This month, the Trylon Microcinema and Take-Up Productions are hosting a retrospective on Tim Burton, "Hopes and Scares." Selected films include Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and the odd-duck in a set of already peculiar birds, Mars Attacks! For more information, go to www.take-up.org.
There’s a scene in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood where the title character (Johnny Depp), the worst director of all time, goes to a bar and encounters his hero, Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio). After bashfully introducing himself, Welles complains how the financing just fell through on his long-in-development dream project, Don Quixote. “That sounds just like my problems,” the worst director tells the man who may be the best, then asking, “Mr. Welles, is it all worth it?” “It is when it works,” says Orson, who then brings up Citizen Kane, the one picture where he had total control. “The studio hated it,” he says, “but they didn’t get to touch a frame.” The music begins to rise. “Ed,” says Welles, and Wood’s eyes light up when his idol utters his first name. “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”
Welles famously said that moviemaking was like having the world’s finest train set or magic kit. Having never directed a movie, Welles worked on Citizen Kane like a child at play. He wasn’t jaded by rules and had no sense of what you “didn’t” do, a trait for which the film’s cinematographer, the innovative Gregg Toland, had great love. Ed Wood is so endearing because Edward D. Wood Jr. shares Welles' enthusiasm, even though he’s working in B-pictures with a fraction of the talent, equipment, and financing. Hollywood, for both the eminent and the shabby, is a system with reductively economic motives, frowning on idiosyncraies. “I just want to tell stories,” Wood says, frustrated that his big break has failed to happen. And like Welles, Hitchcock, Fellini, Scorsese, and of course Tim Burton, when Wood gets to tell those stories, as cheap monster and mad scientist movies using glaringly out-of-place stock footage, cardboard sets, and remarkably untalented actors, the films are filled with the mark of private obsessions possessed by the the most respect auteurs. He is also a child at play.
Unlike Welles or Wood, Tim Burton has had a commendably successful journey with very few bumps, maintaining one of the most recognizable directorial aesthetics in Hollywood. Burton broke my own auteur cherry before I was a teenager. With Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990), all highly impressible on my pre-teen sensibilities, he was the first filmmaker whose flourishes I could identify: gothic shapes, strange stop-motion special effects, wildly pulsing scores by Danny Elfman, larger-than-life over-the-top performances, and a thematic interest in social outsiders rejected by the larger and more well-adjusted world. His darkly comic vision takes influence from Saturday morning cartoons, mid-afternoon B-movies on TV, Hammer horror films, and the performances of Vincent Price, his hero. Burton’s best works reflect a child exerting imagination upon inanimate toys, laboring with Play-doh and action figures, taking his kids stuff very seriously indeed. This sensibility is responsible for his becoming the unlikeliest of blockbuster makers.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was a vehicle for comedian Paul Reubens and his Pee-wee Herman character, but Tim Burton has just as much to do with its status in popular culture. Batman ushered in a new era of blockbuster studio marketing, being an intermediary between Spielberg’s E.T. in 1982 and Jurassic Park in 1993. But unlike other franchise films, and even though Burton was often at odds with Warner Bros executives (and comic book fans), Batman is a director’s film. Its sequel, Batman Returns (1992), is more unrestrained, perhaps too much so. It’s a comic book adventure cast in the pallor of Edgar Allen Poe. The other films, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas (directed by Henry Selick) are astoundingly original fantasies, distinctive as they were commercially successful. The first stage of Burton’s career climaxed with Ed Wood, his masterpiece, an overt commentary on his own profession. His most widely acclaimed film, it was also his first flop. With the exception of Big Fish in 2003, ever since he’s never been able to be free from oversized and ornate spectacles.
Burton began as an animator. Hired by Walt Disney Pictures, he did work on Tron and The Black Cauldron, often finding himself at odds with his superiors. He made a stop motion short, Vincent, where the main character imagines that he is Vincent Price, who also provided the narration. There was also Frankenweenie, a live action short about a family mutt that a grieving boy tries to raise from the dead. Burton's bosses were not amused by the dark themes. But maybe the young director grasped something that Disney was not able to comprehend (and which has been subsequently realized by South Park): adults just “don’t get” how childlike wonder and morbid anarchy go hand-in-hand, the same way that clowns represent something nefarious just as they refer to something gleeful. Most children’s films are made by adults who think they know what children want; they're safe, and so they don't reflect the psychology that views them. Burton understands how innocence and ghoulishness are playmates, and that a child's perspective holds the keys to the frustrations that follow us into adulthood. His movies have the same function as fairy tales: they are dressed up as entertainments for children, but fundamentally work in unwrapping an inspired through draped area that the distractions of adulthood conceal.
