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Our Appetite for Grossness May Yet Turn the Tables on Decadence

February 13, 2001|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton writes a column for Newsday in New York. E-mail: pinkerto@ix.netcom.com

"Hannibal" is devouring the competition. In its first weekend of release, the sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs" took in $58 million, making it the third-largest Friday-to-Sunday opening in Hollywood history.

That the continued adventures of Hannibal "the cannibal" Lecter, the suave hero-villain portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, can sell so many tickets speaks volumes about the grossed-out state of popular culture today. But tomorrow could be different because social trendlines have a way of zig-zagging, even reversing.

The critics have mostly hammered "Hannibal." USA Today's Mike Clark gave it a mere two stars out of four; The Times' Kenneth Turan called it a "disappointment." Citing scenes in which Lecter convinces a man to cut off his own face and another in which Lecter feeds another man his own brain, the Chicago Sun-Times' Richard Roeper wondered why the film got a mere R rating. "Unbelievable," he snapped. "The mind reels at what Lecter would have to do to earn an NC-17. Ah, for the good old days when graphic scenes of cannibalism would get somebody's attention."

No doubt the filmmakers knew what they were doing; the history of horror movies shows that each year it takes more and more gore to fill the seats. The darkest fright films of the 1930s--"Frankenstein" and all the rest--would cause not a ripple if they were shown today on Saturday morning TV. When "The Exorcist" premiered in 1973, fans were shocked and stunned by the sight of a little girl cursing and vomiting. Yet now, such scenes draw titters among the teenage and even preteen VCR/DVD crowd.

Put simply, as the culture gets used to being shocked, the would-be shockers have to try harder. Recently, the Onion, an online satire magazine, "reported" on the efforts of Marilyn Manson to regain his status as America's No. 1 bad boy. Manson, according to this "story," had become jealous of the success of Eminem, the women-degrading, gay-bashing rapper, and so, anxious to regain his status as "Middle America's worst nightmare," he embarked on a door-to-door tour of suburbia, trying to provoke parents into censoring him. But the joke was that nobody thought he was shocking anymore; "homoerotic sacrilege went out in the late '90s," one grown-up explained calmly.

But, of course, the trivialization of the transgressive can have tragic consequences when life imitates "art." In recent years, deaths and injuries have occurred when kids acted out murderous rock lyrics, or imitated pro-wrestling moves on their classmates, or, most recently, attempted to duplicate the self-destructive high jinks of the MTV show "Jackass."

So where does it end? Does it end with America "slouching toward Gomorrah," as Robert Bork put it in his 1996 bestseller?

Maybe not. In other eras, extreme licentiousness met with extreme backlash. The "decadence" of the late Roman Empire, for example, didn't lead to more decadence; it led to Christianity. Inspired by their vision of a virgin birth and a chaste savior and repelled by the sexual profligacy of the pagans, the new believers went to the other extreme, popularizing celibacy and monasticism.

So is Christianity due for a big comeback in the era of "Sex in the City"? Maybe. But some sort of backlash is brewing against the perceived corruption of this world. The movements against smoking, against chemical preservatives, against genetically modified organisms may seem to be secular, but the fire in the eyes of activists bespeaks a seemingly transcendental inspiration.

And so what's the maximum reaction to "Hannibal" and cannibalism? How does one react most strongly to the vision of man so carnivorous that he hungers for human flesh? The vegetarians have the strongest answer: Don't eat flesh of any kind. Indeed, a Web site put up by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, meatstinks.com, weaves its message into a larger critique of society: Become a vegan, it says, "For the animals, the environment and human health."

Is it working? A Zogby poll, commissioned last year by the Vegetarian Resource Group, found that 4.5% of Americans refused to eat meat. That's a small percentage, to be sure, but it appears to be growing. And as the Christians proved, disgust with the status quo can bring more than a change in personal behavior. It can bring down empires.

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