Time out of mind: A critical analysis of NBC’s “Hannibal”

Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal” is unafraid to look at some big issues. Sure, there’s Hitchcockian meditations on the similarities between food, sex and death, but there are also uncomfortable examinations of divinity, duality and reality. Very audience friendly topics. A particularly fascinating topic that evolved during the second season was the uncontrollable nature of time. Time is a primal, fatal force in “Hannibal”: larger than humanity and beyond our grasp.

This is not to say that time wasn’t present in the first season. In “Hannibal,” time has always been a yardstick for reality. One of the most memorable recurring visuals in “Hannibal’s” first season was of Will Graham drawing a clock so that he, according to Dr. Hannibal Lecter, might ground himself in reality. In truth, each clock Graham drew became increasingly, and unwittingly, distorted. Time is also a scene setting device: the time lapse photography that serves as both an interesting visual accent. The motif of the swinging golden bar that transitions us from reality to Graham’s empathetic visions of crimes resembles a clock’s pendulum as he goes back in time, in his mind’s eye, to crime scenes.

That concept, the concept of the control of time, is especially heightened in the second season. In the third episode of season two, we watch Graham watch his own electrifying execution in reverse. When the images move forward, it is Graham himself who pulls the switch that ends his life. The scene is revealed to be a dream when Graham is woken by a guard who says, “It’s time.”

Images of running water–the river in Graham’s dreams, the flow of wine–all suggest time and transience. The river is interesting in particular because it presents Graham again attempting to assume control of his fate. The river is both where he retreats from his isolation and where he schemes to trap Lecter. But Lecter has other ideas. “Wade into the quiet of the stream,” he urges Graham in the stunning season finale. It is worth noting that Graham and FBI Director Jack Crawford are both characters who try to control outcomes (“good fishermen,” as they describe themselves in another dream), but both of them succumb to Lecter and his fatalistic philosophy. For Lecter, the river of time is not something that can be controlled; it can only be submitted to.

The image of a smashed teacup reassembling itself in the second season’s 11th episode (an image taken straight from Thomas Harris’s third Lector novel, “Hannibal”) is among the most simple and beautiful in the series. Lecter said that he would occasionally drop teacups and watch them shatter to see if they would ever come back together again, disappointed when they did not. “Someday, perhaps, a cup will come together,” he muses, fully aware that it is nothing he can ever control. It recalls physicist Brian Greene’s observation in “The Fabric of the Cosmos” that there is nothing physically impossible about an egg that has rolled off a table and smashed to come together again–yolk, shell and all–and leap back onto the table; it simply does not happen that way.

For “Hannibal” the TV show, the inevitability of time is intriguingly obvious. The program is a countdown. Lecter begins the books and films imprisoned, so we, as an audience, are aware of the inevitable fate of the titular character. At some point, Lecter must end up in protective custody. The second season premier goes as far as beginning with Lecter and Crawford at each other’s throats in pitched combat, and the entire rest of the season is a “how did we get here?” recap. Taken as a whole, it is a stark reminder of Lecter undone, his ultimate fate.

But on an individual level, Leceter’s struggle is a struggle against time as the inevitable. It is a human struggle, and one that he understands better than most. Lecter experiences death in a radically personal way, a way that most people in modern, industrial societies do not. As both butcher and chef, death is in Lecter’s office, his house and his kitchen. God seems to enjoy killing, Lecter says. And why shouldn’t he? Lecter might add. Death is the inevitable, ultimate result of existing in time. This much is certainly obvious to Lecter. A teacup, caught in time, cannot unshatter.

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His majesty’s portrait: BBC’s “Wolf Hall” as Renassiance painting

I just finished up “Wolf Hall.” The show is fascinating in its presentation. It is a show that I would have once thought impossible to pull off in America—now I only think it would be really, really hard. The performances have been praised: Damian Lewis’s lusty, distant Henry VIII, Claire Foy’s biting Anne Boleyn and Mark Rylance’s meditative, measured Cromwell. Fellow WordPressers Djelloul Marbrook and Cl1nettc have noted that silence is important to the show, Cromwell’s silence in particular. But silence serves another purpose; it takes the focus off the dialogue and puts it on the visuals, and “Wolf Hall” is an old fashioned visual treat–16th century, that is.

