Monday, December 24, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tim Burton has made a career out of fetishizing the macabre. From the jokey treatment of death in Beetlejuice to the necrophilia of Corpse Bride, his dominant strategy has been a self-conscious foregrounding of the freakish. But this foregrounding is often accomplished by making the mere existence of the grotesque the film's salient fact, a point at which the director seems content to stop, as if, having successfully established his cinematic milieu, there is nothing to be gained through any deeper exploration of his material. Burton's primary concern seems to be in making a great show of his own morbidity.

For a filmmaker with Burton's priorities, Sweeney Todd would seem to be the ideal vehicle. The Broadway classic about a murderous barber whose companion serves up his victims as gourmet cuisine allows the filmmaker to place his trademark love of the gruesome front and center without having to dig too far for inspiration. Then, the fact of the film's setting (industrial Victorian London) allows Burton to create a typically fantasized world of gray skies and narrow alleys with the omnipresent smokestacks the dominant presence in the screen's background, a world that rivals any of his other fictional settings (Gotham City, the alternate universe of Beetlejuice) for imaginative grimness. But all this is par for the course for Burton. What defines Sweeney Todd is not so much the film's general morbidity, but a more specific representation of that morbidity, a repeated motif that becomes a fetishistic device for the director: the throat slit.

Sweeney Todd's preferred method of killing - luring his victim into his barber's chair under the pretense of a shave and then cutting his throat - becomes the occasion for a series of lovingly rendered shots of Johnny Depp applying his steel blade to his victims. The throat slit may be an integral part of the film's story, but Burton stages so many examples of this procedure (at one point assembling a montage of six or seven such slits) that he is clearly up to something more specific here. Rather than dismissing the bloody stagings as something peripheral to the film's program, they are so obviously at the heart of what Burton is getting at, that they have to be considered as central to whatever the picture is trying to achieve.

When we are confronted with the prospect of an ostentatiously violent sequence in film, we must ask ourselves what purpose the staging serves. The sequence may be thrilling to the viewer's sensibilities, it may cause us to question our own reactions to onscreen violence or it may be played for laughs. In the case of Burton's throat slits, none of these purposes really fits. Instead, they seem the expression of a very specific form of fetish on the director's part. They clearly aren't meant to entertain or to provoke critical reflection. Nor are they particularly gruesome. Their most salient quality is their frequency. From the moment Depp digs out his old blade and treats it to a loving serenade to the film's final scene when the blade is applied to his own throat, Burton treats the instrument as a fetish-object, filming rapturous close ups of the razor in Depp's outstretched hand long before he has a chance to put it to murderous use. If Burton's typical method as a director is to pick out a handful of morbid or gruesome plot points and provide them with graphic, if stylized, expression, thus confirming beyond a doubt his status as connoisseur of the macabre, then his insistent throat slitting represents a more pronounced expression of this system. Burton's source material already provides plenty of grotesque elements; to make his own hand felt in the staging, he hits on the device of the gratuitously bloody throat slit as an eminently repeatable motif (repeatable because of its centrality to the plot) that he can employ as a kind of artistic signature. The very fact of its superfluity is what defines it as an emblematic gesture.

That Burton is saddled with a particularly weak set of songs from which to fashion his film requires him to hit on different strategies for making his film palatable. One strategy is the casting of charismatic leads Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Another is the creation of a heavily stylized fictional world, a squalid London which looks as good as any comparable screen treatment. But the most welcome strategy is the creation of two grotesque supporting characters who offer a welcome respite to the dreary proceedings. As played by Timothy Spall, Beadle Bamford, toady to the film's arch-villain, is marked by his long greasy hair, rancid smile and patronizing bow. Sacha Baron Cohen too adds some leavening humor as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, whose fake mustache, phony Italian accent and skin-tight pants obscure a devious set of motives and who provides the film with its finest moment when he engages in a public shave-off with Todd. But, terrific as they are, these caricatures aren't enough. What could have been a deliciously nasty picture just turns nasty as Burton settles in the end for an easy cynicism which culminates in Depp throwing Carter into the oven and Depp's young assistant providing one last expression of Burton's imprint by cutting his master's throat. Rather than making some sort of comment about (for example) the brutality of the industrialized marketplace, Burton stages his conclusion as a final expression of his desperately asserted morbidity. Content to push forth a weakly pronounced nihilism which obviates any attempt at providing a coherent viewpoint, he brings down the curtain on a notably downbeat tableau. After all, this is Tim Burton and, in case you hadn't realized, he's one sick fellow.

3 comments:

MRS said...

Again, a fascinating post. Though I very, very strongly disagree with your dismissal of the score, (in my, and many critics, estimation, one of the finest in musical theatre) your intellectual interest in the movie is very unique. I argue however that you may have overlooked the obvious in a quest for subtext: a horror movie about a serial killer barber is going to have a lot of throats being slit. Tout court. Whether there are Freudian symbolic undertones to this particular manner of murder is an interesting topic to discuss, but I don't think it was on Burton's, or Sondheim's, mind. Horror is the most psycho-analyzable of all genres and Sweeney Todd is no exception but, all such considerations are deeply subtextual. The murders here serve the densely plotted story and are necessary to the narrative. Whether the throat slitting has other resonances in Burton's psyche is unknown to me and probably to him. What does need analysis, and what we can without question assert that Burton and Sondheim consciously chose, was the context in which the murders occur.