Burton’s background as an animator gives his films their characteristic of pure imagination, bringing inanimate backgrounds to flickering life. This made him a perfect collaborator for Paul Reubens aka Pee-wee Herman, a character who may be the oddest of eccentric cinema bachelors until Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Pee-wee loves to play by himself (a mischievously goofy aspect that is a little creepy, made more taboo by Reubens’ real-life infamous arrest for illegal exposure), more delighted with the company of his toys than with other people. In the morning, he jumps on his bed, plays with his bunny slippers, crashes a toy fire engine into Mr. Potato Head, and eventually talks to “Mr. Breakfast,” a smiling face constructed of a pancake, egg eyes, and bacon lips. He proceeds to feed Mr. Breakfast some Mr. T cereal, naturally having the box say a few words, “I pity the fool who doesn’t eat my cereal!”
Pee-wee doesn’t work and he doesn’t love. The world is a gigantic plaything for him, as it is for Burton, who loves seeing his characters in a pre-pubescent state of bliss (think of Ed Wood, Willy Wonka, or the tall-tale spouting dad in Big Fish), and like with children, this silly business of “play” is treated very seriously, just as intensely as adults take a James Bond adventure. Appropriately, Burton makes his point when the adventure of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is made into a film by Warner Bros, starring James Brolin as Pee-wee, a Bond-like hero, and Morgan Fairchild as Dotty. When smugly mature adults go to the movies or read classy books, they're still essentially talking to Mr. Breakfast.
Hip adults have savored Pee-Wee's Big Adventure much more than the marketed young audience. Burton’s early pictures all convey how the precocious imagination unimpeded by adult responsibilities (and Pee-wee has no responsibilities) makes children more adult than we give credit, something that marked Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland a disappointment. Like Spielberg's Hook (which has a similar scenario of the literary character returning to a land of boundless imagination), its adoration of imagination is patronizing and coddling to its audience. It’s the orthodox Church of the Imagination, and so no fun. It's the clown without the dark half. It's cleanly tied together with CGI, the rough stitching absent. Adult manufacturing has muffled the youth.
Like Pee Wee, Beetlejuice is a fantastical and cartoonish comedy appealing for younger audiences, but with bigger themes for grown-ups. Burton and his screenwriters aren’t just making cheap laughs as the recently deceased Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) hire out a private “bio-exorcist,” Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), to handle the Deetzes (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara), the pretentious socialite city family that’s moved into Maitlands’ cherished country home. There's an elevating drollness to Beetlejuice that makes brings it closer to Edward Gorey than to Ghostbusters. Beginning with the discrepancy in its title, Beetlejuice is a bureaucratic satire, almost if not quite in the same league as Brazil. The DMV-style pick-a-number afterlife waiting room has a plethora of amusements, in how the newcomers have their own freakish deaths (shrunken head; burnt to death smoker; shark attack; sliced in half; choked on a chicken bone), but of more amusement is how we notice the civil servants are all suicides: there's a lot of due process in the afterlife. The newly dead also receive a government publication, Handbook for the Recently Deceased, which “reads like stereo instructions.” You have an allotted number of vouchers, are stuck in your locale of death for hundreds of years, and your case worker (in this case wonderfully played by Sylvia Sidney) is highly condescending and lacks patience for your questions. Death is just as inconveniently annoying and rigidly controlled as living.
Betelgeuse is the independent contractor who promises customers that he’ll cut through all that government red tape with its inefficiency. But he’s not unlike a used car salesman preying on naïve customers. He’s also quite a pervert. He sets his sights on the Deetzes’ alienated teenager, Lydia (Winona Ryder), whose “strange and unusual” disposition enables her to see and communicate with the dead. In spite of his deficiencies, Betelgeuse possesses a freedom of personality the other dead characters lack, his main cinematic precedent being Bugs Bunny at his most mischievous.
Critics of Beetlejuice were perplexed by how lopsided it was. Though Betelgeuse is a con artist, murderer, and a near-pedophilic pervert, it feels like Burton is rooting for him to win. The Maitlands and the Deetzes are comparably boring. The happy ending, where Betelgeuse is defeated and stuck with a shrunken head in the afterlife waiting room, has a happy union between the living and dead families, with Lydia no longer an interesting and alienated teenager, but a smiling prep-school everygirl excelling at her math tests. Even though the conclusion is invigorating, as Lydia levitates and dances to Harry Belafonte (the use of Belafonte’s calypso music is one of the picture’s many original quirks), I think Burton’s heart is with Betelgeuse, the lonely outsider who wants to go his own way – and technically was cheated out of victory after saving the heroes at Lydia’s request. He's a Burton archetype, as we're told "he doesn't work well with others." But much like John Dillinger, he represents freedom. In observing the absurd efficiency of the afterlife, the provincialism of the Maitlands, and the smugness of the Deetzes, we can see why Betelgeuse would want to play the trickster. Beetlejuice is a “revenge of the nerd” movie where the nerd loses, the first of many for its director.
