Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 30, 2007

COMING SOON: Sweeney Todd on Screen

A few select critics and industry types (Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner was among those in attendance, on the arm of his husband, Entertainment Weekly‘s critic Mark Harris) were finally shown director Tim Burton’s long-gestating big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Grand Guignol Broadway opera Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street last night at Lincoln Square on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. (The film opens on December 21.) Though macabre violence is at the heart of the story, Burton takes it too far. I haven’t seen a bloodier film since Hostel: Part II.

Stage directors challenged to deal with Sweeney’s throat-slashing make a virtue of not having cinematic special effects at their disposal; I once saw a production in which an opened artery was conveyed by a red ribbon set free to flutter at the throat. Burton’s Sweeney paints the town, the screen, and maybe the whole multiplex red. Even Brian De Palma’s brutal Iraq film Redacted, which realistically depicts a Jihadist beheading a kidnapped American serviceman, doesn’t depict the actual throat slashing, though a woman in the audience screamed when I first saw that film. Burton does.

As played by a riveting Johnny Depp, Sweeney makes arteries gush like fountains, with stage blood spattering his face and arms and even the camera lens, then dumps the bodies to the cellar with sickeningly awful noises as the corpses plummet to land head first on a cement floor. Women at Lincoln Square were seen covering their eyes during some of the goriest moments.

Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, to my mind one of the towering works of art of the 20th century, is a delicate balance of the comic, the horrific and the tragic, and it loses some of its comic pull when its violence is this explicit. The movie is rated R, but it isn’t hard to imagine a faithful version that would earn a PG-13 if it left the slashing largely to the imagination. And that would suffice.

A few select critics and industry types (Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner was among those in attendance, on the arm of his husband, Entertainment Weekly‘s critic Mark Harris) were finally shown director Tim Burton’s long-gestating big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Grand Guignol Broadway opera Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street last night at Lincoln Square on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. (The film opens on December 21.) Though macabre violence is at the heart of the story, Burton takes it too far. I haven’t seen a bloodier film since Hostel: Part II.

Stage directors challenged to deal with Sweeney’s throat-slashing make a virtue of not having cinematic special effects at their disposal; I once saw a production in which an opened artery was conveyed by a red ribbon set free to flutter at the throat. Burton’s Sweeney paints the town, the screen, and maybe the whole multiplex red. Even Brian De Palma’s brutal Iraq film Redacted, which realistically depicts a Jihadist beheading a kidnapped American serviceman, doesn’t depict the actual throat slashing, though a woman in the audience screamed when I first saw that film. Burton does.

As played by a riveting Johnny Depp, Sweeney makes arteries gush like fountains, with stage blood spattering his face and arms and even the camera lens, then dumps the bodies to the cellar with sickeningly awful noises as the corpses plummet to land head first on a cement floor. Women at Lincoln Square were seen covering their eyes during some of the goriest moments.

Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, to my mind one of the towering works of art of the 20th century, is a delicate balance of the comic, the horrific and the tragic, and it loses some of its comic pull when its violence is this explicit. The movie is rated R, but it isn’t hard to imagine a faithful version that would earn a PG-13 if it left the slashing largely to the imagination. And that would suffice.

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Rudy’s Weaknesses

Speculation is swirling about who tipped off Ben Smith of the Politico about the peculiar methods used to bill police protection for then Mayor Giuliani when he, though still married, was visiting his girlfriend Judith Nathan in the Hamptons. Was it Fran Reiter, a former Giuliani Deputy Mayor now working for the Hillary Clinton campaign? Was it New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson hoping to help his fellow Democrats? Was it former Governor George Pataki, who was either at odds with or overshadowed by Giuliani when both were in office? If this has the look of an Agatha Christie plot, where a dozen suspects all have good motives, that’s because Giuliani’s path to success was paved with the numerous enemies he made turning New York around and advancing his own ambitions.

The Politico article was not a dirty trick as Giuliani told Katie Couric, but it was a hit piece. It’s been followed in short order by another in the form of a front-page New York Times article suggesting that Giuliani sometimes exaggerates the numbers he uses to describe his successes. STOP THE PRESSES—A POLITICIAN WHO EXAGGERATES! How does this distinguish Giuliani from other politicians? Well, says the Times, he uses a lot of statistics and that means—according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania—that “He’s given us a lot of work up until now.”

