Thursday, August 21, 2008

Psycho Killers—Qu'est-ce que c'est?

Since March, I have had an ebbing and flowing, but constantly existing, obsession with the musical Sweeney Todd. Staying with my mother, a proud owner of Showtime on Demand, I have developed a fixation with Showtime's compelling series Dexter. (Spoilers obviously abound.)

For a peace-lovin' woman, these are kind of curious.

I'm not totally clear on how either one came about.

For Sweeney Todd, it certainly wasn't just seeing the Tim Burton film, though it was perhaps a catalyst. The first time I saw it, when I was relatively unfamiliar with the musical, I enjoyed myself, thought Helena Bonham Carter lent the piece some needed gravitas that it would otherwise lack, and was a little disappointed with Mr. Depp's one-note performance. The second time around (when I saw it with the ever-more-disappointing Edward Scissorhands in a double feature at the Brew'n'View) I felt all the same things a little more strongly, and somehow was hooked enough to compare the three different cast albums (original cast, 2005 revival cast, movie) on iTunes and choose to purchase the revival cast. From that point, I listened to it frequently and started thinking seriously about how it could best be produced, came to believe that everything centered on "A Little Priest" and purchased all the versions of that particular song on iTunes, and discussed my new theories with most of my musical-theatre-knowledgable friends.

WTF, mate?

The best analysis I've come up with, after intense consideration, is that Sweeney Todd, when done well, is about the decision not to move forward/move on. Since I am in the (slightly but not terribly) conflicted process of doing both those things (hopefully the former, definitely the latter), it makes sense that it would have weird echoes for me.

The central relationship of the piece is between Mrs. Lovett, a widowed, struggling pie shop owner past her prime who has long pined for her former tenant, a barber arrested and transported for life (sent to Australia back when Australia was a Brit penal colony) fifteen years before, and Sweeney Todd, that very neighbor under a different name, who was so transported so that the presiding judge could rape his wife without obstacles. When Mrs. Lovett tells Todd this story, including that his wife subsequently poisoned herself and his then-baby daughter became the ward of the same judge, Todd vows revenge, reconstructing his old barber practice to ensnare and murder the judge. Mrs. Lovett, madly in love with him, does all she can to support him. Things don't go as planned, and when the judge escapes from beneath Todd's razor, he snaps and swears revenge on the entire world because "we all deserve to die." Mrs. Lovett then has her own epiphany, realizing that the bodies of Todd's victims should not be disposed of or buried, but rather made into meat pies, allowing her to circumvent the price of meat that has been putting her out of business.

So both a passionate partnership and doom are born. To celebrate, they sing the Act I finale "A Little Priest," in which they imagine cooking and eating men of various professions. (All Todd's victims are men, as only men come in for a shave. Dexter, of course, has no such limitations.)

I have been arguing for the last several months, and continue to argue, that "A Little Priest" is one of the best musical theatre love songs of the last three decades. And it's on the song being played as a love song rather than an artificially comic number, though it is hysterically funny, that the validity/watchability of the piece turns. They're falling in love with each other. Todd is seeing Mrs. Lovett for the first time, finding someone who enters into his darkness willingly; Mrs. Lovett has found a way to connect to Todd, feeling his real attention on her rather than razors and revenge for the first time, and is also enjoying the support for her own sickness, which she has rarely had the chance to reveal.

When I directed Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood in college, a key discovery I made in the middle of the process was that the two "Voices," narrator figures, had to have a passion for each other, creating the other characters and scenarios in the play as part of the fruit of their love. So it is with "A Little Priest." Yes, in this case you have to be disgusted by these people in order to handle the end of the piece, but you have to honestly love their love. You have to be rooting for them, and the way to root for them is (I think I say this about a lot of pieces) to make their relationship, to a certain degree, the protagonist. More than either individual, it is the relationship that is destroyed by the ending—both Todd and Mrs. Lovett are pretty much destroyed from the get-go. The relationship, however, is doomed by Todd's decision to commit to the past, to attach himself permanently to it, and destroy himself and others in the process; taken that way it is that, and not just murderousness, that they have passed on to Toby and destroyed him with. He has not just been confronted with serial murder, he has also had his image of the beloved Mrs. Lovett brutally destroyed, an image on which he depended.