This goes back to Burton’s roots as a filmgoer, where his idols were not the good looking and well meaning matinee stars, but the horror film villains, like Christopher Lee and Vincent Price, both of whom would subsequently be cast by Burton in fatherly roles. In the symmetrically mundane repetitions of a suburban childhood, Burton gravitated to these arch-browed bad guys who disrupted the established order, or were held apart in solitude from the masses. These monsters signified escape for him, and he emulated them.
It’s then not surprising that Burton’s break into a film franchise should encounter the same problem as Beetlejuice, where the villain overshadows the hero. In Batman, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) has the film stolen from him by the Joker (Jack Nicholson). Again as with Beetlejuice, there were criticisms of Nicholson’s Joker being over-the-top, but this kind of performing is exactly what Burton wants, and it paid off. Burton loves the Joker’s histrionics as he unleashes anarchy, killing people with a fixed smile on his face. A remarkably anomalous scene has the Joker and his goons vandalizing an art museum, desecrating dignified pieces while hopping around to Prince’s music. Yet the Joker holds his men back from damaging a certain work, which we might notice is a Francis Bacon. The Joker prefers Bacon’s painterly assaults the same way that Burton prefers his Joker, Penguin, and Betelgeuse to the characters who are mainstream agents for audience identification. While looking at the portfolio by the object of his lust, photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), the Joker dismisses her respected work as “crap,” but applauds how her camera has captured a human massacre. “I don’t know if it’s art,” he says, “but I like it.”
Batman Returns is a much less ecumenical entertainment than its predecessor, but Burton is having the kind of fun forbidden to a major market filmmaker. It’s less like Batman than Edward Scissorhands, both in mood and content, and as a summer superhero blockbuster, this makes Batman Returns a little hard to digest (it was still the highest grossing film of 1992). Burton is not invested in the superhero story of Bruce Wayne/Batman, or the love story with Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Rather, he has an almost sentimental attachment to the deformed orphan named Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin (Danny DeVito), a freak-baby abandoned by his parents to the sewers of Gotham City, raised by penguins beneath the zoo. The Penguin can’t dream of having a meaningful friendship, or the love story allotted to his costars. He wreaks vengeance on a city that’s horrified by him, and though he is a monster with nothing but animal self-interest, he clearly has Burton's sympathy. What makes this dynamic interesting is that the filmmaker is building a wall between himself and the audience, because we don't necessarily have the same feeling for the Penguin. Like Betegeuse, he's a pervert and bent on power. I think this is conscious on the director's part; he wants to mark his own distinction. At the conclusion, Burton gives the Penguin a perversely reverent death march, the camera following emperor penguins pushing the burly corpse to the watery depths.
The kinds of creature comfort and erotic love that Burton’s villains cannot have is also the odd subject of his undervalued Mars Attacks! (1996). Like Dr. Strangelove, a film it emulates (but cannot possibly live up to), Mars Attacks! has something of a sexual allegory playing out, as big-brained aliens who only say “Ack!” take over the world. Strangelove’s hall of innuendos began with General Jack D. Ripper’s sexual frustrations finding outlet in a nuclear attack. The Martians in Mars Attacks! are Burtonesque anti-heroes who have no sexual organs and so bring havoc to the more erotically well-to-do goings on of the fertile planet Earth. These creatures are geeks after Burton’s heart, envying the well-adjusted good-looking guys and girls who have no problem relating to each other. The issue of the Martians’ sex is cleverly inserted during a Washington press conference, when a hermaphroditic reporter asks, “Will the Martians have two sexes, like us?” Denied a sexual identity, the aliens destroy sexuality altogether. Burton repeatedly feeds us images of castration: Martin Short’s lecherous presidential adviser has his finger bitten off by a Martian disguised as a human prostitute, who then murders him with a Venus-like statue; two star-crossed humans (Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker) fall in love after their heads have been removed from their bodies (like the aliens, their eroticism is restricted to their heads); and Burton's most sadistically funny moment, when the Martians crush a troop of Boy Scouts (a group that reinforces gendered norms) with the nation’s most conspicuous phallic symbol, the Washington Monument. Only after the Martians are defeated can we get back to business, and Tom Jones once more sings “It’s Not Unusual to be Loved by Anyone” – a title that may resonate for many good-looking people, though Burton would remind us not if you’re an anti-social geek, whose rejection leads to murderous envy.
