One of the most influential directors of my life has been Tim Burton. His vision is incomparable and the imagery he conjures up in many of his films not only capture the imagination, but they seem somehow to unearth to the buried fantasies and nightmares from deep within me. Perhaps it is because I grew up with his films and they have taught me to some degree what imagination looks like. That idea of imagination as a sort of entity, or life force that has fed on artists– or inspired them, whichever way you see it– has really helped to shape my view of what makes a movie work beyond the storytelling.
If a story is an object of purpose, like a chair or a table, than imagination is the tree. It’s complex and full of functions that serve no purpose in relation to the chair (or maybe they contribute to the chair without directly serving as a piece of the final object). Without imagination there is no art and there are certainly no stories. It is the raw material that becomes carved, chiseled, painted, honed (or in Burton’s case sketched) and captured into a final piece.
This idea of what imagination means as a source for artistic expression has resulted in my distaste for many newer works that attempt to showcase imagination itself. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to the odd flight of fancy, or spectacle; but without a construct, such as story, it shares a common relationship to nature. It’s full of rare beauty and inspiration, but you can only look at it for so long and it’s really a mere jumping off point for a true connection, or expressive experience.
It’s for this reason that it disappoints me to see imagination treated not as means to an end, but the new goal of filmmakers particularly in the genres that touch on fantasy. It should be something you start with to create something real, but it is now treated as a sort of aesthetic that directors strive for. Tim Burton, in a large way helped to create that aesthetic, though the lushness of his vision enabled him to show everything possible within the confines of the frame and the context of the story. He includes minor, but relevant details to enhance the sense of wonder in films like Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish, and Edward Scissorhands. His sensibility, best illustrated in films like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman and Mars Attacks could be called “quirky” another precious resource hollywood and independent production companies have over mined and attempted to synthesize into a sort of quirkic zirconia for those dreadful “off-beat” comedies that come from a trend following opportunist rather than the heart of an artist.
In my personal opinion, Burton peaked when he made his monumental masterpiece Sweeney Todd. Up until that point I had enjoyed every one of his films and Sweeney took the cake. It was one of the most gorgeous films I had ever seen and I raved about it long after, much to the chagrin of everybody. Now the director is in demand and selling inferior stories with his flashy brand of packaging most evident in Alice in Wonderland, but Alice in Wonderland notwithstanding, great stories with true vision like the Sam Raimi directed Oz: The Great and Powerful, or Coraline would not be possible without Tim Burton. The latter was directed by Henry Selick, who for years was referred to only as the director of The Nightmare before Christmas, which sadly lead to the assumption of many that his films were directed by Nightmare’s producer Tim Burton and kept the audience at large from knowing who the real Nightmare Before Christmas director really was.
It’s strange for me and it must be strange for Burton that the very sensibility that had him eschewed from the Walt Disney Animation Studios in the 80’s is now so in demand. Unfortunately, while Burton is a remarkable director he is not a screenwriter (Some of his better films started out as his stories but he usually hands them off to someone else.) and the strength of his films rests on the scribes entrusted with the task of providing him with a map to navigate. When he doesn’t have such a map (as he did with Big Fish, Batman, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…) he must rely on the raw matter of imagination and exploit his gift to make up for other lacking parts, thereby diminishing its value and appearing disingenuous, or possibly worse, hackneyed.
The Hobbit is a perfect example of the state of contemporary use of imagination in cinema. The contrast between the content of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and two-part (really?) The Hobbit is palpable. The first trilogy captured the books and really showed us something glorious at a time when that sort of movie had not really been done. Peter Jackson’s follow-up King Kong was long, but beautifully done and could not spare a single frame from the final cut in my opinion ( I actually went back and watched the film, looking for superfluous, dull, or unnecessary scenes and found none). Now, with factory made dreamscapes, the natural wonder of Tolkien’s middle earth is in ruins, slathered with a veneer of overly digitized images oozing with insincerity. We have gone from making fantasy believable to worshiping the idea of fantasy so that we abolish any notion of credibility. Even the actors then seem like actors desperate to rope the audience in to their little game, rather than characters in that world, unaware of our involvement.
