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Caleb & Sweeney Todd (lit/film essay)

Posted on February 25, 2013 at 7:45 AM

The gothic sublime defines itself in contrast with romanticism, particularly in its exploration of human psychology, criminality and madness. While the romantics associated the sublime experience with external forces of nature and divinity, gothic artists turned their gaze inwards, to the “tangled labyrinth of dreams”. Vijay Mishra writes that Gothicism represents a regression from the “soaring grandness” of Burkean sublimity, and into the deep chasm of fear and feeling within. This introversion creates an intensely schizophrenic outlook, within the characters and the observer, which is why gothic texts deal so often with madness and melancholy.


Emanuel Kant, a romantic, sees the sublime as a representation of the “colossal”, the absolutely great, which occurs in the moment that reason gives way to imagination, before regaining its power (Morris). A person experiences the sublime within this gap, this mental lapse between grounded reason and soaring creativity. Sigmund Freud, a psychologist, wrote that the sublime is “the dissolution of self in death” (308). He believed that sublimity was a psychological compulsion towards our own end. This nihilistic mood is reflected in gothic literature, which so often contrasts the romance of nature with the horror of man. The children’s book Caleb (Gary Crew 1996) and the film Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton 2005) each explore notions of the sublime experience through their gothic visuals. The texts mix beauty, terror, humour, grotesquery, and farce, allowing the viewer to drift torturously and euphorically between each mood.


The front cover of Caleb depicts a haunting image, a sinister face formed by slithering insects. At first glance the figure seems human, or at least humanoid, and appears very threatening. It gazes back at us with cold, empty eyes, more predatory than intellectual, as though it does not see us at all. Maybe it is looking right through us, at something we cannot sense. Soon, it does not seem human at all, and more like an androgynous alien. The figure is something we do not know or understand, and its leering presence resides in a grey area between man and woman, between human and insect. Eventually the face dissolves all together, and we see the crawling insects that formed it in the first place, white grubs against a black canvas. Cockroaches form the figure’s eyes, while a dragonfly makes its nose and brow. The insects are scuttling around, sliding against one another in chaos, and yet for that one fleeting second they formed a human face. The idea that they were there all along is very unsettling, as though they were crawling across our skin, invisibly violating us. Now the face seems to have been an allusion altogether, and yet its eyes still gaze at us from that black abyss. The deception of the image is equally unnerving, and forces us to question how we view the world. “What else has been an illusion?” the reader begins to ponder. What other details have we missed in the world, too blinded by the forest to notice the hidous trees? The image represents several aspects of the sublime, particularly the liminal. Our whole notion of the figure oscillates between contrasting ideas, never being able to settle on any one truth. The figure is neither human nor alien, neither male nor female, neither person nor insect. Even the colours of the image are in a state of flux. Is the figure the absence or the presence? Is the image a black face with white features, or a black hole, covered in white insects? Does the face even exist at all, or can it only be seen from this exact angle, at this exact moment, when the insects are in those exact positions. Such transient ideas force us to question our own mortality, and whether our existence is fleeting, and perceivable only through a very specific set of stimuli. Does god look at us and see a person, with dreams and fears and a soul, or does he see only a collection of cells and blood and molecules?


The imagery of Caleb is intensely gothic, portraying a world of shadowed buildings, faceless people, and twisted nature. The black and white sketches form the visual narrative of Caleb, and are bound by white frames, beside the text. Faded red drawings are also present and reside behind or around the text, taking the form of insects or leaves. The fact that the black and white sketches are framed creates a sense of order, as they contain the illustrations of Caleb’s spooky transformation, and are therefore the most potentially threatening aspect of the book. The measured red and white frames create a sense that even when the story is at its most chaotic, they are imprisoned within the geometry of the book. The visual anomaly, however, is the owl, which is sketched in black and white, but is able to fly back and forth between picture and text, transcending the frame that contains the rest of the story. This seems to imply that the pictures are not entirely shackled to the page, and may leap out at us if things become too intense. The owl is another example of the liminal, able reside between the rational spaces of picture and text, and able to transcend the rational order of the picture frame. It is possible that the owl represents the stories narrator, Quill, whose name is linked to the bird’s feather, and who is also placed as a passive observer (or transcriber) of Caleb’s story.


