Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, sometimes it’s a crucial staging platform for exposition, and sometimes it’s just a scoop of Ray Liotta’s pre-frontal lobe, which they say is the seat of good manners. Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable foods in the history of storytelling.
The reality of cannibalism is hard to handle. When the national news slowly revealed the extent of Jeffrey Dahmer’s activities in the early ’90s, nobody made dumb jokes about it—not even dumb-joke-prone, late-night television hosts. We were respectfully horrified. And, when presented slowly and seriously, a close look at The Donner Party notes how the stranded travelers’ slide into cannibalism has been considered the most terrifying PBS special of all time. In fiction, too, cannibalism is terrible when treated realistically. The threat of cannibalism in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is such a believable, vivid possibility that it makes every page almost unbearable.
So why does every teasing dad in America love to make this slurping sound any time someone mentions Chianti?
Poor fava bean farmers, they’re marketing nothing but fiction’s most notorious side dish.
Why are that quote and slurp so tempting to turn into a joke? Jonathon Demme’s Silence Of The Lambs is one of the most stylish, intense, and effective horror movies ever made, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter is our highest profile nurse-tongue-eating monster. Shouldn’t it bother us to make light of it?
And why aren’t we bothered when Jay Leno—normally a purveyor of anodyne humor—uses cannibalism as a go-to laugh-getter, referencing the 1973 sci-fi classic Soylent Green? Depicting mankind in need of innovative thinking to keep everybody fed, the film introduces a processed food called Soylent Green, and as it turns out, “Soylent Green is people!” and Charlton Heston’s reading of that line has so much oomph it somehow became code for managing to overact to the most horrible thing you can imagine, which, in Leno’s defense, is funny.
But we’re whistling in the graveyard when we laugh, distracting ourselves from our fears by pretending to take them lightly. We’re also playing around with something that’s forbidden, which makes the laughter a little more high-pitched and nervous. Cannibalism is a fundamental transgression, fighting with incest for worst imaginable act. Storytellers cross a line when they move to cannibalism from mere “anthropophagy,” the fancy term for consuming human flesh—which includes people getting eaten by aliens or monsters. By choosing man-eats-man, a storyteller aims to get a certain rise out of their audience. Cannibalism is commentary on the savagery of society, it’s an effectively shocking dramatic revelation, it’s tragedy and grotesquery, and as we’ve discovered, under certain circumstances it is giggle-inducing.
Sometimes it’s intended to be all of those at once. Stephen Sondheim manages to make murder and cannibalism both tragic and momentarily comic in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. He embraces the source material’s “penny-dreadful” horror at first, but then the plot deepens into a sad, sympathetic nightmare. Much of Sondheim’s career has been spent looking for subject matter that his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, might argue is an odd choice on which to base musical theater—presidential assassins, pointillism, an Ingmar Bergman movie. But even Hammerstein would have to admit, there is something perversely winning in this pie shop business plan, pitched by Angela Lansbury to George Hearn as Sweeney, her “supplier.”
It’s so appalling that it’s riveting. It’s playful, too, even though it’s full of menace and heartbreak, and with “A Little Priest,” Sondheim bonds us together in the guilt of enjoying all those macabre puns. He almost manages to win us over to the awful idea. Tim Burton’s pallid movie version is generally well done too, with Johnny Depp brooding and Helena Bonham Carter scheming—though Burton’s production is designed for his vision of a movie screen, not a Broadway stage, where a little audience-friendly ham is usually appreciated. Thus, the bleakness of the movie can miss or muffle the fun hidden in the darkness: Watch Bonham Carter and Depp essentially miss the laugh that Lansbury and Hearn expertly wring out of the lines, “Ha!” “Good, you got it.”
Horrifying. Funny. Sad. Clever. Veering between those posts without exceeding our patience is a skill. Monty Python’s Flying Circus knows right where our patience is about to give out and sends the fake audience to angrily call the whole thing off after John Cleese tentatively suggests getting some parsnips to garnish his mum.
Of course the crowd is outraged at such a proposition—naturally!—but the audience’s reaction comes off as intolerant and ridiculous. Yes, we were uncomfortable with the humor, but basically enjoying ourselves, and they interrupted and shut the whole thing down. It’s goofy, what goes on in the lifeboat, but the piece ends up satirizing those who worry about the deadening of our moral sensibilities over something as silly as a skit or other work of art.
Cannibalism in satire does get a reaction. Worlds shift every year as bored high schoolers deal with the twinkle in their literature teacher’s eye when the realization dawns that, in “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift is suggesting the rich Irish simply eat the children of poor Irish. He’s mocking his contemporaries’ callous indifference toward the predicament of Irish overpopulation using gross-out humor two or three hundred years before any of us ever shouted “Soylent Green is people!” or W.C. Fields answered the question “Do you like children?” in Tillie And Gus with “I do if they’re properly cooked.”
