Among Life’s Perplexing Oddities
as analyzed by Muzz Zennick
Lesson Seven: in which we compare a bloody popular film with the current presidential campaign
Back in the summer of 1992, when the media was hanging Bill Clinton out to dry about pot, women and such, my then boyfriend announced that he was voting for him, saying, “He’s a man of my generation.” A refresher: the nation was at peace; people had somewhat more sex, drugs, rock and roll, and AIDS tests on the brain; a lot of people wanted to see George I spirited out of the Oval Office. Thousands protested during the Democratic Convention in New York. I was on Madison Square Garden’s floor when Clinton and Gore gave their acceptance speeches. That’s show business.
Such nostalgic reverie brings me to a favorite escape from the menacing outside world and its omnipresent, 24-hour news cycle: the movies. In the month that held both Super Tuesday and the Oscars (not to mention the incongruity of what’s in between, Valentine’s Day) there were dozens of films, including a violent crop of award contenders. As the bloody primary races were taking up a bit too much of my attention, I found myself comparing them to that chronicler of nightmares, Tim Burton, and his startling, blood-spattered adaptation of Sweeney Todd. Drawn in like a moth to a flame, the film’s images, musical score and metaphors played in my head for months afterward.
Maybe because it’s Halloween or maybe it’s the manner in which my mind makes connections, but I’ve circled back to Sweeney versus the election. Nearly Election Eve, just how might one compare the twain? A few correlations sprung to mind.
Vengeance is mine vs. charmless authority: Other than the obvious (that this type of revenge story turns up in our equivalent Penny Dreadfuls to this day) I was thusly reminded of both vengeful and naive protagonists and antagonists. When considering the current denizens of the land’s highest offices; it’s not just that charm did not take a nation so far; but also that said duties should have been so much more conscientious than rancorous. And without a doubt, certain current seekers of the nation’s highest offices are projecting to some degree or another of, shall we say, insulation, which bade me to ask a simple question: To whom do we ascribe the duty of vengeance?
But let us indulge in film reverie for a moment. The audience is hooked as Sweeney sings to a box of knives, an inkling of events yet to come. (With Tim Burton behind the wheel, viewers are assured of a bumpy ride into a Gothic morass of injustice and madness.) The tale turns Darwinian; Judge Turpin is only a mirror of the personification of ruthlessness, as even more perverse demons are unleashed when the unjustly accused Sweeney returns to settle old scores. What we’re not expecting is the resulting Greek tragedy, minus the chorus that was part of the original show. Sweeney takes his revenge and receives retribution in return; the audience gets on a Dickensian lorry that drops them off somewhere near Aeschylus Road. Taxi back, Ma’am?
On to an election reverie? The candidates had stated that they were prepared for a fair fight, but the ensuing carnage has become a morass, particularly in the past few weeks, with an emphasis on settling scores and ‘energizing the base’ by resorting to a lowest common denominator mentality that hasn’t been seen in politics in at least oh, say, four years? Lost are the true plot threads: two bloody wars in progress and on at least two others that could ignite; on myriad conflicts and tragedies that America chooses to ignore, or on the ever burgeoning domestic woes both economic and social, to name but a few items that top the list.
Who’s an anti-hero: Some esteem a likeable hero; some esteem anti-heroes even more. Sweeney is a unique anti-hero. His ethical stance isn’t exactly complex, but by the time the villains get their due, you’re glad for it, even though the story is clearly headed off a cliff. There aren’t any heroes in his world.
Are there heroes of Campaign 2008? So far, few of the candidates are up to the classical definition the word HERO: one of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities. One must wade through many swamps to get to the clear ethics of a candidate in any contest. Among the Democrats, Mr. Obama comes closest to cutting a valiant figure in that he has remained graceful under extraordinary pressure and attempted vilification by his rivals, but there are some legitimate questions about the swamp.
Meanwhile, the Republicans appear to be running on a plethora of skeletal story lines not to mention the swampy waters they inhabit. Mr. McCain is running on a veteran as hero platform; one would hesitate to argue his military record and those that have tried to do so haven’t gotten very far with it. I am not sure what became of the man who cut an independent figure for so many years; surely this Mr. McCain is not an anti-hero, much as he’d like to be thought of slashing the metaphorical throats of eight years of Republican error. It seems that Mrs. Palin would like to be thought of as a sort of anti-hero, but she’s not even close, and she does not possess the comic, even mavericky, charm of a Mrs. Lovett. On the other hand, she may bake a mean moose pie. Maybe she can open a little shop somewhere.
