Tim Burton’s Shock Corridors At LACMA


The recently-opened career retrospective accorded film director Tim Burton at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has drawn mixed reviews but the adoration of his fans is just as dangerously entrapping as the goo that snared dinosaurs millions of years ago in the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits.

From the opening day, Burton’s legions of admirers have flocked to LACMA clothed in the off-kilter aesthetics of his characters. Burton has always had a thirst for the visually spellbinding, from Beetlejuice (1988) and his revolutionary re-imagining of the Batman mythos to the culturally merciless, almost Andrew Lang-like fairy stories of Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Big Fish (2003), and the electroconvulsive short-circuiting of traditional Hollywood fodder in Planet Of The Apes (2001) and Alice In Wonderland (2010).

I’ll admit I’m not a great fan of Burton but will religiously line up on opening day for each new film. Burton is all technicolourful style and movement, bright and shiny and just as long lasting as one of Willy Wonka’s confections. What he brings to the screen, a reawakening of expressionism and the gothic sensibility, he neglects in his characters; I haven’t been emotionally connected to a Tim Burton character since Edward Scissorhands. Like Edward, crack the chest of Burton’s films and all you find is a mechanical heart.

It’s all blue screen and CGI and motion capture. Burton’s is a closed universe with little room for an aesthetic to wander around unhindered. Compare this with a director such as Tarantino where, the more you watch, the more minor details emerge from the busy canvas and take on a life of their own.

That’s not to say his films are entirely unsatisfying. I’m a rabid supporter of movies that almost just not-quite realise their full potential, the coulda been, shoulda been masterpieces.

The Gotham City of Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) was a dystopian wonderland, hemorrhaging from the ravaged heart of its own citizenry; it was a cityscape that even Christopher Nolan couldn’t improve upon. The main problem was Michael Keaton’s Batman, whose pursed lips were his only semaphore for emotional agony.

Alice In Wonderland was gorgeous to look at and packed with great actors but the sum of their talent was wasted by a script that allowed them little more than the opportunity to turn up in flamboyant costumes.

The simian Statue of Liberty in the original Planet Of The Apes made more sense and had significantly more shock value than Burton’s Ape-raham Lincoln twist ending.

Far more interesting are his early films. Ed Wood (1994) was the one instance where Burton didn’t scatter his expressionistic bag of tricks across the screen like a cinematic Jackson Pollock and hope for the best. In this affectionate tribute to the 1950s schlock director, he was understated, even muted. Shot in black and white, it had the effect of reigning in a visual delinquency that would become a regurgitated motif in later years.

The Tim Burton retrospective was originally curated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2009 and travelled to Melbourne’s Australian Centre For The Moving Image the following year. It runs at LACMA until 31 October 2011.

Words © David Latta

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Author: davidlatta

David Latta is an award-winning editor, journalist and photographer. His work has appeared in scores of Australian and international newspapers and magazines including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Australian Financial Review, The Courier-Mail and Travel & Leisure. During the last two decades, he has largely concentrated on travel and tourism, editing more than a dozen B2B titles and major conference and incentive travel publications. He is the author of critically-acclaimed books on such subjects as architecture and design, Australian history, literary criticism and music. These titles include Lost Glories: A Memorial To Forgotten Australian Buildings, Sand On The Gumshoe: A Century Of Australian Crime Writing, and Australian Country Music. He is currently working on a book about the nightclub scene in 1970s Sydney as well as a sprawling thriller set in Sydney during World War II. As an arts commentator, humourist and trend-spotter, his opinions are sought across the gamat of traditional and social media.

4 thoughts on “Tim Burton’s Shock Corridors At LACMA”

  1. I saw the Tim Burton exhib in Melbourne last year – brilliant and the art work was crazt-wonderful. My fave movies; Ed Wood, E Scissorhands and all time favourite Beetlejuice.

  2. Ed Wood I adorded Johnny in angora and Bill Murray as Bunny (have I remembered right?) but most of his other films a have left me cold. I thought Big Fish almost worked. I am a lifetime devotee of Alice in Wondreland and believe he sometimes struck the Carrollian tone but the battle scene at the end was pure shite. What has a mighty good vs evil clash got to do with logic games and the subtle subversion of everyday Victorian reality? Tell me if Burton directed Sweeney Todd? If so that redeems him considerably.

    1. I atlaulcy didn’t mind Alice in Wonderland. I thought Burton or who ever wrote the story, portrayed an interesting fashion montage of a young woman searching for self-empowerment in a sexist and repressive world. Minus the Lord of The Rings epic battle sequence that seemed to come out of nowhere… (maybe it was in the book? donno though… anyone read it?) I really dug the Joan of Arch proto-feminist representation of Alice in the film.

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