Standing with perfect symmetry at the centre of the frame, pop starlet Taylor Swift here embodies divine indifference.
Framed by two other ‘stages of man’ she stands as an aspirational vortex; a totemic reminder of what most of us want but cannot have.
The man to the left, jeans tattered, with the beaten-down expression familiar to so many ‘supporting characters’ in paintings by any number of the old masters, is on his way out: he has tried to scale heights but never managed to reach them, and it is clear that this dawns on him with fresh immediacy every waking day now – now, that he’s realised just how few of those days he has left.
To the right is his younger counterpart, his clothes clean-pressed and chosen with sensitivity to colour-coordination, the shades completing a look of sharp impersonality.
And in the middle stands the figure of Taylor Swift: even when disembodied away from the stage, from red carpet events and curated photo shoots, immaculately – because casually – beautiful, her pose strikingly Christ-like but free of any suffering.
Her weary gaze at the paparazzo; she’s so young and already so jaded by the mechanisms of the world – her world, not ours.
It’s easy to wrench deities and archetypes out of pop culture representatives, partly because they pitch themselves that way. In some sense they can’t help but do this: see how Taylor Swift, simply by standing in front of a gardening shop, lends an aura of something other than what meets the eye.
The thrill of recognition is of course at the heart of what makes celebrity culture tick: bumping into celebrities, even spotting them on the street, becomes a story worth retelling to friends and family; a memory to be cherished, even in this day and age, where the ubiquitous torrent of images of the same celebrities should be enough to make us entirely jaded.
But the thrill of recognising someone who is supposedly ‘important’ – or at least, special enough for us to separate them above ourselves, and even our peers – remains a key instinct, and it’s not just limited to ‘real’ people (though the layers of simulacra through which celebrities are often transmitted to us do complicate this substantially, I’ll admit).
One such example – of a modern talismanic presence in fiction, I mean – is the figure of Hannibal Lecter. Originally a character in the bestselling Thomas Harris crime-horror trilogy of novels (Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal), he has of course been elevated to the status of pop culture royalty thanks to his cinematic outing via Anthony Hopkins.
This was of course a career-defining performance, but it’s worth noting that the constituent elements making up Hannibal Lecter aren’t to be sniffed at. I wish I had a keener, more intuitive grasp of which literary factors, exactly, contributed directly to his creation. Perhaps it’ll serve as a research strand for another day, when I’m in a more industrious mood. Suffice to say that, whoever or whatever may have inspired Harris to breathe life into his archly horrific – and horrifyingly charming – figure, the fact remains that he has comfortably eclipsed them for quite some time, emerging as a trademark fictional character in his own right.
Hannibal Lecter is often citied as one of the great villains in the history of recent narrative. It’s not too hard to see why. He is an intriguing juxtaposition of opposites. Like most outré characters in fiction – the kind of characters whose composition in and of itself is exciting, beyond how they serve the story: think of Dickens – he is fascinating even in isolation. A respected psychiatrist who is also a cannibal. A highly cultivated – ‘cultured’, if you will – self-made man (there is something of an American projection of ‘European’ culture here) who is also in touch – and indulgent of – the most barbaric human impulses.
And now that he has made the jump into television – a medium undergoing its own steady renaissance – his domination has continued apace.
I am a proud evangelist for Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, produced and aired by NBC, in which the eminently watchable, razor-sharp-cheekboned Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen takes on the titular role.
Though its first season was a workable enough affair – relying on the basic thrill of recognition of seeing Hannibal Lecter again to spruce up what was essentially an FBI murder-mystery procedural of the Criminal Minds/CSI ilk – come the second season the series reaches full bloom, allowing the ominous relationship between Hannibal and his ‘charge’ – in this case, a younger version of Red Dragon’s Will Graham – to be exploited for its “fucked-up” potential to the fullest.
“Fucked-up” isn’t a cue for cheap titillation here. Being a prequel series to the trilogy we’re used to, the show by necessity has to ‘stretch’ Harris’ central conceit to fill up more story-time. Ordinarily, this would not augur well: stretching anything beyond its organic narrative confines usually results in stories that remain – to broadly apply the term – ‘unnecessary’; a limp extension of its mother-narrative, a decorative but hollow appendage.
No, “fucked-up” here extends the central taboo at the core of Harris’ stories – receiving useful investigative advice from a cannibalistic murderer, “fighting evil with evil” – to a mythic state.
Wrenched free from the three-act structure of novels and films, NBC’s Hannibal exploits the thrill of recognition to drive these characters to their logical narrative conclusion: away from mere innovative kinks, curios of the crime fiction genre, away from the exigencies of the ‘thriller’ plot structure, and further into the realm of the archetype… the realm of myth.
To be continued.