Poor Ron Paul: he was the closest guy the GOP had to an anti-hero, if only for the manner in which he has been able to raise money via the Internet, and that to the extent that it irritated his rivals. He can’t win on write-ins.
Were grace to attend this contest, we may yet witness the still greater evolution of the political character that this country really needs, a level of true, mission-driven character that continues to thrive after the election. (Surely it’s high time for a higher standard for all of our protagonists, whether in politics, business or wherever.) I hope that Mr. Obama can live up to the heroic expectations; he certainly is trying, sanely and calmly, though the hatred that some espouse sometimes drowns out his message, which is a horror movie all its own. And it would be nice to see Joe Biden in a higher profile role, as he often radiates heroic charm in a low-key way.
Here’s another thought: I’d like to see the outright end to the playground bully mentality of most mass media pundits, who are making a bloody mess of things. Most of them are so over the top, it’s ridiculous. Even Keith Olbermann, who was for a time the closest thing we’ve got to a mass media anti-hero, really ought to be attended by the ghost of Edward R. Murrow long before Christmas Eve (confidential to KO: attend a specter who may appear in your chambers while smoking a vaporous cigarette on Monday night.) As a radio brat and fly on the wall, it’s gotten so gory; I’ve sometimes had to look away even from Mr. O’s show. Bright spot: Rachel Maddow’s new program just gets better and better: anti-heroine 2.0?
Resolutions for the remainder of 2008: (1) Read more (2) Stop yelling at the TV. Perched in this New York nest, a 1901 East Village walk-up where the oldsters still have ‘terlits’ in the hallway, I observe the neighborhood I’ve lived in and loved for twenty years disappearing as local, family-owned businesses close one after the next. The heroes of my daily life heroes are fed up, but deep down, they’re waiting. I’m waiting. Who will lead the team that solves the nation’s economic perils? Who will be able to move the troops out of harm’s way and actualize John Murtha’s 2005 call to end the war in Iraq? (Murtha is his hometown’s hero-to-some-villain-to-others U.S. Representative. What’s going on in Pennsylvania’s 12th district is fodder for many a tome on politics. They man who brought jobs to a town that once boasted 25% unemployment is vilified. Did you see the guy with the sock monkey at Mrs. Palin’s October 11th event? Well, that’s Johnstown, PA and it set off a nasty chain reaction.)
Campaign 2008 has been a horribly bumpy ride. The war protests of 2003 have dried up; in this time of economic crisis, people are far too anxious to have much of anything else on the brain. Will the USA be dropped off a cliff? Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, women and politicians? May it not involve a tragedy of Grand Guignol proportion . . .
On a cold winter’s day, we saw Sweeney Todd for a second time in New York’s majestic Ziegfeld Theater; with its blood red walls, haunted house lighting and magnificent sound system, it was the perfect venue for this brilliant film, even better than the resurrected Byzantine fantasy in our neighborhood. From the opening swell of organ chords to the last bloody drop, Sweeney was even better the second time around. (As is the will of all markets, its six-week run ceded to a Hannah Montana movie, but that’s another story.) Ah, Johnny Depp in the title role, with a dichotomous anti-hero glint in his eyes, now there’s a man of my generation, as is Tim Burton, the gifted (if gory) teller of tales. Random thought . . . nah; it’s just as well that they’re not running for office.
Barack Obama is a man of my generation, too; he’s run a brilliant campaign. I find Mr. Biden to be more a man for all generations than is Mr. McCain, who could have used fewer nasty metaphors, not to mention fewer of the blood thirsty supporters who have circled the campaign like hawks. As far as Mrs. Palin is concerned, though she and I are nearly the same chronological age, I cannot identify much common ground, unless her story about shopping at thrift stores is verifiable.
Sweeney Todd’s enduring legend is glum; yet I find it an unexpected jolt of inspiration for these strangest of days. I even splurged on the collector’s edition DVD. We watched it last night, All Saint’s Day. I have to admit that we bought a new television on sale yesterday, set it up and popped ST in to inaugurate the set. We wanted to do something to keep the economy going; for years, I didn’t have a TV, and I’ve never had a new one. Long before the voluntary simplicity movement had a name, there was another term: ‘used.’
So why would we see a movie for a third time when we could be reading up or watching the latest political coverage? Well, this new TV has a great picture and even better sound. The film really is fabulous, if horribly bloody; but then again, I knew when to look away. Unlike election reporting, candidate speeches or the news, Sweeney Todd features stage blood, and worst bits didn’t come as a surprise.