By Michele Leight
It is rare to see galleries
as consistently packed with people as those at The Museum of Modern
Art's retrospective of a contemporary filmmaker, entitled "Tim
Burton," on view from November 22 2009 to April 26, 2010.
Sponsored by Syfy, an imagination-based
entertainment cable TV channel, "Tim Burton" was organized
by Ron Magliozzi, Assistant Curator, Jenny He, Curatorial Assistant,
Department of Film, and Rajendra Roy, The Celeste Bartos Chief
Curator of Film, The Museum of Modern Art.
Mr. Magliozzi said:
"While Tim Burton is known
almost exclusively for his work on the screen, including "Beetlejuice,"
"Batman," "Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas,"
and more recently "Sweeny Todd," this exhibition covers
the full range of his creative output, revealing an artist and
filmmaker who shares much with his contemporaries in the post-modern
generation who have taken their inspiration from pop culture.
In Burton's case he was influenced by newspaper and magazine comics,
cartoon animation and children's literature, toys and TV, Japanese
monster movies, carnival sideshows and performance art, cinema
Expressionism and science fiction films alike."
Tim Burton has been a huge
influence on a young generation of filmmakers working in video,
graphics and film, up-ending standard Hollywood fare through his
unique and very personal vision. His global cult following is
a testament to his artistic sensibilities and fertile imagination,
rarified commodities in an age dominated by digital technology,
and computer and video games, which give the young of all ages
the impression they are being imaginative and creative when they
are merely playing games in a virtual world.
People of all ages, but especially
the young, have delighted in Burton-directed films such as "Edward
Scissorhands," "Pee Wee's Great Adventure," "Batman,"
"Mars Attacks," "Beetlejuice," Sweeney Todd,"
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and more recently
"Alice in Wonderland," all bearing Tim Burton's creative
stamp. Creative his films certainly are, or TheMuseum of Modern
Art would not anoint a contemporary filmmaker and director with
a major retrospective.
From his earliest efforts like
storytelling and video, (essential fodder for professional films),
Burton does incredibly creative things, especially with graphics
and video, often with the simplest devices. Viewing his adolescent
storyboards and video clips at the show gives us ordinary folk
the impression that he is the guy next door tinkering around with
his toys, but we soon realize when one of his rapidly sketched
characters morphs into Edward Scissorhands that he is in fact
a genius. This show reveals how such characters are the product
of raw imagination that begin on the pages of ordinary sketchbooks
and notepads, brought to life with age-old tools like brushes,
paints and pencils. The imaginary character is the special effect,
magnificent and alone on a plain white page.
Refreshingly, like most art
students - he is an artist to the core - Burton is a prolific
user of pencils, with their wonderful ability to carve fine or
thick outlines, smudge and create mysterious textures.. There
are many superb, intricately detailed sketches in this exhibition,
and it was a challenge to see all of them despite several visits
because so many young people had their noses pressed up against
them for closer viewing. His work has that effect - of wanting
to look closer.
"Baloon Boy," a 21-foot-tall,
larger than life sculpture with many eyes greets visitors in the
Agnes Gund Garden Lobby, while a topiary deer from Edward Scissorhands
co-exists happily for the duration of this exhibition with world
famous sculptures by Picasso, Matisse and many others in the Abby
Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden.
The endless lines of visitors
awaiting access at MoMA to view Burtons idiosyncratic "take"
on things is evidence that this cult of the imagination resonates
with the young especially - the visitors were predominantly young,
they were literally everywhere, and clearly enraptured with what
they found in Burton's work.
Accessed through a delightfully
"horrific" yawning monster's mouth inspired by an unrealized
film project "Trick Or Treat," (1990), the exhibition
in the museum's third floor galleries is focused on Tim Burton
growing up in Burbank, organized in three sections: "Surviving
Burbank," Beautifying Burbank," and "Beyond Burbank."
The titles reference the California
city that inspired Burton's work, and the early works in "Surviving
Burbank" - sketches, paintings, models and even short films
about monsters - reflect his adolescent sense of alienation from
the blah-blandness of Californian small town life, and the powerful
creative forces within him that helped him escape it.
There are no less than 700
sketches of concept art, sketchbooks, drawings, paintings, photographs
and a unique selection of his early amateur films on view at this
show, many never seen before. It is the Museum of Modern Art's
most comprehensive monograph exhibition devoted to a filmmaker,
and includes an extensive film retrospective spanning Tim Burton's
career, with a related series of films that influenced, inspired
and intrigued him as a filmmaker.
It is as a director of off-beat films that Burton has gripped
popular imagination and made him a household name, but his prolific
creativity in a wide variety of media is the revelation of this
show, charting a career spanning 27 years that began with an animated
short entitled "Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979), submitted
as his graduation project at CalArts (California Institute of
the Arts). The film is a sketchbook illustration brought to life,
and reveals his early preoccupation with combining the gothic
and the everyday, a successful fusion that persists to this day.
