Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Labors of Love

P.S. I Love You gives itself away through its architecture, its framing of Hilary Swank against a shadowed, brick-and fire-escape-ridden New York City landscape: it was sold as a conventional romcom, but the city is closing in on these characters, and the space both opens up and constricts their emotional possibilities in interesting ways. In the opening scene, Swank and Gerard Butler walk quickly up one of these dank and crowded NYC streets, rushing into an apartment building and up a rickety staircase, the cutting and camera movement so quick that we feel like we're eavesdropping. Their conversation has started before the film, and it's a lover's quarrel. She accuses him of embarassing her at her mother's; he claims she doesn't know what she wants; they argue over the possibility of a baby, the supposed foolishness of his career goals, the shallowness of her shoe fetish. The tone constantly shifts, from playful to harsh, from funny to playful, and the camera frames them offcenteredly, as if it has stumbled into the wrong movie and is trying to find a graceful and unobstrusive way to move. Their apartment is small, as befits their economic status, but it acts as another way to cramp and cut the space, to surround the characters and embody their anxieties. That the lovers reconcile at the end of the scene, embrace and make love, can't dispel the quasi-Cassavettes vibe the scene has had. The next scene flashes us into the future, and Butler's character has died.

What follows that scene, and the revelation of Butler's death, is an awkward, tender and fascinating attempt to throw the romcom genre off its game by letting the spectre of death hang around the comedy. P.S. I Love You is often funny, and very sweet-- anchored by a fine cast that includes James Marsters, Harry Connick, Jr., Lisa Kudrow and Gina Gershon, Swank seems to be enjoying a change-of-pace, non-pummelled role--but it doesn't resolve itself in the usual meet-cute cliches and easy answers the form to which the form too often subscribes. Everything in the movie feels melancholy and sad, and even a mid-film escape to the green countryside of Dublin can't shake those earlier moments of cramped urbanity from the frame; Swank's character might find another love in Ireland, but even that love is tentative, and shaped by the loss and dark spaces where we started.

Dark spaces are Tim Burton's true love, whether visual or emotional. His version of Sweeney Todd is thoughtful, respectable, and even, on occasion, fun (although I wouldn't entirely disagree with Jim Emerson, who called it "small," and wrote a brilliant dissection here), but it can't figure out how to translate Burton's natural talent for gothy, emo angst into the more mature and twisted emotional and thematic spaces Stephen Sondheim's score illuminates. By many reports, Sondheim was never entirely happy with Harold Prince's original, Brechtian staging of the play in 1979, which created a factory set full of shadows and empty spaces in order to really highlight the economic context of the events. Fine, but-- with the exception of a wonderful animated opening-- Burton hasn't found anything to replace it (what might it have been like to frame Burton's Sweeney Scissorhands in the asylum setting that John Doyle imagined in his recent stage revival?). The result-- enabled by the tiny and tinny range of stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter-- is a show truncated of both much of its score and much of its insidiousness. A sympathetic Sweeney? Flashbacks? Visualizing (and hence making real) the mad backstory that the stage show often implies is entirely in Sweeney's fevered brain? It's all entirely too literal (if visually impressive), a problem best embodied by Timothy Spall, who plays evil henchman Beetle. Spall's a wonderful actor, and he works hard, but his lip-licking Charles Laughton pastiche, like much of the movie, is simply too obvious: Todd may have been inspired by penny dreadfuls, but it certainly doesn't stay there, and Spall's visually explicit evil is too easy to hiss at. What might it have been like to cast Anthony Stewart Head, who has a small part here as one of Sweeney's victims? Head is an actor with a long stage and musical history, and also brings the intertextual resonance of seven seasons on the very Sondheimian horror fantasy Buffy The Vampire Slayer; more importantly, with his handsome looks, proper manners and posh accent, he'd be far less obvious-- but no less insidious-- an image of terror, evil in a velvet glove. He'd act as a bodily reminder of the show's major point: that we never quite know from which direction love or death might come.

We know where the death is coming from in Marathon Man: everywhere. Libraries, cramped apartments, city thruways, jewelry shops, a dentist chair: everything is a potential space of menace, and no one can be trusted (even the flashbacks aren't safe: Dustin Hoffman's character is haunted by his father's death two decades earlier). Mostly, though, Marathon Man's menace comes from fashion: that mid-seventies vogue for conspiracy thrillers that posited a Richard Nixon on every street corner. I have a great deal of affection for this genre, especially classics like Three Days of the Condor and All The President's Men, and had high hopes for Marathon Man, especially with its fine underplaying by Roy Scheider. But from the dark camerawork to the creeping score to the pained expressions on Hoffman's face, everything in Marathon Man feels forced and telegraphed, to the point where the conspiracy nudges over into parody and the spaces are flattened: if every space is evil, and every character corrupt, it paradoxically lessens the menace, and our investment in the characters' plights. The real love here isn't for history, justice, family or a girlfriend, but for an insistent fatalism, a need to cram every frame with a labored mise-en-scene that smothers just to maintain a facade of hip nihilism.

2 comments:

Liz said...

I've got to take issue with your lumping Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter's singing together; he is clearly much better, though he doesn't have a traditional stage voice, it works. Why would an ordinary barber sing operatically anyway? Helena is terrible. In a proper stage production she wouldn't have a chance, of course, but she's sleeping with Tim Burton, so in she goes! Her look and her acting are perfect, but that can't fix her total inability to sing. At least she can carry a tune...?

I hadn't really given second thought to the casting of Spall before, but you may be right. However, might it not have been a deliberate move to cast everyone in very clear black-and-whites, especially the ancillary characters? It makes it that much more surprising when you find out who the true villains are, and how people can change. The beadle is too repulsive, Johanna too perfect, but painting them in broad strokes might be the only proper way to do it.

I agree that the flashbacks are problematic. What bothered me was that they necessarily must be shoved into the limited time that the narrative songs allow, which greatly over-simplifies what must have really been going on. In the lyrics, there are hints that Todd himself might be partially to blame for what happened, instead of being a literal victim as is portrayed in the flashbacks. But could a film have been made without visual aids for that part of the story? I'm not entirely sure how Burton should have handled it. Is there a direct way to imply that Todd's memories are not accurate, and perhaps that Mrs. Lovett is just feeding his psychosis?

Brian Doan said...

Hi Liz,
Yes, Depp definitely sings better than Bonham-Carter: he's much more expressive in his phrasing, for one thing. But I missed the operatic richness of the stage voices, an unfair comparison, I know, but one which I make to point out how underserved Sondheim's score is. I like your observation about how casting Depp casts it towards a greater realism (that's how I'm extrapolating your comment about "why would a barber sing, anyway?"), but I feel like Tood should be bonkers, not naturalistic. You're right about how the flashbacks mess with the time, too: I hadn't thought of that. And yes, Mrs. Lovett is definitely feeding his psychosis in this version.