Giuliani has repaid the money used for the police protection. But the peculiar billing methods go to two of his biggest vulnerabilities. First it opens the character issue by reminding people that Bernard Kerik, Rudy’s trusted lieutenant whose most recent corruption case has yet to go to trial, was also involved with a girlfriend while married during the closing years of the Giuliani administration. More importantly, it’s a back-door path into the fact, as columnist Michael Goodwin of the Daily News noted to me, that Rudy is the first serious Presidential candidate who is on his third marriage. Giuliani’s affair with Judith Nathan while in office and while still married to Donna Hanover is such an obvious vulnerability that the campaign’s inability to get its response straight suggests important weaknesses in its general operational abilities.

With such a long list of enemies, Giuliani can expect more unflattering revelations. He’s likely to weather them in a somewhat weakened state. But the effect of these political wounds is uncertain because there is no one clear alternative to Rudy. As he has from the start, Rudy is being held aloft not only by his record of achievements but by the absence of a strong alternative.

Right now Giuliani is being helped by the rise of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in Iowa. Should the former Arkansas governor win in Iowa, it would be a major blow to Giuliani’s primary rival at the moment: Mitt Romney. But while Huckabee and Giuliani have only nice things to say about each other (for the moment), if Huckabee emerges as a top tier candidate—in effect displacing the hopes once vested in Fred Thompson—he could become a serious danger to Rudy come the January 29th Florida primary. The Giuliani campaign sees Florida as its firewall, the place where it halts its foes cold and seizes the lead. But Huckabee is rising rapidly in the Florida polls gaining seven points last week alone. If his surge continues, he could reshape the election.

Speculation is swirling about who tipped off Ben Smith of the Politico about the peculiar methods used to bill police protection for then Mayor Giuliani when he, though still married, was visiting his girlfriend Judith Nathan in the Hamptons. Was it Fran Reiter, a former Giuliani Deputy Mayor now working for the Hillary Clinton campaign? Was it New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson hoping to help his fellow Democrats? Was it former Governor George Pataki, who was either at odds with or overshadowed by Giuliani when both were in office? If this has the look of an Agatha Christie plot, where a dozen suspects all have good motives, that’s because Giuliani’s path to success was paved with the numerous enemies he made turning New York around and advancing his own ambitions.

The Politico article was not a dirty trick as Giuliani told Katie Couric, but it was a hit piece. It’s been followed in short order by another in the form of a front-page New York Times article suggesting that Giuliani sometimes exaggerates the numbers he uses to describe his successes. STOP THE PRESSES—A POLITICIAN WHO EXAGGERATES! How does this distinguish Giuliani from other politicians? Well, says the Times, he uses a lot of statistics and that means—according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania—that “He’s given us a lot of work up until now.”

Giuliani has repaid the money used for the police protection. But the peculiar billing methods go to two of his biggest vulnerabilities. First it opens the character issue by reminding people that Bernard Kerik, Rudy’s trusted lieutenant whose most recent corruption case has yet to go to trial, was also involved with a girlfriend while married during the closing years of the Giuliani administration. More importantly, it’s a back-door path into the fact, as columnist Michael Goodwin of the Daily News noted to me, that Rudy is the first serious Presidential candidate who is on his third marriage. Giuliani’s affair with Judith Nathan while in office and while still married to Donna Hanover is such an obvious vulnerability that the campaign’s inability to get its response straight suggests important weaknesses in its general operational abilities.

With such a long list of enemies, Giuliani can expect more unflattering revelations. He’s likely to weather them in a somewhat weakened state. But the effect of these political wounds is uncertain because there is no one clear alternative to Rudy. As he has from the start, Rudy is being held aloft not only by his record of achievements but by the absence of a strong alternative.

Right now Giuliani is being helped by the rise of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in Iowa. Should the former Arkansas governor win in Iowa, it would be a major blow to Giuliani’s primary rival at the moment: Mitt Romney. But while Huckabee and Giuliani have only nice things to say about each other (for the moment), if Huckabee emerges as a top tier candidate—in effect displacing the hopes once vested in Fred Thompson—he could become a serious danger to Rudy come the January 29th Florida primary. The Giuliani campaign sees Florida as its firewall, the place where it halts its foes cold and seizes the lead. But Huckabee is rising rapidly in the Florida polls gaining seven points last week alone. If his surge continues, he could reshape the election.

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More Idiocy from Zbigniew Brzezinski

In today’s Washington Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski argues for a patient American approach to Iran’s nuclear program, saying that the Chinese can be our partner in helping to stop the Iranians. “China, despite its meteoric rise toward global preeminence, currently is geopolitically a status quo power,” Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser states.

Zbig, after his recent talks with Chinese leaders, tells us they are concerned about the fallout of “a major U.S.-Iran collision” and the Chinese are ardent supporters of “strategic patience.” Once we sit down with the Iranians at the negotiating table, “China could help break the stalemate.” In Brzezinski’s mind, negotiations with Iran would follow the North Korean model. We are on the path to peace in North Asia because the United States dropped its confrontational policy, he contends. Then he adds this: “Even more important, China’s abandonment of its initial reticence eventually proved vital to convincing Pyongyang that its own political intransigence could become suicidal.”

Too bad Brzezinski could not have read the New York Times before penning his op-ed. This morning the paper reports that everyone is hitting a dead end in dealing with the Iranians over their nuclear program. “The chosen strategy of pressure and engagement is not working,” said a European official involved with Tehran. “As a result, you have a lot of people desperately banging on the door of the Iranians. All of them are coming back empty-handed.” The Iranians, the Times reports, believe that renewed diplomatic effort on the part of others is proof that their defiance is working. That’s making any talks with them, in a word, counterproductive.

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In today’s Washington Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski argues for a patient American approach to Iran’s nuclear program, saying that the Chinese can be our partner in helping to stop the Iranians. “China, despite its meteoric rise toward global preeminence, currently is geopolitically a status quo power,” Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser states.

Zbig, after his recent talks with Chinese leaders, tells us they are concerned about the fallout of “a major U.S.-Iran collision” and the Chinese are ardent supporters of “strategic patience.” Once we sit down with the Iranians at the negotiating table, “China could help break the stalemate.” In Brzezinski’s mind, negotiations with Iran would follow the North Korean model. We are on the path to peace in North Asia because the United States dropped its confrontational policy, he contends. Then he adds this: “Even more important, China’s abandonment of its initial reticence eventually proved vital to convincing Pyongyang that its own political intransigence could become suicidal.”

Too bad Brzezinski could not have read the New York Times before penning his op-ed. This morning the paper reports that everyone is hitting a dead end in dealing with the Iranians over their nuclear program. “The chosen strategy of pressure and engagement is not working,” said a European official involved with Tehran. “As a result, you have a lot of people desperately banging on the door of the Iranians. All of them are coming back empty-handed.” The Iranians, the Times reports, believe that renewed diplomatic effort on the part of others is proof that their defiance is working. That’s making any talks with them, in a word, counterproductive.

The other major flaw in Brzezinski’s reasoning is that the Chinese actually helped broker a deal with Pyongyang. There’s no question they sponsored dialogue with the North Koreans, arranging the multilateral talks that continue to this day. Yet that’s not the same as promoting a solution. Beijing, by dragging out the negotiations, gave Kim Jong Il the one thing he needed to construct his bomb: time. And after the detonation of the North Korean device in October 2006, the record shows that there was real progress—if we can call it that—only when Christopher Hill, the State Department’s point man, met with his North Korean counterparts without the Chinese present.

Now, Chinese leaders are proposing to Brzezinski that the Iranians get even more time to build a bomb. Tehran, which earlier this month announced that it has 3,000 centrifuges fully working, needs two years at most before it possesses the fissile material for its weapon.

Hasn’t Brzezinski learned from the mistakes of his old boss? In 1994, Jimmy Carter arranged a deal with the North Koreans that ended up giving them almost another decade to perfect their nuclear weapons technology. Zbig, at this moment, wants to provide to the Iranians a similar opportunity.