As it's often performed, Sweeney Todd runs into the serious problem of murder as a metaphor. In my personal assessment of artistic ethics, murder is not allowed to be a metaphor alone (the same applies to rape), and I think things that try to make it so tend to wind up at best, lazy; at worst, incredibly offensive. Tim Burton's Goth aesthetic always has an element of romanticizing death/murderousness (and fearing sex), and the musical, particularly in the many incarnations of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," falls into the trap of justifying the killings by means of saying that we are all hypocrites, that false righteousness can somehow be deflated by means of killing people. And I guesssss if you wanna get technical that's true, but sort of annoying. Neither money nor sanctimoniousness will save you from death, it's true, but this isn't a particularly useful way to prove it. But I would say that having a real relationship at the center, rather than just some weird funny-looking people singing a funny song about killing other people, grounds it. If there is something real at the center of the piece, it precludes murder being a metaphor, and lends some gravitas, rather than just straight horror-movie goriness, to the ending.

To take the love seriously and the relationship as a protagonist, I would add as a side note, also makes Mrs. Lovett Sondheim's strongest, most complex female character. (At least in my experience; there's a few Sondheims, including Follies and Sunday in the Park with George, with which I am not familiar.) A shame about Sondheim, but it does.

As to Dexter, I think what intrigues me about it is its ability to approach what makes relationships compelling besides emotions.

This sounds bizarre, I know. Dexter, at age three, witnessed his mother being brutally chainsaw-massacred by drug runners (you don't find that out until late in the first season), following which he was adopted by a police officer. This officer, Harry Morgan, soon recognized that the boy was, or had become, irretrievably sociopathic. He loved the kid, but he would be a killer and there was nothing Harry could do to stop that. So instead Harry decided to control it: he taught Dexter how to survive and not be caught—go into forensics so you have inside information, work on your sleeper hold and your eye so you'll never be caught, and, most importantly, only kill people whom you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt are murderers themselves. Many of them slip through the system; without a need for warrants you'll be able to tell who they are. In essence, Harry made Dexter a sociopathic vigilante.

And Dexter took it and lived by it, even though he could not, technically, love Harry. If you're a sociopath, how could your connection to someone else possibly matter? That's what the show is exploring. I just watched all of it recently—rather quickly yes, but because of that it hasn't yet had the absorption time of Sweeney Todd. I'd say, though, that it's emphasizing that serial murder is not a desire for anarchy, it's a compulsion to kill, all the time. Harry Morgan saw what he considered a way to find order in that compulsion, and Dexter respected it. The show constantly brings us up short at the ethically squirmy moments where we discover that we kind of do too.

To a certain degree, both Dexter and Sweeney Todd get away with what they do because they manage to convince you that you, the Average Viewer, are not and could not possibly be among this man's potential victims. Sweeney Todd does it to a certain degree by being a musical, by using the genre's formality to distance itself from its viewers. Sweeney Todd doesn't threaten you. Dexter, of course, simply assumes that you are not a murderer (which naturally makes me wonder if murderers watch it and makes me slightly, perversely disappointed to realize that I will never know if a real serial killer considers it a psychologically accurate portrayal). Pitting Dexter against another serial killer, we have to go with Dexter because the other serial killer threatens another couple of characters to whom we feel intimately connected, whom we feel we could actually be. That makes me squeamish about both shows, in spite of my love for both. (I have a problem of being more squeamish about concepts than blood. Though I was considering the fact that even psychologically realistic serial-killer shows and films that don't have to "theatricalize" the murders tend to leave out a lot of gruesome aspects that I'm sure are present.) The fact is that when your protagonist is a murderer, you have to agree to justify murder, or at least try to.

So what's the sociocultural appeal of serial killers anyway? My mother argues that it's about the fact that we feel we could never do it ourselves—we could imagine committing murder under some circumstances, but we who are not sociopaths have a hard time imagining multiple, systematic murders, and good artists feel compelled to explore things they don't understand. I buy that for the above two pieces, pretty much (I'm sure Sondheim also enjoyed the contradiction of writing a musical, so maligned as an unnecessarily happy-go-lucky genre, about serial murder). The appeal of imagining, and being drawn into, stories far beyond the realm of possibility of my own experience is kind of what art is all about. I'd say good art is also about recognizing yourself in places that make you uncomfortable—that what *makes* Sweeney Todd good art is that you have to take Mrs. Lovett's passion for Todd seriously, not just be able to dismiss it as sickness, which is a huge responsibility on the part of the actor playing her (a challenge, I would add, to which one Helena Bonham Carter rose admirably); that what hooks you in Dexter is that with a lot of good acting you end up taking at least one of the characters who loves Dexter seriously (in my case that character is Debra Morgan, Harry's biological daughter and Dexter's sister, but you can pick someone else if you want), seriously enough that you can't just dismiss them as being stupid or naïve for not knowing/"getting it" about Dexter. The appeal of these psycho killers, for me, is what interactions with them, not them as ideas in isolation, can say/pull/demand about human relationships. Which, for better or for worse, is what I believe good art has to be about.


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