In his bravura performance as the Joker in Batman (1989), Jack Nicholson delivers a line that says a lot about director, Tim Burton. “We mustn’t compare ourselves to regular people,” he tells Kim Basinger. “We’re artists.”
One should never underestimate middle-class mediocrity as a spur to greater achievement. Burton’s entire career as graphic artist, animator, and finally, Hollywood director, has been a flight from the ordinariness of his upbringing in Burbank – a part of Los Angeles County that seems to define the suburban, middle-class experience. Knowing little about Burbank, I looked it up on Wikipedia and found various claims to fame: “the Bob’s Big Boy Restaurant in Burbank (est. 1949) is the oldest remaining Bob’s Big Boy in America, and in 1993 was designated a California Point of Historical Interest.”
Whoever said that Americans had no sense of history?
Even though Burbank may have seemed like “the pit of hell” to the young Burton (b.1958), it is also the home of Walt Disney Studios, and has enjoyed a close relationship with the film industry. It was as natural for Burton to go study at Cal Arts, the art school sponsored by the Disney Corporation, then go on to work at Disney Studios, as it was for boys born in industrial areas to follow their fathers into the mines and factories.
Tim Burton: The Exhibition, which has been pulling crowds at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, provides an unusually intimate view of one of the boom directors of our time. Not only do we see props, clips and costumes from Burton’s films, we get to examine his school assignments; read hand-written lists of B-movies he watched while grappling with puberty; read rejection letters from publishers, and watch his clumsy doodles evolve into sophisticated black satire.
If this sounds like a lot of junk, that’s a fair description, but it is unusually interesting junk. Given a more grandiose presentation it would be like poring over the relics of the saints, but everything is thrown together in a low-key manner, inviting us to ignore it if we choose. Needless to say, most people are fixated on this bit of sticky-beaking into Burton’s childhood. The movies and cartoons he was absorbing – Jason and the Argonauts, The Fall of the House of Usher, etc. – were being watched by millions of people around the world at the same time, yours truly included.
In the course of fourteen feature films, along with shorts and book projects, Burton has demonstrated a unique ability to tap into the popular imagination while retaining an unusually personal dimension. He has enjoyed box office successes but never settled into a predictable routine. Although the Burton ‘brand’ was established with his third feature, Batman, he followed this film with the suburban fairy tale, Edward Scissorhands (1990), often seen as a veiled autobiography.
He had originally resolved not to make a Batman sequel, but broke this resolution with the dark fable, Batman Returns (1992). His follow-up this time was The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), a virtuosic piece of stop-motion animation, directed by his friend Henry Sellick, using typical Burton imagery.
Many of Burton’s films, from the horror-comedy of Beetlejuice (1988) to the slapstick science fiction of Mars Attacks! (1996), are hard to classify. This is partly a conscious strategy, born of his frustration with the rigidity of the studio system. He once told an interviewer: “I’m for anything that subverts what the studio thinks you have to do.” Yet more than almost any other commercially successful director, Burton is at the mercy of his own obsessions and instincts.
He appears to think in terms of images rather than plot, which may explain why audiences turn up in their millions when his scripts are routinely panned by the critics. In today’s cinema, the visuals tend to overshadow dialogue. His films are compelling to watch, even when the plot falters. His characters remain incredibly vivid regardless of their spken banalities. Burton can never resist a visual or verbal gag, even in the most dramatic scenes. This adds to the roller-coaster momentum of his movies, dragging the viewer back and forth between tragedy and comedy, cartoon schlock and disturbing realism.
In this exhibition one sees Burton as quintessentially a cartoonist. From his earliest days drawing was the medium in which he expressed himself most fluently, where his inner life could be given free reign. He seems to have been subject to a wide range of influences, beginning with Doctor Seuss and evolving into a graphic style that has echoes of Ralph Steadman, Gerald Scarfe and Edward Gorey. From the first two, he appears to have borrowed the sharp lines and black scatological humour, from Gorey, the strangeness and melancholy.
Burton is such a psychic sponge it may be inappropriate to talk of anything so definite as “influences”. Much of his sensibility was formed sitting in front of the TV set, or watching creature features. Mars Attacks! is his most overt homage to that legacy, but the imagery of cartoons, horror films and science fiction flicks may be found throughout his work. The fairy tale is his preferred genre, but in a way that harks back to the violent, chilling narratives of the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault. Edward Scissorhands is the benign cousin of the tailor in the German classic, Der Struwwelpeter (1845), who appears suddenly with a giant pair of shears and snips off a boy’s thumbs.
Edward is not the scourge of thumb-suckers but a lonely, vulnerable character that cannot get close to people without the risk of hurting them. Rescued from seclusion by a friendly Avon lady, he is accepted into the all-devouring morass of suburbia, but soon finds himself the object of growing hostility. This reflects Burton’s personal experience of Burbank, which he portrays as a zone of compulsory niceness that masks a hatred for anything out-of-the-ordinary.
No-one is ever really happy in Burton’s films. Batman, for instance, is portrayed as a damaged personality. Behind the mask of the fearless crime-fighter is a traumatised individual who has never gotten over the murder of his parents and can barely relate to other human beings. Batman and the Joker, in Burton’s words, are “two freaks” that mirror each other’s anxieties. Even Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas, dissatisfied with his pre-eminence as “King of Halloween”, is driven by his own neuroses to make a terrible mess of his attempts to impersonate “Sandy Claws”.
This vein of psychological unease makes Burton’s films far more memorable than the usual Hollywood fare. Like the best children’s literature they appeal not only to children, but to adults receptive to the satire and politically incorrect humour. In his animated features the insipid, socially cohesive messages one finds in so many Disney movies are completely overturned.
Burton describes his personal experience of working at Disney Studios as follows: “Remove part of your brain and become a zombie factory worker.” Viewers can draw their own conclusions when they visit ACMI’s next attraction, Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairy Tales (from 18 November). Even the title sets one’s teeth on edge.
It would be nice to blame Walt Disney Pictures for the failures of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010). As the studio behind this big budget extravaganza, Disney must have had some say on the final form of the film, which seems to have been designed mainly to exploit 3D effects in the manner of Avatar. As a pure spectacle the film was vastly inferior to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), which was a visual tour-de-force, even if the story was as sickly as one of Willy Wonka’s candies.
Neither was there much trace of the humour, fantasy or psychological depth that distinguished films such as Batman, Ed Wood (1994) or Big Fish (2003). With its stupid fight sequences and laboured introduction, Burton’s Alice was utterly antipathetic to Lewis Carroll’s stories. The problem was not simply that the plot diverged from the original – it was an act of vandalism inflicted on the very spirit of those books.
Alice was a train wreck of a film, unworthy of a director who has demonstrated such reserves of talent and imagination. It was also a strangely impersonal affair, with none of the intimacy and autobiographical nuances we have come to expect in a Tim Burton project. If this tortured but highly successful director still values his status as an artist rather than a creator of Hollywood product, it might be time to take a break from the big studios and go back to the drawing board.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 28, 2010
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne
June 24 to October 10, 2010