That spite, attractive to Burton, is what we find in Betelgeuse, the Penguin, to an extent the Joker (he envies how Batman gets more press), and finally in Burton’s sweetest hero, Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp), who is noticeably trapped with his lonesome gaze as he watches beautiful Winona Ryder disappear into a van with her muscular boyfriend, Anthony Michael Hall, for what we can assume is carnal activity. Though Edward has always been seen as a hero, his alienation results in a familiar rampage, which is the same flavor we see in Burton’s ironically sympathetic villains. If he must be violent, as he is with the boyfriend near the end, Burton accentuates the viciousness in Edward. He provokes a deconstructive question in the movie's love triangle, because if we changed the focus of the manipulating camera eye, we could feel just as close to the Penguin. The blond and buff boyfriend is an archetype from the 1950s teen horror films, who saves the beautiful girl from a covetous monster (and Edward does gaze). But because Burton was afforded complete creative control on Edward Scissorhands, for the first and only time (at least until Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 2007) he allows the audience to be on his side, where the monster is disclosed as the tragic hero, like we can see in Quasimodo, the Phantom of the Opera, and Frankenstein's Creature.
Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood are Burton’s two greatest achievements, both being collaborations with Johnny Depp. They are about creative outsiders whose work affronts the mainstream community. Burton movingly transmutes his own childlike adoration into the affection his heroes have for paternal figures, which bespeaks Burton's own closeness to the movies of his youth. Cast as Edward’s “father,” a lonely inventor living in an old castle, is Vincent Price. The glee with which the Inventor follows his machinery is precisely the same kind of relationship between creative personality and inanimate objects that we see in Pee-wee Herman, and which we also relate to Burton and his films. The Inventor and his robot boy, Edward, both live in their private creative vistas, far away from other people and only interacting with the output of their visions, which function to express a longing for companionship. Edward is unfinished, as the kindly Inventor dies just before he was to fasten on a pair of human hands. Depp has said that Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton. His neuroses and whatever separates him from others are what gives his creativity an edge, much like Edward and his ice-chipping scissor hands.
Ed Wood completes Burton’s circle of maladjusted creators that exert will through imagination. There’s also another fascinating father-son dynamic at play, as the struggling director Wood befriends one of his childhood icons, Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), casting him in his movies. In Wood’s film Bride of the Monster, Lugosi delivers an in-character monologue to which he finds resemblance, and that also rightly fits Burton’s attitude to his mischievous and alienated outsider-heroes. “I have no home. Hunted! Despised! Living like an animal! The jungle is my home. But I will show the world that I can be its master. I shall perfect my own race of people! A race of atomic supermen that will conquer the world!” This is clichéd B-horror dialogue taken from Wood’s movie, but it plays remarkably in Ed Wood because of how the words carry a reverberation that the characters all take with them off the set and into their real lives. In Wood’s relationship with Lugosi, we have the timbre of what Burton may have felt for Price, or for another hero, the production designer Anton Furst, who worked on Batman and committed suicide soon after.
Ed Wood is a movie about enthusiasm, whether as a maker or viewer of movies. Burton loves Wood because those awful films still had a very sincere poetry to them, a mark, a directorial stamp of intent and devotion to a vision. Wood’s apartment is decorated with posters from Citizen Kane and Todd Browning’s Dracula (starring Lugosi), which explains his method of operation: he is attracted to lurid and ghastly stories like the latter, but seeks to tell them with the passion and integrity of the former. Burton shows how Wood’s derided films were still a map to the director’s mind and obsessions, from some kind of human philosophy to a fetish for cross-dressing. Ed Wood is another Burtonian cross of adult and adolescent, giddy when he sees the Spookhouse at the fair, feeling at home with the artificial specters. It’s the same feeling he wants to implant in his movie audience (even if the crowd is never receptive). Gene Siskel said that the two movies all film students should see are Citizen Kane and Ed Wood, Welles’ film for obvious reasons, but Burton’s to remind them of why they probably got into the business in the first place.
Burton’s reputation lately may lead one to think that his creativity has been waning. Alice in Wonderland, though the ninth highest grossing film of all time, left me with this feeling, as the wonderment felt like inauthentic self-parody, the spectacle stealing away all of the story’s breath and eerie potential. But to say that Burton's imagination is sapped is an inaccurate generalization. I enjoyed Sweeney Todd immensely, as I think the indulgences of both Stephen Sondheim and Burton were tempered by each other. The fact that the actors were medial singers is precisely one aspect that made it work as a Tim Burton film, much like Burton's early use of stop-motion animation effects outshine his recent embrace of CGI: the rough edges give his work a vulnerable soul, with its raging mad-scientist's heart. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) also worked for me, though I confess to never seeing the whole of the beloved Willy Wonka 1971 original. I was particularly pleased to see Burton’s longtime composer Danny Elfman return to his Oingo Boingo roots for the musical set-pieces, and enjoyed screenwriter John Logan’s invented paternal conflict, this time with the estranged dad being played by Burton hero Christopher Lee.