Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Tim Burton as Freud, a commentary on Sweeney Todd

I just recently saw Sweeney Todd with friends at a local mall.

Approaching the movie, I was wary. Malls remind me of a suburban wasteland I care to forget sometimes. Endless rows of stores, chairs and children either leased to a firm fixture (usually an adult or stroller) or scampering about. I reminsced with friends over a similar scene I experienced as a child: Chuckie Cheese’s. That wonderful “party place” chain embodied best by the robotic tableau of the giant, psedu-animated mouse.

Was Chuckie a clown? Perhaps. A mascot? This seemed more reasonable. Chuckie Cheese’s true identity evaded my brothers’ and my grasp. As children, we could only yell and scream like all the others. If goaded properly, we might even sneak a peak at the gears running underneath Chuckie Cheese’s cheerleading back-up singers.

Partly smarting from a promisingly denied desire, our band of tireless infants would run to the skeetball, the pool table, the basketball hoop, maybe even lazer tag. The cheerleader dresses teased my mind, shaming me into channeling sexual drive into aggressive competition. As the mechanical cheerleader kept rallying for Chuckie’s band, I dedicated myself to competing in and winning every possible arcade game.

The production of Sweeney Todd reminding me of films I wouldn’t have seen at the particular arcade I frequented with my brothers. Freak films, the original American genre, were used by arcade runners to bring the thrill of sideshow performers to the emerging middle-class [date?]. As the pool of middle-class grew, so did the number of parents attending with their children—or perhaps an increase number of parents asking about—the arcade. Material needed to become more discreet.

Subjects of the films transitioned from freaks—androgynous individuals, midgets or the physically disfigured—to perhaps a more palpable nature for the maturing audience of the 20th century. Less taboo and more convention. Not enough dilution, however, to mask a base theme constantly repressed in an increasingly mechanized world.

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd captures the freakishness of early sideshow films by distilling the essential themes then retells the story by reproducing his interpretation of an age-old theme before an audience.

With his recasting comes a reinterpretation of the freak in society. No longer are we watching the other, as Burton inserts sly references after sly reference ensuring some comprehension to the contemporality of his unique message.

The best image to begin with is the last. A poignant shot of Johnny Depp bleeding to death over his supposed lover. As the camera pans out, we see the formation of a familiar silhouette. Burton has recreated the famous Michealango sculpture of The Virgin Mary weeping over the body of Jesus. In Burton’s portrayal, however, the character of Mary has been replaced by a man; Jesus, a lady. Proceeding through the film with the gender-switching lens, we find traditional characteristics are assigned to anormative characters. Men of power are homsexually seduced by other men seeking power.

The character of Johnny Depp remains true to assigned gender roles and seems the most honest one. Imagine, if you will, Johnny Depp as representing Tim Burton. It’s not difficult: as Depp has Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s partner and mother of his two children) playing Depp’s partner-in-crime. Depp becomes immensely popular for his work—as an excellent barber or as a vigilante justice, we are never certain.

It is only at the last scene, where Depp is killed holding the lady he assumes to be his lost love, do we realize the tragedy-comedy binary Depp’s character holds. He, just like all those “justly” murdered, has the same character flaw he has judged punishable by death. It is the lady in his lap who now holds the power, yet she is still and quiet: effortlessly catching Depp’s sputtering blood like tears on her lips.

Like for Romeo, it is unclear whether we should cheer at the so-called justified death or instead weep at the life unjustly taken. Ultimately, the last remaining “true” participant is the viewer: the audience member watching the drama unfold on a screen that, if viewed properly, could be a slit through the door. A modern-day peepshow.

Just as there are no true “freaks” in a sideshow—only performers graced with patently individuals characteristics—movies demand a repoiree or atmosphere formerly concanted by the sideshow barker to persuade the viewer of the validity of absurd claims. In the case of movies, the magic trance or environment is best conducted by a talented director.

Indeed, Burton is a magician of sorts: portraying the killing of individuals, people, actors, celebrities in Sweeney Todd with uncomfortable directness. While we know Johnny Depp still lives, Burton produces such an honest portrayal of his death a viewer could very well be fooled, only to be confirmed, perhaps in a magazine or television spot, Depp does indeed live.

Burton’s understanding of the power of film media leaves his message cleverly shrouded. While Carter and Depp’s partnership seems son-mother, the ambiguity of their dynamic seems more Oedipal than traditional. From the perspective of a repressed male in Western society, Sweeney Todd becomes less about Steven Sodenheim, less about the seed text’s plotline and more about Johnny Depp embodying the struggle of the archetypal male dealing with every day life.

Perhaps the best recasting Burton has done is to himself and his occupation as a director. While the director may have traditionally been a shaman, with the requisite powerful grasp on coinsciousness and emotion, Burton has turned his occupation into Freud. As the rest of the viewers emerge from the darkness shaking reality back into their consciousness (it’s just a movie, it’s just a movie) some maintain the skepticism gained at the unsatisfying view of churning gears instead of dilating pussy. To them, the apron of the movie theater hides no objective message to be perceived, quite the opposite. The realization of the so-called positive progression of civilization becomes apparent as an ultimately destructive act of repression of a self.

Sweeney Todd Trailer - These bloopers are hilarious

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