In “black comedy,” cannibalism is often a perverted expedient for dealing with an inconvenient corpse. In Eating Raoul, our antiheroes have a body to dispose of—so they serve him for dinner. Making that the title of the film should warn us what we’re in for, but it comes off mostly an excuse for trotting out a bunch of outrageous behavior, some of which is amusing. In Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe, our heroines also find themselves with a body to dispose of, so they serve the ribs of the man-who-had-it-coming-to-him to the officers in charge of the investigation. It’s not meant to be funny in the way Monty Python or W.C. Fields is funny, or wacky, like Eating Raoul, but it’s pleasantly ironic.
Secretly serving a human is a relatively common tactic for revenge, from the Greeks and Shakespeare to the late night movies parodied by The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Dr. Frank-N-Furter serves bad-boy rebel Eddie (played by the actor and singer Meat Loaf, whose name oddly predates his character’s fate) to most of the cast in a display of contempt for almost everyone. It’s all meant to be a winking tribute to B-movie schlock, of course, but when Tim Curry whisks back the tablecloth to show Eddie’s gory, partially-eaten corpse, it’s rather intense, or at least revolting. Still, this is black comedy, so during the terrible meal, before the tablecloth comes off, the officially unofficial midnight-movie script indicates the crowd should yell, “Oh, not Meat Loaf again!”
But black comedy and nervous laughter disappear when the audience isn’t given a chance to release its discomfort with cannibalism. When Helen Mirren’s character force-feeds her dead lover to his murderer, who happens to be her husband, in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, she’s punishing and humiliating her rotten spouse before executing him. Director Peter Greenaway wants you to feel the intensity of this revenge on a man who has spent the film cruelly consuming the lives around him.
Then there’s Suddenly, Last Summer. How many theatergoers showed up for Tennessee Williams one-act play in 1958 thinking the Pulitzer prizewinner would “go there?” It’s a mystery story, and audiences were on the edges of their Broadway seats to learn Catharine Holly’s suppressed memories of what really happened to her cousin while the two were on holiday, and why her aunt wants Catharine lobotomized. When the climactic revelation comes, it can tip into melodrama, and requires a Redgraveian level of acting skill to deliver the ghastly scene movingly. That’s what the BBC got from Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter Natasha Richardson in an early ’90s production. But the movie version turns into a confusing mess, because movie studios in the late ’50s were too nervous to coherently present a story confronting society’s attitudes toward homosexuality by unsubtly having a gay character killed and eaten by urchins with “goblin mouths.”
The details of the act itself are what bring on the squirming, whether it’s the details of those street children devouring Catharine’s cousin, or the matter-of-fact leftover planning of Monty Python’s starving sailors. The squirming comes when we really have to think it through.
That’s what makes the demented savoring of human meat by Thomas Harris’ Dr. Hannibal Lecter so unforgettable: He forces us to really think it through. Not only that, Harris removes every potentially understandable excuse for eating a person—desperation, revenge, expedient body disposal, deadpan satirical suggestion—and allows Lecter to approach the act with a connoisseur’s discriminating taste and no shame. Lecter is intrigued intellectually by the moral questions, energized by the possibility of being creative in a relatively unexplored medium, and amused by the puzzle solving required to perform and enjoy cannibalism—especially since both the law and our natural impulses tell him he can’t.
He can if he wants. He’s a hedonist. And in fiction, we’re always drawn toward the hedonist.
Initially invented to help detective Will Graham track a serial killer in the novel Red Dragon, Lecter was that story’s most memorable character. Harris brought him back in the novel The Silence Of The Lambs, but sadly, Lecter descends into punning absurdity once he escapes bondage in Lambs. By the time he’s scooping out Ray Liotta’s pre-frontal lobe in Ridley Scott’s screen adaptation of Harris’s Hannibal, Lecter is bordering on camp. He is no longer a disquieting, mesmerizing monster. Anthony Hopkins’ doctor becomes a scary, goofy, effete, cruel nutjob.
So how lucky we are to have this Hannibal TV series. Right there in prime time on a major TV network, Hannibal is essentially clawing back the character, re-establishing him as fiction’s most unsettling consumer of census workers. Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is an interesting, clever, suave, amusingly fastidious fellow. He’s a treacherous charmer.
Of all the distressing visuals in the new series—the flayed skin, the pierced-by-antlers victims, the awful visions of detective Graham—the most distressing are the calm use of the simple meat grinder, a nicely presented plate, a fork, Mikkelsen’s mouth in close-up, and that civilized napkin-touch to his face. Images of the pained, tragic victims of violent crime are upsetting, and that napkin-touch is just so utterly wrong. Hannibal the TV series again forces us to consider something so obviously incorrect it didn’t even make the list of Ten Commandments—God himself doesn’t like to talk about it.
No wonder we’re curious.