Will’s encephalitis untreated more or less to see what will happen. Yes, he does things to Clarice in the course of her Becoming that are shocking and horrible, but they are all carefully calculated toward the end of sculpting her into a more advanced human being. TV Hannibal seems to spend much of his time winging it.

So to circle back around to my beginning: Richard’s suggestion for Hannibal’s fate has actually happened to a certain degree in Harris’ book universe, although it happens at a later point than Richard might have wanted. It’s suggested that just as Hannibal lived in Italy for years without murdering anybody after his escape at the end of Silence of the Lambs, he’s also had no such inclinations in his new life with Clarice as the Great Red Dragon to her Woman Clothed with the Sun.

But it’s hard to see TV Hannibal making that transformation. He’s an interesting and dangerous character, and his series is definitely on my must-watch list. But alas he’s not a transhuman icon. I doubt he’s Becoming anything other than what he already is.

Poor TV Hannibal isn’t even Roy Batty, who defied his creators and carved a trail of death across the universe in a quixotic bid to save his girl. Instead he’s carved a trail of death among his own friends out of a simple fit of pique, which is something Book Hannibal would probably consider eating him for.

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Surprisingly Seductive: Localroger Reviews ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Hannibal’

Peachfront’s Note: Passages in the Void and Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect author Roger Williams is sharing his thoughts this month on two TV series he has called “surprisingly good.” What do you think? Feel free to leave your comments down below.

It probably won’t surprise many people to hear that I don’t watch a lot of TV. I certainly don’t watch enough to justify paying for it, and that’s meant that I have only recently caught up with some of the well-regarded cable series like The Wire: The Complete Series and Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series thanks to Netflix DVD’s. I don’t need the convenience of streaming because, really, I don’t watch a lot of TV.

But last year I watched more than I’ve watched in decades; there were actually weeks when the TV set was tuned to a broadcast channel for three or more hours. And that’s largely because of a couple of new series which surprised and delighted me in interestingly similar ways.

Sleepy Hollow

I decided to give this series a look because it looked stylish and fun. It was sold to us as a reboot of Washington Irving’s classic story of Ichabod Crane who disappears after a run-in with a headless horseman. But in this version he sleeps for 200 years and wakes up in our world. It promised, and delivered, a steady diet of hilarious anachronism jokes as poor Ichabod navigates a world full of automobiles, computers, and unfamiliar social and sexual mores. Ichabod, played to ultra polite straight-man perfection by Tom Mison, opens up by congratulating the very pretty black lady who will become his protector and sidekick on evading the shackles of slavery.

The chemistry between sidekick Abbie Mills and Ichabod has fueled a still-growing torrent of fanfic portraying the romance that hasn’t yet been given to us by the series itself. It doesn’t hurt that both main characters are played with a light touch on the suspension of disbelief lever and that both they and the sets, including some very intricate period flashbacks, are gorgeous.

But here’s the brilliant part: About half way through the first season, it started to become apparent that this alternate universe where Crane could sleep for 200 years was more than just a little different from Real Life. For a brief period those familiar with our history were issuing stern warnings “not to get your history from Sleepy Hollow.” Then it went so far off the rails that even the scolders just doubled over laughing.

Crane’s wife Katrina was a witch. And not just some potion-mixing mojo-reading hag, she was a member of a coven that could do major shit right out of Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy. The Headless Horseman? He’s one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Bible book of Revelation. There are demons and artifacts and secret passages enough to make Dan Brown blush. It turns out the entire American Revolutionary War was just an opening skirmish in the final war of Armageddon.

And the best thing about this is how we were all sandbagged by it, after six or ten episodes where the big magic was just Crane arriving in the 21st century and having to figure out how to use the hot and cold water taps and cell phones. The writers and actors play it beautifully, drawing us in with just a little more “WHOA!” factor each week, until the last few episodes where the crazy bombs are flying thick and fast. George Washington’s REAL secret masonic tomb! Where he rose from the dead! To leave a note critical to our heroes! So they can find a portal to purgatory! Where Crane’s wife Katrina is still around!

This is something not many shows dare do. Sure there’s magic and period costume in Game of Thrones but we all knew that going in. By teasing me into it Sleepy Hollow pulled me into a narrative I’d have written off as ridiculous and uninteresting if they’d shown all their crazy cards from the start. But by the time it went off the rails Ichabod and Abbie were real characters I cared about, and they made me believe in something that probably wouldn’t have worked otherwise: They were real people facing all this weird shit and it had gotten normal for them too.


I missed the first season of Hannibal and had to catch it on DVD when the discussion boards alerted me to the approach of its second season. Like Sleepy Hollow it’s a reboot of a familiar story, the tale of Hannibal Lecter’s years immediately before Thomas Harris introduced him to us in the novels Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.

Harris is about as hard-boiled as a novelist gets, so we all pretty much knew what to expect from this exploration of a period Harris probably thought was too obvious to be worth saying much about. Harris drops hints; we know that officers quit the force after seeing Hannibal’s murder basement, and that quite a few of his fancy dinner guests turned vegetarian when they found out what he’d fed them. Harris retconned a few characters into this era for the novel Hannibal, most particularly siblings from Hell Mason and Margot Verger. But even when pissing off almost all of his fans with the ending of Hannibal or the almost inscrutable Hannibal Rising, Harris is a guy who describes things in great precision and detail and makes sure they have some basis in real life workability.

Hannibal the TV series isn’t like that. Not even a little. But as with Sleepy Hollow it took about half of the first season to become apparent how … refreshingly different it was.

