Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 24, 2007 7:29 pm 
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Location: California/NYC
Published on Cinescene.

A brush dipped in blood and soot

Here's a great Christmas idea for you: a movie about a man who as revenge against a cruel judge in Victorian London kills dozens of people, whom his wife grinds up and bakes into meat pies that she sells from her shop to a satisfied and unsuspecting public. And you will lose count of how many times you see this hero sit customers down in his barber chair and slit their throats, with the necks opening up and the blood spurting out in bright red fountains in the dim gray room.

That doesn't sound very festive, does it? But this is a sophisticated modern musical, by Stephen Sondheim, adapted to the screen by Tim Burton with the assistance, among others, of his male muse, Johnny Depp, and his wife, Helena Bonham Carter (as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, his landlady, then wife, and baker of the pies)—not to mention that arch-villain, Alan Rickman (as Judge Turpin, the villainous magistrate) and that facetious bogeyman, Timothy Spall (as Beadle Bamford)—with a newly notorious comic scoundrel, Sasha Baron Cohen (as the mountebank Signor Adolfo Pirelli) thrown in for good measure. And they all sing, even though they're not singers by profession (though a couple of the cast members clearly are—or so you'd think to hear the lusty boy soprano of Ed Sanders (as the workhouse orphan, Toby).

Burton is an artist of hermetic imaginary worlds. Fortunately. Why there has to be quite so much blood, why there must be so many gleaming silver razors (they themselves key players, featured in the film's publicity) drawn across exposed throats I don't really know, but we grownups are well aware none of it is real. What it has is not the crude horror of some kind of numbingly endless snuff flick, but a unified vision, a world whose look has awesome artistic validity. And it's a vision whose artificiality, thank God, is further underlined by the prevalence of music and by how often the dialog is sung, not spoken. But more than a world of sound, it's a world of image, and if anything makes this a great film it's the fact that nobody west of Prague has ever painted so beautifully on film with a brush so heavily, voluptuously dipped in blood and soot.

The dark, gloomy, overcast, oozing, perfectly hopeless London is the real star of Burton's new film. Everything else is of a piece with it. It's remarkable even how much the faces of Depp and Carter grow out of it, like the face in Edvard Munch's The Scream, and grow out of each other. They have the same cheekbones, the same white pallor and grainy dark raccoon eyes. Without being digitalized or rotoscoped or motion captured, Johnny Depp's face becomes a thing as grainy and drawn-looking as an image by Edward Gorey or Charles Addams. But this is a world more fanatical and obsessive than theirs. It's not whimsical; it's driven. It's not spooky; it's horrific. I guess maybe Depp has always had the gift of negative capability, of being the more impressive for being not quite there, as much in the William Blake of Dead Man as in Edward Scissorhands. One of his gifts is that he's so powerfully present and conscious in every frame, and yet at one remove. His character is not a personality but a creature possessed by one object: annihilation, of others, and chiefly of his arch-enemy, and then of himself.

Helena Bonham Carter has a similar, if lesser, quality in seeming a busybody, busy with her work, her pie-making, her roach-squashing, always in motion, urging on, helping out, enabling, encouraging. Eventually they mate; they marry; but he is barely present, mumbling assent and slightly leaning forward with a little peck to acknowledge the knot is tied. And back to his work. He's like Jonson's maniac of greed, Volpone: "Good morning to the day—and next, my gold!" For this reason the film seems short and simple. Burton's achievement is that his work has never seemed less fussy. He has always been a master of detail, but it all fits into the whole here, as if everything happened inside a dark box—except for the wonderful short looks outside at the long vistas of narrow streets and the dark skies. (And it is said that the movie otherwise "opens up" the musical—with the insane asylum scene, for instance.) Anyway, what makes this a great movie is its focus, and its utter lack of distraction. And when the camera moves back a long way, those are the best, the most surprising, moments, freezing the scene into a painting. The final shot of Sweeney has been justifiably called a Pietà. Those are self-conscious tableaux, but the movement is swift, the editing is sure.

This is a Victorian costume show--a horrible permutation of the Dickensian vision of the workhouse, the orphan, the perversion of justice, the greed of the powerful, the dominance of the wicked man, the long suffering of the weak, the reversal of fortune. I'm not clear why Sondheim is reckoned such a superior writer of musicals, so original. Is this original, or just a logical extreme? Isn't every ugly thing turned into a musical now; haven't musicals been dark from The Threepenny Opera to Les Miz and beyond? Sondheim's lyrics sometimes seem prosy and repetitious, his tunes lightweight. Is it a sign of sophistication that Sondheim's tunes aren't catchy—or just a sign that he hasn't the gift of writing catchy tunes? None of that finally matters though, because whatever failings Sondheim may have as a pure maker of musicals all the better enable Tim Burton to make Sweeney Todd his own: Sondheim's music does not overwhelm his film but simply blends into it.

There isn't much more to say. Why do I like this? I don't. It's horrific. Like another of the year's best American films that's also ugly and violent—No Country for Old Men—it's just wonderfully crafted. Cocteau said Art produces ugly things which most of the time become beautiful; fashion produces beautiful things that most of the time become ugly. Which is Burton's Sweeney Todd? Perhaps a work of art; and so even its horror in our topsy-turvy world may become beautiful.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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