Into the Abyss

Meryl Streep in Into the Woods (Walt Disney Pictures)
Into the Woods and Timbuktu are both faithless.

Stephen Sondheim, Broadway’s most nihilistic songwriter, prepared a special version of his show Into the Woods’s main theme for the 1992 Bill Clinton inaugural ball. Barbra Streisand’s live rendition of “Children Will Listen,” highlighted by her personal plea against homophobia, gave the song a throbbing and unexpectedly apolitical optimism. Nothing like that happens in the new film version of Into the Woods. It is a non-optimistic, politically dank vision in more ways than one.

Sondheim’s modern take on the meanings of fairy tales satirizes Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and other stories. Starting with the classic trip into the magical, forbidding forest, it twists those well-known legends about maturation and morality into a fearful presentation of social experience. It’s point: We are lost. Make no mistake, this is a political act — as Sondheim and Streisand were well aware which is why they altered the show’s original meaning.

Now the movie adaptation of Into the Woods, featuring big name overactors Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, is such a frenetic mix of fairy-tale lore, unimaginative imagery, Broadway bombast, and Disney studios bait-and-switch, that it outdoes the dread of the show’s vinegary composer. Former choreographer Rob Marshall, who directed the 2002 Chicago, applies that film’s cynical approach to Broadway’s hard sell, removing any sensitivity (or charm) that belonged to the tales we first learned as children.

This Disney production tries, confusedly, to turn Sondheim’s anxieties into family entertainment — a folly also attempted with Tim Burton’s horrendous 2007 film of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. The post-9/11 Sondheimizing of Disney illustrates the increasing cynicism of popular culture. (You could see it in Wall-E’s rejection of social mores and cultural tradition, Tim Burton’s anarchic Alice in Wonderland remake and the morally chaotic Maleficent). Quite different from the postmodern reassessment of fairytales in Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin or Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves – both elegant, even enchanted films — Into the Woods’s half-camp, jokey cynicism is flat. It destroys whatever illusions of moral certainty that a debauch like the Shrek series didn’t ruin entirely. It’s a Midsummer Night’s Nightmare and Red Riding Hood’s opening patter song sets the tone: “You never know what lies ahead/ For all I know [Grandma]’s already dead.”

Instead of getting at the root of our fears and desires as Demy and Jordan did, Sondheim and Marshall perpetuate dismay. There’s no celebratory dancing or vaudevillian joy, just sick jokes (even a song titled “Agony”) and monstrous F/X for the Jack and the Beanstalk story. Even the woods setting looks like an underdeveloped slum compared with the sumptuous black-and-white forest of Jean Cocteau’s 1945 Beauty and the Beast. Sondheim’s dystopic concept refutes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion “In the woods we return to reason and faith; it is there I am part and particle of God.”

Re-imagining a godless world is Sondheim’s contribution to Broadway lore (which might have been the ulterior motive for Streisand’s desperate serenade of Clinton). Into the Woods is for moviegoers who reject emotion (as they reject the efficacy of fairytales and Biblical tales) and insist on not feeling.


Into the modern abyss, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu creates a contemporary political parable out of the nightmare of Islamic extremism. Sissako reenacts the 2012 invasion of Aguelhok (a Mali town near fabled Timbuktu) when sharia law was imposed upon citizens by outsiders inflicting arbitrary punishment, death, and mayhem.

Ironically, Timbuktu has a paradisiacal look, its desert dunes and mazelike village are as color-coordinated as Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. But this mirage-like setting is despoiled by unthinkable inhumanity: a gazelle is hunted down by turbaned marauders in a jeep (“Don’t kill it. Tire it.”) who next destroy native sculptures representing cultural beliefs and fertility as objects in ruthless target practice.

Sissako’s opening scenes are his most effective. The remainder of Timbuktu unevenly alternates poetic affirmations of local ethnic ritual with the shock of cultural conflict with the outsiders. In some ways, it’s an apolitical film, carefully avoiding commentary on the invasive jihadists as the native folk defend their own independence. An imam insists “I don’t do jihad on others. I do my own jihad. My own moral improvement. Where’s lenience, forgiveness, piety?”

Timbuktu poses those questions as part of an artistic gesture. It is not an entertainment film meant to inform or edify African Muslims but is part of the established system of Francophone films made as commentary for the colonial sensibility. This would include the American art-house market where Third World sympathy has created a distinct genre of National Geographic–style pity.

There’s no doubting Sissako’s artistry: a long, quiet, distanced wide shot of a man, after a catastrophic encounter, trudging across a stream toward land where he falls exhausted; it depicts the essence of human foible and frailty. But Timbuktu is primarily a series of Brechtian rhetorical mimes (eloquently performed) about the clash of humanism and terrorism. It appeals to what we know and disdain about Islamic extremists without providing much insight into how the aggression occurs or why. Sissako’s imagery (a black-and-white flag familiar from Boko Haram, Kalashnikovs, and satellite dishes all against backgrounds of serene beauty) produce a subtler alarm than has our degraded news media. Yet a sense of complacency — something less insightful than great art — comes with all this tactfulness.

Seeing the singleminded, pot-smoking jihadists resting on their sides, elegant thugs with rifles behaving like pashas, same as a herder enjoying his close-knit patriarchy, raises questions about cause-and-effect tradition that righteous humanitarian scorn doesn’t answer.

Timbuktu’s characters — the herder, his noble wife, his pure-hearted daughter, the fisherman he fights, the village madwoman, the boy split between rap music and jihad, the female singer who gets whipped and the unknown couple who are stoned to death — come across as exoticized types rather than characters.

The problem is this Brechtian style of humanism lacks spiritual exploration of its characters’ conflicts (same as Into the Woods). The exoticized view of domestic terrorism in African works too easily for condescending Westerners. When Timbuktu is over, the most urgent question is: Do we grab cous-cous or sushi?

— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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