The first time I think I was influenced by Tim Burton’s imagination was probably Pee Wee’s, Big Adventure. I didn’t like it at all. I was scared by it– I think it’s why I hate clowns– but I was fascinated by it, too. Maybe it was because I loved Pee Wee’s Playhouse so much, or maybe it was my psyche coming to terms with the odd things that seemed to terrify me, from Large Marge and rescuing snakes from a burning pet shop to Francis’s oozing chewing gum (I don’t know why, but it creeped me out.). I was prepared for Beetlejuice, which I think planted the seeds that grew into my own sense of style and vision. Strangely, I never thought of Tim Burton, or his material as dark. I just didn’t have that take on him at all. His visuals were inspiring and real to me and characters like Edward Scissorhands and Jack Skellington were relatable.
For a long time dark was the main word used to encapsulate a Tim Burton take on a project. Perhaps because his take on Batman didn’t wear grey tights and tell corny jokes. When Batman came out in 1989 it was the first time I had seen a Tim Burton film on the big screen. It was also my introduction to the character and I was an instant fan. The sequel, Batman Returns was the first movie I remember truly and impatiently anticipating. Edward Scissorhands stole my heart. I thought it was a beautiful fairy tale and nothing seemed strange, or off about it in the sense that Burton was regarded in those terms. It was just wonderful. I have come to love film noir and to embrace and greatly appreciate forms and aspects of darkness, both visually and conceptually, but I never considered the work of Tim Burton to be definitively dark. Batman the Animated Series was darker than anything Tim Burton has shown us, so I don’t really understand that assumption. On the other hand he does dark well. Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, Flatliners) is a darker director in my opinion, but he managed to significantly lighten up the Batman franchise after Burton had his way with it with the infamous 3rd and 4th instalments.
You could argue that the dark sensibility Tim Burton is known for, revealed in the black comedy Mars Attacks! and Sleepy Hollow are the remnants of his own childhood inspirations coming through, and perhaps, forcing his artistic vision into a category of light, or dark is to put a filter over it and unduly censor, trivialize or otherwise undermine the integrity of his work. Now, however it is something in demand: quirky, off-beat, dark, weird… more people are seeing these traits as something to aspire to and imitate. The look supersedes the content and superficial forgeries fabricated from those who seek imagination rather than nurture it, who idolize and aggrandize it rather than sharpen and hone it are muddying up the waters. While I felt that Dark Shadows sort of embodies that very reversal of style over substance it felt very flat and lifeless to me. instead of expressive as most of Tim Burton’s films have been it was expected, playing off of the public’s notion of a Tim Burton film. Even Frankenweenie, which was a beautiful remake of his short film for Buena Vista failed to recapture the magic of some great moments in the original when duplicated for the feature.
So this misunderstood artist was shunned by studios who had no use for his weird ideas and went on to shape the minds of a generation now targeted by those studios who want to tap into that rather substantial niche and will pay through the nose for it, but I have a feeling the pressure and responsibility from all that money and blind faith and the new larger fan base to appease are crippling his ability to function as he had. In a way his influence has come full circle and is now working against him. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a wonderful film and very “Tim Burton”– One of the last ones that truly was– yet many were unsatisfied, setting up the new dynamic of expectation that would turn the tide and threaten to blot out this imaginative force with superficial new demands.
Burton now produces more films than he directs and my hope is that in the process he will rediscover his own voice and once again find something personal to say. His next film will be Big Eyes, a biographical drama about artist Margaret Keane starring Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams. This is one I eagerly anticipate as I have the general feeling it will mark a sort of resurrection for Tim Burton as a genuine artist and provide an opportunity for a new round of more penetrating influence.