Sleepy Hollow and more
Joe Mantegna, Adrien Brody, Ben Foster, Rebekah Johnson, Bebe Neuwirth
(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 17 Nov 1999 (General release); Germany release date: 5 Oct 2000; 1999)
Of Barry Levinson’s four films depicting Jewish life in Baltimore, Liberty Heights is perhaps his most intimate and idyllic. The semi-autobiographical movie is a portrait of a “typical” Jewish family in northwest Baltimore in the 1950s. In the throes of some of the major issues of the time—integration, racism, McCarthyism, anti-semitism, and economic flux—the Kurtzmans respond to such upheaval not with anger and serious dysfunction but rather with the innocence, curiosity, and naïveté of the film’s 17-year-old narrator Ben Kurtzman.
Levinson himself grew up in northwest Baltimore and was a teenager living in the city’s Liberty Heights neighborhood during the 1950s. So it’s clear that the film is designed to show us how Levinson saw his changing world in those years. In fact, Ben succinctly sums up this view at the very outset of the film: “I grew up in the northwest section of Baltimore. It was all Jewish. In fact, I didn’t even think of it in those terms. I just assumed everyone was Jewish. The whole world was Jewish. [Then] I began to sense there was a world beyond what I knew.”
Indeed, Liberty Heights is a film about change. Not just a boy’s transformation from childhood to adulthood, but people’s response to an expanding and increasingly integrated world.
The actor Adrien Brody, who plays Ben’s older brother Van, eloquently echoes those sentiments in an interview accompanying the DVD version of the film: “It’s a time in history that people were just beginning to kind of attempt to understand other people that were different from themselves. It’s an enlightening time.”
What makes Liberty Heights such a significant film, however, isn’t that it deals with change in a compassionate, sympathetic, and respectful way—which it does—or even that it depicts a unique and changing people in a special place during a singular time—which it also does. Instead, Liberty Heights is significant because it beautifully portrays a family, faced with a changing world, that wields—for better or worse—the universal coping mechanism of all peoples: humor.
During an early scene in the film, Ben visits a local swim club with two friends. The three teenagers are turned away at the entrance by a sign that reads “NO JEWS, DOGS, OR COLOREDS.” Faced with such overt prejudice, the boys don’t get angry and tear the sign down or become bitter and disenchanted or do any number of cathartic things the audience might hope for. They simply turn to humor. They debate why Jews was listed before dogs and whether this means people saw Jews as inferior to dogs even though clearly Jews are more thoroughly potty-trained than dogs. In using humor instead of vitriol, the boys simultaneously disarm themselves and the audience. It’s a tried-and-true method of self-preservation, perfectly depicted here and throughout the film, that’s been used over time by the maligned.
Even in one of the film’s concluding scenes—after it appears Ben’s father will be arrested on racketeering charges and his brother has been involved in a disturbingly violent, alcohol-fueled weekend—humor still reigns. In the high school auditorium following Ben’s graduation, Ben approaches Sylvia, a classmate—and the only black person in his recently-integrated class—with whom he has developed a intimate relationship without his or her parents’ knowledge. Both of their families, as well as their classmates, watch as the two converse. “What do you think would happen if I gave you a kiss right now?” Ben coyly asks her. “I think our parents would die,” Sylvia jokes. Not surprisingly, Ben sweetly kisses her on the lips for all to see. Both families react negatively, but the tone of the film is clearly one of humor and sarcasm not bitterness and animosity.
In the end, though, despite the excellent way in which Levinson showed humor to be a universal defense mechanism, the best way to gauge whether Liberty Heights is a truly timeless film is to ask how well it portrays the lives of its subjects, Baltimore’s Jews in the ‘50s? To find the answer, as I did not so long ago, you don’t need a doctorate in history or an extensive knowledge of Maryland’s past. Instead, just head about 15 minutes northwest of Liberty Heights to Pikesville, Md., to a restaurant called the Suburban House. On any given weekday, you’ll find at least a handful of septuagenarians knee deep in a heated game of Mahjong and corn beef on rye. Mention Levinson’s name and the smirks, witty retorts, and stories you get in response tell you that the filmmaker got it right. Michael Kabran
Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Christopher Lee
(Paramount; US theatrical: 17 Nov 1999 (General release); 1999)
Like Scorsese and DeNiro, the Coens and Clooney, the pairing of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp represents a perfect matching of sensibilities. Sleepy Hollow is engineered so that both of them are playing directly to their strengths. Burton loves to create twisted, gothic worlds of abandoned windmills and pumpkin-headed scarecrows, and there is no one more qualified than Depp to conjure up the equally fractured personalities that inhabit them. Sleepy Hollow is the third of what, after 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, will be eight joint ventures for the pair of them.
Like their first collaboration, 1990’s brilliant Edward Scissorhands—and like fellow 1999 honoree American Beauty—Sleepy Hollow is an examination and condemnation of the suburbs. Poking beneath the seams of the idyllic countryside (which, to be fair, never looks quite that idyllic through Burton’s lens, as there’s a permanent gloom and fog that’s a stark contrast to Scissorhands’ bright palette), he finds horrors far worse than the street thugs of the city: a ruling cabal of unstoppable men (whom Burton calls the “Dutch Masters”), materialistic and status-seeking women, and, only slightly less scary, a reanimated, decapitated Hessian who preys on the town’s residents.
Depp’s Ichabod Crane comes to this environment from the city, but, unlike Edward Scissorhands, he’s never a true outsider. Instead, Depp plays Crane as soft. He can’t ride a horse. He swings an axe like a girl. He’s afraid of spiders. In the face of danger, he (hilariously) hides behind small children. (When a servant girl sweetly says, “Thank God you’re here,” he returns a look of unbridled fear.) His investigation is based on science and reason, and he scoffs at the village’s reliance on religion and magic. When all these tics are added up, they make Crane come off as slightly elitist, and kind of a ponce—more of a suburbanite than a streetwise city boy. Yet by presenting all of Crane’s flaws right on the surface, Depp makes the character all the more likable. When Crane goes up against the ruling elite of Sleepy Hollow, it’s not with an “us vs. them” mentality—it’s almost like self-reflection.
Of course, though the “Dutch Masters” and their wives may be the true villains of the movies, the flashier adversary in the film is the legendary Headless Horseman (played masterfully, when he has a head, by Christopher Walken, and by Ray Park when he does not). He is the real “other” inserted into the world of Sleepy Hollow, and his philosophy is opposite of Crane. Crane values logic above all. He’s a man of science. He stands for reason and order. The Horseman kills “for the love of carnage” and represents nothing less than pure chaos. (Reality in this world—as is often the case—is somewhere in the middle. Magic defies all of Crane’s reasoning, but it can be used for good, altruistic purposes.) While there are many bad guys in the film, the Horseman is the only true monster.
Which is a good thing. More often than not, if it’s a Burton film, the freaks are the ones you feel empathy towards, and the so-called normal people are revealed to be the monsters. (Such is the case with Edward Scissorhands.) But Burton does monsters so well, it’s almost a shame when he softens them up a little. Here, there is no softness to the Headless Horseman, with his ice-cold eyes and sharpened teeth. Absent of empathy, we get a classic monster-movie ending so pitch perfect it could’ve been lifted straight out of one of the great silent horror films of the past. And we get to watch that ending with Crane, who makes us feel a little bit better about being freaked out by it. Marisa LaScala