Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Some scattered thoughts on Sweeney Todd (2007)

While Sweeney Todd (2007) is impressive in many ways (e.g., the ghastly kills are amazing, esp. the bodies hitting the basement floor; the horror side of ST is in great shape), a lot of the fundamental choices the film makes are just not to my taste. These choices may work for someone else, but not for me. Here are some of the things I find off-putting.

1. Extreme digital color manipulation. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. I like real colors, light to bounce off things, and darks to be real absence of such light. Burton here, like most modern directors doesn't do that, rather he uses post-production to squash color spaces down to just a few frequencies, swathes of the few allowed colors are all effectively painted on later rather than photographed, and darkness and shadow is rendered by a kind of soupy dispiriting gloom that lacks any of the interest and tension of real dark (see, e.g., classically things like Dirty Harry (1971) and Klute (1971) and Godfather 2 (1974), and for a contemporary case, see the final act of 4 Months 3 weeks 2 days (2007).

2. Virtual Camera/CGI overload. Can't take it anymore, my eye just rejects it. So, for example, one never for a minute believes the sets of ST the way you do in such setting-comparables as The Elephant Man (1980), Oliver Twist (1947), or Topsy Turvy (2005). For another example, ST begins with a by now thoroughly done-to-death, CGI Rube-Goldberg-machine title sequence. (I hereby call for a moratorium on the type!).

3. Movie Musicals without dancing (esp. in English) make me mad. If people are going to break into song I want them to move. It's the great movie musical tradition, and in my view any director should to think very hard before departing from it: any reason for not moving tends to be an argument against singing too.

4. F-ing Sondheim. S's songs here don't have melodies. There's not a single song in ST that anyone can whistle or even remember. ST is an interesting experiment by Sondheim, but it's a musical failure in my books. Mine is doubtless a minority view, but for myself I'd trade the whole of Sondheim's songbook here for a single Consider Yourself or I Could Have Danced All Night or Don't Rain on My Parade, let alone for a true singing and dancing tour de force such as Step In Time! I guess that complaint marks me as some sort of movie musical conservative. For me, no matter what Sondheim gains by eschewing melodies and memorability, the loss is so great that it can't make sense.

5. Narrative experiments that don't work. I frankly hated, could not believe that we didn't go back to Joanna and Anthony after Todd's death. Making the final time we see them together be a leave-taking and clock-starting moment ('I'll be right back. Half and hour and we'll be free.') makes the film feel incomplete. This was so bizarre, I immediately rewound the film,sure that I must have missed something in that case. But, no... it's just ridiculous film-making. (But see below for a slight proviso)

6. London/humanity as a hellscape meets melodramatic affectation. Huh? The film pursues a dual course of presenting lots of melodramatic twists and turns and coincidences - that is it participates very knowingly in the Penny Dreadful genre - but it also tries to provide a serious misanthropic/dark/skeptical analysis of (an early draft of) the modern world/metropole, i.e., that it's a hellscape where everybody feeds off everybody else (where Todd just makes that feeding completely literal). But these two sides of the film pull apart - the film essentially asks to be taken seriously and not-so-seriously at the same time, which is incoherent. Theater is a less realistic medium than film so may be able to get away with this sort incoherence more. For one very minor example of how the different impulses at work in the film cause chaos consider that while the boy Toby waits in Lovett's meat-grinding basement (he's actually imprisoned but doesn't realise that yet), he only starts to suspect that something terrible is going on when he eats a pie and discovers half a finger-tip (with a whole nail) in it. Only subsequent to that does he, as it were, look up and notice all the obviously human body parts going into the grinder. This is a gross-out, Penny Dreadful (to which stupid Hollywood stuff is the heir!) plot-point. But, it cuts against the kind of reality that the dark/skeptical analysis needs: we're supposed to believe that Lovett's pie-business is thriving at this point (that it fits beautifully with the society) so she must have figured out some way of preventing identifiably human material from getting into the pies - since it's game over, everyone will be hanged if there are any mistakes on this front. So, the chance that Toby has of hitting a pie with an identifiable element = the chance that Lovett's whole enterprise collapses (if Toby hadn't eaten the pie a paying customer would have and then the whole game would be up in any case), and that's to say that Toby's discovery of a finger (as opposed to him noticing what's going into and is lying on top of the grinder) doesn't make sense except as farce. What happens deepens the farcical-ness: Toby apparently escapes and we see Todd and Mrs Lovett walk directly out a door in the back wall of the basement into the sewer system to check the boy's obvious escape route. Some prison! Of course, Toby didn't escape that way and is instead under a grating under the floor in the basement, but, that just makes him thick for not walking out the door we just saw Todd and Lovett go through.

