Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Second Thoughts on SWEENEY, Seconded

So, I'm posting about SWEENEY TODD for the third time in five days. Why not? I've waited twenty-eight years for the movie.

I've seen the movie three times, now, and I've checked web sites that compile reviews from published critics as well as from casual movie fans. So far, the only people who seem to have disliked it are the ones who've been sitting with me. The third time, I went alone, and the audience behind me laughed and audibly gasped at the surprising twists - very gratifying.

Speaking to a friend who asked me today how I liked it, I had to admit to a harsh ambivalence: the movie is everything I ever dreamed it would be, and yet I cannot recommend it to anyone I care about.

This week's WEEKLY STANDARD includes a review of SWEENEY TODD that touches on the revulsion one feels watching the movie, which I experienced as shame at myself for enjoying it. Critic John Podhoretz begins his reflection with reference to Brooks Atkinson's comment in 1940 about PAL JOEY, a musical now recognized as a masterpiece: Despite the merits of the music (Richard Rodgers), lyrics (Lorenz Hart), and performance (Gene Kelly as Joey), Atkinson asked rhetorically, "Can anything sweet come from a foul well?" Podhoretz says, "this remarkable movie [SWEENEY TODD] isn't merely a foul well, but an open sewer."

Yet Podhoretz calls himself a "devotee" of Sondheim's show, having seen it five times and claiming that he can sing the show from start to finish by memory (something I've done on long trips for many years now) and he is "lost in admiration" for this movie, a "brilliant truncation of Sondheim's sweeping three-hour tragedy into a brisk and intimate two-hour musical thriller." Still he, too, uses caution recommending it. He says that people "will be justified in walking out and demanding a refund at the box office."

He offers this bit of justification for the "Vital Gore" (as he cleverly calls it -- two weeks after the magazine's obituary for that crank Gore Vidal):
Burton's decision to be brutal and graphic was a necessary one. If he had held back, Sweeney Todd [and Mrs. Lovett] might come across as lovable. . . and the whole project would have descended into camp.
Podhoretz is one of the critics who praise Helena Bonham Carter. Even the raves have been snarky about her. I appreciate her performance more each time I see it. I'm put off by the doll-like immobility of her face in this film, but that seems to have been a purposeful choice, to strike a fashionable stance called "Goth" in contemporary culture. But her eyes tell a wide range of stories -- notably, when she whispers in Todd's ear, "Silver's good enough for me . . . Mr. T.," and when she's justifying her repulsive plan: "Such a nice plump frame wot's-his-name has . . . had? . . . has!" One critic observed that she's not so much Sweeney's lover as his manager -- and that helped to put her performance in perspective for me. Near the end, as events spin out of her control, her eyes tell that story, too: narrowing with defensive hatred when she orders Toby to "throw the old woman out!" and widening with involuntary panic when the Beadle startles her, and welling with tears when she realizes that the boy Toby knows too much to live.

Even my friends who disliked the movie have singled out young Edward Sanders for his performance as actor and boy soprano in the role of Toby. When the movie seems to have hardened into pure gore and heartlessness, he softens it. He's the one truly human being in the whole movie.

Another critic pointed out a line added for the movie that makes a stronger connection between Sweeney Todd and his nemesis Judge Turpin. There's always been that line about their "fellow spirit" and their "fellow tastes in women," but screenwriter - producer John Logan adds an offhanded comment for the judge moments after we've seen him sentence a little boy to hang:
JUDGE TURPIN: Was he guilty?
BEADLE BAMFORD: If he wasn't, he certainly had done something to justify the punishment.
JUDGE TURPIN: As which man has not?
That is, of course, the same thought that Sweeney sings in "Epiphany": "We all deserve to die."

There's more to say about musical technique. Intrigued by a blog posting ("The Obtuse Melodies of Sweeney Todd" at a blog called "The Playlist"), I read Johnny Depp's comment that Sondheim's melodies are "obtuse." The blog posted my comment about the melodies, as follows:

I wonder if Depp (quoted in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY) was thinking of some other word when he said "obtuse?" That word usually connotes stupidity of the stubborn sort ("ob-" meaning, "in the way of," like an obstruction). "Obtuse" angles are wide and fat, and yet Depp seems to be commenting on the "acute" intervals in the music: literally "sharp"-edged.

I've tried to pick some of the melodies and accompaniment out on the piano, and discover that, playing the melody to one, I'm also playing the accompaniment to the other. Sondheim, a puzzle-lover and a trained composer, likes to cross-reference bits of songs this way.

For instance:

- the main theme played so loudly in the opening credits is hundreds of years old, going to the words "Dies Irae, Dies Illae" ("Day of wrath, day of mourning") of the ancient Catholic requiem.

- The same pattern of notes, played rapidly and softly (in musical terms, an "ostinato" because it's stubborn or "obstinate!") then altered a bit, show up often in the score (associated with the phrase, "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit," and with Mrs. Lovett's song "Wait").

- While that same pattern plays in the low strings during the opening title, we hear some wind instruments play a counter melody above -- and that becomes the second phrase that Sweeney sings in the movie: "Life has been kind to you," and appears all the way through the movie. The melody that fits over those becomes, "There was a barber and his wife. . ."

- and the notes for the words "There was a barber and his wife" also begin each phrase of Sweeney's lovely melody where the movie is most gross, a song called "Johanna," when he sings, "And are you beautiful and pale . . . Johanna?" though the melody turns in another direction.

So maybe Depp meant "angular?" "Obscure" (in the sense of dark)? "Ostinato?" Maybe "abstruse" -- pushed to the limit, difficult to comprehend? All of these: but not obtuse!

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