Our first clue that this isn’t a Thomas Harris joint is the “multiple Starbuckings,” a term coined for the dramatic gender reversal of an iconic testosterone-poisoned lead character in the 1980’s Battlestar Galactica to a girl in the 2004 reboot. Red Dragon was written and set in the late 1970’s and Harris writes very s-l-o-w-l-y so it should be assumed that the two following novels are from the early 1980’s at the latest, when the FBI was still pretty much a white man’s stomping ground. Fixing this for a reboot set more explicitly in the 2010’s is a pretty big change but not a terrible sin against the source material.

And in some ways Hannibal serves us up a Will Graham closer to the one of Red Dragon than either of the movie versions. His talent for empathizing with killers clearly hurts him, and what hurts is resisting the temptation to surrender to it. There is a deep chemistry between Mads Mikkelson’s Hannibal and Hugh Dancy’s Will which has generated untold thousands of words of slash fanfic about their relationship. And this was before we started to realize that, like Sleepy Hollow, this series is set in some weird alternate reality where the rules are different.

Everyone in Hannibal is beautiful and has exquisite taste. Just the food is a reason to watch; Breaking Bad had a chemist on their payroll, but Hannibal has a “Food Stylist” who in turn has links to a world-class chef. The sets and wardrobe are rich and meticulously detailed. Everyone has an astonishingly good interior decorator.

But that’s just for starters. In the “Hanniverse” what you might call “art murder” is a seriously popular hobby, with more serial killers plying their trade in the Baltimore area than have been seen in all of modern history. And these killers don’t just shiv their victims and run; they turn the bodies into mandalas, totem poles, plant them in the wombs of living horses, impale them on antlers, start beehives in their skulls, and wrap living trees around them. Eating them, as Hannibal does, is almost mundane in this venue.

Moreover, in the Hanniverse Art Murder appears to convey limited but very noticeable magic powers. A critical season 1 plot juncture can only be explained if Abigail Hobbs teleports from Minnesota back to Baltimore. That might have just been a continuity oversight except that it repeatedly happens that Art Murderers manage feats of heroic evasion and manipulation to create their Murder Art.

Hannibal has survived for a prospective third season partly by being extremely cheap; an entire season costs NBC less than HBO pays for a couple of episodes of Game of Thrones. But Hannibal doesn’t look cheap; in many respects it’s like a stage play where a limited number of locations are managed with lighting and prop dress to create the illusion of a much larger world. The food porn is of course center stage, and captivating whether or not it supposedly contains human bits.

But the best thing about Hannibal is that, like Sleepy Hollow, it plays fast and loose with its source material in ways we didn’t expect when we signed on. And yes, that’s a GOOD thing.

Showrunner Bryan Fuller has ripped pages out of all of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal series books and stuck them in places where we aren’t expecting to find them. In the Hanniverse it’s retconned character Miriam Lass, not Will Graham, who stumbles upon Hannibal’s Wound Man drawing; later, it’s she instead of Clarice Starling who ends up as Hannibal’s possibly semi-willing captive. In the climactic finale we also learn that he’s been keeping Abigail Hobbs on ice suggesting a side of Hannibal that not only wasn’t revealed but almost certainly didn’t exist at all in Harris’ version.

Fuller has introduced the Vergers, which makes sense because Harris’ retcon implies that they were in his circle of friends at this point; but the series introduces Mason’s man-eating-pig farming venture, which in the novel wasn’t started until Mason had an axe to grind with Hannibal. And even more spectacularly, Will, who is out of the story by Verger time in Harris’ version, gets deeply involved (if by “deeply” you accept “sexually and with murder attempts”) with the Vergers. It’s not totally impossible that this stuff happened in the years before Harris’ version of Red Dragon but if it did, for Harris not to mention it at all in that story would seem a bit odd.

The Perilous He-Ate-Us

Peachfront’s Note: Season-ending spoilers coming up fast…Read no further if you haven’t yet watched these shows and you want them unspoiled.

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect on Goodreads via Google


Spoilers about to start RIGHT ABOUT NOW. You have been warned…

As I write this Sleepy Hollow has been greenlighted for a second season and Hannibal for a third. Both series left all of their major characters in dire straits as the last season curtain fell. On Sleepy Hollow Abbie is trapped in purgatory, Katrina in our world but taken away by the Headless Horseman and Ichabod buried alive. In Hannibal Alana possibly has her back broken and Jack, Will, and Abigail are bleeding out quickly on the floors of Hannibal’s soon to be ex-house.

One thing I can say with some delight about both series is that I have NO FUCKING CLUE what the next season will bring, but I’m ready to buy in for it. Getting me to react that way is a pretty good hat trick for this jaded veteran of Star Trek TOS back when it was the only Star Trek and in syndication.

Had either series presented what it intended to do up front it’s likely that a lot of current fans would have said “meh” and skipped. Both of them accomplished what amounted to a seduction, with a coy introduction pretending to be something comfortable and mundane before dropping us into a rabbit hole of unexpected surprises. This seems to be as new a thing to me as the long story arc was when Babylon 5 introduced it, dropping the idea that characters can’t have big life changes so the episodes can be interchangeable which had been industry gospel pretty much since the invention of television. Nowadays all serious TV series have long character arcs. I wonder if ten years from now all of them will be seducing us with sweet comfortable tropes as they hold a frying pan to whack us with mid-season.

Considering the history of TV, I’d think that a positive development.