Friday, January 11, 2008

Attend A Tale of Sweeney Todd

Perhaps the smartest stage musical ever, and the most emotionally complex, “Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” reached American movie screens this Christmas season, 28 years after it first appeared on Broadway. “Sweeney Todd” put off many theater-goers in 1979. Pun intended, much of the production is hard to swallow. Sondheim wrote a musical score at times replicating the harsh factory whistles that rent the air of Industrial Age London. The effect can be both engrossing and unnevering. Sondheim’s lyrics and the characters who sing them, show great wit and clever wordplay, but the tone is not one of levity but of gallows humor most grim.

Director Tim Burton’s films waver from the brilliant (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) to the cheesy (“Mars Attacks!) “Sweeney” marks Burton at his best. Few directors match Burton’s ability to use visual landscapes as central characters in the plot. Sweeney Todd and his partner in murder and cannibalism, Mrs. Lovett, may be sociopaths but grimy, gray, factory-besotted London, serves as the real monster in this story.

In Burton’s production design, London appears as a place where the sun never shines, human faces are pale and haunted and all surfaces are coated with soot and gore. From the grisly opening credits to the poignant, if sanguine, tribute to Michelangelo’s “Pieta” that concludes the film, Burton’s visualization of the stage musical provokes both awe and dread.

Of course, there is no more versatile and engaging actor than Johnny Depp, who plays the title character. Some have faulted Depp for striking one note, one of simmering rage, from the opening scene on. In fact, Depp deftlyc aptures the fatal flaw shared by almost all of the principles in this tale – obsessive compulsion.

The London barber Benjamin Barker returns to London after being falsely charged and convicted of a crime by the cruel and lustful Judge Turpin, who seeks to sexually conquer Barker’s wife Lucy. Sentenced to a life sentence, Barker ends up in an island prison for 15 years while Turpin tricks Lucy into visiting his home during a costume party. The always moralizing Turpin publicly rapes her. After Lucy goes mad, Turpin completes his crime by seizing custody of the Barkers’ daughter, Johanna. Turpin raises Johanna as his daughter. However, the publicly pious judge, who holds an extensive collection of pornography in his library, suffers from violent sexual compulsions, and soon decides he will marry the young girl.

One of the few mistakes made in this film is the deletion of a scene in the stage play where Turpin, overwhelmed with shame for his pedophiliac fixations, flogs himself as he cries, “Mea culpa, mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.” This moment suggests a more complex villain, one whose stunted conscience still wracks him with guilt over his unnatural affections. In the movie, Alan Rickman shines as Judge Turpin, but the character is static and filled with uncomplicated villainy.

If Turpin sexually fixates on Lucy and then Johanna, then Barker/Todd obsesses on vengeance against the judge. Barker is told that Lucy was raped and died after she took poison. Renaming himself Sweeney Todd to conceal his identity, he goes on a killing spree. His erstwhile collaborator Mrs. Lovett (played on stage by Angela Lansbury but in the movie by talented and beautiful Helena Bonham Carter) also feels compelled by irresistible drives. She can think of nothing but her desire to win Benjamin Barker’s affections. Meanwhile, these killers are surrounded by a world relentlessly centered on power and money, whatever the cost. Free will exists nowhere in this tragic universe. In "Sweeney,” characters are imprisoned by their desires and are destined to find no relief.

Hence, Depp smolders from the opening scene to the final curtain and the effect is not tedious but riveting. When Barker first sets back in London, the soon-to-be murderer surveys this graveyard-turned-metropolis and spits out this verbal blast at full-tilt speed:

There's a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world
Inhabit it
And its morals aren't worth
What a pig could spit
And it goes by the name of London.

At the top of the hole
Sit the privileged few,
Making mock of the vermin
In the lower zoo,
Turning beauty into filth and greed.

This is a cry of the hopelessly alienated, of those who feel so wronged by society that empathy with the rest of the human race evaporates and any kind of retribution represents justice. Sweeney Todd becomes the voice of wounded and aggrieved murderers who have become all too familiar in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, from University of Texas sniper Charles Joseph Whitman to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, to the legions of Middle Eastern suicide bombers. This age seems to mass produce spree killers with the rapidity we manufacture bombs. A world dominated by predatory corporations, to whom people are mere commodities, has fractured society, locking all in a homicidal, zero-sum game.

