Archive | Book Matters

Why ‘Hannibal’ Is an Acquired Taste

The following is a review I originally published in Word and Film.

The season two finale of “Hannibal” airs May 23, and most of us have no clue how it will end even if we’ve read Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, upon which the series is loosely based. That’s if we’ve been watching at all: The NBC show’s ratings have dipped perilously low though it’s been renewed it for another season.

Yet, aside from Sherlock Holmes, there may be no crime-novel figure who looms as large in our collective imagination as Hannibal Lecter does, and this show goes a long way toward explaining why. Like all of our most terrifying dreams, “Hannibal” seduces us before grabbing us by the throat. Ironically, that seduction relies mightily upon a moral and narrative ambiguity that also may be alienating audiences.

In the movies adapted from Harris’ books about the serial killer, Hannibal Lecter is larger-than-life – so much so that a little of him goes a long way. In 1986’s “Manhunter,” actor Brian Cox bases his portrayal less on the character’s literary antecedent than on the Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel. The effect is plenty chilling but more brutish than we might expect of an aesthete whose declared foe is bad taste. In “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Red Dragon,” and the unfortunate “Hannibal,” Anthony Hopkins’ iconic take is more refined but also so hammy that it’s only palatable in small doses (cannibalism metaphors apparently being irresistible in this context). It’s hard to, ahem, swallow that the doctor wouldn’t eat someone else alive for such showboating, quid pro quo. And let’s not discuss Gaspard Ulliel’s turn as the young Lecter in 2007’s unspeakably bad “Hannibal Rising”; Thomas Harris was reportedly bullied into writing this film and book by those who held the cinematic rights to the character.

Then there’s Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal in the eponymously titled NBC show, which swoops in and out of a fidelity to Harris’ books with a discombobulating, off-kilter elegance that is this series’ trademark. Continue Reading →

‘God’s Pocket’: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Posthumously

The following is a review I originally published in Word and Film:

When an artist as talented as Philip Seymour Hoffman dies unexpectedly, a cultural void develops in their absence. It’s not just that we can’t accept the loss; it’s that we can’t entirely register it. In some childlike recess of our minds we keep seeking an alternative reality in which they are writing another book, recording another song, shooting another film. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross may have identified this as the bargaining stage of grief and loss but I think it’s more complicated than that.

Unless we knew the artist personally, for us they only existed in a communion between their imagination and ours, anyway – an interstice of consciousnesses outside of life and death. Even after they die, then, we continue to visit their work for that connection. And if it’s an artist as prolific as Hoffman, for a while their posthumous work grants us additional destinations, which is when the bargaining does creep in. We study this new work not only for insights into their sudden death but for evidence of an alternate reality – a reality in which the person is still alive and still creating more worlds that we may visit.

Which is to say that it’s both difficult and enthralling to watch “God’s Pocket,” a sad sack of an indie directed by Mad Men‘s John Slattery that features Hoffman in one of his last performances. The movie itself is a mixed bag. Set in a fictional working-class section of South Philadelphia named, unfortunately enough, God’s Pocket, it is populated by underdogs who have so little to boast about that they uphold their neighborhood with a blind patriotism that renders non-natives inferior in their eyes. The result is that the neighborhood itself is this film’s true protagonist, with Hoffman as Mickey, a hard-drinking, low-level criminal, running a distant second. Continue Reading →

Eat Drink Book Movie

If there’s one thing people like as much as food, it’s the culture of food: dining and cooking blogs, restaurant scenes, cookbooks for every sense and sensibility, chef idolatry, food TV, and, of course, food movies. Even bad movies about food are still good, thanks to their subjects, and cinema’s most sensual moments tend to feature meals rather than sex—think Eat Drink Man Woman, Babette’s Feast, and Tom Jones. (If you’ve never seen the latter, be forewarned: You’ll never look at a roasted chicken the same way again.)

While there’s never been a shortage of movies to make us hungry, though, there’s a surprising dearth of films based on food memoirs. Sure, there’s Julie & Julia, Nora Ephron’s film based on memoirs by Julia Child and Julie Powell; Toast, based on British chef Nigel Slater’s memoir; and reportedly an upcoming film based on New York City chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s Bones, Blood & Butter (which may star Lady Goop herself, Gwyneth Paltrow). But since all of Hollywood loves a literary adaptation, and since few literary genres blend such va-va-voom carnality with serious brass tacks, I’d argue there should be many more. For Word and Film, I list the food writers whose books would provide an excellent start.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy