SLEEPY HOLLOW Sleepy Hollow directed by Tim Burton Neither ...

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:21

    Neither Sleepy Nor Hollow The poster tagline isn't kidding: Heads do roll in Tim Burton's latest, a reworking of Washington Irving's classic horror tale. Martin Landau, in a cameo as a town elder, buys it in the opening moments of the picture, his noggin separated from his torso by the implacable, black-clad Headless Horseman, who is prowling around an upstate New York hamlet collecting trophies. The film's body count?head count??mounts as the story gallops onward. In sheer murderous proficiency, this Horseman bears less relation to Irving's than to a contemporary horror movie stalker. He's the Terminator and Freddy Krueger rolled into one. Blasted by musket shells, he rises up, seriously peeved, and dices the shooter like a Benihana chef?sometimes with a sword, sometimes with an ax, sometimes with two small scythes, one in each hand, depending on his adversary's skill and how angry he has made the Horseman. (What a golfer this ghoul would make; he knows exactly what clubs to use in any given situation.)

    Sleepy Hollow is bathed in blood; severed heads tumble across mossy grass, bisected torsos break open like piñatas. Sometimes Burton's sprightly, inquisitive camera takes us right into bloody neck stumps (cauterized by the supernatural heat of the Horseman's blade) to reveal the sheared-off nub of a neckbone. This is one of the goriest Hollywood movies I've seen recently. But it didn't appall or sicken me?it's much too playful for that. The blackish fish blood in the Penguin's teeth in Batman Returns disgusted me more than the decapitations and limb-loppings in Sleepy Hollow. That's because the black stuff in the Penguin's teeth was supposed to be repulsive and pathetic?a touch of reality in an otherwise fantastic film?but the violence in Sleepy Hollow is supposed to be unreal, spectacular, joltingly funny.

    Burton, like Steven Spielberg, has complete control over the tone of his movies. He knows how far he can push certain imagery without losing the audience?how far he should push it, given the nature of the subject matter. He knows what's appropriate. If he ever decided to make a real-world drama with real violence?an Amistad or Saving Private Ryan?it would be terrifying and upsetting and morally serious, and nobody would laugh or be superficially excited. Sleepy Hollow is a tall tale, a horror spectacle, a ride; you're supposed to laugh at it and be scared?to laugh at your own susceptibility to manipulation. The violence is pitched at the Grimm fairy-tale level?the level of Hammer horror films, Sam Raimi and Mario Bava pictures and EC comics from the 1950s. (I saw it last week at a screening with about 400 people; I didn't see any walkouts, and I was watching for them pretty closely.)

    But although the tale is fantastic and the methods surreal and stylized, it would be a mistake to characterize Sleepy Hollow as a trivial movie. It has plenty on its mind, but the film's ideas are encoded deep inside the eye-popping imagery, and further camouflaged by Burton's brisk pacing and helter-skelter, free-associative, dream-logic style. If you just want a diversion, and you're attuned to Burton's artistic wavelength (a major caveat), you can enjoy Sleepy Hollow as a cleverly directed gloss on American literature and an encyclopedia of horror film tropes through the ages, from Universal in the 30s to Hammer in the 50s to the in-your-face bloodfests of the present day. But if you crack through the hard shell of Burton's style, you discover a densely packed interior of repeated motifs and philosophical allusions. Burton and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (writer of Seven and 8mm) have created a meditation on superstition and reason, the known and the unknown, reality and the world of spirits, demons and dreams.

    Johnny Depp, who last worked with Burton on Ed Wood, plays the hero, Ichabod Crane. In this telling, the character is a young constable from New York City, dispatched to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a mysterious series of slayings in which the victims' heads were severed from their bodies and never recovered. Crane is a man of science in an era still shackled to medieval notions of deduction, justice and punishment. He believes in empirical evidence, in the scientific method; he knows how to conduct an autopsy (or claims he does) and has even devised his own strange autopsy tools, which look like speculums crossed with drawing compasses. In Crane's introductory scene, he argues with a burgomaster (Christopher Lee, one of Burton's childhood heroes) who is about to convict a couple of accused criminals on the basis of a confession extracted under hideous torture. The men are trussed up in what looks like upright, mobile stretching racks with metal collars; as Crane argues against their guilt, they look on, mute, imprisoned by the savagery of the age.

    As we eventually learn, Crane has personal reasons for being opposed to sadism in the guise of justice. But his stance is also symbolic. Crane represents a contemporary, secular, rational way of seeing the world; he's a bridge between the era of the story and our own. It is no coincidence that Sleepy Hollow's events take place in 1799; the last digit gives the film added resonance. The inhabitants of the movie's 1799 New York state have no mass media to spread fin de siecle panic, but it's there all the same; the dialogue contains fleeting references to the dawning of a new age, the end of superstition, the chance to start a new century with a new set of assumptions.

    Crane arrives in Sleepy Hollow on the eve of a fall celebration and is promptly kissed during a party game by the blindfolded Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the daughter of the town's richest and most powerful citizen, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon). Crane is no conventional man of action; he's a diminutive, bookish fellow who alternates foolhardy physical courage (driven mostly by curiosity) with nervous asides and even fainting spells. But he has a job to do, and he gets down to brass tacks pretty quickly.

    One of his first acts is to assemble the town's informal governing council for an Agatha Christie-style drawing room meeting?an expository conversation laced with suggestive questions meant to draw out the guilty. Besides Baltus, the council includes Notary Hardenbrook (Michael Gough), Reverend Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones) and Doctor Lancaster (Ian MacDiarmid). But they are only a few of the suspects. Other possible conspirators include the sly Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson); Katrina's would-be suitor Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien), whose family has a longtime rivalry with the Van Tassels; and even Crane himself, who keeps getting spared by the Horseman even though everybody else in the vicinity gets his or her cork popped.

    I don't like to spoil moviegoers' enjoyment, so I won't describe the tangled narrative in any detail. Suffice to say that if you're one of those boring killjoy viewers who thinks the whole purpose of moviegoing is to outguess the screenplay and prove to your friends how incredibly smart you are, you'll probably figure everything out by the halfway point, and if you're a moviegoer who likes to give yourself over to a story as it unfolds, you'll be surprised and satisfied by how things turn out. (Provided you like Burton's style; if you don't, Sleepy Hollow will be hell. After the screening, I overheard harshly polarized reactions in the lobby, ranging from "That's Burton's best movie, hands down," to "That's the worst film I think I've ever seen." I'm willing to bet the responses were tied to the viewer's affinity for Burton. Consider yourself warned.)

    I think Burton handles the twists and turns surprisingly well. I say "surprisingly" because over the years, Burton has gained a deserved reputation as a filmmaker who gets lost in his own head?a conjurer of storybook imagery, primarily, rather than an accomplished storyteller. He can stage a sight gag and create a dense fantasy world better than almost anybody, but he can't do basic things like choreograph a comprehensible fight sequence or move the story along.

    It's a pleasure to report that Sleepy Hollow is Burton's most perfect movie all around. It's a lean, exciting piece of work, chock-full of the base pleasures people go to movies to experience?rescues, murders, swordfights, romance, mystery and humor. As in Ed Wood, the scenes are short and invariably to the point; you never feel, as in Mars Attacks! and portions of Burton's Batman movies, that the director is just noodling around on a big budget, amusing himself at the audience's expense.

    The visuals are controlled as well. There isn't an unoriginal composition in the film?Burton and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki produce dense, textured images in color stock so desaturated that it evokes black-and-white film, or perhaps decayed oil paint?but Sleepy Hollow rarely lingers over them. They flash onscreen and are gone. The brevity bespeaks immense confidence. It tells the audience, "Our creative cup runneth over; this is just a taste." Colleen Atwood's exaggerated period costumes and production designer Rick Heinrichs' colonial gothic sets and medieval weaponry are just as brilliant, but they're never spotlighted at the expense of the story.

    Burton and Walker have built more than a conventionally exciting horror movie. Nearly every scene in Sleepy Hollow is embedded with a shard of metaphor, and if you keep a mental list, you might be surprised by how many different ways the film can be read.

    Example one: In Sleepy Hollow, the characters are defined largely by their choice of how to see the world. Some wish to see life, nature and the here and now while screening out death, the supernatural and the unknowable; others prefer the reverse. When Crane, the outspoken rationalist, examines dead bodies, searching for scientific answers to an uncanny murder, he dons a pair of goggles, one lens of which is very long, like the telephoto lens of a camera.

    Notary Hardenbrook, who quite obviously has seen things that might help Crane solve the murder, has one cataract-damaged eye; it suggests a glass eye, or a hole in his head, or Crane's super-telephoto monocle goggles, which are intended to collapse the distance between the wearer and the object he's perusing in search of the truth.

    Late in the movie, Katrina Van Tassel, who is fascinated by the supernatural, looks down at Crane through a closed window. Her lovely face is matted by a series of perfectly rectangular, transparent panes?except for the pane on the upper right-hand side of the window, which has a large spherical flaw that suggests an eye. This "eye" links to the unseen, third eye that enables the supernaturally adept to see into unknowable worlds; the third eye is present in Sleepy Hollow in the form of mysterious chalk drawings of eyes, perhaps rendered by a witch or some other spell-caster.

    Example two: Sleepy Hollow as a consideration of filmmaking and the creative impulse. Though Crane is ostensibly a constable, like all Burton heroes, he's really a misunderstood artist?a filmmaker before the age of film, if you will, a documentarian traveling from New York City to a small town in search of truth. Sleepy Hollow is filled with imagery that suggests the tools of a filmmaker's trade?and the psychological and even physical wounds he suffers while plying that trade. Crane's nifty telephoto monocle looks as though it might screw right onto the front of a 16-mm Bolex camera. And several important sequences take place near whirring gears of one kind or another that suggest the insides of a camera or projector. Crane has mysterious scars on his palms?little pinprick scars whose origin is satisfactorily explained in due time, but which just happen to suggest the prinprick indentations made when you place your fingers or palms against the innards of a film projector, which contains numerous gears with tiny teeth to drag the film through the gate.

