Sunday, April 20, 2008

"its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit"

Last evening I finally had the opportunity to watch Tim Burton's film version of Steven Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. I was excited about this film even before its release, but, given the pace of my life, I was not able to see it in a movie theater. Like all Tim Burton films, Sweeney Todd is visually stunning. I recall his film, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, one of the most visually and aesthetically pleasing films I have ever seen.

I remember watching and loving a recording of the Broadway play, Sweeney Todd, featuring Angela Landsbury as Mrs. Lovette, while in high school. I have to say that the film brings out the darkness of Sondheim's vision more acutely. Starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, both of whom sing the music for their respective roles, the film has what I would call a punk, bordering on goth, aesthetic, which makes the film gripping. You really cannot go wrong with this tandem, along with Alan Rickman, who is now the film villain par exellance, playing Judge Turpin (as in turpitude), and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) as the slimey fake Pirelli.

Of particular note is the song, sung by Depp and Bonham Carter in Mrs. Lovette's Pie Shop, A Little Priest. This song, along with No Place Like London, captures well Sondheim's dark view.

TODD: For what's the sound of the world out there?
LOVETT: What, Mr. Todd? What, Mr. Todd? What is that sound?
TODD: Those crunching noises pervading the air!
LOVETT: Yes, Mr. Todd! Yes, Mr. Todd! Yes, all around!
TODD: It's man devouring man, my dear!
BOTH: And [LOVETT: Then] who are we to deny it in here?
TODD: (spoken) These are desperate times,
Mrs. Lovett, and desperate measures are called for!
LOVETT: Here we are, now! Hot out of the oven!

It was Guy Fawkes who said, in 1604, "The desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy" perhaps echoing, according to the Oxford Dictionary in quotations, the Latin axiom "extremis malis extrema remedia".

Of course, they take "man devouring man" to whole new levels:

TODD: The history of the world, my love -- . . .
Is those below serving those up above . . . ow gratifying for once to know . . . That those above will serve those down below!

I was not disappointed. Sondheim's dark vision captures well the alienation of the world, which is appropriate in light of yesterday's brief allusion to original sin. Of course, for Sondheim, hope must be checked at the door of reality. Even when the beautiful Johanna is rescued from Bedlam and taken to the barber shop by her beloved, the sailor Anthony, only to be left to await his return while he goes to procure a carriage to spirit them away to live happily ever after, when Anthony tells her "When we’re free of this place all the ghosts will go away.", she looks at him, according to the stage directions, "very intensely" and says: "No, Anthony, they never go away."

This is view laid out in a bare manner at the very beginning, with the barber Barker, having taken the nom de meutre Sweeney Todd, returning to London after having been at sea, singing his part of the song No Place Like London, a London captured well and more hopefully by Charles Dickens:

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 can spit . . .
At the top of the hole sit the privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo
turning beauty to filth and greed...

Sondheim's vision, especially as realized by Tim Burton, is at once dark and challenging. "It didn't say much, but it only confirmed that the center of the earth is the end of the world." Am I plagued by caring? I don't think so.

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