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