SLEEPY HOLLOW Sleepy Hollow directed by Tim Burton Neither …

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Neither Sleepy Nor Hollow
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
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
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
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
, 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.

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

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.