Quirk: Tim Burton at MoMA

There is a huge Tim Burton retrospective currently up at MoMA—an arrangement that is obviously mutually advantageous to both parties.  MoMA gets major traffic through the gallery, and Burton gets the gold standard in gallery-cred--not to mention added publicity for his upcoming Alice In Wonderland film with Disney.  It’s a rare win-win for both art and commerce (and runs through April 26). 

The exhibit is set up pretty much like you would expect.  After passing through a room of black-lite art to get your whimsy revving, there follows a “Pre-Pee Wee” section that gathers drawings, paintings, and short films (some already fairly well known, like Frankenweenie [1984]) made by Burton before his debut as a director of features in 1985. Especially striking is a 1983 adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, a short film that trades in such an oddly dated minimalism that it is now wholly current once again.  The drawings, meanwhile, suggest Burton was at some point really smitten by both the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine (1968) and Gerald Scarfe's work in The Wall (1979). 

A “Post-Pee Wee” section, meanwhile, concentrates on designs, mock-ups, props, costuming, and other items from Burton’s career in Hollywood.  The cowl from Batman (1989) was especially magnetic on the day I was there, as one would expect of any vessel that once contained the head of Michael Keaton.  Scattered throughout the exhibit, finally, are some larger sculptural pieces, all of them rather suspiciously dating from 2009, suggesting Burton must have realized at one point: “Oh shit, I’m doing a show at MoMA? I’d better get some ART-art together…and fast!”  The best of these by far is a nicely creepy carousel piece in the black-lite room (accompanied by its own tastefully discrete score from Danny Elfman).

The space is a bit over-stuffed in places, but overall it is well worth the time of anyone with even a passing interest in Burton’s filmography.   Critics have really taken to describing the show as “quirky,” but I suspect many will find the vibe of the exhibit extremely familiar.  Anyone born in the ‘50s and ‘60s (and no doubt after) probably knew quite a few Tim Burtons in high school—those kids who were always drawing weird menageries and anachronistic battles in their notebooks—monsters, tanks, ray-guns, volcanoes, ghosts, hot-rods, dinosaurs, UFO’s and other props of the adolescent imaginary vying for loose-leaf supremacy.  Maybe one or two of those kids would really get far out and start drawing Nazis, naked girls, and ritual disembowelments—securing them a place either in art school or the penal system—but most stayed well within the vernacular of basic horror, fantasy, science-fiction, and boyhood ghoulishness.  In this respect, the Burton show can only really be considered “quirky” from the perspective of those kids who sat on the popular side of the cafeteria.   To those who have even a little bit of geek in their pedigree, Burton’s visual and thematic preoccupations should be extremely familiar. 

Packing all of this goofy stuff into one space provides even more evidence that REGRESSION is the single greatest force powering U.S. entertainment in the post-war era. And before any Burton fans freak out and break the sissy bar on my banana-bike, I say this knowing full well that 90% of the posts on this blog are about awesomely bad movies, infantile television programs, and “sleaze” harvested from a very narrow and thus quite revealing historical window.  No one escapes.  No one.  Beginning in the 1960s, the entire nation started slowly falling into its toy chest.  And now it has almost given up the struggle to crawl back out again. 

Before continuing, let’s let the films speak for themselves:

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985): regression in quotation marks, but regression nevertheless. 

Beetle-juice (1988): magical children fighting to throw the boring adults out of their playhouse.

Batman /Batman Returns (89-92):  comic-book adaptations (yes, I know, “graphic novels”—the very fact that some feel the need to make that continual correction only reaffirms the problem).

Edward Scissorhands (1990): the Ur-text of high school trauma, at least until all the sexy vampires arrived.

Ed Wood (1994):  hagiography of a geek demi-god. 

Mars Attacks! (1996): love-letter to an adolescent culture that predates even Burton’s own birth.

Planet of the Apes (2001):  remake of a film worshiped by every 10-year old boy alive in 1968.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005): ditto.

Alice in Wonderland (2010):  do I really need to go on?