7. Good but v. irritating twists. Sweeney Todd ends up slashing the throat of a crazy street person who turns out to be his long lost beloved wife. But, hang on:
(i) If the wife didn't die from her poisoning herself then surely the Judge who so pursued her would have known about/noticed that?
(ii) That means Mrs Lovett's been taking an incredible risk all along by having the crazy lady hang around since she might recognize Todd at any time or he might recognize her (or both)
(iii) Lovett tells Todd at the beginning of the film not just that the wife took poison but also that people avoid renting her room upstairs because they think it's haunted. Whether we take that literally (they think the dead person's ghost haunts) or metaphorically (they think just that there's something creepy about the room) somebody's death not just their non-fatal self-poisoning would seem to be the predicate on which such reactions would be laid. But all of that's to say that Lovett actively deceives Todd rather than just omits/elides some of the truth about Todd's wife.

In sum, ST went out of its way to skew away from my own sensibilities! Harrumph.

More on Point 5 and Point 6 above
After rescuing Joanna, Anthony drops her off at Todd's work-area for half an hour while he arranges a coach etc.. But that's crazy - it would always leave her in jeopardy of various sorts (including recapture). Rather, Anthony should not let Joanna out of his sight now he has her - she should go with him to arrange the coaches given that she now has a very good boy's disguise. Checking the play on this I see that there Joanna herself makes all the points to Anthony that I just raised, but he waves away her legitimate concerns. So this is a case in which the very self-conscious manufacture of melodramatic absurdity going on even more with Sondheim than with Burton's film. The more objectionable/absurd a plot point the better given this approach I suppose.

When one looks at the play's script, e.g., here, the sorts of reunions of Anthony and Joanna that occur there that don;t occur in the film are pretty minimal. In the epilogue A&J sing specifically together but they don't discuss themselves at all, rather they just contribute lines to the collective obit/eulogy for Todd. And in the main action they say nothing after they enter with police to hear Toby's post-murder ravings. The stage direction is for Joanna to give a little cry and for Anthony to throw his arm around her.

Perhaps more significant, the counterpart of the movie's 'last time we see them together scene" has a very different feel: it's superficially at least, quite a lot more positive/hopeful than the movies scene.

In the film Joanna quasi-chides Anthony with something like:

So you think we'll run away and all our dreams will come true, but I don't have dreams, only nightmares.... The ghosts never go away.
to which Anthony has no reply other than to set the clock running as we've mentioned:
I'll be right back. Half and hour and we'll be free.
And the film's Joanna is grim and smileless as they part.

In the play the clock is mentioned early on in A&J's interaction, and things run on from their with general lovers' sweetness, e.g., pouts and smiles between them according to stage directions. A&J sing overlappingly about how soon be seeing the wonders of the world, how they'll wed in France etc. before eventually they'll come back to London, and Anthony's parting line to Joanna becomes:

And I'll be back before those lips have time to lose that smile.
So the film amps up the miserableness I'd say, or perhaps makes the lovers less delusional. If the latter construal is true then maybe that constitutes a deeper sense in which the film ties up the lovers' story is tied up than I earlier gave it credit for. (This is the proviso I mentioned above.)

The Rape Scene in the play and in the film
The rape scene in the play is much more explicit/shocking/completely unambiguous than it is in film. The key horrific stage direction is:
the JUDGE appears, tears off his mask, then his cloak, revealing himself naked. The wife screams as he reaches for her, struggling wildly as the BEADLE hurls her to the floor. He holds her there as the JUDGE mounts her and the masked dancers pirouette around the ravishment, giggling

A couple of remarks. First, just as Hitchcock and Stefano didn't and couldn't include Marion's beheading or her nude shimmy in front of the bathroom mirror before hopping into the shower from Bloch's novella, so Burton pulled back from the hardest R-rated possible version of ST (one might even have had to go out unrated). Second, that Burton considerably amped up the play's non-sexual, horror violence while playing down the sexual violence seems to confirm the truism that Hollywood (even in the person of its most powerful and eccentric directors) is much more comfortable with violence than it is with sex. (The film does add the 'Judge's porn collection' scene/speech, but it also leaves out the play's other most shocking scene: the judge spies on his adopted daughter through the keyhole, stripping to the waist, scourging/flagellating himself, finally climaxing right there at her door! Thus, porn notwithstanding, the general claim that film downplays the play's sex but escalates its violence seems secure.)

Note too that the film muddles the chronology leading up to the rape. The play makes it clear that the chronological sequence is:

1. Beadle and Judge notice pretty wife in the window.
2. She foolishly/naively allows them to flirt with her etc while remaining demure herself.
3. They respond to this by arranging to have her husband arrested and transported.
4. They then come back to implore her to step out with them.
5. Eventually she caves leading directly to her rape at the masked ball

The movie doesn't make this sequence clear and instead, if anything, encourages the audience to think that the Judge first spotted the wife in the street, and that all the window stuff between the wife and the Judge&Beadle happens after they've got the husband out of the way. That is, the film suggests that the sequence might be:

0. Judge spots pretty wife in street with Barker

That the film allows this mistake feels like a botched adaptation to me. While we may figure out the right sequence in the film, we may not (I didn't). And if we don't then the Judge's wariness about Joanna's positioning herself at the window makes a lot less sense (I'm only figuring it out now!). The adapted screenplay needed more work I'm pretty sure.

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