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We’re All Palestinians Now

Yesterday the New York Times, pretending that the Israel/Palestine situation is some kind of symmetrical game of Dare, suggested that Condoleezza Rice make more quasi-symbolic concessions to Palestinian negotiators. If they only knew.

The Jerusalem Post reports:

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly said in Annapolis this week that her childhood in the segregated South had helped her to understand the suffering on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I know what its like to hear that you can’t use a certain road or pass through a checkpoint because you are a Palestinian. I know what it is like to feel discriminated against and powerless,” Rice told a closed meeting of Arab and Israeli representatives, according to the Dutch representative at the summit, Franz Timmermans.

I don’t know about Israeli/Palestinian cooperation, but I suspect the Secretary of State has succeeded in uniting Jews and American blacks. Both groups should be outraged, as she’s managed to compare the former to old Dixie racists and the latter to homicidal terrorists. It seems no just cause is safe from association by guilt. One thinks of Jimmy Carter’s campaign to equate Palestinians with the victims of South African apartheid. Now, Rice has (inadvertently, no doubt) harmed the good name of America’s civil rights movement.

Well, how’s this for symmetry? Condoleezza Rice thinks she knows what it’s like to be Palestinian? Some Palestinians claim they know what it’s like to be black. This hateful 2006 cartoon is from al-Quds, a major Palestinian newspaper, and there’s a good deal of similarly vile sentiment in the paper’s stories. We know Secretary Rice offended blacks and Jews. I’m not so sure the recipients of her sympathy welcomed the comparison either.

Yesterday the New York Times, pretending that the Israel/Palestine situation is some kind of symmetrical game of Dare, suggested that Condoleezza Rice make more quasi-symbolic concessions to Palestinian negotiators. If they only knew.

The Jerusalem Post reports:

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly said in Annapolis this week that her childhood in the segregated South had helped her to understand the suffering on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I know what its like to hear that you can’t use a certain road or pass through a checkpoint because you are a Palestinian. I know what it is like to feel discriminated against and powerless,” Rice told a closed meeting of Arab and Israeli representatives, according to the Dutch representative at the summit, Franz Timmermans.

I don’t know about Israeli/Palestinian cooperation, but I suspect the Secretary of State has succeeded in uniting Jews and American blacks. Both groups should be outraged, as she’s managed to compare the former to old Dixie racists and the latter to homicidal terrorists. It seems no just cause is safe from association by guilt. One thinks of Jimmy Carter’s campaign to equate Palestinians with the victims of South African apartheid. Now, Rice has (inadvertently, no doubt) harmed the good name of America’s civil rights movement.

Well, how’s this for symmetry? Condoleezza Rice thinks she knows what it’s like to be Palestinian? Some Palestinians claim they know what it’s like to be black. This hateful 2006 cartoon is from al-Quds, a major Palestinian newspaper, and there’s a good deal of similarly vile sentiment in the paper’s stories. We know Secretary Rice offended blacks and Jews. I’m not so sure the recipients of her sympathy welcomed the comparison either.

Read Less

I’m Not There

In I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes takes the stale, conventional music biopic and runs it through a blender. The film claims to be inspired by the life and music of Bob Dylan, and features six different performers, including Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Cat Blanchett as Dylanesque figures (none is actually named Bob Dylan). But one needn’t be a Dylanologist, or even more than a casual fan to wonder at the fantastic concoction he’s whipped up.

Gone are the genre’s usual forms. The familiar arcs of talent, love, addiction, stardom, and redemption that played out in Great Balls of Fire, Ray, and Walk the Line are nowhere to be found, and holiday audiences looking for those familiar patterns will almost certainly be confused and disappointed. Haynes doesn’t just dismiss the clichés; he seems unaware of them, as if he’s inventing everything in the film for the first time.

That’s not to say one can’t spot his influences. Haynes pulls from the fragmented narratives of Bunuel, the feverish and foggy visions of Fellini, and the cinematic playfulness of Godard. Haynes is a fussy formalist, mimicking a dozen or more distinct and easily identifiable styles throughout the film, but his grand scheme embraces a dreamlike expressionism. This isn’t a film about the life of Bob Dylan so much as a rock film fantasia, like Alice in Wonderland as reimagined by Hunter S. Thompson.