Many of the pictures are seen from a distorted perspective. Some are slanted, such as the mansion on page 1, forming a sense of instability or chaos through the diagonal lines. Drawings of nature, such as trees and branches are curled and twisted. The black forest on page 22 seems to thrash around Caleb, while he himself stands deathly still, as grasping branches explode from each of his shoulders like dragonfly wings. Nothing is settled or straight. Everything is clashing this way and that, from the swaying grass to Caleb’ crossed arms. Other images are viewed from very low or very high locations, which create the impression of a tiny creature, like an ant looking up, or a fly looking down. The image on page 1 is particularly enormous, filling almost the entire frame, and towering over us like a mountain. The aesthetic is sublime, as it overwhelms us with its structure, and makes us feel as small and as insignificant as an ant. An insect point of view plays into the thematic arc of the novel, which deals with biological transformation. The insects drawn in faded red also echo the developments of the text, notably towards the end, when Caleb finds a symbolic mate, and the critters begin coupling with one another. Like the front cover, the imagery is very unsettling. You can practically hear bugs skittering about across the pages, and crawling up onto your hands. Christian imagery is also present throughout the novel. On page 22, the moon frames Caleb’s face like a halo, but his expression is cold and sinister. This posture (with the black dragonfly wings) is an allusion to the fallen angel Lucifer, whose feathered wings were blackened and hardened by the fires of chaos (and the corruption of his mind). On page 14, we get a shadow behind Caleb, in the shape of a demon. Conversely, above Quill is the shadow of an angel, formed by his stuffed owl. This frames their characters as spiritual enemies, one transgressing nature, the other abiding it. Or it could refer to the duality of man, and the contrary natures housed in a single shell. This second reading would fit well with gothic sublimity, which locates human beings in the liminal morality between heaven and hell.


Sweeney Todd opens with a soaring view of Victorian London, before plunging into the tortured psyche of its titular character. Burton has created a rather surreal piece, melding together elements of the horror and musical genres, and giving the film an extravagantly gothic look and feel. Modern musicals tend to centre on romantic and comedic stories. The very notion of setting a horror film, or at least a serial killer film, to music, is a contradiction (Mollin). The visual movements from one jaunty song to the next are interspersed with scenes of intense violence and gore, and this wavering between fun and terror contributes to a sublime experience in the mind of the viewer. Laughter and smiles are quickly choked off in the wake of bloody torture, and visceral disgust is dissolved as another brilliant musical number begins. Burton keeps the viewer swaying back and forth like a pendulum, and in the fleeting moments between mummery and violence resides the sublime.


Like Caleb, the film uses line and angles to illustrate mood. The most obvious distortion is Todd’s barber shop. The room’s window faces out at a sharp diagonal angle, and symbolises Todd’s unstable psyche and dangerous mood. As large as it is, the window offers very little light, and there is a melancholic gloom to the shop. Outside the glass, we see row after row of blackened chimney, raised upwards in a dark, imposing manner. The sky is polluted with a thick haze that bathes the filthy lanes in an eerie shadow. The streets are an open sewer of poverty and corruption, represented by the narrow alley-ways, the mud-soaked cobblestones, the oppressive smog, and the hustle and bustle of desperate, world-weary souls (Mollin). This bleak imagery contributes to the gothic tone of the film, and lives up to Todd’s grim assessment of London as a “great black pit”. But of course Todd is also projecting his own melancholy onto the city, formed by the loss of his wife and daughter decades’ prior. The glass also represents the liminal space between Todd’s internal thoughts, and the world outside. The grimy panes are that thin, fleeting gap between mind and environment. As the film progresses, Todd withdraws further and further inside himself (and the safety of his shop) shunning the cruelty of the external world, and isolating his soul from those who might care about him.


Another chief difference between romantic and gothic experiences of the sublime, is the exploration of terror. Edmund Burke wrote that the sensation of terror came from “an apprehension of pain or death” (Paulson). This statement may be true, but it tends to oversimplify the nature of fear, and ignore complex human psychology. Certainly objects of danger can inspire fear. Raging storms, dark nights, and ferocious beasts will all terrify people on a primal level, as will a murderer. But what’s more frightening than the murderer’s knife is the mind that works it. Being stabbed may be physically painful, but trying to comprehend the nature of the man who stabs you is psychologically painful. We look at a murderer, and we see ourselves. We see our own rage and sorrow reflected back, and think, how thick is the line between him and me. We can sympathise with Todd, and the injustice he has suffered. We want him to have his revenge against the wicked Judge Turpin. We can imagine his pain and his anger, and egg him on his trail of blood. But when we see where the trail leads, and realise how much it has cost him, we recoil. We become frightened by our own bloodlust, and realise that the line is thinner than we thought. The terror does not reside in Todd’s ability or desire to harm us, but in the ruin of his own soul. One thing that the romantics and gothics do agree on is that terror is the “ruling principle” of the sublime, and only those who know true fear can have a sublime experience (Morris).

Categories: ESSAYS, Literature, Cinema

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