Sunday, 30 September 2007

Montage Revokes Your License! This Week: Tim Burton by Robert Duffin

Everyone at school knew a Tim Burton. Your Tim Burton might have had big coke bottle spectacles; maybe he collected bus timetables or scoured the playground for discarded coins. However this Tim Burton, the one that went on to become a famous filmmaker, was likely to be in the corner somewhere doodling away on a drawing pad, or inviting people round his house for a Vincent Price marathon. Who knew that one-day this Tim Burton would become King of the Outsiders, style icon to millions, and spawn his own adjective? Yet for many film commentators, in recent years Burtonesque has started to lose a little of its shine. For me however it’s never really had it at all. Tim Burton has become one of the laziest hit and miss directors in Hollywood, and with only three genuinely good films in twenty years, it’s time to call him out.

Burton’s career first flourished under the roof of the House of Mouse. After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts, Burton began working for Disney on The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. Whilst there he also directed his two famous stop motion shorts, Vincent and Frankenweenie, which Disney deemed unsuitable for children and would only later surface as DVD extras. The shorts did however attract the attention of children’s entertainer and matinee masturbator, Paul Reubens, aka Pee-Wee Herman. Burton was signed on to direct Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and the first cinematic outing for Reuben’s socially inept buffoon was surprisingly successfully despite generally being expunged from the Burton canon in recent years.

The first definitive entry into said canon is also the first of his three great films: 1988’s Beetlejuice. Only the twisted imagination of a boy who once staged an axe murder with his brother could conceive death as a bureaucratic nightmare rather than an existentialist one. Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin are a recently deceased couple whose house is bought by an irritating family whom they want to remove. As a last resort they invoke the spirit of Beetlejuice, a magnificently malevolent Michael Keaton, who gives one of the finest manic performances in cinema. And of course there is the Burton substitute, this time Winona Ryder, with her “life is a dark room. One. Big. Dark. Room.” The joy of Beetlejuice is the perfectly realised warped world of curling spirals and black and white chequered flooring. However, it would be a long time before Burton ever told such a compelling story in one of his created environments again.

One year later, the success of his low budget spook-comedy would see Warner Brothers hand him they keys to Gotham City to make his Joker movie…erm I mean Batman movie. To first give him his props, Batman comic book writers and filmmakers have rightly adopted the Gotham created by Burton since the film was released. His art deco Gotham was simply the perfect environment to tell the story in, except Burton forgot the story. For a film based on forty years worth of comic book stories, Batman was surprisingly an example of form over narrative. Burton simply doesn’t understand the Batman character and instead chose to turn him into one of his own damaged children, and put the focus on the villain, a move that eventually led to overkill in the franchise. Despite his baddie fetish, Burton for the most part understands The Joker about as much as he understands the Dark Knight. Jack Nicholson doing “Jack” with some face slap on simply doesn’t cut it, and while this instalment is generally well respected it sowed the seeds of the problems that went untouched until Christopher Nolan arrived on the scene with Batman Begins 16 years later.

He followed up Batman with perhaps his most famous and loved film, Edward Scissorhands, a film that I simply don’t get the fascination with. It’s packed with gorgeous imagery, but that’s never been a problem for Burton who is probably the world’s most famous set decorator. Instead it once again trips up on story, and can anyone remember the ins and outs of this film? Distracted by a chunk of undercooked peripheral satire, Scissorhands is marred by a set of characters that have nothing to do. Edward is supposed to be weird, a commentary on teenage awkwardness, yet in a pastiche world where everyone is a caricature, what does he have to comment on? This is just absurd people doing absurd things. And the ending, essentially saying that outcasts will always be losers, sees Burton sentimentally revelling in the grotesque world he has created for himself.