“Wolf Hall” is well produced in a low-key way. It is not stylish; rather, it is stylized. It looks like a Renaissance painting the way that Peter Greenaway’s “Nightwatching,” an excellent (if long) examination of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” did. Actors arrange themselves within the frame and hold themselves in poses that recall Renaissance portraiture–legs jutted out, heads turned, arms on hips in manly pose–particularly Rylance, who frequently resembles Hans Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell.

An interesting complaint I’ve heard about the show is that it’s dark. Well, it is dark, but I imagine that was done to preserve historical accuracy (they didn’t have a lot of fill lights in the Middle Ages). The reliance on natural light sources and the resulting heavy shadows also increases the show’s portraiture feel. It’s not quite chiaroscuro lighting, but it does give the impression of a Rembrandt painting, where darkness seems to gather on the borders of the composition and light seems to pool in the center.

Parts of the story are also told through visual symbols, through dreams and visions (the bizarre dinner of Boleyn that opens episode six; Cromwell imagining touching Boleyn’s breast in episode three). One of the show’s the most memorable examples of visual storytelling is in the fifth episode, which features a silent, impersonal explanation of Boleyn’s latest miscarriage (students of history, I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that Boleyn has a miscarriage or two).

The scene opens with no faces, only feet and running legs. A dwarf woman–a member of Boleyn’s entourage–rocks back and forth upon the ground in apparent pain. Finally, with a groan, she draws a cloth doll from between her legs. After touching it briefly, she throws the doll to the ground, stomps on it, rises and abandons it. The camera pans and fixes on a blood-stained set of nightclothes. Boleyn’s fate is sealed in the next episode through a much simpler piece of visual storytelling: Her table is cleared, tablecloth and all, before she is taken to the Tower of London.

Film and television seem to have more in common with theater than other forms of art; they all have directors and actors, sets and scripts. But in terms of storytelling methods, theater is a dialogue game, whereas film and television are visual art forms. Like Renaissance painting, there is a visual language to it. “Wolf Hall” has the right idea; television and film producers could learn a lot about their own art by visiting a museum.

Say it with tentacles: A critical review of some H. P. Lovecraft inspired shorts

I have mixed feelings about the gentrification of H. P. Lovecraft. On the one hand, it’s nice to see one of the most influential horror writers, and certainly one of the absolute horror masters, of the 20th century getting some name recognition. Almost everyone knows Lovecraftian themes; they just happen to know them secondhand, possibly through the works of Stephen King, Nick Pizzolatto or Joss Whedon. On the other, there’s a kind of reductionism at work here. See, I’m not some Johnny-come-Yith-ly when it comes to Lovecraft. My Lovecraftian cred is cemented by the first Lovecraftian tome I ever purchased: “The Transition of H. P. Lovecraft.” Why does this back me up? Just look at that cover: Bosch or Giger-esque humanoids struggling in torment. Nowhere do you see Cthulhu–who has become more of a household name than Lovecraft himself–and that would not fly these days. If you’re going to sell a Lovecraft book, it’s gotta have Cthulhu on the cover.

See, there are people who think that you can evoke the eldritch one by tossing in some tentacles or cracking open a copy of the “Necronomicon.” Nuts, says I. There is far more to Lovecraft than Cthulhu. And to prove it, here are a couple of fan works that manage to plumb the nautical depths of Lovecraft and come up with something to add to the ongoing saga of HPL.

“The Testament of Tom Jacoby” (2001)

I want to start off with this effort by Edward Martin III et al because of what it doesn’t do, not what it does. It doesn’t move, for one; it’s a collection of stills, sepia stained to invoke the period, so all the attention is paid to the image, which I value very much. Also, “Testament” drains the supernatural from Lovecraft’s work without losing the abnormal, a reminder that, despite their fantastic element, the mythos were primarily psychological. Finally, the film is inspired by “The Beast in the Cave,” an earlier, lesser known work, so that automatically earns points from me.

“The Call” (2014)

PH Debies’ “The Call” does two interesting things with its two minutes of footage. First, its “Shadow Over Innsmouth”-by-way-of-”True Detective” narrative is subtly indicative of the debt modern writers owe Lovecraft; second, it suggests the theme of “bad blood,” something that is prominent in much of Lovecraft’s work but tends to be forgotten in adaptations. Often, the monster within is worse than the monster without. It’s also just a pleasant piece of atmosphere.