Other CalArt sketchbooks are also on view.
reveals Burton as a child of the Surrealists. His wonderful paintings,
(some illustrated here), sketches and models depict characters
so imaginative it is hard to define or label them. They are individualistic,
apart, totally out of place in a homogenized and technocratic
world, where the ability to dream or even exist outside a formulaic
existence is not easy. "Imaginings" this well conceived
could not be drowned out by a stereotypical sub-urban childhood,
no matter where Burton had grown up.
Monotony and boredom was the
catalyst that motivated Burton to make his own home movies starring
friends and neighbors. The Super 8mm films from the early 1970s
include "The Island of Dr. Agor," (1971) and "Houdini:
The Untold Story," (1971).
He also whiled away the hours
sketching prolifically in notebooks, painting, taking photographs
- in other words creating a world of his own invention that was
totally unlike the boring one in which he lived. He also wrote
and illustrated a children's book, ""The Giant Zlig,"
(1976), compiled lists of fantastic films, and organized a film
series reflecting his fascination with classic American horror
movies, 1950s science fiction, and Japanese Monster Culture. He
kept really busy.
Excerpts from later animated
films on view at the show include "Luau," (1980) and
"Doctor of Doom," (1980), featuring a young Tim Burton
in starring roles. Hilarious, these films satirize foreign-language
horror movies and beach party films, while adhering to traditional
animation techniques. Not surprisingly, themes and motifs in Burton's
early forays in filmmaking resurface years later in his professional
After two years at CalArts,
Burton spent four years working as an animator at The Walt Disney
Studios, and there are many examples of his first professional
work at Disney that reveal signature motifs and persistent stylistic
traits, including creature-based notions of character, masking
and body-modification, themes of adult and adolescent interaction,
and sentiment, cynicism and humor. A digital slideshow highlights
select pages from his classroom exercises and notes.
Burton created 50 cartoons
in pencil on animation registration paper between 1980 and 1986,
which helped off-set the often mundane requirements for the apprentice
artist's routine animation work at Disney. No day job could contain
his imagination, and his own drawings explode with pent-up creative
energy, non-abrasive youthful cynicism and a keen sense of fun.
As a concept artist for Disney, he created several projects that
were left un-produced and unpublished. These include "Trick
or Treat," "Romeo and Juliet," (1980-84), and "Little
Dead Riding Hood," (1981). His creative out-put was not in
vain, however, because this body of work has remained an imaginative
resource of wit and invention for the filmmaker.
Select items are on view from
Burton's virtually unknown adaptation of "Hansel and Gretel,"
commissioned by The Walt Disney Company and broadcast only once
in October 1983 on Disney's recently launched cable channel. It
stars Vincent Price, the king of horror movies and Burton's childhood
idol, who later narrated "Vincent," (1982), and played
a pivotal role in "Edward Scissorhands. Together with early
collaborators - another common theme in his life - Heinrichs,
Stephen Chiodo, and Joe Ranft, Burton created over 500 pieces
of concept and story board art, designed toys for the film, and
hand-drew parts of the set for this essentially "handcrafted"
Another lifelong collaborator
is Danny Elfman, who selected the musical compositions that accompany
an installation of large-scale polaroids, 33 by 22 inches, created
by Tim Burton between 1992 and 1999, together with a curio case
filled with bizarre objects used in their production. Staged in
studios and on desert and country locations often with live models,
the polaroids utilize fantastical objects created for photo shoots,
and puppets and props from "The Nightmare Before Christmas."
Throughout, there is evidence of the filmmaker's fascination with
body modification, and the Gothic. These are on view together
with domestic and international posters from Burton's films in
the Roy and Niuta Titus Theatre Lobbies.
Success came calling once audiences
were treated to Tim Burton's "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985),"
the riotously dark and humorous "Beetlejuice," (1988),
Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands," (1990). His sixth
feature film, "Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas"
(1993), listed his name above the title, signaling his total "arrival"
in fabled Hollywood. He was both producer and director of the
intensified, including those with Colleen Atwood the costume designer,
Stan Winston the special effects wizard, Ian Mackinnon and Peter
Saunders the stop-motion puppet craftsmen, and the character design
studio of Carlos Grangel that helped bring his vision to the screen.
One crammed gallery exploded
with examples of their work together, and important studio loans
from Disney, Warner Bros., and Twentieth Century Fox archives,
including puppets from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,"
(2005), the Sandworm jaws from "Beetlejuice," (1988),
and original puppets and concept art from Tim Burton's "Corpse
Bride," (2005). Iconic costumes from "Edward Scissorhands,"
(the original, shown on a lifelike mannequin of Johnny Depp, a
constant in Burton's films), "Batman Returns" (the mask
with those unmistakable stretched ears), and the original slinky
Catwoman suit were displayed alongside props including the creepy
Penguin carriage from "Batman Returns" and playfully
ghoulish severed-heads from "Mars Attacks" (1996) casually
laid down in a glass vitrine for maximum shock effect.