And now IMDB reports that Burton’s next film will be a feature-length version of Frankenweenie, suggesting he’s now even regressing back into his own oeuvre. 

This isn’t to single Burton out.  The same could be said of Spielberg’s decision to remake War of the Worlds, Peter Jackson’s desire to spend two years remaking King Kong (after churning out 6+ hours of LOTR, no less), and George Lucas’ decision to basically pack it up after Star Wars. So many directors seem to love the cinema in such a way that, when given the chance to do anything they want, they end up retreating into childhood memory rather than forging ahead into any new territory.  Not that appeals to regression necessarily foreclose all possibility of interesting work.  I’ve always thought Ed Wood was Burton’s most accomplished film precisely because it honors so beautifully the childlike sensibility that must exist on both sides of the screen to keep Plan 9 alive decade after decade (the fact that the production design for the film demanded some degree of restraint in its fidelity to Wood’s vision didn’t hurt either, not to mention Martin Landau’s truly incredible performance as Bela Lugosi). 

Burton’s "regressive" aesthetic, echoing in particular through so many other males of the past half-century, probably isn’t psycho-sexual so much as psycho-social, the product of living in a culture that actively tricks young boys and teenagers into thinking they have “discovered” certain popular objects at an imaginary “margin” and then to fixate on them, perhaps for life.  This is a consumer strategy the culture industries are all too happy to pursue, of course, not simply because it helps eliminate some degree of uncertainty in the marketplace, but also because it helps narrow the entire field of popular culture around a more predictable set of memories, properties, and pleasures.   The strange thing is that we still think of such properties as “quirky,” when really they simply narrate the pyrrhic victory of the delusionally “unique” consumer over the “normative” field of mass culture. 

Burton’s whimsical grotesque is in many ways an extremely stylized realization of a world first revealed in old movie mags like Famous Monsters of Filmland, the Forrest Ackerman publication of the 1960s that promised boys they might live forever in a world of magic, monsters, and misfits.  And truly, if we were to inventory the franchises that currently inspire the greatest commitment among fan communities, how many of them would ultimately be about some permutation of “magic,” “monsters,” and “misfits?”  How many of them thrive on the regressive logic of “magical thinking?”  As a critic for the BBC (whose name escapes me, alas) said of the current cycle of comic-book superhero movies: “I get it. I get it. I want to have power and I never want to die.”    

One would think spending 5, 10, 15 years wrapped up in a single artifact or genre—Star Wars, forgotten Midwestern prog-rock bands, “Kustom Kulture,” James Joyce—would eventually lead to an overwhelming sense of boredom verging on despair.  But the brilliance of “convergence” is that industrial culture keeps finding new strategies, not only to repackage what you have already consumed, but also to create the illusion that one is moving ever-forward into new discoveries when, in fact, the exact opposite is true.  Each new installment, spin-off, and transmedial reincarnation is not so much an added layer of nuance and depth, but is instead the reaffirmation of a certain primary attachment —one now increasingly sealed in those adolescent years when the brain is not yet fully wired.  We know cigarette companies are desperate to hook new customers during the teenage years—why should we expect anything less from global entertainment conglomerates? 

Consider again this fact: Tim Burton, who by my count is now 52 years old, is about to make a feature version of a short film he made when he was 26 about a dachshund who dies and is brought back to life a la Frankenstein. I hear there might be some girls there too. 

Meanwhile, the next post on this blog could very well be about The Shaggs, a ‘70s bondage movie, Wacky Packs, or the most obscure “women in prison” paperback I can find next time I’m digging through a thrift-store basement. 

It’s too late for us.  It’s too late for entire generations.  I never thought I would say it, but to the young folks out there, turn off the goddamn TV and go outside—talk to someone you don’t know—read a book, preferably one not based on a movie or TV show—build a miniature ship in a bottle---learn to play bridge---anything. 

And I beg of you.  Thirty or forty years from now, if anyone catches me watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn in my nursing home, please smother me in my sleep. 

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