After being cornered into committing his first murder, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett stumble upon a grotesque means to dispose of the corpse. Lovett, who sells what she admits are “the worst pies in London” (at a storefont below Sweeney’s barbershop) notes how hard it is to get quality meat. She observes that a rival’s business is booming at same time the cats in the neighborhood are mysteriously disappearing. “Mrs. Mooney and her pie shop/Business never better, using only pussycats and toast/and a pussy's good for maybe six or seven at the most,” Lovett laments. Todd, meanwhile, has already declared his desire to not simply avenge himself against Turpin but against the entire loveless and irredeemably evil world. The always scheming Lovett suddenly imagines how Todd’s blood lust can be satisfied at the same time she gets access to free meat. Lovett suggests that Todd’s victims serve as meat pie filling. What follows is the most delightfully pun-filled and dark number, “A Little Priest.” Filled with affection for the amoral schemer Lovett, Todd imagines their bloodstained future together:

The history of the world, my love
is those below serving those up above.
How gratifying for once to know
that those above will serve those down below!

. . . Have charity toward the world, my pet.
We'll take the customers what we can get.
We'll not discriminate great from small
No, we'll serve anyone —
Meaning anyone —
And to anyone
At all!

Cannibalism serves as a grand metaphor for 19th century capitalism. Watching Lovett grind Sweeney’s customers into that day’s menu items, it is hard to not think of Halliburton, Blackwater and the other callous war profiteers in Iraq or the modern sweatshop operators like the Nike Corporation. If caught, Sweeney Todd’s murders would send him to the gallows because his method of killing is so intimate. Yet, corporations who greedily consume the lives of their workers somehow get a free pass because they kill, to paraphrase Woody Guthrie, with a fountain pen.

Depp’s supporting cast is remarkable. Helena Bonham Carter provides the most subtle and poignant moment of acting in the movie as she tries to reassure a young boy, Toby, who has come under Lovett’s and Todd’s care. She realizes that Toby, smitten by Lovett, suspects Todd is involved in some evil scheme. Bonham’s face captures the fierce contradictions of Mrs. Lovett, who dreams of a conventional domestic life with Todd and a quasi-adopted son she feels affection for, and the brutal need to avoid discovery of the pie shop’s horrible secrets. Bonham’s heart-wrenching performance accomplishes the almost impossible: making a calculating serial killer a figure to mourn for and pity. Sacha Baron Cohen, meanwhile, is hilarious as Adolfo Pirelli the barber, Alan Rickman again makes a compelling villain. Remarkably, with such a talented cast, Ed Sanders turns in perhaps the strongest performance as the youthful and abused Toby.

Sweeney Todd takes risks and assumes its audience is sharp. Audiences should return Burton’s generosity by embracing this film as both social criticism and high art.

I should note one other interesting, well-acted film, “Charlie Wilson’s War.” This based-on-a-true-story movies tells the story of a boozing, womanizing East Texas congressman who gets gripped by the plight of Afghan refugees and persuades the Congress to generously back Mujahideen insurgents fighting Soviet forces that invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Tom Hanks is charming, Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in another Oscar-worthy performance, and Julia Roberts reveals a harder edge in this tale of CIA blowback. Again, like “Sweeney Todd,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” doesn’t talk down to its audience and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (of “The West Wing” fame) assumes that the audience knows, or knows how to find ou, about the numerous names dropped -- Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Rudolph Giuliani, John Murtha, etc. – throughout the screenplay. This makes one omission in the film offensive.

Hoffman’s character, gruff CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, near the end of the movie, refers darkly to the “crazies” who are taking over Afghanistan as the Soviets retreat in the late 1980s. Those “crazies” are never identified. Hopefully, most of the audience knows that the reference is to the Taliban, who were beneficiaries of the largesse showered by President Reagan and Charlie Wilson during the Afghan War. More specifically, Osama bin Ladin received aid and training from the CIA during this period. The movie ends, however, before we see the tragic consequences for America of Charlie Wilson’s crusade.

Such a well-performed and well-written film should not have pulled its punches. Sorkin’s script, as filmed by veteran director Mike Nichol,s avoids the moral of the story: the follies of American interventionism and the foreign policy ethic that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” “Charlie Wilson’s War” is still well worth watching, but a moment of cowardice diminishes the production.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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