Among Burton's music videos
was an excerpt from the stop-motion tests Burton made in the early
production phase of his film "Mars Attacks!" This effort
was abandoned for the film, but eventually when more sophisticated
digital technology was used to animate the Martian's movements,
they deliberately mimicked the jerky, less polished - Charlie
Chaplain-esque - effects of stop-motion. It remains one of the
most memorable aspects characteristics of this film, where disembodiment
and jerky walking takes on a whole new meaning.
The imaginary special effects
in Burton's films are awesome, but they are heavily influenced
by his often meticulous sketches, like the sketch for the apparatus
- or "hands" - of Edward Scissorhands, (not illustrated),
which has the precision of a Leonardo Da Vinci sketch for a parachute,
or plane, the mechanics carefully worked out, despite this being
an imaginary character. The sketch shows how the scissorhands
work. The spontaneous sketch illustrated here offers a more languid
version of Edward, with loosely rendered "hands," that
is incredibly appealing. It reveals his character.
Technology both traps and frees
us, makes us dependent and independent, an irony Burton understands.
While Edward Scissorhand's has enviably efficient, multi-tasking
fingers that might belong to a robot or mechanical device, he
is hypersensitive and emotionally vulnerable to the human beings
around him with whom he feels nothing in common. That sense of
alienation is both adolescent, and pervasive as we as a society
become less social and spend more and more time alone with machines.
Fantasy is a powerful potion
combined with a childlike fascination with horror, especially
the hilarious brand of "scary" put out by Tim Burton.
This childhood fascination has morphed into sophisticated and
darkly humorous cult films like "Beetlejuice."
There is a childlike allure
to Burton's horror, always laced with just enough humor to prevent
it crossing over into the really horrible, or unbearably gross.
He clearly relishes the state of childhood and children, and is
not so keen on adults. While his films parody the harsh realities
of life, they side-step the kind of "reality" (real
violence and bloodshed), that make parents wince, and soccer moms
hold up red flags.
Tim Burton's films are not
"The Rocky Horror Show" oozing sex and drugs, or "The
Texas Chain Saw Massacre," off-loading buckets of blood and
gore. Weird as his protagonists are, they do not really want to
alienate others. They are accessible, no matter how outrageous
their behavior or appearance. There is virtually no X rated material
in Burton's films, which makes them family friendly.
One cold, wintry "free
Friday" the lines extended around the block from MoMA onto
6th Avenue. When I asked a family of four which exhibit they were
interested in seeing, they replied "Tim Burton."
On my third visit to the MoMA
show, there were dejected clusters of visitors outside the "Trick
or Treat" jaws of the monster mouth entrance to the special
exhibitions galleries on the third floor. Some were begging the
poor guard to let them in. They did not know they had to purchase
a "timed ticked" in advance because of the unprecedented
popularity of the show.
Other foreign visitors bemoaned
they had missed the show entirely because as tourists they did
not have the luxury to return. I felt guilty but fortunate as
I handed over my ticket and passed through the gaping jaw-way
to the show (created for the exhibition by TwoSeven Inc.) and
onto the red carpet that served as the creatures tongue. I was
enveloped in a signature black and white striped Burton corridor
lined with screens where dozens of enraptured humans were viewing
his Internet series, "The World of Stainboy," on six
large monitors. They were riveted. No "viewable" medium
has been left unsung or untouched by this filmmaker.
If the Tim Burton show ran
for several more months, the lines would probably get longer,
as word of mouth, Tweets and internet chat spread its manifold
wonders, many of which could never appear on screen. A sketchbook
is an intimate, private ride into a fantasy world, and not transferable.
This year Tim Burton is President
of the Jury of The Cannes Film Festival, (2010), a great honor
and not bad for the kid who "survived Burbank," and
who, at age 51, still manages to look like a tousle-haired art
or film student. His life partner is the British actress Helena
Bonham-Carter, who has appeared in several of his movies, including
"Sweeney Todd" and "Alice In Wonderland,"
none of them remotely like Merchant/Ivory's "A Room With
a View" that launched her career but pigeon-holed her as
a pre-20th century actress. They have two children together, which
might explain why Burtons' films are gravitating towards an even
"younger" audience. That can only mean good things for
his fans in the years ahead.
Most recently, Tim Burton re-imagined
the Lewis Carroll classic as few could in his film version of
"Alice In Wonderland," (2010). This wonderful film is
a wild, colorful and surreal ride, especially with complimentary
3-D eyeware, and it stars Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter and Helena
Bonham-Carter as the Red Queen. It will undoubtedly join the shelf
of family viewing classics that children of all ages will enjoy
for years to come.