A severe case of arrested development would strike his Batman Returns, which he successfully haggled for complete creative control over. Plotlines are left hanging like loose threads on Catwoman’s fetish costume, but the phantasmagoria of the special effects and set design are never less than stellar. Our obligatory outsider subtext comes in the form of The Penguin who, abandoned by his parents and raised by sewer penguins, comes to represent the neglected and damaged children of society finally wreaking their revenge. Loamy undertones aside, Burton once again spends more time with his villains than Bruce Wayne, whose existence in this story seems to be for the purposes of creating categories of weirdoes. Thankfully this was Burton’s last visit to Gotham, and while he did have a visually engaging stab at the mythos of Batman, again, he simply didn’t get the character. In film noir there are no more heroes, and despite being on the darker end of the superhero spectrum Batman is still a hero and trying to make him into a neurotic recluse was a bad idea.

It had been six years since Beetlejuice, and Burton had become somewhat of a celebrity filmmaker. Yet to follow up Batman Returns with a biopic of a little known trashy sci-fi director would result in the second of his great movies, and a personal favourite film for me: Ed Wood. The pinnacle of the Burton-Depp creative relationship sees them tell the story of one of the worst filmmakers of all time with a dizzying dose of screwball, sexual deviancy and angora sweaters that Burton pulls off with a surprising level of grace. Wood and his coterie of bizarre friends are a completely engaging creative force, and you almost will them into success even as they “PULL THE STRING!!” and stage intergalactic battles with paper plates. After peppering his films with pseudo-biographical characters, it seems Burton finally found a kindred spirit in Ed Wood and somehow it worked. Sadly, Burton would move on from making a film about schlock science fiction pictures and make one himself, the much-maligned Mars Attacks. Clearly aiming for the satire of Strangelove, Burton’s Martian movie was a tedious spoof that’s only saving grace was an almost antidote- like close release date to Independence Day.

Closing out the 1990s was Burton’s last truly great film, a Hammer style adaptation of Irving Washington’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. An ensemble cast of top quality scenery chewers (Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, Jeffrey Jones and Miranda Richardson) skilfully back Johnny Depp’s wimpy Ichabod Crane. Equally eerie and engrossing, the claret splattered Sleepy Hollow would be Burton’s last great achievement before the onset of his millennial malaise. Post-2000 it has been a drastic case of diminishing returns from an already uneven filmmaker. There was the out of control spiral that was the calamitous remake of Planet of the Apes, the Greatest Hits of Tim Burton aka Big Fish and worst of all, the supposed perfect pairing of Tim Burton and Roald Dahl. Talk about careful what you wish for. The breathtaking realisation of the titular factory was inevitable, but what we didn’t expect to see was the moment Depp and Burton began to believe their own hype, captured forever on celluloid. Post-Jack Sparrow no one was about to lecture Johnny Depp on how to play a quirky character, but Burton really should have stepped in when the words “creepy paedophile” or “Michael Jackson” were mentioned. Awkward, not funny, and even positively sinister, hopefully sometime soon they will find a cure for box office blindness and call these two out for that particular creation. So while the 90s were a steady to and fro of hit and miss, the 00s have been a nosedive.

Yet despite his output getting slowly worse Burton has never been more of a cultural icon. The entire emo movement in pop culture have adopted him as their most celebrated pariah, with Edward Scissorhands and Jack Skellington (from Nightmare Before Christmas, based on Burton’s drawing but directed by Henry Selick) adorning t-shirts and hoodies that lurk under all the ridiculous fringes. Burton has become king of his own band of misfits who identify with his outlook on the world. Of course a group who define their identities with appearance would turn to one of the greatest stylists in cinema, but the ability to create pretty pictures doesn’t mean you can tell a story. Burton is an affable person in interviews, with admirable politics and an abundance of artistic talent for sure, but he is not a storyteller. In some ways he’s like a more talented George Lucas; he can create amazing worlds and characters, just don’t ask him to do anything interesting with them. Next up is another one of those “dream collaborations” as Burton, with Depp in tow naturally, tackles Steven Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd musical. A perfect marriage of director and topic? It doesn’t matter now, because Mr. Tim Burton…Montage has revoked your license.

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