not in our stars, but in ourselves
1. Being a genius, I watched The Passion of Joan of Arc last night, because it was in my Hulu queue and I intended to write about it today. Whoopsadaisy: I wrote about it three years ago. Badly, I’m sure, but I already did it. Crap. I will try to get back on track, honest I will.
2. Speaking of rewatching things, I am rewatching Hannibal from start to finish. This is partly because I just love it and miss it; and partly because a friend of mine alerted me to a call for papers about NBC’s (not anymore, bitches) Hannibal. Take a look-see:
The NBC series Hannibal has garnered both critical and fan acclaim for its cinematic qualities, its complex characters, and its fascinating reworking of Thomas Harris’ mythology so well known from Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991) and its variants. The television series concluded late in 2015 after three seasons and in spite of a great deal of fan support for its continuation on a premium network or through a paid service like Netflix.
Hannibal builds on the serial killer narratives of popular procedurals, while taking them in a drastically different direction. Like critically acclaimed series such as Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, it makes its viewers complicit in the actions of a deeply problematic individual, and, in the case of Hannibal, forces them to confront that complicity through the character of Will Graham. As both an extension of and divergence from these trends, Hannibal is also worth exploring in its own right as a simultaneously stunning and grotesque exploration of the darkest depths of the human psyche. Also of interest is Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller’s easy relationship with fans, in contrast to other showrunners (Supernatural, Game of Thrones) who often clash with fans over directorial and interpretive choices.
We are soliciting essays for an edited collection and are presently in negotiation with a university press for publication in late 2017 or early 2018. Please send a 300-word abstract and brief biography to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com before July 1, 2016. Completed essays of 6,000-6,500 words will be due on January 15, 2017.
Possible topics include but are not limited to:
● The grotesque and the monstrous
● The enduring appeal of Hannibal Lecter
● Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham as dual protagonists
● The seductive nature of evil/Hannibal as a Vice figure
● The viewer as voyeur or accomplice
● Queer motifs and readings
● Female characters (including those whose gender was changed from the novels)
● Horror/Gothic elements
● Visual aesthetics of violence/gore/murder
● Depictions of food/foodie culture
● Similarities and differences from Harris’ novels and previous adaptations
● Hannibal’s use of art, literature, and musical referents
● Depictions of mental illness and disability
● Serial killers in popular media
● Visual and narrative motifs of Hannibal
● Bryan Fuller’s relationship with the “fannibals,” fans of the show
I have An Idea for what I’d write about, and it’s not quite any of the above, but I confess: those academic muscles feel pretty weak right now. They were never terribly strong to begin with, and now it’s been years and years since I even attempted to write a serious paper about anything at all. Still, I will persevere. Worst case: they reject me, and I don’t have to worry about embarrassing myself in print for all eternity. Worstest case: they accept me. Eep.
3. It’s a good day for birthdays: not only would Andrei Tarkovsky have been 84, so would Anthony “Perfectkins” Perkins! Birthday buddies! Who’d have thought that the foremost Russian cinematic poet and my beloved dead gay son would share the exact same birthday? What a world. Regarding the former, I should really get serious and follow this handy-dandy BFI guide to diving into Tarkovsky’s films. Regarding the latter, look at him. (Skip to about 17:10.)
What a sweetheart. What a goofball. I love him so much.
4. Looking ahead to tomorrow and another Amazing Aries: Bette Davis. Massachusetts’s own was a hell of a broad, and I really like this piece from Angelica Jade Bastien about Davis as the “Cinematic Medusa“:
There’s an infuriating, likely apocryphal, story that, after her first screen test, Bette Davis was described as having less sex appeal than the dopey, gangly, and dramatically unsexy comedic actor Slim Summerville. This may never have actually happened, but it feels true considering the longstanding belief that Bette doesn’t just contradict our expectations of how a major Hollywood star was supposed to look at that time but that she’s outright ugly. She isn’t. But that’s not the point. At the beginning of her career no one at Warner Brothers had any idea what to do with her. Then she had a shock of platinum blonde hair, a slim waist, the sort of beauty that electrifies more than allures, and huge doll eyes flickering with a strange luminosity often communicating more than the paltry scripts given to her. Even this early on, there is a spark of something powerful and the beginnings of what would be the foremost thematic preoccupation in her career: anger. It is because of this, in spite of what the studio system’s machinery sought to shape her into, that she became not only a star but one of the most elemental, powerful actresses ever to grace the screen.
Really and truly, we do not have enough angry female role models here in the West. Men are right to fear it, but I don’t think we ladies should let them tell us to pretend it doesn’t exist.
5. Hey, speaking of the patriarchy, this is a moderately interesting bit of fluff about how superheroes have gotten impossibly jacked over the past couple of decades. I am, believe it or not, very interested in how men feel about the increasingly ridiculous body standards projected on screens around the world. Body image hasn’t historically been as pernicious and insidious for men as it has for women, because men have never (don’t @ me) been valued solely on the basis of their bodies; but all the same, your average schlub must feel something strange when he looks at an actor with an I.Q. of about 92 who’s in better shape than Olympic athletes used to be, who has millions of dollars and all the ass he wants, and he’s just sitting there trying to get a girl on Tinder to respond to his messages. Poor boys.