“The Hound” (1997)

And if it’s atmosphere you’re after, look no further than Anthony Penta’s “The Hound.” While it’s fair to compare this short to the works of Val Lewton’s suggest-don’t-tell technique–a strategy Lovecraft shared, making him a literary Lewton (or Lewton a cinematic Lovecraft)–I think it’s as appropriate to compare it to the German expressionism of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or “Secrets of a Soul.” There is a stylized stagey-ness to the proceedings–and I mean that as a compliment. The film is also shot silent, and silents were, out of necessity, the most aggressively visual that filmmaking–a basically visual medium–has ever been. By shooting his subject in silence and shadow during the drawn out final sequence, Penta perfectly presents the nihlistic philosophy of both the story and its author.

“Antiques Roadshow: Arkham Mass.” (2005)

I’ve saved the best for last, or at least the funniest. “Antiques Roadshow” is almost a game of “spot the Lovecraft reference,” but, like any good satire, it’s slyly critical of the work it’s satirizing. For example, why is it that the Miskatonic University library lends out the “Necronomicon” to every researcher, sea captain and voodoo priest who happens to stop by? You’d think that at some point someone would have put a block on a lot of library accounts. However, the cultist’s response to the host’s question–“Is there something in the water?”–is perhaps the best summation of Lovecraft’s mythos.

“Cutethulhu” (2003)

All right, so one more, and it’s also amusing. “Cutethulhu” doesn’t really add anything to the Lovecraft mythos, but it does answer this question: What might HPL think if he saw what’s happened to his darling dark deity today?

Nothing’s more romantic than a lost cause: The literary influences of “Penny Dreadful”

I tried an interesting experiment the other day. In preparation for the return of Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful”–the season two debut is this weekend and, it’s already intriguingly available to stream–I looked up a few old interviews with cast members to see how everyone shapes up when faced with the big, bad media–who gets sent where and says what. Eva Green handled herself like a pro and Billie Piper’s sense of humor was unexpectedly great, but Timothy Dalton surprised me the most with his thoughtful (if foul-mouthed) statements about the show and the industry, about entertainment and entertainment journalism. His thoughts, along with helping a friend with her paper on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” made me more aware of the literary influences of “Penny Dreadful.”

I know, saying that “Penny Dreadful” has literary influences is hardly news. The main characters run from a lifted-from-the-pages Victor Frankenstein and Dorian Grey to Dalton’s Van-Helsing-meets-Allan-Quatermain Sir Malcolm (except everyone is sexier on TV). But I’m less interested in the characters (would you believe I haven’t read “Dracula” or “Frankenstein”? The shame) than I am in the genres. I know that the costumes and scenery are both beautiful and spot on (dig those ferns as Victorian décor!), but how does it stack up to the literature of the time? The natural assumption is that “Penny Dreadful” would take its cues from Gothic literature, and it does.

“Penny Dreadful” unquestionably delivers Gothic atmosphere. All the fun stuff seems to happen at night…or at least when there’s an excess of fog. Likewise, its characters meet the literary requirements. Green’s Ms. Ives, despite being one tough cookie herself, is a Gothic heroine in spades: pale, wan and at the mercy of forces that are bigger and older than her. The male heroes are also “not who you think they are,” with identity reveals–the Gothic author’s favorite string along technique–within and throughout.

But in some of its thematics, “Penny Dreadful” ignores its Gothic heritage. Although the settings of foreign lands are constantly encroaching on the story–the hints of Egypt’s mythic past, the dream-like references to Africa–we never seem to leave England, something that places the show more in line with modern realism than fantastic Victoriana. The show’s fascination with running blood and offbeat sexuality runs more along the lines of actual penny dreadfuls than the relatively dry Gothic genre. There’s also little clash between science and the supernatural; along with no real sense of the natural (“Penny Dreadful” is a very urban show), there’s no danger of 19th century romance. In fact, for romantic grounding, one has to go back a little further in time.

I keep coming back to Dalton’s slightly smug reading of the series. In his interview with the Wrap, he noted that the show’s symbols all relate to quests for eternal life, which is a theme as old as Babylon. It’s also something that has more to do with the “doomed quest” thematics of medieval, Arthurian romance than the humble-by-comparison unrequited loves of 19th century romance (not that Victorian literature wasn’t influenced by the medieval stuff as well). After all, if positively doomed quests are your bag of romantic tricks, what’s better than a quest for eternal life? What quest is more doomed than a fight against death?