The fact that the most pronounced sequence of throat slitting occurs while Sweeney sings a gentle lullaby of a song gives the grotesquerie of the action some ironic distance. It also underlines the titular characters total empathetic detachment with his victims. This juxtaposition of sound and image is central to the understanding the function of the violence in Sweeney Todd, which is over-the-top and sickly funny. In fact, while seven throats get slit in the movie during this song, in the play only two get disposed of-a matter of theatrical logistics over anything else. More than any other aspect of the movie, the gushing blood and large body count fully realize what is only glimpsed at onstage.

It's true that the film underplays the political overtones of the show, emphasized emphatically in Hal Prince's original Brechtian production, but, Burton makes up for this loss with focused human drama. Sweeney is a revenge tale and like all good revenge tales the audience is allowed a moment of real satisfaction when the villainous antagonist gets his comeuppance. In Sweeney however the price we pay for this satisfaction is that Sweeney (and by extension, the audience) has become worse than the thing that he takes revenge against. The movie is actually an anti-revenge story masquerading as both lurid melodrama and slasher pic. It recognizes the power of this unfortunate human impulse and, in Johnny Depp's wonderful portrayal, the possessive power of revenge is given human face. "Sweeney Todd" then casts a bleak nihilistic shadow in it's wake. In a year chock-full of movies that explore the problematic nature of violence and it's celluloid representations "Sweeney" perhaps offers the most bizarre analysis of all, but in it's own way, the most moralistic one as well. As the final lyric in the show goes: To seek revenge may lead to Hell/But everyone does it and seldom as well.

andrew schenker said...

I’m not familiar with the stage production, but I’m not surprised to hear that the number of throat slits is considerably less in that version, not simply because they are much more achievable on screen, but because I suspect that Burton took a special pleasure in their staging. I certainly don’t know what they say about his psyche and I’m not trying to psychoanalyze him. But there is something about his insistent staging of this action and all the blade-fetishism around it that I can’t explain away by the simple fact of the plot. Obviously, a serial killer barber film will feature some throat slits, but the loving attention Burton devotes to them is striking; so striking, in fact, that it registers as a central fact of the film. The interesting question is how to best characterize the picture’s violence. While I expected the throat slits to be “sickly funny,” I didn’t find that they worked that way at all. (Perhaps in the play they do). I also don’t think they provide any visceral thrills. They are bloody, but not thrilling. I guess they do provoke a minimal reflection on the viewer’s part if one considers the ironic distance created by the corresponding song, but their sheer number seems so superfluous and yet so meticulously detailed that I don’t know how to characterize it except to explain it as a sort of fetishism.

The story itself certainly plays as an anti-revenge drama, even as we get satisfaction out of the judge’s demise, but the narrative seems a secondary concern behind the musical numbers, the set design and, especially, the violent stagings. Burton may have stripped the stage production of most of its political subtext, but I don’t think he’s really replaced it with any other context of corresponding interest. The bleak nihilism of the film’s ending strikes me as not so much a comment on revenge (although it does address, if too simply, that problem) but a rather easy way of confirming his trademark morbidity. Anyway, I liked your reading of the film. You have a good understanding of the way the music works in conjunction (or at deliberate cross purposes) with the film’s visual presentations and I found your comparison between film and play illuminating.

Cesar Fernandez D said...

Attend the Tale! This is a major must-see film. It's first and foremost a musical, with essentially all the characters singing throughout, but it's also horrific and hilarious. If cheerful musicals aren't your thing, never fear – this is Sweeney Todd – a very darkly comic and tragic tale. This is a faithful but unique adaptation of the award-winning and much beloved stage musical by Stephen Sondheim, with few cuts and changes. Contrary to some musicals where the songs aren't necessary to the basic plot, these 'meaty' songs tell the tale. Sweeney Todd is a throat-slashing barber (an urban legend) obsessed with revenge. His accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, is smitten with unrequited love and brings new meaning to "waste not, want not" in her meat-pie bakery. consulta online medico online pediatra online medico online doctor online dermatologo online veterinario online veterinario online psychologist online consulta online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online psicologo online doctor online psicologo online abogado online abogado online Tim Burton is at his best, artfully meshing the powerful and beautiful music with stunning visuals. He successfully creates a much more intimate atmosphere than can be achieved on stage, with characters up-close and personal, and he makes brilliant use of light/dark contrasts and color. Although none of the actors (except Kelly) are professional singers, each character is portrayed very effectively with the acting and singing combined. The cinematography, set designs, costumes, and makeup are all striking. The horrific moments are graphically brutal and gory – Burton does not skimp on the blood, and it even becomes intentionally over-the-top (the camera lens is splattered at one point). But it does not seem gratuitous in that it IS the reality of the story, and it also has a metaphorical role. The violence IS disturbing, but you can cover your eyes if you're squeamish (it's only a few scenes). There are also hilarious moments – especially "The Contest" with a rival barber (Cohen), and the dreamy "By the Sea" sequence.