6. Last week, the A.V. Club did a week of features about Cold War-era culture and entertainment, and it was terrific. My all-time favorite was an examination of how American movies frequently cast big bad Soviet heavies as their villains, but there was no such reciprocation behind the Iron Curtain:
The Soviets did have a “worthy villain,” whom they beat year after year on the big screen: the Nazis. The Soviet Union was the hero who slew the dragon; defeating the Third Reich was a point of national pride. There would never be a more important opponent. The Soviets couldn’t reasonably elevate the Americans to the same status, or even to the status of the White Guard of the bloody Russian Civil War—the USSR’s origin-story villains, in a way.
Seventeen Moments Of Spring—the Soviet Union’s most popular TV miniseries, and a touchstone of Soviet pop culture—was about a Soviet spy in Nazi Germany. Exhaustively long World War II spy stories with way too many characters were surefire successes with Soviet audiences; On Thin Ice, The Shield And The Sword, and Teheran ’43—the top-grossing Soviet films of 1966, 1968, and 1981—all belong to the genre. […] As far as Soviet pop culture was concerned at the peak of the Cold War, the best enemies were all in the past.
At the same time, Americans couldn’t be expected to kill or die for their cause, because—as the 1965 spy film Game With No Rules, set in Berlin at the start of the Cold War, suggests—they didn’t have a cause to begin with. Instead, the rare American antagonists of popular Soviet film were portrayed as pawns of business interests, military-industrial collusion, or, of course, the Nazis. Portraying a monolithic United States of true believers, focused on the eradication of the USSR, would have gone against two essential aspects of the mythology of Soviet propaganda: the defeat of Nazism, which rid the world of an evil the likes of which it would never see, and the notion of communism as a self-evident ideal.
For decades, Soviet media attacked the United States—with varying degrees of subtlety—as a broken society, its failure obvious. Capitalism and Western democracy weren’t values that could inspire the same kind of commitment as communism, and the only reason anyone would fight for them was because they’d didn’t know better.
Get wrecked, America. No, but seriously: the U.S.S.R. had obvious and horrific flaws. All totalitarian states do. Still – they weren’t wrong about the U.S. being an unworthy opponent. We are a young country, and we act like it: much more like a shitty teenager than the world-weary old drunk that is Mother Russia.
7. Because I know you all want an update: Russian studies are progressing, little by little, day by day. The same friend who tipped me off to the Hannibal call for papers was kind enough to send me a set of Russian grammar books (she lived in Moscow for a while when she was a teenager), so I am finally beginning to understand the whys and wherefores behind all the dumb things I’ve gotten wrong repeatedly. Hooray! Anyway, I now know how to say one of the most important sentences, to me, personally: “я люблю ваша собака.”
8. Finally: I am not religious, and I have never been religious, so I don’t have a собака in this fight. Alissa Wilkinson does, however, and she wrote about it very well (for Thrillist, of all the websites):
Fact: I am the intended audience for these movies. I’ve been a Christian all my life, attending evangelical churches, singing in the choir, and helping out at Vacation Bible School. I was homeschooled for religious reasons and grew up in a rural town. When I moved to Brooklyn, I became a communing member of an Evangelical Presbyterian church. Members of my family belong to a smorgasbord of churches all along the Eastern Seaboard, from Southern Baptist to Assemblies of God to Evangelical Free and Roman Catholic. I’m a film critic for Christianity Today, founded by Southern Baptist icon Billy Graham. I hold a full-time faculty appointment at The King’s College, a school founded by a radio preacher in 1938. I now teach undergraduates who were raised in churches across America. I am Christian.
I also love good movies and watch and write about them for a living. I care that they’re good. And the deluge of Christian movies brought on a deluge of bad reviews. It’s practically catechistic among many faith-based devotees and movie producers that mainstream critics pan the films because they “don’t believe in Jesus.” The problems run deeper. Jesus is all right; the screenwriters, not so much.
As onlookers laugh these movies off, I stand in the Internet’s corner, wincing and trying not to rail. I can’t just brush it off like others. Christian theology is rich and creative and full of imagination, that’s broad enough to take up residence among all kinds of human cultures. It contains within itself the idea that art exists as a good unto itself, not just a utilitarian vehicle for messages. (In the Greek, the Bible calls humans “poems” — I love that.) There is no reason Christian movies can’t take the time to become good art. Each one that fails leaves me furious.
I tend to think that anyone and anything that attacks from a place of ideology (and these God-botherer films are almost always what Althusser would have called ideological state apparatuses, or what Gramsci would have called a war of position) will be artistically weak; and therefore weak in substance as well. Ideology is nothing. It is meaningless. To reduce faith to ideology is to rob it of any possible importance – and yet, look at where we are. Every religion and creed out there is dominated by ideologues who shout you down or blow you up if you try to get a word in edgewise. I feel immense sympathy for genuinely religious people, even if I personally can’t understand why they believe what they do.