Much of the movie’s buzz has centered on the casting, especially Blanchett’s. And indeed, she’s remarkable in her role as Jude, a Dylanish ‘60’s rock hero given to rash behavior and elliptical pronouncements. She provides one point on the ever-spinning Dylan pinwheel, a dazzling array of characters. Between the manic stylistic riffing and the hall-of-mirrors approach to the central figure, Haynes seems to be gesturing toward the fluidity of identity in the media age, where the idea of the self has become fragmented and illusory, polluted by cross-talk and competing personae.

If this sounds a little murky, that’s because it is, but it’s also often exhilarating, and to ask for too much clarity would probably be a mistake. Any movie seeking to capture the essence of Bob Dylan that’s easy and simple to understand is almost certainly doomed to fail.

In I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes takes the stale, conventional music biopic and runs it through a blender. The film claims to be inspired by the life and music of Bob Dylan, and features six different performers, including Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Cat Blanchett as Dylanesque figures (none is actually named Bob Dylan). But one needn’t be a Dylanologist, or even more than a casual fan to wonder at the fantastic concoction he’s whipped up.

Gone are the genre’s usual forms. The familiar arcs of talent, love, addiction, stardom, and redemption that played out in Great Balls of Fire, Ray, and Walk the Line are nowhere to be found, and holiday audiences looking for those familiar patterns will almost certainly be confused and disappointed. Haynes doesn’t just dismiss the clichés; he seems unaware of them, as if he’s inventing everything in the film for the first time.

That’s not to say one can’t spot his influences. Haynes pulls from the fragmented narratives of Bunuel, the feverish and foggy visions of Fellini, and the cinematic playfulness of Godard. Haynes is a fussy formalist, mimicking a dozen or more distinct and easily identifiable styles throughout the film, but his grand scheme embraces a dreamlike expressionism. This isn’t a film about the life of Bob Dylan so much as a rock film fantasia, like Alice in Wonderland as reimagined by Hunter S. Thompson.

Much of the movie’s buzz has centered on the casting, especially Blanchett’s. And indeed, she’s remarkable in her role as Jude, a Dylanish ‘60’s rock hero given to rash behavior and elliptical pronouncements. She provides one point on the ever-spinning Dylan pinwheel, a dazzling array of characters. Between the manic stylistic riffing and the hall-of-mirrors approach to the central figure, Haynes seems to be gesturing toward the fluidity of identity in the media age, where the idea of the self has become fragmented and illusory, polluted by cross-talk and competing personae.

If this sounds a little murky, that’s because it is, but it’s also often exhilarating, and to ask for too much clarity would probably be a mistake. Any movie seeking to capture the essence of Bob Dylan that’s easy and simple to understand is almost certainly doomed to fail.

Read Less

Madness in Sudan

Gillian Gibbons, the British schoolteacher working in Sudan, began serving a fifteen-day prison sentence today. Gibbon’s crime was to have allowed her students to name their class teddy bear Muhammad. According to CNN, protesters consider her sentence too light and want her executed. Executed. Over a stuffed animal.

It’s embarrassing, frankly, that as Westerners we even have to be discussing this outrage. It’s difficult (if not impossible) to consider a religion peaceful whose adherents—even if they are its extreme adherents—want a woman killed because of a stuffed animal. Events seem to keep outpacing Andrew Sullivan’s attempts to set up a meaningful equivalence between fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians.

Gillian Gibbons, the British schoolteacher working in Sudan, began serving a fifteen-day prison sentence today. Gibbon’s crime was to have allowed her students to name their class teddy bear Muhammad. According to CNN, protesters consider her sentence too light and want her executed. Executed. Over a stuffed animal.

It’s embarrassing, frankly, that as Westerners we even have to be discussing this outrage. It’s difficult (if not impossible) to consider a religion peaceful whose adherents—even if they are its extreme adherents—want a woman killed because of a stuffed animal. Events seem to keep outpacing Andrew Sullivan’s attempts to set up a meaningful equivalence between fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians.

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