    Crane's third eye?his gateway into the unknowable world, into hidden truth?is his artist's curiosity, as expressed by his fancy equipment, his notebook and his volume of anatomical diagrams (it's like an instruction book for the flesh). But that third eye is blind; the real third eye, possessed by characters who are attuned to the supernatural, looks inward, into the soul, or looks through reality, into the spirit world, the world of black and white magic.

    There are doubtless many other ways to read this great movie, and I'll probably uncover more of them as I see Sleepy Hollow again. But don't misunderstand: the film's entertainment value is all there on the surface; one needn't go in prepared to ferret out marginalia and symbolism in order to enjoy it. That's what makes Sleepy Hollow a great movie: you can experience it on as simple or complex a level as you wish, and if you're attuned to the director's sensibility, it works on any level.

    It's an art film disguised as an audience picture, and it's a very convincing disguise. Like the sword-wielding Horseman, the movie appears to be a singleminded killing machine with no head, but appearances are deceptive. It has a head, but for tactical reasons, keeps it hidden.

    Framed Unclued: I'm not a Jane Austen expert; I'd read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, but I haven't read Mansfield Park, a film version of which is now playing in New York. But I knew enough about Austen to sense that writer-director Patricia Rozema was attempting to reinterpret Austen and update her for contemporary audiences, that it wasn't quite working and that something about the effort reeked of bad faith and academic presumption. The story follows Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor) from her impoverished home in London to a lavish country estate, where she lives with distant relatives and appreciates both a life of leisure and a life of the mind. All the standard Austen components are in place: the strong-willed, manipulative woman friend (exemplified by Embeth Davidtz's Mary Crawford); the ne'er-do-well male suitor (Henry Crawford, played by Alessandro Nivola); the blustery, overcontrolling patriarch (Sir Thomas Bertram, well played by, of all people, Harold Pinter); and the male cousin who's sexy, sensitive, nurturing and, for a number of reasons, unavailable (Edmund Bertram, played by Jonny Lee Miller of Trainspotting).

    My beef is not with the filmmaking, which is fine, or the acting, which is better. It's with the "modernizing" touches added by the filmmaker. It's apparently not enough to replicate the morals, rituals and textures of Austen's world and let the audience draw its own conclusions. Rozema adds unsubtle intimations of incestuous desire and lesbian attraction?no beef with either element per se, but what are they doing in Mansfield Park? Cruder still are the many Miramaxy touches that seemed intended to flatter modern audiences for being sophisticated and cynical about history?a character's accidental discovery of horrifying drawings of rape and torture in the slave trade; a full-on copulation scene complete with bare breasts and asses.

    If Rozema were telling an original story whose sole point was to highlight differences between our rosy perceptions of an earlier era (as seen through literature) and the more tawdry and complex reality, that would be one thing. The book and film versions of The French Lieutenant's Woman did this, purposefully allowing modern mores and assumptions to infect his reconstructed historical world. But Rozema merely seems to be superimposing inappropriate (and trendy) touches onto a work that does not require them. It's as if the filmmaker decided that the only thing keeping Austen from total relevance is the absence of overt sexuality and politicized historical imagery, then made it her mission in life to provide those things, whether the audience really needs them or not.

    There is immense, clueless arrogance in this approach, for many reasons. The most obvious is that this thoroughly jejune and collegiate film version of Mansfield Park would never have been greenlighted if Austen's work hadn't already stood the test of time, inspiring many recent film and television adaptations that are superior to this one.

    Page Up: Home Page, the new documentary from filmmaker Doug Block, comes late to the Internet party. Magazines, newspapers and television have thoroughly described the home page phenomenon with affection and insight; the speed of theatrical filmmaking is simply too slow to give us any new information or original insight.

    But Block has done something nearly as good: he's personalized the subject. He fell into the world of home pages in 1996, while setting out to make a documentary about his young daughter, but soon was diverted into the then-novel world of cybersurfing and home pages. Among other netizens, he interviewed Justin Hall, whose Justin's Links from the Underground site provided Net travel plans to tens of thousands of newbies while incidentally chronicling his own personal life in mortifying detail; Julie Petersen, an editor for HotWired who used her home page to chronicle an extramarital affair; and assorted Internet users whose cyberlives are starting to overshadow their real ones.

    Block draws on the spirit of Ross McElwee, making a ragged, intimate, often confessional film about his own anxiety over technological change. His worries don't seem exaggerated when you consider that in the three years since he started filming Home Page, the world of the Internet has already remade itself a dozen times over.