What can happen in a movie that is so reprehensible that Americans will protest its being offered up as entertainment?
The fact that Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, was a best-selling book and that the movie version not only set records in its opening weekend (that's understandable, given the popularity of the first movie), but has stayed at or near the top of the box-office charts for nearly a month—which pretty much requires positive audience reaction—goes a long way toward answering the above question.
And the answer may be—"Nothing."
At least, a whole series of repulsive scenes in the film don't do it. Some show dogs eating human flesh and others are so disgusting—including one depicting cannibalism—they cannot be accurately described in a family newspaper.
But even worse (yes, worse) is the fact that Hannibal—the movie and the book—does what critics of The Silence of the Lambs (mistakenly, in my book) charged that the Oscar-winning hit that first saw Anthony Hopkins play the ravenous serial killer did.
With its focus on Hannibal Lechter, its reduction of Clarice Starling's heroic role (though not as badly as the book, which in the end makes her an accomplice who—and I'm not kidding—runs off with Lechter as his lover!), Hannibal is definitely guilty of glorifying a serial killer.
In The Silence of the Lambs we shuddered at Lechter's actions. We cringed at the thought that he might be on the loose when we saw the damage he was able to inflict with his mind from the confines of his cell.
But in Hannibal each of Lechter's killings is carried out with a lip-smacking, self-conscious attempt at delicious irony—even more so than in the end of Lambs when we saw Lechter taking off after the evil shrink. In Hannibal Lechter seems almost a force of Evolution ridding the world of the rude, the crass and, in some cases, the evil.
Hannibal, therefore, doesn't merely portray sadism in a way that may be grotesque, but that can be morally defended on some level. Hannibal invites the audience to partake in and enjoy the sadism of its subject. Much like the teen slasher movies of the '80s, this is violent pornography that revels in its blood and takes pleasure in pain. It should get an X rating.
"Lewd... vulgar... evil" anyone?
Considering the enormous payoff being offered, Jodie Foster, screenwriter Ted Tally, and director Jonathan Demme should be lauded for refusing to participate in this atrocity, citing moral problems with it. That's rare in Hollywood.
Anthony Hopkins and the replacements for those who decided not to cash in on sadism, director Ridley Scott (who once again shows his technical skill is not always matched by his good judgment), star Julianne Moore, and generally skilled screenwriters Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List) and David Mamet (The Untouchables, Glengarry, Glen Ross) should not only be ashamed, they should be shamed by their colleagues.
I wouldn't count on it. Most of the reviews have merely focused on the purely technical fact that this isn't a very effective movie either.
But slapping Hollywood around for its lack of moral sense has become almost routine. Perhaps it's time to go even further. It's time, as Hannibal rapidly approaches the $200 million mark in ticket sales, to say something about the people making that possible.
Does anything seem "wicked to us"? Does anything "slap the clammy flab of our submissive consciousness hard enough to get our attention"?
Hannibal should make everyone involved ashamed; but the fact that it is a huge hit, even a pop-culture event, should make all of us ashamed—and a little nervous.